A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

, , ,

My Career Break One Month In: Ask Me Anything!

Four weeks ago, I pulled the plug on the worst job I've ever had (a job that capped off a series of other not-so-great employment situations) and embarked on an indefinite career break.
In the 28 days since then, I've been doing a lot of what I thought I'd do with my time off: blogging, cooking, running, working out, learning Italian, catching up on Netflix series, spending time with my son, napping, daydreaming, and basically letting myself meander. I've also done a few things I wasn't planning on, like applying to a couple of dream jobs, starting a petsitting business, and meeting some of my favorite personal finance bloggers.

I don't always have something specific to do, but I'm rarely bored. As trite as it sounds, it's been everything I hoped it would be and more.

To celebrate my first month of freedom, I took to Twitter and invited (begged?) people to ask me anything about the experience so far. Props to those of you who indulged me. Here's what some of you wanted to know:

How did people you know IRL react to your decision?

There's an Olin Miller quote that says, "You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!" It's so true. Almost everyone I told has been supportive, at least to my face, but I suspect many of them are thinking nothing more than, Cool, that's nice. Friends and family who are happy in their work have congratulated me for doing what's best for my well-being; those who are dissatisfied with their work lives have generally expressed a desire to walk away from their jobs, too.

My break has spurred some really thought-provoking conversations with a few of my friends about workplace culture and expectations. Almost everyone has a handful of nightmare stories about previous or current employers. Clearly, we have to advocate for ourselves - which may include walking away if we're being treated unfairly or subjected to unsustainable circumstances.

I did encounter one particularly awkward situation right after I quit. I was with a group of people, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn't, and everyone had to take turns saying what they did for a living, which in my opinion is a strange way to introduce yourself. My response was met with polite silence. I was feeling raw and self-conscious, so that was hard for me. I've also encountered people who want to give me unsolicited career advice. I know they're trying to help, but I wish they'd ask first.

Do you wish you'd done it sooner/pulled the plug this way from your prior position?

Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I'd never taken the last job at all. Had I known what it would actually be like or that my employer wouldn't pay me my final paycheck (that's right, they've ghosted me, and I may never see that money), I would have never pursued the position. I suppose I wish I'd stuck with my former job for a few more months, saved as much money as possible, and then quit to take some time off, which was actually something I started considering early last year. But I jumped into the most recent job because I saw it as an opportunity to learn some new skills and grow my career in a different direction.

In reality, my work hasn't been working for me for years (I'm sure it's partly me, but friends have also told me that I've had a string of really bad luck with jobs), and a career break was probably inevitable at some point. It was just a matter of when.

What is the thing you're missing about your job? 

This question stopped me in my tracks because it made me realize that the only thing I miss about my most recent job and the two before that is the paycheck. That's it. I do not miss the stress, the micromanagement, the unclear expectations, the many pointless tasks, the lack of room for creativity, or the feeling of being a cog in a big machine designed to make substantial money for a handful of people.

Note to self: the next job cannot be anything like the previous three jobs.

What’s been the scariest thing you’ve experienced in this career break?

For me, the scariest thing is not knowing what's next. I wish I could say that I have some sort of plan, but... I really don't. By nature, I'm a planner; I like to have a sense of what my next move is. In this case, though, I have no idea. Few things sound good to me at the moment, in part because I feel so burned (and hurt, if I'm being honest) by my last job. I'm terrified of getting into another bad situation.

For now, my strategy is to sit tight (thinking back to that "what to do when you get lost" analogy in my quitting post) and go with what feels good to me. Applying for full-time jobs willy nilly, scrambling to land freelance work, and networking for the sake of finding an "in" don't feel right at the moment. Spending time with friends and family, exercising, chilling out, and working on my own creative projects (like this blog) do. The same goes for petsitting. I have no idea whether that'll be an occasional fun gig or whether it will turn into something that brings in some reliable income, but it's something that energizes me, so I'm pursuing it.

What anxieties have changed, disappeared, or have been replaced by something new? 

Although my anxiety has not disappeared since quitting, it is now manageable. Some of my mental health issues are innate: I'll always be prone to anxiety and depression. For example, I felt pretty panicky yesterday, but with some focused breathing and exercise, I was able to work through it by lunchtime. Other aspects of my mental health are clearly exacerbated by certain situations (like impossible 60-hour work weeks!) Take away the negative situation, and boom, I'm calmer, more relaxed, and more in control. I think that last one is really important for me: I hate feeling like someone else is in charge of what I do hour to hour, minute to minute, all day and on a daily basis. It makes me feel trapped.

My hunch is that many modern workplaces, with their unrelenting focus on productivity, personality, metrics, and feedback, are breeding grounds for mental health issues. Once I distanced myself from that toxic brew, I felt better immediately.

Are you finding it easier or harder to stay on your new budget?

Easier! It's been a thousand times easier to adhere to our budget now that I'm on a career break, and I think there are two reasons for that. One, we know we have to conserve our money, and we have an enormous incentive to do so. Every penny we don't spend is a penny we can use to buy more time. Time feels more important than anything right now, and if sticking to the budget means I can afford a longer break, well, I'll stick to the budget.

Two, because I feel less stressed out (see above), I don't feel the need to look for diversions or stress relief. For example, going out to eat used to be a way for me/us to let off some steam after a long week of work. Our evenings are so much more relaxed now. Eating dinner at home provides the same benefits as going out used to do.

It helps that we have a little miscellaneous spending ($100/month) built into the budget. For the most part, we're using that money to purchase things for our son, like replacements for his ripped pants (I don't know how, but he destroys them) and admission to the summer soccer league. Although we want him to understand why we're on a tight budget, we don't want him to miss out on all the things he needs and cares about.

In reality, I don't feel like we're missing out on much. If anything, we feel richer in time.

Would this career break have been possible if you were a single parent or had a spouse that also wasn’t working full time?

I think it would have, but it would have taken far more planning and saving. My partner's salary covers about 3/4 of our monthly expenses; our savings cover the rest. Therefore, I have quite a bit of runway for this break even though we don't have tens of thousands of dollars in our bank account. If I were a single parent or had a spouse that wasn't working full time, I would have wanted to have at least a year's salary in savings (maybe more) before calling it quits. It would have taken a long time to accumulate that money.

What would you tell someone considering similar?

First, I would tell everyone - EVERYONE, even people who are happy at work and have no current desire to leave - to start saving now. You need an emergency/FU fund because you never know what will happen at work. Gone are the days of employer loyalty and workplace stability. All it takes is one reorganization, one bad boss, or one poorly conceived office policy to throw your entire work life into disarray.

If you're even slightly unhappy in your job right now, this is the time to save aggressively. Sure, it's possible that your situation will improve or that you will develop effective coping skills, but it's also possible that your situation will continue to erode or that all the coping skills in the world won't be enough to shield you from the BS being thrown your way. Depending on your salary and your budget, it could take you months (or longer) to build a sufficient FU fund. So don't wait. Begin contributing to that FU fund ASAP, and save enough that you could sustain yourself for an extended period of time without a salary. (I know that sounds much easier than it actually is.)

Second, I would also say that if your job is seriously impacting your health, you need to get out. Personally, my sleeping habits are my canary in the coal mine. If my job is making me feel so stressed out and anxious that I can't sleep at night, it's time to leave. On the same note, if your job is making you feel suicidal and your coping strategies aren't working, you need to leave as soon as possible - even if your safety net is flimsier than you'd like it to be. I know others would disagree, but as someone who's been in that situation, staying can be incredibly dangerous. (I feel obligated to say that if you are suicidal, you need to prioritize yourself and reach out for support. In the U.S., contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or, if you're like me and hate the phone, send a free and confidential text to the Crisis Text Line.)

Third, if you do have a financial cushion and you want to leave, just go for it. Let's face it: unless you've achieved financial independence, there will probably never be a great time to quit your job and take a break. So yes, it is a bit risky, but with a little planning, you'll figure it out.

At least, that's what I'm telling myself. I'll let you know how that goes.

Lastly, if you do take a career break, realize that it's like any big life change in that it involves an adjustment period. You're going from doing a lot all the time to doing perhaps not that much. Slowing down can be a challenge, and it's easy to feel guilty for not being productive. For me, that sense of "I'm so lazy" lasted about a week. Then I started to lean hard into those afternoon naps.

Did your outlook on life change?

I think I've always been kind of resistant to traditional work, which is probably one reason why I've struggled so much in my previous jobs. I've been happiest in low-stakes part-time jobs, in jobs with lots of time spent outdoors, or when I've had the freedom to approach tasks and problems without being micromanaged. This career break is reminding me that I'm at my best when I'm not trying to stuff myself into a situation that I'm clearly not designed for, and I hope I won't try to do that anymore. It's also reminding me that contrary to the unremitting message that our capitalist society sends to us, there are many ways to approach life and work, especially if one is willing to live frugally. Although there is nothing wrong with 9 to 5 work - in many ways, it's ideal - there are other options, too.

Career breaks are becoming more common and more popular. I'm choosing to believe that decent companies won't hold it against you when you're ready to jump back into the employment pool. In fact, some people - like this guy (who, granted, is probably rich) - take career breaks on a regular basis because they see them as a way to stay fresh in their fields:

What’s surprised you the most during your career intermission?

I've been most surprised by how this intermission seems to be impacting my family in positive ways. There's a part of me that feels guilty for not bringing in an income, for expecting my family to adhere to a tight budget, and for putting the aggressive repayment of my partner's student loan on hold - not that Fortysomething has ever indicated that he's resentful of any of these things. In reality, everyone seems happier now that I'm more relaxed. My kid gets as much time as he needs with me when he comes home from school; we go over homework, study for tests, and talk about his day without me having to worry about getting back to work. My partner just seems relieved that I'm not crying and ranting on a daily basis. It's clear to me that my job stress was putting a strain on our relationship. That strain is gone now.



  1. My hunch is that many modern workplaces, with their unrelenting focus on productivity, personality, metrics, and feedback, are breeding grounds for mental health issues.

    You have such a great way with words 76k! I agree. It seems like a ton of people I know are changing careers taking breaks or dialing back. I really like following your journey and want to see you thrive!

    1. Thank you for the encouragement and kind words! I hope you're having a good break from social media (but we miss you).

  2. Contact your state Dept. of Labor to get that final paycheck! There is such a wide range of employment situations out there that a good fit for you is sure to be found.

  3. So glad you were able to get away from that toxicity! And that getting away had such a calming effect on you.

    As for it being easier to eat at home now, I imagine it's also easier to cook your meals, making it less tempting to go out for food.

    Just keep taking care of yourself!

    1. Thank you! Honestly, month #2 feels weirder than month #1, mainly because part of me is like I NEED TO FIGURE THINGS OUT NOW. But in reality, I think I need to keep taking it slow.

  4. You put so many nuggets of wisdom in this post! I wanted to tweet ALL of them. I'm so glad this is going well for you and that you're taking the time to just simmer in the break. You know I'm a planner too, so I can identify with the pain of not having a plan or trajectory. That can be anxiety-inducing in itself. But I've learned that there's something good in that for us planners. Keeps us on our toes I guess. It's uncomfortable and challenging, but I believe it has its place in life - flying by the seat of our pants!

    I know that everything will work out in the long run because you are a winner! And honestly, it's just money. It's just a blip. I know you know that. :) Just know - you are doing so great.

    1. The planner part of me is going a little bonkers. LOL. I just like to have a sense of what's next... and I like to be in CONTROL of what's next. Maybe that's the most difficult aspect of my current situation.

      Thank you for the kind words and encouragement!

  5. I am glad you got away from that job from hell. That was horrible and it was in no way your fault.
    I think there are legal avenues you can take for that last paycheck. It's different depending on the state, but you should be able to pursue that.
    Good luck and take it easy. :-)

    1. The paycheck thing has turned into quite a debacle. At this point, I'm ready to just drop it. It doesn't seem worth the time to get into it with them (there's a longer story to this, but I feel a bit reluctant to post it on the Internet). I need to be done with that horrible bad place!

      Thank you for the encouragement and comment. I appreciate it.

  6. I'm so glad that this break is giving you a chance to breathe and start to refocus on your needs.

    "replacements for his ripped pants (I don't know how, but he destroys them)"
    JB is following in those footsteps. No pants have survived since the 2T era. XD

    Several years ago, my doctor mildly suggested that I should consider getting a different job because of all the stress of the job at the time, and I didn't quite believe her about the extent of that stress. Boy was I wrong and was she right. When I left that most toxic job, I actually had a few painfree days and that's not happened in about 20 years! I'll never underestimate that kind of stress again.

    1. Seriously, HOW do they destroy their pants so quickly?!?!?!

      Yes, the last job was so toxic. "Detoxing" would be a good way to describe what I'm trying to do right now. It's very tempting to just wander over to the job boards and find some random new job, but I know I'm not in the right place to do that just yet.

  7. Good for you. It sounds like you are getting a much needed break and getting your mental state right. Do you think about if you will need money at some point down the line and what you might do to fill in the gap being filled by savings? I think I would love to just have that time off! Like you I don't want to do anything fancy, just own my time.

    1. I will definitely need to make more money down the line, but I'm not quite sure how to fill that gap. I've applied to a handful of jobs (most part time) that sound good to me and that I can see myself doing; I have also applied to one full-time dream job that I doubt I'll even get to interview for. It's tempting to start throwing applications at everything... but that's what I did before, and it didn't put me in a good spot!

      Like you, I'm just happy to own my time. I don't do anything super exciting on a daily basis, but I'm enjoying the time off.

      Thank you for your comment!

  8. So grateful I came across your post! I am also on a work break and feeling the stress of not knowing what's next. I've been doing some freelance work and now being pressured into a more permanent role. So unsure of it all! I hope everything works out for you!!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! It's nice to know there are other career breakers out there. :-) It sounds like you've had great success with freelancing. Wishing you all the best as you decide your next step!