I remember staring at my bank account in 2011.
It was pay day and I had received my meagre $800 paycheck for two weeks of full time work. I had no benefits, no vacation time, no overtime pay – nothing but a small suitcase of stuff and my fellow broke colleagues. I’m pretty sure we ate Kraft Dinner.
This was my reality that I lived in for a year working in the arts. But that $20,000 salary experience was invaluable. It taught me frugality and gave me the ambition and drive to generate a higher income.
*Note: This post focuses on strictly my career after graduation. But if you’d like to know – I worked in retail for about 4 years throughout my Bachelor’s degree renting out DVDs (Gasp!). Yes. I am a dinosaur. I also had a job one summer where I temporarily paused my retail job to dress up as a character at a tourism place and made an insane $29 an hour. That’s another story, though.
2011 – A Starving Artist
What I did: A production intern at a Canadian arts centre coordinating concerts and shows.
How I got there: Graduated with my theatre degree and knew another intern a year ahead of me who put in a good word for me. Interviewed successfully and moved across the country to a tiny town for the job.
My Feelings: I turned down admission to law school to be in the internship and I have no regrets for trying to follow my dream. However, the unhealthy sentiment I kept trying to reaffirm was that suffering for my art was going to lead to success. Instead it drained me mentally. I lived in a flat with 3 other guys. We had one bathroom. We all drank in unhealthy amounts.
Did I save?: Yes. Spreadsheets indicate I saved 40% of my income.
2012 – A Millennial Living At Home
Hours: Part-time, 21 hours a week
What I did: Project administrator at my alma mater.
How I got there: Knew I wanted to leave the arts centre, networked with an old classmate who I ran a student club with who happened to be leaving the job. Basically handed it to me on a platter after a quick interview. Very lucky, but that’s the power of networking and being involved in extra-curriculars.
My feelings: I already knew I wanted to go back to school and was actively aiming to get an MBA. I viewed the job as a temporary occupation as I got my life in order.
Did I save?: Yes. No spreadsheets for this year, but living at home and taking transit to work, I probably saved 90% of my income.
2013 – A Student Again
Hours: Full-time MBA student
Benefits: Good health and dental benefits from the university student association.
What I did: Studied my ass off. Details here.
How I got there: Had good grades from my previous degree. Studied hard for the GMAT, got the score I needed for the school of my choice. Also chose an affordable school with a low cost of living.
My feelings: So much learning! Stressful, but definitely an invaluable experience. Met many lifelong friends and learned to speak the completely new language of business.
Did I save?: No. I forked out about $15,000 for the first term. And I bought a car.
2014 – A Student/Intern
Salary: $27,000 total across two different internship jobs
Hours: 8 months of full-time internships
Benefits: Student health benefits as per 2013.
What I did: Worked on a major government run initiative for one internship and at an arts institution for the other internship.
How I got there: First job was set-up by the university’s internship application system, the second I cold emailed my future boss over LinkedIn. Ballsy, but it worked and he gave me a job.
My feelings: By the second internship, I’m ready to work full time. Being a student sucks. So did moving every 4 months.
Did I save?: As much as I could while not going into debt to finance the MBA. I probably broke even on the year.
2015 (part year) – My First Contract
Salary: $60,000 per annum but on a six month contract
Benefits: 1.25 vacation days per month worked, no health benefits.
What I did: Returned to my first internship placement for a 6 month contract
How I got there: Nearing the final term of my MBA, I called people I knew and asked if they were hiring. Luckily, the location of my first internship was and I had made a good impression when I was there as an intern.
My feelings: Job was boring, boss was a bully, but it was a job to buy me some time as I figured out what I wanted out of my career.
Did I save?: Yes. 40% of my income.
2015-2017 – My first permanent job
Salary: $82,000-$86,000 per annum
Benefits: 4 weeks vacation, defined benefit pension plan, full medical and dental
What I did: Got a job elsewhere in the public sector where not many people were particularly qualified – I basically carved myself a niche in a certain kind of business optimization.
How I got there: Contract was coming to an end, applied frantically for over 200 jobs. Got one interview – which wound up being this job. No networking here.
My feelings: First year: Hooray! Huge jump in salary?! First permanent job?! Benefits?! Paid vacation. I’m euphoric. Second/third year, starting to feel meh… work isn’t being valued and the project really isn’t going anywhere due to leadership appetite.
Did I save?: Yes. 55% of my income.
2018 – The Promotion
Benefits: 3 weeks vacation with a 2 weeks of “wellness days”, defined benefit pension plan, full medical and dental
What I do: Same business optimization work, different organization, in a manager role.
How I got there: Knew people who used to work there, spoke to them, got them to send some emails for me notifying the hiring manager I was applying.
My feelings: Uncertain because the job is a brand new environment but it’s dawning on me that it’s an eff-ton of money.
Will I save?: Yes. Hoping for a solid 65% savings rate.
Reflections on my Journey
I definitely wake up some days with the imposter syndrome. I know so many hardworking people who are light years smarter than me, yet for whatever reason, I am where I am.
I honestly believe my journey has been a combination of hard work, good connections, and luck. But getting that formula takes effort.
Lesson #1: Make your own luck.
When you’re a student, take part in extra-curriculars. Run student clubs. Participate in case competitions. Go out on Friday and actually get to know the people you study with. And most importantly: excel. If you build a track record of academic success and a network of people who respect you, luck will come. And always be nice. Manners matter.
Lesson #2: Take risks.
Take on the project no one wants. Blurt out crazy out-of-the-box ideas at work, no matter who is in the room. Cold call or email people you admire. Take unconventional jobs to keep growing your skills.
As a public sector professional, I see a lot of people in their 50s who have been doing the same job every day for over 20 years. Never lose “the hustle” of trying to push yourself.
Lesson #3: Never burn bridges.
My boss in 2014 at my first internship was a massive bully in the workplace. She’s also actually one of my greatest champions. She hired me back in 2015 and has been a strong reference of mine even though I absolutely hated working with her.
But when I left I didn’t leave a “F*** you” note. I left a thank you note expressing my gratitude for giving me the opportunity to advance my career. You can call it sucking up, but I call it never burning bridges. That woman became a CFO of a major company later on for a reason. She’s difficult and mean but gets the job done. Respect over resentment, always.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be where I am at age 28.
I still live well within my means in an apartment with a roommate, sleeping on a comfortable enough futon surrounded by free furniture I’ve plucked off the sidewalk. And I will continue to do so. Perhaps with less Kraft Dinner.