Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Am I a Personal Finance Blogger or Aren't I?

I hear behind these doors, there
are hallowed halls.
I received some great news late last week.  Some big, life-changing, kick-you-in-the-mouth sort of news.

I was accepted into the PhD program to which I applied.  In 4-5 years, I should be a doctor (not a helpful sort of doctor, but, still, a doctor nonetheless).

This is a dream on many of levels.  I'll get to do advanced study in a field that I love, for one.  After I get the degree, I will be qualified for a career (teaching) I've always wanted, for two, and that doesn't even take into account the practical theatre work that I will continue to be a part of in the future.  Even in simply getting accepted, there is a sense of validation for my life choices thus far, for three.  I should be excited out the wazoo, right?

And yet...

A few days ago at Grumpy Rumbling of the Untenured, there was a thoughtful article and series of comments concerning spouses and careers, with particular emphasis placed on the perils of one spouse paying the bills while the other worked towards his or her dream career through higher education.  This post brought me pause for several reasons, not the least of which being the horror stories from women whose relationships with their husbands had degenerated when they were in similar situations.

So, right from the get-go, an immediate, extra-scholastic concern is for my marriage, and my immediate thought is that I should not do things that could cause a rift.  I know that I'm maybe going a little "butterfly effect" right now in placing so much emphasis on things that "might happen if," but the sanctity of my marriage is of paramount importance to me.  I do my best not to do things that will hurt my wife, and she does the same.  I think that by looking out for your spouse's best interests, a marriage will work, and we've been blessed by the fact that neither of us has so severely violated the other's interests that our relationship has become irreparable.

However, apart from the very real marriage concern (and more to the point of the title of this post), I am concerned about the financial ramifications of the choice to go back to school.

To put it bluntly, between our two incomes, my wife and I make what I consider to be a stupid amount of money.  We're not rich by any means, but we are very comfortable, and, if we both stayed at our current jobs through retirement, I have no doubt that we would easily be millionaires.  Just from our 401(k) contributions alone (since the company we work for matches contributions 100% dollar for dollar), if the market averages 8%, we could be in the 7 figure territory by the end of the decade.

I don't know about you, but that amazes me.  As both of our families are pretty solidly middle class, it's safe to say that should my wife and I simply stay the course we're on today, we will live our Baby Boomer parents' dream for us: we will have had it better in life than they did.

On the other hand, if I join the PhD program, things will obviously change.  In the email note that told me I had been accepted into the program, the professor also acknowledged that funding was still up in the air.  If there is funding that is at least equal to the first two years tuition (as tends to be the case, from what I've heard), then the decision is perhaps a little easier.  But what if that isn't the case?

I would like to keep on at my current job while attending the program, but I am unsure if that will actually be a viable option.  If I am unable (for scheduling or other reasons) to keep my job, am I really willing to give up a half-decade's worth of earnings and retirement savings, likely get into at least some student loan debt, and potentially destroy my marriage, all for the sake of following a dream and MAYBE getting a job that I THINK I'll like, while the earnings for which job will be less than what I currently make?

As a personal finance blogger, I know what my decision should be.  I should stay at my job which I am good at and for which I am well compensated.  I should keep maxing out my 401(k) and my Roth.  I should not go to school if there is any potential that I'll need loans.  If I'm going back to school at all, I should choose a more lucrative and/or in-demand field such as finance or science.  I need to maximize my earnings early in life so that I can take advantage of the lowly investor's best friend, compound interest.

I know all that, and yet...

There has to be something said for making a change with your life and doing what you want.

It occurs to me that maybe I'm not a personal finance blogger at all.

I guess it's safe to say that I'm still undecided about this, so I ask you, unknowable voids of the internet: what do you think I should do?

Photo by jjorogen.


Daisy said...

Can you take the program slowly? As in, work while you take it? That's what I'd do. Maybe ask for educational leave or take my vacation time for part of one semester or something. Do you think youre income will increase significantly if you finish the program? That might make up for the loss.

Michelle said...

I agree with everything that Daisy said. It's a tough decision. I would try and work at least a little bit.

Kelly said...

Tough decision. I can totally relate. Is your current job sucking the life out of you or is it tolerable, even enjoyable? If it's a life-sucker, not only you but your marriage will be better off by getting out. No amount of nest egg is worth that, IMHO. If it's an okay job...much tougher call. Good luck!

Bryan said...

Daisy and Michelle: I don't mean to give a non-answer, but I'll need to take the program both slow and fast. The plus side is that I'll only be taking 1-2 courses a quarter, which isn't too time-consuming (at least not during working hours). The downside is that the school is on the quarter system (which is great if you're a science student, though markedly less so if you're studying humanities), so my schedule will change every 8-12 weeks. This may make working my traditional 9-5er complicated, particularly if my funding for the program comes from TA-ing/teaching (I'll need to take whatever class I'll be eventually teaching first, so that I can get a feel for it). When I add, say, a MWF TA-ing course on top of the two classes I'm taking specifically for the program, the time commitment gets a little murkier.

On the other side of the coin, my boss is pretty committed to this being a full-time job (even if I *could* get all the work done in part-time hours, I think part of the desire on my boss's part to keep it a full-time job is that it affects his pay-scale whether he has a full-time or part-time employee [this is pure conjecture on my part, however]).

All that said, I hope to remain at my job as long as I am able. I need to get in touch with the program to get a feel for how feasible that is.

It should be noted that funding/payment that comes from TA-ing/teaching is income nonetheless.

Kelly: The position that I have now is not at all a soul-sucker. However, 4-5 years ago, I probably would answered you by saying that it definitely is. If the question is: do you want to spend the rest of your life doing this?, the answer is definitely not. If the question is: do you realize and appreciate that this is a decent job for which you are paid handsomely, then it's a yes.

While I recognize that money earned is but one way to value a job, it is a profoundly obvious one. To paraphrase Thoreau, however, the obvious life may not be worth be worth living.

All: I realize that this is a profoundly first-world problem, akin to complaining that my gold and diamond shoes are too tight and uncomfortable. I appreciate your bearing with me during this time.

Unknown said...

I vote for the PhD program, no doubt. When you're doing the right thing for you, everything else has a way of falling into place. Following your dream is never not the right thing to do.

After all, the most frugal life is foraging for berries in the woods while living in a cave but how happy would you be doing that? Sometimes you need to do a less financially responsible thing in order to make yourself happy.

Well Heeled Blog said...

If you leave your job for the PhD, can I take your place? ;) dollar-for-dollar matching is amazing!

nicoleandmaggie said...

It's not really the one person paying the bills, the other doing schooling that's the problem. It's one person paying the bills and not advancing her (usually her) career with the implicit promise it will be her turn next. If your PhD program isn't (completely) interfering with her plans, then that's much less likely to lead to resentment or growing apart.

It's the one person doing all the sacrifice rather than both doing some sacrifice that's the real problem.

nicoleandmaggie said...

p.s. Thanks for the link!

Also: How much to pay for graduate school:

Monica said...

I just wanted to say that I really feel for you in having such a tough decision to make about the PhD program. It’s obvious how much you love your wife and want what’s best for your marriage, and I think that in our selfish culture these days, you are a rarity. As much as I would love to have an answer for you, all I can say is that you and your wife should discuss all the pros and cons, lay out a plan that will allow you both to attain your goals, and ultimately work together to weather whatever comes your way. I’m a wife and a mom, so I’m sorry if that sounded “preachy,” and I wish you the best of luck!

Anonymous said...

As an academic, I would you advise you to look into the job market in your chosen field before you make any decision. Certain fields are so jam-packed with PhDs(English, History, etc.) that lots of people spend all that time and money on the degree and never get the tenure-track job. (Add to that the fact that most people, at least in the humanities, will have to be willing to move anywhere if they even want a shot at a TT job.) If you are in one of these packed fields, would you be willing to spend the time and money and then work as an adjunct? Or find work in a different field?

That said, let me tell you the story of my grad school friend "Bob." Bob used to work at a bank, where he raked in the money and hated every second of his working day. (Which isn't your situation, I know.) Bob, with his wife's encouragement, quit the job to go to grad school in history. He graduated at fifty, found one of those elusive TT jobs, and is now working at a college out west. His wife is a high-school teacher. They make a great deal less money than they would have if he had stayed at the bank, but he often says that staying at the bank would have been a waste of his life. Just an anecdote to consider or dismiss as you will . . .

Z said...

I'm for the PhD program if you're funded. Not if you're not. My rule of thumb is do not pay for your PhD. You're already not going to be getting ahead financially during the time of study, and in your case you'll be giving up a job. That's enough sacrifice; do the PhD in a program that funds you (i.e. tuition waiver, TAship, stipend, something).

Why I say this: you clearly want the PhD, and money isn't everything, but with the job market being what it is, do not get into student loan debt.