How to Pull Off a Mid-Life “Gap Year”

Is it possible to quit the rat race for a year of travel and self-discovery?

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The idea of taking a “gap year” — a year off before entering college or the real world — has always been the purview of the young and (until recently) the British. But the trend is gathering steam in the U.S., and being embraced by people much further along in their lives.

According to The Gap Year Study conducted by Hostelworld.com, more than one-third of people now taking gap years are 30 or older.

The age of gap year participants is on the rise, and like the young folks backpacking across Europe, they’re typically looking to see the world, get inspired creatively, and learn about themselves. 

But once you’re a grown-up, the process is financially much more complicated. You might have student loan payments, a mortgage, and even kids. But it’s not impossible. We talked to people who’ve done it — as well as some experts — to figure out how you can take time away from the rat race without ruining your career and/or finances. 

Temper Your Expectations

Ethan Knight, Executive Director and Founder of the American Gap Association, explains that the most successful gap years comprise four distinct elements:

  • Volunteerism (where you cultivate empathy for people in often difficult situations)
  • Career exploration (which changes how you relate to your work and work in general)
  • Paid work (because if it was gifted to you, you would take it for granted)
  • Space for — in Knight’s words — “free radicals,” (time to explore the unexpected.)

Joanna Lazarek took a gap year as she turned 40 in 2011, and she checked all four boxes. There were stints in Thailand volunteering with elephants, work making organic pasta in Australia, and connecting with someone who shared her name (first and last) in Poland.

And yet, she notes: “This wasn’t Eat, Pray, Love. It wasn’t as glamorous as Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Coast Trail.” Reflecting upon the experience, she says: “I wasn’t transformed. I came back solidified. I realized things about myself, like I work really hard when I don’t have to. And I want to go out of my way to learn. It was more an affirmation of, ‘Yes, this is really who I am.’”

Save More Than You Think You’ll Need 

When Lazarek came back from her gap year, it took quite a while to land a full time job. “ I had saved up enough that I had a cushion when I came back, but it ended up being a little challenging, financially,” she says. That’s not uncommon, says Knight. “Usually it takes six months to a year or longer to come back in the workforce after some time away. Our culture doesn’t do well with gaps in the resume.” You’ll want to plan for at least six months’ worth of living expenses for reentry. 

Do Something to Keep Money Coming in (Or at Least Not Going Out)

One way to soften the financial blow is to work — for pay — while you’re on your gap year. Bobbi Livingstone, 62, who is just finishing up an 11-month assignment with Americorps, received a small stipend (as do all members of the program) while she was volunteering in Baltimore.

That helped keep her afloat. Lazarek’s financial hole would have been substantially deeper had she not been able to sublet her apartment at a profit. 

Keep It Cheap 

The other way to reduce your expenditures is to plan your gap year with frugality in mind. Holly Bull, President for the Center for Interim Programs which (for a $2,600 flat consulting fee) helps people age 16 to 75 find the right programs for them, notes that traditional gap year programs run $10,000 to $14,000 per semester. But there are ways to keep those costs lower. Volunteer placements typically give gappers housing and food in exchange for labor, she explains. And other programs charge a minimal fee — for instance, $1,400 to go to South Africa to teach in the classroom for five weeks. Knight also suggests going places where your dollar can go further.

“$1,000 goes so much further in India than in other parts of the world,” he notes.

Learn to Tell Your Story

Livingstone — who, prior to her Americorps experience, was a teacher who no longer wanted to teach — now has a resume full of new talking points she’s using as she interviews for jobs. For Americorps, she organized a well-received campaign to teach home fire safety to third-through-fifth-graders in Baltimore’s schools. That’s a great job interview anecdote. Lazarek has used her gap year experience to elaborate on the problem-solving and communication skills she learned. Even planning a gap year can be a great example of organizing a detailed project, she says. “It’s not just running and buying a plane ticket,” she says. “For me it was an eight-month project. You talk about the purposefulness with which you did this.”

Embrace Plan B

Finally, if you’re reading this and thinking that you just can’t afford it, there are a couple of other options.

One is a sabbatical, which are shorter, and also give you jobs to return to. Another option is to become a digital nomad: If you can effectively do your job from anywhere, programs like Remote Year and Nomad List are springing up to help you do so while seeing the world. For a monthly fee of $2,000 (including a down payment of $5,000), the former will arrange for you to work in a different spot around the globe each month, provide a co-working space and a place to live, and even help make arrangements so you can smoothly coordinate with your employer back home. Nomad List is free, but DIY; it helps you connect with other nomads in cities around the globe. It’s not a gap year, per se, but if what you’re looking for is to see the world and maintain your salary it just might do.