By Dr. Jim Dahle, WCI Founder
This website caters specifically to high-income professionals so the vast majority of our readers may not realize just how important, from a purely financial standpoint, a career is. However, in some of my volunteer work, I have had contact with people who never established a career. Let me assure you, the consequences are dire.
What Is a Career?
Let me explain what I mean by a career. A career is not just a job. It is not even just a series of jobs. A career is all of the following:
- Provides regular, full-time work over the course of many years
- Requires some education and training—at a minimum on-the-job training—such that it provides a reasonably high income
- Provides progression and advancement periodically from one position to another
- Often involves a series of jobs, each of which provides benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans
Here are some examples:
- High-income professionals, such as those that tend to read this website: physicians, dentists, attorneys, pharmacists, APCs, engineers, tech workers
- Radiology technicians
- Tradespeople (painters, HVAC techs, welders)
- Military members
- Government workers
- First responders
Now, what do I mean by someone that does not have a career? I'm talking about situations like these:
- Intermittent work history
- Never worked more than part-time
- Manual laborers
- Seasonal workers
- “Living the dream” (climbing dirtbags, ski bums, etc.)
- Long-term minimum wage workers
More information here:
7 Benefits of a Career
Let's talk about why a career is so beneficial financially.
#1 Higher Income
The most significant benefit of a “real career” is that it generally pays more. Obviously, this is only a rule of thumb and not an absolute, but the more you make, the more you can save. As a general rule, it takes a “real career” to earn more than you need, allowing you to carve out part of your income to invest for later. Perhaps even more significantly, a career provides REGULAR income. Steady income goes a long way toward building wealth because you're moving forward toward your goals each month. As often occurs with less steady income, people take two steps forward and one step back throughout their working lives.
In addition to a regular income, most career paths involve jobs that provide benefits, such as health insurance, a retirement plan, and perhaps even some life or disability insurance. These help you to bridge through the emergencies that life throws at you without depleting savings or going into debt, and they also give you a nudge to help you start saving for your future.
#3 No Need to Draw on Savings
When you have irregular work, earn little, or do not have benefits, you are far more likely to need to raid your savings. When you cash out a 401(k) to pay medical bills or use it as a down payment, you will pay taxes and penalties on it. Perhaps more importantly, it also won't be there compounding toward a comfortable retirement.
#4 No Need to Interact with Government Programs
There are a lot of social safety net programs for the poor and unfortunate. However, none of them are easy to use. It's hard to boost your earnings while worrying about whether you'll make too much and lose your Medicaid, SNAP, WIC access, or housing subsidy. You can spend hours or even days on the phone with government bureaucrats trying to get benefits. These programs are not easy to use and sometimes not even easy to understand. A career can help you avoid most of them, most of the time.
#5 More Opportunities to Start a Business/Become a Contractor
Once you've worked in a career for a while, your skills and knowledge become more valuable. A career can often be a springboard into self-employment, either as a job transition, a side gig, or an encore career. This is a much more difficult task for someone who has never had a career.
#6 Pay Off Education
A career can help you to pay for your education. Most commonly this occurs simply by directing the higher, regular income you get from the career to pay off (usually refinanced) student loans. But often an employer will pay for you to get a bachelor's, master's, or certification. In addition, a career may involve a job where you are a full-time employee of a 501(c)3 and qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
#7 Confidence and Fulfillment
Career-type jobs are much more likely to provide you with a job that you value for more than money. I poll doctors all the time about whether they'd keep working if they didn't have to, and, amazingly, two-thirds of them say yes (although 55% say they'd cut back.) That is not the case with the vast majority of people who have “non-career” type jobs. A much larger portion of the motivation to do that job is financial.
All this isn't to say that it is impossible to do just fine financially without ever having a career. But it is far less likely. Some entrepreneurs hit it big, but most struggle for a long time. “Living the dream” in your 20s and 30s looks pretty awesome until you wake up at 55 and realize you will be scraping by until your 60s and then living off Social Security until you die.
It's OK to have a minimum-wage job. When you're a teenager. Or when you just arrived in the country. Or when you just start down a career path. But those jobs are not held long-term by those who are financially successful. Somebody has to be the manager at McDonald's or the lead guy on the landscaping crew. Why not you? Employers need reliable, smart, hard-working people, and they will promote them. As I tell my children as they do their first few jobs,
“You're not just making money, you should also be studying the business you're working at. Think about what it would be like to be the manager, or even the owner there. Learn what it would take to do that.”
If you're like most reading this post, do what you can to work on your chosen career. It is the greatest wealth-building tool that you have. For those without a career, see if you can find one that you would enjoy over the long run and get started with it as soon as possible. Take too long and you may find yourself in the unenviable position of reaching retirement age with little income, without skills or knowledge that would allow you to increase that income, without significant savings, and trying to figure out which government and charitable programs can help.
More information here:
To the Stay-at-Home Parents
Many couples make a conscious decision to have one member stay home to raise kids and run the household. There are serious financial risks to doing this, especially if the stay-at-home parent does not at least obtain an education that would allow for a career later if needed. If you are in this situation, make sure you do all you can to ensure the working partner maximizes the benefits of that career, insure well against financial catastrophe, and build that relationship to lower the risk of divorce.
What do you think? How has your career helped you to build wealth? What did you do to advance it? Comment below!