Can You Afford a Career Change?

Admit it. You've fantasized about turning in your letter of resignation no less than 100 times -- and that's just this month. You spend each lunch hour staring longingly out the window of your mind-numbingly sterile office at whatever footloose and fancy-free dog walker, landscape designer, or espresso-cart owner happens to be within view. And you often wonder if you'll ever love your job as much as they seem to.

The good news is that a career you're passionate about is always within reach. You just have to iron out a few of the logistics first, and one of the biggest is figuring out how you will afford to live while you pursue your dream. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Gather research. First, you need to determine how much you realistically stand to make in the first few years of your fantasy career. The Web is teeming with sites that can help--Salary.com, PayScale.com, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to name a few. But don't stop there. Talk to honest-to-goodness people who already have your dream job. Ply them with lattes and ask what salary range a newbie like you can expect. Also contact the industry associations in your neck of the woods. Many of them regularly conduct salary surveys of their members.

Do the math.
Your next step is to take a long, hard look at your monthly spending. If you don't know how much you're shelling out for groceries, pedicures, and Mai Tais, it's high time you learned. Save four weeks of receipts or track every cent you spend in a notebook stashed in your purse. Then use a program like Quicken to record the damage.

Tighten your belt. If your current monthly spending eclipses the starting salary in your shiny new career, it's time to put the kibosh on shopping and trim the fat from your budget. See where you can slash costs--whether it's by brewing your own java, nixing that nasty taxi habit, or doing without 800 of the 900 cable channels you're paying for. (Remember, priorities, people!) Now is not the time to buy a new living-room set, Prada handbag, or iPhone. Now is the time to wean yourself off your credit cards and pay down your debt. Die-hard bootstrappers can also stockpile cash by working overtime, taking a second job, or nabbing some freelance gigs. Getting an extra roommate or moving to a less spendy city can help too, as can selling your car and learning to love the bus. Hey, extreme times call for extreme measures.

Put it in writing. Commit this entire financial plan to paper. It's much harder to ignore the cold, hard facts of a cash shortage and spending diet when they're staring you in the face. And if you're looking to start your own company, you have to factor in start-up costs, ongoing expenses, and your health-care and retirement benefits. A business plan is a must. For help working the numbers, visit your local chapter of SCORE, which specializes in small-business counseling, or talk to an accountant.
It'll be hard, yes, but when you're the one who's doing what you love, the sacrifices will be worth it. Rather than splurging on a new wardrobe you don't need as an "I hate my job" pick-me-up, you'll be investing your hard-earned green in something even better: your day-to-day happiness.

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