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My Career Break: How Much Time Can I Afford To Buy?

(Originally posted on The $76K Project on 4/29/2019)

A few days after I quit, I walked my son to school as I usually do. Normally, the five minutes before we need to scuttle out the door feel rushed, with me barking out orders to Put on your shoes! and Find your jacket! so that I can get him to where he needs to be before hurrying back home to start work.

On that morning, though, I didn't feel compelled to prod him along. He took his sweet time donning his footwear and backpack, and then we ambled towards campus, enjoying the warmth of the sun after months of cold, soggy winter.

"Mom," he said as we approached the crosswalk, "I'm glad you're taking time off. You're so much more relaxed."

And with that single statement, the necessity of my career break was validated. My break is not just benefiting me, I realized. It's benefiting my family, too. They deserve a mom and partner who isn't living in a perpetual state of stress and operating in basketcase mode.

I'm trading money for time, and from a standpoint of personal and family well being, it's already worth it.

But speaking of trading money for time, I want to be transparent about the money aspect of this career break. My ability to take time off hinges on our ability to live on one salary for a few months, and that's going to take careful planning and consistent frugality.

When I quit, I wasn't thinking about just my mental health. I was taking our finances into serious consideration, too. Money-wise, I'm not an ideal candidate for a career break. Those of you who have been following our story know that although we've made some major progress over the past few years by paying off our credit cards and one of our student loans, we're still digging our way out from under $37K of student loan debt. Moreover, because we live in a high-cost-of-living area, our baseline expenses are stratospheric even when we're being exceptionally conscientious about how we deploy our money.

And a career break is expensive in more ways than one. While I'm away from work, I'm not just losing out on a salary. I'm losing out on health insurance benefits and retirement contributions, too.

The bottom line is that we can make this work, but we've got a fairly short runway, and we'll need to depend heavily on a combination of our emergency fund, bonuses, and side hustle earnings. We're not in a position to live off a single income indefinitely.

Because I'm all about transparency, I want to share our financial approach to my career break.

Income-wise, here's a breakdown of what we're working with:

1. Baseline income: While I'm not working, we'll be bringing in a baseline $3000 a month via Fortysomething's regular income. There's no way this career break would be a possibility without his salary. It's the main reason I can afford to sit out for a few months.

2. Additional income: Fortysomething is expecting a summertime bonus somewhere in the range of $3000-$4000, although it's hard to predict the actual total because it depends on factors mostly out of his control. He also has a regular contract job that he works when school isn't in session. He's likely to do the same this summer, but we're waiting for those plans to crystallize. If it works out, his contract gig will bring in another ~$1000-$2000.

3. Savings: It may seem as though I quit my job abruptly, and in a way, I did. But I've been unhappy with my work long enough that I actually started considering the possibility of a career break almost a year ago. Knowing this, we've been hoarding cash. We now have approximately $8400 in our savings account.

As for our expenses, here's a breakdown of our current monthly budget:

Rent
$2205
Health Insurance
$250-$750
Groceries
$650
Student Loan
$400
Utilities
$160
Campground Membership
$108
Phone
$78
Car & Renter’s Insurance
$73
Internet
$65
Cat
$40
Car (Gas)
$30
Miscellaneous
$100
Total
$4159-$4659

Estimated difference between baseline income and monthly expenses:
 $1159-$1659

As you can see from the budget, health insurance is potentially our largest expense outside of our rent.

I spent an inordinate amount of time last week researching health insurance options. My first stop was healthcare.gov, where I wasted two hours filling out an application with the expectation that we'd qualify for a subsidy. Only after my application had been approved did I find out that, due to the nature of Fortysomething's health insurance, we are not eligible for ACA assistance (I won't get into it here, but it's known as the ACA family glitch)A bronze plan with a sky-high deductible would cost us $850/month.

Option #2 is to buy into Fortysomething's insurance, through which he already has coverage. He pays almost nothing, but adding me and the Kiddo would cost $750/month. With a $10,000 family deductible and a $12,500 out-of-pocket max, it's not exactly a Cadillac plan. On the other hand, preventative services (including dental) are free, so... there's that?

Option #3 is to purchase one of the new, controversial short-term plans, which could cover us for up to a year in our state. The plans are inexpensive, but they also come with a host of weird rules and stipulations, and they generally do not cover pre-existing conditions. I'm skeptical, but I managed to find a plan with a $1000 deductible, a $2500 out-of-pocket max, dental coverage, and Teledoc access for $250/month. Except for mental health issues - many of which are exacerbated by working shit jobs - I'm healthy, and so is my kid. Plus, I'm familiar with insurance lingo and know how to interpret the plan brochures. So I'm not ruling out this possibility.

I'm not sure which route to take. I don't feel comfortable going without insurance, but I also don't want to spend hundreds of extra dollars a month for a half-assed plan that we might not use much. I may apply for short-term insurance to see whether we even qualify; if we don't, that makes our decision more straightforward.

Some of our budget line items are set in stone, including our rent, campground membership, health insurance, and Internet and phone bills. Other items, like gas, already require little in the way of money (a benefit of having only one car and living within a mile of pretty much everything we need). But we'll be cutting costs in several other areas:

1. Groceries: I know our grocery budget may seem high to many of you, and I have several reasons/excuses for that. One, food where we live is expensive in general. It's a small town with very little in the way of local agriculture, and most food is shipped in. Second, we don't have an Aldi or Trader Joe's here, which is unfortunate because it seems like those stores offer massive savings. Third, my family eats a lot, especially now that we've got a 12-year-old who seems to burn calories as fast as he takes them in. Lastly, we do buy plenty of fruits and vegetables, and we eat them all. Fresh, healthy food is important to us, and we're willing to invest in it. 

Nevertheless, there's plenty of room here to dial it back. To reduce our expenses, we're meal planning, couponing, and making detailed grocery lists. We'll be eating more rice and beans, pasta, and inexpensive produce like sweet potatoes and carrots. We're also earning Swagbucks gift certificates that we can use to order some grocery items for free.

2. Utilities: We've become more aware of our energy use over the past year or so, but we can and will be more vigilant, especially in the coming months. For example, we'll limit the number of loads of laundry we do in a given week and avoid running our appliances during peak times (between 3 PM and 8 PM, according to our energy provider). I've stopped taking hot baths at random, something I was doing when I was super stressed out about work. And we'll hold off on using the air conditioner as long as we possibly can.

3. Miscellaneous: After two years of tracking our expenses, budgeting, and saving, we're pretty frugal. We don't go on shopping sprees or make many impulse purchases. But we do go out to eat a couple times a month, and we often take road trips during the summer. While I'm on my career break, we won't be going out to eat unless we have a gift certificate, and we won't be traveling without the aid of credit card points.

That said, I'm reluctant to slash our Miscellaneous fund altogether because there are a few things I do want to cover over the summer. For example, the Kiddo is desperate to play in the local soccer league, and there's no way I'm going to discourage that. He also needs some new (or gently used) clothes.

4.  Student loan: Fortysomething's loan is a federal student loan. Technically, we could ask for a deferment or apply for forbearance, but we'd like to continue making steady (albeit slow) progress with our current payment plan unless finances get really tight.

Let's say that between bonuses and contract work, we make an additional $5000 this summer and immediately dump it into our emergency fund for a total savings of approximately $13000. Depending on the insurance route we take, I have a career break runway of about 6-10 months. If I can line up a part-time job, contract work, or some freelance projects, I can further extend my timeline.

I won't sugarcoat it: I'm nervous about the financial aspects of taking time off, especially because I don't have a crystal-clear sense of what I want to do next. Our bank account certainly isn't bursting at the seams, and our emergency fund is less robust than I'd like it to be. I know there are people who might see this as a financial risk not worth taking. 

I keep asking myself whether job stress is really enough of an emergency to justify dipping into our oh-so-carefully hoarded savings, and I keep coming to the conclusion that it is indeed worth it. I couldn't have continued doing what I was doing, and my health was suffering (if you're losing sleep over a job you dislike, that counts as a health problem in my book). The job was breaking me down both mentally and physically.

From that standpoint, the money we're spending on this career break isn't a loss. Rather, it's an investment. It's an investment in my family, my health, and my future. It's an investment in my search for a sustainable job, whether that's a traditional job or a job of my own creation. In order to make this investment worthwhile, I really have to go all-out on this break. I need to make sure I'm healthy by the time I go back to work. I need to make sure I don't put myself into the same untenable position I've been in for the last four years.

Although I'm not a climber myself, I have a weird affinity for climbing documentaries (probably because they always feature iconoclasts who shirk societal norms). I've seen MeruFree Solo, and Valley Uprising multiple times. But my favorite one as of late is The Dawn Wall, about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's attempt to scale what basically amounts to a nearly perfectly smooth, seemingly unclimbable slab of granite on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

At first, the star of the show is Tommy, one of the most gifted and interesting climbers in the world. But about halfway through the movie, the attention shifts to Kevin as he attempts to traverse Pitch 15. Pitch 15 consists of an ~8-foot-wide section of rock that has no handholds, footholds, or fingerholds whatsoever. To make it across, the climber has to literally spring off the rock face, leap across the wall, and attempt to snag a hold on the other side. The move is called a dyno, and it looks utterly insane.

Tommy manages to conquer Pitch 15 fairly quickly, but Kevin gets stuck. He gets stuck for days. He tries and tries and tries the dyno to the point that his fingers are bleeding. Eventually, it becomes apparent that he may not make it. Tommy considers proceeding without him, but at the very last minute, Kevin manages to succeed. He puts his uncertainty aside, throws himself across with everything he's got, and finally finds purchase. He and Tommy then finish the climb together.

In my own way, I relate so hard to Kevin.

My career break is not only about taking some time off from work. It's my attempt to find a way from where I'm at now (somewhere I can't stay) to somewhere new, without much in the way of security or assistance or a clear path. It's hard and it's scary, but it's something I want to figure out, and badly.

Essentially, now is the time to launch myself into a kind of career dyno - an all-out, putting-full-trust-in-myself, funded-on-a-shoestring leap towards something that I can actually see myself doing for another couple of decades.

Regardless of what's in our bank account, I have to find a way to make that happen. I have to make that jump. 

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