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Working for a bonus: Is it worth it? Be skeptical

May 4, 2022

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When I was practicing law, bonuses were dangled as incentives to bill more hours.

And they were hard to resist.

But after a couple of years, I realized a couple of things.

1. The hours threshold for the bonus was not always clear, and it was never guaranteed. That’s a lot of hard work for a vague, not-guaranteed payout.

2. When I really tried to break down the bonus into an hourly rate for those additional hours (which was hard because the hour trigger and bonus amount were vague), the bonus felt… less worth it. And when I considered the resulting impact on my personal life, it felt not at all worth it.

This was particularly true as the bonus was based on billable hours. As every attorney knows, you work more hours than you bill. So, when you factor in the non-billable work, the appeal goes down even further.

3. My base salary was already sufficient for my life. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but many people working in industries that dangle bonuses for more hours worked (or more patients seen) do have great base salaries. If your salary is allowing you to live a comfortable life, do you really need to sacrifice your already-limited time off for more money?

Bonus point (pun! ha): I suspect we can make more money if we pace ourselves. Burning yourself out to make your bonus will likely end up in you cutting your career short. Pacing yourself hours-wise and shining in other ways at work will allow you to stay in a job longer, earning that bigger base salary longer. That means more money in your pocket over time.

Here’s the thing:

More money, in a vacuum, sounds great.

But context matters.

In most of these jobs, you’re already working a ton. Like, a TON. If I randomly asked you, “how much would I need to pay you to work EVEN MORE and take more hours away from your personal life and sleep?” – my guess is your gut reaction would be “you can’t pay me enough.”

It’s so easy to get sucked into that work-more-make-more game. More money is so alluring. Just make sure you understand the cost of that money and make that decision fully informed and with eyes wide open.

Money matters. But so does the quality of your life.

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