What is a Sabbatical?
Simply defined, a sabbatical is an extended period of time a person takes away from their professional duties.
I'm a cardiothoracic surgery PA & my husband is an orthopedic trauma sales rep. Here is what we did to plan to take off more than 6 months in 2021, how we started, the exact steps we took, and how it got us in the habit of saving more than we ever have before.
Reasons to Consider a Sabbatical
The Need to Recover from Burnout
After unexpectedly having to step away from working in healthcare due to severe burnout after the pandemic, my husband and I found ourselves completely taken off-guard.
Although we were as financially organized as what is considered normal for people our age when we realized that I needed to take a sabbatical from my job due to health reasons. This was the catalyst that forced us to become more financially streamlined than ever before.
It was scary at first, but once we got the hang of managing our money on only one income we were surprised at how long we could actually go without working with the proper planning.
Since then, I have written a guide with every tool I used to overcome healthcare burnout for good.
I used my sabbatical to heal, rest until it was redundant, learn habits to prioritize my wellbeing, and even dive into old and new hobbies like returning to playing the piano, writing blog posts, and trying my hand at indoor gardening. I would have never imagined myself as having a green thumb, but stepping away from work allowed me the bandwidth to explore new things, which was a lovely change from my life in CT surgery.
Seven months later with our finances dialed in for financial independence, I returned to work at a different gig as a PA in Cardiothoracic surgery instead of doing it as an independent contractor- in a new position.
This time my husband and I were able to save my entire paycheck, which then gave my husband the freedom to take his own sabbatical from being an Ortho Trauma Rep.
It gets even more interesting though!
My new gig ended up being a terrible match and I could not for the life of me- deal with the level of toxicity, explosive personalities & abuse.
Freedom to Walk Away From Situations That are No Longer in Alignment
Then while I worked and my husband stayed home on his sabbatical; I got pregnant.
It was only because of our financial cushion, I was able to confidently walk away from the most toxic job I’ve ever had.
It gave me the freedom & option to leave an awful situation & downshift my stress levels to accommodate our growing baby.
We had been trying for a while & our baby was so very wanted that I was not about to let anyone or anything get in the way of that.
Under any other circumstances being an expectant family without health insurance would have sent us into a complete panic- maybe even forcing me to stay in a soul-sucking job & keeping my husband burned out until he got sick.
But as with all things divinely timed- all of a sudden both of us were on sabbatical together. As it turned out it was the best thing that could have happened to us.
Thank God for our emergency fund.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be and we lost the baby but, since both of us weren’t working we were able to really support each other through that process. Grieving together, resting together & building ourselves back up together.
The loss definitely solidified our desire to be parents & It made us realize the importance of having more time and space to tend to what means most to us on our finite time on earth.
After working crazy hours- me in CT surgery and him in trauma, then working humane hours after dialing in our finances- All of a sudden 60 hour work weeks seemed a ridiculous standard to return to, given that we had figured out a way money-wise that we didn’t need to.
The best part is that we didn’t do anything crazy or special.
No, we're not rich, nor do our families help us financially.
No, we're not debt-free-YET- I still have student loans but were definitely taking advantage of the payment freeze in a few ways.
No, we aren’t extreme cheapskates who live in a tiny house and or/cut out all modern comforts and luxuries- not by a long shot.
No, we didn’t join a pyramid scheme that we’re going to pitch that you become part of our team at the end of this post.
We just got really intentional about using our money to fund our dream life now- not when we’re old.
Let me show you how we did it.
I also realize our privilege in being considered high earners when compared to most American Families. As a first-generation immigrant who knows poverty, adversity & the almost insurmountable adversity of getting a medical education & in more debt than any numbers I had ever seen in my bank account before then, I know firsthand how limited options can be.
Just as my single mother of 5, on welfare, section 8 & a minimum wage job did not have the option to walk away from her job, I appreciate the fact that not everyone will have the option to take a sabbatical immediately.
However, all of the principles I am about to share with you are valuable tools to help you create more clarity, peace & habits around your relationship with your money, & will give you the freedom to utilize your finances as a vehicle to fund the kind of life you dream of, no matter where you are on your financial journey.
When it comes to money mindset, implementing these financial habits have been instrumental in helping me to shift away from financial trauma, anxiety, fear, and survival mode, into building a financial defense against uncertainty that has allowed for more financial stability, peace & ease.
My hope is that by following these steps you too can utilize money as a unit of life energy that can allow you to make money moves away from survival mode & more towards intentional saving & spending as a way to cultivate more freedom, joy, and peace in your life.
6 Steps to Financially Plan for a Sabbatical
Isolating your Essential Expenses
The first thing we did when we abruptly had to go down to one income, my husband and I took a thorough inventory of all of our finances & options on the table to get a good idea of how much time we could actually survive on one income.
As the appointed CFO of our family, I spearheaded this.
To get an idea of what was absolutely necessary I started by fleshing out our expenses into 2 main categories: Essential Expenses & Non-Essential Expenses.
Under Essential Expenses, were only expenses that we absolutely needed for survival for just in case the poop hit the fan- purposes.
I asked myself: If the unimaginable happened- what is the monthly minimum amount of money we could comfortably survive with?
This is what our Essential Expenses looked like for us
Petcare or Childcare
*This is a starting point you can use and be as creative as you want to get to where you need to go.
What is most important is coming up with a number that can cover your monthly Essential expenses only.
This way you will have a good idea of what is your targeted monthly expenditure when you are not working.
Once that was done I had clarity about what things needed to go to make instant breathing room in our monthly budget.
We took it a step further in reducing our essential expenses by
Intentionally reducing expenses in the BIG 3 categories that eat up most of the budget for most Americans: Housing, Transportation & Food.
Refinancing our mortgage.
Getting rid of our leases and getting old & reliable used cars bought cash instead. In 2021 we bought 2 cars for <12K. It took a while to save and find them, but they’re out there.
Paying our car insurance & pet insurance 6 months in advance for a discount.
Using auto-ship discounts for pet food and household items using chewy & amazon subscribe and save.
Significantly Reducing our grocery expenditure by shopping at TraderJoe’s & Walmart, meal planning, stocking up when what we use is on sale & using couponing apps before shopping.
Using free delivery & pickup to not be tempted to buy other stuff we don’t need when we see it.
Become Ruthless in Editing the Non-Essential Expenditures
Once you isolate your essential expenses, whatever else is left should be non- essential.
At this point in time, you should have a pretty good idea of what expenses are actual needs vs wants.
Here is what I eliminated immediately from our Non-Essential Expenses:
Unnecessary app subscriptions & memberships like the gym membership I never used, gaming apps & honestly apps I hadn’t seen or used in years but I was still being charged for monthly or yearly. True bill helped a lot with this. At the very least go on your phone and look at your app updates or subscriptions and see what you have on there that can go.
Cable-why did we need it when we had a streaming service & access to others through our families? That was gone. Saved us over $200 per month.
Look, when it comes down to it- if you have a working kitchen & money for groceries, dining out is truly a Non-Essential expense, don’t fight me on this! We had a huge dining out and food ordering problem, like HUGE. We were spending .$1500/month on Uber eats & a meal service because working so much in surgery left us habitually too exhausted to cook. So this for me, was the first category to work on immediately
Simply explained a gazingus pin is any item that you can’t pass by without buying. I didn’t think I really had any, because unlike most women- I have a great disdain for the mall & shopping in general. My husband isn’t much for shopping either, but as it turns out our individual gazingus pins came in unexpected forms, so they were hidden from us in plain sight!
Me with my indoor plant obsession-buying plants, tools, planters & plant stands unrestricted- ended up being pretty expensive- like 1-2 K for the year.
My husband also has his unsuspecting gazingus pins. Turns out he had developed a pretty impressive stock investing hobby- one month to the tune of 4K!!
I knew about it, but because he got quarterly bonuses, I was busy working and we had no issues paying our bills & saving It didn’t really register as unnecessary to me at the time.
Moral of the story: look for non-traditional gazingus pins in your budget.
I was surprised how quickly I was able to eliminate unnecessary expenses and just how much less we could live off of if we really had to.
When it comes to Debt, Consider Every Option
If you had no more money coming in as of today, & you only had enough for Essential Expenses, what would you do with your debt?
Figuring out your options if it came to that would be a good exercise to have a plan in place should the unforeseen happen.
I made a list of all of our debt outside of the mortgage or anything else you may have in the essential expenses, & then I made a plan for what a viable option would be should we ever find ourselves in a bind.
Student Loans 91K-paused, If payments start-up and we can’t pay them, pausing them with interest still accruing really sucks, but this is always an option.
Credit Card Debt total: 20K
11K moved to zero interest credit card able to make minimum payments for >2 years.
5K in high-interest 23%, debt- if push came to shove we would be screwed here if we carried a balance, so this was #1 to tackle.
The rest was credit card hacking which we paid in full every month.
After taking inventory of all our debt and having viable plans in place- we opted to
Employ the debt avalanche method- where we planned to tackle the high-interest debt first & made minimum payments on the rest.
To our surprise, after accounting for our True expenses (essential +non essential) we used what was left of Mike’s income & our tax return to pay off all of our CC debt in 2021. We were even able to purchase our older cars in cash & take some vacations that were also paid for with credit card points.
I was shocked at everything that became possible once we got serious about our finances.
Take Inventory of all your Assets
Next, I looked at our assets- meaning cash that can be easily accessed if the poop truly hits the fan.
I made a list of all of our assets in the order of quick assessability.
Emergency Fund in our savings account, available immediately
Taxable Brokerage Accounts, available in 3 days
Retirement accounts- who knows but weeks probably, & with lots of ridiculous fees and penalties involved.
SEP from my Business.
4. Home Equity- should we absolutely need it.- who knows but months probably.
Since Mike was still working, our goal was to try everything in our power not to touch our emergency savings at all, unless absolutely necessary.
Since the rest of the other options carried way too many fees, penalties, time & red tape to access, we tried & not even consider the other 3 options as a choice. Although in the event of a big emergency those could be considered if we absolutely had to.
The same goes for using credit cards in emergency situations- I don’t even want to think about that as an option since the interest on those is crazy & we would end up deeper in the hole going that route.
Taking inventory of our entire financial picture by looking at our Total Expenses, Debt & Assets gave us a pretty good idea of our needs, options & priorities as well as something priceless- peace of mind.
Up next was determining how long we could financially survive on what we had.
Calculate the Age of Your Money
Ok so up until this point should be able to have figured out your:
1. Total Monthly Expenses which =
ESSENTIAL EXPENSES + NON-ESSENTIAL EXPENSES + ANDP*= TOTAL MONTHLY EXPENSES
*absolutely necessary debt payments
2. Immediately accessible savings: which we determined was your emergency fund or the cash in hand in your savings accounts.
If you have no savings yet, don’t worry you will still be able to decipher what amount you need to save for your sabbatical & I will show you later on how to put a plan in place to get there.
Back to aging your money. & No I don’t mean needing to be a trust fund kid or even nouveau riche.
The age of your money refers to the amount of time you can go without any additional income before you run out of money.
It can also be looked at as the amount of time between earning your money and spending your money.
The longer the time between money in and money out the older your money is. It’s all about holding your money longer.
Aged money is the best.
3. To calculate the AGE of your money or how long you can go without income:
_____________ = Age of Money (in months)
Total Monthly Expenses
When going down to one income we put ourselves on that Only what was absolutely necessary monthly budget that really only included Essential Expenses & debt.
Cash Assets: = Emergency savings 30K
_____________ = 6 months Age of our Money
Total Expenses =5K per month
To help this situation, even more, you can always consider working part-time or perdiem too.
So with this example, if someone works a perdiem or part-time for an extra 2K/ month then the total expenses go down to 3K
Cash Assets: = Emergency savings 30K
_____________ ___________________ = 10 months Age of our Money
Total Expenses = 3 K per month
So with a per diem or part-time gig, this person only needs to withdraw 3k from their emergency fund every month & still not have to work any more than that for 10 months!!
Once you get to that point, the possibilities are endless as far as creative ways to earn extra income in using and even not using your medical license.
What to do if you have no Emergency Fund Yet
Instead of tapping into your retirement accounts which I do not recommend if you can absolutely help it, because of the penalties and the fact that the loss of compound interest long term is a severe disadvantage to the growth of your retirement account.
Instead, let's get scrappy & find different ways you can take a sabbatical if you wanted to.
1. The first thing I would do is start building an emergency fund.
Shoot for 1 month of total expenses, once you hit that then 2 months and so on and so forth until you reach 6 months or more. A good practice is to double the target savings amount once you hit it.
Put the money aside in a high yield savings account as soon as you get paid with an automatic transfer from your bank.
2. Reverse engineer the age of your money.
Total Expenses x Months you want to take off = Emergency Fund amount to target
5K x 6months = 30K
You can save for it by
Putting money aside each paycheck for it
Getting a side hustle to get there faster.
Now that you know what number you need to hit every month, you can start to build contingency plans.
Keep in mind that a true emergency fund is for emergencies only & that saving for a sabbatical is a separate savings fund is more like a sinking fund. Ideally, you would have both a fully-funded emergency fund & a fully funded sabbatical sinking fund before stepping away from work. However, since I had pressing health issues I made the decison to step away immediately. I know life happens & how debilitating occupational burnout can be especially post-pandemic, so how soon you take your sabbatical is a very personal choice for only you to make because your needs may be different than others.