Melody and Ian Karle were not happy. It was February 2021, and the couple was living in Houston. The Texas winter power crisis had begun, leaving them without running water or heat. But that wasn’t all. Mr. Karle, who was working as a quality manager at a company in the oil and gas industry, was sick of his job. It paid the bills, sure, but it left him feeling drained and unsatisfied.
“It was 35 degrees in our house, and we were sitting on the couch, and I was like, ‘Wait, why the hell are we here?’” Mr. Karle, 43, said.
“He didn’t like his job, the power grid was precarious and we’re two working professionals who both have careers. We started to think, well, how do we get out of this?” said Ms. Karle, 43, who was working as an academic librarian.
They did the math and decided Mr. Karle could quit and leave his industry if they sold their current home and moved somewhere with a lower cost of living. They settled on Cut Bank, Mont. Ms. Karle took a job as a remote library system administrator, and Mr. Karle started his own artisanal chocolate company, a passion project that began in the early days of the pandemic.
In total, the two together took an annual pay cut of $100,000 and now make around $70,000. They have had to give up lavish nights out, but those types of temptations don’t exist in small town Montana anyway, they said. They’re instead enjoying thriftier activities like hiking and gardening.
“You don’t even know how much stress is on you until it’s gone. It’s ridiculous how much happier I am here than I used to be,” Mr. Karle said.
Last year, more than 40 million people left their jobs. The so-called Great Resignation has been fueled by people who were tired of unfulfilling work, burned out by demanding jobs and the struggle to make ends meet. While some people are now in a stronger financial place and earning a higher salary, others who quit have faced financial hurdles. They’ve made it work by picking up part-time gigs on the side, giving up certain luxuries or, like the Karles, relocating to someplace less expensive. And despite the added stress, many feel that the decision was worth it.
The Karles feel they are living more purposeful lives. Several times a week, they sell Mr. Karle’s chocolate bars at local farmers’ markets, and they foster cats in their home (no compensation for that latter task). Ms. Karle is growing beets, rhubarb, asparagus and more in her home garden. The couple lost some income, but think they found something greater.
“We both can’t even believe what we were doing before this,” Ms. Karle said. “This is the best decision we ever made.”
The Karles represent a group of individuals and families who have made a change and are now dealing with the financial consequences, for better or worse. “The pandemic made people really think and take stock of their living situations,” said Cliff Robb, an associate professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We saw so many different employment opportunities become flexible in their structures, so people started to reassess it all.”
We asked readers who’ve made that reassessment how it has affected their financial lives. Here are a few of their stories.
‘I was still very nervous about quitting’
In June 2021, Natalie Hanson, 26, quit her position at her hometown newspaper in Chico, Calif., where she covered city government, housing and homelessness. The pay was low, she said, and she faced almost constant online harassment because of the subject matter she was covering. The emotional toll became unbearable.
“I’ve been self-sufficient since high school. I worked all the way through college,” Ms. Hanson said. “But I was still very nervous about quitting.”
She found a new newspaper job at a local daily in Oakland, Calif., with a significant increase in salary. But the cost of living in Oakland was far higher than what Ms. Hanson was used to in Chico, about three hours north of the Bay Area. Her rent more than doubled, and her car insurance went up.
In May, Ms. Hanson quit that job and landed a role as a reporter for Courthouse News Service. Though the position came with a raise, and Ms. Hanson brings in an extra $800 every month writing freelance articles for local nonprofits, she plans to move to a cheaper apartment in the city by the end of the year.
WAS IT WORTH IT? Despite the turbulence, Ms. Hanson does not regret her initial decision to quit her job in Chico. She now lives in an area she loves.
“I never expected to be able to afford to live in the Bay Area until I was at least 30, as a journalist,” she said. “It was very affirming that there are possibilities. However, you have to be very fiscally careful.”
‘It doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s very rewarding’
Susan Woodland, 67, quit her job as a director of collections at a museum in New York in May 2020. Her role had required lots of administrative work, which she didn’t enjoy, and when the pandemic hit, she was faced with the decision of either laying off other employees in her department or leaving her own position. She went with the latter.
Now Ms. Woodland freelances for museums part time, and she’s able to do hands-on work with their collections, something she finds very fulfilling. “It’s been the best of both worlds. I can set my own schedule. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s very rewarding,” she said. It was a tremendous emotional relief to leave her 9-to-5 job, and she now has “the freedom to make far, far less money, but on my own terms.”
She earns some income from investments, which helps cover her living expenses. She was always dogged about saving, even when she was young, and this has been an additional help. “Every time I got a small raise — it could’ve been $20 a week — my parents said, ‘Save half.’ And I always did that,” Ms. Woodland said.
WAS IT WORTH IT? Money is definitely a little tight now, but quitting was still worth it, Ms. Woodland said.
‘I knew I was being severely underpaid’
For some, quitting has led to a newfound financial freedom. Last summer, Maeve Connor, 35, left her job as a marketing manager at a budget-strapped truck stop and fuel company. “I knew I was being severely underpaid,” said Ms. Connor, who lives in Portland, Ore. She also couldn’t shake the feeling that she wanted to have a more meaningful career, so she started applying for jobs.
Ms. Connor soon took a job as a communications specialist at Central City Concern, a local homelessness nonprofit, where she now makes $63,000 a year. “It’s had a huge impact on my quality of life,” she said. “I buy fancier groceries now. I have significant savings. I’m trying to figure out whether it will ever be possible to buy a house, which was not a question I was even asking before.”
She’s also been able to pay for driving lessons (“I could not have afforded them on my previous salary, and it turns out I am very bad at driving and need a lot of lessons.”), an engagement ring for her wife and a trip to New Orleans. “I didn’t stress about money at all while we were there,” she said.
WAS IT WORTH IT? Ms. Connor is pleased with her switch, especially considering inflation has driven up prices and her monthly rent increased by nearly $100 this month. “If I was still at my last job,” Ms. Connor said, “I don’t know how I’d be dealing with those things.”
‘We haven’t wrapped our heads around it all quite yet’
Rachel Sobel, 53, left her job as the director of communications for a health-insurance company in February.
She had started the job during the pandemic, so she was feeling isolated at work, and after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease she knew she had to leave. “I don’t have that many good hours in the day, and I felt like I was giving all of them to work,” she said.
Ms. Sobel, who lives in Chicago, was able to join her husband’s health plan, which made leaving her job possible. Her husband’s salary is just enough to cover living expenses, she said, but things like vacations, home improvements or surprise expenses aren’t possible right now.
“There was bit of regret and panic” at first, Ms. Sobel said. She’s still not entirely sure how their finances will play out, adding, “We haven’t wrapped our heads around it all quite yet.”
Now, she works as a freelancer, editing, writing and consulting, making up for some, but not all, of her old salary. Even necessary expenses have been put on hold.
“We live in a 100-year-old house,” she said. “There’s always something that needs to be done, and we had a schedule of things to fix up, but now we need to reassess that.” A portion of her basement ceiling is starting to fall apart, but she doesn’t have the money to repair it at the moment, which has been a source of frustration.
Household issues that may have been simple fixes before are now headaches. “My car is getting older, and if it needs a $1,000 repair, maybe I’ll just sell it and not have a car,” she said.
Perhaps most difficult is the fact that her daughter is a graduate student living out of state, and visits to her are no longer as affordable. “Whereas before I could’ve easily justified a weekend trip, now it would be a financial hit,” Ms. Sobel said. She’s in the process of launching a creative collective with some colleagues, and hopes to increase her income half of what she once earned full time, at a minimum.
WAS IT WORTH IT? Despite all the new challenges, quitting has been worth it for Ms. Sobel. She said she felt like a more well-rounded person.
“I’m exercising again, I’m cooking more, I’m working in my garden, I’m taking longer walks with my dog,” she said. “I feel better, physically and mentally.”
Additional reporting by Joshua Needelman.