“Dude, how much did it cost you to take a year off work?”
This is the question I asked my cousin many years ago. My cousin is now 35, lives in New Zealand, and has taken 2 separate 12 month career breaks to travel the world, spend time with family, and just enjoy life.
He’s also a personal finance whiz, so it was a little strange when I heard his vague answer to my question. His reply was…
“Well I first thought a 1 year career break would potentially cost about $100k, but somehow it only ended up costing me around $25k, and my second sabbatical didn’t really cost me anything at all.”
Hmmm, interesting. I was expecting a much more specific dollar figure. If he could just tell me exactly how much money was needed, I could save up that amount and take a gap year myself! I asked him to clarify, and he quickly ended the conversation with this…
“Listen, Joel. If you’re trying to put an exact dollar value on a career break, you’ve already missed the entire point of the whole thing.”
Fast forward to 2019:
As of this writing, it’s been 14 months since I’ve been employed. My wife and I quit our jobs early last year with the goal of taking a 1-2 year break from work. (Neither my wife’s or my employer would allow “unpaid leave”) Technically, we are not “Financially Independent” yet, nor are we “Retired Early”. My wife and I have been living off our savings this past year.
The tables have turned. Now people are coming to me and asking how much my “gap year” has cost. Since I track all my finances religiously, I should be able to give a clear and crisp answer this question, right?
Unfortunately, my response to people is much like my cousins was to me… Vague and probably not helpful. It’s a tough question to answer because there are so many variables, and everyone’s position in life is different.
Let’s explore how most people can try to estimate what 1 year off work will cost…
#1) Annual Salary or Earning Potential Cost:
Since most people are heavily reliant on a steady paycheck, they immediately think the cost of taking 1 year off work will be equal to 1 year of their salary. So for someone earning $60k/year as an employee at their regular 9-5 job, taking a year away from work would “cost” them $60k.
There are a couple problems with calculating this way:
- First, annual salaries are potential income, not guaranteed income. And if you think about it, most people’s true potential income is probably a lot higher than their current annual salary. For example, when my wife was a substitute teacher she made about $20k per year. But she holds an advanced degree in soil science and could easily be making $80k per year (or more) as an Agricultural Engineer or lab worker. So is her true “cost of not working” $20k, or is it actually $80k+?
- Second, there may be future costs associated with rejoining the workforce at a lower salary after a year away, especially if you are considering making a career change. When I left my tech sales job, a recruiter told me to expect a ~$30k pay reduction per year to be hired back into the same position I already had. This is simply due to the 1 year gap in my resume. Should this potential “cost” be included in my calculations?
#2) Spending Cost of 1 Year:
Another way to estimate the cost of a gap year is to calculate how much spending you will do within that specific year. If someone spends $45k within the 1 year they are unemployed, technically their cost of living for that year is = to $45k.
But, it’s very difficult to estimate how much you’ll spend during a year off because:
- First, there’s a massive lifestyle difference between working and not working. Traveling, pursuing hobbies, general amusement, or even volunteer work can add a lot of cost that is hard to anticipate. Health insurance also can be a HUGE expense depending on your age and location.
- A career gap may be much cheaper than you initially think. Not working gives you a lot of time to be frugal and less wasteful with money. My wife and I spent about $20k less than I thought we would over the last year due to cooking at home, cheap travel, credit card hacking and smarter shopping.
- Most people find creative ways of making money or working a small amount during gap years. Buying/selling stuff, taking part time gigs or continuing side hustles are common.
#3) Difference in Net Worth Over 1 Year:
A recent awesome realization for me… I just calculated the difference in my net worth between the time I quit my job, and today. As it turns out, over the past 14 months, my total net worth has actually increased. It’s higher by exactly $11,951 than a year ago. It’s like a paid vacation!
Since we haven’t hit our FI number yet… You might be wondering how I have a higher net worth now than 12 months ago. Several factors contributed to this:
- I partnered on a house flip project that made us ~$11k
- I sold 2 underperforming rental properties and moved that equity into 2 wicked performing syndications
- Our fourplex rentals stabilized mostly late last year.
- My wife and I bought and sold some stuff around our house and from estate sales for small profits
- Our stock market and retirement funds increased better than average through that time period
- We received an unexpected small bonus check, and an unexpected tax refund check
- My wife took ~15 days of temp work teaching students at her old school throughout the last year
- We made a few bucks charging those annoying electric scooters in our neighborhood
While it might be true to say that this past year off cost my wife and I (-$12k), it’s definitely not something I can say every sabbatical year. In some ways we got lucky.
Market fluctuations and unpredictable events throughout the year make it almost impossible to predict your exact net worth in future years.
The True Cost? Or Should I Say the “Value”…
Ok, so if we can’t use any of the above methods to answer the question, how else can we determine how much a year away from work costs?
What if we switched the word “cost” with “value”? After all, that’s what we’re really trying to determine… the value of a year off work.
The reason I don’t like the word cost is because it’s associated with something being taken away from your life. Synonyms for the word cost are: price, fee, tariff, fare, toll, levy, charge, penalty, sacrifice. They all sound negative.
On the other hand, the word value is associated with something being added to your life. Synonyms for the word value are: merit, worth, usefulness, advantage, desirability, benefit, gain, profit, good, service, help. These all sound positive!
After 14 months away from work, I rarely think of what this past year of leave has cost me. It’s all about what value it’s brought to my life. Just like my wise cousin said, if we’re trying to put an exact dollar figure on taking 1 year off work, perhaps we’ve missed the whole damn point.
There Is No Right Answer:
From now on when someone asks me how much a year off work costs, I’ll tell them this:
“1 year of time away from work, cost me exactly 1 year of living my life.”
What about you? Have you taken long periods of unpaid leave? How much did it “cost” you? Does your employer offer to keep your job position open? What about extended or unpaid parental leave?