Work-Life Balance and Money

Work-Life Balance is usually framed in terms of mental health and well-being, or by dividing time between office and family. But money is part of the equation too.

In my sideline as counsellor, I meet many people who either can’t find enough work or have issues at their workplace. Money is usually tight, and values may have to be compromised to make ends meet, such as working at weekends or away from home. For some, the equation is simple: work or lose your home, or starve. Work to live, in other words. For others the decision is more nuanced. Here are some considerations.

When you are young, invest in yourself

It’s tempting to think about saving any spare money for a deposit for a home, or to put away into a pension. If you take the view that your career is going nowhere and are happy with that, then saving is good advice. But if you take the view that one day you will earn five times or more what you are currently earning then you need to raise the market value of yourself.

Here are some pointers:

  • Learn new skills, such as a foreign language, IT skills, or business management.
  • Read informative books, papers and online articles. Youtube is also a great resource for educating yourself. And it’s free!
  • Network! Not just Facebook, or even LinkedIn (which is quite useful). Go along to relevant events, conventions and talks. These need not cost money, and your employer might even encourage this during work time.
  • Look after your physical well-being. Much as it might be fun to eat, drink and party, if you are investing in yourself you need to look after the body you inhabit. This means healthy food, exercise and attention to all things medical.
  • Be careful of slipping into the work hard, play hard cycle. Those working in cities especially might live off the adrenaline rush of finishing a week at work with an evening on the town. Yes, it’s fun. But give some time to yourself to plan the future, as living for the moment might ultimately be counter-productive to formulating a work-life balance, as well as a drain on that hard-earned cash.
  • You don’t have to do this alone. If you can share the journey with friends then go for it. And don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. There are career counsellors, mentors, life coaches, personal trainers, health advisers etc etc etc. Some will cost money, and you will need to decide if the trade-off is worth it. Others like personal trainers may be available at your local gym at no extra cost.

This article by Martin Lewis imparts some more wisdom to the young professional.

Learn to budget

Those of you who say that you don’t need to budget because you never overspend: Lucky you! I once spent a couple of evenings wading through a year’s worth of bank statements (downloaded from my online banking site), categorising them into things like mortgage, food, household, insurance, meals out (which shocked me), holidays and utility bills. This informed me of the areas I would benefit most from controlling, because that’s where the most spend was, from those areas which were not especially high. Just being aware was enough, and my instincts to economise took over from there. Martin Lewis, again, helps us out.

For many people, balancing the books is a precarious task. Once mortgage or rent, food, utilities, transport and other essentials have been deducted there is nothing much left. Further economies might be possible, but the main task is to keep within budget. If there is one part of the budget that takes up a disproportionate amount of the spending, then it goes without saying that economising should start there. Tough decisions like moving home or selling the car might be necessary to avoid going into debt.

Be aware of vanity spending too. Designer clothes, private gym membership, latest smartphone. All very nice if you can afford them. But do they bring real happiness or just add to the hardship elsewhere?

For others, the pressure might not be so great, and there is money spare for the more enjoyable things in life. It then becomes a matter of prioritising: is it that ski trip to Courcheval or perhaps a few weekends away instead? Some work-life balance questions can be really tough!

Consider your dependants

Your dependants might be your partner, your children (who may or may not live with you) and other people you provide care for. Money is important, clearly, but so is the time you spend with them. When you look back on your life, you won’t remember much about the work projects that needed to be finished at work so much as the time spent with those closest to you.

It’s true that some people go to work to avoid their dependants. That can be a hard place to be, mostly for the dependants. It’s also not much by way of work-life balance because life becomes work. Then life outside of work becomes socialising with colleagues, and everything/everyone else becomes unsatisfying and little more than a box-ticking exercise. Nobody is forcing anybody to torture themselves with people that drive them up the wall. But equally, everyone in this dynamic deserves better. If mutually agreeing to arrangements which lead to a happy life seems impossible, then get help.

Balancing time at work with time looking after your children can be especially challenging to work-life balance. In some countries, having children running around the place of work (e.g. a shop) is quite normal. But in others, such as here in the UK, it is as good as prohibited. And while flexible working has got better, it’s still a challenge to be alert and attentive to a child’s needs after a day sorting out the office accounts. On the other hand, a day in the office might leave you more ready to attend to children, having had them out of mind for a few hours. This page on goes more into work/family issues.

Know when to stop

One irony of work which I find is that it takes effort to get there in the morning and it takes effort to put the work down and get home again in the evening. Maybe I just don’t like change. But I know people who work perhaps 12 hours a day and ask themselves: Why?

Knowing when to stop is another balancing act. Especially when starting out on an upward career path, it’s tempting to put in extra hours to get noticed, or because there’s an office culture to do so. But few these days get paid overtime, and those extra hours are basically given for nothing. Which is fine if something really needs to be done, but not so fine if it becomes a requirement in order to get the daily workload finished.

The age of the smartphone, tablet and laptop has meant that more and more people are able to attend to work outside of office hours. The self-employed will see this as essential, but the employed will see this as a blurring of boundaries. According to this survey, 89% of employees blamed out-of-office work activity as the cause of bad work-life balance.

Too much work causes stress, which is a bigger killer than you might think. This article sums up the arguments against too much work quite well.

Knowing when to stop doesn’t just apply to the daily routine. As we get older, we realise that we have the confidence to get by without being too concerned what others including the boss might think. And when we are older still, we can seriously think about retiring. But these are life-changing decisions which we may find ourselves unconsciously avoiding, because staying as we are is like “the devil we know”.

To spend or to save

If we are in a position where we are earning more than we need, we have a nice problem. Do we spend or save? In fact, we could do both at the same time if we spend the money on property, for example.

The case for spending is best put simply as: Well, what’s it for? We earn money so we can spend it. Simples. We treat ourselves to the things we enjoy: the holidays, the pampering, the clothes, the car, the evenings out. We might also give money to charities or to our children (grown up or otherwise). The point is, once it’s gone, it’s gone. If our earning power is taken away, perhaps because our skill set been taken offshore, then our standard of living will necessarily drop. We have nothing to fall back on. On the other hand, in this double-or-quits game, if we carry on earning a good wage, then we can carry on living a life of luxury. It’s your call.

The case for saving is probably easier to understand. We put money aside today so we can spend it later in life when we might need it. Most people now save for retirement, for example, and there are tax advantages to doing so. Others save because they can. Their lives are pleasant enough at a sustainably low level of expenditure that there is money left at the next payday. This is probably less true during the first few years of working than it is later in working life. And so it should be. As we become more proficient, our earnings should increase and then we can start saving. (See 1 above). We might also benefit from windfalls as we go through life, although that’s hard to imagine when starting out at 21.

In practice, most people who can, do both. They will instinctively pitch their spending and saving at a sustainable level. Others go too far in one direction or another and either die rich or die broke. This comes back again to budgeting. There is no simple formula here, but a few rough calculations should reveal how much we should be saving for hard times or for retirement. Last year, Lifehacker asked some professionals to describe their saving and spending habits. Spending beat saving by quite a large margin.