With a seventeen-year-old in the house (my talented younger brother), the atmosphere alternates between hopeful idealism and gloom and doom for the future. It is hard to be on the cusp of making decisions about your life when you have the greatest desire to do something beautiful for the world, and no real experience with finances.
The common refrain in our house (and others, I’m sure) has become, “But work isn’t just about money!” I remember saying those same words as I was planning my future; and I recognise them as true. Or at least, partially true.
But you see: work is about money.
Notice how I haven’t said that work is about earning a lot of money – but one cannot hope to make sustainable decisions about your life’s work without considering whatever income you may be looking at.
In contrast, many high school kids – and even career guidance counselors – are AVERSE to discussing the financial implications of a career choice: as if that dirties the entire exercise.
Quite the contrary: it can help direct you away from a potentially disastrous decision, or it can solidify your decision.
For example, if one wanted to be a teacher in South Africa (I use this because it is what I am knowledgeable about), it would be important to know that you will earn much less than you deserve for the hours and importance of work you put in. You would earn a lot more if you used that South African qualification to teach abroad (South African teachers are well-loved in South Korea and Taiwan, for example), but perhaps you don’t want to be part of the “brain drain”.
If one wanted to be a doctor, it would be important to know that you would have a good starting salary, but that the potential for a raise remains low until you specialise and/or enter private practice.
If one were to study accounting, it would be important to know that you will be in virtual slave labour during the years of your articles and boards.
This is not to say that this knowledge must turn one away from a decision: simply that it must PREPARE you. Still want to be a teacher? FANTASTIC! At least now you can say that it is an INFORMED decision.
Long into my third year of medical school, I was still convinced that I would spend my life volunteering. How would I eat? Where would I live? Oh, I didn’t know, things would fall in place, I was sure. But in my mind’s eye I still imagined my future home with a large fireplace and a personal library, and it took me a while to realise that these things were not easily compatible with a life of roughing it.
This year I traveled twice: to Zambia and to New York City. The trip to Zambia was financed completely by myself. For the first time, I bought my own plane tickets! Previously they had always been sponsored or paid by scholarships.
It was a wonderful feeling.
I could buy myself some nice running shoes. And I could buy books!!!! (Which is probably why I have so few books on my wishlist this year.)
I mean, the best things of my year were priceless, but it was so nice not having to ask parents or my boyfriend for things: I could get them myself. And I could also decide: I want it, I can afford it, but I’m not gonna get it.
So here is my advice for high schoolers, and anyone contemplating a career-change: recognise that money matters. Just admit it to yourself. You can decide how it matters, and to what extent, but understand that you cannot live on hopes and aspirations alone.
Research the income of your potential career, and research the costs related to the lifestyle you envision for yourself (kids or no kids? Nice car or economy car? Fancy house or apartment? New York City or somewhere more affordable?).
Also remember that if you end up taking out loans to go to college/university, you will need to start paying back those loans when you start working. Remember to add that as a future expense, too.
Then decide if they are compatible. And if they are not compatible, is there something you can do to make them so?
You don’t have to plan your life based entirely on finances.
But it would be unwise to disregard it entirely.
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