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

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


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.

Career Break Finances: Can We Afford 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.

Income Vs. Expenses


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

The Wild Card: Health Insurance


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.

Where We'll Be Cutting Costs


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.

So How Much Time Can I Buy?


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.

A Career Dyno


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 Meru, Free 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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25 comments:

  1. YOU ARE MY HERO!! I can’t wait to see you land in a much healthier space at the end of this break!

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    1. Me too! But I'm getting a little freaked out bc after only 1.5 weeks, I'm already questioning whether I can go back to working for someone else. Freelancing may be on the horizon.

      Thank you for being so supportive!

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  2. I'm so glad you did this, even if it's scary. It was really the only option to preserve your sanity. I'm glad things are already easier for you. Sorry to hear about the healthcare options, but it sounds like you're at least exploring alternatives (other than moving to Canada). Just make sure you check the lifetime benefits of the short-term insurance. On the off-chance something serious were to happen, you want to make sure you're covered. Unlikely, but you never know.

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    1. Thanks, Abby! <3 I feel like there are no good choices when it comes to health insurance. I keep reading horror stories about the short-term plans, but in a lot of cases, people are upset because their PE conditions aren't covered (the insurance companies clearly state that they won't cover these, so...) It might work okay if I go in with my eyes wide open. I just don't see how a plan with a $10K deductible is much better...

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  3. Another Kevin here! I relate so hard to that, what a beautiful analogy. I am excited for your career break, my husband took one last year :) but he was laid off so it was more of a surprise. Your runway is SO long though, it's amazing how far your family has come.
    I know it's scary, since it's such an unknown and new time, but you def did the right thing!

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    1. Thank you so much, Kevin! <3 Although I do worry about what we'll do if we reach the end of the runway and I don't have anything promising lined up, there's no question that life has improved dramatically within the last 1.5 weeks. Not sure what comes next, but it was the right move.

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  4. Another beautiful, poignant post, friend. I love how honest and transparent you are with the figures here. I think that even a few things break your way (good part time work, maybe the cheaper short term insurance is a good option when scanned over (maybe Tanja could help here)), this runway could be quite a bit longer.

    I'm really hopeful things are going to work out and you'll find that right fit for work.

    Let me know if I can help with anything, and it was so, so cool to get to meet in person.

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    1. Thank you! You and Mrs. DbF (and your adorable baby) are officially some of my favorite people ever.

      I think my theme for this career break is vulnerability. I just have the strong sense that there are other people who have had and are having bad work experiences that have worn them down, and I want to show them they're not alone.

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  5. Yay! I am glad you are taking the time. ��
    Things will definitely work out, but for now you can breathe.

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    1. Thank you. You're always so supportive. It means so much to me, friend.

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  6. I'm glad you are taking the time to regroup. Enjoy!!!!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Deborah! Lots of love sent your way.

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  7. I'm a long-time reader, but not much of a commenter. :) Just reading about your life, mental health history, anxiety, etc., have you ever considered applying for disability? Disability is definitely an option for some people who find that they have crippling anxiety, depression, etc. that affects their ability to function or hold down a job. It might buy you time and if you do get better and healthier in the future, there are ways to dip your toes back in the work pool to see if you can handle it and get off of disability. Definitely might be worth talking to a lawyer about. All lawyers I know who handle disability claims do not charge a fee up front and do not charge for a consult. All payments are gathered from your lump sum back payment if you are approved.

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    1. Honestly, I hadn't considered it, but perhaps I should. It's hard for me to figure out how much of it is me and how much of it is the companies I've worked for. I've had several good friends tell me that I've simply managed to somehow find the worst jobs ever. LOL.

      I think the other problem is that I'm not good at juggling a bunch of different things. For example, it's hard for me to balance parenting with working. I'm hoping that a part-time job (or a job of my own design) will give me the space I need to handle both.

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  8. I love that your little man is so supportive and notices the very real differences already. :)

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    1. He has an abundance of empathy. He's a good egg, that's for sure. <3

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  9. I'm glad you're taking this much needed break, and hope you find success as a freelancer. I went part-time for 14 years to be home early enough to help with homework, do housework, spend time with the kids, and cook all dinners. I can see the benefits as I'm now back to full-time; the kids do very well in school and they help out with chores around the house.

    Keep us posted...I love your daily routine posts. I'm a little jealous...but you should enjoy!

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    1. Thank you so much! I am leaning towards freelancing. Although I know it's not always sunshine and roses, I'd love to be able to pick my projects and have some flexibility.

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  10. Ah, the cursed health insurance dilemma. When I lost my job I had no choice but to pay $800/month for COBRA. My daughter was 20 at the time and I could no longer afford to include her on my policy - it would have brought it to $1500/month. I had already made too much money for the year to qualify for a tax credit on ACA. Luckily, my daughter got a job that included health insurance (though she failed to sign up). BTW, I could not get short-term insurance for her because her weight was not proportionate to her height! So that's not even a given. In regard to making your money last, you might be surprised by how many months you can eke out, especially when you are mindful of your spending. You'll land on your feet!

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    1. Thanks, Brenda! I am hoping the short-term option works out, but who knows, right? It seems so arbitrary.

      We are tracking EVERY PENNY at this point, but thankfully, we've had a lot of practice over the past two years. It'd be much harder if we weren't used to being a bit frugal and careful with our money.

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  11. This decision was anything but rash, friend. 6-10 months of runway is awesome and it will give you the chance to hopefully something you truly love (or at least don’t hate).

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  12. I can so relate to the issues you have been experiencing regarding depression/anxiety. Trying to manage working a full-time job, raising a family, and trying to be a supportive wife/mother, it is nearly impossible. I thank God every day that my job as a freelance court reporter allows me to take time off as needed to do deal with whatever is pressing at the time. If you decide freelancing is something you want to do, court reporters are always looking for people to help them edit transcripts, it's called scoping. Might be something you could do part-time to give you more breathing room. Either way, you are doing the right thing, mental health is so important you can't ignore it. I wish you the best!

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    1. Thank you so much, Christy! I hadn't heard of scoping before, but it sounds like a good option. Thanks for recommending it to me!

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  13. I've been following your journey for awhile on Twitter and on your blog. Just thought I'd drop in and say I'm wishing you the best. I think you are wise for stepping back, evaluating your situation with all the details you can muster, and trying to design a life of health and happiness. Your story is obviously resonating with a lot of people . You've got this. I agree with Angela - you've got runway. You've been as responsible as you could.

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