Money is a funny thing. It’s tangled up with just about every aspect of our lives — from where we live, to what we eat and the quality of our relationships — so it’s no wonder that all of us have opinions on what we should do with it. But what shaped our approach to money in the first place? What pivotal moment forever changed the way we think about our finances? To explore these questions, we’re introducing MONEY MOMENTS — a regular series where Canadians reflect on a moment in their lives that shaped their attitudes toward money.
Choosing to leave law was not an easy decision. After all, I still remember how my entire class was on edge the day I received my offer to be an associate at the large Bay Street law firm at which I had articled. News of low hireback rates at other firms in Toronto had been arriving every day — five out of 15 at one firm, seven out of 14 at the next. At 18 people, mine was the largest articling class that the firm had ever had, and we knew that the news would not be good for many of us. When the two members of the hiring committee sitting across from me offered me a job, silent tears of relief trickled down my face.
I would be earning six figures as a first-year lawyer — more than my parents combined, and then some. That was great news because I had significant debt to repay. Though I had scholarships and bursaries during my time at law school, that money was not enough to cover living expenses. I’d taken out an OSAP loan and a line of credit. The banks offered lines of credit to law students like it was Halloween candy, to be frittered away on school trips abroad and nights out. As those with graduate degrees have some of the lowest rates of delinquency, they knew that most future lawyers were good for it.
With my new salary, I was finally able to start paying down my debt. But I soon discovered that I wasn’t happy being a Bay Street lawyer. I didn’t feel like I belonged. And though at times I liked the work — the thrill of crafting a good argument, drafting Statements of Defense, appearing on my feet at the Human Rights Tribunal — I didn’t feel like I was making the contribution to the world that I had set out to. Companies and organizations need someone to fight their fights for them, but I didn’t think that person needed to be me.
I soon discovered that I wasn’t happy being a Bay Street lawyer. I didn’t feel like I belonged
Still, it was satisfying to see the numbers on my line of credit and loans inching down, and the amount in my RRSP inching up on the spreadsheets I had created and the financial documents I received. I arranged for my biweekly paycheque to be automatically segmented: 20% to my student loans; 20% to my RRSP. I lived largely like I had as a student, except for a slightly more indulgent shoe habit to match my new Bay Street armour of skirt suits. When I had to stay late at work, dinners were covered by the firm. I liked the quiet of the office at night, as most of my senior colleagues ate dinner at home with their children and tucked them into bed. Having never had any savings to speak of in my entire life, my family largely living paycheque to paycheque, and most of my adult money coming by way of student loans, I finally felt like a proper grown up. I could see tangible things in my future: perhaps a house one day, a proper amount set aside for retirement, and my loans paid off in 10 years.
As the years went by, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted something different for my career. I revisited the idea of a Ph.D., having been accepted into a few programs before deciding on law school. As a researcher, I felt I could make a far greater contribution to organizational problems than I could as a lawyer — the kind of problems that were constantly landing on my desk in the form of harassment complaints and workplace discrimination. But, I also wanted to pay off my debt.
A few years into my career, I found myself with a Ph.D. acceptance letter in hand. I didn’t know what to do. The stipend figure from the University of Toronto paled in comparison to my third-year salary at the law firm: $32,000 a year. I swallowed hard, punched numbers into my spreadsheet, and did the math. Doing a Ph.D. would mean saying goodbye to a lot of things. Goodbye to any savings for the next five years. Goodbye to making student loan payments, which would now be put into interest-free status while the amount owing would remain frozen in time. Goodbye to new shoes.
I had put myself through three years of graduate education, earning both a law degree and a Master’s degree, in order to earn this salary. Was I really going to start over again, on a lower rung?
The decision was difficult to make, not least because I was one of the lucky ones. My stipend from the Rotman School of Management was one of the highest of any Ph.D. programs in Toronto. Students in other departments at the university subsisted on $17,000. Still, in comparison to my salary as a lawyer, this was a big drop. I had put myself through three years of graduate education, earning both a law degree and a Master’s degree, in order to earn this salary. Was I really going to start over again, on a lower rung? Three more years of cereal for breakfast, pasta and salad for dinner? I even tried going to a different firm, to see if a different environment would do the trick, but the allure of higher education still called.
I decided to do the Ph.D — but I was determined to leave the program in a better financial position than when I went in. And so I made a plan. I became a Google Sheets budgeting wizard. I tutored the LSAT, seeing several of my students into spots at their dream schools. I worked as a teaching assistant for multiple courses, finding ways to do the job more efficiently to maximize my hourly pay. I got scholarships that gave me a boost in funding. I taught courses, and discovered that teaching and sharing knowledge was more satisfying than late nights spent in a quiet office.
Some people thought I was crazy to leave the financial safety of big law for academia. But I am forever grateful that I could make that choice. While I may have eaten more mac and cheese and had to give up my beautiful one-bedroom to live with roommates, it was academia that led to my first big break as a journalist, through a Massey College program. It was academia that honed my skills as a writer and investigator. And it was academia that helped me discover my true purpose: to share knowledge and research with people and organizations through writing, consulting, journalism and speaking. When I graduate this year, I will do so with the satisfaction of making my last line of credit payment at the same time — thanks to hustle, determination, and a good spreadsheet.
Illustration by Janice Wu.