This post marks the 1-year mark since I left my corporate job (August 20th, 2015 was my “Big Friday”). I have juggled with deciding when to write this post since I started Money Buffalo. It's time. Today I am sharing my “golden handcuffs” story and the rationale why I left my former employer and what I have been doing since.
What are “Golden Handcuffs”?
If you are unfamiliar with the term “golden handcuffs,” it is an expression used to describe an undesirable job that is too good to leave. You might not enjoy the job, but you cannot afford to leave due to lifestyle inflation or the health benefits are too good. Each person might have a different reason why they cannot leave their current employer. For me, it was the money.
Before I tell my story, I want to let you know that I was not fired or asked to resign. When I turned my two-weeks notice in, it left a rather surprising effect on most people.
My “golden handcuffs” job was my first job out of college as a transportation operations supervisor with one of the “big 4” railroads in the United States. I hired on as a management trainee and was promoted twice during my 7 years with the company.
I mentioned earlier that the reason I felt “stuck” was because of the salary. The starting salary was $51,000 & I resigned making $79,000. As a political science major only expecting to make $35k (the average entry-level liberal arts salary in 2008) and having $50,000 in student loans to repay, I didn't think twice and said yes to the original offer as a fast-track to become debt-free.
As my offer was in a low cost-of-living area with mild winters (Knoxville, TN), I was excited about the new adventure.
My Typical Work Day
I knew going into the job that I was going to have to work some long hours because of the relatively high salary. As a management trainee, there were a few long days but it was essentially a paid vacation. Yes, I traveled during the week and was only at my apartment on the weekends to do laundry for the first year, but I was also on an expense account and was reimbursed mileage for all the driving I did with my personal car. I also got to visit several historical cities & sites ranging from Pittsburgh to Atlanta.
It was awesome. A working vacation where I was somewhere new each week and got to stay in nice hotels.
Then the honeymoon ended and they stopped “wining and dining” us. I got put on a project that worked at least 14 hours per day and only had one day off per month. At one point was I was supposed to have two days off together and one of the other supervisors went home sick. So, I got called in. 🙁
The below video is a brief description of what I did for part of my career. Different railroad, but same idea.
After about 6 months of that, I got moved to the local rail yard and worked in the tower for the next two years as a shift supervisor. At first, it was like a vacation as I only worked about 10 hours per day and had two days off each week. Although, I had to work 3rd shift (10pm- 8 or 9 am) for the first year and the swing shift (two first shifts, two third shifts, and one second shift) for the final year and had two days off each week. Two years of not having a routine sleep schedule wore me down & thankfully I was promoted again.
The second time I was promoted was to the position of an assistant territory supervisor in Knoxville, TN. I was responsible for the operations on 200 miles of territory. I was given a company car and a cell phone. I was on call 24-hours and drove about 150 miles per day, but was off from 6 p.m. Thursday to 6 p.m. Saturday! I could actually do stuff like go to University of Tennessee basketball and football games.
Most of all, I could actually work during the day and get about 4-6 hours of undisturbed sleep at night (most nights). I would still pull several “all-nighters” each month as a certain percentage of our monthly activity needed to be completed at night and we would also get called out when bad things happened like a locomotive engine breaking down, cars getting hit by trains, and injuries.
For the last 4 years, I held the position of an assistant territory supervisor. The first three years, I was in Knoxville and moved to Kentucky for my final year. While being “on the road” the last 4 years was less stressful and more liberating than being in the yard, the lifestyle still wears you down.
If you have never been on-call for an extended period of time, it can be frustrating. You can never make solid plans during the work week because you never know when you will be home. There were several times when us supervisors would just be home long enough to take our boots off and get ready to eat (or get under the bedcovers) when the phone rang due to trouble. So you hurriedly get dressed and would be gone for half the night.
Other nights, the phone would ring off the hook (especially as the weekend approached) as the hourly employees called in sick. It's horrible how “the Plague” seems to strike only on the weekends. 😉
If it snowed, they called off the taxi service that transports the crews to/from the hotel to the station. So we would be up all hours of the day & night hauling crews to keep the freight moving. It sucked.
Plus you would have other unexpected time when you would pull a 24+ hour workday. You would get ready to go home for the evening and one of the employees for a particular night job would call in sick once or twice a month. They call a substitute to take his place & they have no idea how to deliver & spot the cars in the correct spots. Us supervisors would have to walk with them step by step and show them where to put the cars since it's pitch black outside and most the replacements only work the job once in a blue moon, meaning it's “Groundhog Day” each time they work it).
I could go on, but I think you got the point. My average work day as a territory supervisor was about 13-14 hours. It started with a 6:30am conference call and finished by talking with the crew that went on-duty at 8 p.m. There was downtime in between, so I would go home for lunch or read a book at the office. The days I knew I would be working at night, I would try to work from home (most of the job was telephone and internet-based) so I could rest and go out at night.
As much as I wanted to leave. Turning in my notice was probably the hardest decision I made in my life. I'm even surprised I went through with it. There is always the fear of uncertainty.
Why I Left
You can probably imagine why I left. While any salary supervision job is going to have long and thankless hours, my priorities changed.
What I haven't mentioned, is that I dated & married in the penultimate year and found out we would be having a child during our last year. I was looking for a way to escape before marriage and baby, but it sped it the timetable.
Since I was going to be a parent of my own child, I no longer wanted to be a 24/7 caretaker of several hundred grown men as well.
My wife essentially would have been a single mother had I stayed.
Nearly all my superior supervisors (& the hourly employees) recommended that I leave before it was too late. Before the money made the handcuffs too tight to loosen. What I was doing today is what I would be doing for the rest of my life. Except I would be older and get paid more each year.
So, with the help and support of family, we decided it was time to leave. I found some other employment in the Knoxville area and I turned in my notice. Two weeks later, I turned in my company goodies and that life chapter closed.
I really haven't looked back and several other supervisors followed suit around the same time. I still remain in contact with several former co-workers and they all say I did the right thing. Since I left, they have basically taken away off days, increased the workload (i.e. more hours away from home), and furloughed hourly employees.
What I Have Done Since
The last year has been an adventure and full of risk. I left the relative security of a “good” full-time job that I could have kept if I was willing to work 70-80 hours per week.
I don't want to say I have taken a “sabbatical” because I have been working just as many hours as before (except I can sleep at night now and enjoy my work).
My wife's family has a construction background, so for the past 14 months, we have been building two houses in our spare time on the evenings & weekends. We just finished the last house (our house) and moved in over the weekend (updates forthcoming in the next week or two). There are still a few small things to do, but we passed inspection and slept in it last night! As we did most the work ourselves, we saved tens of thousands of dollars in labor.
To have the time to build, I pursued self-employment and have mostly dabbled in academic work allowing me to earn income during the day and build at night. I am teaching high school Spanish I in our local community and I also freelance write outside of Money Buffalo. My wife teaches music and ballet (in addition to writing an e-book).
I will admit we have been living on a shoe-string budget the past year, partially due to the building and also establishing a presence in the local business community). If it wasn't for family, we couldn't have made the “leap of faith.”
We are making significantly less than what I did a year ago and we still have been blessed. It hasn't been easy, but it has been a good opportunity to realize money shouldn't be the primary priority in life. I will say, we will be happy to be earning more than we currently are, but we are still able to save a little each month.
How I Was Able To Unlock The Handcuffs
I mentioned earlier that one of the primary reasons I clung to my job was for the money. Where I live, I can expect to earn $35,000-$40,000 for a halfway decent job with my background until I climb the ladder a few notches. The dollar goes a lot further in the Southeast portion of the U.S. and salaries aren't as high as a result.
When I resigned, the thought of taking a 50% paycut was a tough pill to swallow. It's one reason we pursued self-employment. I know how much money I will make & how many hours I will work at a corporate job. Being self-employed means there is more potential to earn more and work more flexible hours.
Self-employment is not easy. My wife & I are continually working on finding new clients, coming up with new business ideas, and trying not to work 24/7.
But, we didn't want to ask “What If?” had I pursued another corporate career immediately. We viewed this as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity before we have more children, are older, etc. Plus, it was the door that God opened for us a year ago.
We were only able to leave corporate because my wife & I were debt-free (besides the home construction) and had some money saved up in the bank. We haven't touched our emergency fund during all of this. Although we sharply trimmed our retirement savings and investments for several months.
This is the reason I advocate being debt-free and not try to “Keep Up With The Joneses.” You might buy yourself a pair of golden handcuffs and never realize it.
Had we been in debt or not have a large savings account, we could not have afforded to do what we did. I'm not saying everybody should quit their job tomorrow and follow our lead, but I want people to know it is possible. It takes diligence and planning. There are certain days I still struggle with some of the decisions we made, but, I know it was the best decision for me & my household.
Will I Go Back To Corporate?
I'll be honest, the question still lingers if I will go back to corporate. I have had one or two job positions that I have seriously thought about applying for the pay & hours. I never did apply, so I do not know if I would have received an offer. But, it was tough to say no since I had an inside connection with the employer.
I'm still at the point where I know I have the potential to do the same or better than what a traditional employer offer. It just requires patience and diligence.
I miss certain perks such as an employer-sponsored 401k & paid vacation & the relative security of steady paychecks whether business levels are slow or busy. I have more time flexibility than a corporate employee, but, I also have fewer financial benefits.
I plan on remaining self-employed, but, I cannot predict the future. I enjoy doing what I do now, but, at the end of the day, I still need to earn enough income to feed the family today and save for the future. That has been happening so far and it has been a great opportunity to trust in the one above.
Think Great Thoughts
I hope you have enjoyed my story and can learn something from it. It's a bit long, so if you stuck with me, Thank You.
I want to leave you with one closing thought that has kept me going. Think Great Thoughts.
I still have a long ways to go in constantly thinking great thoughts, but, it was one reason I haven't given up on my self-employment goal.
Very easily I could have decided to stick with my former job because I knew I would never have to worry about money (only the sanity of my wife & I). The fear of uncertainty is frightening. But, mankind did not improve by avoiding risks. There is more failure than success in life (or so it seems), but the way to keep on going is to think positively.
This is why I left my corporate job & why I am doing my best to never go back. If I need to re-enter corporate I will trust that I won't get stuck working 3rd shift at a factory (my worst nightmare). My wife says that your thoughts can become reality. So I choose to think I will succeed or at least go back to a work schedule like the one I left.
I encourage you to do the same!
Thanks For Reading,
Do you have a “golden handcuffs” story? What wisdom can you share from your own journey?
Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.