Is Your Job Using ‘Golden Handcuffs’ To Tie You Down? How to Tell (And How to Break Free)

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Heather K Adams
Heather K Adams733
Content + Copy Writer

"Someday" you'll make the jump, go after that job you really want, or open your own business, take that dream vacation. You're just waiting for that overtime money, that quarterly bonus. And really, it would be silly to quit in November, since everyone knows there's a hiring freeze during the holidays.

Just so: you've got yourself caught inside a pair of golden handcuffs. And your "someday" is as far away as ever.

What are golden handcuffs?

Anything that tempts you to stay at a job even when you know it's not what you really want can be labeled a golden handcuffs situation. You already know the feeling: fed up with a job, but being too scared to leave without building up your savings account first. Or just getting through these next few weeks, and then you'll have the energy to get serious about that side hustle. But you never do.

You can use a lot of reasons to justify staying somewhere that isn't right for you. In the end? The golden handcuffs are a state of mind.

Golden handcuff scenarios:


Alluring and enticing, bonuses are a classic golden handcuffs element. A lot of jobs dangle the promise of extra money as an incentive to work harder, to be competitive with your coworkers. But what do you really do with that bonus? Do you sock it back into a savings account, your dream vacation fund? Or do you spend it on stuff? Knowing another bonus is coming, or could be, or being so stressed out on your way to earning that bonus, can tempt you to just spend it, all the while thinking "I'll save the next one."

Stock options and retirement supplements.

Some companies create intentional golden handcuffs by adding stipulations to their perks and bonuses. Some, such as stock options, don't kick in until you've been with the company for a certain amount of time. Retirement supplements are even longer term, dangling that carrot in front of you for the length of your career. The problem with these is that they get you looking so far down the road you forget to think about how you feel today. Do you really want to be miserable for eight, or even twenty more years, just to get that extra cash?

The high cost of living.

The more money you make, the more money you spend. Maybe you don't need an apartment upgrade, or even a cell phone upgrade, but come on, you make X amount of money now. You need to have the right status symbols. Except you don't. But we get into the habit of spending that extra money, especially if our job stresses us out. The cycle of hating your job and soothing that stress by way of buying unnecessary stuff is its own golden handcuffs.

How to break the golden handcuffs.

1. Evaluate your priorities.

Do you really want a high ticket lifestyle, or would you rather have one with more flexibility, in whichever direction appeals to you? Finding your core values will help you spend less and make better decisions, working you toward the changes you need to make.

2. Ask, How happy am I, really?

If you're totally cool with going to work and just putting in the time, then maybe those golden handcuffs are a perfect fit. It's okay to have a job that's just, you know, good enough. You can have plenty of things in your life outside of work that fulfill you. But if you don't, if you aren't happy, if it's not good enough? It's time to figure out why.

3. Look at your lifestyle.

Do you spend that extra money you make on things, or experiences? If you surround yourself with stuff, decide if it's a priority or just a stress reflex. If you tend to spend it on museums, festivals or road trips, then you're probably more prepared to break the golden handcuffs than you might think. Because it's all about realizing complacency just isn't for you.

4. Make a list of goals.

Once you know you want to be happy, and you ready to commit to making the changes you need to make, the only thing left is to start. Your Someday might be a six month vacation overseas, or it could be finding that new awesome job. Whatever is going to make you happier, put it down in writing. Now map out some concrete steps to take, and give yourself a deadline for each.

5. Save, Cut, Go.

One of your above goals will involve calculating the amount of money you need to have in the bank in order to feel comfortable making the leap away from this job. Breaking your golden handcuffs is a little about overcoming fear, and a lot about money. Start by saving what you can, today. Cut unnecessary purchases and expenses, pinch pennies, set a certain amount of money aside every week. And when you reach your savings goal? Put the next step of your plan in motion, and don't stop till you get where you've been dreaming of being.

What can employers do?

Happy employees are loyal employees. And the companies with the best retention rates aren't always the ones offering the biggest payoffs. Instead, they're the ones who make a point of creating the best environment to work in. Yeah, holiday bonuses are awesome, but that's not going to get you out of bed on a rainy February morning. Knowing there's an espresso machine in the break room, and that you can duck out early by taking work home with you? That'll do it.

Employers who really care about their employees aren't going to make them jump through hoops to get perks. And when employers look beyond cash incentives, and focus instead on cultivating a culture that helps their employees feel satisfied, retention rates reflect those efforts. The best companies have employees that are glad to come into work, even on a Monday. Well, at least a little bit.

The last word.

It's tempting to stay locked inside your golden handcuffs. Steady money is a hard thing to leave. But if what you're doing for that money isn't fitting into the larger picture of what you want to do with your life, how you really want it to be on a daily basis, you're turning your back on the idea of satisfaction at work, and being happy overall. 

Someday, you think, I'll get to that someday. But if you're always living for tomorrow, or next month, next quarter, how are you ever going to be any happier today? The secret to breaking those golden handcuffs is getting to the point where you not only want to. You have to.

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