Taking a mental leap is the first step

When to go - committing to a sabbatical

We all have dreams, ideas and plans. They will never transpire without action. Committing to a such a big life change takes time to digest but it also takes courage.

On our second wedding anniversary, my husband and I held up our glasses of wine and toasted to each other and our new baby. We smiled, put our wine glasses down and then he said: ‘So, when is our first mini-retirement? I won’t be able to surf anymore when I retire at 70’

My first reaction was shock, followed by fear. I took three deep breaths and realised I was lucky to have a partner who wanted to grow and develop together with me.

You need to make the following commitments to your sabbatical:

  1. Commit to the idea of taking a sabbatical — move past the romantic idea of a sabbatical and start thinking about the reality of it. Why are you going? Where are you going? With whom? And when?
  2. Find the time — when is a natural break in your life to take a sabbatical? When does it make sense in your career to take a break and make a change? When are you transitioning between school and work? Becoming a parent? If there isn’t an obvious moment, which season would you like to take time to enjoy? Don’t use timing as a reason not to go on sabbatical — make the time. This will become your deadline.
  3. Prioritize your spending — what’s your sabbatical budget? How can you reduce your current monthly expenses to save money towards your sabbatical? What big purchases can you limit? Do you really need a bigger house / newer car? You have to choose to prioritize experiential wealth over material wealth before, during, and possibly after your sabbatical.
  4. Tell your family and friends — keep your sabbatical to yourself while it is just a fledgling idea, but once it’s starting to take shape and you can confidently explain it in under 1 minute, start telling your family and friends. They will either try to talk you out of it (which will help you refine your ideas as you defend them) or they will hold you to it.
  5. Give notice — once you have given notice at your work / home / school / children’s school, you are entering the point-of-no-return

Here is the reality of what you are committing to:

  • A break from your everyday comforts
  • Leaving your friends and family for a period of time
  • Changing your spending habits to save up for a sabbatical
  • Leaving your job — either quitting, or taking a leave
  • Breaking a lease / finding renters for your home
  • Taking your kids out of school
  • Not being able to communicate with people easily in your new country
  • Repetitive conversations with new people you encounter
  • Homesickness
  • New foods you may or may not like
  • Rebuilding your life when you get back – new job, new house, reconnecting with friends and family and re-entry shock

Take some time to digest all of that. Digesting this now will help you avoid cold feet later when things start to get real.

Our slow road to commitment

We had just had a baby girl, I had just passed my Dutch language exams, and I was finally enjoying a normal life in one place. My husband and I had set a goal on the horizon and we had both been working hard for three years to keep the ship on course. How could he drop an iceberg in our path and suggest uprooting our lives?

Committing to the sabbatical

I took three deep breaths and managed to re-open my mind. It was a great idea, but it was not what I was expecting just three months after our first baby was born. But as I reflected I remembered that I always imagined that if I had children someday I would take them along for the ride and open up the world to them, rather than submitting to the idea that children need to live in the suburbs. When had I become so inflexible?

This was the first moment I began to commit to making a change via a sabbatical.

The second moment was when I began working on our long-term financial planning. I listed about ten financial goals we had casually thrown out there over the course of our lives. Many of them were lofty (a summer house in Vancouver, a catamaran in the Caribbean), some of them were really important (supporting family and friends in times of sickness, aging or need) but I wrote them all down, gave each of them a price and a deadline, and plotted out what we would need to save every year to achieve them.

One of the ten goals was ‘take a 1 year sabbatical every 10 years’. I reckoned the first sabbatical would cost about $20,000, with subsequent ones costing more as our children got older and our comfort needs increased. When I sat with my husband to prioritise our goals, it became very clear that the sabbatical was a priority. Everything else was stuff — stuff that wouldn’t be enjoyed until we were much older, and who knows who we would be then, or in what physical state.

Finding the time

The third moment when our commitment to the sabbatical became clear was when I began researching schools for our daughter. Where we live, children begin school at 4 years old, and I quickly realised that having a child in school would become a convincing reason not to take a sabbatical. Our daughter had just turned 2, so we only had one year to prepare if we were going to take a 1-year sabbatical before she was 4, and we had just spent our savings on my husband’s education.

Prioritizing our spending

Money is supposed to give you a sense of freedom, but as Mr. Money Mustache argues more money usually just enables people to up their lifestyle. A promotion at work rarely results in more savings, it results in a nicer car.

Mr. Money Mustache and his wife had a goal: retire at 30, before having children. How did they do it? They never upped their spending as their earnings increased. And at 30, they both retired months before their son was born.

If we stayed in our beautiful but small 2-bedroom apartment, reduced a few monthly bills, and reduced our travel budget for a year, we calculated that we could save up for a sabbatical in just one year.

Telling family and friends

But we still didn’t know exactly when, where or what we would do. When I became pregnant with our second child a few months later, the timing really fell into place. Rather than quitting our jobs, we could take parental leave. It meant that we didn’t have to give up our lives here entirely to enable the sabbatical to happen, but it did mean that we could only leave the country for six months rather than a year, and it also shifted the focus of the sabbatical to bonding with our children rather than self-development. We decided to roll with it: we had plenty of sabbaticals in the future to explore ourselves, let’s follow the inertia in our lives at this point in time.

Baby would be born in August. By December (God-willing) baby will be strong enough to travel. Which parts of the world are a nice temperature during Northern Hemisphere Winter? Australia (not different enough from our current life), South America (zika virus), South Africa (better to enjoy when the kids are older), and South East Asia (excellent for travel with young children).

This was something we could explain to our families (who initially really resisted the idea) and friends (who overwhelmingly supported the idea).

Giving notice

The fourth and final major commitment was when we both requested parental leave from our work — this was the first point-of-no-return. Because it’s easier to hire a replacement for 1 year rather than just 4 months, it was easy for me to extend my maternity leave to cover the sabbatical. It also helped my husband’s colleagues make sense of the leave — they were all Dads themselves, and taking some time to bond with your baby and toddler made a lot more sense to them than leaving your job for six months to surf and travel.

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