Golden Handcuffs – why can’t I leave my job?

May 16, 2011 — 23 Comments

Golden handcuffs:  the imaginary chains tying you to a well paying job.  Have you ever said you’d love to do something else, but you can’t leave your job?  You might unknowingly wear the cuffs.

The office cubicle that replaced your dorm room has now become your jail cell.  You leave the cell at night, but you don’t feel you ever truly get away.  You might not hate what you’re doing, but you definitely wouldn’t do it for free.

You’ve delayed the business you were going to start, the Peace Corp mission calling your name, and you’ve even abandoned the pledge to spend more time on yourself.

Watching the numbers on your paycheck climb is fulfilling, but is it enough?  For now, it keeps you at your job; the golden handcuffs are tightening.

If you truly love what you’re doing, there is no such thing as the golden handcuffs.  Your work is rewarding and your rewards reflect your efforts.  However, if you’re unsatisfied at work but tied to it because of the money, you’re all too familiar with the cuffs and their powers.

You feel no other job can pay you more than or even as much as your current job.  And quite frankly, you might need the money to pay for your current lifestyle.  You know, the car, the condo, and the free furniture for 18 months… that you’ll soon have to pay for!

Larry Burkett says we spend the first 5-7 years of our marriage trying to attain the same standard of living as our parents – only it took them 35 years.  I’m sure he meant it, but we start trying to match this lifestyle as soon as we have a decent job.

On top of your pursuit towards your parent’s standards, your success leads you to believe you deserve certain luxuries; your nice car, the new TAG watch, or designer clothes.  Our family, friends, social networks and most of all advertising can reinforce these thoughts of entitlement.

So the question is:  are the golden handcuffs tightening due to the amount of money you’re making or due to the increased standard of living you enjoy with the money?

In my opinion, it depends on the person, but it is probably a combination of both.  Often times, as we’re moving closer to the corner office, we buy into society’s perceptions of our job status.  Seeing the word attorney on your new business card makes you feel entitled to the new car.

Maybe your new co-workers all drive new cars and take a big vacation every year.  Surely, if they can afford it, you can too.  Plus, you don’t want to seem cheap around them.

It’s even worse for doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers whose status is somewhat determined by their total bling.  What happens when you increase your standard of living?

You might get instant gratification when you move into your uptown apartment, cruise around in your new car, or take your boat out for the first time.  However, if you’re financing your new lifestyle with debt, all it means is your monthly debt payments increase.  You work hard, but you play hard.  It’s great for your employer because you can’t quit; you’ll be too busy paying monthly for your new found happiness!

If your golden handcuffs don’t bind you because of an in debt lifestyle, the other reason may be you’re accustomed to seeing a satisfying amount on your check.  You’re happy with it and your family, friends, and colleagues are proud of your success.

You’re afraid you’ll earn less following your dreams, and you’ll lose your social status.

I’m still trying to break free of the golden handcuffs, but I have taken some initial steps.  To deal with the first reason for the cuffs, financing your lifestyle with loans, the answer is living debt free.  You can learn how to do this by taking control of your money.

To deal with the second reason, the impact of a drop in salary or prestige, you must deal with it on more of a psychological level.

If you’re highly satisfied with your new work, you’re going to experience a level of fulfillment and happiness that you’re not currently getting, and it won’t be too hard to remove the golden handcuffs.  Also, realize your fear could be unfounded, and you might be able to make even more money if you switch to another job or do something you love.

Fear springs from ignorance – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Maybe the best way to remove the golden handcuffs is to go out and learn and try something new.  Are you wearing golden handcuffs?  I’d like to hear about it in the comments section as we can all learn from your story!

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23 responses to Golden Handcuffs – why can’t I leave my job?

  1. It doesn’t just drive the stock but fear and greed also seems to run our lives. I fear I won’t have enough money to live on so I’ll work more hours and thereby guarantee a secure life. Oh, wait, I see somebody near who is seemingly doing better off than me so I better borrow some money to get to where he is and I can always pay it back by working an extra job. I want more more and more but am starting to wonder if I’m being greedy. No. I’m just industrious. that’s what “They” tell me I shouild be. Is this what they call the rat race. How do I break this circle? Set the goals of my life by my standards and not those of popular opinion. Learn to diversify with a bit of many slices of life’s pie not just the money slice. Freedom, time with family and friends, hobby pursuits, time to think of what makes me and the rest of this world tick…..all so much more satisfying than the golden handcuffs. Good job on showing what’s really important!

    • Between you and Susan, I think I’m getting out written!! I really like the way you took us through the entire cycle of how we “buy” into the rat race, and more importantly, how we can get out. The golden handcuffs may look pretty, but they are cold and can’t provide the warmth of the pursuits you mentioned.

  2. handcuffs of any kind indicate being captive. When we are captive we are unable to act of our own free will. Economic handcuffs are the worst, because fear is infused in the device which causes us much angst and discomfort. In reality we put the handcuffs on and are really captives of our own fears, perceptions or beliefs regardless of what the handcuffs represent. Our profession and the money we make are the most powerful of these. Often we are forced to remove them, only to find ourselves looking for new ones. If we can break free of all the fear within us (the really hard part) and truly look at the abundant opportunities we have before us, we will find our way regarding what handcuffs we want and are willing to wear.

    For me, I was forced to take off a really corrosive and distructive set of golden handcuffs. At first it was extraordinarily hard to see the possibilities because I had gotten so use to the old handcuffs (the devil you know versus the devil you don’t kind of thing). That was the beginning of a self discovery and my finding a new path, direction if you will. Now my choices of what handcuffs I choose to wear are my own.

    • Susan, thanks so much for adding your wisdom. This line really struck a chord with me:

      “Often we are forced to remove them, only to find ourselves looking for new ones.”

      I’ve done this to myself. Even when we are forced to move on to something else, we often move back to what’s comfortable and what we know (even if all we know is a rust pair of handcuffs!).

  3. Well, this is a timely article. I’ve been working in a job for several years that I loved. I was great at it, made lots of money, and had good job security (or so I thought). I felt like I was on top of the world. I enjoy the lifestyle the job has afforded me, but I still live within my means and save about 50% of my post-tax income. Everything changed a few months ago, though. Now my job is no longer secure, and I am afraid of the direction my company is going. I feel stuck there because taking any other job will have a huge financial cost (from a pay cut, from selling my house and moving to a higher cost of living area, or both). I do have savings and I could maintain my lifestyle with a lower salary, but I have been doing so well that it kills me to think of dipping into my savings or not being able to max out my 401(k) and Roth IRA every year.

    • Sharon – it sounds to me like you’re not giving yourself enough credit. If you love your job and are making great money now, why can’t you make even more with a new job? You sound like a stud, and I bet the only thing holding you back from doing even better is yourself.

      Not knowing your circumstances, it’s hard to say for sure. Have you had a chance to read “You’re now a Consultant”. Job security is a thing of the past, and you need to focus on marketing yourself like you’re a consultant. I liked my former job and the money was great, but traveling every week no longer did it for me. I was afraid I’d have to take a pay cut, but in the end I was able to find an even better job making more money — and now I work from home 75% of the time!

      Also, you’re in a great position since you’re living on half your income and saving the other half. You’re doing all the right things, and I’m sure you’ll make it through even stronger. Dan

  4. But there’s one more thing that keeps those golden handcuffs tight: student loans.

    I’ve been thinking about my job for nearly 2 years, but I didn’t think I could make as much at another company. I’ve been squeezing out every spare penny into my student loan debt – something I didn’t worry about back when I liked my job.

    Last year I saw an opportunity when the company closed down our branch and laid every body off. But when a position opened up in another office of the same company, I applied for it and couldn’t say no when they offered me the position at a higher pay grade than I was at. Same company, different state, still want to leave.

    The good news: my student loans will be paid of in one more year. Then I’ll quit.

    • Julie – this is something many of us struggle with, including myself. When I finally paid off my debt in 2009 (including $20k in student loans), I was extremely happy and was ready to finally do what I love. However, it was then I realized I didn’t know how to make money doing what I love!

      BREAK FREE is the platform I’m using to launch myself into the ‘making money doing what you love’ group. Until I’m able to do that, I’ll keep my full time job to save money and pay the bills. I have an upcoming article that discusses how I’m using my full-time job to help me get where I want to go.

      Good luck with your journey, and be sure to keep us updated. The good news is you’re disgusted enough with your current job to get motivated to pay off your debt! Dan

  5. I have been debating about changing jobs to go back to something I loved. This article helps me to think about my happiness being as big a factor as the money. It is a gift that I can think that way in this economy, and this is certainly the time to be grateful for that opportunity.

    • Nina – money is often used as the measuring stick of job satisfaction. As you know, this is a false measure because it doesn’t take into account our happiness or fulfillment. Keep us all updated as your pursue your passion!

  6. Great article. I’m in the process of making the transition from a secure job to being fully self-employed. I would add the fear of not being able to support your children well enough and provide for their current and future needs to the list of things that keep the golden handcuffs on us. Making the judgement about stepping away from secure employment brings up a complicated balance of factors for parents. On the one hand there are all the reasons for doing it – being happier and more fulfilled yourself, perhaps having more time to spend with your children, etc. While on the other hand the fear of letting your kids down economically is a big concern for many. Knowing your priorities and ensuring you’re making your decisions in accordance with them is important. So is having a fallback plan should things not go as well as you hope.

    • Kylie – my wife and I don’t have kids yet, so that’s why it wasn’t added as one of the reasons for the cuffs. I’m glad you mentioned it, because I think it is one of the things driving me to start my own thing now. I want to have control of my life by the time I have kids so I can play a major role in their lives. It will be much harder to do if I still have the “full-time” job without flexibility that I have today. Thanks for the input!

  7. Golden handcuffs for us isn’t money but rather health insurance. Fear/knowledge that if my DH left his job I’d have to work at a job with benefits because we know we could never get private health insurance with pre-exisiting conditions.

    Perhaps if the US changed it’s rules we could be different but until then a lot of people I know are handcuffed for health insurance.

    • LAL – thanks for adding that point. It’s funny because I wasn’t thinking about health insurance when I wrote this. However, I recently broke my hand, ruptured my Achilles, and my wife had a few things as well. We’ve been hit with some big bills, but it would have been much worse without insurance. Health insurance is definitely a major factor for us as well now.

  8. The golden handcuffs come with lots of policemen who constantly tell you that your job is not the worst and there are places that are worse that where you are now. There is that fear that consumes people, which causes them to stay put. And the employers love that. I’m from Barbados and some businesses here have used the recession as an excuse to downsize and double employees’ work loads. So the golden handcuffs are even tighter because you’re not going anywhere, your workload has increased and your salary is the same or a little less than it was.

    • Dannielle – thanks for visiting, I really like this analogy of the police officers who are enforcing the “laws” of our golden handcuffs. The little voices that keep us in our place as well as the externalities that tell us we can’t do any better. It’s natural to question our actions (especially big ones like changing jobs), but we shouldn’t let it paralyze us.

    • Truth. At the Technical College where I live/work (it has felt like) and am a Director in a Faculty Program position that could get cut year after year and where hours were cut by the organization’s administration, who also in the same breath, took that money and gave themselves healthy raises ($50,000 and $10,000) while sliding more of their responsibilities on faculty has increasingly diminished the initial enjoyment of job satisfaction. The student population has dropped, also. The ones we get who are actually trying to succeed are a lower percentage than those who are after financial aid to help pay bills and/or don’t study or succeed. Then there are the explain yourself to the in-house Accreditation Team your post student graduation employment stats, your program enrollment census stats, pass or fail national exam stats, self-study projects, committees, constantly changing syllabi and technological support, school visits or else to recruit directives, interruptions to the teaching hour causing one to fall behind in class, complicated reports, taking massive amounts of work home, working the we hours of the morning, lack of sleep, the threat of getting closed down regardless, the forced field day events and performance evaluation add-ons,…on and on.

      Teaching was turning into a crammed event and students are distracted expecting more and more leeway with cell phones, attendance forgiveness, handouts, and spoon feeding with practice tests only to cheat anyways. I am TIRED! MY HEALTH took a plummet. Others faculty we’re also seriously getting sick and or jumping ship. Even my Dean said, “That’s it!” and resigned. When he did, the Division fell emotionally and functionally.

      The money was great; so were the health bennie’s. Yet, my golden handcuffs were cutting off my circulation. My lifestyle was incredible, but my psyche and lack of sleep from constant conflict diminished my soul and I hit bottom.

      I heard about an opportunity in the community where I could make a significant change in my life. My gut instinct said, “Take it!” So I did. My department attempted to talk me out of it. The upper administration didn’t. In fact, they wanted to move me and my program out of Health Sciences and into Continuing Ed and maybe even end it. There was no, “What can we do to get you to stay?” It was at that moment I realized my new job was the right fit.

      The new job was willing to wait for me and told me how exciting it was to have me come to their organization. I was speechless. The pay, though not as much as the Tech College job, was still good and there was a 401K, less hours, and in my town. No more 10 hour a week drives into drudgery, as was with the Tech College.

      Psychologically, I suffered during the interim of waiting for the cross over; as I gave my Tech College a one month notice to help them out, to include taking my class to the graduation finish line. I don’t believe in burning bridges.

      Did self-doubt enter my mind at times? Yes, it did. I started my program. For 10.5 years I was a one man show. I even made my college $135,000, created a $15,000 endowment that drew interest, and started a scholarship. It was my baby. But now that baby was pre-pubescent and the administrative leadership culture a succubus. I was dying on the vine. I had to cross over to where passion and community service would breathe life back into my soul. I landed a Physical Medicine Job! Glory Hallelujah!


      Michelle Liggett
      Anderson, SC
      Director, Massage Therapy Program
      Ran a public Rehab Student Driven Clinic
      Support for LPGA Symetra Tour
      HSM, C-MLD, BCT, LMT (NC/NC)
      U.S. Navy (Ret/Active Duty 20 years)

  9. I’m an older citizen that spent several years unemployed and then underemployed. I’m now in a job that I enjoy, most of the time, but still consider myself as underemployed simply because this is a job that a kid right out of high school could do. It does not take any special knowledge or training. That said, those years of being unemployed leave me unwilling to leave this job. The pay is not enough for more than the bare minimum of expenses; no worry about car payments because health issues take all the money left after rent and utilities. Luckily, it is just myself but I am always worried about what happens when the car I’m driving goes kaput or if I end up in the hospital, like one of my coworkers had happen to her, and have no income at all.

    • Karen – what did you do in your past careers that you could leverage to be successful today? There’s nothing wrong with staying at a job you like. However, it does sound like you have an income issue. Think about the skills you’ve accumulated throughout your life that you could leverage in a new career. Make sure you’re networking as much as possible and people know what kind of work you’re looking for. Don’t give up on a finding a great job now just becuase you’ve had issues in the past…

  10. I guess I’m chained to a job as well, but for me it’s not at all about the money. Due to some lucky life circumstances I’ve reached financial independence early and can afford to retire any time I like. My problem is I don’t want to retire because I can’t imagine not having a steady stream of interesting high-stakes problems to solve. Basically my entire career has been in one narrow field of specialization, and I know I would miss not being the world-class expert. I suspect it’s why so many college professors stay on well into their emeritus years, as long as their health permits.

    Maybe it was a mistake to stay so narrowly focused on a single career path for so long. This concentration allowed me to reach the top of my area, but at the expense of having any interests or even ideas in unrelated fields. And so the concept of breaking the handcuffs means starting over and building another expertise from scratch. I’ve started reading more in finance (completely unrelated to my current work), and I can tell already there’s a huge mountain of a learning curve to climb here.

    Anyway I just wanted to point out that it’s important to not only diversify your income stream but also to keep up separate interests and aspirations throughout your working years. On second thought no regrets about my job, just the time I wasted drinking beer in front of the tube.

    • Freebird – thanks for adding this comment. I have an upcoming article where I discuss the benefits of work, and why we really need it. Even if I had limitless cash, I’d still need something to work towards every day and dream about.

      Your story reminds me of my former employer… it benefited the company to have employees specialize in one single thing, but it definitely wasn’t the best for employees. As you’ve mentioned, it’s easy to get pigeon-holed and before you know it you’re stuck in a dying field. They key is to stay diversified in your education at work and outside of work as you’re starting to do. It may seem over-whelming, but there’s a reason people say you only need to read 3-4 books on a subject before you become an expert.

      • Dan, thanks very much, I’m on the prowl for ideas so looking forward to your article.

        I’m especially curious about how people decide what to do when they don’t need the income. I know, there’s a ton of need out there so plenty of worthy causes can use volunteers from all walks of life. I guess for me having good intentions isn’t enough, I’m looking for something I can be truly great at, but I have no idea what that can be (although I do know that trading stocks isn’t it).

        Hey I just read your bio, looks like I’m ahead of you by a couple of decades. I see your mission is guiding people down the road to financial independence, and trust me that trip is well worth it. My problems are tiny compared to those of many around me.

  11. I’m wearing the cuffs. I’m a design engineer in a large corporation. The issue isn’t the force of will to make a change. The issue is not having a dream, a purpose, a goal, a reason to make a change in the first place. How does anyone know what that is? How can I work through that decision point? If I wait to be inspired it itight not ever happen. Any thoughts?

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