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7 times it makes sense to take a pay cut
Career decisions aren't always about salary
Trading late nights at the office for a smaller paycheck — but with more flexibility — might be worth it.
Trading late nights at the office for a smaller paycheck — but with more flexibility — might be worth it. Thinkstock

Have you ever been tempted to accept a pay cut?

When evaluating a job, there are many different factors to consider in addition to salary. There's the job itself, your level of responsibility, your title, potential for future growth, and so on. There are also compensation perks like vacation time, bonuses, and company equity to factor in.

So, should salary be your primary focus? Is there ever a good time to willingly take a pay cut? We spoke to HR experts and real people who have been through it before, to learn when it is — and isn't — worth accepting a job at a lesser salary.

1. When you're making a career change

One of the big reasons to take a pay cut is if you're switching industries. It may be worth a cut in pay "to gain a new set of skills and experiences that will broaden your skill set," says Trellis Usher, founder of HR company T.R. Ellis Group. "It's unreasonable to expect to receive top dollar when you move into a role where you have little to no experience. In these situations, it's usually a longer-term play to take a cut in pay so you can make a significant jump in pay after 18 to 24 months."

David Bakke of MoneyCrashers.com remembers when he took a pay cut a few years ago because he wanted to get out of the restaurant industry. "I was tired of all the long hours and weekend work," he says. "My new position involved a salary cut of roughly 10 percent, but also afforded me more time to spend with family and friends. Plus, the health insurance benefit was better than at my restaurant position, and I had all major holidays off." At the end of the day, you can't expect one industry to meet the salary expectations of a totally different field.

2. When you crave work-life balance

A recent survey by the talent acquisition and career development firm Mom Corps found that 45 percent of working adults are willing to give up some percentage of their salary for more flexibility at work — on average, they're willing to relinquish nearly 8.6 percent of their income.

"I think the greatest takeaway from this statistic is that salary isn't everything for everyone," says Allison O'Kelly, founder and CEO of Mom Corps. "Would you be happy to take a slight pay cut if you could skip your commute and work from home on Fridays? Would starting your own business make you a more fulfilled and happy professional, and allow you to work in the manner that you want to?"

Usher made a similar switch in her own life: "I took a job that required less travel and allowed me to work from home a couple of days a week after having a new baby. I wanted to stay in the corporate arena without losing too much ground, but needed to take on a role that was less demanding because of my family needs," she says.

Similarly, LeeAnn Shattuck took a 15 percent pay cut 13 years ago when she left Accenture, then called Anderson Consulting, to join IBM. "I had been working 80 hours a week with Accenture, traveling five days a week. IBM offered me the opportunity to stop traveling and work from home," she said. Even after all this time, she's never regretted the decision.

3. When the new opportunity is way better

Sometimes a new job offer is a fantastic opportunity, like if you are dying to work for a specific company, or you are miserable at your current job and have the chance to nab your dream gig. In her first job out of college, Annabelle Chung* was making $42,000 and expecting an annual bonus of about $10,000. She received another job offer at a startup, but the fledgling company couldn't afford to match her prior salary. Not only was the new job offering only $35,000, it would require walking away from her bonus just a month before it came due.

All the same, Chung was beyond burnt out: "I would come home crying regularly and felt like I was losing a grip on who I was." Although she was making a pretty good wage for a fresh college grad, she didn't sense much potential for future growth. "I feared that if I stayed there any longer, I'd get pigeonholed and never be able to leave," she says. "This new job was everything I was looking for. It was my dream job … except for the salary."

In the end, she lost out on about $17,000, but finally felt free. "After making the switch, I felt doors opening up to me, and learned so much from the new position," she says. She excelled at her new job, and as the company succeeded, she more than reclaimed her old salary — after only a few years, she was making nearly double what she had at the old gig.

4. When it all evens out

If you can reshuffle your priorities and costs so your reduced salary doesn't make a significant difference in your lifestyle, then you've mediated much of the pay cut.

Julia Angelen took a pay cut from $65,000 to $50,000 to "get out of one crazy company and to work five minutes from home," she says. Although she was down $15,000, she saved enough in other costs to at least partially even the score, like "the cost savings in gas, eating out (I often went home for lunch), and massages and wine due to stress," she says. She walked to her new job some days, which further reduced driving costs and squeezed exercise into her day. "My title and level stayed the same, so it was a lateral move. Also, I knew the economy was struggling, so later, it would look like it was economic forces that drove my salary down," she says.

Angelen's salary was reduced on paper — which admittedly could hurt her in future job searches — but she had a ready explanation and a budget that worked out without putting her in the red. Plus, she was far happier. Sounds like a good deal to us! You might find yourself in a similar situation if, for example, your new job brings you to a different city with a lower cost of living, so your lower pay balances out with your lower expenses.

5. When there's something you want more

"Base pay is only one component of an employee's total compensation," Usher explains. "Sometimes it's beneficial for an individual to take less base pay and 'sweeten the deal' in other ways." These other ways could include pay-equivalents, like a signing bonus, annual performance bonus, additional vacation, paid time off, or tuition reimbursement.

6. When striking out on your own

Maybe you've always wanted to start your own company, or you harbor dreams of freelancing. Either way, self-employment always comes with some risk, often including a short-term pay cut while you get your new company off the ground. Ivan Karp* is a freelance software developer, but he used to work at a consulting firm with long hours, a demanding boss, and very little office camaraderie.

He knew he was taking a pay cut by going freelance, but felt it was worth the trade-off: Now he can make his own schedule, and his life is far less stressful. He'd been pining for more time to spend at the gym and with his friends; in his new life as a freelancer, he only works 35 hours a week, and it suits him just fine.

Perhaps best of all, Karp can charge much more by the hour as a freelancer than when he was a salaried employee, so while he needs to pay for his own health insurance, his hourly bump almost makes up for the fact that he works almost part-time.

7. When you've hit the salary ceiling

If you work hard and have been at your job for a long time, you've probably received regular raises. But after enough time, you might max out the salary range for your position. In that situation, "future increases are not possible without a promotion," says Timothy Wiedman, associate professor of management and human resources at Doane College in Nebraska.

If you've maxed out your salary potential and your career path is blocked (say, it's a small company and there's no room for a promotion, or someone else already holds the job you want), then it might be time to look for another opportunity. "Taking a position in a fast-growing company, for example, may lead to multiple opportunities for career growth and salary increases," he says, "so a short-term salary cut may simply be seen as an investment in better long-term career prospects."

But make sure you're really prepared …

Holly Paul, the chief human resources officer of Vocus, a cloud marketing software company, explains that a pay cut may be worthwhile in some instances, but isn't something you should accept lightly. "It certainly makes sense for some people to take a pay cut, but I'd be cautious," she says. "You need to know yourself well enough to understand if a pay cut will lower your motivation and passion for work. You also need to take a close look at your personal finances to make sure that the pay reduction won't create a situation that's not feasible at home."

If you do accept a pay cut, you may need to adjust your budget. And if the change in your earning power will be significant, a financial planner can help you prioritize where to cut and where to keep on saving. The bottom line? "Be self-aware and make sure that you're taking a pay cut for the right reasons and you won't regret it later," says Paul.

*Name has been changed to protect the employee.

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