Lessons Learned During a Family Sabbatical
Elisa Bernick, author of 'The Family Sabbatical Handbook', spent 18 months living in San Miguel, Mexico, with her husband and two young children. Here she shares anecdotes and advice from the experience.
Q: How did you settle on Mexico as the place for your sabbatical?
A: We didn't originally intend to land in Mexico. We actually had our sights set on Europe. But after researching the costs of living anywhere in Europe for 18 months, we quickly realized that given our rather paltry budget, choosing a European destination would force us to abandon a critical goal for our family sabbatical—that of living abroad for an extended period without either of us working. Mexico also met our family goals of being kid-friendly and a place where English was not the primary language, and it was accessible enough that family and friends could come and visit without great difficulty.
This notion of developing a list of family goals is an important aspect of planning a sabbatical. It generates discussion from the start and helps everyone get on the same page regarding different hopes and dreams for your adventure. Refining this wish list will leave your family with a sense of the essential requirements for your sabbatical, and it will help you cull the potential sabbatical locations to find a place that's right for your family.
The most important thing to keep mind about choosing a sabbatical destination is that ultimately, this type of family adventure is less about where you are and more about where you are not. It's about shaking up your family's routines and predictable responses to the world and to each other.
Q: How far in advance did you begin planning the sabbatical, and what were the key financial considerations?
A: Obviously, the earlier you can start planning your sabbatical the better, particularly in terms of the bottom line. Our planning started three years before our departure date. During that period we salted away any extra money in a special savings account, we paid down our debts, and we lived more frugally at home. These are the three most important things you can do to make your sabbatical a reality. We cut out all extraneous spending like eating out, vacations, and any large purchases that weren't directly applicable to our sabbatical. Not eating out or buying anything new did get tedious at times, but all we had to do was remind ourselves how delicious those south-of-the-border tacos and margaritas were going to taste, and the whole thing became more palatable.
Although our family's goals included not working, in many families we know one spouse kept working during the sabbatical, or both spouses worked sporadically via the Internet or as private consultants in their sabbatical destinations. Another excellent way to generate passive income is to lease out your house back here in the States. We did that and the rental income covered all our expenses back home, which allowed us to spend our savings on the actual costs we incurred abroad. During our 18 months abroad, we spent a total of $35,000 in savings, and that covered everything—transportation, health insurance, private schools for the kids, language tutors, relatively luxurious lodging, trips during our sabbatical to other parts of Mexico—you name it.
At first glance, coming up with enough money to fund a family sabbatical may seem like an impossible dream. But it's really not. If our family can do it, any family can do it. It just requires sacrifice and preparation along with a little grit and determination. For us, it was the most gratifying exercise of delayed gratification in our lives.
Q: Could you share some tips on how to prepare children for the trip and help them feel at home in their new surroundings?
A: How children react to this type of adventure depends on how old the kids are, where the family is headed, and how long you'll be gone. Older kids may feel anxious about leaving their friends, teachers, and familiar surroundings behind. Younger kids will be less aware of the changes in store, and will feel fine as long as you reassure them that you're all going on this trip together. I would encourage each member of the family to bring along a few small items you consider to be essential. These are comfort items for those first few weeks abroad when the isolation and sense of foreigness are most extreme. Things like a personal CD or MP3 player, a favorite mug or cup, a blanket, or favorite sheets and pillowcases can help kids stay relaxed and open to their new surroundings. I would also bring along some nonperishable food items (dry cereal and snacks) to tide the kids over until you can find something similar (or a brand-new favorite!) in your home away from home. Also, if a family is going to be spending a significant holiday away from home, don't forget to bring along a few decorations. These can really make a difference in how genuine a holiday feels and also helps keeps homesickness at bay.