When Doing What You Love Doesn’t Pay The Bills

We’re taught to follow our passions, but what happens when doing what you love doesn’t pay the bills?  A post-secondary degree is almost essential to get a decent job in Canada, but there’s a significant earnings gap for graduates depending on their chosen field of study.

Related: What If You’re Not University Material?

A CIBC World Markets report revealed that a large number of University graduates in Canada earn less than the national median income.  The study suggests that Canada has an excess supply of post-secondary graduates, mainly due to the relatively high number of graduates in less financially advantageous fields like social sciences and fine arts.

The cost of obtaining a diploma or degree has increased 20 percent since the late 2000’s, all the more reason for students to consider the return on their investment in education and understand the impact on future earnings.

The best jobs, according to this American study, definitely fall into the specialized and professional fields:

  1. Actuary
  2. Biomedical engineer
  3. Software engineer
  4. Audiologist
  5. Financial planner
  6. Dental hygienist
  7. Occupational therapist
  8. Optometrist
  9. Physical therapist
  10. Computer systems analyst

Not everyone has it in them to be a doctor or an engineer.  But the stakes are much too high to go into massive debt to get a history degree with minimal job prospects.

Related: How Fast Should You Pay Off Your Student Loans?

The other side of the coin is that parents are counted on even more today to help pay for their children’s education.  So if mom and dad are paying the bills, should they have a say in what their kids study at University?

That awkward question was posed by a student in the latest edition of MoneySense.  The second-year English major said her parents thought her degree was a waste of time and they were refusing to give her any more RESP money unless she switched disciplines.

My take is that if parents were more selective in the types of degrees they were willing to pay for then we’d have far less career students and fluff majors in University today.

I’d strongly encourage my kids to take something more useful in school and explore their interests on the side.  That’s not to say I’d discourage an entrepreneurial spirit – many business owners just aren’t cut out for higher education and traditional employment – but I’d want to see a well thought out plan for the future.

Related: The Best Way To Start Your Very Small Side Business

I work for a University and one of the benefits is that our kids can go to school here for free (tuition is free; you still pay for other fees and books).

So, if my kids attend the local University they’ll save at least $20,000 to $25,000 versus studying elsewhere.  Should I demand they attend local University?

How much say should parents have in what their child studies in University?  Can you afford to “do what you love”, or should you take a more practical approach to education and employment?

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  1. Trombonedadio on September 16, 2013 at 6:13 am

    The true message for young adults is, if you don’t love what you do to make a living, you will spend the next forty years or so spending 8 hours a day being miserable. My parents took a big leap of faith by supporting my decision when I told them I wanted to study music, with the intention of becoming a performing professional musician. Guess what? Their support paid off. I won a coveted position in a very competitive field and unlike the stereotype that so many uninformed people have of artists, I have enjoyed a comfortable middle class lifestyle for the last 25+ years. My mortgage is paid off, I have no debts, and I own a VW Westfalia which my family enjoys at every opportunity. When I go to work today – I am now involved in training the new generation – I head out the door with a sense of anticipation of what the day will bring, rather than the fear that I will be unhappy until quitting time.

    • Echo on September 16, 2013 at 7:04 am

      That’s great that you were able to turn your talent and passion into a successful and fulfilling career. I wonder, though, what became of the people you beat out for the coveted position?

      The study clearly says that now, more so than 25 years ago, there’s a huge risk premium on an investment in education.

      “There is a much greater risk of falling into a lower-income category for graduates of humanities and social sciences, with a limited risk for students of health, engineering or business. Those underperforming sectors comprise just under half of all recent graduates.

      In other words, Canadian students are continuing to pursue fields where upon graduation, they aren’t getting a relative edge in terms of income prospects.”

  2. CanadianDaniel on September 16, 2013 at 7:10 am

    I was a technical writer in Corporate Actuarial for one of Canada’s largest life insurers(actuarial students generally disdain documenting their own procedures). Yes, seasoned actuaries make tons of money but I can assure you that they work under a lot of pressure. The actuarial exam process also features a very high failure rate. A potentially high turnover rate and significant pressure are factors to consider when contemplating a happy, balanced career path.

    • Echo on September 16, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      @Daniel – I was surprised to see that Actuary ranked as the best job.

  3. Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle on September 16, 2013 at 7:22 am

    While you cannot demand that they attend the local university you can tell them that you will not be paying for something that is free. If the program they want to take is not offered at your university this could be difficult. Perhaps they could do a year or two for free then transfer to a school that offered what they need.

    My son just finished 2 years at the community college within walking distance from our home. This was a good plan for him because he is able to transfer the credits to a university in another city and he will get a degree in 2 years.

    Both of my sons are taking practical subjects at university. I would not be prepared to help finance something that is not practical.

    • Echo on September 16, 2013 at 8:27 pm

      @Jane – Good plan! It’s hard to decide what to do at this time because so much can change. I suspect this benefit may not be available to employees in the next decade.

  4. Justin on September 16, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    If they want to take something that Lethbridge doesn’t offer thats one thing, but if its the same program I don’t think it matters which school you take it from. Everyone has a degree these days. It will be the graduate degrees that will set everyone apart so that may be the time to decide which school is best.

    I like Janes advice with transferring after a few years. Some programs need an undergraduate degree to even get accepted(law, medicine, vet-med).

    If you want your children to go to school locally, just be sure they have a boyfriend/girlfriend when they graduate. Problem solved!

    • Echo on September 16, 2013 at 8:28 pm

      @Justin – But what happens when the boyfriend wants to go away to college? They’ll want to follow him!

  5. Dan on September 16, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    @Justin valid points, but I know 3 people with MBAs that cant find jobs. I suppose it’s which graduate degree you get that makes the difference

  6. Bryan Jaskolka on September 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I have to say, I’m pretty offended by this entire post. Since when did studying something you love in university translate into “you suck and I’m not paying for it?” I highly believe that it’s important for parents to encourage their children to do what they LOVE – not what pays the big bucks. This doesn’t mean that parents have to foot the bill the entire way. It MIGHT mean that the child has to work at McDonald’s while creating on the side. University is not the be-all-end-all that people make it out to be. The real truth here is that there are LOTS of things you can do without a diploma, and that you should only pursue that diploma if in fact, you know what you want to do and you know that you love it. Have you not ever heard of starving artists? There’s a reason they’re starving. Their craft is worth it to them. And I really don’t see anything wrong with making sacrifices to be happier in the bigger picture. And no, I’m not a pipe dreamer. I’m a mortgage broker who’s had a passion for helping people in their finances since I was a teenager. I’m also a parent, who truly only wants my children to be happy. No matter what happiness that path should be found on.

    • Echo on September 16, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      @Bryan – there is a very real problem right now where the cost of education is so high that it’s handcuffing new grads when they enter the workforce. Mom and dad can step in and help cover some (or all) of the education costs, but with an oversupply of fine arts and social science grads, they’d be smart to question the value of that investment.

      I agree that there are lots of things you can do without a diploma or degree. My point is that if you’re going to be an artist or a photographer then go and do it, and don’t waste four years and $30,000 in the process. I’m not sure the degree is going to set you apart from the competition unless you’re extremely talented and specialized like Trombonedadio.

      • Derek @ MoneyAhoy.com on September 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm

        I understand both sides of this argument. In the end – if you’re following your dreams and looking for something that doesn’t pay well – it doesn’t really make sense to get $100K in student loans. They are methods to get the education without generating any debt. I think what Echo is saying is don’t break the bank in terms of education expenses if you’re going into a lower paying field unless you want to be a debt slave the rest of your life.

  7. Elizabeth Barone on September 16, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    I think it’s more important for parents to instill a solid work ethic in their children, whether they are going to pay for that child’s college education or not. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which profession you choose; without hard work, you will get nowhere. You can still do what you love. You just might have to work a day job that pays the bills and pursue your passion off the clock.

  8. Erin on September 17, 2013 at 1:27 am

    I’m a parent of a recent university grad who is just starting her career in the healthcare field. Gen Y (those born between the late 1970s and mid 1990s) are a different breed. I found this Huffington Post article very interesting:


    • Echo on September 17, 2013 at 7:05 am

      @Erin – amazing article – thanks for sharing. Facebook Image Crafting must be the new, “Keeping up with the Joneses”.

  9. AdinaJ on September 17, 2013 at 7:12 am

    My parents took a version of the approach you mentioned (refused to help with my tuition unless I picked what they considered a “non fluff” degree ) and while I was upset at the time, I am so grateful in retrospect. I was not one of those rare people who have a true passion or calling in life, so I’m sure that my choices as a 17 yr old would have been questionable in the long term. I basically just wanted to read 19th century lit and talk about philosophy … hardly a money-making proposition. I’m glad someone else was thinking in practical terms, because I wasn’t at that point.

    I also want to call BS on the whole “you’ll be miserable for the rest of your life if you don’t follow your passion” meme. My current career is not my life’s passion, but I am good at what I do and I derive an immense sense of personal satisfaction from that. Sure, there are tough days, but that is inherent in the nature of work.

    Great post, Robb!

    • Echo on September 18, 2013 at 9:58 am

      @AdinaJ It’s just too expensive to go to University and take general studies until you figure out what you want to do with your life.

      Good point that what you’re good at and what you’re passionate about don’t necessarily match up.

  10. Mike Holman on September 17, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I’m surprised at some of the comments supporting the ‘do what you love’ side.

    “Do what you love” doesn’t have to mean “Try to make a living doing what I love”. As you say – do whatever turns your crank in your leisure time. Paying big bucks for further education in something with no job prospects is throwing money away.

    At some point, you have to make a living. You don’t have to love or even like the job – that’s just what you do.

  11. PK on September 18, 2013 at 9:15 am

    How much say should parents have in what their child studies in University?

    Let me flip the script a bit – the answer to that question? Probably none. The related question: “How much say should parents say in paying for University?” All of it. Not that it’s a mandatory thing for parents to pay, but there’s nothing wrong with changing the incentives.

    To paraphrase Mike Rowe in his famous TED talk: “Do what you love and go broke.”

    • Echo on September 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

      Fair point. That should’ve been the post title, to be honest.

  12. JT on September 18, 2013 at 9:47 am

    I wouldn’t pay for my child’s uneconomic degree, just as I wouldn’t buy a 16-year-old new driver a BMW. One of the many financial pitfalls we face is that we’ll accept any amount of spending so long as it fits a well-received category like education.

    Logically and mathematically, paying for a degree in…say, film, is like buying a $20,000 scratch-off ticket. If you wouldn’t drop $20k on a scratch off, why do it for a degree that doesn’t make financial sense?

    That’s just my controversial opinion of the day.

    • Derek @ MoneyAhoy.com on September 20, 2013 at 3:02 pm

      Great metaphor. This boils down the essence of the argument perfectly.

  13. Kyle @ Young and Thrifty on September 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Great article Robb. This has been an ongoing topic on the podcast. I’m sure you know by now you’re preaching to the choir (me) on this one, but I always love the criticisms of our stance. One side argues with statistics and logic, the other side argues with strong feelings and passion. I know which group I’ll side with. Unfortunately I have so few in the education world that agree with me and they are the ones influencing your children…

  14. Rob on August 1, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    This is a terribly frustrating topic because the cost of university is growing so quickly and the pressure on parents to prepare their children for success has somehow jumped from raising decent, moral, well rounded citizens to measuring success by income level, type of car in the driveway and postal code they can afford to live in. How we and our children pay for their education (at any level) is a better discussion than what they should and should not take at school. Who they marry will decide their economic level in life more than their degree will. So spend more time finding their spouse. The responses show just how narrowly focused we are becoming. The stats still show that 10 years down the road university educated people are working in higher paying jobs.

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