Author Topic: Any urban planners?  (Read 1828 times)

zing12

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Any urban planners?
« on: June 23, 2017, 07:35:13 AM »
I've been working in public accounting for several years, and am in my late 20s. Most of my experience has been with local government accounting. It's never thrilled me, but it had its good days and it paid off my student loans. I wanted out of public accounting for sure because of hours and travel, but really my experience has set me up for some pretty well-paying local government finance jobs (like school district treasurer, city finance director, etc) with pretty good work life balance and great benefits. The intellectual stimulation isn't the best though.

It all started really with my inherent Mustachianism. I was looking for a good neighborhood where I could live a car-free or car-light lifestyle, and have been frustrated by the lack of transit and bike and walkable infrastructure in my state. This led to me joining a discussion forum website and reading and posting a lot about urban development in our state and eventually led to me thinking of it as a potential career change. If I couldn't find the place I wanted to live, I would build it. I have always been a total geek when it came to maps, roads, trains, skyscrapers, always loved everything about cities.

Then I went through a big breakup and wanted a reset, so I took a mini-retirement and taught abroad last year and traveled all around Europe. Before I left, I applied for planning masters programs.

Now it's time for me to start in the fall. Don't worry, I got a good deal, I have a graduate assistantship where tuition is covered and I get a small stipend. If I work there in the summer as well I should be able to make more money and the way I calculate it is that I'm more or less getting paid $10,000 a year to go to school. So probably will have to dip into savings for living expenses but hopefully not too much. I have no debt, $30k in a savings account, and $16k in a 401k. I actually very much enjoy the prospect of schooling for schooling's sake and look forward to getting into the classroom and studying this stuff instead of doing repetitive public accounting work all day.

But the reality of the opportunity cost of this degree is setting in. Former coworkers of mine are starting to land good gigs, a former manager just got a job as a CFO of a wealthy suburb, $150k, and a former peer is the assistant treasurer of a wealthy school district, $80k. Even if I graduate without spending a lot of my savings, and land a job, I'm getting back into entry level stuff. I'm putting myself 3-5 years behind. There are planners making good money but I don't know how long it'll take. Hopefully I can leverage my background in local gov accounting to set myself apart from the pack. Several people have told me that's a possibility.

Best case scenario, it takes me a bit longer to reach financial goals but I find a career that keeps me engaged and intellectually stimulated and I'm surrounded by interesting people and interesting ideas (all of the above are lacking in the accounting world), and therefore I'm ok with that and more motivated to do better work. Worst case scenario, I get super disillusioned when I realize that I can't change the world, the job is super bureaucratic, I sit there working on dull zoning codes all day, and I wonder what the hell I left accounting for.

It's a scary thing, I'm about to jump off the cliff and I don't know what I'll find down there. I'm taking a risk and I guess this is what risk feels like.
« Last Edit: June 23, 2017, 01:55:17 PM by zing12 »

Vertical Mode

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #1 on: June 23, 2017, 08:56:25 AM »
I've been working in public accounting for several years, and am in my late 20s. Most of my experience has been with local government accounting. It's never thrilled me, but it had its good days and it paid off my student loans. I wanted out of public accounting for sure because of hours and travel, but really my experience has set me up for some pretty well-paying local government finance jobs (like school district treasurer, city finance director, etc) with pretty good work life balance and great benefits. The intellectual stimulation isn't the best though.

It all started really with my inherent Mustachianism. I was looking for a good neighborhood where I could live a car-free or car-light lifestyle, and have been frustrated by the lack of transit and bike and walkable infrastructure in my state. This led to me joining a discussion forum website and reading and posting a lot about urban development in our state and eventually led to me thinking of it as a potential career change. If I couldn't find the place I wanted to life, I would build it. I have always been a total geek when it came to maps, roads, trains, skyscrapers, always loved everything about cities.

Then I went through a big breakup and wanted a reset, so I took a mini-retirement and taught abroad last year and traveled all around Europe. Before I left, I applied for planning masters programs.

Now it's time for me to start in the fall. Don't worry, I got a good deal, I have a graduate assistantship where tuition is covered and I get a small stipend. If I work there in the summer as well I should be able to make more money and the way I calculate it is that I'm more or less getting paid $10,000 a year to go to school. So probably will have to dip into savings for living expenses but hopefully not too much. I have no debt, $30k in a savings account, and $16k in a 401k. I actually very much enjoy the prospect of schooling for schooling's sake and look forward to getting into the classroom and studying this stuff instead of doing repetitive public accounting work all day.

But the reality of the opportunity cost of this degree is setting in. Former coworkers of mine are starting to land good gigs, a former manager just got a job as a CFO of a wealthy suburb, $150k, and a former peer is the assistant treasurer of a wealthy school district, $80k. Even if I graduate without spending a lot of my savings, and land a job, I'm getting back into entry level stuff. I'm putting myself 3-5 years behind. There are planners making good money but I don't know how long it'll take. Hopefully I can leverage my background in local gov accounting to set myself apart from the pack. Several people have told me that's a possibility.

Best case scenario, it takes me a bit longer to reach financial goals but I find a career that keeps me engaged and intellectually stimulated and I'm surrounded by interesting people and interesting ideas (all of the above are lacking in the accounting world), and therefore I'm ok with that and more motivated to do better work. Worst case scenario, I get super disillusioned when I realize that I can't change the world, the job is super bureaucratic, I sit there working on dull zoning codes all day, and I wonder what the hell I left accounting for.

It's a scary thing, I'm about to jump off the cliff and I don't know what I'll find down there. I'm taking a risk and I guess this is what risk feels like.

Not quite an urban planner by trade, but a landscape architect so I can sort of understand your situation since we operate in a similar space. I'm about 6 years into my career as an LA; I can share my experience and perhaps you will be able to relate to some of it.

Most of the design professionals I know (planners/LA's/architects/interiors) aren't in their chosen field for the remuneration, but they are passionate about the work they do. In my own case, I didn't really do my homework on salary expectations for my chosen field until I was about 3/4 of the way through school, I was mostly focused on the question of whether it was something I really wanted to do (such astounding naivete from young VM!). In professional practice, you can certainly make enough to save for FI/RE if that is your objective, but I agree that it can be hard not to second-guess yourself as you watch some of your peers far outpace you in the income earning department. Your progress toward FIRE may be slower, but my experience has been that the dividends paid out as "quality of life" doing something intellectually stimulating make it not such a bad option. Thinking like a stoic, even on the tough days I'm getting paid to draw shit - how bad is that, really? Doing work you generally enjoy will help stave off burnout such as what you've experienced with accounting, and the compounding of your savings will be the wind at your back. To the extent that you really enjoy urban planning, you will have your answer.

I'll add to the chorus of folks who have told you that your background in accounting could be a huge asset in the planning realm. Designers often get accused of being too "pie in the sky" and not grounded in reality, so an ability to speak to this dimension in solving macro-scale urban design problems is a great bonus.

Here's another question - 3-5 years behind what, exactly? The career progression others would expect you to be on? As a Mustachian, you're already subscribing to an unusual philosophy and/or taking an unusual route through your working career, get used to the idea of being unusual. Especially as an urban planner, we could sure use people that are willing to be/do the unusual (I liked what you said about creating ideal places).

Even if your worst-case scenario plays out, you will have gained the knowledge that you tried it and it wasn't for you, as opposed to sticking with the familiar doldrums of accounting and never knowing.

Hope some of this is helpful for you!

-VM

Trudie

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #2 on: June 23, 2017, 09:25:49 AM »
I am a CPA also (in private industry) and we share similar interests.  At present, my spouse and I are grappling with a lack of existing housing (for the reasons you site) in our desired ER destination so are working through we would create it on our own.  I applaud you for taking this leap.

VM gave a very helpful and thoughtful response, undergirded by professional experience, so I hope you can take it to heart.  But I will second his observations about the benefits of bringing your CPA background to bear on your new career.  It seems to me that planning sits at the juncture of design, politics, culture, and finance.  Many people are good at dreaming, but lack pragmatism to bring that vision into being.  You will have those skills.  I try to impress on people that accounting -- at least at a higher level -- does require a person to see a bigger picture.  You have to see how different pieces fit together, anticipate problems, and there are grey areas.  We aren't just putting numbers on paper.  And -- at least in private industry -- we get into other business matters like IT, contracts, and project planning.  All transferable skills in a planning career.

Here's something to think about (coming from a tree hugger):  While climate change is significant and real, and while communities struggle to design housing, transportation, and economic systems to alleviate environmental problems, "sustainability" has become a buzzword and there is a lot of "smoke and mirrors" around decisions that are proposed as solutions.  I think there is a need for auditing projects -- in the same way the CBO scores legislation -- to measure the impact of these alternatives and communicate more transparently about them.  Seems like a CPA would provide recognize this need and provide some credibility in this context.

You are young, so take the leap and don't look back!  I am almost 47, close to ER, but will probably study landscape design at a community college for my own benefit and interest when I leave the accounting field.  But I am doing it because I like to learn, and will use the skills on my own projects or in volunteer efforts.  I don't want to take on paid work unless it thrills me.  And in all my newly found free time I hope to become a citizen activist for community gardens, walkable communities, public transportation, and to more effectively fight municipalities on their ridiculous turf grass standards!

flyAway

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #3 on: June 23, 2017, 09:53:23 AM »
I am a planner by education and have worked in and out of the profession.  Yes, it is really easy to get jaded in this job.  I went into it for the same reasons you are, and just enjoying the variety of subject matter it involves (economics, sociology, environment, transportation, geography etc,)

Likely you would make more money staying in finance/accounting.  Making over 100k is something most planners donít see (unless in HCOL), especially in government jobs, as opposed to consultants.  Some top out at 50-60k because they found they enjoy where they work/what they do there.  Where I live, and I think it is typical of other places around the country, local government funding is tight.  Of course being in public finance, you probably know this.  Planning and zoning is never a communityís priority for funding, most departments have been severely cut since 2008 and many are being asked to become self-funding (permit fees, etc). 

The really great public planners that Iíve encountered are ones that develop problem solving and progressive codes and ordinances Ė and get them implemented!  Your background in accounting should make you a valuable employee, and you could probably have management opportunities in smaller cities/suburbs.  If you donít want to manage people that could impact your longterm earning power.  Every community structures things differently, so you could have opportunities as Economic Development Director or even Assistant City/Whatever Administrator too.  Good news, a graduate degree is more valued than a BA.  Make sure you get your AICP as soon as feasible; it does matter.

Is it possible to find PT public finance/tax work during the school year?  Many smaller local governments I know have been moving towards hiring PT, because of savings of benefits/etc. 

Are you likely to change the world? Not really.  But at least you get to be someone trying to do good, imo.

zing12

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #4 on: June 23, 2017, 11:25:41 AM »
Thank you all so much for your thoughtful responses. I wasn't sure if I was going to get a chorus of "don't do it!!!" responses because some corners of the personal finance world can be quite skeptical of higher education.

Quote from: Vertical Mode
Here's another question - 3-5 years behind what, exactly? The career progression others would expect you to be on? As a Mustachian, you're already subscribing to an unusual philosophy and/or taking an unusual route through your working career, get used to the idea of being unusual.

Yeah, I've already done lots of unusual stuff, I think it gets to you after a while :) It's funny because for most of my twenties I was never a guy in a rush to get to a certain salary, but the impending thirtieth birthday, and watching friends buy houses and have kids has its mental effect even if I'm not sure about either of those things. And, to be honest, I've been surfing MMM the past few days and so many of you are doing so well income-wise and that has its effect too. It is about not comparing yourself to others.

I imagine I've already passed the point of no return so the best thing to do is start the grad program and throw myself into it and see what happens, and try to figure out which directions of planning careers are more lucrative, etc. I suppose in the future if I'm not happy with the salary I can always try to move back in the finance direction.

eudaimonia

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #5 on: June 23, 2017, 11:45:10 AM »
I was an accountant (CPA auditor) who transitioned to Environmental Planning via becoming an environmental technician (soil/water) for a couple years before going back to get my Masters in Env. Planning. I was an accountant for about 3 years, technician for 2 years and have been a planner now for 12 years. Undoubtedly I would be making slightly more money as an accountant, but truth be told you can make good money as a Planner (particularly on the private consulting side). More importantly I enjoy what I do most days which is priceless. That said, I really value the idea of having several careers - I'm about ready to retire in the next few years from this one and move on to the next thing. Having good MMM principals in place makes this a bit easier.

zing12

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #6 on: June 23, 2017, 12:45:34 PM »
^ Nice, I am glad I'm not the only one to make that swtich :D

I have been scoping out planning salaries around here because public salaries are online. I am in Ohio, certainly not the highest COL but the planning directors of the big suburbs or higher ups at the regional commissions seem to be getting consistently 100k+. Ideally as long as I can get to 80-100 I am good, I just don't want to be stuck in the 50s or 60s.

The state public pension here has a 'self directed' option which is basically a 401k, you are required to put in 10% and the they put in 8.5%, and you don't pay social security taxes IIRC. If you work 5 years you are fully vested and get to keep the state's contributions if you quit, so really the value of all that is at least another 10k.
« Last Edit: June 23, 2017, 12:55:20 PM by zing12 »

zing12

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #7 on: June 25, 2017, 01:10:41 PM »
Well, the good news is that my GA position is going to get me some practical experience. I'm working for the university, but I'm working for an arm of the department that is essentially an in house, self funded, consulting firm. It focuses on economic development. Other than that I can just keep my ears open.

flyAway

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Re: Any urban planners?
« Reply #8 on: June 26, 2017, 06:50:19 AM »
I'm in Ohio, as well, and familiar with the/or similar work you'll be doing.  It really is a great help to communities that otherwise couldn't afford those services.  I think you'll enjoy it and gain great experience.  Good luck!