5.27.2007

i hate money, part 2

In comments here, I mentioned the inconvenient truth of my and Allan's life in Canada: we now work full-time to earn what we used to earn in a 24-hour work-week.

In our last jobs in New York, we worked two 12-hour days. (Allan also worked the major holidays.) Now we work three 12-hour days and take home about the same income.

My friend Dean, a long-time wmtc reader, asked:
How does the lower salary affect your standard of living? Did you know before you moved to Canada that you would have to work longer hours to make as much money? Do you feel that this is a drawback to living in Canada?

We did know this before we moved to Canada.

Before our first visit to Toronto, I emailed people at the big legal staffing agencies there (here!), and set up appointments to meet them when we were in town. (Amazingly, this was after we filed our applications to immigrate!)

The most important things to find out were (a) were there jobs in our field, that is, do the large law firms in Toronto use word-processing or document-production specialists as they do in New York, (b) were there jobs with non-traditional hours, like evenings or weekends, and (c) what we could expect to earn. All our questions were answered, and we were thrilled.

However... the last jobs we held in New York City - which we never would have left, as long as we lived there - were very unusual. We had both (and my insistence, I will add) jockeyed our way into better and better jobs, until we were at the very top level of responsibility and pay scale for our positions. We knew we'd never see the likes of those jobs again.

And we had a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan. If you've never lived in New York City, it's difficult to understand what that means. A rent-stabilized apartment means you're renting at a rate far (huge emphasis there) below market value, and your rent can only increase a certain percentage each year. It's an incredibly coveted position to be in. It means you never move. I always said, we'll live in this apartment as long as we live in New York. If we leave this apartment, it means we're leaving the city forever.

What does this mean for our current standard of living, relative to our last years in New York?

We had a lot more disposable income then. We spent very freely, which in New York is way fun. For much of that time, we were also burdened by debt (because we didn't always have good jobs!), so a lot of our money went to the Black Hole of Visa.

But, when we decided to move to Canada, we were able to get out of debt and save money with very little hardship or inconvenience. We couldn't travel, which was tough for me, but how many working people can travel and save money at the same time? Other than that, and foregoing some theatre tickets and a few other luxuries, we paid off our debt and banked lots of money every month without too much sacrifice.

Now our budget is tighter, and we live closer to our income level. This is not a big deal, as we've really lost interest in a lot of the things we used to spend our money on in New York. We rent a three-bedroom house for only slightly more than we used to rent a large two-bedroom apartment, and we're much more interested in hanging out in our backyard than in going out for expensive dinners or buying tickets to shows. Money is not extremely tight. We're comfortable, we have fun, but we're on a budget.

Do I feel this is a drawback to living in Canada? I don't think it's a function of Canada versus the US. It depends on your field and where you live, on both ends. Nick, of Life Without Borders, is a social worker. I believe in Toronto he earns nearly double what he did in Denver. Many fields pay about the same. I don't know about anyone else, although I'd be interested to find out. Coming from New York skews the picture further, as salaries tend to be higher there, but for most people, the cost of living is also unusually high.

How did this affect our decision to move to Canada? It didn't.

Our day-jobs are on the support level. They're not career jobs for which one would move or not move. They're jobs that enable our lives, not jobs we live for. We knew we'd have to work more after moving, and we were dreading it, but that was a minor feeling compared to how much we wanted to leave the US.

The thing we were dreading most was possibly having to work a conventional Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. So far, except for some very temporary situations, we've been able to avoid that.

I comfort myself with the idea - part probability, part rationalization - that my job in New York would not have lasted forever anyway. I worked for a notoriously cheap (although filthy rich) law firm. It's highly possible that at some point they would have saved money by letting me go and hiring someone else at two-thirds my pay rate.

I will say that working three long days instead of two long days was easier in theory than in reality. I'm almost 46 years old and I have a health condition that requires me to pace all my activities and get a certain amount of rest. I don't have the energy I once did to work, write and have a life outside of those two requirements. Most of the time, I feel pressed for time, and feel I'm not doing many of the things I'd like to. (I know many people share those feelings for various reasons.)

But the way I see it, if you really want to make a Big Life Change, there is always some down-side. No BLC is 100% positive. The negative might not bother you that much, but it exists to some degree. I wouldn't not make a BLC - one that I much desired, one that both my partner and I felt was right in so many ways - because I had a good word-processing job. One, that job may not last forever. But two, and more importantly, that job is just a way to earn a living. It's a portable skill (one reason I chose it in the first place), it's replaceable, and it can be done elsewhere.

One last thing, to answer an inevitable question: we will never find jobs in Toronto that pay what those New York jobs did. We're at the top of our pay scale right now, and that's not going to change.

* * * *

On this subject, I have a related pet peeve.

People often note that I am "lucky" because my job gives me the time and freedom to pursue my writing career. That irritates me, because it's not a function of luck.

Ever since, a few years after graduating university, I decided to give up a more conventional career* and dedicate myself more seriously to writing, I've held an array of different jobs. I've been a nanny, a proofreader, a house cleaner, a personal assistant to a crazy artist, a paid political organizer, a secretary, a data-entry operator, a teacher at a youth centre and at an alternative school, and probably a few other things I've forgotten.

I heard there was well-paid work for legal word-processors, I taught myself WordPerfect on a friend's home computer (the only person I knew who had one in those days!), I lied about my experience, and got temp work. From there, I became very good at what I did, and very ambitious, and jockeyed my way into better and better positions, always seeking more income for fewer hours.

Allan was waiting tables in a cafe and working in a deli. I taught him what I knew, we bought him some clothes, and he found a job as a legal secretary. As the years went on, I strongly encouraged him to also look for jobs with fewer hours. He was able to cut back from a five-day work-week to four, then to three 12-hour days, and finally to our last great two-day-week spots.

Of course, we, all of us, are fortunate to achieve what we strive for, and you know I am grateful for good fortune. You can work hard at something and still not achieve it, through no fault of your own. (I ought to know that: I have two unpublished novels.) But I seriously bristle at the implication that I accidentally fell into my life. I didn't. I built it.




* The "career" I left was already an awkward step towards creating my own life. I was working in the Off-Broadway theatre rather than attending law school as I was "supposed to". (That is, I was rejecting certain family expectations.) I made no money, met great people, had a lot of fun, put up with a lot of bullshit, and ultimately realized that if I wanted to write, I had to make a BLC. I had to find a way to support myself that left me time and mental energy to do what I most wanted to do: write.

20 comments:

Scott M. said...

But I seriously bristle at the implication that I accidentally fell into my life. I didn't. I built it.

God yes! I hear that all the time. How "lucky" I was that I "could afford" to go to University. Hell, I *PAID* my way through university. My parents helped me with the first term of the first year's tuition and books, a grand total of $2000 which I could have gotten a loan for, then the rest of it I DID MYSELF. I held part-time jobs, worked like mad during the summer, spent NOTHING on entertainment and contented myself with walking around Kingston, lived without so many things.

Then, when I was done, I snuck into a career fair for experienced computer professionals and charmed my way into a job. Through good planning and saving I managed to eventually buy a house up here.

Through continued saving I am squirreling away a nest egg which will hopefully be able to support Dawn and myself through our retirement. It also drives me up the wall when people say I'm "so lucky" for what I have. I worked for it! I did without! I still do without! I still make tough choices!

Right now I'm sitting on a hand-me-down couch that most people would have thrown away 3 years ago. My property is being eroded by the boats passing in the Canal and needs a breakwater. My deck needs repair. My driveway needs redoing. I would *love* to replace the GPS I lost 4 years ago. Dawn and I would like a new bed. My car is horrible and needs replacing (it may soon become more economical to get a new one than to repair the old one). I need new raingear, new dress pants, a new hat, I could do with a new suit, I would love a boat (heck, I'm on a canal), etc.

But I don't get things just because I want them. Because I prioritize. And that way I can afford a house. And to retire in 30 years.

It is not simple "luck" that's gotten me here. I've worked for it.

Scott M. said...

(Sorry that came off sounding so angry. I just needed to rant about that -- circumstances right now in my life made that very topical.)

L-girl said...

Scott, you are welcome to rant here any time. I'm glad you could express that here. I really know what you mean.

Dean said...

Wow! Thanks for answering my questions in such detail (though I suspect you're mixing me up with someone else named "Dean").

I guess I should have kept in mind the fact that New York pays more money for a lot of jobs than any other North American city when asking how your salary was affected. People tell me how much you can make tutoring wealthy high school students after school in Manhattan, and it blows my mind.

It sounds like a wash regarding the tradeoffs of salary vs. cost/standard of living when it came to moving to Canada for you. I asked because I've had positive experiences with Canada and Canadians and I can see the appeal of living in Canada. However, I have a feeling that the job opportunities in my field in the USA are much more common and much higher paying than they would be in Canada, and I don't think that the economic sacrifice would be worth it.

As far as luck, I wouldn't say that I got to where I am by luck, but I realize that a lot of people going down the same path I did had some bad luck along the way which derailed them (eg, more-abusive-than-normal thesis advisors). Life, after all, can be precarious. Then again, I also made a bunch of sacrifices in an attempt (not always successful) to minimize the risk that I would be derailed by bad luck. I'm certainly grateful for what I have. If I want to take credit for what I have, I generally like to think if I hadn't been able to do what I set out to do, perhaps I'd make a successful life for myself in some other field.

L-girl said...

Hi Dean, yes, apparently I thought you were another Dean, Dean G from Texas. I guess not!

Our motivation to move to Canada was very, very strong. The financial sacrifice was well worth the peace of mind it brought.

Re luck, if you've been reading this blog a while, you know that I am very grateful for the riches I have: my relationship, family who loves and stands by me, friends, work I enjoy. And I absolutely acknowledge bad luck in people's major life misfortunes. I've had some myself, and I was lucky to have adequate support to get me through it, so it didn't completely derail my life.

The pet peeve I mentioned here is more offhand comments people make about my not working a conventional 5-day-week, or having a more flexible schedule. That was a choice, one I worked for and then earned. As I said, I'm lucky to have achieved it, but it didn't just fall into my lap one day. I hope that makes sense.

impudent strumpet said...

I realize that a lot of people going down the same path I did had some bad luck along the way which derailed them.

I was just about to say the same thing. Maybe the people who say you're lucky have experienced or witnessed people succeeding or failing because of luck, not because of good planning.

I did everything "right", and that had nothing to do with what successes I've achieved. Everything has come to me through flukes that I couldn't have anticipated or deliberately prepared for. So I just can't walk around assuming that virtue and diligence are sufficient. Of course, this annoys people who have achieved their successes through virtue and diligence, who in turn annoy me by telling me I don't have anything to worry about as long as I have virtue and diligence.

I'll blog about how I got my job sometime. If it were fiction, you'd complain that there are too many deus ex machinas.

L-girl said...

I know very well that virtue and diligence are insufficient. Read the comment above, too, in which I say:

And I absolutely acknowledge bad luck in people's major life misfortunes. I've had some myself, and I was lucky to have adequate support to get me through it, so it didn't completely derail my life.

But I think I'm being misinterpreted, or not explaining myself well. The folks who say I'm lucky aren't themselves unlucky. They have good jobs and good lives.

They envy what they (mis)perceive as my "easy" life because I don't work 5 days a week, or because I don't have a mortgage (choice) or kids (choice).

I also said in my post

you can work hard at something and still not achieve it, through no fault of your own. (I ought to know that: I have two unpublished novels.)

And I meant it!

Success for most people is surely some combination of luck and hard work, and the equation varies for each person. But working 3 days a week instead of 5 is not luck - it's a choice I made - as was having two separate careers.

M@ said...

I suspect that the remark about luck has much more to do with the other person than it does with you. I know that in weaker moments I can make myself feel better by trying to diminish what others have done and put it down to luck or to opportunities I was not given.

It reminds me of authors -- typically among those I deem either less skillful or less professional -- who complain about things like "you can't get published without an agent, and you can't get an agent if you're not published!" They're trying to frame the world so that they are not responsible for their own success (of lack of it).

I usually advise those authors to make their writing better, because it's the one and only part of the industry they can control. But I don't know what you might tell people who say you're lucky to have your job that can't be communicated via the medium of an extended middle finger. What do you usually say in response?

L-girl said...

But I don't know what you might tell people who say you're lucky to have your job that can't be communicated via the medium of an extended middle finger.

:-D

Now why didn't I think of that?

What do you usually say in response?

If there's time and they're listening, I remind them that I need the different work schedule for my writing career - that I essentially work two jobs. I might also say that I squeezed my writing around full-time jobs for many years, and worked hard to get to this point - some claptrap like that.

I shouldn't care. I wish it didn't grate so much.

I usually advise those authors to make their writing better, because it's the one and only part of the industry they can control.

That's very good advice. I also advise writers or people in any creative endeavor to define success on their own terms.

Is writing success only measured by the work being published? Is career success only measured by how much money you earn? Thinking like that will keep you unhappy and unfulfilled.

who complain about things like "you can't get published without an agent, and you can't get an agent if you're not published!"

Chances are anyone who says that has never actually finished writing anything and tried to get it published.

redsock said...

I may be wrong, but I think the move from working 5 days a week (9-5) to working 4 days (9-5) to working 3 days (7-7) and then 2 days a week (9-9) happened over about six years -- almost the exact same years I wrote 1918.

Plus we raised 5 dogs!

Obviously, I don't prefer to work 36 hours to earn the same $ I used to make in 24, but there are important aspects of the Canada job that are way better than the old US job.

And we considered ourselves "lucky" to have those NYC jobs -- working 3 long days a week is still pretty nice.

L-girl said...

I may be wrong, but I think the move from working 5 days a week (9-5) to working 4 days (9-5) to working 3 days (7-7) and then 2 days a week (9-9) happened over about six years -- almost the exact same years I wrote 1918.

We could look it up on our Canada applications! :)

but there are important aspects of the Canada job that are way better than the old US job.

That's nice to hear.

And we considered ourselves "lucky" to have those NYC jobs

Hey, you're messing up my theory here! :)

But seriously, we were lucky to have found those jobs. But we set out to find them - I was always looking for a better gig, instead of just staying put.

When I left "CSM" for "BB", my pay increased by 30%! Five years later, my former coworkers were still at CSM, still complaining about the lousy pay, but still not looking for new jobs. So was I just lucky?

Dean said...

I'm not a "long time reader," unlike your friend DeanG, but I did read a lot of your archives when I first discovered your blog a few months ago.

I realize now how much this move meant to your peace of mind. You and your partner are also well into your careers and are now making more decisions based on lifestyle considerations. I'm more at the beginning of my career, and thus maximizing my opportunities at this stage is paramount.

On the other hand, it seems to have worked out great for your friend Nick when it came to salaries in Toronto vs. Denver.

L-girl said...

Dean, thanks for reading the backstory - and for deciding to speak up in comments. I appreciate it.

I realize now how much this move meant to your peace of mind.

It meant everything. I feel such a sense of relief being out of the US.

You and your partner are also well into your careers and are now making more decisions based on lifestyle considerations. I'm more at the beginning of my career, and thus maximizing my opportunities at this stage is paramount.

Right. We never could have done this 10 years earlier. Probably not even 5 years earlier. We wouldn't have had the money or the experience. We wouldn't have been ready to leave New York.

On the other hand, it seems to have worked out great for your friend Nick when it came to salaries in Toronto vs. Denver.

Yes! And his partner Mason found a really good job in his field, too. I'd be curious to know how salaries compare for Matt The Nurse and his partner. Maybe they'll come by to tell us.

M@ said...

I shouldn't care. I wish it didn't grate so much.

It's an insulting and ignorant thing to say. It grates for a reason.

I also advise writers or people in any creative endeavor to define success on their own terms.

Is writing success only measured by the work being published? Is career success only measured by how much money you earn? Thinking like that will keep you unhappy and unfulfilled.


Yes, and you've said as much to me in the past (and I appreciate it!)... For me, yes, publication is an important part of how I measure my progress, and sales are important too. I know, however, that they are only part of the picture -- and they are the parts that I least affect directly.

But I also know that the better I write, the more I write, the more I think about what I write, and the more I work on my writing are all part of that success, and they are all things that I can directly affect. I have learned -- usually -- to concentrate on doing what I need to do, rather than finding reasons it's not my fault.

Ah, there's lots to say on this topic, I guess. Short answer: better learning the craft is a positive step no matter what your goals are. But we agree absolutely that, if you measure your success against what Ted Danson makes per episode, you're never going to be happy. ;)

L-girl said...

But we agree absolutely that, if you measure your success against what Ted Danson makes per episode, you're never going to be happy. ;)

:-)

My thing about self-defining success comes from two places.

One, most importantly, I have two unpublished young adult novels.

I had an agent, I had some near-misses, I had publishers tell me, "15 years ago we would have snapped this up, but it's not in style now..." My agent told me houses that used to publish 30 YA titles a year were now publishing 3.

For various reasons, small presses and self-publishing doesn't work for YA. It's mainstream pubs or nothing.

So is my book a failure? Were my efforts wasted?

I had to think they were not.

I quit my job and rearranged my life so I could write more, I taught myself how to write a novel, I wrote the novel and re-wrote it. I succeeded in the only things I can control.

At the time, getting this novel published was the main thing I wanted out of life, and I felt like a failure. Some kind person pointed out that all other industries and careers are affected by market forces, economic downturns, trends. Why should publishing be any different?

I gradually learned to separate "writing" from "publishing". (Damn it Jim, I'm a writer, not a publisher!)

The 2nd reason is that many people think a successful writer is one they've heard of, whose name is either a household word or at least on the big displays when you walk into Chapters or Barnes & Noble. That's "how much money Ted Danson makes for an episode".

M@ said...

I see what you're saying and that's very true as well. If the writer's reward isn't, at least in great part, the project itself, then the writer is doing something wrong, somewhere in the process.

Writers like you, who have figured that out, are very lucky. ;)

L-girl said...

Writers like you, who have figured that out, are very lucky. ;)

Oh yes, I'm sooo lucky to have that novel not published...! :)

Seriously though, this mode of thought was borne of self-preservation.

I thought I could take the rejection forever and keep writing away, but I found that after a long time, it wore me down. I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft of another novel (a sequel) when my agent sent my manuscript back - she was done. I was heartbroken. I lost my motivation to work on the book.

After a break, I identified what my personal writing goals were - what I wanted to come out of my writing, other than just seeing my work in print. When I identified those goals, I was able to find other outlets for them.

Around that time, an opportunity came up that would mean taking my writing in a different direction. I took it, and I learned there were other ways I could be happy as a writer besides writing fiction.

I also learned it was way more fun to be a working/published writer than an unpublished one!

It meant letting go of a dream - a big dream, something that for a time was all I wanted. But then, new goals replaced it, and life goes on.

CanuckNurse said...

I'd be curious to know how salaries compare for Matt The Nurse and his partner. Maybe they'll come by to tell us.



Well, as far as my position goes, I make about 66% of what my classmates who graduated with me from nursing school last year now make in NYC. However, coming to a country with socialized medicine, I expected this. As for John, who's an attorney with a multi-national investment bank, he makes the same or better salary than he did back in NYC. So I suppose it's a wash in our case.

David Cho said...

Laura, this post should be circulated among young people wrestling over what to do with their lives. I think you have done an excellent job of thinking through various issues while seeking fulfillment without abandoning financial stability.

Too often people are stuck with jobs that they hate because they pay the bills.

L-girl said...

CanuckNurse, thanks for stopping by to fill that in for us.

I make about 66% of what my classmates who graduated with me from nursing school last year now make in NYC. However, coming to a country with socialized medicine, I expected this.

I'm still surprised, given that nurses are underpaid in the US and you're unionized here. That's a shame - but good that you saw it coming.

As for John, who's an attorney with a multi-national investment bank, he makes the same or better salary than he did back in NYC.

Is his firm looking for a weekend doc-pro person? :D

* * * *

David, you are so good for my self-esteem. You remind me of a few things I've done right.