Beware The Golden Handcuffs

When you were a child with your entire life in front of you, what did want to become? Did you spend your early years dreaming of working as a commercial lender or financial analyst? Probably not. Instead, you likely imagined you’d take a job that followed your passion, or a job that bettered society, or both.

But somewhere along the way, we change our focus from what we want to do to what we want to earn. We enter career fields for which we may have no passion and spend so much time working to rise through the industry for the purposes of wealth that we have no time left to put that money to use.

Before we know it, we’ve spent years working tirelessly at a job we don’t enjoy to earn money we aren’t fully appreciating, and we’ve already sunk so much into that career path that we feel it would be a mistake to try and find work elsewhere.

This concept is called the Golden Handcuffs, and it serves as the source of most people’s professional unhappiness. The term is a metaphor: we’re drawn to an object made of solid gold, but ultimately find that the object restricts us and keeps us from living our full lives the way we once envisioned.

Now that you understand the golden handcuffs, it’s important to do anything you can to avoid them. If the field about which you’re most passionate happens to also be well paying, then that’s great. Follow that path, but make sure you do it out of passion and not for the paycheck. If you really believe that money cannot buy happiness, avoiding the golden handcuffs shouldn’t be hard.

To hammer the point home, take a look below at two sample budgets: One for an adult earning $100,000 per year, and another for the same adult but on a $50,000 annual salary.

(Click each image to open it in a new tab)

As you can see, cutting one’s earnings in half doesn’t have to mean crippling financial woes or the forfeiture of any expenses. The person earning $50,000 annually still has a social life; he or she still owns a car, stays well-fed, and yes, still has enough money to make payments on student loans every month.

Now, look at the budget for the person earning twice that in a year. You’ll notice most of the same line items are present, but the budget simply allots more money toward each item. The car he or she drives (a BMW) is a bit nicer, and when they go out with friends they have money for a few more cocktails than the $50,000 worker. They’re not living a much different life, just a higher-priced one.

These budgets prove that money should not be the most important factor when deciding on a job or career. You need a certain amount of money to live comfortably, of course, but you don’t need immense wealth to do so. With this in mind, it makes more sense to do something you love and something that society will appreciate, even if the job pays less.

Breaking free of the golden handcuffs does not mean finding an easier job at which to coast. It means to find a job that you love and chase that love, even if it means a pay cut and a drop back to the ground floor of a new industry.

You’ll be happier all the time, something money will never buy. You’ll be less stressed, and you’ll feel more purposeful. Sure you might need to trade in that BMW for a Civic, but a Civic has four wheels and can take you around town, right? That’s a worthy sacrifice for the sake of perpetual happiness.

Another benefit associated with shifting your career from a mundane high salary position to pursue a job with less pay doing fulfilling work is that you are forced to change your unnecessary spending habits and adopt a more disciplined lifestyle. As you start to earn more money in a career that satisfies you from the inside out, those new spending habits grow with you and the amount you are able to save over your lifetime exponentially increases.

Of course, it’s not always this easy. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices early in your professional life before chasing your dream job. Young adults often take office jobs out of school to lay a financial base before entering a new industry or attending graduate school to pursue their dream job.

This does not represent the golden handcuffs. However, if 10-15 years pass and you’re still at the same company just to keep earning paychecks, you’re probably trapped in the ‘cuffs.

Never lose sight of what you really want to do with your life. You may not be able to do it right away, but it should always be the light at the end of your tunnel. After all, money can’t buy happiness, but the fulfillment you get from a career you love can provide enough happiness for a lifetime.

By Eli Bohemond
Eli Bohemond Certified Career Coach