Sabbatical, Step Zero: How to Plan Without Knowing That You’re Planning

“My parents lived on a very frugal budget. It was really irritating to me (as a child). I had no really proper vacations as a child. You wouldn’t believe some of the places we ended up. Even they (my parents) would arrive there and go, ‘Holy God! It looked better in the magazine.’” – Lewis Black (comedian)

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Sonia and I have joked before that we could make the invasion of Normandy look spontaneous (no disrespect to anyone in the military or any armed service that fought in D-Day; this is intended to be hyperbole). We frequently have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and even a Plan D developed for things we need or want to do. We LOVE to plan. We are also quite comfortable with throwing the plans out the window if need be and saying, “OK, time to fly by the seat of our pants yet again.” It’s good to think through scenarios, and it’s also good to realize that the situations you are in calls for improvisation.

When we took our trips this spring and summer, the routes we took and timing we were actually there were probably the fifth or sixth iteration of what we had planned. We first were going to go all in the summertime. We wanted to see the Gila and Pecos Wilderness areas. Unfortunately, some of the areas are so remote, we would need to bring water for several days of supply. We have an SUV, not an RV. If we didn’t want daily two hour drives to get supplies (or not change campsites nightly), it wasn’t practical. And, the route would have taken close to 6 weeks; we wanted our children to have some of their summer at home (and actually, so did they)! That plan was scrapped.

We had a crazy idea that we could drive to Yellowstone after visiting my in-laws. After planning that route, we came to the understanding that Yellowstone isn’t particularly close to anything, and like the R.E.M. tune suggests, you can’t get there from here. We decided to split the trips, and focus on the southwestern US only. But before we took off on our spring trip, Andrew’s school team qualified for the state archery tournament, so the spring trip was re-routed and re-timed. Then between wanting to visit family, the SUV breaking down, and other such practical experiences, what we actually did was considerably different than what we had planned. Sure, a lot of our planning was useful; it helped immensely. But we were also adept enough to understand that we had to be willing to change when situations dictated it.

I didn’t know about the concept of a sabbatical until I heard about it from one of our church pastors. It was simple – it’s a chance to re-invigorate oneself and to come back inspired. I found out some professors get this opportunity as well. Some forward thinking businesses even do this (although this is by far the minority). The difference is that this is self-funded for me and in the other instances, the employee still draws at least a partial salary.

I never thought about taking time off for the longest time mid career, let alone switch careers. I bristle a bit when someone suggests that I’m just having a mid life crisis. (I will admit, I was almost 40 when this started, so it IS a bit cliched). A mid life crisis is a freak out and a spending spree; this has been a deliberate process for our family. Plus, we didn’t spend 4 months on beaches, and I still don’t have a red convertible. Much of what we’ve done is much more mundane. Good and essential, yes, but deliberate as well.

How did we get here? There were lots of steps. But let me start at step zero. Essentially, we planned without knowing that we were planning. Admittedly, some of what I will talk about are more natural traits for some individuals. But some of it can be learned as well.

Why do I care about this? Because I want to help explain to those that are interested, so that maybe this is an option for more people. So that other people don’t get to 50 (or 40!) and feel trapped. We frequently are not trapped, but there has to be some groundwork understood, even before the formal planning actually begins

I think what comes next will help set the tone for the remainder of this piece. Excuse the political leanings of one comedian, but Lewis Black had a great quote that applies here. While I don’t agree with it 100%, I agree with a majority of what he’s suggesting, at least in spirit (and even he has a sense of humor about his advice as evidenced by the full quote.)

“The most important lesson of my life: do what it is you want to do. Whenever I’m asked to give give young people advice it’s ‘do what it is you want to do and everything will fall into place.’ And you don’t worry about money. AND YOU DON’T WORRY ABOUT MONEY. It’s the last thing you worry about. You worry about your satisfaction as a human being. My parents lived on a very frugal budget. It was really irritating to me (as a child). I had no really proper vacations as a child. You wouldn’t believe some of the places we ended up. Even they (my parents) would arrive there and go, ‘Holy God! It looked better in the magazine.’”

With that in mind, looking back at how I/we lived and behaved, here are some things that helped allow for a sabbatical to be possible, without even realizing it. None of this is 1)  meant to be sanctimonious and 2) to criticize those who like the opposite of what follows. To each their own! But if one wants flexibility in the future, some priorities have to be made.

-Don’t want a lot of $#!&

If one is going to self-fund a sabbatical, it helps if one doesn’t have a lot of a) expenses or b) expensive tastes. Especially for “things.” This was reinforced to me this summer on our road trip. We lived quite happily in a tent, with a one burner camp stove, and drinking 90%+ water (no soda, beer, or milk). At night, lights were out at 8:30 PM because it was pitch black. I would read via flashlight for 30-45 minutes. The best part of my day was frequently 2 AM – Allison would wake me up so I could walk her to the bathroom. On the way back, we’d stare at a perfect sky of thousands of stars for 5 minutes, and it was great.

To make it sound less hippie-ish, I alluded to this in a recent blog. We’ve never had expensive cars. Our first car, Sonia and I bought in Chicago in the fall of 2000 (we needed to be able to visit my brother after he had a bone tumor removed). It was a 1989 Toyota Corolla priced at $2950. The rear bumper was already beginning to rust off, and the AC didn’t work. The power windows froze in the winter. In order to drive toll roads in Chicago, we had to open the car door and toss change into the machine (that really pissed off impatient Chicago drivers). When we moved to St. Louis in 2003, Sonia bought a used 1998 Toyota Corolla. After driving 1 year+ in in St. Louis heat without AC, I inherited the 1998 Corolla – Sonia got a 2001 Corolla – we bought it off some Brazilian dude, and the car had Power Puff Girl floor mats. Strangest damn thing I’ve seen. In 2009, we bought our only new car, a 2008 Toyota Prius – partly for the gas mileage, and partly because it was the biggest car that would fit in our one-car garage. After my grandfather died in 2010, I bought his 1998 Honda Accord and sold the 2001 Corolla (yes, I drove an even older used car than I had. Andrew scratched his name on the car 2 years prior, after learning how to write his name in preschool). I drove that 1998 Accord until 2016 until it shot craps. We got Sonia a 2008 Toyota Highlander; I inherited the Prius. I never looked at these things as sacrifices; I just didn’t care. Cars aren’t our thing.

I could pick several other examples; our houses for one. We bought our first house in 2004. It was a small 3 bedroom, 1 bath ranch house in St. Louis City. At the time (this is well before the housing market crash), we were approved for a loan (if we wanted to accept it) for double of what we were looking for. We explained that I had EXTENSIVE medical school debt; the loan agent replied, “We just look at that as 2 car payments.” Incredible. We were in a similar situation with house #2 – we could have bought a much more expensive house; we bought a split-level with 1700 square feet (that footage includes the finished part of the basement). I had some people ask me how I liked living in a “doctor’s mansion.” All I could do was laugh. Not that I don’t like our house; I love our house. It’s a nice pile of bricks, no doubt about it. But is it a mansion? Not hardly. Although the kidney-shaped pool in the back is nice (it was built in the 80s, and we refer to it as an ‘ool – because there’s no pee in our pool!)

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In the background is our pile of bricks. It’s a nice pile.

So everyone knows, I even like to test people that visit our house on expensive tastes. When we have people over (think a BBQ), I will buy two types of beer: some fancy pants microbrew, and then something cheap (like Stag, which I actually like, or Busch – which I also like). At our house, our friends have refrigerator rights. Take whatever you like, but I am judging you on your choice – and if you pick the fancy pants stuff, I’m a little disappointed. Are you too good for a Stag? (Another aside, my Grandpa Kesselring used to buy Schaefer Beer for my uncle when he would visit. Their slogan? “Schaefer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” They’re telling you it’s terrible. I seriously would like to try that stuff…)

In short, one has a lot more freedom if one doesn’t have to change habits of buying stuff. Even if you don’t know if you want a sabbatical and you think that you may want flexibility in the future without a specific plan. You either have to not care about stuff naturally, or learn not to want it.

-Don’t want expensive experiences either.

There seems to be a push in several circles that promote “experiences, not things.” In general, I would agree with this. But if you want expensive experiences as well, flexibility in the future might very well be difficult.

In a previous post, I mentioned (loosely) the cost of our 26 day road trip this summer. First of all, let me state that I realize just how fortunate we were able to do that trip in the first place. But we looked at numbers, and we spent 26 days on the road for less than it costs a family of four to do the Disney World experience for 5 days. And we didn’t even try to make our trip as inexpensive as possible (I’m sorry, but when in Albuquerque, you HAVE to eat at Mary and Tito’s – it’s the only James Beard Award restaurant I’ve ever been in, and the four of us ate like kings for $40, including tip.) Again, pick the experiences you like. But if you desire flexibility, it helps not care about getting the premium package on a regular basis.

It also applies to little things as well. We never went out to eat much for the 10.5 years I was in practice. And when we did, I much preferred to go out less often and tip well. Case in point, we wanted to celebrate when my student debt was paid off. We decided to go to a place called Murdoch Perk (now Russell’s on Macklind is in the building). We decided to celebrate with dessert – my parents joined us. There were 2 slices of flourless chocolate cake, some gooey butter cake, and then something else. It was around $20. I picked up Andrew, and had him drop a $20 bill in the tip jar; I figured I’d spread the love on the night that my education was paid off.

The barista/server/waitress came around, table to table, asking if anyone had lost a $20. I waved her over, and explained to her the situation. I told her we wanted to share the love just a little bit, and today was her lucky day. I got the biggest, most awkward hug from a stranger I’ve ever received.

Again, this isn’t sanctimony. It’s practical. If you want a little more luxury in your experiences, that’s great. If you have the income, there’s nothing to apologize for. But if you want the ability to have more freedom as you progress through life, something has to give.

-If applicable, your spouse/significant other/partner had better be down with the plan.

If you are single and on your own, please skip down a few sections. If not, this is for you. It can be great if you want flexibility and to take a breather. But if you are in a relationship where your spouse/partner/S.O. has different ideas on what they want… well, good luck.

In my case, my wife was driving the “take a break bus” a long time before I was. She has always valued having time, availability, and experiences with her own family growing up. In fact her father did something even a tad more extreme than what I’m doing – and she loved it.

My FIL worked for IBM. He and my MIL (and to some extent, my SIL and Sonia) moved around a lot. “Army Brats” and “PKs” (pastor’s kids) have similar experiences. The line Sonia gives me is that IBM stands for “I’ve Been Moved.” It’s not too far from the truth. From my recollection, my in-laws lived in Phoenix, Hawaii, California, Las Cruces, NM (to work in El Paso, TX, and I have a great story about this), and Dallas in a slightly over 20 year career with IBM. Both of my in-laws are native Californians, and they wanted to retire to California.

My FIL worked hard, long hours. He was compensated well, but not outrageously. They saved a lot of money, and tried to spend very little. He wanted to retire early; he valued his time and freedom. So they set about trying to make that happen. It wasn’t the expense of everything; they also had some great experiences together. Sonia remembers one particularly long vacation in the New Mexico mountains growing up – they were on the road for six weeks camping and avoiding the Dallas summer heat (and she loved it). Another time, my FIL was assigned to a project in Sweden for a summer; he only agreed to go if he could take his family with him (IBM approved). They lived on the cheap while in Europe (admittedly, they got to go to Europe, but they didn’t live it up). Sonia will talk about having vague memories of traveling by train through East Germany, and trying to “not look or sound American”, as this was the mid-80s before US/Soviet tensions really started to cool off.

Long story made short, through saving and some good fortune, he quit IBM in his mid-40s. He did some work for himself, but was able to move their family to the central coast of California in the late 1980s. He was able to make every single cross-country race she was in – even when she competed four hours away in LA. He kept score at her basketball games and was able to help with math. They ran together on the beach on a regular basis. And I know they lived as cheaply as possible during her junior high and high school years. They valued time and experience over money, and sacrificed to do it. If you ask Sonia about her upbringing, she certainly is appreciative and really values and admires what her parents did, and would not have changed those years at all. And in the money driven, image conscious, Reagan 1980s, it took some serious stones/cajones/”huevos rancheros” to do what my FIL did.

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My father-in-law, with Allison, this past summer. I don’t know the owner of the foot in the lower right hand corner.

Suffice it to say, that when I was burning out, she had first hand experience from her childhood about what time off really looked like and meant to her. Given the choice between a higher income and less time to actually enjoy our family, or some frugal/lean years but more time being together, she HAPPILY advocated for the latter (before I did). If I had burnt out, but she wanted diamonds, pearls, and vacations to Punta Cana, quite simply, I’m not writing this blog. (As a side note, Sonia started writing a book called “Diamonds and Pearls” about what things were like watching me go through all the difficulties in my training and work. The title came from a former co-worker of hers that told her to take it easy, that with a physician for a husband, she’d be swimming in diamonds and pearls. The title is very much tongue in cheek, at least for us).

-If applicable, you have to raise your kids with similar expectations.

File this one under “no, duh!” But if your kids expect 3 electronic devices, two gaming systems, blowout birthday parties, and the latest and greatest in fashion… good luck. And this is somewhat harder for some people, because I think instinctively parents have a tendency to provide what they feel like they missed in their own childhood. Resist the urge to go overboard.

Certainly, we have tried to save for education after high school; Lord only knows that’s not getting less expensive and I don’t want to sell my own organs to finance their education. Certainly, we have done nice things for our children. I would be lying to suggest otherwise. But there is a limit to how extravagant anyone needs their childhood to be. Have we had a birthday party for 20 school friends at Monkey Joe’s? Hell, no. Any “Princess Parties” for 15 8-year olds to get hair and nails done at a salon? Nope (it seems a little silly to me). One of Andrew’s best birthday parties was when he was four or five; Sonia arranged for Andrew to play with 4 or 5 friends at City Garden (think cascading water fountains). All she had to do was feed the parking meter, order two pizzas, and bring some brownies. Boom, done! He had a blast, and it was almost free.

Here’s the point; we’re planning for the long term for them while not completely forsaking the short term. They need to learn to enjoy the now without getting everything they think they want (and that verbiage is intentional). Much like Lewis Black, I’m sure they would prefer a hot tub in every hotel room that we’ve stayed in, and pizza every Friday and Saturday night. We want to give them a happy childhood, not a Jaden Smith childhood.

-Learn to save and to budget, like right now.

This kind of follows from some of the previous points. If you want flexibility, it’s helpful not to have outstanding costs and expenditures. Instead, put money away regularly for the “rainy day”. Specifically, Sonia and I had planned that if had stayed in clinical practice that I would retire earlier than my 60s. How much earlier? No clue. Maybe I would go part time at 50. Maybe I would change careers at 50. Maybe we would move and I could take a while to think about what I wanted to do when the children were out of the house. We didn’t know what would happen or when (or if), but we started planning because we knew something would happen eventually. So we got into the habit of saving.

We also got into the habit of paying off debt. After medical school, we joked about having borrowed enough money for the house we never lived in. Except that it was true. Between undergraduate and medical school, we borrowed enough money to have bought our first house, before we ever borrowed the money for our first house. And it could have been worse. Sonia was working while I was in medical school, so I didn’t have to borrow nearly as much as most of my medical school classmates. I was well into six figures of debt after medical school graduation. I had it better than most of my classmates, thanks to Sonia’s income.

When I started residency, we started to pay things back immediately. I took my job after residency, and had a bit of fortune. I qualified for federal loan repayment via the National Health Service Corps. I didn’t get it right away after residency; it took a little over one year. In the course of three years, I had the rest of my educational debt forgiven. We paid off ⅓ between residency and my first year of work; the other ⅔ was forgiven. (Disclaimer – many physicians will work in underserved areas just to get their loans paid off, and leave a soon as the debt is reasonable or gone. I started in 2006, I didn’t qualify for loan repayment until 2007. Although my loans were paid off in 2010, I stayed until 2016. I never left for money.)

We had another goal; after staring down six figures of educational debt, the next goal was to pay off our house. After we moved to our current house, we started paying more than the required monthly payment. We paid as much as we could. If I made extra money one month, it went to paying the mortgage. Sonia sewed for several years – it all went to pay down the house more quickly. By the summer of 2013, we managed to pay off our current house. I joked on social media in August 2013 that “I didn’t owe anyone 25 cents.” It felt liberating.

We didn’t go out and start buying stuff – we started saving more for early retirement or a rainy day or for any reason we could think of. And we stuck to a budget. Every January, Sonia would sit down with me and a calculator, and we would crunch numbers for EVERYTHING. Clothing. Entertainment. Estimated medical expenses. Gambling for the trifecta at Fairmount Park. You name it, we had a number for it.

We tried to be realistic and honest in the process. And we really tried to stick to things. Sometimes costs were hard to estimate – especially medical costs (meningitis, SVT,  and an upper endoscopy anyone?) But seeing numbers on a regular basis helped reduce anxiety about spending money (be it essential or for leisure) and helped us adhere to a plan as much as possible. It was not-fun and very much old-fogyish of us, but it was very important. No one has ever accused me of being a fireball of fun, so I guess it fits.

-Luck

This harkens back to my last blog (please read it!), and again, my friend Kieran wrote it better. I won’t go into detail on this one. Yes, we did a lot of planning. Yes, it helps not to have or indulge expensive tastes. Yes, it helps to be savers. But there is some luck involved. Or, if it isn’t luck, it’s good fortune.

If I don’t have loan repayment, there’s probably no sabbatical.

If our children or someone else in our family have a serious medical issue, no sabbatical.

If we have major repairs to our house, no sabbatical.

If we have another family member to care for, you get the picture.

Luck/fortune always plays a role. Doing all the other things right allowed us to take advantage of the situation when things broke right (or wrong, depending on how you look at burn out).  It’s like the quote on my “About” page; if we had done all the other stuff wrong, it’s not an option to take time off and recharge. We had to do everything right, and then still be lucky. But because we were prepared, we were able to take advantage of the situation when fate broke our way. While this is my shortest section, I don’t discount it in the slightest.

We prepared without knowing we were preparing, or at least knowing what we were preparing for. That ends Part Zero. Then there’s actual planning and execution, and the sabbatical itself. Much like being less spontaneous and more boring than planning a two week trip to Branson, we’ve only just begun.

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I’m proud to admit it; I can cook out of a trash can. That’s resourceful.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 41 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

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