‘Maybe You Have a Rich Husband?’
“We think you’re great and we’d love to offer you the job,” the woman on the phone told me. She trailed off momentarily before resuming again, “but we’re not sure there’s any way you can take it. But, we thought, ‘maybe she has a rich husband.'”
I was 26 and considering a major career change that had come to represent an enormous (and scary) transition point for me: I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to stay with my mostly satisfying, comfortable job in an industry that wasn’t a core interest of mine, or move to a non-profit where I’d be contributing to a cause I really believed in, but with emotional demands that I wasn’t sure I could sustain. The emotional stuff wasn’t my only concern, either. As anyone who has worked in non-profits knows, salaries can be devastatingly low; on top of which, I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Still, I continued to apply to jobs, determined to give myself the opportunity to decide.
This call was in reference to a job I was excited about and an organization whose mission felt perfect for me. I could tell the interviews had gone well, and I was really excited about the people I met there. They seemed great: sane, interesting, frank, and dedicated. We did not discuss salary during the interview process. It was a part-time job; I hadn’t brought anything up with my boss yet, but I was hoping he would consider letting me go to part-time in an effort to make things work. I had been abstractly assuming that the salary at the non-profit wouldn’t be much, but assumed that if I could keep part-time private sector work, I could probably swing it.
Before allowing for the fact that I might have a benefactor, the woman offering me the job reiterated that it was part-time, just 18-20 hours a week (although they had made it clear I would likely be working more hours than that, unpaid). For this they could apologetically offer me about $15,000 per year and no benefits. I thanked her and told her I’d think about it.
I was in a relationship, but did not have a rich husband. No one’s generosity other than my own would enable me to make it work. I spent some time doing the math, assuming my current job would let me go part-time while also factoring in the added expense of needing to buy a car, commute over an expensive bridge, and pay for my own health care. It was hard to know for sure, but if I stayed at my current job for exactly half the salary I was currently earning, my income would be around $40,000 per year before expenses.
I am already a change-averse person, and these were daunting factors. Taking the job would mean committing myself, for some period of time anyway, to a logistical balance that made me tired to even think about, but for a job that seemed really cool. The rich husband comment intensified my feelings of uncertainty. I knew no one was making much money, but still felt mildly insulted to be offered a job where the salary was not just extremely low, but so out of sync with the value of the role. I didn’t like the idea of being the only person in a workplace who actually needed the paycheck. At the same time, they were acknowledging something that was, frankly, true. In a dispiriting way, I was able to appreciate her candor. Lastly, it all made me vaguely sad, and added to my feelings of doubt about finding and a desirable position in my chosen industry that paid decently. In fact, it was the fact that it was part-time that allowed me to theoretically earn $40K. If the position were full-time, I realized, I would be making even less.
I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t feel comfortable taking on that kind of financial risk and uncertainty. In some ways, I regretted it. I felt like if I were someone else—someone bolder, more certain, less concerned about money, more dedicated—that I would have found a way to make it work. I never did find another job that I wanted as much and that could pay me an amount I could afford to live on, and over the period of a year I gave up hoping that I’d find one.
In other important ways, I didn’t regret turning it down at all. The full-time job I already had deepened and changed in unexpected ways that made me happier in my role. I was able to support myself without excessive worry or anxiety. I think I had an idea about myself that money was something that shouldn’t matter to me. Whether or not I had a rich husband to support me, it turns out that it did.
“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.
Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.