Breaking Out of a Rut Without Going Broke: Financial Tips for Career Transitioning


I’ve recently come to realize I’ve lost something I’ve had my whole life. Something that some, if not all, people never have. Direction. I didn’t really appreciate it until it was no longer there, like most important things in life. For me, it is science.

Science has been an inevitable, magnetic pull as far back as I can remember. I never even hesitated when people asked “What do you want to be?” or “What will you major in?”

Biology of course.

There are other things you can study and do? Who knew.

Biology in action.

Therefore, my whole life thus far has been laser-beam-focused on science. And I’ve certainly achieved my objective. From four different lab internships throughout undergrad, to a published masters thesis, to a PhD candidate position on a top medical campus, I’d say in terms of ‘doing science’ I have succeeded so far. 

Problem is, one day I realized that magnet was getting weaker.

And I fought it. I tried to re-focus, to think about it differently. But it faded away like a sunset, leaving the darkness of confusion in its wake. That thing which defined me, drove me, inspired me; now there is no pull. There is no sense of purpose, no goal to strive for.

Now what

I’m very fortunate that my parents taught me how to manage money from a young age. I started my first savings account at 13 with my meager allowance. I had many a lemonade stand and bake sale, babysat as soon as any parent would allow me, and had a part time job at a roller rink by 15.

My dad made me a deal to pay for half of my first car, and by the time I had my license in hand, I’d paid cash for a cute little green Saturn. Throughout college and my masters degree, I worked two jobs to cover rent, food, gas, and books. My high test scores had rewarded me with a full tuition scholarship. Because of this life-long money awareness, I made it out of six years of school with less than 1/3 the average college debt. 

I will be forever grateful to my parents for those lessons in frugality and saving.

Those lessons are ones I continue to apply every day in my life. My savings account is by no means impressive, but it would be enough at this point to allow me to be unemployed for about 5 months without changing my lifestyle one bit. If I cut back dramatically I could probably stretch that to 8 or 9 months. That is such a peace of mind when looking at a possible huge life change, like a major career transition.

As if the thought of not having a job weren’t stressful enough, I just think how much worse it would be if I literally needed that paycheck to pay my necessary bills. And I know a lot of people are currently in, will soon be, or have been in that exact situation, and my heart goes out to you.

If you are, or think you may soon be in a career transition situation, I have a few pieces of advice you should consider now to make it easier when that day comes.

1. Pay yourself first.

This is the most important rule of money. You pay your landlord rent, you pay the dealer for your car, you pay the grocery store for your food, you pay Uncle Sam his taxes. Why would you not pay yourself? After all, you are the one doing the hard work at whatever your job is to bring that paycheck home.

Statistics from December 2013 reveal that 40% of Americans are not saving for retirement, while 25% have no savings at all. That is a very scary thing. And when you pay all the required bills, there is not much left over for silly things like, say, food and gas. I understand. But that’s why it’s imperative you save 10% first

Use automatic transfers to make it easier. On the first of the month, just take 10% of your paycheck, whether that is $10 or $1000, and transfer it into a savings account.

It may be slow, but over time it will build. And you will find that you can still make it to the end of the month. Maybe you will have to cut out a trip to the store, or a movie night. But think how much better you will sleep at night when there is a cushion of cash you can call your own.

2. Scale back on non-necessities.

If you know for a fact that a period of transition is coming up, scaling back on your lifestyle can make a huge difference between being comfortable and feeling squeezed. If you know you will be transitioning to a different field, might be unemployed for a few months, or will have to take a lower paid position, try to estimate how your income will change and start living off that lower amount now. Save the difference

Maybe cut back on eating out, going to happy hours, or buy fewer groceries, and stop smoking now. Find ways to minimize the cost of things you like to do. Go to a matinee on Saturday instead of a Friday night if you like theaters. Have a potluck game night with friends rather than going out to a dinner. Host your own wine tasting; $30 goes a lot farther at home than in a club.

3. Make a budget and stick to it.

The first step here is to figure out how much you are currently spending. For one month, track every cent that leaves your accounts. You can do this by hand, or try using an online tracking tool like You Need a Budget or Here’s a handy article I wrote on using Mint if you’re new.

The next step is to figure out how much you want to or should be spending in these categories. Things like rent/mortgage, car or loan payments, and utilities are rather concrete. Focus on categories you have control over, such as entertainment, hobbies, gas, and groceries.

Find more great tips in How to Make & Stick to a Budget.

4. Learn to cook, and cook at home the majority of the time.

Eating out can cost $5-$15 for lunch and $10-$20 or more per person for dinner. If you have lunch with co-workers every day, and dinner at a restaurant 2-4 times per week, that is a significant expense. It will save you hundreds per year if you cook your own meals at home. Obviously I am a huge proponent of learning to cook! 

In the archives here you should find plenty of simple, cheap meals as inspiration, and the internet has seriously infinite ideas. Even just picking up a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and jelly will give you two week’s worth of lunches for less than you probably spend in one day eating out.

If you don’t think you have time to cook, check out my 10 Minute Chili Mac, Fancy Ramen Soup, or Easy Steak Stir-fry. Search “less than 5” here for meals that cost less than $5, take less than 5 minutes, and require less than 5 ingredients.

For even more tips on getting your grocery bill as low as it can go, check out How to Save Money on Your Grocery Bill.

5. Find frugal entertainment & frugal friends.


If your social circle is based on events where you are pressured into spending money, then you need to start branching out. Big trips, buying ‘toys’ like boats and golf clubs, and going out drinking cost you big bucks. Try new hobbies that don’t require money, like taking up jogging or walking, join a book club, hike, start a garden, or find a local sport club.

You could entertain yourself with a visit to the park, your local museums, or volunteering. Help Habitat for Humanity, your local church or soup kitchen, or go to Volunteer Match to find something that fits your interests in your area. You can get involved in your community, help people, and meet new friends along the way.

More ideas on cheap/free hobbies:
23 Fulfilling Hobbies You Can Start Right Now from Thought Catalog
The Only Thing You’ll Need to Spend is Time from The Simple Dollar
100 Cheap Hobbies – Spend Time Not Money from Free in 10 Years 
The 35 Best Ways to Spend Your Free Time (Frugally) from WiseBread 

Job transitioning articles:
When Your Dream Job Disappoints, How to Find Plan B from The Wall Street Journal
Don’t Burn Bridges: 10 Ways to Maximize a Job Transition from Monster Working
Transitioning From One Job to Another from Business Insider
Advice for People who Want to Quit Their Jobs from Thought Catalog

This post began with the intent of giving tips for making a career transition easier, but these tips are applicable to any stage of life. If you start incorporating these ideas into your daily life, you will notice your bank balances going up, maybe your debts going down, and your worries starting to ease. You may even find a whole new world of things you didn’t know existed, and make new life-long friends.

Though a career transition is scary, being prepared can help make it easier. The more you have saved, and the fewer your bills and expenses, the more comfortable you will feel financially. Then you can focus on perfecting that resume, building your network, and polishing your interview skills instead.

I have no idea where I will go from here, but I know that having some money in the bank and minimal expenses makes it a lot less scary to not know.

Have you ever transitioned between careers? What advice do you have?

9 thoughts on “Breaking Out of a Rut Without Going Broke: Financial Tips for Career Transitioning”

  1. Thanks for sharing the great tips! I learned a lot about frugality and how to save money from my parents too 🙂

    I can totally relate to your PhD experience. I thought I was really passionate about doing research and such, but it turned out to be miserable down the road, so I also quit. It was a difficult decision, but I’m happy I made it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by & commenting Mrs FAF!

      It is a tough choice indeed, but in the end I believe you have to do what is best for your life and goals. I’d rather not live a life of regret or resentment. I hope your career and life and going in a direction that makes your heart happy now!

  2. You are so awesome! I do not think I have read through
    anything like this before. So good to find someone with original thoughts on this topic.

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    needed on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

  3. It takes courage to change careers once the flame goes out. Especially if you’re young and invested a lot of time into getting there (undergrad + masters + PhD qualifies you there) so well done for re-calibrating when you needed to.

    From around the time I was 13 or 14 I wanted to be a fighter pilot and spent years working toward that. It was hard work, grades at school, extra curricular sports, a few flying lessons (literally a few, my Mum paid for 4hrs when I was 17). I applied to the RAAF twice and got in on my second go when I was 21. A year into pilots training I realised I’d been chasing a red herring. It was a lot of fun and fulfilling in a certain kind of way but it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. So I left. Felt a strange mix of relief, opportunity and loss. Hardest decision I ever made but in the end, absolutely the right one.

    Great tips also on career transitioning – they’re perfect advice for students too!

    1. Thanks so much! It was a very tough decision that took a year or so to make final. But I feel it was the right thing in the end. I’m much happier now on my current career path!
      Wow, what a story! It is so tough to admit, but sometimes your passions change. Or you think you want something, but once you’re in the process of doing it you realize it really isn’t what you want after all. Kudos to you for knowing that and making the change you needed to make.

  4. Oh gosh, this post hit me hard. I am currently one year into my PhD, even though I knew I wanted to do things that create solutions for our environmental crisis, not just add another voice to the choir to shout “we have a problem!”

    But PhD’s in Norway are paid and I was unemployed and desperate and… I got it. It was great in the beginning (a predictable paycheck does wonders for the mental health), but now I feel like I am teetering between wanting to run away and just putting my head down to finish the rest of this three year grind and tell myself at least they won’t hate me and we’ll be much better off financially.

    After that though? I hope I’ll have enough of a safety net to pursue what I really want.

    1. I feel you! Having a steady paycheck, no matter how small, makes a huge difference. And if you truly need it to get the job you desire, or to the level you desire, or it would just fulfill you personally, I totally support you. PhD was just not for me, though I wanted it to be badly. As long as you prepare yourself for whatever the next adventure might be, you will land on your feet. If you need to talk to someone who’s been there, you know where to find me. 🙂

      1. I do not need it to get the job I desire. If anything, it is actually ruining my chances of getting the job I desire (I wanted to be the environmental science lab rat, not the leader and grant writer). Plus I really want to retire early to a small farm and grow organic veg, maybe give courses in how to grow organic veg and preserve it. I feel so horrible for admitting it, but I never intended to use this PhD (unless I go into politics in which case fighting for the environment and having an environmental PhD would give my voice more oumph), it was only ever alluring because of the steady paycheck and the chance to go back to Norway and a city I really like.

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