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@Work Advice: When should a worker take a salary cut for better benefits in other areas?

(Photograph by Deb Lindsey)

Reader: I’ve recently moved from an expensive city to one with a lower cost of living. I’ve kept my job (not the best fit for me in a lot of ways) in the more expensive city, enduring an unpleasant three-hour daily commute. I’m looking for a job closer to home, in a field I’ve enjoyed in the past, where salaries are typically much lower than what I earn now. I’m relatively financially stable and not a big spender; I could change my lifestyle to accommodate a pay cut, but I’m having difficulty adjusting to this idea. First, is it going to damage my career prospects to make less in my next job? I’ve spent my working life believing that regular salary increases represent progression and that a pay cut is “a step back.” Second, how do I determine how much of a pay cut is too much? The jobs I’m applying for have other benefits, such as a shorter commute, less stress, more annual and sick leave, health club discounts, etc. The problem is that I don’t know how to calculate the value of these non-salary benefits. Is there some magic formula that I can use to determine that, say, a 15 percent reduction is worth going for, but a 20 percent reduction isn’t?

Karla: Math has its uses, but when you have this many qualitative variables to consider, try a humanities-based approach — specifically, storytelling and art.

Instead of basing your idea of career progress on one vector — income — think about how your next move fits into your career narrative. Is it a reboot or a retreat? Have you outgrown your current job? How will you explain this detour to an interviewer? Purposefulness can say more about your prospects than paychecks.

As for determining how big a pay cut is “worth it”: I’m sure some econo-wonk can devise a formula to calculate the optimal combination of pay, perks, commute and job satisfaction. But I see this as less of a math puzzle and more of a mosaic that can be arranged any number of ways for a satisfactory outcome.

The biggest piece is salary: Will it be enough to cover the things you can’t live without? Then, arrange the other pieces you’re offered — vacation time, gym discounts, level of responsibility — around it. Step back, and see if you like the overall picture.

Of course, you don’t want to settle for just any offer. But you’re currently spending about half your life slogging to, from and through your workday. Rather than hoping to find some golden ratio to justify the leap, you might just work on solving for “why.”

Karla L. Miller is ready to hear your work dramas and traumas. Send your questions to You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork, or Facebook.

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Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at



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