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I Took a Career Break and Spent Less Than $25K Living in Europe for a Year

As a woman in her mid-thirties and mid-career, it was now or never to plan the one-year solo trip I'd always dreamed of taking.

For years I’d wondered how and when I’d finally be able to experience the kind of travel I always wanted. To stay and unplug long enough to clock out from my job/life back home and fully explore a place. I worked too many hours a week at a job where I did not feel valued. Although my job brought me little satisfaction, I couldn’t seem to escape it.

Each year I’d think to myself, “I’m too old already” or “I’ve come too far in my career.” I worried I’d blow up my life if I tried to do something as impractical as quitting my job and traveling for a year. I worried that everyone would (justifiably) think I deserved it if I ended up with nothing in the long run. Then one day, I realized I was just getting older. I needed to either do this now or come to peace with the fact that it would never happen. With that, I finally took the leap.

What’s a Career Break?

Some might say a career break is the same as a sabbatical, but they are very different. A sabbatical is an approved extended leave of absence from your current job, whereas a career break involves resigning and taking a break from work altogether. When I was preparing for my journey in 2015, I couldn’t find any resources online for those in my position. I wasn’t a gap year student, a twenty-something looking to backpack across Europe, or a retiree living on retirement income. At the time, the “digital nomad” was still in its infancy stages, and I didn’t personally know anyone who could live anywhere in the world and continue working. I’d been following a couple of bloggers and writers who I had met online and who had all found a way to make a living doing something independently and remotely. I was secretly hoping that I could find a way to do something similar that would allow me the same freedom. I just didn’t know what or how yet.

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What I Hoped to Get Out of My Career Break

There was so much that I wanted and needed to get out of my career break. First on the list was rediscovering the hopeful, passionate, and creative person I used to be. I wanted to connect with the creative side of me that had existed before a decade of responsibility and long hours in a cut-throat industry stole her away. Second, I wanted to travel slowly and more meaningfully. I didn’t want to be another tourist checking items off my bucket list or crossing countries off a list for the sake of racking up passport stamps.

Lastly, I knew that I needed to use this time to build new skills and gain the experience necessary for me to switch careers. I wanted to work digitally and remotely so that I, too, would have the freedom to spend more time in places I loved. In short, I wanted to be doing more things that brought me joy. I had come to believe that we can’t have been put on this earth to simply work 80% of the time. I wanted more hours in the day for myself.

Let’s Talk Logistics—A.K.A. How I Paid for My Career Break

I didn’t plan to take this one-year travel break in advance, but I had been saving money for four or five years. I knew I had enough to live on for one year, so long as I stuck to a tight budget (approximately $25,000 per year) and still had enough for six months of living costs (about $25,000) when I got back home to California. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve always been economical about things like not buying a new car once mine was paid off, cooking at home for most of my meals, and not taking expensive vacations. Also, I was in my thirties by this time, so I was finally earning a “decent” salary. Without a retirement fund or property investments, that $50,000 was what I had to take this break.

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How I Kept My Expenses Low

The number one thing that I did to keep expenses low was spending more time in each place and negotiating rates on apartments over staying in hotels. I tried for one-month minimums whenever possible. I even shared a couple of Airbnb apartments with other travelers and ex-pats I met along the way (via organizations or Facebook groups such as Internations, Meetup, and Solo Female Travelers), which led to my making a couple of lifelong friends.

My slow travel eliminated many transportation costs from flights, taxis, and trains. The less you move from place to place, the lower your transportation costs (and stress levels). I also saved money by cooking most of my meals, except when in places where eating out was low cost (like Prague, where a good meal cost me around $7 to $10).

Last but not least, I spent time researching, seeking out, and applying for unique opportunities such as housesitting and language immersion programs. These opportunities offered me ways to travel to new places (including a villa in Tuscany, an ancient Polish castle, and a tiny village in northern Spain). Through these jobs, I was able to meet people and stay in nice places without paying for accommodation or meals (in the case of the language immersion volunteer program). In total, I spent about nine and a half weeks of my year in this type of  “free” accommodation.

What I Wish I’d Known Ahead of Time

I did some smart things, such as leave my paid-off car at home with a family member so that I’d have a car when I came back. I also sold everything I had versus hanging onto unnecessary things and paying for long-term storage. I made sure to leave six months’ living costs in the bank so that I would be covered, even if it took me a few months to find a job once I returned to California.

However, I wish I’d done more specific planning for the skills I wanted to build to change careers and start working remotely. Due to the place I was at mentally when I decided to take this trip (i.e., miserable in a toxic job and working at a manic pace), I jumped into the whole thing with an “I’ll figure it out” mindset rather than a plan of action. I could have gotten a lot farther, a lot quicker, if I’d been better prepared.

What I Wouldn’t Give Up

While it might have taken me longer to get to where I wanted to go, the decision to take this career break changed my life and my mindset for the better. I ended up staying in Europe for two and a half years after the end of my one-year time. I met someone, fell in love, and decided to extend my stay longer. We ended up getting engaged and were together for more than two years.

Meeting my fiance heightened the pressure to find a way to earn a living while working abroad. Every day, for those first few months after I decided to stay in Europe, I felt like I was risking my entire future. But what better reason than love to take a risk While we didn’t end up together (international relationships are complicated at any age and stage of life), my mid-thirties and mid-career woman journey left me open to new experiences. My career break had been a way for me to find a different way of living, and, in the end, it led me to love, adventures, and a renewed determination to never quit pursuing my dreams.

Wendyay March 24, 2022

Hi Brooke, can I ask what visa you were on and how you were able to stay longer than the 3 months allowed by the Schengen rules? Thanks, Wendy