How to Survive at Your Dream Job Without Starving

It's the classic dilemma: You have passion––whether it's writing, art, acting, music, gardening, interior design, or whatever you lose track of time doing. Unfortunately, you also have bills to pay––rent, car insurance, utilities, kitty litter, toothpaste, etc. Making a few small, smart changes in your life can help you find the balance.


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    Review your priorities. Were those sparkly stilettos or that plasma TV really worth the number of hours you had to spend in a cubicle, or getting yelled at by your boss, or dealing with impossible clients, in order to pay for that purchase? What in your spending diary would you happily give up if it meant spending 8 hours a day doing something you actually enjoy doing? For example, you might not splurge on take-out and beer four times a week if you weren't so depressed and/or frustrated about your job.
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    Do what you love on the side. If you can't find the motivation to pursue your passion part-time, you'll never be able to push yourself and make it work full-time. Prove to yourself that this is really what you want to do, and test the waters without quitting your day job. Whether it means volunteering, getting a part-time job, taking an art course, or just locking yourself in your room with a guitar, a pencil, and a piece of paper, get down to business.
    • Take the leap once you're more confident about the likelihood of success. When the income you're bringing in from your passionate endeavors can reliably cover your living expenses, make the switch. Write that glorious resignation letter and become one of those people who wakes up and actually looks forward to going to work!
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    Sell the fruits of your labor. Show people your work. Talk about it every chance you get. Ask for feedback. Start a website. Use social networking to promote what you do. Most importantly, learn not to take criticism personally. When you're passionate about something and others aren't so enthused, it's easy to feel like they've just told you your child is ugly. Remember that if you want to do what you love for a living, you have to offer the world something they want. That's the deal. Keep up your end of the bargain.
    • Have courage. Doing what you love is often a balance between producing what you know your clients want and being bold. With focus and determination, you can take some risks in trying out new ideas and approaches that are untested––just be sure to keep the things that you know do work running as well.
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    Learn to manage your money. While you may have hated math in high school, tracking the flow of cash through your life might be the only way you can avoid selling your soul at a job you hate. Learn the difference between what you need (a roof over your head and the lights on) over what you want (this season's fashion trends) and apply this to all spending decisions. And while treats are not out of the question, they are not a regular indulgence when you're sticking to a budget (but that only makes them all the more special when you do treat yourself).
    • Draw up a weekly budget. Stay within the limits you've set yourself, as well as setting aside an amount for saving each week.
    • Keep a spending diary––record each and every one of your purchases in a single notebook. You might be surprised at some of the frivolous purchases or at discovering where you could be cutting costs.
    • Build your emergency fund. This is for unexpected things that happen in life, like the car ceasing to work or your computer dying. This must be earmarked for a specific purpose and cannot be dipped into for indulgences. It's a safety net both in reality and psychologically, that lets you have more wiggle room with your low pay.
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    Do things that cost nothing or very little. In terms of your time off your passion, avoid activities that suck up money. There are plenty of free or cheap ways to enjoy yourself in your downtime and in many cases, these will probably enhance your creativity and enthusiasm for what you're doing. Make a list of the things you love to do that don't cost much, such as hiking, visiting the park, going to galleries, checking out the museums in your area, people-watching, having a long, slow coffee in a vibrant coffeehouse, reading books that take you out of your comfort zone, sitting on the beach, etc. And if you love to shop, try to shop as a way of gaining ideas rather than goods; turn yearning into learning by soaking up ideas for your next project from shop window inspirations, watching people's approaches to shopping to inspire your next novel or finding fascinating objects to snap for your photo collection.
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    Remind yourself when it feels tough that it's not all about work. There will be times when you feel some annoyance or disappointment that you can't have what some people do or that your status doesn't seem as "important" as someone with a high level title––it's only natural. And when this does happen, apart from not comparing yourself to others, look for all the good you have in your life as a result of your choice. Think of the non-monetary gains such as time, living up to your principles, having fun and giving the world your authentic self. If you're good at what you're doing, proud of it and enjoying it, you're living the way many people more cashed-up than you can only dream of.
    • Dreams matter but always be conscious that the dream must be broken into manageable actions that cross into reality and get achieved. Use the "dream" part of your dream job to stay enthused and motivated; the "job" part is all about the doing.
    • Have a purpose larger than yourself. If you aim to make a meaningful contribution to the world and stay focused on helping others through your talents, whatever they may be, you'll make a positive dent on the universe. To do this, develop a vision that is something others can understand and that causes you to inspire others when you discuss it. The vision will help you through the leanest of times, as well as convincing others of the worthiness of what you're doing.


  • Look into what grants are available to supplement your income. Depending on where you live, you may be surprised by what's available and even small amounts can go a long way.
  • In many cases, a low wage comes with the territory of being at the bottom of the rung. If you know that climbing your way up the ladder will eventually result in better pay, this can serve as a great incentive to cope with the lower pay. However, don't place all your chickens in one basket––what is a job now may not be one tomorrow, so that ladder may topple before you reach its top. Keep yourself multi-skilled even while keeping your eye on climbing one particular ladder.
  • Do your homework before accepting low pay for a dream job. Is it a sign that the company is experiencing financial difficulties? Is the company "trying it on" to see if you'll capitulate? Most importantly, what signals are you sending out by accepting the lower pay in the first place? Sometimes it might be a sign of loyalty and faith in the company, especially where it's just starting up or is experiencing a rough patch––other times it simply shows you don't value yourself enough. Be sure you know what's motivating your decision and make that clear.
  • Stephen King's On Writing has some great additional tips on ways to pursue your passions. Yes, it is specific to writing, but has very solid general ideas that help in other areas. (I'm a musician, and loved every bit of it.) Plus, he gives you permission, if you think you need it, to do what you love.
  • If you're working for someone rather than for yourself, don't assume the pay has to remain low. Ask for a raise after proving your worth over time. Or ask about what additional training you could do that would increase your worth. If your workplace can fund the training, all the better, but even if it won't, try to get a guarantee that if you self-fund, your workplace will pay you a better rate once you're more qualified.
  • Lowering your monthly expenses will help a lot. Here are some suggestions:
    • Move into a smaller apartment or house.
    • Get a roommate.
    • Make your own meals.
    • Stop smoking (it's expensive!).
    • Learn to live without cable TV and/or high-speed Internet.
    • Pay off your debts and avoid creating new ones.
    • Use public transportation, walk, or bike instead of driving every day.
  • Work culture matters. Low pay can often be made up for by working among people who are terrific, doing things that truly matter and a deep sense of care for the employees permeating everything.
  • It can take some time to learn that a job shouldn't define who you are. Yet, some people don't learn this until retirement, which is a little too late. Know who you are beyond any job, whether you love or hate the job. While it's an oft trotted-out cliche that you should do what you love and then you'll never work a day in your life, enmeshing yourself too tightly with any job can cause you to be unbalanced and obsessive. Even the job or entrepreneurial endeavor you love must have boundaries that enable you to be a fully present part of family, friendships and other life pursuits.


  • It can be easy to fall into bitterness or resentment if you work really hard and earn little and see people in the similar industry doing a whole lot better than you. If this happens to you, reassess what you're doing with your time. Even though you may love what you're doing, letting it eat into all your spare time as well as set work time is counter-productive. As Tim Ferriss explores in The 4-Hour Work Week, make smart choices about where to invest your time and energy. This means looking inside yourself, not at what others are doing.
  • Be sure that you want to follow the dream job path. It's one thing to say that you don't mind low pay for a dream job and quite another to find yourself resenting the low pay while your friends seem to be able to afford everything. If you are absolutely certain that you wouldn't trade what you're doing for all the tea in China, that's great. However, if you have any reservations and have envy attacks or feel bitterness, it's important to really face up to what's causing this and make a realistic decision about doing a career you love or being more pragmatic and doing something that pays more for a time. Don't spoil the career you love through resentment.
  • Your success in turning your passion into a source of income may depend on your ability to approach it as a business, which, for some people, might make it less fulfilling. On the other hand, a little pain for a lot of gain in terms of freedom to express yourself, freedom of time and freedom to do what you're most talented at should give you the motivation needed to be more pragmatic about your approach to money.
  • Be aware that doing a dream job when you're highly qualified for something else can derail your career track. Certain more conservative professions may consider time taken out to explore a dream job alternative as a sign of being fickle, unreliable and unlikely to return to your career. Of course, this is about perceptions rather than reality––those who risk a change of pace or career are often very resourceful and resilient people whom any employer ought to be proud to include as staff but sadly, the more narrow-minded among them aren't this clued in!

Things You'll Need

  • Information about free activities in your area
  • Budget (notebook, apps, etc.)
  • Occasional treats to reward yourself

Sources and Citations

  • Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin. ISBN 014028678 – research source

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