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When it pays to take a pay cut
There are times when a smaller paycheck can pay off in spades.
November 29, 2005: 1:24 PM EST
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) "Just about never" seems like a good answer to the question, "When does it pay to take pay cut?"

But it's not. In fact, it's the kind of answer that could stymie you not only in your career but in other parts of your life as well.

Twice I've opted for jobs that paid less than I could have earned elsewhere, and they proved to be among the best moves I've made.

If you're just looking at raw numbers, there are at least two occasions when it might make sense to accept less pay for a new job:

  • It's in an area where the cost of living is lower and your money will go farther; or
  • It offers more than your current job in tangible benefits like health insurance, 401(k) matches, and paid time off.

But there are a host of other situations when making the move may be the smartest thing you ever do.

You're young and inexperienced. A lot of Gen Xers can be unrealistic when it comes to making more money, said Neil Lebovits, president and COO of Ajilon Professional Staffing.

The biggest problem: shortsightedness.

Lebovits has seen job seekers who won't consider any position that pays even a little less than what they're earning.

"To strive for more money is a good thing," Lebovits said. But, he noted, "it often makes sense to jump at a well-researched opportunity that pays less than your current job when it can provide more room for growth, extra training, learning opportunities, and other non-tangible benefits that can enhance your career over the long-run."

You're not so young and feel stuck. Lebovits' advice also could apply to those who are well past the rookie stage and feeling stagnant.

To take a pay cut mid-career is hard, but it may be a great move if a new job energizes you, has earnings potential and offers you plenty of mentors and contacts who can advance your career when you're ready to move on.

And you should plan to move on within 18 to 24 months, suggested career coach Dory Hollander, a workplace psychologist and author of "The Doom-Loop System."

Shifting to a lower-paying job in a new field should be considered a tour-of-duty, she said. "It's like a paid internship."

Your list of unfulfilled desires is long. Except for a possible pit-stop in grad school, most of your post-college life has been governed by meetings, deals, power plays, working weekends and a host of demands from unreasonable bosses.

It's not been all bad, but it's left plenty of desires and professional ambitions unfulfilled: trying your hand at your own business, spending more time with your kids, doing something that directly benefits others, you name it.

So you start looking into working at a start-up, taking a job with fewer hours or going into teaching.

If one goal is to die without regret, "Ask yourself, 'Will this go into my pile of regrets if I don't do it?'" Hollander said.

You need a break: A steady climb in pay is no defense against misery, mangled mergers, burnout or unethical practices by which you can't abide.

One of Hollander's clients left a 24/7 job he hated for one that paid half as much. "He told me, 'It's worth it for me to earn 50 percent less to be happy,'" she said.

If the need to get out is urgent, you might consider a short-term stint at a lower paying job. But ideally, she said, you don't want to get to the point where you're willing to jump ship at any cost. (See more about signs you've stayed too long.)

Before making a move

Switching to a lower paying job is never easy. So you need to figure out just how much of a pay cut you can afford.

Consider what it's worth to you to give up the extra pay in your current job for the benefits of a new one. Maybe it's a friendlier environment, saner hours, or greater potential for promotion.

You also need to negotiate the move with your family, Hollander said. "If you have a green light from your spouse and kids, life is going to be much easier."

And getting them to give you the go-ahead may not be as hard as you think.

"If you're depressed or burnt out, your family is probably suffering the brunt of that as much as you are," Hollander said. "They may prefer a pay cut to you're being so down."

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Find a better job without really trying

Salary comparison: How far would your salary go in another city?

Plus: Susana Temprano gave up six figures to teach middle school. See how her family is coping.

Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNNMoney.com. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at everydaymoney@cnnmoney.com.  Top of page

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