Emotional Reward Doesn’t Pay the Bills

by Samantha Popp

The kind of conversation accompanied by cheap wine in solo cups always gives way to talk about a future when the liquor costs more and the drinking happens in less plastic wares. During one such discussion, my friend shared plans to apply to law school, a logical next step in her life spent defending the disenfranchised.

“Besides,” she said between long sips of $10 chardonnay, “I just want to help people. I don’t care about the money.” Who needs a fat paycheck when the emotional reward of helping people is all you really want?

There was a time when those words rattled off my own wine-stained lips; not as a law school hopeful, but as a 22-year-old group home manager seduced by youthful idealism. Then a curious thing happened: I discovered that no matter how good it feels, living a healthy and comfortable life on just $400 a week suddenly seemed unrealistic given the intense responsibility of taking care of other people.

After spending high school babysitting kids with autism, I found myself working full-time in group homes by my senior year of college. In an industry that hires mostly immigrants with little education, I stood apart — white, well-spoken, and honestly interested in mental health — and scored a management position much earlier than I deserved one.

Lured in by some nebulous promise of emotional reward, I remember feeling like I had just scored my dream job: a position at a non-profit company managing group homes for disabled adults. It had a flexible schedule, with on-call shifts, all for the (huge? or not enough?) salary of $28,000 a year. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure if that was fair compensation — all I knew was that I had an adult job with adult dental insurance and an adult 401(k). It seemed legit enough to cover all the bases. I don’t need much money to live, right?

That mentality quickly eroded within a few weeks on the job. The curious cross between case management and caregiving duties of group home work takes some mental and muscular fortitude. With a team of 20 employees, we cared for five severely disabled adults with behavioral challenges. What does that mean for you folks smart enough not to get a degree in psychology? It means that getting bitten, shoved down stairs, or verbally assaulted was part of everyday work life. We cleaned poop off of nearly anything and restrained violent individuals. The state asked that we teach our residents daily living skills, like brushing teeth or making sandwiches, but that usually got lost managing psychiatric breakdowns and medical emergencies.

My staff were being paid even less than I was. They frequently quit or were fired for abuse and neglect. An unsettling majority of them worked two full-time jobs and were single mothers living up to 45 minutes away in inner cities. Whatever it was caused by — exhaustion, incompetence, disinterest — the messes my employees made put further stress on me.

A welcomed challenge, I thought (or was that what my supervisors told me it was?). There was promise of upward movement and executive management seemed to have an eye on me. I tried to quiet any second thoughts about this job by reminding myself that I was doing exactly what I dreamed of: getting paid to make a difference. But just as hard as I pressed on, the stress pushed back. Layered thickly on top of the inherent emotional nature of the work was the difficulty I started to have managing my money.

Simply put: Money was tight on a social work budget. After paying regular bills, like my rent and my car loan, I was usually left with less than $200 until the next payday. I had no savings or rich parents to fall back on, so nightmares about completely running out of money kept me awake at night. My credit cards paid for everything from car insurance to groceries until I maxed them out and stopped making payments. Having less than $20 to my name became a normal occurrence. Not only did my on-call phone ring at all hours of the night, but my personal phone rang from 8 a.m. to midnight with bill collectors.

To make up the difference between my paycheck and my bills, I piled on extra babysitting jobs and shifts at other group homes. Overnights, weekends, I worked ’em. My performance suffered as I rushed from gig to gig, oftentimes hungover, awake for over 24 hours, or just plain disinterested in the work.

Any good feelings about my work were drowned in the monotonous loops of working and worrying. Why did it feel like I was always clocked in but still not making any money?

Any moment I actually did get to myself was spent mentally checking out. It was during this time that I discovered late night drinking, Thai food takeout, and Tumblr. Too busy drinking wine on my back porch, rewriting my resume or reforming the poor habits that were bleeding my bank account dry never crossed my mind. After regular 80- or 90-hour workweeks, I wound up just blowing all that money on self-medication.

After a while, passing on a sexy paycheck to be some kind of social services hero no longer seemed like a badge of honor. Emotional reward didn’t keep the lights on and being broke didn’t make me a more authentic agent of change. In fact, by the time I left the group home world, I weighed almost 300 pounds, hadn’t paid my credit cards in six months, and suffered from chronic anxiety and depression.

But, it wasn’t the nature of the job that nearly broke my spirit. Through all of this, I’ve discovered a particular penchant for accessing difficult people to bring them healing energy. I can also clean diarrhea off a wall and calm down a knife-wielding maniac in my sleep.

What actually unraveled me was that even after all my resources had been spent providing comfort for others, I still couldn’t provide it for myself. While I was certainly not educated about personal finances or stress management, I’m not sure it would have helped. Working at a job that pays so little and requires so much emotional commitment just didn’t make any sense.

To my law school-bound friend I say: Godspeed. I’m all for spending your life helping other people, be it as a champion of the law or as an advocate for autism. Just not when it occurs at the financial expense of the human beings promoting such judicious ideals.

Samantha Popp is a writer and an entrepreneur. Drawing on her experience as a former social worker and educator, she leads emotional intelligence training programs for business owners and professionals. She lives in NYC. You can learn more about her at www.laforceschool.com

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