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Should You Take a Year Off in Your 20s?

by guest on July 10, 2013 · 54 comments

in fun stuffs, travel

The following is a guest post from Martin of Studenomics — you need to check the blog out to see what sort of new projects Martin has been working on to help you gain financial freedom.

Does it ever make sense to take a year off? Should you take a year off in your teens or 20s to figure everything out?

What’s my answer?

Nope. Not at all. I don’t believe in being idle or waiting for things to magically work out for you. That’s not going to happen.

I would like to thank Joe for allowing me to guest post here again. The last time I was here we had some fun chatting about YOLO and your finances. Today I wanted to look at the idea of a year off in your prime.

You should not waste valuable time to go “find yourself” or to just get drunk every single night.

There are many feel-good and romanticized stories about successful folks that dropped out of college or took time off to form a billion dollar business. Those are extremely RARE.

While I’m against the idea of taking time off, I know that I can’t stop you or force you to stick around another term if you’re not into it. I also know that time off from a crappy college program, job you hate, or toxic environment can really be a life-saver.

Let’s say you do take a year off, what can you do?

Is it worth taking a year off in your 20s?Travel.

There’s so much to see on this planet. In some cultures it’s common to travel the world in your 20s. In North America, we’re generally expected to go straight to work, start a family, and buy a place. The American dream baby!

If you must take time off, it makes perfect sense to see the world a little bit so that you know what’s out there. Life has so much more to offer than just your local pub or community coffee shop.

Where will you take off to? You can start off with a classic Euro-trip or you can just explore your own continent. All that matters is that you save the money to see the world a bit. Use this time to see how others live.

Joe> I love traveling and I think it’s a great idea to take a gap year. Traveling is more fun when you’re young and the trip will have a huge influence on your personality. It’s fun when you’re older too, but I think people are already set in their ways by then. :)

Read books on your favorite topic.

I totally get that school or work can’t teach you everything. It’s important to read books on your favorite topics. I’ve made it a point to read books on my favorite topics over the years. This includes everything from training to finding your passions to MMA.

It’s wise to read books on your favorite topics because you never know where a brilliant idea or burst of motivation can come from.

Pick up new skills.

Do you have any skills worth mentioning? Anything marketable?

If you take time off, you can pick up new skills to help you out later in life. You can pick up a simple skill or something that you’ve always been afraid of (cooking — I’m looking at you guys).

The goal is to master a skill from beginning to end to see it through and feel that sense of accomplishment. This might just also boost your confidence.

Learn a language.

How many languages do you speak? I speak Polish and English (arguably!). My goal is to be conversational in Spanish by the end of the year. I signed up with Duolingo and I work on my Spanish a little every single day.

If you take time, you can use this opportunity to finally master another language. With the Internet, it is literally easier than at any point in history to learn a language. And hey, it might also help out with your social life.

And finally…

Figure out what’s next.

What on Earth is next for you? What’s your plan? Time off can give you that clarity that you so badly need and can help you figure out what to do after college.

Every time I step away for a bit to try something new or just to explore, I find it interesting how clear my goals become. I instantly figure out what I need to do and what has been missing this whole time. Something as funny as a beer with a stranger in the streets of Poland can really help you figure out what direction you need to take your life on next.

That’s what I would do if I were to take a year off in my 20s. I have seen it do wonders for friends who weren’t sure of what to do next.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” — Abraham Lincoln

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrimatistikos July 9, 2013 at 2:29 am

Couldnt agree less. I took a few years just to play around and find myself. Everyone should do that. Because of that I now have the most lovely wife, a job I love going to every day and friends all over the world.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:04 am

That’s awesome to hear. Just curious: did you find your wife while traveling?

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Chrimatistikos July 9, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Yes I did. Was hard having a reaaaaally long distance relationship but after a couple of years we could live together in Sweden and have since.

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My Financial Independence Journey July 9, 2013 at 2:48 am

Before and after college and grad school are about the only times in your life where you can take a large block of time to do something completely novel or eccentric. I really wish that I would have spent a year in a foreign country learning a new language. Nothing beats total immersion and that would have been a great time to do it.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:06 am

That’s a good point. I do wish that I visited a new country to learn a language. I did visit Poland, but I already learned the language back home.

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SuburbanFinance July 9, 2013 at 6:18 am

I didn’t take any time off, and while I am far less well traveled when compared to my peers, I am farther ahead in my career.

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bill July 9, 2013 at 6:43 am

Completely agree. Don’t waste that first year.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:06 am

Interesting take. How far behind are you friends?

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Chrimatistikos July 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm

One year ahead I guess then?

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Steve July 9, 2013 at 6:42 am

Why can this only be done in your 20’s? I know multiple (at least 7 off the top of my head) people who took a year off later in life. And more that took a couple months. They traveled, wrote novels, volunteered, took classes, toured with their band, tried to start a business.

Granted, none of them had kids. But that’s not an insurmountable obstacle IMHO.

I think the barriers to doing this (as well as to traveling backpacker style) are only in your own head.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:07 am

That’s a good point Steve. We assume that 20s are the best time. I imagine it’s just as fun in your 30s or 40s.

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retirebyforty July 9, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I don’t know anyone who took a year off later in life. :)

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Steve July 9, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Next time you’re in Seattle, let me know and I’ll set up a meeting.

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Laurie July 10, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Ten years ago I was 28 when I quit my job and took off to learn Spanish and volunteer in Guatemala for few months. I knew if I didn’t do it I would always regret it. At the language school I was considered one of the “older” ones, most of them in early to mid-20s but there were a couple Euro folks in their 40s that were there too. At 28 I was def a little smarter and safer than I would have been when I was younger.

For me, experiences like this are about quality-of-life too, not just the bottom line. But I also wish I had been smarter about saving and financial goals when I was younger. Recently, I had a friend that told me she was taking a year off mid-career to travel and I gasped audibly, “what about your retirement?!” I can’t believe that I’ve changed this much but dealing with semi-retired parents that have two mortgages really gives me a lot of perspective on my financial goals. I love working and I don’t expect to ever fully retire but I want options.

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retirebyforty July 11, 2013 at 9:52 pm

It’s great that you were able to take a few months off. It isn’t always about the bottom line. We have to enjoy life too!

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Michelle July 9, 2013 at 6:44 am

I have never taken time off, and I do regret that a little bit. However, I don’t think I would be where I am now unless I worked as hard as I did. I plan on relaxing a little bit soon though!

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:09 am

Congrats on your recent results! Now it’s time to get the party started.

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davidmichael July 9, 2013 at 8:51 am

At age 65, I spent three months bicycling the length and breadth of New Zealand staying in hostals overnight. It was one of my favorite trips ever. What impressed me the most, however, was the number of young people (ages 18-23) from the English Commonwealth who took off an entire year after college who travelled and worked the East Asia Circuit (New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, etc). I spent a week picking grapes in a vineyard with a handful of them. The girls from Northern Ireland with their singing brogue accents were amazing in every way. I’ll never forget that experience. In hindsight, whether I was rich or poor in those early working years, I travelled every summer as a college teacher. We have one life, and money is only a tool. I definitely recommend a year or two off to see and experience the world. It’s a far better and more meaningful educational experience than college will ever be.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:10 am

Okay, that’s a freaking awesome story! I’ve met some Irish friends and I agree with that statement.

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The College Investor July 9, 2013 at 9:38 am

Why not if you have the means. When people start working the tendency is just to fit the holiday between work and for some, it is not as relaxing as it should be, and you end trying to include so many activities you want to do in a short period of time. Better have a little fun before you take in the full responsibility of work and in time, family.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 11:11 am

That’s funny because when I read the 4-Hour Workweek, Ferriss kept on saying that the two-week trip is too-weak lol.

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Jay July 9, 2013 at 9:42 am

This is a good article. I’m not sure of the answer. When I was younger, a gap year was not even something that crossed my mind. (I did have a friend who went to Japan to teach English, but I don’t think that’s the same thing.)

I think it really depends on what you think awaits you after your adventure is over. If you’re very confident that you can find something solid employment-wise, then I think a gap year wouldn’t be an entirely bad idea.

But, if you’re going to be coming into a bad economy or if you think you’re prospects are dicey, the last thing you want is compound your student loan with high-interest credit card debt from travel.

But, all that being said, something tells me that the people who want to do it the most are the ones that shouldn’t be doing it at all. :)

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Chrimatistikos July 9, 2013 at 9:51 am

How is your friends Japan trip not the same thing?

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Jay July 9, 2013 at 11:54 am

The way I see it, a gap year is meant to broaden your horizons and the whole job/money thing takes a complete back seat. You’re there for the adventure of it. you travel around and enjoy it.

But, when she went, I think it was because she didn’t have any real job prospects here and really needed the money and work experience. I think it was pretty bad for her, since she only lasted about 6 months.

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Renee s July 9, 2013 at 9:51 am

I went to school for nursing. It is recommended to take the Nursing Boards (NCLEX) right after graduation, but I just was so burnt out from studying. I took a year off of Nursing and worked at a day care center. I love love working with kids (and returning them to their parents at the end of the day) and it was so nice to be able to not have to study or think about nursing during my time off of work/weekends. I eventually buckled down, studied a TON and passed my boards. It was then time to get a nursing job and I am so happy that I took that little break after school. I don’t think it would work for everyone, but I really needed that year for myself.

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retirebyforty July 9, 2013 at 2:45 pm

That’s great. Americans are so driven to get to the next chapter that we don’t take the time to enjoy the journey. I think I would have benefit immensely from a year of travel before I start college. I didn’t have any money to travel back then though. :(

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krantcents July 9, 2013 at 10:02 am

I think the issue is when you take time off and for how long? My son traveled for a month after he graduated college. If he extended it to a few months, I think it would have made sense. A year is a very long time, something less may make sense for some people. When you do it is another issue. It may make sense right after you graduate college or complete a graduate program. Others may do it for other reasons at a different time.

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Chrimatistikos July 9, 2013 at 10:05 am

Really? I think a year is far to short for most people to do this. I would recommend at least two or three. In different countries, doing different kind of work.

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SavvyFinancialLatina July 9, 2013 at 11:24 am

I think it’s very common for students outside the US to take 1 year off. My sister in law has a fiance that lives in France. He took several months off and traveled Africa, Australia, and Asia.
It’s not really common in the US.
I would love to have a job where I could work from remote location at the same time. Tis the dream.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Hmm, I just wonder who paid for those trips…

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Chrimatistikos July 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm

As a Swede I’ve never heard about anyone who didnt travel some/find yourself whatever you want to call it. A lot of Swedish schools have agreement with other schools where we trade students so 6 months or a year is paid for by the school. And then you can work in the other country and/or use your savings. It usually works out fine.

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Martin July 10, 2013 at 7:26 am

That’s nice, and who pay those schools to pay the trips? I assume you are not speaking about just a school students exchange where two student swap schools for 6 months but continue studying the whole time. But I think this article was about to just go and traveling abroad, even interrupt the school and go traveling. And if the school pays for it, where they get the money for those payments? From the taxpayers, as is common in Europe where education is so called “free” but heavily paid by taxpayers (even those who will never reach university)?

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Chrimatistikos July 10, 2013 at 7:54 am

The schools can have exchange agreements, the student can get a student loan (% interest rate) or get a scholarship.
Yes. It is. But only the high income earners pay for the universities so it’s not that much. (Regular income earners only pay for schools which tutor kids 6-18 years old which is also free and I believe is free in the US as well, no?)
And the system works extremely well. Sweden is one of the most advanced countries in the world. Not to mention technologically. (Sweden has most smarthpones per capita in the world for example.) We also usually rank in the top 3 in happiness indexes. And with universities comes a lot of research. Sweden ranks as no 1 in the world in The Economists invention index. So, yes, the high income earners pays a small percentage of their salaries to the universities but we’ve got so much back in return.

retirebyforty July 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm

That’s great! I’ll encourage my kid to try the student exchange program when he’s ready for it. It sounds like an amazing experience.

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Martin July 9, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I am glad you said nope. I also think when you are in your teens and 20s you should work as hard as possible and speed everything up as much as possible. When you get older you will desire for break, but in many times you won’t be allowed to take it, so try to get as far ahead as early as possible when you are young and full of energy.
But that’s something impossible to explain to the teenagers, right?

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Jason August 20, 2013 at 10:22 pm

What’s the point of speeding up as much as possible?

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Martin August 21, 2013 at 8:31 am

If you want to retire early, do it now when you are in your 20s, young and full of energy. When you turn 40 and close to 50s it will be a lot harder. believe me. i wish I did it 20 years ago and didn’t have to do it now. If you don’t care, and you are OK working until your 67 or when your retirement kicks in, then do nothing and do it slowly. It’s your choice.

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Sam Gill @ Digital Spikes July 10, 2013 at 3:52 am

I wish I had used the opportunity after finishing my college grad. to take time off for myself. I missed it but I am planning to compensate now as I have gave my full time job and love doing what I want to do as a full time entrepreneur

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steve July 10, 2013 at 8:55 am

I don’t know if it’s still the case or not, but when I wqent to college you could “game” the financial aid process by taking a gap year first. If you could show that you hadn’t lived at home for at least a year you were considered an “independent student” and your parents financial resources were not taken into account when you applied for financial aid. This netted me tens of thousands of dollars in grants.

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Amanda July 10, 2013 at 11:52 am

I don’t know about taking a year off, or doing so while still that young, but I’m currently taking the summer off and I LOVE it. Okay, so I’m actually on medical leave, and that part sucks, but after a month, my head feels like it’s finally unclogged for the first time in over a decade. I went right from high school to university to grad school to working. After 4 years of working 60+ hours/week, I was burnt out and *needed* this break, even if I’m mostly just sitting around my apartment.
Taking time off, when you need it and/or when it “fits” into your life is definitely something everyone should do.

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retirebyforty July 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I know how that clogged head feel like. My mind was all messed up before I left my job. I was completely burnt out and it took a long time to recover. It sounds like you’re doing better now. Good luck getting back to it.

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Suzanne July 10, 2013 at 3:28 pm

“Travel broadens the mind.” I never did take a year off, but I firmly believe that travel makes a person more interesting and worldly. You can’t put a price on personality!

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Prasun Choudhury July 10, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I know of a couple, both of whom are professors at Stanford (in their forties) who took a year off with 2 kids and travelled around the world. One can see more details about their adventure at:
http://infolab.stanford.edu/%7Ewidom/yearoff.html
Being professor and in academics probably allowed them this much flexibility which might have been difficult to get in industry.
One of my ex-colleague (from Spain) and her husband took ~ 8 months off to bike through South America.

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Andrew July 10, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Most young travelers don’t just take a year or two off to relax, they get work visas to work overseas and then travel on the way home. That’s why Australia for example is full of young Brits, and Britain is full of young Australians. International work experience is usually great for your career.

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Pauline @ Make Money Your Way July 11, 2013 at 8:01 am

I took a year right after college to travel the world. I had graduated from a master in business at 22 and had enough savings to buy a rental property and a one year round the world trip. I don’t think I lost my time because many of my peers graduated a year later and didn’t get the landlady/traveling experience I did. Now if you are already 25 when you graduate in a “finding myself” degree and want to spend three more years finding yourself, that is questionable.

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getagrip July 12, 2013 at 6:36 am

Many of the people I knew who took a year off to find themselves got lost :-).

I think the idea is easier in different countries. For example, in the US, most people have to pay for higher education so that you are unlikely to graduate with excess cash and in most cases (as the current statistics show) people graduate with large debt. There is a lot of pressure and financial incentive to start paying that money back. In a country where you don’t have to pay directly for that education, there is a greater opportunity to have saved enough money to take significant time away from a job search or more easily risk bopping about from job to job while traveling because there is no large, growing debt waiting for you to start earning more than subsistance money.

Another consideration is health care, which again in the US costs money. Until recently a student could generally only be covered by their parents health care until age 22, and only to 18 if they weren’t a student. So typically upon graduation or shortly thereafter you’d be on your own to either get a policy or risk not being covered. I would assume traveling is covered by a country that provides health care services to it’s citizens. So that’s a cost and concern that may not be encountered or even thought about if you grew up with that type of care.

In the end though, there is this assumption that secretly everyone wants to “wander” for a while to find themselves. That’s frankly as much BS as assuming that everyone needs to go to college. I graduated with no debt. But I wanted to get a job applying what I learned, get out of my parents home, and marry my fiance when I graduated. The idea of bopping around the US or another country for a year doing grunt work, which I’d been doing since I was 15 and throughout college, was about as appealing to me as eating a bowl full of squirming maggots.

While I see that such a break is good for some folks, keep in mind there is a reason most people choose to follow a typical path. It’s because most of them are comfortable and content doing it. Not everyone has to lead a life of risk to enjoy and find themselves.

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Squirrelers July 12, 2013 at 11:10 am

I think it’s best to limit such blocks of time off to after undergrad, before grad school, and immediately after grad school. Otherwise, maybe just take 1 to 2 week vacations during work.

Really, I would have said the opposite in my 20’s. Now, as I’m older, I think it’s important for younger folks to focus and build their careers and lives. You can play when young, and risk old age – or work on what’s important when young, and put yourself in good shape for later years.

Now, I do think that risk-taking is easier when younger – and nobody else is depending on you. That’s the time. But taking a year off in 20’s just to travel? I know a couple of people that did this and things all worked out, but they were fortunate in their timing and probably resources available to them as a fallback as well.

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Chrimatistikos July 12, 2013 at 11:52 am

Only a couple? I live in Sweden and I dont think Ive ever met anyone who didnt take some years to travel and find out what you want to do for the rest of your life. And it has worked out fine for everyone. Why wouldn’t it?
The most you can loose on doing this is that you will be one year later than everyone else in your career. And all the experiences you get from visiting different countries more than make up for that.

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thepotatohead July 13, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Maybe if you do it right after you graduate college it would be ok, but I definitely wouldn’t leave a good job to find yourself once you have already been established. The whole point of working your butt off in your 20’s is to be able to take many many years off starting in your 40’s . Early retirement sounds a lot more appealing to me then one year of fun.

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KD August 25, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Definately take some time out…!!

I took a year out travelling the globe…started in India and finished in New York…it was the most wholesome, life-experience I have experienced so far!

There’s nothing better than the school of life…I learnt and further developed invaluable life skills.

Ultimately, if you are smart and driven to succeed – you will! A year off is not going to make any difference…

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Martin July 10, 2013 at 8:15 am

Of course there are public schools here in the US, which are “free” (taxpayers pay for it), but that’s mostly elementary schools. Any higher education (colleges and higher) are all paid individually. A community colleges are somewhat hybrid. You still pay tuition, but a lot cheaper than you would pay normally.
I am happy for you that you like the European model. I don’t. I don’t think it is a good and motivating model. If a student has his education for free, what motivates him to take his studies seriously? i am speaking from my own experience. I had an opportunity to study in an European University as postgraduate studies (of course I had to pay for it), but locals had a leisure time. Parties, traveling, drinking and visiting classes? Some professors haven’t even seen some of their students the whole semester. they just showed up for the final. It could of course change, since it was about 20 years ago. Also when I was in Sweden I talked to a CEO of a company we did business with them and he wasn’t much excited about Swedish social system and basically telling me that they move their HQ to Holland to avoid high taxation. That’s not too motivating either, is it?

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Chrimatistikos July 10, 2013 at 8:34 am

Im not to fond of people speaking about Europe as a country. There are vastly different cultures here. The US and Mexico are close countries too but quite different. Same with Europe.

With that said, I think your thinking about incentives is wrong here. ” If a student has his education for free, what motivates him to take his studies seriously”. Motivation for studying at a university are getting a high paying job and/or a job you like and that’s the same if you pay for it or don’t pay for it. Paying for it might persuade you to finish it though, even if you don’t like it or are very good at it. Then society have another person that doesn’t like his job and/or isnt very good at it. Bad for the economy and the society.

And now you are talking about the corporate tax. But yes, it was extremely high 20 years ago, we were quite the socialist country then and we had some companies move away from Sweden because of that. And I agree with you that that was incredibly stupid move by the left-run government.

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Martin July 10, 2013 at 8:48 am

I am glad the taxation changed. it was really stupid.

I am still baffled about if you have to pay for your studies how that motivates you not to take your studies seriously or persuading you to finish it quickly or just because you have chosen the school. I am not sure i understand what you wanted to say. I studied in Prague, which of course is different from anything in Sweden, but works at the same basics and I have seen people selecting schools not because of what they want to do in the future, but because they just wanted to lock in in an University. No one was thinking about their jobs after they finish (well, there were a few who did, so not to generalize). But again, it was more than 20 years ago and just one summer and winter semester. But the taste of my experience was a bit bitter. And my opinion is that the result of this was that the students weren’t involved. And of course I am not saying that the US or Sweden is better or worse. I just want to express, that anything what’s free, actually isn’t free and someone else has to pay for it, so why not the one whose business it is, right? And if you cannot afford it, there should be affordable loans, scholarships, funds, etc. to help you. But to get the help you have to show the results or leave the school, am I wrong on that?

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Chrimatistikos July 10, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Hm. Well, there’s a lot of people in universites that drop out because they didn’t like it. So the first semester sometimes up to 50% of students drop off. After that it gets better since only the good students stay. And to be able to stay you have to show results. So the longest anybody can “stay in a course” without studying is one term.

And I agree with you that only the people who use stuff should pay for it. That works best for 99,9% of the society. But I really think that our school system helps a country A LOT in the long run. Since we get a lot of scientiest, a lot of people who like their jobs and are good at them.

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