Figuring Out a Career While Being Married to an Academic

Brooke is 27 and lives in a major city in the Southeastern region of the U.S.

Mike: Brooke, what do you do for a living?

Brooke: I’m a low level administrator at a major university. My department title is “office administrator,” but according to the university I’m an Administrative Assistant. I make about $32,000 a year.

Mike: Does your job have benefits?

Brooke: It does! I actually really love our health insurance plan because it works well for what I need it for, which I know is unusual and I’m really thankful for it. We also get paid time off, but they just cut that down by seven days a year so I’m not really thrilled about it. A side benefit for me is that we live close enough to campus for me to walk to work. We only have one car so that’s really nice, plus I really enjoy walking. We also get discounts around the city (like not having to pay a sign up fee for the YMCA, which I just took advantage of last month).

Mike: When you say we, you mean you live with someone?

Brooke: Yes, my husband. We’ve been married almost four years. He’s a Ph.D. student in the humanities at the same university that I work at. He gets a stipend that covers our rent and he also has two part-time jobs, both of which serve his interests either directly or indirectly (he can study while he’s at work). I’m the primary breadwinner, though.

Mike: With your husband as a Ph.D. student and you working as an admin at the university, how does it work financially for the two of you? Are things tight?

Brooke: Things are tight! We definitely maintain a strict zero-based budget (I always laugh because my weekend estimates seem so much lower than everyone else’s). Our rent is $1,500 a month for a (nice) one-bedroom apartment and while that’s not outrageous by the Northeast’s or California’s standards, it’s pretty high for the Southeast! The location is great, though, especially since I can walk to work and my husband can walk to school. Some of that is very much self-imposed, too, since we’re trying to pay off all the student loans by the time he graduates. We paid off our car last year (I got a note from you, Mike! It was great), which freed up some money every month but some of that money got redistributed to categories that it was hard to stay within budget. We definitely don’t go out to eat as much as I’d like, and I haven’t bought any clothing that hasn’t been on sale or without a coupon since we got married. We also haven’t been on a real vacation since our honeymoon. It’s little things like those examples that make it hard sometimes.

Mike: So is you being the primary breadwinner is temporary? What would your husband like to do when he gets his Ph.D.? We recently had that piece from one of our writers about the difficulty of finding a career path after getting a Ph.D. in literature.

Brooke: I’m hoping it’s temporary! Not going to lie, I’ll be pretty upset if he can’t get a job after he graduates. Being the trailing spouse requires a lot of sacrifice (both in money and other areas of life) and sometimes it’s really, really hard to not be resentful of everything you’re giving up for your partner’s academic career. I remember that piece about the career path after the Ph.D. in literature — it really stressed me out because academia IS such a strange “industry” and unemployment and/or the adjunct life is definitely a huge problem for academics. I’m really thankful that he’s in a field that is a) hiring b) very much needed. Even though he’s a humanities Ph.D. student, his advisor had a 99% placement record and the program he’s in right now works directly with the medical field — that center has a 100% placement record. I try to not worry about it too much, especially because his school does have a great reputation and everyone in his program absolutely loves him.

I do have a hard time relating to people who aren’t in academia though, because they’re all buying houses and having babies and adopting dogs, whereas I have no idea where we’re going to live in two years! That definitely causes some problems and it’s hard when someone asks “where are you going to end up?” because my answer is “Wherever my husband gets a job!” I actually relented the other day and decided he should at least apply to international positions because I figure my career is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Mike: So if all goes according to plan, what would that look like?

Brooke: If it all went according to plan, he’ll graduate in 2015 and get either an international job (because it would be fun, even though there are a lot of anxieties I have about it) or a job in the NYC area or in the Southeast. His ideal position would be a joint tenure track professorship while working in the medical center of a major university. My ideal position for him is one that pays more than his stipend, ha ha. We don’t really want to end up on the West Coast because it’s pretty far from our families, who are both in the Southeast.

Mike: What about your own career goals?

Brooke: I’m not really sure anymore. I thought I wanted to be in healthcare administration (I think well-run healthcare systems are so important to a community and I love how they function as basically their own little city), but when we moved to our current city, I got a job in healthcare administration and HATED it. After about seven months, I was crying in my car before work every day. I switched jobs, obviously, and while I like what I’m doing now as a temporary measure, I don’t want to be in administration. I need something that challenges me more and that I really care about, but I don’t have an idea of what that would look like. It’s frustrating because it turns out that I’m actually quite type-A and need room to grow in my career, which I don’t have right now. I was a really terrible student all through high school and especially college. I wish I had taken more advantage of the opportunities I had while I had them and was still young! Not that I’m old, but it’s hard to switch horses midstream … or something.

Mike: Do you think you’ll have a better sense of what you’ll want to do after you have a better sense of what your husband is going to do? I imagine where you both land will play a role in this.

Brooke: I’d like to think I would, but at this point I don’t think I will for a while even after he graduates. I do know that I’d like to go back to school and get my master’s since my bachelor’s was in English and that doesn’t play to my interests much now. Once we’re settled and he’s making enough money to support us, it will be easier for me to take a step back and maybe be able to take an internship somewhere. I really love personal finance thanks to my own experiences with it, so I’m considering something in the accounting/economics/financial planning field, but also counseling and marketing, so who knows where I’ll end up! My dad is in personal finance, though, and if we ended up in the same city as they live, it would be really easy to just take over his business clients! I don’t think that will happen, though.

Mike: What was it like growing up with a parent who worked in personal finance?

Brooke: It was a good foundation and I’m really lucky that I had the guidance my parents gave to me and my brother. Our allowance was never in cash, but instead marked down in ledger books in four columns: giving, short-term savings, long-term savings, and spending money. We could get money from our parents from any of the categories as long as the expense was appropriate to the category (for instance, if we wanted to give money to a homeless person, that came out of giving, or if my brother was saving up for a new Game Boy, that was from the short-term savings column). We didn’t have to pay for clothes — my parents actually gave me a budget for that twice a year (basically summer and winter, which are the two seasons in the Southeast) and I was responsible for tracking that.

I’ve also had a credit card since I was 13. It was a sub-card on my mom’s account and I actually still have that line of credit open, so I have a credit history that has been for over half my life at this point. I was taught that credit cards are ALWAYS paid in full at the end of the billing cycle and if you can’t afford it, you can’t buy it. That’s been really important to me as an adult, and especially after I got cut off after I got married!

My parents are really, really awesome people and I’m really glad they set such a great example for me. They adhere strongly to the “have more than you show” train of thought, which caused me a great deal of angst when I was a teenager. I lived in a pretty affluent area and it was pretty normal at my high school for people to be driving Hummers, Porsches and Mercedes as their first cars. My first car was new with three miles on it and paid for by my parents, but it was a very sensible sedan. Something else that is really important to them is charity. I remember one week at church there was a note in the bulletin that the needs expressed by the food pantry last week had been taken care of anonymously with a $6,000 check. After church that day, we had a family meeting where my parents told me and my brother that they were the ones that had written the check because they thought it was important for us to see that giving is so important, but it should be done discreetly and anonymously if possible.

I’m pretty sure my parents are in the 1% (I only know what my dad’s income was eight years ago when my brother turned 16), so that’s weird, especially since we don’t get any help from them at all (which I’m really proud of) and sometimes it’s really stressful!

Mike: Do you talk to them about your career and financial worries?

Brooke: Oh yes, constantly. They are the recipients of most of my stress and anxiety, which is really counterproductive because I think they forgot what it’s like to be young-ish and broke! My dad actually said to me a couple months ago that I shouldn’t worry so much because both my heavenly and earthly fathers will take care of me (um, they’re super Christian). I’m pretty sure he meant because of how their financial situation is bound to come down to me and also some other interesting money situations in my family (a trust that I’ll share with my brother). My mom was a stay-at-home mom, now stay at home wife so her career advice is… outdated. I actually really wish she had kept working when I was born because I think she wasted a lot of potential. I’m scared of wasting my own potential, actually, which I think is what is making me panic about my career right now!

Mike: But financially, it sounds like your parents aren’t worried about you because they’ve set some family money aside for your future?

Brooke: It wasn’t set aside explicitly for me, but there is a trust with my brother that I will inherit that is separate from any inheritance I might get from my parents (they’re not allowed to die, though, so it really doesn’t matter). My brother and I will have full control of the trust and be co-trustees, which could be really interesting since we occasionally don’t get along. The trust protects several hundred acres in the fly-over states, as well as partial ownership of a couple of oil wells (the income of which is more than I make in a year), some other property, as well as some money from my grandmother’s estate. I’m actually not sure how much money is in there (I’m guessing a couple hundred thousand based off if comments my dad has thrown owt). I didn’t know about the trust until three years ago and only last Christmas did my parents actually sit me and my husband down to tell us some of the details. I expect I’ll be the one taking care of most of the things related to the real estate such as taxes and fees since I’m the oldest. My brother calls it our trust fund, and that makes me REALLY uncomfortable. The whole “understated money” thing stuck with me much more than it did with my brother, I think. Not that he’s flashy, but he thinks it’s really cool to be invited to/spend lots of money at secret bars and such.

Mike: But it sounds like you’re also living your life as if that money doesn’t exist.

Brooke: Oh, completely. Even if I had access to it, I wouldn’t touch it except maybe to pay off my husbands student loans (which were totally my fault). And buy a horse, because I’ve had one on every birthday/Christmas list since I was 4! (Still don’t have one.) Even when I have access to it, I’ll probably leave it alone until I REALLY need it. Or to buy a house! I forgot about that part.

Mike: What do you mean your husband’s loans are your fault?

Brooke: My husband is brilliant. He’s gotten a full ride at all private universities through undergrad, two master’s programs, and now his Ph.D. program. However, right after we got married, we moved to the Northeast for him to get a second master’s at an Ivy League school. The city we were in wasn’t that great, and I couldn’t find a job for 10 months. When I did find a job, it was only part-time so we took out $27,000 over two years as living expenses in student loans. It’s not unusual to do that, but I still hate that we did.

Mike: What is the current debt load between the two of you?

Brooke: Now? According to my spreadsheet, we have $13,000 in student loans left, not including whatever is on my husband’s paychecks next Friday, which go straight to the loans. We’ve paid off a $4,000 hospital bill from when I had emergency surgery four days before our first married Christmas, the car (which was something like $5,000) and last year, we paid off $10,500 dollars in four months on the student loan.

Mike: That’s a good amount of money paid off on an admin and Ph.D. student’s pay!

Brooke: Oh, it was the worst. My take-home pay is something like $1,900 a month, of which $800 a month was going toward the loan, PLUS tax returns, an extra paycheck because there were three paydays in a month instead of two. My husband was also working three part-time jobs during the summer, which was actually really good for him because he kind of doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s not in classes. All of the money he made from those jobs went toward the loan. It was a hard four months, but worth it. After we paid the interest charging part of the loan off, we saved for a few months for a vacation, which we’re taking in May. SO excited for that!

Mike: Why were you both so aggressive with them?

Brooke: They were charging interest and it was making me absolutely nuts to be paying for nothing. We started on the other $17,000 on January 1st and we’ve paid about 20 percent of that off so far, but it’s not charging interest. Truthfully, I think the biggest pull toward paying them off is because there’s so much life I want to live without having to worry about debt. Dave Ramsey has a saying: “live like no one else now so later, you can live like no one else” or something like that. I didn’t want that debt hanging over my head for 10 years.

Mike: What about other goals? Savings and retirement?

Brooke: Right now I put 5% into a 403(b) with a 5% match. It’s actually mandatory at my school to put at least 3% into retirement, which I think is really smart! So 10% of my income is going in (only 5% from me). After we’re done with the student loan, I plan on maxing out a Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) (or 403b depending on where we’re at). Also, I’d like to focus on saving for a 20% down payment on a house to avoid PMI and enough to pay cash on a car since we’ll need another one if we move to a car-dependent city. Obviously that won’t happen between the time we finish the student loan and when my husband graduates because that will only be about three months. We have some unexpected trips at the end of the year we have to take because of conferences, so paying down the student loan will slow down considerably come July. My dad is okay with us delaying our retirement savings, which makes me pretty batty.

Mike: It sounds like you have a lot of financial goals and plans in place and that you and your husband are actively putting them into action!

Brooke: We’re trying, anyway! I’m thinking about looking for a higher paying, more interesting job later this year, but that’s a scary thing to do when my job is pretty secure, so I’m not thinking about that too hard yet. It’s all a lot of sacrifice, between the husband still being in school and not knowing what that will bring, to paying off huge amounts of money on a pretty small household income. I hope it’s all worth it! So far it has been.

Mike: Last thoughts?

Brooke: Sometimes you have to let certain things go. I joined the YMCA last month and felt SO guilty about it for a week because it seemed so unnecessary. But you know what? I’ve been going every single morning when it opens at 5 a.m. (I’m one of THOSE people) and it is the best thing I could have possibly done for myself. I know I need classes to get motivated to work out, and it’s completely worth the $49/month that it costs. I feel like a lot of people are completely overwhelmed by their debt. That’s a totally normal feeling, but it’s really important to come up with a plan, whether it’s “I’m going to throw ALL THE MONEY at this problem” or “I’m going to pay $x a month and that’s it.” Take control of your money, don’t let it control you (such a cliche, but it’s so true).

Mike: Throw some money at the problem, as we like to say. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Brooke.

Brooke: This has been really fun, Mike! I really enjoyed it. It was nice to think about how all the different aspects of my financial life come together — I had never really thought about all the ways my parents have influenced me. Just little things here and there. Oh, funny story: When I showed my dad my spreadsheet and asked “who AM I?” he responded, “my daughter, finally.”