Many of us only dream about taking a leave of absence from work, but Barbara Raab turned reverie into reality. She’s on a 9-month sabbatical from her job as a senior newswriter and editor at NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. What is she doing during this self-imposed time-out? She’s teaching at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Most people cannot take a career break without considering its financial ramifications and these thoughts are the source of this week’s Ten Money Questions.
1. How did you financially prepare for your sabbatical?
I can’t decide if I didn’t prepare at all, or whether I’ve been financially preparing for something my entire working life without knowing it. I say that because, when the thought struck me that perhaps I could ask for and be granted a sabbatical, I instantly knew that I could basically afford it. That’s because, for my entire working life (25+ years), I have made my financial security and well-being a high priority. I have “paid myself first,” meaning, I set and meet aggressive goals for personal savings; I carry almost no debt; I own my (modest) apartment outright (I bought when the market was low and some years ago retired my relatively small mortgage); and, although I can’t do much about the high cost of living in Manhattan, I otherwise live pretty modestly, simply, and inexpensively–and quite happily, I might add.
To me, having and wanting “things” just means more “stuff” to take care of, and I don’t want to be bogged down by “stuff.” Other than a second bedroom, and my own personal washer/dryer (sadly, my building does not allow the latter or I’d have it in a heartbeat), I can honestly say that I have pretty much every “thing” I want, so even though taking a giant pay cut to teach at a public university isn’t easy, I knew I could make it work for a short time without a lot of pain. That said, I’m glad nobody told me the economy was about to go into freefall, because that has absolutely affected the value of my nest egg, and because the financial conservative in me might have used that knowledge to chicken out of doing this. And, the other thing I do have to acknowledge is that, in large part because my family of origin has these same values and priorities about money and financial security, I was lucky enough to graduate from school without the burden of debt, so I was able to start saving right away, rather than paying off loans.
Also, I am the only person who relies on my income — I don’t support anybody else — so it’s been relatively easy for me to choose my own financial priorities without short-shrifting anybody else. I realize that much of what I have just described here is not practical for a lot of other people; I never forget that, however smart I’ve been, I’ve also been extraordinarily lucky; but the reality is that, with some lead time, planning, discipline, and willingness to give some things up, I do believe lots of people who think they could never take time off, actually could.
2. How has less income translated to your daily life?
As I said above, I have never lived high on the hog, so thus far, the lower income has meant nibbling at the edges. I no longer buy luxury items at the fancy grocery store just because I feel like it; I stop and ask myself whether this is really how I want to spend my “fixed income” for this period of time. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no. I have been rediscovering all the free things my city has to offer (yesterday, for example, I spent the day with friends walking over two of New York City’s many bridges. Cost: $0. Experience: priceless.) I have also decided not to buy new clothes right now; I don’t really need them, and my new colleagues and students have never seen the old ones, so they’re new to them!
And here’s how financially conservative I am (and I surprised even myself when I watched myself do this): rather than draw my lower salary for my teaching work, I’ve decided to sock as much of it as possible away in pre-tax and tax-deferred vehicles that are offered to me by the university. My thinking is, I have already paid taxes on whatever cash is in the bank, so why not live on that, and get a tax benefit with whatever amount of new money is coming in? So I guess you could say, I now have almost NO paycheck!
And, although right now I am able to take all of this in stride, the reality is that, during the second semester, I am going to have to figure out some way to supplement my teaching income; I really cannot do it this way for 9 months.
3. In your fifteen years at NBC, what has been your most significant memory about money?
Hmmm. Good question. Well, I guess it’s hard not to be somewhat aware of how much money some people in my industry make, and to wonder how I missed that boat!
4. As a non-practicing lawyer, was that law degree worth the time and money?
Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, but perhaps not for the right reasons. I had a professor in college who used to warn us all the time, “Don’t go to law school unless you want to be a lawyer.” I don’t think I actually wanted to be a lawyer; I think I wanted what I perceived to be the “social currency” of an advanced degree, and I was so unsure of anything in my life at that time, including my sexuality and what was going to happen with that, that law school seemed like a good idea, but only because I didn’t have a better one. And, as I said earlier, I had the good fortune not to have to go into debt to figure all this out. I do think, however, that it was really good advanced training in how to think critically, how to ask the right questions, and how to challenge and confront ideas in a smart and articulate fashion. In that sense, it has stood me in good stead at different times in my career, and the fact is that I was and still am very interested in legal issues, and I sometimes do some writing about them, so I guess in the end, I have no regrets. But three years is a long time to spend in school getting a degree you never use!
5. What financial concerns are top of mind with your students?
Some of them are clearly — and justifiably — worried about whether the career they’ve chosen to pursue will allow them to make a living. The journalism industry is in so much flux right now. What I tell them is, no matter what the journalism business model turns out to be, they will be “in on the ground floor,” and if they have something interesting to say, and know the techniques for saying it, they will be in demand. I hope I am right.
6. Is money viewed differently in academia vs. the private sector?
I’m not sure I’ve been “in academia” long enough to have strong convictions about this, and I’m sure it depends where one works in the private sector and where one teaches. For me, there is definitely a noticeable difference between the resources in private industry (remember, the parent company of NBC is GE, and, despite the tough economy, it’s still a very “blue chip” place to work in terms of resources for employees) and those at a public university. And there is no question that the earnings upside in academia for all but the superstars is lower than in private industry. But there are also benefits to being in the academy that many would call priceless: control over one’s own time and intellectual capital, for example. Nothing’s perfect. The question is what one’s financial and quality-of-work priorities are. I’m not sure yet how I’d rank mine. I want it all!
7. What do you miss most about your job at NBC? What do you like least about teaching?
What I miss most about my job at NBC is definitely the daily snap-crackle-pop of being in a newsroom, especially during an election year. Along with that, I miss my very smart and funny colleagues. What I like least about teaching, I think, is the prospect of having to give out grades. If it were up to me, the grading system would be high pass/pass/fail–and that’s it. After all, these students are spe