Welcome to the new retirement. It’s about having the freedom to decide when and how you want to take a break from work — to rest, recharge or start a new adventure — no matter your age. In our Redefining Retirement series, you’ll learn how real people are living their lives to the fullest, and the steps they took to get there.
Here, a woman in her 30s shares how leaving the workforce for nearly two years, including a year of travel, helped reinvigorate her career — and how she saved to make it possible.
When I think back to what my life looked like in 2013, it’s almost unrecognizable. On the surface, I had it all: I was a 33-year-old recent MBA grad, working as a market researcher in Minneapolis for a major food company and earning about $97,000 a year. My career was thriving, and I earned enough to live comfortably in a fantastic city.
There was just one small snag — I was miserable. After years of unfulfilling work and long hours in a cramped cubicle, I found myself burned out and desperate for a change. I didn't know what I wanted exactly, but felt that corporate life wasn't for me.
A friend recommended I see a life coach, which changed everything. I discovered that what I was really aching for was a break. The only way I was going to get clarity on my future was to leave the rat race and reconnect with myself on a deeper level.
PLANNING AN EXIT STRATEGY
Once the idea of taking a career break was in my head, I couldn't shake it. I definitely had questions: Was stepping away from work for an extended period even a thing? Wouldn't a gap in my resume hurt my career? Ultimately, though, I gave myself permission to move forward. After all, I only had one life, and it was time to ask myself what I really wanted to do with it.
Finally, the answer came to me. I wanted to take a year off. I would split my time like this: I’d take a three-month road trip around the U.S., followed by three months reconnecting with my family in West Virginia. Then, I’d spend three months abroad, and wrap up the year by taking time to figure out what was next career-wise. Traveling the world was something I’d always wanted to do, and though it seemed crazy to take time off during my prime career years, deep down I knew it was the right move for me.
The only thing holding me back? The $1,500 I had in my savings account. There was no way I could take off on a travel adventure with that little in the bank, and going into massive debt to fund my dream simply wasn't an option. It was time to work up a plan.
“I updated my resume with things I'd done on my travels, and ended up getting five offers in just five weeks.”
NEXT ON MY TO-DO LIST: SAVE $38,000
Before getting my MBA, I'd worked as an actuary, so crunching numbers is one of my strong suits. I broke down each leg of my journey and assigned a dollar amount to everything. This included gas, plane tickets, daily spending limits, hotel accommodations — you name it, and I accounted for it.
I also factored in expenses like my cell phone bill and health insurance premiums because I'd be losing my benefits after I left my job. And I gave myself enough of a cushion to live on so that I wouldn’t freak out about money when I was done with my travels. The grand total to make this dream happen: $38,000.
I immediately started tracking my spending to find ways to free up cash and divert money into my career-break fund. Turns out I was spending $700 a month on groceries alone! Meal planning and bargain shopping brought my food budget down by half. I also took on a roommate, which cut my rent and utilities by about $400 per month. And I was much more mindful about any nonessential spending, even my daily lattes. While I didn’t deprive myself completely, splurges were fewer and farther between.
Eighteen months later, my travel fund hit the $38,000 mark.
A BREAK FROM WORK LEADS TO A NEW CAREER
I kicked off my road trip in August 2013. I breathed in the beauty of the Grand Canyon, drove up the California coast and visited old friends along the way. Being off the grid and disconnected from work was magical, as was spending quality time with my family at home. For the international leg of my journey, I traveled through Colombia and Argentina, then ate my way through Spain, Italy and France before zipping off to Southeast Asia, where I fell in love with Vietnam. By the time I wrapped up my adventures, I felt truly recharged. The kicker was that, thanks to my frugal ways, my career-break fund lasted me eight months longer than I'd anticipated.
The experience was incredibly empowering: If I could accomplish this, surely I could do anything. During my career break, I’d kept the idea of becoming a life coach in the back of my mind because my own experience with one had been so life-changing. But I had $42,000 of student loans waiting for me — I had temporarily deferred them while traveling — so I decided to get another corporate job I didn't hate so I could pay that debt down while nurturing my life-coaching career on the side.
Any notion I had that time off could hurt my career was quickly proved wrong. I updated my resume with things I'd done on my travels, like becoming a certified yoga coach in Bali and pursuing my passion for food all over the world, and ended up getting five offers in just five weeks. Not only that, I started doing work that felt more meaningful, taking a position as a senior market research manager in the natural and organic food industry.
The best part? With the help of a steady paycheck, just 22 months later I got my student loan balances to zero. I also received my certification as a life coach, and I’m currently transitioning to doing it full-time. If I'd never taken my career break, I wouldn't have had the urgency and confidence to pursue this next chapter of my life. Stepping away from the corporate grind ended up being the best move I ever made.