Mini-Retirement: Taking a Sabbatical before reaching FIRE

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Someone asked “what’s holding you back from leaving your job” and I couldn’t really answer. The numbers worked, my partner and I had a dream that couldn’t be accomplished while holding a full-time job, but I still had a block. 

Two years into the pandemic, a lot of people are reconsidering what they want their life to look like, even if they aren’t able to financially walk away forever. Life is short, and the head down “race to the finish line” of retirement isn’t an option for everyone, regardless of finances. Nor does it need to be. 

Instead, a sabbatical or mini-retirement can be a wonderful way of grabbing life fully right now, even when it isn’t going to be forever. Laura and her partner did exactly this right before the start of the pandemic, and we asked her to come share her story here at Women’s Personal Finance. Here she shares why they went forward with a sabbatical and how they got ready to take the leap, as well as how they spent the time. If you’re considering a sabbatical or mini-retirement, this post is for you.

-Angela, WPF Editor

We Saved All This Money, But Something Is Holding Me Back

My partner and I have a long history of being interested in simple living, personal finance, and FIRE even from before we were married in 2002. By 2018, we had accomplished our goals of having a paid-off house and were near our ballpark FIRE number. 

During most of that time, I had decent spreadsheets of our spending, earning, and net worth numbers, and when the chance came to attend Cents Positive, a women’s financial conference, a couple of hours drive away from my house, I jumped at the opportunity. It was great to meet so many women interested in personal finance, in different parts of their journeys and with different ideas! 

Many people had life-changing conversations during that weekend, and for me, this came in the form of realizing that I was struggling with some anxiety around money. 

Someone asked “what’s holding you back from leaving your job” and I couldn’t really answer. The numbers worked, my partner and I had a dream that couldn’t be accomplished while holding a full-time job, but I still had a block. 

My partner was getting a little impatient, watching our net worth grow but not having any solid plan to take a leap for our dreams, so finally, I decided to see if counseling would help. I was pretty nervous, in all honesty. I had kind of thought people went to counseling when they were severely depressed, or having trouble even functioning because of anxiety. I had gotten through more than 40 years of my life so far, with what I considered only mild trauma, so what was I going to talk about that would help me get over this block? 

Well, I’m not sure I’d ever been in a situation before where I could talk about feelings without those feelings being judged as possibly wrong. A few months and a couple of breakdowns later, I got to a point where I felt…maybe not totally relaxed but at least better about leaving my job and having an adventure! Finally, I was ready, and we began to flesh out our plans more concretely.

(Angela: amazing what kind of baggage we have around counseling – and other mental health tools – when they can be so helpful. Here’s to hoping stories like Laura’s help folks to see that it’s important to take care of our whole selves – and it’s okay to be nervous when you’re heading into something new)

Camino de Santiago

Making the Dream Concrete: What Did We Actually Want To DO?

My partner and I have long shared a love of the outdoors, and during discussions about future dreams and goals, a through-hike was definitely on our list. On my list as well was hopefully becoming fluent in another language. Travel outside the US for extended periods was on his. 

I had come across travel accounts of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and once our commitment to do a sabbatical started taking shape, that seemed to be a great fit for our mutual goals. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time, money, and effort trying to get extended visas when tourist visas in the Schengen area, and in many other non-EU countries, were available to US citizens for 90 days with no application. Although there are dozens of Camino routes, generally if you pick one route and only include the areas inside Spain, it’s possible to finish in 90 days or fewer.

We didn’t want to limit our trip to just 90 days, however. I am not the biggest fan of winter, so we thought why not go to South America for their spring and summer? We could continue to practice Spanish, travel a bit less expensively than Europe typically is, and hop countries if we needed to reset the 90-day visa.

With some additional research and after a discussion with my partner’s workplace, we figured we could extend our health insurance coverage for a bit over a month in the US after he left for his sabbatical. So, we decided to drive around and visit friends, family, and national parks across the States.

We celebrated our anniversary in Ecuador, near Cotopaxi

Mini-Retirement: The Trip!

Eventually, the trip took shape. We took off on a road trip on July 15th, 2019, and drove 10,000 miles from Colorado to California, Seattle to Maine, down the eastern seaboard to North Carolina, and back. Then we flew to Europe, walked across Spain for nearly 2 months, then flew to Santiago, Chile, and took buses up into Ecuador. 

We flew back to Denver on February 29th, 2020. The timing was absolute luck; we made the tickets in early January after anticipating that we’d feel done with the hostel scene in about another couple of months, and since Ecuador uses US currency, it seemed convenient to leave from there rather than continue to Columbia.

(Angela again: that timing! If nothing else, I hope that timing reminds you that nothing is certain, and to take the leap and make those big dreams happen now, because the future is not assured. I didn’t have “make sure you take your mini-retirement trip now so that you get it in before lockdown and a global pandemic,” but it sure makes for a good argument in hindsight)

Machu Picchu!

The Hows of Leaving the Country for Months with a House and Pets

Because I started off with a lot of anxiety about all sorts of aspects of the sabbatical, I did a decent amount of contingency planning. We had a paid-off house, so we were able to negotiate a long-term house and petsitter arrangement with a friend who needed to reduce costs during a divorce. 

We had our expected expenses in cash, in part because we were doing a lot of traveling in foreign countries, so managing withdrawals and dealing with tax consequences of those would have added complexity that was more than we wanted to deal with. As it was, we had to replace our furnace unexpectedly during the trip, so having the money easily available made a stressful situation slightly less so. We had travel insurance and my partner had a job waiting when we returned. I anticipated it taking awhile to find a job myself, but it so happened that I had highly in-demand skills for the pandemic so I had a job less than a month after we returned home.

Is a Sabbatical or Mini-Retirement Right for You?

A sabbatical is not right for everyone. Some people, like my partner, can negotiate a sabbatical from their work, which provides a lot of security when deciding to take a large chunk of time off. For others like myself, it can be a good excuse to leave a job, especially if you want to try something else. For either of these cases, a hefty amount of savings is key if you truly wish to take a sabbatical from any paid work rather than leave a job in order to pivot to some sort of freelance work. 

A sabbatical can also be fantastic for someone like me, a bit anxious about straight-up FIRE-ing and who wants to put some toes in the water first. However, some people cannot realistically completely leave their paid work and expect to come back. Although I found a job very quickly, I found it mentally difficult to transition back to a full-time, at-work position, though my experience is heavily influenced by the fact that it was also a global pandemic. I would caution folks thinking of taking a sabbatical to consider what would happen if they return to work and are dissatisfied, or don’t want to return to work at all. Overall, I’m extremely grateful we took ours when we did.

Have you considered a sabbatical or mini-retirement? If it’s on your list of someday dreams, what’s stopping you from making the leap? 

2 thoughts on “Mini-Retirement: Taking a Sabbatical before reaching FIRE”

  1. I needed to read this today! This is coming up quickly in my own life – I have concrete plans – and it’s so helpful to see this was a good choice for you and your partner. (also, stunningly great timing on your parts)

  2. Pingback: The FIRE Insights Survey #6

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