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Are travel sabbaticals crazy, or the best investment of your life?

In a country notorious for taking the least amount of time off, US workers routinely face burnout. For those who love to travel, a couple weeks off is just enough to torture your wanderlust. So if you’re in a good spot financially, you might consider a more drastic option: a travel sabbatical.

It’s much less common in the US, but when treated like an investment, the travel sabbatical is a powerful option to recharge, invest in your career and reevaluate how you want to spend your time and money.

However, when I mention a travel sabbatical to burned-out colleagues, the response is usually a variation of “Are you kidding? I can’t afford that, and I’d be quitting my job. All so I can spend time lazing at a beach.”

I promise my rebuttal isn’t snarky, because there is truth in what they say: the average American lives beyond their means and carries an average debt of $137k. Payments on new cars, mortgages, credit card debt, student loans — in the words of Dave Ramsey, we’re swimming in debt so we can “buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

The solution to our debt addiction: we are work martyrs, and our life becomes synonymous with our work. No wonder we feel dizzy at the thought of quitting a job!

Challenge your perceptions about work

The dynamic duo Vagabrothers have some great insights into how you should approach a sabbatical, but the intro especially resonates with me because it highlights the importance of introspection. We’re heavily influenced by our peers, so we tend to take these assumptions for granted:

  • You must own a car
  • You must own a house
  • You need a “fulfilling” career to sustain you till retirement
  • You should postpone serious travel till retirement
  • You will quit your job around 65 to retire

This is definitely the tried-and-true way to live, but it’s not the one-true-way to live, nor is it the healthiest. You have a choice. It sounds trivial, but we have chained ourselves to how everyone around us lives — and we hold the key. You aren’t less of a person if you choose to take control of your time and finances.

In fact, I commend you. The “American Dream” isn’t all that dreamy when you tally up the debts:

  • $31k average debt for car.
  • $1k median monthly mortgage payment.
  • A “fulfilling career” tends to be synonymous with workaholism.
  • Retirement is becoming an illusion as the average retirement age goes up.
  • At retirement, we are less physically able to enjoy travel and less inclined to make lifestyle changes to facilitate it.
  • The most disturbing debt: postponing travel till the tail-end of our lives robs us of the enrichment it contributes to our lives now.

Life doesn’t have to happen in an office from 9 to 5, 48+ weeks per year from age 20 to 70. But you need to put your time and money into your priorities and ruthlessly evaluate anything that doesn’t align with them.

Evaluate a sabbatical

Assuming you are able to take a sabbatical, it’s time to ask if you are going for the right reasons and with the right expectations. We’re subject to a myriad of cognitive biases that prevent us from reasoning correctly, and the antidote is usually some introspection. So pull out a notebook and ask yourself:

1. Why do you want to take a travel sabbatical? Like most introspective questions, the answer seems obvious until you articulate it. Do you want to see the world? Spend time recharging? Escape some rough situations at work? Save money — yes really, check out the FEIE. Are there any options besides a sabbatical that would provide similar outcomes?

2. What do you expect to get out of the sabbatical? You probably don’t want to just spend 6 months chilling at a beach (or maybe you do). But more likely you feel burned out and have other interests or career paths you want to invest in. You want to “change your life,” and that won’t happen with a 9 to 5.

This sabbatical is about personal growth: it’s not vacation, it’s an investment. So get some rest, but treat the sabbatical like your new full-time job. Be intentional so you can tie expenditures to measurable outcomes — there’s nothing worse than feeling aimless when you pay the hotel bills, and it’s hard to sell others on your sabbatical if you haven’t sold yourself on its tangible value.

3. How do you want to spend your time during the sabbatical? Start building a sample itinerary and a rough breakdown of how you will spend your days. Are you going to shoot during the mornings and do a few hours of freelance writing in the afternoon? You don’t have to stick with the itinerary, but you should set realistic expectations to reference.

4. What would make the sabbatical a “success”? Kickstarting a new career? Building up a photography portfolio? Evaluating an overseas move? Recharging your creativity? It’s a hard question to answer if you are approaching a sabbatical as an extended vacation, but even then, you should spend time qualifying what an effective vacation would do.

5. What are you giving up? This shouldn’t come too hard since it’s the reason so few people consider a sabbatical in the first place. Before you rush to whip up a spreadsheet, list out the tangible and intangible things you are giving up, like job security, a decorated house and game nights with friends. There’s more at stake than just your paycheck.

Next, pull out a spreadsheet and tally up your current monthly expenses versus income. How would this change during a sabbatical? You’ll forfeit a full-time salary, but there’s a host of expenses that you can eliminate to compensate for the new ones you’d take on to travel. Check the numbers from an overseas vacation and use them as a guide.

After some number crunching, you should arrive at two numbers: your current monthly balance of expenditures to salary, and an estimated balance during the sabbatical. The difference between these two is your opportunity cost.

This is where you put a tangible money value on that travel time. During a 6-month sabbatical, you may be able to average a similar monthly cost to your current costs, but you are also forfeiting pay. The opportunity cost analysis is a more realistic way to account for this loss.

6. What obstacles do you need to start removing now?

The opportunity cost analysis can be sobering, but I find it encouraging because it turns what was previously an unquantified impossibility into an achievable reality. Your next step is to start formulating action steps that will position you for a sabbatical. That might mean:

As a digital nomad, I’ve tried to position myself so that travel, photography and my software career are not in opposition, but fuel each other. It’s taken several years to get here, and I’m still a long ways off — but the journey alone has enhanced my life and enabled me to pursue opportunities I would never have imagined.

So even if you decide not to take a sabbatical down the road, you’ll be better off for your intentionality.

Ignore the passive aggressive hints

There will always be peers who will express their disapproval: either they will be forthright, or they will fiddle with your emotional resolve through passive aggressive hints. They will think you’re strange, slacking off, lazy, or all the above. But the reality is you are working harder to take control of your career, your time and your money.

Take counsel from those who have demonstrated their commitment to your well-being in the past, but ignore the naysayers who are in debt, buying expensive items they can’t afford, spending all their time working for companies that don’t compensate employees more for loyalty.

You are working towards an investment — not a vacation — that is worth more to you than what you leave behind. I for one am cheering you on!

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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