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A $110,000 salary wasn't enough to keep this ex-lawyer from following her dream

Natalie Bacon had always known she wanted to be a lawyer, yet she never imagined the high-stress, high-paying career would push her to the brink.

In early 2015, she was a young associate at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio, working with a team that specialized in financing and mergers and acquisitions. The job paid $110,000 with the opportunity to become a partner.

Yet the money and prestige left Bacon feeling less than fulfilled, even though both were a step up from her first gig as an entry-level staff attorney.

"I thought I was going to love this second job," the 30-year-old Bacon recalled. "It turned out I hated it — so much so that I would be crying in the bathroom." Long hours and job-related stress weighed on her.

Natalie Bacon ran a personal finance blog on the side while pursuing a financial advisor career.
Natalie Bacon ran a personal finance blog on the side while pursuing a financial advisor career.

She was also grappling with $206,000 in student loan debt from college and law school.

That six-figure liability in a way guided her toward the next chapter in her life — as a personal finance blogger and financial planner.

Breaking away

Financial planning had been on Bacon's mind since she received her first student loan bill after graduating from Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law in 2011.

She continued thinking about it while she toiled as a lawyer. It also inspired her to start a blog on lifestyle and money.

Natalie Bacon (far right) celebrates with friends after graduating from law school.
Natalie Bacon (far right) celebrates with friends after graduating from law school.

Finances weren't really a topic of conversation when Bacon was growing up with her parents. She suspects that many other people were just like her: new to money matters and grappling with debt.

Nevertheless, Bacon said her grandparents lived frugally and passed on to her some of their lessons.

"I remember my grandpa one day saying that having a credit card is like taking a mortgage on your clothes," she said. "I don't use a credit card, and I never have."

A new reality

Bacon made the leap from law to personal finance in June 2015, when she started working at Summit Financial Strategies in Columbus as a paraplanner.

She also passed the exam for the Certified Financial Planner designation in 2016. After June, she will be able to call herself a CFP.

Natalie Bacon (third from left) as a panelist at the 2016 FinCon expo in San Diego.
Natalie Bacon (third from left) as a panelist at the 2016 FinCon expo in San Diego.

Life as a financial planner has been more fulfilling for Bacon. These days she works a 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule.

Greater happiness comes with a cost, though: She took a pay cut of about 50 percent, and some downsizing was necessary.

"One way I cut expenses was to move from an apartment that was $1,300 a month to one that's $900 a month," said Bacon.

She's also pulled back on her student loan repayments: She once put $3,000 a month toward her debt, and now she's paying $1,500.

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Even though she's earning less, Bacon still saves for retirement: She's putting away about 10 percent of her income toward her 401(k), and she's getting a match at work.

Were it not for the debt, she says she would be able to max out her 401(k) with an $18,000 contribution every year, plus saving in an IRA.

To bolster her income, Bacon monetized her blog through a combination of advertisements and affiliate marketing — in which she collects payments for promoting certain products.

She's also ramped up her blogging and increased traffic to her page so that she gets 100,000 to 250,000 page views a month.

"I've learned about the business, and I have a blog. None of it would have been possible without my debt." -Natalie Bacon, staff financial advisor, Summit Financial Strategies

Last year, Bacon earned about $30,000 from her blog, which gives her budget some breathing room.

Though the blog addresses personal finance issues, it's separate from her day job as a financial planner.

Student loan expertise

While Summit's clients often seek retirement planning and investment advice, Bacon has become the firm's student loan expert. Her familiarity with college finances has helped her explain it to the firm's clients and their children.

"I can't tell you how often I'm talking to people about their kids going to college or they or the kid has the debt — how can we plan around it or get rid of it?" said Bacon.

Meanwhile, she's making steady headway on her own loans, with nearly half her debt paid off.

There are a couple of strategies for paying off federal student loan debt, including income-based repayment plans. Under these arrangements, you'll pay more over time, but your monthly payment won't be as high.

Bacon rejected that strategy out of concern it would prolong her indebtedness.

While Bacon wishes she had taken on fewer loans, she doesn't regret going to law school, as it ultimately helped discover her true calling.

"I've learned about the business, and I have a blog," she said. "None of it would have been possible without my debt."

Escape from your career

Bacon also encourages others to leap out of an unhappy career if they have to.

"There are too many options that can make you happy," she said. "There is no reason to stay in a career that you hate — no matter what the pay is."

Should you consider swapping careers, be sure to clean up your finances first. You have greater flexibility if your income isn't hamstrung by large debts.

"The number one stumbling block for people changing careers is money," Kerry Hannon, author of "What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond" and "Love Your Job."

Natalie Bacon graduated from Ohio State University with a law degree.
Natalie Bacon graduated from Ohio State University with a law degree.

"Debt is a dream killer; find ways to trim the fat and downsize," she said.

It's also best to take baby steps toward the new career.

Hannon notes that a successful career change takes from three to five years.

In the meantime, network with people who are already working your dream job and test it out by moonlighting.

Finally, prepare for the greenhorn blues. You may have been the top banana at your old job, but you'll be back at the bottom of the pyramid in the new one.

"The idea of being the new kid on the block versus the expert you were in your previous field can be a hit to your ego," said Hannon. "Prepare to be the one asking questions and taking directions, not the one giving counsel."