Disclaimer: the information contained in this article is not intended to represent legal or financial advice. For specific questions about your financial or tax circumstances, consult with a financial advisor or tax attorney.
I recently returned from a short vacation to Las Vegas. I got on a plane and stayed in a hotel and everything. I didn't even take my computer along (more on that in a bit), although I did take my Smartphone and my tablet -- along with my camera, of course. I met a friend whom I've known for years and we had a wonderful time. We saw a kabuki show (neither of us is much for gambling), laughed over lunches and dinners, lounged by the pool (Las Vegas in August is hot!) and generally decompressed. And we each wholeheartedly agreed that we both had really, really needed the break. It was my first vacation in longer than I care to remember, but I've already resolved that I won't wait nearly so long before taking more time off. I'm putting a plan in place so that I can do just that. And so should you.
For the past several years I've been a regular contributing writer to a significant personal finance online publisher. It's not my only source of income by any means, but having that anchor along with one-off assignments from other clients has taken an edge off my freelance budget. I happened to mention to my editor that I had tentatively planned a brief getaway. Her immediate reaction was that of course I should go, and leave my computer behind. I'd get as much done as possible before I left, of course, but any lingering assignments could wait a few days until I returned to Chicago.
I'll admit that it felt strange packing my bags and putting my laptop aside. Those few days were the longest period I'd spent away from my computer in more than a decade. Even extended vacations in the past were of the working variety, and forgetting my computer would have been like forgetting my passport. But my friend had already informed me that she wasn't bringing her computer along, so that was that. I thought I would go into withdrawal. I did not. In fact, after the first day, I actually didn't miss not having my computer along. At all.
How long has it been since you've taken a vacation? If you have to hesitate before responding, it's been too long. But don't feel so bad -- you're typical of the workforce, at least if you're an American. We in the United States have fewer paid vacation days than nearly everyone in the developed world. And we don't even take all the time off that we're entitled to. According to a 2014 study, American workers gave up 52.4 billion dollars worth of paid time off in 2013. That translates to 169 million days of paid time off not taken -- the lowest figure for vacation days taken in the past 40 years. (http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/22/travel/u-s-workers-vacation-time/index.html)
It's easy to understand why so many workers leave vacation days on the table. During the height of the recession people were afraid to leave their desks or workstations unmanned for any length of time, lest there be a pink slip waiting when they returned. Even as the economy has begun to recover, workers are still understandably insecure about taking time off.
But what about you? If you're a freelancer, the only person tying you to a desk or a computer is you. Of course working as an independent writer means that you don't get a regular paycheck or designated time off. Income fluctuates and is frequently scarce. Believe me, I know -- it's one of the main reasons I skipped vacations for so many years. And if you're truly counting pennies, a vacation may seem like a wild extravagance.
But you must take time off anyway, even if you're convinced you can't afford it. You really can afford it. In fact, you can't afford not to take a vacation. Besides providing a much needed break, vacations can improve future income prospects. At this point you may be thinking, "How does she know I can afford a vacation? And how does spending money I don't have for a vacation improve my future income prospects? Is she kidding?"
I am not kidding.
One of the most potent tools to utilize to afford a vacation can be summed up in two words: lead time. My friend and I began planning our getaway several months in advance, giving us plenty of time to comparison-shop for hotels and flights, not to mention put aside spending money. When I began pricing tickets between Chicago and Las Vegas, I was getting quotes for $475 and up. Painful. By shopping around, I eventually found a round trip nonstop fare for a much more reasonable $320, including taxes and fees. (And no, I did not pay extra for my carry-on bag.)
Another tool that can bring a vacation into financial reach needs just two words: tax deduction. While I don't plan on claiming my most recent vacation as a deduction, I have done so for past trips. For instance, I spent nearly the entire month of August 2007 in Helsinki, Finland. As you might imagine, the trip was quite expensive. But while I was there, I participated in the Helsinki Summer School program, completing a university level certificate program on European urban development. As a result, I was able to claim much of the expense associated with the trip as a tax deduction.
Is there a conference or meeting related to your writing interests? If so, you may be able to deduct the price of your plane ticket, as well as the cost of your accommodations and incidentals for the days that you're engaged in the relevant activity. If you add extra days to your stay for sheer relaxation (and you really should do so if you can manage it), you cannot deduct any costs related to those additional days. If you plan to go that route, keeping good records -- including receipts -- is a must.
If you absolutely cannot leave town, you can still plan down-time. Set aside a block of time and become a tourist in your own town. If you can afford it, book a room in a nice local hotel. If not, clean up your living quarters and catch up on your laundry. Make dinner reservations in a good restaurant or book an appointment in a day spa Visit local museums, buy concert tickets or take day trips to a nearby amusement park. You get the idea.
I won't lie -- I almost always have to tighten my belt to make vacations happen. But I can also say that whenever I return from an out-of-town trip, I'm reminded of how amazing Chicago truly is. That's what vacations do.
There's something else vacations do: they inspire writing ideas. After returning from Helsinki, I wrote an article based on my trip that won third place in a worldwide contest administered by Transitions Abroad. I also wrote an extended guide for Helsinki published by an online expat portal for which I earned nearly $1,000. Not bad.
Since returning from my most recent trip, I have begun background research for projects related to Las Vegas and sustainable development. I've met with a prospective client who expressed enthusiasm for working with me. I've also begun drafting blog posts that I intend to leverage into presentations for conferences and seminars.
Most essential: leave your regular work aside, whether you leave town or not. If you're taking a working vacation, set aside some time strictly for relaxation. If you're attending a conference, you'll engage in those activities, of course, but leave some time to enjoy your surroundings.
If your vacation is designated solely for leisure like my trip to Las Vegas was, put your computer on ice. (Trust me, it won't hurt a bit.) You'll have your cell phone handy in case a genuine emergency arises. But it's imperative to put yourself in a different mind space during your time off. And you can't do that if you're checking your email sixteen times a day.
Long story short: unless you're facing imminent foreclosure or eviction or otherwise in extreme financial straits, you should make a vacation a financial priority. If affording a vacation means cutting back on things like the cable subscription or eating out, any sacrifices you make will be well worthwhile. Think of it as an investment, because that's precisely what it is. Taking time off is an investment in your mental and physical well being. And who knows -- your vacation might even enhance your bank account. Mine certainly have.