After spending one too many late nights at the office, who among us hasn’t fantasized from time to time about leaving all of our responsibilities behind and heading to some far-off location — perhaps the white-sand beaches of Mexico, the rugged mountains of Switzerland or the stunning traditional architecture of Japan. But inevitably, reality sets in. You’ve got work to do, chores to finish and a steady drumbeat of bills, loans and expenses to pay.
What if that fantasy didn’t have to remain a fantasy, though? What if there were a way you could take off months, or even a year or more, and come back reenergized and ready to take on the corporate world, with a healthy bank account to boot?
We talked to a handful of real employees who have managed to pull it off, and according to them, it’s easier than you might think. If you’ve been waiting on a sign to go from daydreaming about a sabbatical to actually take the plunge, consider this it. But before you book your tickets, here are a few things you need to know.
Timing is Everything
Realistically, there are going to be times in your life where dropping everything to jet set around the world presents more of a challenge than others. So when you do have the opportunity, it’s important to take advantage of it.
“I decided to do it because I knew if I didn’t do it when I could, I never would. Right now, I’m 27, I don’t have kids, I don’t have dependents, and I’m able to save money and take a year off — the time is perfect. I didn’t want to be on my deathbed wishing I’d traveled more and worked less. And I knew if I let myself wait until later, later might never come,” said Lia Saunders, owner of the travel blog Practical Wanderlust. “So I set myself a deadline when I started my career right out of college. I gave myself 5 years to get my career to a place I could leave and come back to without having to start over. Then, I committed to taking the leap, and did it!”
While many who choose to take a sabbatical do so before they have dependents, it’s certainly not a requirement. For Derek Hines, an Internet Marketing professional at West Coast Self-Storage, children were a major motivating factor for taking time off in the first place.
“[My wife and I] came to the realization that we were not happy and we felt that we were passing on this attitude to our kids… More and more, we realized that we needed to take a break from our jobs and show our kids more of the world. So we did just that. After making sure that financially we could manage it, we both quit our jobs. We then spent a month in Spain and a month in Puerto Rico as well as time in Vancouver, BC,” Hines said.
While there are no hard and fast rules about who can and cannot take a sabbatical, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions: Do I have enough savings to take time off? Do I have any dependents and if so, will I be able to bring them with me and/or make arrangements for their care while I’m gone? Am I at a point in my career where I’m comfortable taking a break? Will debt or other financial obligations impede me? Once you’ve answered these questions honestly, you’ll have a better sense of whether a break from work is right for you at the moment.
Obviously, if you have a healthy nest egg in the bank, taking a sabbatical is going to be easier. But you don’t need to be a millionaire to pull it off. For some, following a strict budget beforehand and saving accordingly made their travels possible.
“I did my trip on a tight budget of approximately $20 a day excluding airfare, because that’s what I could afford at the time… I had saved for the trip over the previous year and set a pretty tight budget. This meant staying in hostels, eating lots of cheap food and doing a lot of free activities such as walking around the city or hiking. That wouldn’t be for everyone, but it was great for me, and I didn’t want to wait any longer to go,” said Jane Stine, co-founder and Managing Director of Loop Abroad.
“I supported myself with the savings I had accumulated in the months prior to termination. By moving to a country with a far lower cost of living, I was able to study and travel without worrying about finances as my savings were quite sufficient,” added Shy Bredewold, founder of Odyssean Travel.
However, one thing that Bredewold stressed the importance of was having a financial cushion upon your return.
“Think of the life you already have and how much money it would cost you to return and start over. You don’t need a lot of money, but you will need health insurance, a flight home, first and last [month’s rent] and a security deposit and enough cash to eat / dress for your return to work in order to wait out your future remittance period,” Bredewold shared. “[I would] suggest at least $3,000-5,000 put aside to help you return home at the end of your adventure. It’s possible you may never hit that time, but if you do you will not be stuck. I met far too many people who will probably never leave their respective ‘gap year country’ because they can’t afford to return home.”
If you’re having trouble saving enough to fully finance both your travel and your return, you may want to consider looking into freelance or gig work that you can take on as needed in order to bring in some extra income, or look into ways to generate passive income such as hosting internet ads on a personal website or renting out properties on Airbnb.
A Risk Worth Taking
While taking a sabbatical certainly requires a lot of planning and investing, nearly all of those we spoke to agreed that it was well worth it.
“In my time away from my full-time job, I pursued all of the hobbies that I never had enough time or energy to pursue in San Francisco. I practiced Brazilian jiujitsu, learned Spanish, deepened my yoga practice, practiced photography, wrote songs and eventually started a freelance marketing business,” said Brandon Croke, owner of Croke Consulting.
“During my trip, I mostly focused on traveling: meeting new people, exploring new things, and spending lots of time outside. I also wrote the first draft of a novel and spent three months teaching in Nepal… That year had a profound impact on my life. When you have a little idea like traveling around the world and then you actually do it, it gives you the confidence to take on pretty much any challenge. Plus it was so fun!” Stine added.
But beyond the personal development that a sabbatical can offer, many agree that there were serious professional benefits as well. For some, taking time off simply allowed them to return to the work they loved refocused, refreshed and reenergized.
“My husband went right back to his old school to teach, reinvigorated and ready to go. Our gap year had only confirmed to him that his career was his passion, and he couldn’t wait to begin again,” Saunders said.
For others, new experiences created new opportunities.
“My break changed my life in so many positive ways. As for my career, I landed a dream job in Boulder, CO when I returned that didn’t exist before my break. It was very fortunate timing and my unique story of taking this career break helped me stand out from the crowd and highlighted my passion for life and the things I care about,” McGhee shared. “I was mentally and emotionally ready for my re-entry and brought all of my amazing experiences with me. I ended up landing five job offers in just five weeks.”
And for still others, traveling abroad set them down a new path entirely after realizing what was truly important to them.
“Upon wrapping up my year, I decided not to go back to a corporate job. I had really enjoyed the flexibility that came with working on my own website, and knew that I wanted to be able to work remotely, so I decided to go into consulting,” said Antonella Pisani, CEO & founder of Official Coupon Code. “Through a few referrals from former colleagues and business partners, I was able to hit the ground running and now have a few people helping grow that business. While I may go back to corporate job one day, it’s not the right thing for me quite yet.”
All in all, would the folks we chatted with do their experience all over? Most of them responded with a resounding yes.
“If your spirit is crying for change, and you just don’t know what that next step looks like, taking time off to simply ‘be’… to meander a while and follow your curiosities… can be incredibly renewing and insightful,” said Kim McCabe, U.S. Public Relations Lead + Brand Champion, G Adventures. “It’s only when we step off the treadmill that we can sometimes notice the subtleties on the side of the road.”