“Golden handcuffs” is a common phrase used in modern corporate world to describe someone who is in the situation where they have something awesome, but at the same time, that thing creates a restriction in their freedom or happiness.
This situation is super common in the professional world, especially in major cities in the United States. A common example is someone working in finance in New York City who makes a boatload of money, but hates his job yet can’t step away from the money. Every year, he tells himself that the stay for just one more year because no sane person would walk away from the obscene amount of money he makes. Unfortunately, he feels trapped, unable to travel the world like he wants, and before he knows it, most of his life is behind him, and he is still working this job he hates. He barely has any time to spend the money made, and he finally makes that choice to retire but he is filled with regret.
It’s not always the money that creates this situation. I witnessed some people will fell into it because they wanted that job title to impress or get the approval of their parents or friends. Or maybe they wanted that prestigious tech brand that they work for to boost their clout and admiration. But is that really worth it when you come into work and you hate what you do?
A golden handcuffs situation is one of the most diabolical situations you can find yourself in, because it’s a trap that is so welcoming yet so debilitating. The sinister allure of all that money you make or the prestige of the big tech brand you’re working for just seems so good and irresistible, even though it really isn’t. The situation comes in many forms, and I’ve witnessed many people slowly get trapped.
It’s not always about hating your job either. I found that more people are in different or tolerate their job then hate it. Because their situation is good enough, they don’t consider the possibility or take the risk for something that might be better.
Most importantly, the trade-off of sacrificing some money for passion can look simple and obvious on paper, but gets much more complicated when you’re actually there in the real world. It’s not always as glaring and obvious because you don’t always know all the options out there. Or the options that you do see don’t look as appealing. Some people refuse to take that 20 K pay cut to do work that they prefer because they believe on some level that if you’re not always climbing in income you’re losing. But that’s not always the case. And how can some people really rationalize their pay cut when they have chosen a lifestyle of constantly increasing expenses that correlate with the growing income? All of a sudden, they’ve trap themselves into car bills, mortgage bills, and other luxury expenses that they feel that they need or can’t get rid of.
After years of reflecting on this golden handcuffs situation in talking to various individuals in the workforce, I may have a couple tips that may help. Obviously, no one has a perfect answer, and I’m not a guru. But maybe these tips I’ve learned from others and my own experience may help guide you along a little bit.
First, don’t always think that your options are binary. Some people assume that you either have to go for making a lot to completely broke. Maybe there is a middle ground with a variety of moderately paint jobs in related industries or with related job titles that you could explore. Or maybe a job transition to something completely different, such as music instructor to project manager, is more possible than you think. I read the story on Reddit of one person who quit his high-paying San Francisco job to run a farm in Hawaii. His pay drop drastically and looking back, he never regretted his choice, pointing to the freedom and peace of living in Hawaii. But he did lament that he had to go back into the workforce again after a couple decades at his farm and he was scared that he would be able to transition back well. He didn’t know if he had the skills or ability any more even his experience. I deftly admire him for taking this route since most people fail by just never taking a step away from their job that they don’t like. But I also noticed that many of the comments pointing out that this wasn’t a necessary move. Rather than his assumption that this extreme move was the only way, he could’ve found some middle ground where he was still developing the skills and living in Hawaii or something at a different job title in San Francisco.
Second, reducing the amount of luxury expenses and how much your income and expenses correlate as you grow frees you up to be able to make those moves more. You don’t have to rely or depend on the keys excessive expenses. Chances are, those pricey expenses aren’t really what contributes most to your happiness. There’s one exercise that I love from Dr. Miller’s Jeffrey Miller’s book spent. He asked you to list your top five most expensive purchases and the top five purchases that contributed most to your happiness. Chances are when you do this, those lists don’t correlate. The lesson here is that you needed be able to be free and rely on living at a much more reasonable expense level to be able to make those moves where you have to shift careers and maybe take a temporary income dropped to do so. Those who are top performers and think long term can realize that oftentimes that pay drop is well worth it in the long run because you start to build up learning opportunities, skill sets, or just generally enjoy the work better.
Living below your means is a basic personal-finance principal, yet I still think a lot of people fail to live by it because they just never really needed to learn about personal-finance because no one told them where they were making a lot of money right out of college. Yet it’s so crucial for anyone if you want to be truly rich one day.
Third, revisit what you value most in what you prioritize. Chances are, many people over prioritize the opinions of strangers, acquaintances, and even friends and family. Usually, you may meet or talk to your parents once a month or even less. Are you going to sacrifice most of that month feeling dissatisfied or disengage with your work just for those few seconds or minutes of praise from your parent? And what about those strangers or high school acquaintances that you know that you’re trying to impress? Is that the type of person you really want to impress? Especially if they were mean to you in the past? Chances are there is a job out there that you can really enjoy and be proud of. And if you position it correctly, your family and friends will be proud of that as well. Chances are you’ll be more successful at something you love more in the long run, and the money, success, and the proof you’re seeking to prove how successful you are will come anyways. I frankly think the approval of others is usually overrated. Most of these people could care less and the forget about it in a few seconds or minutes anyways to go back to their own selfish concerns, struggles and goals in life.
All in all, I think what really drives me is hope. I believe in this modern world, I have boundless hope that you and I can find something that meets the intersection of passion, income, fulfillment, and health. It’s not some pipedream or unreachable goal. People have achieved it, many before us. It’s not easy, and it’s not something that’s going to be served to us on a silver platter. It may take a lot of proactive work, networking, development of skills, and even a few jobs to build up to that dream job or business. But I totally think it’s possible and I’d think that we should all see the golden handcuffs situation for what it is and make that courageous step to get rid of those handcuffs. Even if you’re handcuffs or gold, there still handcuffs!