Why Sabbaticals Could Be the New Pre-Retirement

Brad N. Shaw, a Dallas, Texas-based serial entrepreneur, took a two-year sabbatical from 2011-2013 to spend more time with his family. He’s pictured here with his family in Vail, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Brad M. Shaw)

Serial entrepreneur Brad M. Shaw made a bold decision several years ago to take two years off from work and move his family to Vail, Colo.

Taking a two-year sabbatical had its challenges, the major one being uprooting his family in pursuit of more work-life balance and a change of scenery. But overall, he says taking time off was more than worth it — both for his family and his business.

“My daughter was growing up so fast,” says Shaw, who is CEO of a web design firm in Dallas. “As a serial entrepreneur, I was always away traveling or at the office. I wanted to be a present father and play a role in her upbringing. I also wanted to show her a life outside of the Dallas suburbia bubble.”

‘No reason to wait’

The concept of taking a sabbatical is not new. People have been taking them for decades. They’re typically thought of happening in academia, in which professors are paid to take time off for research. But sabbaticals have transcended academia and have spread into the general workforce in recent decades.

Thanks to a new wave of workers who value purpose over stability, the upswing of the gig economy, and companies that offer unlimited vacation time or paid sabbaticals, taking an extended break is becoming more of a reality for many. Many major companies in the United States offer unlimited vacation time or paid sabbaticals, such as Groupon, General Electric, and Adobe.

There’s also the reality that today’s American workers are not able to retire as early as previous generations — and they’re living longer, healthier lives. So a sabbatical can serve as a mini retirement, or a chance to take a break from the grind of 9-to-5 life.

Ric Edelman, the founder and executive chairman of Edelman Financial Services, explores this topic in his new book, “The Truth About Your Future: The Money Guide You Need Now, Later, and Much Later.” He says the combination of people living longer and being healthier in old age means the notion of retiring at 65 will be gone in the near future, both because it won’t be affordable and people will get restless.

Daniel Howard took a one-year, unpaid sabbatical in 2008 following the financial crisis to recharge and return to work with a fresh perspective. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Howard)

“You’ll be healthy enough to work, you’re going to want to work, and economically, you’re going to need to work,” he says. “For all those reasons, you’ll continue working. And so that notion that you’ll wait until you’re 60 to take that around-the-world cruise really won’t exist. There won’t be a particular reason to wait.”

Edelman says that instead of the traditional life path (go to school, get a job, retire, die), we’ll have a cyclical one in which people go to school, get a job, take a sabbatical, go back to school, take a different job, etc. Instead of having one big chunk of a 30-year retirement, people will take two years here, three years there, six months here, and they’ll enjoy time off throughout their life at various intervals.

Research has also proven that companies and the economy benefit when employees take sabbaticals. According to a report by Project: Time Off, an offshoot of the U.S. Travel Association, there has been a jump in employees taking time off in the last year. Unused vacation days cost the economy $236 billion in 2016 — an amount that could have supported 1.8 million jobs. In essence, employees not cashing in on their paid time off hurts the economy because employees are forfeiting money that could instead have been used to create new jobs.

Dan Clements, author of “Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind,” says the biggest benefit of taking a sabbatical is the perspective change it offers.

“People come back from sabbaticals with a completely different vision for how they want to live their life,” Clements tells MagnifyMoney. “They come back and they change jobs or they transform themselves in the company they’re in or they change their business.”

Upon returning to Dallas, Shaw says he made the decision to forgo scaling up his business in favor of running it on a smaller scale so he could be less stressed.

“The time away allowed me to reset my business ideas,” he says.

Clements thinks many companies have begun to offer unlimited vacation days or paid sabbaticals to keep up with the new generation entering the workforce, because by and large, millennials value purpose over stability. Companies want to keep employees happy by offering them the opportunity to find purpose in a way their 9-to-5 job might not be able to.

“You have a different generation of people entering the workforce for whom work means something different,” Clements says. “What they expect from work is not necessarily security and a paycheck, but what they expect is meaning from work more than previous generations have. Part of the way companies can supply that is to give people the time and flexibility to find it.”

Taking the plunge

Tori Tait, the director of content and community for The Grommet, an e-commerce website that helps new products launch, took a 30-day sabbatical in August. Her company offers paid sabbaticals at employees’ five-year mark. Tait, who lives in Murrieta, Calif., spent time relaxing in Huntington Beach, Calif., boating on the Colorado River, and living on a houseboat in Lake Mead, Ariz. Like Shaw, she says the biggest benefits for her were time off with family and a fresh perspective once she returned to work.

“I’m a working mom, so summers are often filled with me in the office, and [my kids] wishing we were at the beach,” she says. Tait says she enjoyed how during her month off, she didn’t have work in the back of her mind the way people often do when on a five- or six-day vacation.

Tori Tait, pictured with her daughters London, 10, and Taylor, 16, took a company-sponsored, 30-day sabbatical in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of Tori Tait)

Her biggest piece of advice for those planning a sabbatical is to not dwell on the planning aspect of it. “I grappled with trying to plan how I would spend my time,” she says. “Would I travel abroad? Volunteer? Finally do that side project I’ve been thinking about? In the end, I just thought, What is it that I always wish I had more time to do? The answer for me was: spend quality time with my family. So that’s what I did.”

Daniel Howard, the director at Search Office Space, a website that helps businesses all over the world find office space, took a sabbatical after the financial crisis in 2008. He says he took 12 months off to recharge in hopes of returning to work with more optimism and drive. His employers didn’t pay him for the time off, but promised him his job would be there upon his return.

He traveled with his then-girlfriend (now his wife) to Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Central America. They left their phones at home and relied on physical maps to get around. Aside from the occasional email to family to check in, they were completely disconnected. The biggest benefit for him? “The ability to completely disconnect from my working life and the opportunity to become a more well-rounded person by immersing myself in different cultures and experiences,” Howard says.

Although many people take their sabbaticals overseas, one doesn’t need to travel around the world to reap the benefits. Extended time away from work and technology is beneficial no matter where you are.

“I think for a lot of people, a sabbatical is the first real vacation they’ve ever taken,” Clements says. “I tell people that taking a one-week vacation is sort of like trying to swim in a puddle. You wade in a little bit, and you’re barely wet, and then you have to go inside. When you actually get away from your life for two or three times longer than you’ve ever taken a break from work, you get this sense of perspective that I think most people don’t normally get a chance to experience.”

The 4 stages of preparing for a sabbatical

If you don’t work for a company that offers unlimited vacation days or paid sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean you can’t take one. Clements shares his steps for saving up for a sabbatical:

  1. Boost your earnings. Try to figure out if there’s a way you can earn more before taking your sabbatical. Can you finally ask for the raise you’ve been wanting? Can you do freelance work on the side? Can you rent out part of your home on Airbnb, or drive for Uber? Consider all of your options.
  2. Make it automatic. Have money automatically withdrawn from your bank account the same way you would for retirement, a mortgage or automatic bill payments.
  3. Put it out of reach. Once you set aside money in a separate account, make sure it’s out of reach. Put it in a savings account that isn’t accessible online or via the ATM. If you have to physically go to the bank to withdraw cash, you’ll be less tempted to do so.
  4. Stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to make your automatic savings plan more aggressive than you think you can handle. Challenge yourself to save more than you think you need, because you can always change the amount if you have to.

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