Reader Case: Lawyer in Pain

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Today’s reader case comes from a pair of professionals that are high earning, but not high-happiness. Let’s dive into their story!

Hello Kristy/Bryce

Apology in advance for the long email. I am a huge fan of your book and was really inspired by your candid stories. I have been hearing about FIRE movement 5 years ago but I never felt it would be possible for us to achieve until I read your book, especially the FI journey you detailed at the back of your book.

A little bit about us. My husband and I are both in our mid-30s. I work in finance, while my husband is a nurse. We are grateful to live comfortably and continue to work during the pandemic. Before I became serious about FI, I thought life is always about how much more pay rise I could get. So I jumped from one stressful job to another, but end up finding myself unhappy after a couple of years. In addition, I wasn’t the best in taking care of myself, physically or financially. I was always on a “work hard play harder” mentality. So I worked 70+ hours a week. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner usually happen at my office desk. I gained a significant amount of weight and was not being mindful of my spending. I did manage to pay off my law school debt of $80K within 4 years, and kept saving 30%+ of income as we were planning to buy a bigger apartment.

Until late last year, I suffered from chronic pain on my back, affected my hand mobility, due largely to stress, anxiety, and other health complication. My doctor recommended me to take a couple of months of medical leave. During the break, I realized how unhappy I was with my career and definitely do not see myself continue working there for another day. People who’ve worked there for 10-20 years, would just get let go in a snap. It was just not a sustainable place and trajectory for my health and sanity. Some days when my body was in a great deal of pain, I just wanted to submit my resignation and quit so I could take a break and explore my other interests, such as comedy writing. I have gotten better now, but the chronic pain will be a condition that I have to deal with for the future.

This is also when I discovered your book. I finished it within two days and I sat down to review our finance afterward. We scrapped the plan of buying a bigger apartment and started slowly investing our savings to ETF. The COVID lockdown also brought our expense way down, helping me to realize that it is possible to cut my spending, increased our 401(k)/403(b) contributions, save 60%+ of post-tax income and still live happily. I wish I have done this sooner, like way before I realized that I wanted to leave my high paying job.

The lockdown has also made the work less demanding, at least in the short term, since everyone is now working from home for the remainder of the year. I also have more time to explore my other interests in comedy writing, blogging, and most importantly, to take care of my body. My husband, on the other hand, has been pretty happy with his nursing job, and he is probably staying until he can collect a pension. I honestly don’t know how he does it, even with the pandemic he still comes home from the hospital every day with a smile, and yet I am miserable working from home all day. I guess that’s a good indication when one really likes his/her job.

I guess one thing I am hoping you can help me, is to decide whether should I just follow my heart and take the leap to quit to explore other writing opportunities now, or should do that after FI? Based on the calculation, and I could be wrong, is that we are somewhere 5-7 years away from FI assuming we keep our current income and expense low at the post COVID level, but I honestly don’t think I can continue to work in this industry for another year. I wonder if I am being too risk-averse for not quitting now. Is there another intermediary milestone I should look into to give me the comfort that I have enough to make the jump? Also, seeing how volatile the finance industry is, I wouldn’t be surprised if I get let go at some points. Perhaps I should stick it out until I get the chopped/ ask for lay off/until I have more clarity on where my next step is?

Latest gross/net annual family income – Gross: $265,000 / Net: $218,000
Husband: $109,000/Mine: $156,000
Monthly family spending – Pre COVID: $10,000-11,000 a month / Post COVID: $ 4,000-5,000
Any debts – Not really. Credit card debt that paid off every month
Any fixed assets (house, car, etc.)
Apartment ($700 monthly maintenance fee)
Investments or savings (cash, bonds, stocks, etc.)
401(K) – $114,000 / husband 403(B)- $20,000 / husband’s pension -? (maybe 20+ years to go?)
Tradition IRA – $6,000 (can’t really take the tax advantage for IRA, but will contribute another $6,000 this year)
Investment – $43,000 (20% BND, VEU 35%, VUG/VTI 45%)
Saving – $170,000 (stuck in some new saving/checking accounts I recently opened for sign-on bonuses. Once they are freed up later this year will move some of these to investment/or other new acc for more sign-on bonuses)

Sincerely yours,
Lawyer in Pain/Smiley Nurse

This story struck a bit close to home for me. Like our reader, Wanderer and I were both in high-paying careers but our happiness level differed drastically. While Wanderer generally enjoyed his computer engineering career and the people he worked with, my experience was very similar to LawyerInPain. My job was not only high-stress requiring lots of overtime and pager support duty, the people I worked with were demanding and unreasonable. One time, a co-worker went on medical leave because of a stress-induced mental breakdown, so I had to step up and take on his project on top of my normal workload. Many stressful months later I had managed to rescue his project from the brink of failure, and instead of rewarding me my boss laughed at me and called me a sucker that got “tricked” into being overloaded. For some reason our relationship took a sharp nosedive after that. Shocking.

Even more eerily similar is that chronic pain that LawyerInPain is experiencing. Stress coupled with long nights spent tapping into a laptop in the dark does strange things to one’s body, and at the end of my career my wrist was in so much pain I had to wear a cast and go to physio. So when I say I feel our reader’s pain, I really mean it.

So on to big million dollar question: Should LawyerInPain quit her soul-sucking job? There are a few angles we could tackle this from, but as usual we will start with the math. What does the math say?

Math Shit Up!

First of all, and this is the ONLY context this sentence makes sense, thank goodness for COVID! Pre-COVID, our couple’s expenses were an astonishing $10k to $11k a month. That’s $120k to $132k a year, or more than 3x what we spend now! I get that a stressful job often means higher spending to unwind after work, but what were you two doing, racing Ferrarris?!?

So if this were a “normal” (does anyone even remember what normal is anymore?) reader case, that’s where our focus would be, but because of COVID forcing this couple to revisit their expenses, they’ve already done the hard work and have slashed their monthly expenses impressively all the way down to $4k to $5k per month, or $48k to $60k a year. Great job!

And here’s where I would normally calculate their FI number and start generating charts, but in this case it’s actually a lot more straightforward. LawyerInPain’s husband, SmileyNurse, enjoys his job and intends to keep working until they qualify for their pension. His pre-tax income of $109k (I’m guessing he’s a Nurse Practitioner or something) should become about $90k after taxes, which is more than enough to cover their living expenses and still save 33% of his salary, so this couple doesn’t need to become fully FI. And quite frankly, America as a nation needs every nurse they can get, so if he loves being a nurse (and by then way, thank you for all that you do!) by all means keep doing it!

So from a mathematical perspective, LawyerInPain can leave tomorrow and they’d be just fine from a financial perspective.

That’s what the math says. But in this case, the math isn’t the only picture…

The Importance of Identity

However what concerns me is how much of your identity is wrapped up right now in being a lawyer. I was also in that boat, with my only identity being a computer engineer (even though I hated it). The identity I wanted, like this reader, was as a writer, but that identity takes time to build. So what Wanderer and I did was we wrote during the evenings and weekends, taking night classes at a local community college to develop our skills as writers. Only when our first book, Little Miss Evil, got published did we quit our jobs. That way we were stepping from one identity as engineers into another identity as writers. We know many early retirees that simply gave up their existing identity without establishing a new one, and they were surprised to find that their stress levels didn’t decrease.

That being said, you’ve got to take care of your health first. Doesn’t matter how rich you are if you can’t move.

Fortunately, you’ve already done the difficult part of wresting your expenses under control. Because this couple is financially stable with just one income, LawyerInPain holds all the leverage.

That means now is the perfect time to negotiate a more reasonable schedule at work. Maybe you can move to part-time hours, or a 4-day work week. At the very least, stop signing up for more work projects! Once Wanderer and I got close enough to our FI number that if I got laid off, the severance and EI would take us over the finish line, you can bet I stopped saying “bring it on” to new projects.

When that same manager tried to “trick” me into “volunteering” for another project that was on fire, I just ignored him. He would send meeting invites to me and I just wouldn’t show up. Everyone was like “Ooooh, FIRECracker’s going to get in so much trouble,” but I didn’t give a shit. What were they going to do, lay me off and make me FI? Bring it, BE-ATCH!

Funnily enough, what ended up happening to me was…nothing. Even though everyone was killing themselves working 24/7 on that project, it still blew up, and they got blamed for the failure. No one blamed me for anything since I never agreed to be part of the project in the first place.

LawyerInPain is in an even stronger position than I was, because they don’t even need EI to make it. She holds all the cards. So she should use them to negotiate a less stressful schedule, or possibly change jobs to a lower-stress one like a non-profit. But she should also work on building up her second identity, whatever that is. Once her second identity is solid enough that she can step into it, only then should she quit her job as a lawyer.

Conclusion

So that’s my take on LawyerInPain’s situation. What would you to? If you were in her situation, would you quit your stressful job now? Or would you keep working until you made it in your side hustle?

 


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27 thoughts on “Reader Case: Lawyer in Pain”

  1. Excellent advice.
    Always try to be running toward something, instead of just running away from something.

    Tell stressful work you must reduce to 4 days/week.
    Sign up for classes to explore and hone your other interests.
    Spend time on homework in your other interests.

    Keep the expenses low so you aren’t just taking advantage of SmileyNurse, but are making sure they have options to RE if that becomes more attractive to them.

  2. Wonderful article! I was in the similar situation 3 years ago when I received a big health wake up call. I thought I am still 6 years before FI but absolutely choose to take time off to get out of the States and slow down. I continue to do 3-4 months sabbatical every year since then – the corporate world does not like it – but I am bravely pioneering.
    I also reduced my hours dramatically, insisted on telecommuting.

    Surprisingly what I thought would be a 6 years journey or longer to FI – became only 3.5 years journey.

    Yes – with reduced hours, with me saying no to the projects with demanding schedules (I loved to practice No) and with giving up my leading roles – that’s what happened. I will be off next Feb. just in 6 month!
    My sabbaticals helped me to understand that I am so much more then my career (I am a scientist and actually love what I do but not the corporational stress) and that’s my new life is and will be even better. The best part is that last three years were very humane with reduced hours, with a great health (I would not handle otherwise) and a pleasure to choose what I worked on before I let it go.

  3. I switched to a full time job filled with lots of travel and not a lot of time off to a part time gig back in 2019 and it was THE BEST DECISION EVER. We still reached out FI number this year even though I had guessed it would have been pushed back by a few years due to the lower income. The journey is part of the process! There’s no point in reaching this magical FI number if your mental and physical health are taking a beating to race there.

  4. If LawyerInPain’s work load can continue in the ‘Covid-lockdown-period mode’ with the current or a different employer…without ruining her health, then she has a better chance of easing her transition into her desired vocation. The couple should also continue to keep their expenses low by ruthlessly eliminating any unnecessary expenses.

  5. Everybody here is a snowflake and a loser looking for validation by the two main losers/authors of this blog. I HAVE SOME ADVICE FOR YOU: GRAB LIFE BY THE
    HORNS! CHANGE YOUR LIFE IF YOU DONT LIKE IT AND STOP
    WHINING EVEN IF YOU ARE IN PAIN! Look for meaning in your pain so that you may find meaning in your boring, privileged life! DREAM BIG!

    1. Wow!!!
      I’m sure everyone here is thinking who is this looser named XDREAM.
      What you posted doesn’t even make any sense.
      Grabbing life by the horns and changing your life is exactly what this blog is about.
      You obviously haven’t ready anything here or just don’t get it.

  6. I also agree. Its great advice to to leave the high stress job or try to reduce the time/stress since you are able to with your spouse’s income as a nurse.
    I too am in a job that is higher stress than I’d like and have really lost interest and motivation for the work. Luckily we have hit our FI number but haven’t pulled the trigger yet because I’m addicted to the paycheck and am always thinking just a little bit more money saved up just in case. Then there are all the what if scenarios that my anxiety keeps thinking of which then further delays leaving the stressful job. I like your idea of just saying no to new projects or extra time working and see if I can get on the next lay-off list.
    Thanks again for the post and also for the recent virtual Chautauqua – it was great and I really enjoyed watching.

  7. Hey, you got the best answer – you can quit. Least math ever 🦄.
    My thoughts are:
    1) Good move on paying off the law school loan (congratulations!).
    2) Start/continue hoarding money so you have a cash cushion and high savings rate. Keep your budget small and make it even smaller. The smaller you live, the more you strip life back to its core and learn what you really want. Add back later 😉 only what is most important to you both.
    3) Is a paltry few hundred bucks or whatever the reward is on the 170 K worth missing out on a year in the market? Your call, but I say, if you wouldn’t do it again, get out of the account and invest properly.
    4) No job is worth your health. Quit. Refresh/regroup. Find something else in your field and continue banking the money. Once you’re a couple more years along. I might bail permanently from the career.
    5) I will sound like a stuffy old fogey here: have a plan b in case SmileyNurse needs out.

  8. I know this is gonna sounds weird but my hubby and I actually had more take home pay once I quit my job (car sales – great company but it was too stressful (My manager) and after 3 years it got to me). We moved to a cheaper place and actually realized it would be financially possible to have kids. Now my job is to maximize value for our dollars (Reduce spending while getting maximum value) and his is to earn (he doesn’t spend in the first place). So by being home I can make all our food from scratch and catch sales and have time to price compare etc etc. We also only need one car now, no work clothes for me, and no eating out, no work related parties or drinks. So we went from household income of 100,000 (30,000/70,000) saving 0/year to household income of 100,000 saving 50,000/year.

  9. LawyerInPain, I would suggest that you take the leap to quit your job, take a couple of months of rests: read books, cook at home, have picnic lunches with your dear husband, free online classes, … or simply just sleep…sleep…sleep… until one day you wake up fresh and healthy again.
    That’s what I did several years ago. Everyone was against me, but looking back, it’s one the most daring and life changing decisions in my life. After about 9 months of self-enjoyment, discovery, and feeling completely refreshed and even missing office politics, I returned back to corporate life. In case you wonder, no one ever brought up my ‘slacking-off’ period during my interviews.
    Fast forward 5 years: reached my FI number, left corporate world behind, and have been living an enviable life ever since. Go for it!

  10. That means now is the perfect time to negotiate a more reasonable schedule at work. Maybe you can move to part-time hours, or a 4-day work week. At the very least, stop signing up for more work projects! Once Wanderer and I got close enough to our FI number that if I got laid off, the severance and EI would take us over the finish line, you can bet I stopped saying “bring it on” to new projects.

    When that same manager tried to “trick” me into “volunteering” for another project that was on fire, I just ignored him. He would send meeting invites to me and I just wouldn’t show up. Everyone was like “Ooooh, FIRECracker’s going to get in so much trouble,” but I didn’t give a shit. What were they going to do, lay me off and make me FI? Bring it, BE-ATCH!

    Funnily enough, what ended up happening to me was…nothing.

    ——————-

    I can relate to the above points. Here are my two cents:

    1) Do not negotiate reduced work hours. That will only give your employer the excuse to cut your pay and still load you up with the same amount of work. Instead, simply refuse to take on the unrealistic workload. Like Firecracker said, just say no. Repeat after me. NO! Management will be confused as they expect you to bend over for them without hesitation. When you don’t, they won’t know what to do and will freeze. Hell, you might even get promoted.

    In my case, my manager was looking around the room completely confused probably thinking that an alien was going to pop out of the wall and abduct them for some anal probing. I just sat there smirking and then told them to stop wasting my time with bullshit garbage. FI gives you the power to do some batshit stuff. Finally, the response came out of her mouth. “Uhhhh, ooookaaay! Are you sure?”. My response was “Do you have comprehension problems? I’m not accountable to work on bullshit”. Then, she scuttled out of the room. She complained to her boss who then made my boss take on the work herself. I couldn’t stop laughing. She’s still dealing with it one year later. And I got a tasty bonus at the end of the year. Go figure. Lol.

    2) And yes, the not showing up for meetings works too. I get asked “but don’t you want to be involved?”. My response “Nope.”. Still get paid. Still get bonuses.

    3) Don’t quit. Wait for a layoff if it really comes down to it. Squeeze every penny out of them. They will try to add pressure to make you uncomfortable. Just recognize it for what it is. Ignore them and any unrealistic work demands. Do what you’re comfortable doing, nothing more. Treat work like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Pick only what you want to eat (work on) and ensure you fill your plate with crab legs (the fun work). If/When the layoff comes and you receive the severance package, laugh. You just got more free money.

    1. Lol. I never thought you are an employee-class. After all the fake talks from you, I thought you are someone retired, being his own boss, etc. Definitely not a person that still receive paycheck from another. Well, okay then. Now I know who I have been arguing with. Truly a faker. You made me a little bit wiser. Thanks.

      1. Just because I’m rich, doesn’t mean I’ve retired. Still thinking in terms of your little black and white box? My oh my! Aren’t we a little bit too obsessed.

        1. Sure, you are a small time rich acting like some big timer. Fake it till you make it, as you said. Retired or not, there is a difference between someone who is a subordinate to another vs someone who is not. You are a subordinate. But that is nothing wrong with that. The wrong part is your attitude. A person of your attitude can’t possibly be of a managerial position or the position of someone that truly owns any business. Lack of manners and courtesy also strongly indicate you are not from the sales department. And disfavoring “schooling” also means you are lacking in technical stuff, except those gained on-the-job. It is no wonder why you fail in business. You should reflect on yourself sometimes.

          Little black and white box? Are you referring to yourself? You may make accusations as you like about me. In term of grey area, you don’t really know much about it. It’s not like this is the first time I meet a smart alec making things up that are generally untrue as he goes along. Do yourself a favor. Get yourself properly educated. And be humble.

          1. Oh my! You showed me. Let me go and cry in my corner now. You are so smart. How could I ever doubt. Give yourself a big pat on the back because you accomplished something substantial. You are the winner and I bow to your greatness.

            Is it lonely being so great?

  11. FC’s way of ignoring the manager’s demand for more workload is a good one. This goes to show the importance of having the investment portfolio as a bargaining chip. If the employer decides to let go of one, the employer will have to foot the severance package which is a win situation for one.

    WTK

  12. I love that your posts are taking a turn towards taking care of yourself! Over the past few years I’ve gone through very similar experiences with burn out from work and killing myself mentally and physically over my job. Luckily my work also offered training in self-care and mindfulness, which led me to prioritize my health more routinely…and finances so that I can quit! This past summer I gave a try at writing about my experience around self-care and have since found that there’s a whole market out there to teach us how to create captivating content (I know, I’m slow to this game because I was so lost in work). That said, can you share your experience around writing before quitting your engineering job? What did you do? What tips? How hard was it? Would love more content on your writing experience! ♥️

  13. I think FIRECracker’s advice is good, i.e.: “… negotiate a less stressful schedule, or possibly change jobs to a lower-stress one like a non-profit. But she should also work on building up her second identity, whatever that is. Once her second identity is solid enough that she can step into it, only then should she quit her job as a lawyer.”. Get the second identity asap, then pull the ripcord and get out of that hellhole!

    For Lawyer in Pain – commiserations for being part of the profession and hopefully you find salvation.

    There are a few comments here about ‘volunteering’ for work. Unfortunately, for lawyers negotiating or ‘volunteering’ for extra workload often doesn’t come into it. One is only aware of a new additional demand when copied into an email saying ‘we’ll take care of it’ (which is code for muggins, who is hearing about the deal for the first time, will have this dumped on them and added to their already damaging and unsustainable workload – nothing like having a to-do list like a twitter feed).

    As for the idea that ‘you can always get another job’, maybe in the corporate world but in the legal world most law firms can hardly be bothered to hang onto the staff they have let alone hire new staff (no matter how comically understaffed they are at present). Law firms are simply not part of the real world. No wonder most lawyers are miserable.

    HH

  14. One small tip:

    “Tradition IRA – $6,000 (can’t really take the tax advantage for IRA, but will contribute another $6,000 this year)”

    Judging by your income, you can probably still take advantage of a *Roth* IRA.

    Looks like the 2020 income range is:

    $193,000-$203,000 for MFJ. But, that’s MAGI. With your deductions, you may fall into that range. Perhaps worth looking into, at least.

  15. I relate so so much to this story. I get the impression this lawyer is a female version of myself. I’m married to a physiotherapist, work in finance and I spent years chasing a career in the comedy industry. My husband has also risen through the ranks in the healthcare sector and earns way above the average there (irrelevant tangent – I know lots of men in the field and I suspect it is rife with sexism because every man I know in it, though few and far between in these professions, seem to be wildly successful while equally competent women I know seem to have stagnant careers; my husband was even told when we adopted two kids that one of the reasons they (the two women who interviewed him) were excited to give him the job was they didn’t expect him to take parental leave so quickly like the female candidates).

    However a word of warning. I left comedy not because of money, not because I fell out of love with making people laugh and not because I wasn’t doing well…I left because it is one toxic industry of dickheads piled on dickheads. Maybe it’s different in Canada but in the UK, wherein live comics from around the world, I spent way too long with comedians and have way too few good memories. Most have zero funny bones but much more than their shoulder-bones have chips on them (in fact, I can honestly say I get more laughs from FIRE bloggers than the stand up I watch these days, Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’ aside). If she is willing to put the work in to get out of the office, my bet is there will be much more fulfilling things out there for her to do.

    Then again, I also know that I grew so much during those years and gained so much confidence and she’ll want to experience it herself, rather than take my word for it. I do hope she comes across a very different industry than I met when she does.

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