Striking a balance between money and ethics


illustration by Andrea Nebhut, staff illustrator

Trinity prides itself on providing an education that leads students to think critically about the world, themselves and their role in the world. Yet, two years ago when I was a sophomore, I failed to meet the promise of that education when a friend asked me what I wanted from my life.

My response? A big television, maybe a lake house, but more than anything else, enough money to live comfortably, and by live comfortably I meant surround myself with material items. I don’t know if I really believed that answer even as I was saying it, but as is often the case, being obliged to vocalize a poorly thought-out position makes one realize how bad it is and induces a sense of shame that you thought it in the first place.

Due partially to that sense of shame at an inadequate answer, in the intervening two years I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I became invested in certain big, philosophical ideas, developed visions of doing science for the public good or influencing politics for the better. It felt as if there was a sense of purpose. However, the practical reality is, as ever, different from the vision and I needed a job of some kind after graduation.

A few months ago, in February, I was aimlessly seeking such a job at a Trinity career fair when a young man from a financial planning company flagged me down. A brief chat led to email communication, which led to a series of interviews and eventually a job offer. The company seemed rare among financial planners in that it had a strong core of ethics that was articulated prominently on its website and materials and was constantly on the lips of the employees I spoke with. This was a strong appeal, but it wasn’t the only attraction.

There was the money. I knew that there was an opportunity for very good earnings. Finance is finance, after all. I told myself that that potential earning power was good. I could rapidly pay down student loans and start a nest egg to lessen the burden of economically lean grad school years. Further, following the advice of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, I could earn lots of money and then funnel that money into charities while being an ethical practitioner in the often shady world of finance.

Beneath these good rationalizations, though, I felt a strange creeping feeling. Thoughts bubbled up, unbidden: “It’d be nice to buy a top-of-the-line gaming computer,” “I could use some expensive leather shoes,” “15 year scotch is nice, but 18 would be incredible.” Whatever intellectual rationalizations I’d concocted to justify taking a job for money, my subconscious was having none of it. I doubted that I could trust myself to spend such large earnings wisely.

It is one thing to commit, in the intellectual abstract, to not focusing on monetary earnings but it is quite another to adhere to that commitment when dollar bills, and all the delightful things they can buy, are glittering in your eyes.

Seeking advice, I turned to an older cousin who does financial planning himself. He advised me not to take the job, discerning that I wouldn’t be happy with it. Then, realizing the apparent folly of turning down a guaranteed job when no other prospects were available, he told me, “you can live on nothing,” in these early years after college, so I shouldn’t take a job I wouldn’t like.

This advice was simple, but it totally reframed my view of a short-term post-college employment path. Suddenly, all the abstract truisms about not worrying about money in one’s early twenties made sense. Now is the time when living off of beans and rice in a cheap apartment is easiest and where pursuing genuine interests can yield the greatest benefits down the road.

Of course, I can say this because I’m lucky enough to have manageable student loans and a family that doesn’t need my financial support. For some Trinity students, this is almost certainly not the case and I don’t for a second begrudge those students taking whichever job pays them what they need.

For those of us that are fortunate to have relative financial freedom and the skills to land high-paying jobs, though, we should be wary of the corrupting, conditioned pull of a high salary and fight the expectation of total material comfort after graduation.

Better to let one’s true passions be sharpened by the harsh environment of fiscal austerity than to let them atrophy in the soft environment of material comfort.