Monday, August 10, 2009

Benjamins 101: the high cost of being cheap

There are plenty of books and magazine and online articles out there meant to provide financial advice to those just starting out, and I won't pretend to be an expert on investments and savings. However, having lived through the lean days of my early architectural career and managed to come out of it with a stellar credit rating, I'd like to pass on my observations and yes, a little advice. It bears repeating that, out of college and up to a couple of years of experience, architectural interns don't get paid a whole heck of a lot, especially compared to graduates of other professional degrees with similar requirements for becoming licensed/made/official. It gets better as you get more experience, but it's not like you're going to be making six figures in ten years. The best way to get a substantial raise, as I've discussed here before, is to a) get licensed, and b) change firms. While things are still slow (as I write this in August of 2009), not very many firms may be hiring, so jumping firms is at least another six to twelve months off (and if you have a job at all right now, just be thankful and patient).

So, you're right out of school or maybe only a year or two out, and you're working for peanuts. Looking at your paycheck leaves you with a simultaneous lift (sweet! I'm finally getting paid to do what I wanted to do!) and gut punch (Mary, Joseph, and Calatrava, how am I supposed to make the rent on this?). I hate to tell you this, but paying interns poorly is the way architecture is. Remember, firms pay you for your experience, not your education. Everyone who sets foot in the door has at least four years of education, so that factor doesn't set you apart anymore like it did your parents. If you don't have a lot of experience, you're not going to be paid well, end of story. In order to get experience, you'll have to work, and it looks better to a potential employer if you can stay somewhere for more than a year at a time. (Loyalty to a firm before you change jobs is another way to get a raise. Firms are more willing to take a chance on you and invest in you if you look like you're in it for the long haul.)

But what do you do in the meantime? When I started in architecture in the summer of 2000, I lived in a loft in downtown Denver and had to use some savings to make ends meet. A colleague convinced me to look into buying a condo in the summer of 2001, as a mortgage payment at that time was cheaper than my loft's rent. I bought a condo on the edge of downtown and got three times the square footage for less than my old rent, plus my colleague moved in with me and helped pay the bills. Having a roommate is not ideal for some (I certainly didn't want one when I moved to Denver from the Southeast in 2000), but it's often a reality for architectural interns. By the end of 2001, a majority of my intern colleagues had roommates of some sort--friends from college, someone they met through a roommate matching program, or significant others. (I should note in the interest of full disclosure that I was dating the colleague that suggested I buy rather than rent--we've been married for nearly five years now.)

In the fall of 2001, I also managed to get a gig helping a retired professor write and edit a book she was preparing to publish, and I also helped her prepare for seminars that she taught at a local adult education center. She paid me hourly and matched her wage to a little less than what I made hourly at my architectural job. I later realized that, by the end of 2002, nearly half of my intern colleagues had second jobs as waitstaff or bartenders, ski shop attendants, and even freelance architects doing small residential projects for friends of friends. Having two jobs is definitely not for everyone, and it may not even be feasible in some areas of the country right now depending on what havoc the economy has wrought there. I managed to make it work, and my colleagues did as well, for the most part.

I was five years old the last time the economy was even close to being this bad in 1980. I remember our house being really cold, and it always felt a little dark, but my dad did an excellent job as single parent making ends meet as best he could and sheltering us from how bad it was. He did such a good job that I didn't realize until many years later that he had taken a few hundred dollars out of my and my sister's college funds in order to pay the bills and buy Christmas presents. Later, when the economy slumped a bit around 1996 and 1997, I was still an undergraduate and planning to go straight to graduate school. When I emerged from academia in the summer of 2000, the economy was churning full steam ahead. My point is this: I have never truly known and internalized hard times. Many of you have likely experienced something similar, and your parents did a good job not showing you how bad things were. While this meant that you grew up without that particular kind of gnawing stress, you missed out on learning some good coping skills. How do you make do with making nothing for a living when you have so little practice at it?

When I started my first architecture job in June of 2000, my starting gross income was $14.50 an hour. What about yours? How are you making it work, especially these days?

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