Reflection on Happiness vs. Financial Security

I was feeling a bit low yesterday. A former classmate posted about his impending retirement on Monday and while I’m happy for him, of course, I got to thinking about how far away we are from that goal.

Sometimes, as any freelancer does, I miss the regular paychecks, the benefits and the security for a pension a “real” job affords.

For the past 13 years, I’ve celebrated Monday, October 31, as my Free Day. It was the day I shed a life in a gray flannel corporate cube that did not suit me.

I’ve always thought it was ironic the anniversary fell on Halloween, one of the scariest days of the year, but also one full of treats if you say (trick or treat!?) and do (wear silly costumes) the right things.

There have been times when being on my own has been scary, especially these past 2-3 years. My writing career was built on newspaper journalism and as the economy faltered so did most of my long-standing clients.

It’s been tough rebuilding my writing to a majority of online clients as well as adding back in corporate communications, marketing, public relations and learning a whole new world of social media marketing (something we couldn’t have ever imagined when I was earning my degree in business administration 20 years ago).

For the past 13 years, overall, my writing life has been a treat.

Being a writer is truly an adventure. In my research for stories, I’ve had the opportunity to put on a lab coat, booties and hair net to watch fertility specialists begin the process of creating human life in a petri-dish; Dale and I spent the night in Jesse James’ boyhood home in hopes of catching his ghost; this year, we stayed in a reportedly haunted hotel and found my heart racing when we caught orbs on our camera.

I rode along with a rescue group (through their story as told to me) when they took more than a dozen of Michael Vick’s dogs from the horror of that dog fighting operation to a new life full of love.  I’ve been very lucky to follow the new lives of some of those dogs and other rescues I’ve written about.

Almost everyday, I get to talk to interesting people such as the investigator who caught the BTK serial killer in Wichita, and the soldier who fought to bring home Ratchet, the dog she rescued while serving in Iraq.

On assignment, I’ve traveled from the wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains where I was able to visualize where my paternal ancestors once lived, to the city streets of south side Chicago, where I got to take photographs of the school my mother attended.

My office is a cabin that overlooks the Ozark Mountains.

Thirteen years ago, this office was just a dream; with it’s bookshelves to hold all of my precious books (as well as some my mom held dear) and brightly painted walls – no drab gray pods!

My dogs accompany me to work every day. I take breaks when I need them, not when someone else says I can. If I feel like leaving in the middle of the day to take the dogs for a long walk on the road and come back to work in the middle of the night, I do.

I drink coffee at my desk in non-corporate approved mugs that have saying such as “My journey begins today,” my dog mug that states, “My love is unconditional,” my “Life is good” mug, and the Fleetwood Mac mug I picked up after attending their concert in a VIP suite on another assignment.

I was born to be a writer, as soon as I could form words on paper, I was writing stories. It is, as a friend wrote in an email, the thing I was meant to do.

The fact that it was what I was meant to do is a treat in itself, but the fact I recognized it and have had the opportunity to do it has been the real reward. How many people languish in jobs they hate just because they never really found what they were meant to do?

Hanging on my wall directly across from my desk are photos of some of the places we’ve traveled, definitely the good memories that came from having a disposable income.

Among those photos is a framed copy of my first paid published piece with the copy of the $25 check I received.

I cashed the check and paid about 4 times that to have the copy framed with the essay.

We may not be making our financial goals. Retirement may be a far off dream we may never achieve. But that essay and the copy of the check that is with it continues to serve as a reminder that money doesn’t always buy happiness. I would much rather wake up thinking of my life as a treat rather than dreading a commute to a job I hate.

That is truly scary.

How do you balance your career happiness with financial security, or do you?   

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46 Responses

  1. I’m also glad that your writing life has become what you’ve wanted it to be. My own daughter writes for fun and I’m trying to encourage her to develop her talents, who knows what she’ll do with it.

    • Kerri says:

      If your daughter has it in her blood, she will most likely do something with her talent. Once a writer, always a writer! 😉

  2. Jane Boursaw says:

    I’ve always told myself that it’s possible to be happy AND rich as a freelancer. In some ways, it’s much scarier than having some boss or corporation do all the heavy lifting. But like you, the rewards of a job I LOVE versus one I dread is so, so important. I wouldn’t have it any other way. In freelance solidarity.

  3. What a great post, Kerri. Your enthusiasm and exuberance for what you do are heartening. Thanks for putting it into words and reminding me of my own good fortune.

  4. Merr says:

    What an honest post that reflect true human feelings about the quest to combine security with joy. It sounds like you have indeed managed to do that in many ways, but that in a sense the journey is still being written from your standpoint.

  5. Becky W says:

    I am truly fortunate in having been able to do jobs I have loved and switch when I didn’t love them so much. I’ve done crisis counseling, bartending, zookeeping and childcare to name a few! I’ve also been able to travel some (would always do more!). It hasn’t provided me with huge retirement income and even at 58 I’m good with that. I figure I’ll work (or volunteer) at something I love until I can’t anymore. I hope that happens at the end of my life and not due to illness etc. To life!!

  6. Ember says:

    I know I just recently started posting on this blog, but I really enjoy your writings. They keep me positive and enjoying the small in life which is truly wonderful.

    I thankfully have been blessed with a wonderful job working with animals, and a wonderful career owning a small soap business by myself. I’m only 23 and I’m already living my dream life, even if the income is low. 🙂 Money doesn’t buy happiness, enjoying life sure does though!

    • Kerri says:

      Certainly glad that you joined our community, Ember! You are truly, truly blessed to have found your dream life and at such a young age!

  7. Carley Ash says:

    Retirement is for people who don’t like what they do.

    • Kerri says:

      And I do, Carley. I think there is a concern for my husband, who also enjoys his job, but will probably not always be physically able to do that type of work.

      • Carley Ash says:

        I was being a bit silly when I left that comment. I’m very focused on my retirement plan. While I intend to keep working, it is nice to have that option.

        I so admire people like Johnny Cash and Betty White who enjoy(ed) what they do (did) so much, they work(ed) right up to the end.

        I also love you’re blog and admire you for your minimalistic lifestyle. We’re working toward becoming more self-sustaining. We’ve talked about moving into a significantly smaller place, but after spending the whole summer putting in a stone, raised garden bed, I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere.

        Write on.

        • Kerri says:

          Thanks, Carley. You can be sustainable no matter the size of your home. It sounds as though you’re doing what you love by putting in more garden beds where you’re currently living. That’s the important thing!

  8. Sheryl says:

    I enjoyed reading about your trajectory and the choices you’ve made. I’ve come to realize that there is no perfect situation and everything comes with a tradeoff. But the fact that you’re able to spend your time at what you love makes those tradeoffs all worthwhile. What wonderful experiences you’ve had!

  9. Susan says:

    I love that you celebrate your “Free Day” each year! I call it my freelance-aversary in early May but sometimes I get so busy, I forget to pause and pat myself on the back.

    Last year was my best year yet in terms of income but I worked like a madwoman and my stress levels soared to unhealthy levels as a result. This year I’m trying to balance the need for money with the need for balance. It’s been a little bit of a teeter-totter trying to achieve balance.

  10. NoPotCooking says:

    I’m with you. I gave my job up about 14 years ago and haven’t looked back. There have been times when having an undependable and up and down income was hard. And paying quarterly taxes is still pretty awful, but there’s just no way I could ever work for anyone else ever again at this point.

    Congrats on making the life that is right for you!

  11. Heather L. says:

    I really enjoyed the journey through the high points of your writing life.

    Balancing finances and career is always a constant struggle for me.

  12. When the youngest of our two daughters started eighth grade, I went to work as a paralegal and eventually landed a corporate job with a sub-prime mortgage lender. It was a great job with good benefits and generous salary, however, it didn’t take long for me to find life in the corporate cube confining and restrictive, even suffocating on some days. After a few years, I began to view that cube as my daily prison cell, though I believe most prison cells are probably larger.

    I was good at my job though, even though I hated it most of the time. I got pay increases and a promotion, making the idea of leaving even more difficult. This was in late 90’s early 2000’s and the whole sub-prime feeding frenzy was peaking at that time. I was a foreclosure specialist in the legal department and started seeing things that made me very uncomfortable with what I was doing. I was responsible for managing foreclosure cases all over the country, hiring lawyers (and sometimes firing them) to handle our cases, then making sure our foreclosures were moving through the process quickly and without any issues that would prevent a speedy resolution.

    Everyone now knows how sub-prime lenders were behaving in those days, and people who worked in the industry at that time, were not the least surprised when the whole thing collapsed into an economic nightmare. Our company like so many others, was not practicing due diligence at loan origination and the result was hundreds if not thousands of loans that never should have been made. Many of those loans ended up on my desk and I began to realize the scope of the problem, which depressed the hell out of me.

    My boss and her superiors were interested in only one thing- getting foreclosures completed FAST! The problem was that they had made so many terrible loans- on mobile homes (which unlike other real estate DEPRECIATES like a car, instead of growing equity.) I saw just about every nightmarish scenario you can imagine during my tenure at that job, including identity theft, crooked mortgage brokers and appraisers working together to defraud our company (which wasn’t difficult because the company was loaning money on anything that had an address) and all kinds of other scams and fraudulent activity. That made our foreclosures more complicated and caused delays in the process as I worked with our attorneys to deal with the issues that arose out of bad lending practices.

    I finally had enough when my boss wanted me to do something that I believed TRULY crossed a legal line, in order to expedite a foreclosure. The details are boring and involved a legal technicality but suffice it to say that I took the file into her office and told her I didn’t want my name on the file and I would not sign the legal paperwork because I believed it could make me culpable in something illegal. Let’s just say she didn’t take it well, even though I had the opinion of three attorneys who agreed with me, to back up my position. I left that job and never looked back.

    Though I was glad to be out of that company, we really did enjoy the benefits of my income added to my husband’s. In fact, we’d used my salary to make investments and also to pay for our eldest daughter’s college. Nevertheless, I told my husband that I could not see ever again willingly putting myself back into the kind of hornet’s nest that I’d just left. He knew already how miserable I’d been in that job and he also had to put up with the crappy attitude I often came home from the office with. I proposed the idea of giving me time to pursue free lance writing and he agreed. Even though we missed the money initially, his job paid enough that we didn’t actually depend on my salary, so we were okay financially without a second job in the family.

    Of all the wonderful things my husband has done in the thirty plus years we’ve been married, his willingness to support me in free lance writing remains the greatest gift of all. I believe strongly that when our heads pull us in one direction, telling us we need to be practical and responsible and that we should always do the financially prudent thing, it’s important to give the heart a chance to have its say. The voice of the heart is softer, less insistent and so often gets drowned out by our louder and more strident head voice, but I believe it’s most often the heart that can tug at us and point out the best course for a happy life. (Sorry- didn’t mean to write a book here! But, this subject is close to my heart!) 🙂

    • Kerri says:

      I’m glad you took the time to tell that story, Kathleen! Luckily, we do not have kids college tuition to worry about, I know we could have never done that on what I make and Dale’s steady income. You’re lucky in that your husband’s job provides you enough security to afford you the opportunity to stay at home. I can also identify with not doing anything that goes against your moral core, I lost a client this month because I didn’t believe in what they were doing and calling it “journalism.” I needed the client, but if you cannot fall back on ethics, I don’t think you have much character.

  13. mat says:

    I wish I had some of the financial security that the wife and I enjoyed for a few years there around the turn of the millennium. For 10 years, there’s been a too much scrimping, too much worrying, too much planning, not enough fruition. Everything seems like a compromise between happiness and money these days and I was raised to believe that they’re not mutually exclusive…though they seem to be.

    • Kerri says:

      I wish I could say they weren’t, Mat. But the reality is that the middle class is shrinking. I don’t think there is much left of the American Dream as our parents and grandparents knew it, no matter how frugal we try to live.

      • mat says:

        The American Dream has been a topic of regular discussion in our house over the last couple of years. On paper, we’ve got it. We own (mortgage) our house, have 2 cars (1 payment, thankfully), have a child, and live in the suburbs. But it’s like juggling chainsaws to keep it.
        And you know why? Wages have not risen to keep pace with inflation. In simplest terms, let’s say I earned $100K/year in 2001. That same amount in today’s dollars is $124K. And that’s without any kind of merit raise; that’s just like for like. And I, like probably many Americans, don’t earn 24% more than I did 10 years ago. I think it’s 15%.
        America survives though, because the cost of goods has shrunk, as companies look overseas to reduce costs. So that $100K of goods in 2001 now only costs $81k. My gut tells me that there’s not much further costs can fall, so as prices rise, wages need to as well. And…yeah, that doesn’t look like such a good prospect.

        • Kerri says:

          Yeah, I didn’t go into the whole how much wages have risen (not much). As well, how many of the jobs we’ve lost overseas to bring down our costs and how that has contributed to the loss of the American worker. Whirlpool announced this morning a cut of 10 percent of its workforce, 5,000 jobs, 1,000 of them here in the Ft. Smith Arkansas plant. When and if the economy picks back up, I guarantee you they will not be reopening the Ark. plant. We’ll probably be hearing about their new digs in India or China.

  14. Vida says:

    Hi Kerri,

    All my life I have made decisions and choices based on anything but financial security. Not that I’ve been foolhardy. Just that, like you other things have been much more important. Like you I don’t regret my choices. Like you, I sometimes wish for a little more peace of mind regarding our financial future.

    I too work from home, love what I do, live where I love, live with my loved ones. Now tell me, if that isn’t a definition for happiness, what is? I think that you can say the same.

  15. Kim says:

    I come from a family that deeply values the retirement account.

    I’m trying to break free and create a family that deeply values life experiences together.

    I’d much rather sacrifice a little bit of the retirement savings to create memories together while our kids are young, and work a bit longer when we’re older to compensate.

    I did some cubicle work in a windowless office at a university in Florida for about a year. I thought I would die. Something about that grey flannel sucks away at the soul, doesn’t it?

    • Kerri says:

      It is, Kim, like some kind of brain sucking energy. By the time I left that job, I had already lost two teeth because I ground them in the middle of the night, breaking them off and I was on prescriptions for anxiety and depression. I cannot imagine where I would be, 13 years later, had I stayed.

  16. Congratulations on your Free Day-versary! (Mine is Nov 2, funny how close they are to each other!)

    Retirement seems like a nifty goal, but I always remind myself that writing and cooking are never jobs I really want to retire from. As long as I can keep doing what I love, you can send me to the grave with a notebook and a whisk in each hand…

  17. Dia says:

    I can also relate, having ‘intended’ to be a teacher, but becoming a massage Therapist instead – self employed most of my adult life! I didn’t start an IRA till my mid 50s, as I watched former classmates retire …
    Still, I enjoy what I do, I have a roof over my head, & have a flexible schedule, so I can watch my grandkids while my daughter & her hubby are at work … life is good.
    & Hallows is a WONDERFUL time to celebrate the beginning of your new life, as it’s the start of the Celtic year cycle!!
    Glad today is a happier day 🙂

  18. Lilla says:

    Amen, Amen and AMEN!

    You may not be rich in currency, but you are rich in experiences and freedom. Those things cannot be replaced by any retirement plan.

  19. Jenifer says:

    Oh I can sooooooo relate to this. 6 years ago I gave up a secure (gov), not quite lucrative but definitely comfortable job to move back east to be with family. Since then I have married and am expecting my 2nd child…Yay!! I have also struggled to find acceptable employment in my rural area. Even as I juggle bills and try to find ways to save money, I know I am happier now but I would also like to acquire some financial security. It’s tough.

    Thank you so much for sharing this….it really hit home.

  20. Alexandra says:

    I can relate to this post, too. I have no retirement, due to life choices. I married a Frenchman when young and moved to France. Now I have cobbled a life back together and run a successful B&B in my parents’ old home. But, there’s no retirement checks to look forward to. I would prefer to be writing, but was not as successful at it as you, unfortunately. Still, I continue to write and hope to publish books some day. The B&B pays the bills for now. Oh, and this sentence: “We stayed in a report edly haunted hotel and found my heart rac ing when we caught orbs on our camera.” Yes, I have captured an orb with my digital camera, too. Very surprising, very humbling to realize spirits do exist. Comforting, too. I regret that this type of thing is not taken more seriously. That is the theme of one of the books I am writing actually. Anyway, thanks for sharing the thoughts in this post. Many people will be in the same boat as you what with all the retirement savings being spent with the recession and lack of jobs ….

  21. Oh, I can relate to this, in our own way. And I commend you for following your heart and setting priorities for your life. I’m sure there’s a healthy number of others, who wished they could have jumped off the train long ago..