Why College Grads Should Pursue Dollars, Not Dreams

Sep 13, 2016

When I talk to college students, I don’t tell them to follow their dreams. Instead, I tell them to focus on making and saving money. I even suggest they might deliberately opt for a less interesting but higher-paying job, so they can sock away serious sums of money.

This might sound horribly reactionary. Aren’t those in their twenties meant to pursue their passions, before they become burdened by the demands of raising a family and making the mortgage payment? Underpinning this common view is a rarely examined assumption: that pursuing our passions is somehow more important in our twenties than in our fifties. I think this is nonsense. In fact, I think just the opposite is true.

Bear with me while I try to clamber out of the hole I just dug for myself.

Academic research tells us that many purchases don’t bring much happiness, so those who adopt a frugal lifestyle in their twenties and thirties probably won’t be missing out on much. Meanwhile, it is mighty tough to amass enough for a retirement that could last 30 years. If we start young, we will have more years to save and we’ll enjoy many decades of investment compounding.

Perhaps most important, we might spend 40 years or more in the workforce, and we need to be prepared for upheaval. Even if we aren’t forced to change careers by global competition or disruptive new technologies, there’s a good chance we will want to change. Four decades is an awfully long time to do the same thing.

When we enter the workforce in our twenties, we might be thrilled with our chosen career. By our forties, the thrill will likely be gone and we might be deeply unhappy with our job. If we get ourselves in great financial shape early in our adult life, we could spend our remaining decades with far fewer money worries—and with the financial freedom to change careers, perhaps to a job that’s less lucrative but which we might find more fulfilling.

Economists engaged in happiness research have found that satisfaction through life is U-shaped. It appears that our happiness declines through our twenties and thirties, hits bottom in our forties and then rebounds from there.

Related: 20 Liberal Arts Colleges Where Grads Earn the Most

What explains the U shape? When we are younger, seeking accolades can be all consuming. We desperately want the pay raises and promotions. We find the work world novel and fascinating. We are anxious to figure out the rules, find our place and prove our worth. To those in their twenties and thirties, working at a relatively uninspiring job may not seem like such a burden if the pay and recognition are generous.

But after a decade or two in the workforce, our orientation often shifts. We know the office rules. We have had some success, even if it wasn’t as much as we had hoped. We have discovered that the promotions and pay raises—and the material goods they allow us to buy—provide only fleeting happiness. We have grown increasingly cynical about the workplace, with its office politics and frequent layoffs. Meanwhile, with any luck, we have started to amass some savings. As our sense of financial security grows, earning money becomes less of a motivator.

The result can be a growing sense of disenchantment with the workplace and with our life, and we may find ourselves bumping along the bottom of the U-shaped curve. To regain our happiness, we must cast aside our single-minded drive to collect external rewards, and instead pursue goals that matter most to us, rather than to others.

Making a midlife career change will be far easier if we have saved diligently since entering the workforce. That doesn’t mean it won’t be stressful. It’s nerve-racking to give up a secure job, even one we have come to dislike. Yet it is undoubtedly better than the alternative: If we haven’t amassed much in savings, we may have no choice but to get up tomorrow and go back to a job we loathe.

This article is excerpted from How to Think About Money, published this month. Clements, the director of financial education for Creative Planning, was previously a long-time personal-finance columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a financial-education director at Citigroup. You can learn more about Clements at JonathanClements.com.

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