It’s been a tough few years to say the least. Record numbers of employees are quitting their jobs and media outlets are reporting rising burnout rates. We’ve all been adjusting to a new normal following the massive upheaval that was the COVID pandemic. It’s no surprise then that more people are talking about – or at least thinking about – taking a sabbatical.
Traditionally speaking, sabbaticals were reserved for academics who had the luxury of taking a year off to study, travel, or just decompress. Fortunately, sabbaticals are more widely accepted today and some would say, needed, in our over-worked, modern lives. For many it’s not a question of “would I benefit from a sabbatical,” but “can I afford to take one?”
Before I jump into the financials, a word about the benefits. Back in 2008, just before the spectacular housing market crash that led to the Great Financial Crisis, I left for the South of France on a one-year sabbatical. Prior to my sojourn, I worked long hours as a stock analyst on a successful mutual fund team. I was also a new partner at my firm, making more money than I ever thought I would. Yet despite the income, the title, and the growth prospects, something was missing.
I wanted more than just a title and a paycheck. I wanted meaning, clarity about my life – who was I, where was I going, and why? Something of an early mid-life crisis. In any event, I knew it was time to leave the rat race and reconnect in Provence. While my fellow partners had a different opinion, I can confidently say it was one of the best decisions of my life.
Living in France for almost a year – and serendipitously missing one of the most stressful financial crises of our lives – was a life-changing experience and just what I needed. My time abroad gave me the chance to slow down, get to know myself, and discover what mattered most to me. There were no deadlines, no to-do lists, just an open page of exploration and new experiences. And a lot of chocolate croissants along the way.
Now comes the financial piece. A big part of why my trip was so rewarding was that I had substantial savings set aside and minimal money stress. I also had a master’s degree, meaningful career experience, and important industry credentials which helped give me confidence in my ability to re-enter the workforce when I returned home. Point being, going to France wasn’t an impulsive decision, but a well-thought-out and well-funded adventure. Without those resources, my year abroad would very likely have been a lot less rewarding.
So while it may be clear that a sabbatical is just what you need, you’ll want to first make sure you have the resources in place to make the most of your time off. A great starting point is to estimate how much you’ll need to finance your trip, and – if you’re staying home – how long you can afford not to work. To better estimate expenses, I suggest planning at least one year ahead. This will give you time to not only explore different destinations, and associated costs, but to start saving up and reflecting on what you hope to get out of your “gap” year.
Getting creative doesn’t hurt either! You might consider unconventional ways of living in another country, or at home. For example, I spent four months of my year in France at a Buddhist meditation center where room and board were covered in exchange for volunteering 20 hours a week. Not only did this add more mileage to my savings, it was a great way to immerse myself in the culture while making time for some serious self-awareness through daily meditation. If living abroad is on your checklist, programs such as teaching or volunteering abroad can help cover your costs while providing an insider’s view on the culture.
Another important consideration is your career. While a sabbatical at any age can prove extremely rewarding, taking a break at the wrong time can increase your stress levels and reduce the benefits of time away. If you have limited experience in your chosen field, I would suggest clocking in a few more years in order to acquire the skills and tenure to make you a desirable employee upon your return. That said, if you’re looking to make a career shift, a sabbatical can provide a perfect pivot and lead to interesting conversations on job interviews down the road. Either way, make sure you set yourself up for success by gaining the skills, education, and/or credentials on the job before you leave.
Planning for a successful sabbatical can be a lot of work. If you’re not sure you’re up for the task, consider enlisting the help of a professional. A good financial advisor can help you create an in-depth plan – one that considers your assets, liabilities and income, and can model different scenarios to let you know what’s do-able and what’s not. He or she can tell you if your dream sabbatical is out of reach right now, and make recommendations on where to trim back or how much more you’ll need to save to make it a reality.
Regardless of your approach, taking a close look at your financials and putting a solid plan in place with an advisor will help lay the groundwork for a rewarding, and possibly life-changing experience!