“I don’t want to miss the details of the resurrection. You always said becoming a division head would happen over your dead body, what gives?” After some warm-up, the facts spilled out:

  • My friend wasn’t looking forward to being director of a large division.
  • Her husband’s cancer, children approaching college, diminishing retirement contributions in a hurting state university system, and “normal” debts made a higher salary a necessity.
  • With hindsight she could see how money decisions made in early career—newly built home, new cars, swim club membership—took her over a threshold she had never imagined: Gearing down her lab to step into a higher paying administrative job.*

When we train for careers in science, we feel the steadily increasing weight of delayed gratification. Although we move into adult life with partners and children and key responsibilities inside and outside of work, our status as students and trainees feels discordant. We are pushing for access to professorial or professional titles, investigator status, and finally a “real” salary.

The day the offer letter arrives (or the magic alignment of two offers for couples job seeking), we are more at risk than ever of financial decisions having undue influence on work and family life. Banks and realtors are drawn to you as a hot prospect—they will help you get the home that you “deserve” after so long. Tired of the clunker, gazing at your anticipated annual pay, a new car (or two) seems like a long awaited necessity. Credit card debt rests a little lighter on your mind and repaying student loans seems like a walk in the park.

Stop, don’t pass go, don’t collect a first paycheck without a budget—a real, detailed household budget that hits every category of expense. Look at what you have saved. Figure out what you need for an emergency fund. Don’t forget intermittent expenses (travel to see family who now expect you to be able to; home repairs) and the unexpected (illness or injury, veterinary costs, car repairs). Get solid estimates of utilities, taxes, mortgage insurance, commuting costs, etc. before a home purchase; know how much you will pay towards healthcare coverage, and how much will be withheld because you are in a new income bracket.

Finances are a leading source of stress. More marriages in the US are unraveled by debt and financial conflicts than by infidelity. You will not regret living beneath your means. Consider aiming to be debt free (except a rational mortgage). Doing this early in life provides flexibility to be spontaneous with celebrations, relaxation, travel, and gifts. You will not have to make career decisions like my colleague’s based on needing higher income to compensate for earlier choices. You will be able to pay for help with tasks ranging from scientific editing to dog walking, if you want. Less anxiety will accompany key career transitions—what if I don’t get the grant? What if I want to change jobs and try an alternative career path? You will pave the way to knowing that you can weather an unexpected storm and that you have options about the length and focus of your career.

Live beneath your means so you can say “Yes” when you want to. I have watched as individuals said “No” to sabbatical time, exciting roles at NIH and WHO, reducing clinic time to focus on research, and even being with a dying family member because of cash. Consider what it would feel like to live beneath your means and keep every door open with a breeze of fresh options blowing and not the scent of an impending storm.

— Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD

* Details have been changed to protect identity.

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