No, You Can’t Have It All: Why Finance Does Not Guarantee You $10 Million and Your Own Beach in Thailand

277 Comments | Consulting - Groups & Regions, Government, Non-Profits & Entrepreneurship - Groups & Regions, Hedge Funds & Asset Management - On the Job, Investment Banking - Groups & Regions, Private Equity & The Buy-Side - Groups & Regions, Sales & Trading - Groups

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thailand_beach“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.”

- Helen Keller

I almost decided not to publish this article.

But it needed to be said.

This one is long – so grab some yerba mate, take a seat, and close your YouTube window before you start.

How It All Started

“I’ve been keeping up with your blog for quite some time now and I’ve noticed that a very diverse group of people eventually “discover” that they want to become a banker (former premed students, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, …).

That said… do you find it odd that so many people always ask you about exit opportunities in the first place when they’re still trying to break into the industry? This makes me suspect that some people have the wrong mindset going into the game (models & bottles).”

Yeah, of course *I* find it odd.

But does anyone else?

No, apparently not – just look at comments like this one:

“Damn… there goes another profession I was aspiring to do go down toilet. I thought the travel involved in consulting was just exaggerated. But I was wrong. I heard from Kevin that consultants at McKinsey travel 50-75% of their time. I’m sorry but I just can’t handle that. My only other alternatives are PE and HF. How are the hours and travel like for each of those professions. I’m praying that at least these jobs don’t screw up my life…”

At least he’s done his homework though: he understands some of the trade-offs between these different options.

But he’s still searching for the magic-bullet solution: a way to become a deca-millionaire with no risk and no 100-hour weeks.

About twice a week I get emails asking, “So, if I work at a boutique can I go home at 10 PM rather than 2 AM each night?”

If you don’t work in the industry or if you haven’t done an internship, I can understand why you don’t “get it” yet.

But then the other day a friend at a top bank emailed me saying:

“Man I’m so tired of banking right now, do you know anything else that would pay me this much and give me much better hours?”

And that’s what pushed me to hit the “Publish” button on this one anyway.

What Do You Want?

It’s a broad question, but most “goals” can be reduced to:

“Become a deca-millionaire without doing much work and also getting my own private beach in Thailand while having the best life ever.”

This brings up a slew of other issues – such as, “Wait, so what then? You’ll get bored in a week of doing nothing” but we’ll put those aside for now.

Based on this goal, you may have already decided that finance is the best route to becoming rich with no risk – and sure, the hours may be bad, but they get better over time, right?

Not so fast.

If this is your plan, you don’t understand the trade-offs between finance, different fields within finance, and different options altogether.

Trade-Offs?

There are an infinite number of variables, but we’re just going to look at the most important ones here.

Pay

This is one of the biggest lures of finance: just work for a few years and you’ll become a millionaire instantly, right?

But it’s also one of the most poorly understood trade-offs: most people in finance save little money, and any money they do save they either manage poorly or not at all.

$500K per year doesn’t mean much when it’s only $250K after taxes and $240K of that goes into models, bottles, and sports cars.

Prestige

I almost cringe writing this one – but it needs to be addressed here.

The secret that no one tells you about prestige: no one in the real world gives a crap where you work or where you went to school.

I can’t even remember the last time I told a stranger where I went to school, even though it’s supposedly one of the top universities in the world.

And not to turn this into a dating column, but citing a “prestigious” school or company won’t attract members of the opposite sex – at least not the ones you want.

Lifestyle

Sure, your life may suck for awhile but once you hit 35 and have $10 million you can just deposit it all in bonds, make $800,000 per year in tax-free income, and then retire to the Caribbean right?

Except I know of no bankers or other financiers who have actually done this.

To quote a friend who finished the Analyst program at Goldman Sachs a few years ago: “Even Partners take calls in between their kids’ soccer games on weekends.”

If you’ve been working that much for that long a period of time, you’re going to be bored out of your mind if you actually “retire early.”

Enjoyment

You might actually get a thrill out of running around and being on-call all the time; you might like traveling every week; or maybe you just want to relax.

So it is relative.

But we can say a few things with certainty: for example, banking has a lot more grunt work and repetitive tasks than other fields. So you’re probably not going to “like” what you do on a daily basis compared to other options.

Social Aspect

This one seems like an afterthought: who cares how many friends you have at work, right? It’s all about the dollars!

Well, not quite. Certain fields are lonelier than others – and one untold benefit of banking is that you’ll make a lot of close friends because you spend so much time at the office.

But in most other fields you’re either alone most of the time, or you don’t have close peers.

And what good is money if you have no friends?

Risk

“You might get rich if you start your own company, but it could also fail, you’ll go bankrupt and your life will be over. On the other hand, if you go into finance you will easily become a deca-millionaire with almost no risk of losing money or getting laid off.”

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past 2 years, you know that the second statement here is false.

But you may not realize that the first statement is also just as wrong. The real risk of starting your own company is not going bankrupt – it’s something else that nobody ever tells you about (yes, you have to keep reading to see what it is).

Ok, Now Let’s Get Specific

“Ok,” you say, “but what about all the fields I’m interested in? Why are you saying I’m wrong about everything?”

Investment Banking

Yes, this one is well-worn ground and we’ve talked about everything from stuff investment bankers like to pay to stuff investment bankers don’t like.

But there’s more.

Besides the pay being extremely variable, you should note that most bankers save nothing in their first few years.

$60K-$70K base salary is barely enough to get by in New York, and your bonus just pays off credit card debt. Even at the VP-level and up, plenty of guys make $500K, then spend it all and have no savings.

Think you can avoid that and still save a lot? Peer pressure is tough to resist.

If you really want to “get rich,” you have to stay in the game until you’re at the MD-level, and then be a seasoned MD with regular business coming in.

And that doesn’t happen in 5-10 years.

Prestige? Well, your parents can brag about it to other prestige-obsessed parents but otherwise it has no effect on your life.

Lifestyle: if you have clients and live transactions, you’re always on call – no matter what level you’re at. MDs spend a lot of time answering email and checking their Blackberries “on vacation.”

But despite other drawbacks, banking is good for forming real relationships with people – you spend so much time at work, it would be hard not to. And that keeps you (relatively) sane.

Everyone has heard about “risk” in terms of layoffs and hiring freezes, but actually getting laid off at the entry-level doesn’t matter much: when you’re young you have plenty of options.

But when you reach the mid-levels it gets very, very difficult to “jump back in” if you get cut – which is a big problem when you have 2 mortgages, 3 BMWs, and 2 kids.

Sales & Trading

“Ok,” you say, “so banking is not that great – I know, I’ll do Sales & Trading instead and make as much or more money but also have a life!”

On the surface the lifestyle is better because you work roughly market hours – it can go beyond that, but you’re not going to be pulling all-nighters.

And hey, you can tell people you work at a bank, so it must be prestigious right?

Plus, the social aspect is quite similar to banking: you make a lot of friends because of the environment you’re in. Sure, you might get hazed but that’s just a part of any fraternity trading desk.

And many traders like their work more since there are no pitch books and there’s much less grunt work and coffee-fetching (unless you’re an intern).

So what’s the catch?

Risk and exit opportunities. Most entry-level traders at large investment banks get paid roughly the same, and it’s more dependent on group performance than individual performance.

But as you move up the ladder that changes – more so than in banking, where even a crappy VP might get paid well just because his MD did well.

So yes, if you’re a rock-star trader and can make millions effortlessly year after year, you’re set – but if you have a bad year, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And no matter what area of trading you’re in, you don’t have as many exit opportunities as bankers: as one reader pointed out, this doesn’t make much sense – but that’s the way it is.

You either stay in trading, trade at a hedge fund or prop trading firm, or you get out of finance entirely.

If you’re an intern or you’re relatively new you can move elsewhere but you don’t have the flexibility that banking analysts do.

Private Equity

Ah yes, the Promised Land: private equity. Better pay, even more prestige, and much better hours to boot – right?

Well, not exactly.

Let’s start with prestige: whereas 99% of people have heard of Goldman Sachs, the average person doesn’t even know what “private equity” means. KKR or Blackstone may sound prestigious to you, but anyone outside finance is unlikely to know them.

Pay: despite rumors to the contrary, it’s not dramatically different for most people moving into PE. Yes, if you come in from a banking background you’ll get a higher base salary and possibly some sort of guaranteed bonus, but you’re not going to instantly start making $1 million at age 25.

Yes, Partners at the largest PE firms make 10x more (or more) than the top bankers do.

But very few people make it to the top, the industry is much smaller, and if you’re responsible for one bad investment you could be done.

The risk of getting laid off as a junior guy or girl in PE is lower than in banking – but advancing is just as difficult, if not more difficult.

There is less grunt work than in banking, but just a quick reality check: if you don’t find valuing companies, building models, and doing due diligence interesting, you’re going to hate PE too.

The social aspect always gets overlooked – once you move to the buy-side, you lose that large group of friends you used to hang out with, and your co-workers will be much older.

Yes, lifestyle is generally “better” but that’s not true if you go to a large fund – it’s banking hours all over again. And when you get busy with a deal, you’re going to work. A lot.

Hedge Funds

Much of the above applies to hedge funds as well. The average pay may be higher, but there is so little reliable data on what people at hedge funds actually make that I’m reluctant to say this.

And once again, the lifestyle is not much different from banking at the largest and most well-known funds: You work. A lot.

The risk is even greater with hedge funds, for one simple reason: they have a habit of collapsing.

I’ve been compiling lists of regional banks, private equity firms, and hedge funds, and as I was going through the hedge fund list I kept coming across “As of last year, such-and-such fund has ceased operations” in the “business description” fields.

This isn’t meant to scare you away from hedge funds: it just means that they are more risky than you think, pay is more variable than in banking and private equity (more similar to Sales & Trading), and the lifestyle may not be as good as you think.

Management Consulting

I had already given consultants a good beat-down last year, but hey, let’s give it a go once again.

First, the pay is less than any of the other fields mentioned above – unless you’re at a small prop shop that pays $0 base salary.

It’s hard to say whether McKinsey or Goldman Sachs is more “prestigious” – but the average person is more aware of “consultants” than they are of “private equity guys.”

And then there’s the travel aspect: this seems fun at first, but you quickly get tired of flying to the Yukon Territory every week to “advise” on a new oil drilling project.

Most travel is not that bad – but if you don’t want to be away from home every week, you’re going to hate the consulting lifestyle.

One of the big lures of consulting compared to banking is that there’s less “grunt work” and what you do is more “intellectually stimulating.”

But is that true? There’s certainly more “variety” than in banking but I know plenty of consultants who find it very repetitive and think that most of the “research” you do is just fluff.

Still, on average there’s probably more “fun” in consulting.

Another big lure: exit opportunities. One consultant once told me, “Management consulting is the only industry that gives you unlimited options.”

But ask any consultant who’s interviewing for PE or finance-related jobs, and they’ll tell you a different story: yes, it’s possible to get in coming from a consulting background but it’s significantly more difficult than if you were a banker. It’s hard to “prove” you know how to model an LBO if you’ve never done one before.

It’s good preparation for business school or for “management” jobs at companies, but if you’re coming from a consulting background you’re at a disadvantage next to bankers for finance jobs.

Large Company

I don’t get many emails or comments about this one, probably because no one wants to do it or because you already know the trade-offs.

But I do get a lot of emails saying, “I want to do corporate development after banking to get a better lifestyle. Can you tell me about it?”

My take on it is simple: it’s similar to private equity, but with reduced hours, pay, and upside.

Your chances of getting laid off are very, very low unless you’re at a new startup that happens to fold – but your chances of moving to the top, especially at a huge conglomerate, are slim.

The lifestyle is definitely better than the other options presented here: not much travel most of the time, and the hours are fairly standard except for when you’re working on a live deal.

The other trade-offs vary by what company you’re at and how your group runs – sometimes you might be the only person who isn’t married, and sometimes there’s a bigger group of people your age.

If you go into this after banking – or anything else on this list – you’ll find it very slow since you’re used to constantly running around and being on-call 24/7.

Also, there’s no clear “exit opportunity path” as there is with some of the other options here. Most likely, you’ll end up going to business school or moving to a different company.

Entrepreneurship

I have a theory that everyone who goes into banking secretly wants to start their own company instead. I get a lot of comments and emails that start out like this:

“Hi, I want to stay in banking for 2 years and then use all my money to start a company afterward. Do you think this is a good idea, and if so which group do you think I should be in?”

No, that’s a stupid idea because: 1) You will barely save any money over 2 years. 2) Banking is terrible preparation for entrepreneurship.

This one is almost impossible to write about because it depends on what kind of company you start – offline, online, products, services – and whether you aspire to be the next Google or you’d rather just start a bar with your friends.

But there are 2 important points that no one else ever brings up:

  1. The real risk is not going bankrupt or ruining your life, but rather wasting time going nowhere.
  2. This is the loneliest of the options here, because you don’t have peers – you’re either flying solo, or you have employees.

Yes, you could completely fail, but your life isn’t over – this happens all the time in Silicon Valley and everyone bounces back. More often than not, you might spend months or years on something and not get much traction – so you don’t get rich, but you also don’t lose everything.

On the social aspect: even if you end up with employees, you can’t really “hang out” with them. Especially if you started everything alone or with 1 other person, it’s quite lonely.

Pay, enjoyment, and lifestyle vary so much by what you do that it’s impossible to generalize: you could work 100 hours a week and hate your life, or you could treat your business as a simple part-time job.

If you’re wondering why everything I do is online, it’s for exactly those reasons: offline requires far more work, doesn’t give you as much leverage, and restricts your lifestyle a lot more.

Cliff’s Notes

Ok, that was really long. And maybe you didn’t read everything.

So here are the major points:

  1. Wanting to stay in finance for “just a few years” to “get rich” or “have enough experience to do something else” is a poor strategy. You’re not going to be rich after that short a time – and if you want to do something else, be like Nike and just do it.
  2. Most finance-related jobs entail a lot more risk than anyone ever talks about. And the lifestyle never matches what people with “normal jobs” get, no matter how high up you are.
  3. If you want to reach the top of anything listed here, it requires work, sacrifice, and risk. This doesn’t happen in “a few years” – it happens by spending 10-20 years or more excelling. There’s no magic bullet.
  4. The social aspect of all these options is huge and it’s something that almost everyone ignores. Hopefully you’re thinking about it now.
  5. Be aware of limits on exit opportunities. Hardly anyone tells you, for example, that once you’re at a specialized hedge fund it’s tough to move somewhere that uses completely different strategies.

So, What Should You Do?

Hey, I can’t give you all the answers.

I’m just like Fox News: I report, you decide.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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277 Comments to “No, You Can’t Have It All: Why Finance Does Not Guarantee You $10 Million and Your Own Beach in Thailand”

Comments

  1. Siddharth Nath says

    Hi,

    I’m a law student in India, and have been offered an internship at CIB Centre, Deutsche Bank in Mumbai with a view to recruitment. Since I had never really considered ibanking before, I have a few basic questions. There may not be too many answers out there but a newbie still needs to ask.

    How good are these jobs considered within finance circles? Considering that it’s at DB, but at the CIB Centre so I will be working offshore for my team. Pros/Cons?

    The role is as an analyst. What sort of work, pay, travelling etc would this entail? (I know there are voluminous articles on the same, but I was wondering if anybody knew anything India specific, since I’m guessing it will be quite different.

    Lastly, How would this job be only to gain experience and in 2 3 years, move on to something possibly working in the Indian market? (I would rather live in India, though am open to moving for a couple of years)

    Also, if any Indians reading this, would you happen to know the scope of ibanking in Delhi if I want to move there eventually?

    Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Josh says

    Hey Guys,

    Really love the stuff written here, consumed about 15-20 articles in last few days before interview tomorrow.

    My question is, if one were to aspire to be an Entrepreneur, what WOULD you suggest??
    Feel free to link me to relevant article etc…
    All love from UK

  3. Taylor says

    I want to be a low key franchise entrepreneur. By that I mean, buy a few little Caesars or something else and run them with managers. So I need to learn how to read financial statements and understand them inside and out. I have narrowed down some great career paths that would help me do that or at least give me some good finance fundamentals. Consulting, Commercial/Corporate banking, and Corporate Finance. Which one do you think that I should go for?

  4. Gekko93 says

    Hey Brian, I was just wondering, with a computer science degree from Stanford, why did you choose to work in finance and investment banking instead of Silicon Valley? It seems like right now the tech sector is hot with great pay, lavish perks, and really nice hours. I am also a computer science major who has an S&T internship coming up with a bulge bracket in NYC. But my friends in California’s tech scene are getting way better compensation. First year S&T analyst is 70k but Google/Palantir are paying 80k+ with free meals and housing. Personally, would you recommend someone like myself, with strong quant and coding skills, to continue pursuing a career in finance or to switch to tech?

    • says

      See: http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/how-i-started-this-site-part-1-2007-2008/

      Keep in mind you also get a significant bonus at banks, which takes total cash compensation above those offered by tech companies.

      It really depends on what you want to do in the future. Working as an engineer = lower stress, still good pay, but a much lower pay ceiling than finance unless you get lucky and join the next Facebook. Finance is higher-stress, sometimes lower per-hour-pay at first, but offers a higher ceiling especially on the buy-side.

      Plus, you have to factor in whether or not you actually like trading vs. coding more.

  5. Dave says

    Hi Brian,

    I found this article extremely helpful. I am 25 years old and currently working as a consultant (not management consulting), and applied to different financial engineering schools for a second master’s degree. However, I quickly realized that financial engineering is tailored to risk management (middleman), and the program will cost at least 100k out of my pocket. I do not have any internship or experience in finance, even though I did study finance on my own.

    Granted I get admission from a top program, would you recommend taking this route? This seems like a very risky move after considering opportunity cost. In the best case scenario, I will be able to pay debt two years after graduation and hopefully make +150k to compensate opportunity cost. How likely do you think this will be? I am not dreaming of making half a million in five years or anything. I just don’t want to become a burden to my parents. I would sincerely appreciate your response.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Unless you get into a target school like Haas it may not necessarily be useful. Yes it is quite risky especially if you’re not interested in the subject. However, if you are, you may be able to open some doors. You may also want to consider an MBA at a target to increase your chances if you’re not sure what you want to do and want to increase your options

  6. Mlevine says

    Brian:

    I’m curious as to why you repeatedly mention that a first year analyst (or second year, etc.) won’t be able to save much of their ~$100k salary+bonus. Is it so impossible given the peer pressure, or are there people who are able to do it. Speaking relatively to friends of mine as first years at big4 making $60k total in NYC, they seem to be doing okay.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Some people can do it, most may not given peer pressure and influence from banking culture. It can be challenging to save in NYC, especially if you like to eat out, go out, shop.

  7. Jimmy says

    Hi Brian,

    Would corp development at a tech company like facebook, google, microsoft or apple be good preparation for developing your own tech start-up? Seeing that a lot of tech start-ups are acquired by these companies and I think being able to work in corp development would give a person a more in depth knowledge of the industry? Thanks!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes, I think so. Even if you don’t work in corp development, working at these companies HQ can also offer you insights, network and experience which help you with your startup.

      • Jimmy says

        Hi Nicole,

        Thanks a lot for the advice! I am really in a dilemma right now, I am not sure what I want to pursue after I am done with school. I am really fascinated with technology and dream one day after I gain some work experience of doing a startup or working in venture capital. However at the same time I feel like I do not know enough about the finance/investment banking industry and tech industry to really know what I want to do.

        • M&I - Nicole says

          Jimmy, the best way to go about this is to gain experience in tech and finance. Perhaps you can start networking with people via LinkedIn or cold calling? Taking an internship maybe the first step. What about attending tech conferences? This may increase your knowledge and broaden your network too. http://techcrunch.com/events/

  8. Chen says

    This is a wonderful article. I am a college senior, Math and Eco double majors. I was planning to go to wall street, but after reading some articles about people’s life there, I realize that is not what I want. So now i am rethinking about my career direction.

    I enjoy courses like Probability,Statistics, Accounting,Economics and Finance. I also like teaching. I want a career that have good life-work balance. I am considering doing data analysis/statistics, but I am a little worried because i don’t write very well due to the fact that English is my 2nd language. Besides this option, do you have any suggestions about careers that fit me? Thank you very much!

  9. Banker says

    Hi Nicole – I was wondering how hard is it to come to Banking after 3 or 4 years of entrepreneurship? Lets say one completes his/her 2 years of analyst program at a BB or elite boutique and then goes into entrepreneurship but wants to come back into banking/PE after few years. Do you think it is doable?

    • says

      It’s possible, but the obvious question will be: “So your business failed, and now you’ve come back to banking/PE as your Plan B?”

      So you need to have a credible story for getting around that because it’s an uncommon transition. Prior experience will help a lot but it’s still tough to explain.

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