Photo Credit: Desiree Thomas
How I Financially Planned For My 6-Month Sabbatical In Southeast Asia
In October 2019, Danica Nelson embarked on a six-month sabbatical in Southeast Asia, which she completely funded on her own.
A Jamaican-Canadian born and based in Toronto, she works as a Product Marketing Team Lead in the e-commerce industry. Nelson is also a content creator specializing in personal finance and travel.
She worked extremely hard throughout her 20s to level up her education and climbed the corporate ladder quickly. Dabbling in many side hustles and creative projects, Nelson had little time for travel. She soon realized she badly needed a break.
“Simply put, I was doing entirely too much and burnt myself out,” said Nelson. “It was time to take a step back to not only heal but to also reassess my priorities. The pace I was working at was unsustainable and unhealthy.”
Having the funds to take a sabbatical, which she has branded as a Liberty Leave, Nelson wanted to see the world as soon as she could afford to. Though many people she knew had the opportunity to embark on a gap year (typically funded by their parents) once they graduated from their post-secondary education, she didn’t have that luxury.
“I had other financial priorities I needed to pour into after I got my first marketing job before I could splurge on a long-term trip (such as buying my first home at age 25). By age 29, I felt comfortable enough in my savings and the level of professional experience I had gained in the marketing field to decide I was going to embark on my six-month Liberty Leave journey.”
With no children or partner, Nelson was completely free, with nothing preventing her from taking an extended leave. She decided upon Southeast Asia as her destination, a place where she knew her Canadian dollar would stretch quite far. This allowed her to travel for a longer period.
“I also did research on other Black women solo travelers who said they felt very safe in the countries I visited, which were Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Many of the countries I visited have a ‘Brothas and Sistas’ Facebook community group and they organize weekly dinners or brunches, so I was able to connect with folks who looked like me and had similar interests.”
Having always been a high performer who went above and beyond at work, Nelson had been promoted to a higher position and had a great relationship with her manager at the time.
“I was straight up with him – I told him this was an important dream of mine that I needed to see through. He was very supportive and pitched it to the Vice President, who was also in agreement that I should make it happen.”
In preparation for her sabbatical, Nelson saved as much money as she could for about 1.5 years, which was about $1,000 CAD per month. To do this, she did some budgeting, but mostly just continued to live below her means.
“I don’t own a vehicle and opt for public transportation, I have no children, I live in a very small condo that I bought in 2015 when prices were more reasonable, and I don’t own many flashy items or designer pieces. I also avoided taking any big and costly trips during that time.”
Nelson was also able to beef up her savings by moving back in with her mother temporarily and renting out her Downtown Toronto condo while she was in Southeast Asia to cover her home costs.
“My tenant moved in four months before I embarked on my journey, and stayed for nine months after I returned home and stayed with my mother again. This means I was able to save more before I left, and replenish my savings once I returned back to Canada.”
Since the company she worked for had approved the sabbatical, Nelson wanted to ensure she took full advantage of retaining her employment status while traveling. Though she was entitled to five weeks of paid vacation, she saved that vacation time for the first five weeks of her trip so she could continue being paid normally during that time. She also made sure that the medical benefits that came with her job were applicable to overseas travel so that she didn’t need to purchase separate travel insurance.
Aside from the financial aspect of her planning, Nelson had to mentally prepare for potentially not coming back to a permanent full-time job.
“Though my place of employment did approve the sabbatical, they did flag that there was the chance that I may not come back to my exact same permanent full-time job. As someone that’s always been fiercely financially independent and working since I was 14, the thought of not coming back to steady employment was terrifying. When I did come back, they offered me a mat leave coverage role for one year. I took it, but decided to leave to pursue a new role in a new industry seven months after my return.”
Another thing she had to do in preparation for being away long-term was make peace with the fact that she was going to miss out on some big moments with her family and friends while away, including birthdays, weddings, holiday gatherings, and more.
“I had to remind myself that this was a temporary sacrifice I’d have to make in order to fulfill this long-term travel goal, but I’d be back soon enough.”
Coming back from her sabbatical, however, was a bittersweet experience for Nelson. On one hand, she felt more confident in herself than ever; like she could do anything she put her mind to.
“Traveling to six countries alone in Southeast Asia as a Black woman is pretty badass. I also felt a great sense of fulfillment from checking this massive goal off my bucket list. On the flip side, I felt sad and uninspired when I had to reintegrate into ‘normal life’. Going back to a 9-5 after spending six months on a dream trip felt like I took a step backward. After being able to rest and get a taste of living out my dreams of being a world explorer, I was sad when that period came to an end.”
In total, Nelson spent about $16,000 CAD ($12,000 USD) on all costs associated with her six-month Liberty Leave. This included flights, accommodations (hotels and Airbnb), food, excursions, and all the travel gear she bought for the trip.
“Could I have spent way less if I were more frugal? Absolutely. However, I decided this was going to be the time of my life and did whatever I wanted (within reason). I avoided hostels, ate whatever I felt like, and did tours with local guides in every country. I don’t regret a thing.”
Through the journey, Nelson learned that she truly is capable of any and everything. Her abundance mindset grew significantly.
“It takes a certain amount of tenacity, dedication, and resilience to pull off what I did. I had some extremely high highs like meeting inspiring people, seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and learning to thoroughly enjoy my own company. I had my fair share of lows too, though, such as nearly missing flights, facing times of loneliness, and experiencing bad food poisoning with no one around to support me.”
“Regardless of what challenges the Travel Gods threw at me on the journey, I always stood back up and continued my journey. Any time I’m ever too afraid to do something now, I remind myself that I traveled to 6 countries in Southeast Asia completely solo on a self-funded and self-planned trip and suddenly remember that I am that girl. I feel the fear and do it anyway because I can do hard things.”
Nelson is currently in the process of planning her Liberty Leave 2.0 – this time in Europe for a year. She highly recommends that anyone who is able to embark on a travel sabbatical take advantage of the opportunity and do so.
“It is absolutely a privilege that not everyone has access to, but, if the stars align and you can make it happen, please do it as soon as you can. You won’t regret it. If you’d like to ‘dip your toe in’ on long-term travel before fully committing, working remotely while traveling abroad is a good first step. I’m writing an e-book on how to plan the perfect ‘workcation’ and you can sign up here to be notified when it drops.”
You can follow Danica Nelson on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Related: The Best Destinations For Black Travelers Seeking To Take An Adult Gap Year