Escaping the 9-to-5 slog to live in Italy, promote a book, or motorcycle through South America might sound like an impossible dream. But with a little planning, luck, and clever negotiation, it just might be possible. We found five people who managed to take sabbaticals from their full-time jobs and asked them how they did it. Here are their top 10 tips for other people hoping to do the same:
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Name your big goal, which might mean remembering a forgotten dream. When Danny Tobias, 29, started applying for jobs his senior year of college, he wasn't thrilled with his options. He felt like he needed something bigger to aim for, and came up with the idea of traveling around the world. Five years later, he and his wife, Jillian, made that dream come true when they quit their jobs and spent two years traveling to 50 countries.
Rachel Meeks, creator of SmallNotebook.org, similarly dreamed of living in Italy years ago, soon after she and her husband, Doug, got married. At the time, they didn't think they could take a break from their jobs and soon had two children. But last year, when her husband turned 40, she remembered that goal. "On his birthday, I realized that he had worked for 25 years, and I thought it would be a good idea for Doug to take a year off from working 60-hour weeks, spend some time with the family, and think about what he will work on for the next 25 years," she wrote on her blog. They ended up moving to Florence for a couple months.
Make a plan. "You must be realistically confident and have a plan for something great to do in your time off to make it worth it. 'Not going to work' is not a good enough plan," says Meeks. In fact, all of the sabbatical-takers in this story detailed their plans well in advance.
Do whatever it takes to establish a healthy slush fund. Ben Slavin, 28, spent six months riding his motorcycle from New Hampshire to Argentina. Before taking off, he limited his expenditures almost entirely to rent and food. That meant no new clothes, no weekend getaways, and no restaurants. "I figured every beer I didn't buy in the States was worth four beers in Latin America. I'm not a lush, but when you put it like that, it's easy to save," he says. By the time he was ready to go, he had saved $30,000.
Danny and Jillian Tobias lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment and tried to live off just one salary so they could save the other. With the goal of saving a total of $80,000 for their two-year trip, they skipped expensive hobbies like golf and clubbing in favor of outdoorsy activities. They also skipped restaurants, cooked at home, and drove a used car. "All my friends said I was crazy, that there was no way we could save up that kind of cash … They were wrong," says Danny Tobias.
Leave your job on good terms. Jenny Blake, author of Life After College, asked her employer, Google, for three-and-a-half months off to promote her book. "Google is pretty understanding about things like this. It's not guaranteed, but they look at things on a case-by-case basis," she explains. It helped that she'd been at the company for five years, had a strong performance record, and gave a compelling reason for the break.
Get your finances ultra-organized. Unsatisfied with the available options, Danny and Jillian Tobias created their own website, Doughhound.com, to help them, and others, stay organized. It lets users create a budget and track spending without sharing passwords and other personal information. Blake created a separate savings account to put money aside for her sabbatical, then created budgeting spreadsheets using Google Docs.
Pay off any lingering debt. Meeks and her husband paid off their debt before planning their Italian sabbatical and had been saving for several years, which she says made it easier to feel like they were in a good position to plan the break.
For recent graduates still repaying student loans, being completely debt-free isn't always possible. Slavin managed to continue making his monthly student loan payments even while on the road, largely because he minimized all of his other expenses, including cancelling his cell phone and other monthly expenses. "If you're in debt, you have no freedom," he says.
Live simply while on break. Slavin's entire six-month motorcycle journey cost only $13,000, not including the bike purchase. He also continued contributing 20 percent into his retirement savings up until the day he left home. He paid about $30 a day for accommodations plus food. "I was living on a budget but I wasn't completely dirt-bagging it either," he says.
At the same time, Blake warns against being so frugal that you don't take full advantage of the break. Because she's using the time for a self-funded book tour, she's not skimping on plane tickets or restaurant meals. "I want to enjoy and make the most of it," she says.
Likewise, Danny and Jillian Tobias budgeted $100 a day, but they let themselves exceed it when it came to going on an African safari or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
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Bring in extra cash. Blake is subletting her condo while she's on her book tour, and she's also earning money with her coaching business and speaking gigs. "That makes me feel relaxed," she says, to know she has some income.
The Tobiases' travel website, ishouldlogoff.com, brought in a total of about $3,500 while they were on the road—not enough to live on, but enough to help offset some costs. Now that they're home, they continue to grow the site.
Use the break to shift careers. When Slavin returned home, he says he realized he was ready for a new challenge. He did some design work for a local motorcycle accessory company. Then, in response to requests from his blog readers, he returned to the road to create a how-to video guide for motorcycling through Mexico. "I saw a need for this and an opportunity to empower others," he says. He continues to work for the motorcycle accessory company while he promotes his film.
Danny Tobias, who worked as a business consultant before his trip, decided to return to his home turf in southern Florida to become a financial planner and join his family's business. His money management experience while traveling contributed to that decision. In addition to the budgeting website he and Jillian created, he figured out how to convert his 401(k) into a Roth IRA and pay taxes on it during a year he had no other income. "All that feeds nicely into my new career," he says. He is currently studying for his certification in financial planning.
Don't wait until you can "afford" it. "We'd been thinking about it for ages, but when we hit our financial goal, we just sort of looked at each other and said, 'It's time to fish or cut bait,'" says Danny Tobias. And so they took off for their round-the-world adventure.