Four Reasons Why Architects Need to Talk About Money

Why aren’t more architects talking about money? 

 

The one piece of financial advice I got in my first job as an intern architect came from an associate. I remember him saying to me, “You know our industry is cyclical, right? You have to prepare yourself.” The advice was well-meaning but vague. In hindsight, I should have pushed and asked specifically what it meant to be prepared.

 

It can be a hard topic to talk about for many reasons. On some level, many of us have an emotional relationship with compensation and debt. When a salary can reveal how a company values your performance, talking about how much we’re paid or how much debt we have can leave us in a vulnerable place. 

 

For architects in particular, the subject can seem taboo. Architecture is often viewed as this noble profession, deeply rooted in history and having a strong influence on culture and the arts. The buildings we design are supposed to reflect the ideals of society, be innovative in their use of structure or material, and elevate the built environment. It would seem almost inappropriate to conflate something as “trivial” as money with the “nobility” that comes with being a designer.

 

But it’s not just architects — a survey conducted by Ally Bank showed that 70% of Americans think that it’s rude to talk about money. Those surveyed said they were more likely to reveal their income (39%) over savings (30%) or debt (29%) to family and friends. 

 

This silence comes at a price and has a ripple effect throughout the profession. 

Here is why more design professionals should start talking about money.

1. Architecture students take out significantly higher amounts of student loan debt than the national average.


A recent
American Institute of Architects (AIA) press release shared how more than 50 architecture students traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators to advocate for student loan debt relief. The statement cited an AIAS poll of recent architecture students, which found that respondents owed an average of $40,000 in accumulated debt after graduation. 

 

It’s not hard to imagine how that number accrues. Students are encouraged to participate in study abroad programs. Design studio courses require purchasing a wide array of tools and materials for drawing and model building. In my own experience, my program required the purchase of a higher-end desktop computer for rendering and digital modeling. 

2. Unlicensed architectural designers can earn significantly less than their licensed peers.


When considering lifetime earnings, licensed professionals make over
1.3 million more in their lifetime compared to unlicensed emerging professionals. Lifetime earnings have important implications for reaching retirement goals, as well as the level of Social Security benefits you will receive.

 

Position

Base Salary

Lifetime Earnings

Emerging Professional 1

$45,210

$2,730,773.66

Architect 1

$67,920

$4,102,502.70

Assumptions – age 25, 40 years of work, 2% raises and cost of living increases

Source: AIA Compensation Survey Salary Calculator & Calculators.org

 

While this is a rough estimate and salaries/ages will vary, lifetime earnings illustrates the significant financial impact of becoming a licensed architect. Check out the calculator above if you’d like to play with the numbers!

3. The licensing process can be long, arduous, and expensive.


According to
NCARB by the Numbers, it takes on average 2 years to complete the ARE and 4.7 years to complete AXP requirements.

 

The firm you work for may or may not reimburse you for passed exams, but in either case, the cost for six divisions of ARE 5.0 is $1,410. This doesn’t include the cost of study material, rescheduling fees, or re-taking failed exams. It’s important to take this information into account when negotiating your salary and benefits. If you are an international architect pursuing licensure in the US, you may also encounter additional fees.

4. Financial literacy can help you achieve your goals.


Having the right tools in your financial toolbox can give you the space you need to pursue your goals, including: 

 

  • Negotiating your salary and benefits can impact your lifetime earnings.
  • Budgeting can help you better plan for the expenses related to getting your license or starting your own firm. 
  • Automated savings can give you the time and freedom to be more creative without worry. 
  • Investing in yourself in terms of continuing education, taking classes, or expanding your skillset can also have a significant payoff.

By being more open when it comes to talking about personal finance, architects are able to make more educated decisions when it comes to money. 


Talking about money carries some stigma, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The more educated we are about earning, saving, and spending, the more financially savvy we become.

What do you think?

  • Which of these four reasons do you relate to?
  • What other unique financial challenges do architects face?
  • Do you agree that architects and designers could benefit from talking about money more openly?
Four reasons why architects need to talk about money

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