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Permission to spend my savings on a sabbatical
I had enough money in savings to go on a sabbatical away from work, but the idea of spending that money felt terrifying to me. It took a couple of big mental shifts to give myself permission to spend.
When I turned seven, my parents started giving me pocket money. Not much, it was something like a pound a week, just enough for me to learn that I could trade money for things that I wanted. I could either spend it immediately on sweets or save up for weeks to buy a more expensive thing, usually some kind of toy.
I was a natural saver.
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I slowly amassed the pounds into a neat little pile at the back of a shelf in my room.
I’d sometimes give in to the temptation of spending some of the money on sweets. The pleasurable sugar-rush was short-lived and it was almost always followed by a lingering feeling of guilt. What if I ended up wanting to buy something I really wanted later on and I was missing precisely the amount that I’d just spent on sweets?!
A few years later, I got myself a piggy bank. I wasn’t at risk of spending my coins on sweets anymore (phew) but I was spending some of it on CD singles… this would sometimes trigger the now-familiar feelings of guilt.
In the first twelve years of my career, the unconscious money script that was running in my head was simple: I spent very little and saved as much as I could. Any unnecessary spending felt bad and wrong. Why spend now when ‘future me’ might need it for a house deposit? Or when ‘future me’ might need a buffer after being made redundant and struggling to find another job?
I saved money up in the bank like squirrels bury nuts in preparation for winter. Of course I sometimes ate some of the nuts instead of burying them, but not many. I'm sure squirrels do that too.
By the time I turned 35, after years of hard work, career progression and increasing pay, I had a house deposit. But instead of looking out for the next promotion and thinking of buying a house, like I’d always thought I’d want to do, I felt a calling to stop working so hard. I wanted to step out of the ‘always-on’ mode that comes with having an intense full-time job and give myself space to follow my own curiosity wherever it led me, at least for a while.
I started thinking about what I would do if I went on sabbatical…
I wanted to live in another country, learn a language and explore the local landscapes, culture and cuisine. I wanted to start writing and publishing online. I was curious about design and video-editing. I’d also spotted a few online courses that I wanted to go on.
As my excitement was ramping up, so was my internal agitation.
This meant I'd have to buy flights, visas, and probably vaccinations. I'd also have to spend a decent amount on accommodation if I didn't want to end up living in a place that made me feel miserable. I'd probably need to buy myself a proper laptop. And the courses I wanted to go on were not cheap.
I estimated I would probably end up spending something like 30,000 USD over twelve months.
That would make a serious dent in the house deposit I had spent years amassing conscientiously. It felt indulgent, unsafe and wrong, and it certainly went against the script I'd been religiously abiding by for decades.
I could feel myself being very protective of the money.
Up until now, the money had just been a number on a bank statement. When the number went up, I felt safe and happy. When the number went down, I felt vulnerable and agitated. But the number had never really gone down meaningfully, so I had never felt meaningfully agitated.
For the first time ever, I was feeling *hugely* agitated.
And vulnerable like I’d rarely felt before.
In my mind, the abstract number on the bank statement had now become a big and shiny pile of gold. I felt so strongly about keeping that gold right where it was that I was visualising a dragon sitting on top of the pile, protecting it from the most dangerous of intruders: me.
I really didn't want to spend a large chunk of that ‘dragon pile’ on a sabbatical that might yield nothing in return.
It took me a few months to calm the emotions and disentangle the old script that was running in my head.
I wasn’t sure how to address the problem so I didn’t tackle it head on. Instead, I carried on with my life and made sure to give space to the excited part of me who wanted to go on sabbatical explorations to express itself. I also gave a similar amount of space to the scared part of me who wanted to keep accumulating money (and safety) month after month.
Over a few months, I signed up for a neuroscience course by Harvard EdX and had fun learning a bit more about how our brains and bodies work. I participated in an online workshop in which I was guided to reflect about my life goals as well as the steps I could take to progress towards them. I bought the Life Calendar by Wait But Why for $20 where each circle represents a week of your life and each line represents a year, and proceeded to colour in the weeks I’d already lived.
All of those things felt useful. But they didn’t help me scratch the itch.
It’s only when I stumbled upon Tim Ferriss’ fear-setting exercise that something clicked in me.
It’s a powerful exercise, based in Stoicism, where Tim invites you to address your fears head-on through a masterfully-crafted three-step process. You can apply it to any decision that you feel reluctant to make. In the context of that decision, you list your fears, you figure out how you’d prevent them from happening or how you’d repair the situation if they did and, importantly, you write about what the future would look like if you didn’t overcome your fears and didn’t make the decision.
I reached out for a pencil and notepad, calmly wrote ’should I go on sabbatical?’ at the top of a blank page, and started scribbling my fears down, bullet point after bullet point.
As I made my way through the exercise, it became obvious to me that I was letting myself be run by my fears of bad things happening at some point in the future. I could lose my job. I could become chronically ill. The money I had invested in stocks could come crashing down unexpectedly. Or all at the same time.
In my mind, ‘dragon pile’ was there to protect me from those bad things.
It made me feel safe.
But there was only so much ‘dragon pile’ could do, really. It couldn’t actually keep me safe from some of the bleak futures I was imagining, like being diagnosed with a serious health issue.
Once I’d reached the conclusion that I couldn’t solve all future bad things by piling up as much money as I could in a savings account, I felt both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed that I couldn’t protect my future self from all the bad things that might come up. Relieved because I was now free from trying to solve a problem that couldn’t actually be solved. And free to trust my future self that she could take care of herself too.
That’s when another thing clicked in me.
I’d been working so hard over the past few years. I wasn’t exercising consistently because I was too tired from work. I was using sugar as fuel for energy whenever I felt down or tired. I’d also been socialising less because of work and the pandemic.
I had money but I was stressed, energy-depleted, and running on sugar and adrenaline.
If I was made redundant, ‘dragon pile’ would make the process of finding a new job less stressful because I’d be able to pay rent and bills for a long time before it became a problem. But my levels of stress (high) and energy (low) would definitely make networking and interviewing much harder.
The process of accumulating money was actually making me more likely to need that money in the future.
If I wanted to be able to trust my future self that she could take care of herself in a healthy and open-minded way, I needed to make sure that I was taking care of myself right now.
I’d been investing in ‘dragon pile’ for such a long time, it was time it returned the favour.
In the end, I spent more than 30,000 USD during my sabbatical.
On most of those spending occasions, the dragon would happily lift her protective tail to let me grab the gold coins I wanted. It felt like she was protecting me rather than the pile of gold, which was a nice change.
I spent 1000 USD per month on accommodation in Mexico and Hungary to live in welcoming homes located in neighbourhoods that were central and safe. This only cost 350 USD per month in Indonesia but I spent just as much money in three days on a hotel in Singapore en route.
I spent less than 1,000 USD on return flights to and from Mexico and the same amount on the single ticket that would take me back to Europe from Bali. I paid 300 USD to rent a scooter in Bali for six months and 500 USD to secure a 6-month visa. I signed up for various online courses which cost anything from 25 USD for a 20-day email design course to an eye-wateringly-expensive 4500 USD for Write of Passage, a brilliant writing course.
Any money that felt like an investment in myself was money that I felt not only happy but encouraged to spend.
I wasn’t always happy to spend, though…
I frowned at the cost of our three-day stay in Singapore. I tutted at the 200 USD birthday dinner that had turned out to be underwhelming. I also emitted some sort of annoyed grunt when paying 1000 USD on some flights that would have been much cheaper if I’d booked them earlier than I did.
The only time I felt meaningfully agitated was when I was trying to figure out whether I should spend 4500 USD on Write of Passage or not. That was a lot of money to spend in one go, when I didn’t know how much value I would get out of it. It took me a few weeks to calm the alarm bells that were ringing inside of me and to decide the course was a worthwhile investment if I wanted to make meaningful connections online through my writing.
Now that I’m closing off the sabbatical chapter, I’m curious how my relationship with money will evolve.
Interestingly, I’m quite reluctant to spend. It feels like I need to prove to myself that I still know how to bring money in after demonstrating for twelve months that I am now fully skilled at spending it.
I started a new job in February and money will start coming in regularly, which will help with that.
I think I’ll be more relaxed…
Sure, ‘dragon pile’ is now smaller than it used to be but the money I spent on my sabbatical has made me much more confident in my abilities to tackle any Big Life Problems creatively and with energy. I am healthier than ever, I learned new skills, and I made friendly and business connections all over the world.
I don’t feel the need to hoard money any more. I trust myself to spend. I also trust that I will be healthy and strong enough in the future to be able to make any money I need.
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