Beyond vacation: Sabbaticals allow families to bond and travel
Aug. 20, 2013 at 1:02 PM ET
NEW YORK – At this time last year, Graham Bodel was analyzing equities for Credit Suisse in Manhattan.
This year, his days look a little different. In recent weeks he has been walking along the banks of the Seine River with his wife, Alexa, and their two children, and strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Musée d’Orsay.
Paris is one of the first legs on a year-long journey that will take them everywhere from India to Australia – a huge chunk of time taken right in the heart of Bodel’s prime earning years.
“Honestly, it was the hitting-40 thing,” says Bodel, 42, whose kids are 7 and 5. “I didn’t get a sports car or a new girlfriend, but it does make you rethink your whole life plan. Taking a trip like this has always been a fantasy of ours, and now was the perfect time to do it.”
If you need any proof that the career priorities of Generations X and Y are different from those of the 9-to-5 Company Man of yore, look no further than people like Bodel.
Some are securing extended time off work, yanking their kids out of school and globe-trotting with their families. Call it a rebellion against cubicle culture, or an early midlife crisis, or a “mini-retirement,” as author Tim Ferriss dubbed it in one of his bestsellers, “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.”
Whatever you call it, it symbolizes one thing: Younger workers are not content to wait until their golden years for a significant break or to savor more time with their families.
“Most people at most times can’t do this, because real life intrudes,” says David Elliot Cohen, a publisher from Tiburon, Calif., who chronicled his own family’s trip in the book “One Year Off.” “But if everything aligns and you have a shot at it, you should take it. Because the opportunity to spend that kind of time with your kids may never come again.”
Companies seem to be adapting to a new workforce with different priorities. Sixteen percent of employers now offer unpaid sabbaticals, up from 12 percent in 2009, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Employee Benefits Survey. Another 4 percent even offer fully paid sabbaticals as a juicy perk.
Paid sabbaticals average about two months in duration, while unpaid stints are “all over the map,” according to Elizabeth Pagano McGuire, a founding partner at the consulting firm yourSABBATICAL, which helps companies design the programs. They appeal most of all to a younger demographic: Younger generations hold very different work attitudes than their older counterparts, including valuing time off, according to studies by Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University.
Of course, in an economy where most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, taking an extended family vacation is a tricky financial equation. Your income will likely cease just as your expenses begin to include stiff charges like flights, hotels and restaurants.
‘No extravagant purchases’
So how can regular folks pull off such a challenge?
Plan years in advance. Vancouver’s Chris Boltwood, a finance manager for local utility BC Hydro, isn’t messing around: He has been planning his big family trip for four years, siphoning a percentage of his salary into a dedicated account. He has also arranged to rent out the family home for the six months they will be gone. He, his wife and their two kids (ages 8 and 10) plan to opt for family-run guesthouses and will focus on Asia, which offers more budget-friendly countries than Europe, once their trip starts in January.
“We have been living off a tighter budget over the last four years in anticipation,” he says. “Very little eating out, no extravagant purchases. And when it’s tough – and sometimes it is – we remind ourselves why we’re doing it, and generate that buzz to reset the compass.”
Give yourself a margin of error. Silicon Valley engineering manager John Higham wasn’t sure how much it would cost to travel the world with his family in 2005. He estimated the trip would set them back $100,000, so over 13 years he and his wife put away $120,000 to be safe. They also rented out their home while they were gone and took out a home-equity line of credit as a source of emergency cash in the event of a catastrophe.
“We never ended up needing it, but having that kind of fallback was a critical part of our financial planning,” says Higham, who ended up writing the book “360 Degrees Longitude: One Family’s Journey Around the World.”
Try to make reintegration seamless. You don’t necessarily have to quit your job or sell your home. See if your employer is amenable to a sabbatical or a leave of absence, and rent out your place while you’re gone.
If your boss says no, you may be faced with a difficult decision that could have long-term financial consequences, and should be made cautiously. You could be wanting to switch jobs anyway. Graham Bodel, for instance, was ready for a new position and fresh challenges, and timed his family’s trip so it began after he left his previous gig.
But if you can, take it easy on yourself and preserve the basic structures of your life. “Whatever you do, don’t sell your house,” says Cohen. “We did, and it was totally unnecessary. It made reintegration on the other end much harder than I expected.”
Finally, get the kids involved. Higham and his wife wanted to make sure theirs had a stake in the trip’s success, even though they were only 8 and 11 at the time.
“When the kids helped us save, too, it became a true family goal,” he says. “When they wanted ice cream at the store, they would say, ‘Can we really afford this, or should we save it instead?’ Enthusiasm about the trip became infectious.”