How I Financed My Career Break

how to save money

Financing a career break or other long term travel is not easy. For me, it required a combination of cutting back on spending and saving more, earning extra money, and dealing with at-home expenses that would remain while I am on the road.  I own my condominium and still have student loan debt, but I have still been able to make it work.

I know it’s not always cool to talk a lot about money publicly, but in an attempt to help others who may be similarly situated, I want to be as open as possible about how I have financed my trip and share my tips on how to save money to travel.

How I reduced my spending and saved more

Eliminating my land line.  I got rid of my land line after realizing I hadn’t had an actual phone plugged into for 3 years and I didn’t even know the phone number anymore.

Cutting back on cable. When it came to cable, I realized that almost everything I watched on a regular basis is available for free online (particularly sports).  I called my cable company planning to cancel altogether but ending up telling them I was willing to spend $15 a month and asking what I could get for that.  I ended up with all the major networks plus some random cable channels that I like – TLC, HGTV and Comedy Central.

Eating better.  I often hear people say eating healthier is more expensive.  Well, no, not really.  All that packaging for processed food costs a lot and grabbing fast food every day costs more than just buying fresh ingredients and preparing your meals at home.  Given that I already had to eat gluten-free, I tried to cut out most processed foods, sticking to fruit, nuts, veggies, eggs, yogurt and fresh chicken and pork.  In addition to the obvious health benefits, this proved to be a boon to my bank account, cutting my monthly grocery bill nearly in half.

Repairing my shoes.  If you have never taken your shoes to a shoe repair place, start now!  Instead of buying 4-5 new pairs of shoes last year as I normally would have, I simply repaired the ones I had as the heels wore down or the toes became scuffed.

Re-evaluating my bank account.  I switched to Capital One from US Bank over a year before leaving on my trip.  The interest rate on my savings is nearly double what I had before and, just as important, Capital One does not charge ATM fees and even refunds the fees paid to other institutions up to $10 per month.  This adds up over time. 

Changing up my social life.  I’ve read blog posts that suggest saving money by not going out and instead hosting people at home.  Well, if you’re young, single and live in a big city like Chicago, that’s not really appealing (and hosting people can get expensive!). I did scale back my social life, but I also saved money by meeting friends for lunch or drinks (instead of dinner), and by limiting myself to 1 or 2 drinks when I did go out.  I have no idea how much I saved by doing this, but I tried to stick to a “going out” budget of just $125 a month – which was less than half of what I spent before I started tracking my spending.

Giving myself a pay cut: I set up direct deposit into my savings account every month – in a sense giving myself a pay cut. While it took a while to adjust, eventually I got used to it and kind of forgot about it.

How I earned some extra cash

Selling stuff. I brought in over $4,200 by selling all of my furniture, books, DVDs, and random household stuff. I did this mostly through Craigslist, but also sold a few things on Ebay and held 4 “moving” sales over the course of a year.  I sold books online through and DVDs through, which was incredibly easy.  I entered the ISBN codes and they provided an online quote and a pre-paid shipping label. Then I just packaged everything up and shipped it to them and within a couple weeks, I received payment via PayPal.

I started by selling things I didn’t use on a regular basis over a year before I left and saved the bigger stuff (bed, couch, etc.) until just a couple weeks before my departure. As a general rule, I priced things at around 25-33% of what I paid and found that worked pretty well.

Freelance work. I am not a writer or designer or techie person by trade, so there are not as many freelance opportunities out there for me.  But, I did manage to find a few projects through, capitalizing on past experience in data entry and research. Three projects brought in about $700. I probably could have done more with this if I had more free time and I am hoping to use it while I am on the road to make a little extra cash.

Getting a roommate. With a 2 bedroom condo, I had a room to spare. When a friend of a friend approached me in the spring that she was looking for a place to stay for a few months, it seemed like an ideal opportunity. This was an easy $1,300.

Saving vacation days. My employer had a policy of paying out for unused vacation days upon termination of employment. So for a year before leaving, I planned any trips around holidays and managed to accrue over 3 weeks of vacation time, which I received in one nice big check the week after I left.

Tax refund. I know, getting a tax refund means you have actually been loaning the government money without interest – technically it is better to adjust your withholding so you end up even at the end of the year.  However, in my mind, getting a tax refund was a welcome boost to my savings account when it was direct deposited.

How I am dealing with lingering at-home expenses

Home: I was unable to sell my condo before I left, so I found tenants and am bringing in almost enough in rent to cover my mortgage payment. I lined up a friend with experience in managing property to serve as an emergency maintenance contact – I will pay her on an hourly basis only if the tenants ever need her to do anything. I also set up online rent payment through – my tenants pay online each month and it is deposited directly into my bank account for a very small monthly fee ($3). I do still have to cover my condo association fees ($225 per month), but I worked those into my budget.

Student loans. Between college and law school, I had over $60,000 in student loan debt when I started planning for this trip (down from a high of over $90,000!).  Waiting until I paid it all off just wasn’t an option.  At first, I planned to work the $456 monthly payment into my budget for the trip and for re-entry. But ultimately, I decided to cash out my 401(k) from the job I was leaving and use that to pay down nearly half of my loan balance.

I know many people would advise against this, but hear me out. First, I have another 401(k) from my days as a lawyer that still has a pretty decent balance – probably more than most people my age.  I probably would not have done this if I didn’t have that other account. Second, when I calculated the penalties and taxes I would incur, they ended up being less than the interest I would accumulate if I continued to pay down my loans at the current rate. Finally, by paying down such a large amount, I pushed ahead the due date for my next required payment to about 2017 – this gives me much more freedom and flexibility when I return. I am not saying it would make sense for everyone, but it made sense for me.

How it all adds up

I started with about $18,000 in savings – mostly proceeds from selling a previous condominium in 2006 – and zero credit card debt. Over the course of 14 months, I managed to add about $14,000, exceeding my total savings goal of $30,000. My actual trip budget is only $18,000 – the rest is a cushion for re-entry.

Note that the links above are affiliate links – a portion of any proceeds will help fund my travels!

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34 thoughts on “How I Financed My Career Break”

  1. Pingback: Top Resources for Career Break Travel | Katie Milton

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  3. Thank you so much for this write-up. I hope to plan at least a 6 month break from work in the next few years. Your budget saving tips were amazing. I am glad I found this article. Keep on traveling!

  4. I just saw you shared this on Twitter today. Thanks so much for sharing what you did to save money for your trip. Great tips and tricks that I will be keeping in mind.

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  6. I have Capital One and didn’t even know they refund ATM fees. They’re everywhere in DC, so I don’t really need to go to a non-Capital One ATM, but that’s still great to know.

    I always thought I might now have much to offer, but now you’ve got me interested in checking it out. Thanks for the great tips!

  7. This is a great list and a lot of good advice that people should be using every day. Living a frugal life has been a key component in getting us on the road, not just for a single trip, but for forever. Giving up the things most people cherish is a small sacrifice to enjoy the life of freedom we’ve discovered.

  8. Great advice Katie. We used very similar techniques to save for our first 1 year RTW trip and our current nomadic lifestyle (20 months so far). The main thing is to track your spending and see where you can save money. Then look at your budget every month and see where you can reduce further. It definitely gets easier over time and it feels like less of a hardship. We’ve now totally broken the shopping habit, and can’t stand shopping even when we really need something.

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  11. This was just what I needed to read this morning as I try to make a budget for our family’s year-long odyssey. Thanks for putting in so much detail! Since my work is part-time/from home/freelance, I’ve decided to make every Monday “Money Monday” where I list stuff for sale on Craigslist and eBay, work on budget planning, etc., so every week there are concrete steps toward making our trip happen.

    1. Hi Paige! Thanks for the comment – I’m so glad you found it useful! I love the idea of a Money Monday – great way to get yourself organized and make the Craiglist/Ebay stuff a priority. Good luck!

  12. Katie, as a mother of 2 teens, I appreciate what you share in this article. We have choices and we can make changes or we can make excuses and stuck with the status quo. Awesome.

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  14. Sounds like you were so much more responsible and organized than I was. I definitely sold a lot of stuff (furniture, car) and put lots in savings, but I didn’t exactly try to earn more money and I didn’t attempt the garage sales except to give a pile of stuff to a friend for hers, which got me about $50 or something. I’m really impressed with how much you were able to save/earn for your trip!

    1. I think it was out of necessity and urgency – I just didn’t want to keep putting it off but I didn’t feel comfortable making the leap until I had what I considered to be enough money in the bank. I also had random things come up along the way that I had to spend on (like an ER visit, dental work and a flight home for a funeral) so I worked even more to make up for those costs.

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  16. Awesome post! I think it’s so important that we travelers share the financial aspect of our journeys as that’s the hangup for many. I think the most important thing I take away from this post (and others who have written on how they managed it financially) is that we are all unique and are in our own unique situation. What works for you may not work for me – but I love how you creatively worked out solutions based on your situation.

    1. Thanks Nancy! You are absolutely right – everyone has a unique situation and has to find ways to save that work for them. I wrote this in part because the tips I read in other places when I first started considering a career break really wouldn’t work for me (i.e., move in with your parents – hard to do when your parents live in another state and you own your home – or take public transportation instead of driving a car – I haven’t driven a car in 12 years so no savings there).

  17. Ahhh…a budget travel post that talks about finances and savings! Is there anything more endearing to me than this. This post sums up my life. This is one I actually have in the works about how to save money for traveling with a family (try adding kids to this!).

    A few comments on your tips.

    Very good suggestions and practical. Paying yourself first (savings) is huge. We live in a day and age of cutting back and living within our means. Paying yourself first is a great way to adjust your means. Cutting cable, eating at home, saving money with your bank – all smart choices and things I have done for years.

    Tax refund is a good idea. However, I do suggest adjusting your exemptions to bring home as much as you can now. Two tips on this – be conservative (better to over estimate taxes paid than under estimate) and put that extra money right into savings.

    As for the roommate, I had no idea it was that expensive to rent a condo in Chicago – YIKES!

    1. Thanks Jeremy. Won’t be dealing with taxes again for a while since I’m on the road, but I’ve always found it difficult to accurately estimate the number of exemptions to claim and I prefer getting a refund than being stuck paying in, which is why I just go with the basic instead of trying to fiddle with it. I also know myself and that I am much more likely to save it if I get it back in one chunk.

      Should clarify – I brought in $1300 total renting out a room for a couple months – not $1300 a month. Because it was someone I knew and it was something I hadn’t been planning on doing, I took far less than I probably could’ve gotten, though.

  18. It was much the same with us. Cut back spending and save as much as we could. Alowing some money for being social was important, so was a second bank account. Cutting phone and T.V. Can save a ton too.

    There’s no magic really, unless you win the lottery you just have to arrange your life so you are spending less than you make.

    1. Yep, it’s really just a matter of making it a priority. And yes, allowing money for being social is important – especially when you’re single in a big city! I actually feel like I cut back too far on that for a long time, I think I alienated people and missed out on a lot. My last couple months before leaving, I let myself be a bit freer with spending on my social life.

  19. This is terrific advice for anyone looking to save money, not just for a trip but for any large purchase. It’s proof that you really can change your lifestyle to save money if you put your mind to it. Good job! And we’re looking forward to following your adventures!

    1. Yep, very true – I think the key is you have to make saving a priority and be willing to make the sacrifices.

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