How to take a career break
Back in 2016, Jamie Clark of Seattle was a software engineer who planned to take a year off of work to finish a master’s degree in computational linguistics. One year turned into three and a career change into financial planning.
Nowadays, Clark, who uses they/them pronouns, believes the experience makes them a better advisor – particularly since their career break didn’t turn out as originally planned.
“Part of our job as financial planners is to help people be prepared,” says Clark, now a certified financial planner who recently launched their own firm, Ruby Pebble Financial Planning. “And I want to help people build that flexibility.”
Career breaks are extended and usually unpaid stretches of time off work. Such breaks can be aspirational - giving you time to travel, pursue a degree, change careers or launch a business. Or, they can be prompted by life events, such as caring for a child, nursing a family member or dealing with an illness or burnout.
Whatever the cause, some planning can help you make the most of your break.
SAVE AND BUDGET DILIGENTLY
CFP Henry Hoang of Irvine, California, doesn’t believe most people need detailed budgets, as long as they’re saving adequately for their goals. But career breaks are an exception, he says. When your paychecks stop, you’ll want to have enough savings to sustain you. That starts with knowing precisely what you’re spending today and estimating what your expenses will be during your break. Some costs might decline, such as commuting or child care. But you also might have new costs, including higher health insurance premiums if your current coverage is employer-subsidized.
Once you calculate how much you need to save, consider adding a fudge factor equal to two or three months’ worth of expenses in case it takes longer than expected to land your next job, Hoang suggests. One of Hoang’s friends didn’t do that, and wound up raiding his 401(k) to pay the bills.
And speaking of retirement: Extended breaks could mean you’ll need to work past normal retirement age or increase your savings rate significantly to retire on time. If you’re planning to take more than two years off, use a retirement calculator or consult a financial planner to see how that might affect your plans to retire, Hoang says.
Clark saved enough from a high-paying job to cover living expenses for two years, and was able to stretch that to three years after getting married. Their spouse paid the bills as Clark used remaining savings to pay tuition and other costs to get their financial planning credential.
Clark says that careful tracking of expenses and thoughtful budgeting not only helped make their savings last, but it also alleviated some of the stress of Clark being without a paycheck.
“There are always surprises, but it’s good to try and minimize them, or at least minimize impact on your finances,” Clark says.
MAKE A PLAN FOR YOUR TIME
You may feel you need a break from strict schedules, but having no plan means you could waste this precious time you prepared and saved for.
Hoang has another cautionary tale from a client who started his break with a strong desire to change careers and spend more time with his young children. His days quickly filled up with parenting duties, and he never made time to explore other jobs, Hoang says. When his savings ran out, he ended up going back into his same field.
“Having clarity on what you really want out of this career break could make a tremendous difference in experience overall,” Hoang says.
The details of your plan will depend on your career break goals, but consider scheduling lunch with a professional colleague every month or so to maintain your network and stay abreast of developments in your field. If you’re considering a career change, make a timeline for when you’ll accomplish certain steps, such as meeting with a career counselor and determining what education or certifications you’ll need.
An extended career break may not be possible. You may have too much debt, too many bills or too many people depending on you to go months or years without a paycheck. Even if you have the savings, you may be understandably wary about leaving the job you have without another one lined up.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stuck.
A few employers offer paid sabbaticals , while others provide unpaid leave to workers who need a break. You may be eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act if you have a newborn, adopt or foster a child, suffer from a serious health condition or are caring for an immediate family member such as a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition.
Given the tight labor market, your employer may be willing to adjust your workload, transfer you to a job with less responsibility or reduce your hours. That could free up the time and energy you need to focus on what’s important to you - and what you want next in your life.