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The GOOD Guide to Hustlin': How to Know When to Quit Your Job

Just because the economy is suffering doesn't mean you should hold onto a job you hate.


In our series, The GOOD Guide to Hustlin', we go beyond the pitying articles about youth in recession and discover ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

Let’s be real: being able to quit your job is a privilege. If you have children, an unemployed spouse, or an elderly parent to care for, ditching a job with a steady salary and benefits feels impossible. A six-figure college loan or a pre-existing health condition can take quitting off the table pretty quickly, too. But let’s say you are single, childless, and in your 20s, and hating your job. You’re probably waiting for the economy to improve so you can say “good riddance.”

You’re not alone: BusinessWeek reported in June that there were 28 million people who were unhappy in their jobs but too afraid to quit during the recession. Yet young people are still leaving their jobs, often without other opportunities lined up. Quitting is scary any time, let alone during a severe economic downturn, but Generation Y seems ready to take the risk. This may be because we don’t have much to lose, but it’s also because we’re delaying marriage and kids, and because there’s no longer as much of a stigma surrounding unemployment.

Still, the prospect of giving up that twice-a-month paycheck can be terrifying regardless of age and circumstance. How do you go about preparing for such a move? More importantly, how do you know it’ll be worth it? Here are some rebuttals to the nagging excuses in your head, telling you to hold onto that shitty job for dear life:

1. You don’t have to move home again. Americans are now more and more burdened by the cost of rent, so securing a living space is often the first thing that comes to mind when mulling over a resignation. Not having somewhere to go can feel like too great of a risk. But even if moving in with family isn’t an option, it’s possible to pare down your lifestyle.

Victor, 26, knew he wanted to start his own business, but his demanding day job working with students in Chicago’s west suburbs was just enough to cover his rent and living expenses. So he started “researching all kinds of living situations—with friends, living in cheaper or rougher neighborhoods, or talking to property managers who may believe in my [business] idea. I contemplated moving to a cheaper city, too.” Eventually he got a month-to-month lease farther out from the city center with three other people, and made sure everything was set before he quit. Moving before he left his job allowed him to save a couple thousand dollars to cover the basics.

Saving a little money helps enormously, but it doesn’t have to be much if you vow to be frugal post-quitting. (Say, by selling your car.) Then again, when you’re only making $23,000 a year to start with, you may tell yourself, “I can’t save any money with this crappy salary!” One solution?

2. Turn to the service industry and mine the “etc.” section of Craigslist. While moonlighting isn’t pleasant, it’s a lot easier to put in 18-hour days when there’s promise of breaking out of a job that underpays. Picking up a few hours a week at a bar or scoring a regular babysitting gig can help bulk up your savings before you quit.

Billie, 26, got through the “second shift” by constantly imagining her last day at her full-time job. Her job at a small music company was “cool”—she got to go backstage at hip hop shows and drink in the office, Don Draper-style. But, she says, “I was making barely enough money to pay rent, and certainly not enough to afford a lifestyle that I like to live.” A normal day was 10:30 a.m. to midnight. Even though she had virtually no life during the workweek, the fact that she was miserable pushed her to squeeze in some private tutoring on the weekends. In a few months, she had enough financial padding to feel confident quitting, and was able to keep tutoring to keep herself afloat.

Still, even if you’re set with money or a couch to crash on, you’re probably still anxious about your career’s long-term trajectory. You seem to remember reading those articles about how employers don’t hire people without jobs.

3. Just because you quit doesn’t mean you have to be unemployed—at least on paper. When almost 10 percent of the country is out of work, it’s understandable to fear that you’ll never find a job again. The easiest way to sidestep an employment gap is to start your own business, which can mean pretty much anything. The “business” could be as simple as putting your freelance work under one umbrella title. Even if it doesn’t support you financially, it’s still something to put on your resume.

Sara, 27, quit her film job because, she says, “my boss was a nightmare and I wasn’t learning enough to make it ‘worth it.’” After one particularly negative interaction with her boss, she quit 24 hours later. She got through the sudden change with bartending shifts and freelance work. “What really helped was that everyone I ever knew started sending me gigs in film and encouraging me to apply,” Sara says. Then she started a company within three months of quitting.

Even if starting your own business isn’t plausible, you need to get the word out that you’re looking for freelance work. So after you quit, network like crazy. Cortney, 31, left her magazine job because “we were understaffed and overworked and it just didn’t seem like would get better anytime soon.” But she made nice with her bosses, “kept in touch with all my old industry contacts and got good consulting gigs that way.”

Even if the goal is to completely change careers, there’s always a way to work for free or very little pay in your ideal field, while doing the same kinds of odd jobs you did when you were saving up to quit. Zack, 32, is gradually building up a graphic design portfolio, but his dog-walking and catering clients are still in rotation, if not on his resume.

And you have to remind yourself that the goal isn’t to just get any other job. Billie, who quit her music-biz job, had her eyes on the film industry but got offered a job doing marketing for a “hip liquor company” right when her savings were starting to peter out. “It paid well,” she says, “twice as much as my previous job. But I decided to turn it down. It wasn’t what I had quit my job for.” She credits the liquor company’s offer with putting the pressure on. “I thought ‘If I was turning down money, I had better get my shit together and try to make a living in film,” she says. Billie is now working a low-paying job on an indie feature, which isn’t enough to quit her tutoring gigs, but at least she “finally feel[s] like all of [her] efforts are driving towards a common goal.”

But what if you’re quitting not because your dream is to take your own orders or live the flexible life of a freelancer? You could just have an asshole boss, or be incredibly bored, or realize you despise the career you once aspired to. Probably the scariest thing to realize after quitting a job you hate is that you have no idea what you’d rather be doing. In that case…

4. Sometimes, unclogging your brain to figure out what you’d rather be doing is worth it. Kareem, 25, thought it was his dream to work at a big advertising agency. “I’d been working toward that goal for about five years,” he tells me. “Once I got there, I stayed for only nine months. I just realized that it wasn’t really for me and I didn’t want to waste more time.” Kareem has spent the summer doing things like event promotion, instructing a high school class, selling random things on eBay and even consulting with other people on how to quit their jobs. He has no clue what he wants to do in the future. But at least now he has the time to think about it.

Quitting can feel like a serious luxury, especially when you’re not making much money to begin with. But with some planning and network-building, there are ways to pull through. One thing seems clear if you’re young and unattached: you’re not doing yourself a favor in the long-term—emotionally or financially—by sticking it out at a place you hate.

Illustration by Andres Guzman

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