You will Never be Rich Working as an Architect

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

“You will never get rich working as an architect.” That’s what my first boss Thomas T. told me on day one. What an insight to kick off the career of an enthusiastic architectural intern before he even received his first paycheck or made his first student loan installment. “You have to learn how to invest.” He added.

His first prophecy was fully fulfilled a few years later. In 2006, I came to the U.S. to pursue my master degree in architecture, hoping that it would take my career to the next level, just to find myself graduated in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

I managed to get an architectural entry level job in Los Angeles for an annual salary of US$35K, despite having a mater degree from a top private university. With over US$50K in student loans, my financial life was completely fucked. In a society where success is defined by how much money you make, I was the biggest loser. The self-promised American dream turned out to be just a dream.

According to Salary.com, the average architect salary in the United States is $83,535 as of October 28, 2020. If one religiously saves 10% of the paycheck every month, it will take an architect about 120 years to become a millionaire. Even if you magically turns into an immortal, a million dollars 120 years from now probably can’t even get you a Tesla.

Not all architects are starving artists. I personally know some architects (in their golden age of course) who are making US$300K-US$400K a year. I know some architects (also in their golden age) who are already millionaires by owning company stocks. And if one can make it to the top and become a star architect, the sky is the limit.

Fast forward for a decade, I am still not rich. Although I am still million miles away from my destination, at least I don’t have any debt except mortgages, and with 4 houses under my name. Two in China and two in Los Angeles. Two fully paid off and two are being paid by rental incomes. And no, I didn’t sell drugs nor prostitute myself to a sugar mamma. I made it happen with my humble architect’s salary.

This is not an article to brat about myself, but to share a few personal options with those who are struggling financially like I once did. How I get here is irrelevant because everyone’s process is different, but here are some of the so called “wisdoms” that you should try to avoid listening no matter who gives them, regardless whether you are an architect or not.

Follow your passion

You’ve been told from day one that “Follow Your Passion” is the ultimate path to success. Let me be blunt. No one give a shit about your passion. If you want to give up your master degree to follow your passion to pursue a career in a Chinese foot massage parlor for $12 an hour, good luck trying to convince your parents who are still on food stamps. Your passion will not bring food on the table, only the values that you create for the society will do.

“Follow your passion” is a brainwashing tool that universities use to persuade financial idiots to take out a US$100K student loan to pay for a piece of paper that can’t even guarantee a minimum salary job. “Follow your passion” is a non-pathological lie that managers use to ask low-paid juniors putting additional hours into their jobs without getting extra paid.

Many architectural students, graduated with a dream to become the next Bjarke Ingels or Zaha Hadid, just to end up being a CAD (Computer Aided Design) monkey for another ego-centric unknown architect. With the never ending overtime hours, you suddenly find yourself making less than those who are driving Uber or flipping burgers.

I know, you read on the news all the time that some people followed their passion and suddenly became millionaires a few years later. I read that too. But have you ever read about those 99% who followed their passion and went broke? No, because those stories will not sell and they can’t even make it to the local newspapers.

Money cannot buy happiness

There are two groups of people who used to say “Money cannot buy happiness.” The first group is those who have too much money, never experienced poverty, and don’t even have a true friend. The second group consists those who have a loser mentality and try to find an excuse to justify their failure or inaction. And for those who take it one step further and claim that “Money is the root of all evil”, they are the jack-asses who just got STDs from prostitutes.

When I was a teen, I grew up in a slum in Hong Kong. The slum similar to what you saw in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, such thing did exist in the world’s financial hub. The irony is, the slum district that I lived in was called the Diamond Hill. It appeared that the Hong Kong government and the developers were having fun mocking the poor, they built a huge shopping mall right across the slum and called it the Hollywood Plaza. There is a Chinese movie called “Hollywood Hong Kong” that was shot from the slum district that I grew up. (Now my childhood friends know why I never invited them over for dinner) Well, at least with the shopping mall, I didn’t have to use the mobile toilets at the back of the slum anymore.

I cannot promise that money can buy you happiness, but I can guarantee that the lack of money can make your life extremely miserable. If you don’t trust me, just ask the homeless guy down the street. He might be an architect too. Who knows…

Let me be clear, making a shitload of money is not the goal. The goal is to use money to free you up so that you can focus on what really matters to you. If that is watching Netflix or playing video games all day long, so be it. But before then, you better get you lazy ass off the couch and do something constructive.

Be Frugal

Financial gurus all teach you to cut coupons, to stop going to Starbucks, to eat $1 tacos for breakfasts, etc. You follow their so called “wisdoms”, live like the cheapest ass on earth, yet 5 years gone and you have nowhere close to your financial goal. What happened?

The truth is, those gurus didn’t get rich by being frugal, they got rich by selling you the idea of frugality, either through their books or their YouTube channels. It’s something that you already believe in, they simply package it in a different way to give you some positive reinforcement. Because we are constantly and a lot of time unconsciously seeking confirmations about our own beliefs, so it is an easy sell. The gurus are milking on you by tell you what you want to hear, but not what you need to learn.

Use our architect salary example above, say the architect is going to live an extremely frugal life and save 20% of his salary every month, it will still take him/her 60 years to become a millionaire, if he/she is lucky to be still alive. And what’s the point of having one million sitting in the bank while you can’t even walk but to rely on your family to clean up your pee bag? You see, frugality is not the solution here.

Look, when you die, you can’t bring anything with you to the after-world, if there is one. What’s the point of slaving out your entire life just to decorate your coffin with rubies and diamonds? The most stupid way to die is to die rich.

“You have to learn how to invest.” Thomas’s voice is still echoing around my ears after more than a decade. In a world that personal finance is not part of the formal education, that financial gurus are not practicing what they preach, that the whole system is engineered to produce mindless slaves, you have to be your own teacher. Both time and money are limit resources, so you have to be smart on spending them, and learn how to invest them. It’s a lifelong journey, so no matter what’s your age, you just have to take the first step out from your comfort zone.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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Min-Tak Cheung

Min-Tak Cheung

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I am the in-house Senior Design Architect of the transportation technology startup company based in Los Angeles.