Lauren and Steven Keys took a six-month break from their jobs to spend a long honeymoon in Hawaii, while working a handful of hours a week. It was an experience that planted the seed for a remarkable transformation in their lifestyle.
After working for a few more years and hitting burnout, they took another break, this time to travel across all of the USA’s national parks. But this time, they did not go back to the old way of living. Instead, they retired from full-time work while still in their 20s.
Lauren and Steven achieved this remarkable lifestyle change by following a simple financial roadmap that helped them reduce their expenses, make smart career moves, travel, and invest enough money to retire well before the traditional age of 65. Now, they spend their time travelling and writing about how others can find their own path to financial independence.
In this interview, Lauren tells the story of their journey to financial independence, their adventures along the way, and how they are continuing to build travel into their lives.
What were you and Steven doing in your careers before your first travel sabbatical?
Pretty soon after we graduated from college, Steven decided to pursue a master’s degree in education, and the program he signed up for required him to work as a teacher at a local high school as real-world training. He was able to collect a full-time salary while he worked as a physics teacher – the subject he received his bachelor of science in.
Even though I had worked through college to support myself, I also took my first full-time, salaried position after graduation. I received my bachelor’s degree in journalism, and I decided to put the skills I learned in school and in my part-time jobs to work in a related field: marketing. My job was to manage the entire marketing department for a small financial firm.
Steven’s master’s degree was a two-year program, and during that time we really buckled down to work toward our goal of reaching financial independence asap. Our salaries were around $36,000–$42,000 then, and we worked a few different side hustles to increase our income and save even more. Over the course of that two-year time period after college, we were able to save more than $100,000 from ages 23 to 25.
What inspired your decision to take some time out together to travel?
Working as hard as we did right after college definitely made us feel burnt out, so we decided we might want to take a bit of a break after reaching that savings milestone. When we got married, we decided our honeymoon would be the perfect excuse to take a trip. The problem was, we didn’t like the idea of spending thousands of dollars just to take a couple weeks off (not to mention interrupting Steven’s teaching schedule to do it).
After working so hard to save every spare dollar and invest in the stock market, we wanted to take a break that wouldn’t break the bank. So we put our honeymoon on hold until after the school year, and we looked at some creative solutions for an extended vacation to fully relax and recharge ourselves. That’s when we decided to move to Hawaii for a six-month honeymoon.
Why did you choose Hawaii for your initial sabbatical, and what preparations did you have to make for the trip?
Moving to Hawaii was a pretty off-the-cuff decision. We had never been there before, but we had seen pictures and heard about how beautiful it was. That was enough for us.
Other than our countdown calendar, we didn’t do too much to prepare. We both gave advance notice at our jobs that we’d be moving away, and we sold most of our furniture before leaving. Whatever remaining stuff we weren’t taking to Hawaii with us was stored in a spare room at Steven’s mom’s house. If we wouldn’t have had that option, we probably would have just gotten rid of those things too.
How did you manage to arrange to work remotely while you were away?
I approached my boss months in advance of our plans to chat about our upcoming move. Because they appreciated the work I did for them, they didn’t want to see me leave. That positive work history coupled with a positive attitude put me in a strong position at the negotiation table. And, because we were in a financial position to take our sabbatical no matter what they said, I was able to confidently tell them what I wanted.
Instead of being forced to quit altogether, we worked out a deal where I would do 5–10 hours per week remotely. My husband took on some tutoring clients, both locally and remotely. We also worked on our photography while in Hawaii, booking events and portraits every so often. It was enough to completely cover our living expenses there, even though it only amounted to about 10 hours per week per person.
“We used some of our time on the island to sharpen our skills that would allow us to qualify for new jobs with better salaries rather than go back to our old positions.”
Did you find it challenging to return to full-time work after the sabbatical in Hawaii?
While we really enjoyed not waking up to an alarm clock every day, we actually started looking forward to going back to work for a couple reasons. In Hawaii, we were working very little, and while we weren’t dipping into our savings, we weren’t adding to it either. We used some of our time on the island to sharpen our skills that would allow us to qualify for new jobs with better salaries rather than go back to our old positions.
When our six-month lease in Hawaii was up, we felt comfortable with our decision to move back to a low cost-of-living area and look for full-time employment. That ‘forced job hop’ actually helped us ramp up our savings since we continued to live on only a small portion of our new, larger incomes.
What inspired the idea to travel through US national parks for your second sabbatical?
After another few years working with our nose to the grindstone again, we started to feel that familiar burned-out feeling. We knew we wanted this second sabbatical to be at least as long as the first, since we knew six months was enough time to recharge our batteries.
As for our goal of visiting every national nark in the US? It was kind of a random decision. We’d been to a few parks in the past, and they were always beautifully breathtaking and well worth the visit. So we looked up how many there were, where they were, did a rough estimate in Google Maps, and said, “Let’s do it!”
By our calculations, we’d need a little longer than six months to visit every national park, so we again approached our employers with super advance notice. This time around, Steven’s company allowed him to take some of his responsibilities remote as a part-time freelancer. My company was not as flexible, so we simply parted ways. I ended up finding a couple of freelance clients for social media and marketing gigs along the journey later, though.
How did you balance remote work with being constantly on the move this time around?
Our work week basically inverted. We’d spend most of the week doing fun stuff or driving to our next destination, and then we’d hunker down in the nearest city en route to the next park for a day or two to work. Most commonly, we’d park ourselves at a Starbucks for the better part of the day, break for lunch, and post up somewhere else with wifi until we crossed off our to-do list for the week.
“Resume gaps are a myth – you’re still employable even if you take breaks or sabbaticals throughout your career.”
Did you approach your lives differently after returning from the US national parks adventure?
That inverted work week of five days of fun and two days of work really felt like a good pace for us personally, so when we got back from our trip, we tried to keep our lives on that schedule.
When we analysed our costs for the national parks trip after we returned, we realised that, rather than spending down our portfolio on the road, we had actually gotten richer while we were away. In fact, we had actually reached a bare-bones version of financial independence. That was a powerful step toward asking ourselves why we’d go hard at our careers and saving money again if we already had enough.
What have been the biggest lessons you have learned from your sabbaticals?
Our biggest goal in life has been achieving financial independence so that we have as many options as possible available to us. Taking those breaks taught us a few things along the way to that goal.
Resume gaps are a myth – you’re still employable even if you take breaks or sabbaticals throughout your career.
Every dollar saved makes you freer – having a cash buffer lets you take risks like asking your boss for a travel sabbatical or simply walking away from a job because you feel like it.
Careers don’t have to be life-long – in seeking financial independence, we were able to retire from full-time work decades early to pursue our own passions.
Have you developed any skills during your time away from work that have been useful in your professions?
Photography is the one hobby we enjoy together, and it’s also a side hustle for us. Every time we take a break, we still work on growing as artists and extending our network. It’s something we look at as fun, not work. But it also makes us money!
Taking time for any self-improvement helps make you more employable. Reading more books (especially if they’re applicable to your field), practicing fine skills (like photography or mechanics), learning a new software suite (like Google Sheets/Excel), and watching YouTube videos on something you’re passionate about (even if it isn’t work related) all make you a better and smarter version of yourself. And that makes you more employable too.
“If you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re better prepared at the negotiating table.”
What have been your career paths since the second sabbatical finished, and do you intend to balance work with more travel in the future?
While we consider ourselves retired from full-time work, we still put in a few hours a week on passion projects, like our blog Trip Of A Lifestyle, where we write about money and travel. Our blog coupled with a few flexible freelance gigs keeps us growing incidentally wealthier even as we feel like we’re retired. We still spend a lot of our free days travelling, even if it’s closer to home sometimes.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel sabbatical?
You should try to be in a position where you can propose your idea for a sabbatical without fear of consequence. For us, that meant having a money buffer in place and feeling comfortable walking away if we were denied our request. If you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re better prepared at the negotiating table.
That said, don’t burn any bridges. We’ve always left our employers on great terms, which has definitely helped in the way of references and recommendations later on. Again, being nice can go a long way.
Did you find Lauren and Steven’s story inspiring? You can read more career break inspiration in our interview series. To start planning your own timeout, see our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break. See our guide to workcations to find your own change of scenery for a working trip.
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