The Wealth Trap

I read an article last summer where a senior partner at a Wall Street law firm admitted that his firm encouraged young lawyers to go into debt to purchase fancy houses and cars and send their children to private school.  The firm even used their financial connections to get lower interest rates for these expensive purchases.  The reason, he admitted, was to get these young lawyers hooked on spending money so they’d be less likely to leave their high stress, high commitment jobs.  Apparently it’s not that easy to replace high quality lawyers once they’ve become big contributors to the firm’s bottom line.  The way to avoid the loss, was to make is real difficult to leave.  Of course, the lawyer could always decide to give it all up, but at a cost.   It could cost him his marriage, his friends and his children’s future; how would they ever be able to make it in this world with a public school education?

I have a friend was faced with a similar decision.  He had settled into a high paying job at a prestigious law firm in Toronto.  He was making a lot of money, working incredibly long hours and not enjoying himself at all. He was in his early 30’s, wasn’t married yet and lived in a modest home.  He had a choice to make.  Lucky for him, the wife and kids were not an issue yet.  I don’t think it was too hard for him to decide to get out while he could.  He dumped the high salary law firm and joined a non profit.  He took a huge drop in pay immediately and that cut would multiply many times over as the years passed.  When I asked him if he thinks he made the right decision, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.  I agree with him.

When you’re young, you really don’t know what you want, and you don’t know what will give your life satisfaction.  That’s the whole point of being young; you’re exploring, learning who you are and what turns you on.  The problem is you can get caught going down a path that gets real hard to veer off of later.  At some point, you’ll probably realize that you’re not happy with your career choice, but you don’t have to time or energy to discover what would give you more satisfaction in life.  Then there are all the costs I talked about above to dropping the high paying job.  So most people just soldier on down that path, telling themselves that things aren’t so bad.  They have wealth, prestige, and retirement is only 22 years away.

When you get older it’s nice to keep their options open.  You don’t know how you’ll change when you get married and have kids.  As you age, you may discover your like doing something that doesn’t pay very well.  You need time to think and to discover what you like and what you’re good at.  You can’t do that if you’re stressed from working so hard and you’re worried about paying for the big house.  You just don’t know.

You give up too much of yourself when you go for the money and the prestige.  I know there are a few people out there who truly love the long hours and stress, but I bet there are a lot more who dream of winning the lottery and getting out.