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A Blueprint for Life: How to Do (and Invest in) What You Love

Getting an early head start on a career or trade that you’re passionate about can mean the difference between just punching the clock and doing meaningful work that’s satisfying in its own right. On top of that, you can potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars on education expenses and make significantly more over the course of your career by tailoring your educational pursuits to match your career goals. This month, we’ll help you outline a blueprint to pursue your dreams while maximizing your earnings, and we’ll discuss the pros and cons of investing in your employer and industry.

Push Pins in A Map

I grew up in a family with little extra disposable income. We had food and clothes, but there were no funds for new cars, vacations, or even a college savings account. Very early, I decided that was not going to be the life for me.

I didn’t just want to eke by; I wanted a college degree and a professional job, which I felt would lead me to a more prosperous life. And since we had no money growing up, I was attracted to fields that involved making, saving, and investing money. Fortunately, I was very good at math!

So, I worked my way through a Finance/Economics/Statistics degree and set off on my career path. It has certainly not been without its challenges, but overall, I’ve been blessed to have positions that have been very fulfilling for me.

I realize now how lucky I was to determine my potential field as a young woman. And for years, I couldn’t understand why so many of my friends, family, and business associates hated their jobs. They felt stuck and couldn’t see better options. But in their defense—due to their family circumstances—they often would have had to overcome severe challenges to change careers, or even take a new job.

Sometimes, that was possible. Other times, not so much. That’s why it’s just a lot easier (and more profitable) if you can figure out your career path very early—before you’re even ready for college, a trade school, or entering the workforce.

In these next few pages, I’m going to give you a blueprint for doing just that! And even if you think it’s too late to make it work for you, please consider sharing it with your younger friends and relatives.

What Do You Like to Do?

Let’s start with deciding what you’re good at and what you do and don’t like to do. Many years ago, I managed banks, which—back in the 90s—were merging faster than you could order your checks with the new bank name! I worked for a number of banks, and after about eight years, a much larger regional bank bought the state bank I worked for and promptly replaced all of us managers with their own.

No one was really surprised, and for me, it was a relief—I hated banking! Fortunately, the acquiring bank offered all of us laid-off managers a three-day outsourcing course to help us write our resumes and decide what type of jobs we might want to go after.

Out of 40+ managers, I was the only one who showed up! My fellow managers just couldn’t see beyond losing their jobs; they told me, “Banking is all I know how to do.” My response was, “How do you know that? Every company has to have someone on board who knows finances, and who better than a banker?”

Anyway, I made the most of that resource, and by thinking about all the things I liked and disliked about previous jobs, I came away knowing, absolutely, that I never wanted another banking job. And what I really desired was to be in the investing field (which is what I had leaned toward during my college years). Fortunately, I was able to enter that field pretty quickly with my new resume in hand.

And during that course, I was introduced to the book, What Color is Your Parachute?, by Richard N. Bolles. It was a real eye-opener! The book was first published in 1970 and has been revised annually since 1975. Instead of the typical guide to job hunting, the book requires a self-assessment, analyzing the reader’s passions, skills, and personality traits to help determine the right career path for them. But it goes much further—helping with resumes, interviewing skills, and even salary negotiations.

I highly recommend the book, as it is so comprehensive, but you can also do your own assessment with just these few questions, courtesy of

  1. What are your passions and skills? Don’t limit yourself; this is the time to daydream. Think about all the things you love/like to do and all of the skills you have (such as being good at math, science, writing, computers, etc.) And as I did, you can make a list of all the things you didn’t like about previous or current jobs.
  2. Your personality traits. Are you outgoing, an introvert, a people person, a team player, prefer to work alone, etc.?
  3. Your goals. Not everyone is motivated by money. Women, especially, focus more on tangible goals, such as educating children or grandchildren, helping elderly parents, owning a vacation home, early retirement, living abroad, etc. In contrast, most men are more likely to name financial goals. Think about where you want to be 10 or 20 years from now. I’m a big fan of vision boards (here are some ideas). By selecting pictures and phrases that represent your desires and goals, it’s a constant reminder of the path you want to follow to achieve your dreams and goals.
  4. Your values. Here is the time to bring in those personality traits you listed above. Some folks prefer a job that allows flexible hours, travel, working from home. Are you a leader? Do you value creativity, autonomy, or want to influence others? Do you want to be challenged? Do you need to see a clear career path for promotions, job and salary growth? Is job security important to you?
  5. Your potential salary. How much money do you need/want to make? Don’t just consider covering everyday expenses but dream big! Do you want money for further education, travel, a second home, or maximizing your retirement assets?

Is College the Right Path for You?

In the past 100 years, the average price to go to college has more than doubled, growing at 2% annually in the last decade.

Here are some more fun facts from

  • The average in-state student attending a public 4-year institution spends $26,027 for one academic year.
  • The average cost of in-state tuition alone is $9,678; out-of-state tuition averages $27,091.
  • The average private, nonprofit university student spends a total of $55,840 per academic year living on campus, $38,768 of it on tuition and fees.
  • Considering student loan interest and loss of income, the ultimate cost of a bachelor’s degree can exceed $500,000.

Half a million dollars! That’s a huge outlay and should require thorough analysis to 1) determine how you are going to pay for it (cash, loans, scholarships, education funds, employer-assisted, etc.); and 2) decide if the degree you are pursuing will not only pay you back for that education, but will also afford you the lifestyle you want to lead during your working years.

I’ve known so many people who only think about where they want to go to college; they never compare the cost to how easy it is to get a job in that area of study or what they can earn with their particular field of study. And that is why we have such a problem with student loans (some $1.75 trillion) in this country today.

According to the Education Data Institute, students with federal loan debt owe an average of $37,338. If they went to a private school, that number rises to $54,921.

And if your ambitions are in the medical field, know that the average dental school graduate amasses $292,169 and a medical school graduate, $201,490.

Monthly student loan repayments average about $393. And it takes some 20 years to pay back the typical loan. That’s a long time, and taking on that kind of financial burden can lead to accepting a job that doesn’t fit your aspirations—just so you can repay that debt. Not a pleasant thought, is it?

So, doesn’t it make sense to find a career path that matches your personality and goals, in which you can make the most money?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that the average starting salary for college graduates is $58,860.

As you can see below, eight out of the top 10 college degrees that earn the most (in terms of median salary) are in engineering, according to

DegreeMedian Salary
Electrical engineering


Computer engineering


Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration


Chemical engineering


Computer science


Aerospace engineering


Materials engineering and materials science


Engineering mechanics, physics, and science


Mechanical engineering


Industrial and manufacturing engineering


As of last February, chemical engineers commanded the highest starting salary of $75,000, with a mid-career salary of $120,000.

Now, investigating other fields, the following charts show the college majors that make the most at the beginning of a career and those that make the most mid-career.


As you can see, majors that are more numbers/science-oriented generally result in higher wages.

And if your passion isn’t in any of those fields, Glassdoor offers a look at median base salaries in the following areas of study:

Statistics; $60,000
Mathematics; $54,018
Biomedical Engineering; $52,814
Accounting; $52,000
Economics; $52,000
Physics; $50,000
Biotechnology; $50,000
Architecture; $50,000
Fashion Design; $50,000
International Relations; $45,880
Graphic Design; $45,846
Marketing; $45,475
English; $45,000
Political Science; $45,000
History; $45,000
Human Resources; $45,000
Journalism; $45,000
Advertising; $45,000
Philosophy; $45,000
Environmental Science; $45,000
Social Science; $45,000
Spanish; $44,256
Communications; $44,190
Interior Design; $44,098
Chemistry; $44,000
Music; $44,000
Film Studies; $44,000
Public Relations; $43,156
Sports Management; $43,156
Education; $43,000
Anthropology; $43,000
Hospitality Management; $42,734
Liberal Arts; $42,500
Psychology; $42,000
Sociology; $42,000
Healthcare Administration; $42,000
Social Work; $41,656

Lastly, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show average wages for high school, associate, bachelor, master’s, and professional degrees:

  • People with no diploma or GED Certificate had weekly median earnings of $626.
  • Associate degree, median earnings of $963 per week.
  • Bachelor’s degree median earnings of $1,334 weekly.
  • Master’s degree median earnings of $1,574 per week.
  • Doctoral or professional degree, median earnings of $1,900 per week.

Note that some professions such as foreign language, chemical engineering, psychology, or teaching require at least a master’s or doctorate degree to nab the best jobs. So, you can add on many more thousands of dollars to your outlay, which means more years to repay those student loans.

The Best-Rated Schools for the Highest-Paying Degrees recently released a report on some of the best schools for major degree programs, including the average annual tuition. Hold onto your seat, because most of these are pretty costly!

Best Engineering Schools

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Tuition and Fees (Master’s): $57,590

Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Tuition and Fees (Master’s): $66,297

University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Tuition and Fees (Master’s): $11,700

Purdue University--West Lafayette, West Lafayette, IN
Tuition and Fees (Master’s): $10,842

Carnegie Mellon University (Carnegie), Pittsburgh, PA
Tuition and Fees (Master’s): $52,100

Best Information Technology Schools

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Tuition and Fees: $58,924

Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Tuition and Fees: $29,438

Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
Tuition and Fees: $57,591

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA
Tuition and Fees: $33,964

University at Albany—SUNY, Albany, NY
Tuition and Fees: $28,248

Best Undergraduate Finance Programs

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Tuition and Fees: $66,104

New York University, New York, NY
Tuition and Fees: $60,438

University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Tuition and Fees: $57,273

University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Tuition and Fees: $41,070

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Tuition and Fees: $60,156

Best Nursing Schools (Master’s degree)

Emory University (Woodruff), Atlanta, GA
Tuition and Fees: $2,022 per credit

Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore, MD
Tuition and Fees: $1,826 per credit

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Tuition and Fees: $48,784 per year

Duke University, Durham, NC
Tuition and Fees: $1,984 per credit

University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Tuition and Fees: $18,471 per year

Best Economics Schools

Princeton, University, Princeton, NJ
Tuition and Fees: $59,710

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Tuition and Fees: $60,156

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Tuition and Fees: $59,076

Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Tuition and Fees: $62,484

Yale University, New Haven, CT
Tuition and Fees: $64,700

Vocational Schools Are an Excellent Alternative to College

I have long been an advocate of trade schools. I’ve just known too many folks with almost-worthless college degrees that never provided them with an above-average living wage. And face it, college just isn’t for everyone. Again, living a fulfilled life is about following your passion, and fortunately, trade schools provide a number of programs to help you do just that!

I recently was part of a county-wide Leadership Program, where we toured the county, visiting local businesses and educational institutions. One of my favorite tours was the local Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) vocational school. I first visited the campus about five or so years ago, when the school offered nine technical programs. Today, that has grown to 17, including:

  • Electric vehicle mechanics
  • LPN nursing
  • EMT
  • Cosmetology
  • Welding
  • Dental Assistant
  • Computer Information Technology
  • Industrial Electricity
  • …and many more

These vocational schools partner with local industry so that they offer training programs that equip the future employees that the industries require (resulting in some great jobs for their students!) The programs can range from six months to a couple of years. And the starting salaries are pretty darn good!

After earning an Associate degree at a Florida University, my best friend’s son decided he wanted to enroll in a mechanics school for high-end vehicles. My friend really wanted him to get a four-year college degree, but after a lot of persuasion (from me and her son!), she and her husband agreed to let him switch to that 16-month program. When he graduated, he began working at a Land Rover/Jaguar dealership, with a starting salary of $55,000 (that was 15 years ago). Today, he is their Chief Mechanic and pulls in a six-figure plus income, and his company sends him around the world every year for training and to participate in mechanic contests!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently published this list of the 15 highest-paying trade school jobs:

Elevator Installer and Repairer$97,860 3%
Radiation Therapist$82,790 6%
Web Developer$78,300 23%
Dental Hygienist$77,810 9
Diagnostic Medical Sonographer$75,380 10%
Electrical Line Worker$74,530 6%
Respiratory Therapist$61,830 14%
Electrician$60,040 7%
Plumber$59,880 2%
Mortician$58,900 8%
IT Technician$57,910 6%
Wind Turbine Technician$56,260 44%
Legal Assistant$56,230 14%
HVACR Technician$48,630 5%
Licensed Practical Nurse$48,070 6%

The median salary earned for a trade school certificate is $44,000. According to, the annual net costs for a trade school averages $12,000-$20,000—a much quicker payoff than going the college route. And in many states (like my state, Tennessee), these programs can be partially or wholly funded by state tuition reimbursements. recently published a survey of the 10 most lucrative six-month trade school certificate programs with their national starting hourly (unless otherwise noted) wages:

  1. EMT, $14.65
  2. Funeral Director, $18.90
  3. Brick Mason, $20.51
  4. Personal Trainer, $21
  5. Medical Coder, $21.64
  6. Firefighter, $44,505 annually
  7. Air Traffic Controller, $47,202 annually
  8. Automobile Service Station Manager, $23.59
  9. Real Estate Broker, $71,287 annually
  10. Margin Department Supervisor (Credit Manager), $74,845 annually.

Trade schools are a viable alternative for many folks—education at a reasonable cost, with a pretty quick return!

The Gender Pay Gap Is Alive and Well

The gender pay gap is defined as “the difference between the average earnings of men and women in the workforce.” And while great strides have been made, in 2022, women still made 18% less than men, on average—82 cents for every dollar that a man earns.

And as you may guess, some industries are worse than others. reports that men in the legal industry earn an average of 59% more than women! Also, high-growth fields such as engineering and technology see a wide gap, where even in an entry-level position, a man with comparable credentials can earn over $4,000 more than a woman!

According to, here are the jobs with the narrowest and the widest gender gaps:

Jobs with the Largest Gender Pay Gap in 2023 (note that the worst offenders are in the higher pay arenas such as Finance and Insurance)


Jobs with the Smallest Gender Pay Gap in 2023 (note that these tend to be lower-paying jobs)


The gender gap exists due to a lot of factors, including age, discrimination, working hours, parenthood (including time out of the workforce), the need for flexible hours/location, education, and employers’ reliance on prior work history and salary.

While the fact that this gender gap is still so egregious in today’s world is a shame, what’s worse is the effect it can have on a woman’s retirement savings. Forbes notes that “A 20-year-old woman just starting full-time, year-round work stands to lose $407,760 over a 40-year career compared to her male counterpart.” That is a huge difference! And it’s important that women understand this at a very young age. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go into the fields where the gender gap is the widest; it just means that you will have to learn to be a really good negotiator.

The Path to Career Advancement

Now that you are armed with the tools to pursue your passion (at the highest wage level) in your career, and you’re nearing graduation with a freshly printed degree or certificate of choice, it’s time to begin looking for a job.

Your beginning salary is crucial, as it will set the stage for the pace of your future advancement. There are tons of books written about salary negotiation, so I recommend that you study them to become the best negotiator possible (before your interviews!).

But another essential part of your job search is to make sure you get on the right track for career advancement. You do not want to be stuck in a dead-end job. In order grow your financial assets to eventually secure a “golden” retirement, it’s imperative to continue improving your career situation—and your salary. That may require changing companies and jobs over the years, but it’s incredibly important to start your career in a company that has a clear growth path for your career—at least in the early years.

Some examples:

A management trainee in a bank can look forward to becoming a manager, a department supervisor, and a regional V.P.

A newly graduated attorney will be looking for a partnership, growing into a senior management role.

A registered nurse can become a nursing supervisor, or a hospital nursing administrator.

You get the picture!

To determine if your future employer is the right fit for your career advancement goals, you will need to roll up your sleeves and research to see who is getting promoted—backgrounds, tenure, education, recent roles. And then once you have the job, make sure that you:

  • Keep your skills up-to-date
  • Acquire education as needed
  • Perform excellent work
  • Stay visible in your role
  • Make sure your supervisors know that you want to move ahead and ask them for feedback along the way, as to your performance, and what other skills you may need to earn a promotion.

I highly recommend that you seek out a mentor once you begin your career—a successful person that you admire, who will help guide you in your career choices and decisions. I’ve been very fortunate to have had several mentors during my career, who I have appreciated and cherished.

Do You Have What it Takes to Own Your Own Business?

I worked for corporations—large and small—for a couple of decades after graduating from college. But I knew that eventually, I would form my own business. I have a pretty independent spirit, I’m very organized, am constantly in search of new knowledge, and am willing to work long hours. Those attributes have served me well, with my investment consulting business as well as in my real estate company.

There may come a time when you feel like you’ve accomplished as much as you want to on the corporate ladder and decide to strike out on your own. I started this article talking about maximizing your wealth in your career, and owning your own business can catapult your finances into the next level.

I’ll just give you a quick example, using my real estate business. I’ve had my license almost 20 years and have made a very good living from selling real estate. But, after a handful of years, I got bored with the transactional side of the business, so attained my broker’s license. That required quite a bit of additional education (which I’ve always loved!). And it also brought me to the attention of the local real estate board, where I held several positions for a few years). At the same time, a franchise company asked me to open a new office for them as their Managing Broker. I did that for a few years, and while I learned a lot, I ultimately decided if I was going to have that much responsibility that I should be earning more money.

And that’s when I bought my own franchise. After hiring several agents, I saw my income rise by one and a half times in the first year! Of course, I also had more expenses, which led to me exiting the franchise and turning my company into an independent real estate business after three years. Finally, I had complete control and I saw my income jump (at least until COVID!).

I admit; it’s not easy being your own boss, but it can be incredibly rewarding—both financially and emotionally.

If you think this might be a good path for you, here is a quick list of questions to ask yourself to help determine if you have what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur:

  • Are you creative, an innovator, and do you have a vision for your company or product?
  • Are you willing to continue learning to stay current?
  • Are you a good listener? This is a crucial skill. You’ll need to stay on top of the marketplace to make sure your company and products remain relevant.
  • Are you willing to monitor your competition and your market?
  • Are you a risk taker?
  • Do you have capital to tide you over for the first year or two?
  • Are you driven?
  • Are you a hard and smart worker?
  • Do you seek out people smarter than you for advice?

If you can answer yes to all of those questions, you’ll want to make sure that you hone the following entrepreneurial skills to their highest levels before starting your own business:

  1. Analytical skills
  2. Strategic planning
  3. Organization
  4. Problem-solving
  5. Decision making
  6. Management skills
  7. Interpersonal skills
  8. Networking
  9. Marketing
  10. Technological skills.

You see, being an entrepreneur means that you must master all the skills of the business (at least in the beginning!)

If you decide to go that route, know that you have fantastic potential to change your financial future, as well as that of your children and grandchildren.

Put Your Money Where Your Passion Lies

Certainly, if you choose a career that seems tailor-made to your passions and skills, you should earn a good living. And to make sure that you maximize those earnings, it’s essential to invest some of them.

And where better to put your money than in an industry that you work in?

If you work in the information technology industry, and have also invested in it, you can pat yourself on the back, since that sector has been the best-performing sector for the last 10 years, providing investors with a 19.39% annualized return. And that’s pretty darn good, considering that the average gain for the S&P 500 over the past decade was 11.82%.

The following chart shows the one, three, five, and ten year returns for the S&P 500, as well as its 11 primary sectors:








Information Technology






[Benchmark] S&P 500






Consumer Discretionary






























Consumer Staples












Real Estate






Communication Services











Return over 1 year are annualized.

Now, you can choose to invest in an ETF such as those listed in the above table, or you can select individual stocks—or both. You may want to begin by investing in an ETF or stock that mirrors your career industry. You are more likely to know quite a bit about your chosen field of study—who the competition is, which companies are performing more profitably, which ones are the subject of adverse rumors, etc.

If you are a beginning investor, you may want to start with a few of these ETFs, most of which should be available in your company 401k plan. Once you have maximized your 401k contributions, then I recommend that you add some individual stocks to your portfolio.

Your company may have a program to buy its stock directly from its investor division. But I caution you not to put the majority of your assets into your company’s stock. But if it has a good program for you to purchase stock at a discount, or perhaps matches some of the funds you invest into it, it is worth a look.

I am personally a diverse investor. The majority of my portfolio consists of growth stocks trading at undervalued levels; a smaller portion is relegated to dividend stocks; and an even smaller segment is high-growth, speculative stocks.

However you choose to invest, it’s of utmost importance that you do invest, and invest early, saving as much money as you can. I guarantee you the compounding of interest and stock appreciation will truly make a huge difference in your assets—whether you are planning for retirement, or for that capital cushion you will need if you decide to jump on the entrepreneur bus.

Nancy Zambell has spent 30 years educating and helping individual investors navigate the minefields of the financial industry. She has created and/or written numerous investment publications, including UnDiscovered Stocks, UnTapped Opportunities, and Nancy Zambell’s Buried Treasures under $10. Nancy has worked with for many years as an editor and interviewer for their on-site video studios.