Balance Balancing Act: Meeting Life and Financial Goals

by Deborah Ziff Soriano | June 12, 2018

The knack to managing work deadlines, jam-packed family schedules and passion projects is a true balancing act.

But there is no end to the clever ways people pull it off.

Like Julie Schumacher, her husband, Brett Burwell and their 7-year-old daughter of Oak Park, IL, who embark on what they call a “working sabbatical” every summer to appease their personal wanderlust.

Julie, a freelance writer, and Brett, a web developer, are both self-employed, and have the flexibility to immerse their family in another culture during summer break. The months-long trips and “working sabbaticals” have taken them to Iceland; Washington, DC; Normandy; San Francisco; New Zealand and Vienna. This year, they’re heading to Cape Town, South Africa.

Julie and Brett talk about why their family has made travel a priority, and how they’ve juggled career and financial decisions to ensure that these big life-enhancing trips happen every year.

Defining a family mission statement

Julie: I’ve always had a deep desire to see as much of the world as possible: ancient cities, modern marvels, hidden corners and wide vistas. I want to see and do as much as I can, and Brett agrees.

The immersion into new cultures, new cuisines, new landscapes and new languages is something we really value. Now, as parents, we’re committed to giving our daughter a global education. As a family, you could say that our mission statement is to travel.

We set that mission statement into motion a few years ago. A friend offered up his apartment in San Francisco one year. A neighbor reached out about a family in New Zealand looking to do a house swap another year. After the third or fourth time, we started actively pursuing the trips and coming up with a plan and a process to carry them out.

Brett: These trips are massive shifts in the routines of our day-to-day lives. But after doing this for a handful of years, we’ve found that those shifts are a central part of what we enjoy and value so much about our time away. 

Julie Schumacher, her husband, Brett Burwell, and their 7-year-old daughter

Mapping out career and travel

Julie: By defining travel as a goal, it started to become the lens through which we made other financial decisions. We traded off taking career risks to get us to where we are now. Seeking greater flexibility, Brett went into business for himself as a front-end web developer. By the time I was ready to quit my job as a teacher and become a freelance copywriter, he already had an established business. As a result, we had the systems in place for writing proposals, invoicing, accounting and tracking workflow.

Making our own hours is a perk, but you buy into certain challenges. Uneven income is a reality as two independent contractors, so figuring out how to financially forecast and create consistent income is a must.

Brett: Our best defense against financial fluctuations was having a reasonably healthy personal savings account built up before we both went out on our own. It helped smooth out some of those undulations.

For work, I use a job tracking spreadsheet to help with financial forecasting — a simple but critical tool for running a durable business. It lets me know if I’m hitting monthly financial goals, gives me a sense of where things are trending for an upcoming quarter and also informs when I need to be more or less aggressive with seeking out new projects.

Julie: As for long-term planning, we work with a financial planner to help us map out things like retirement, since we don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. The biggest X factor is always health insurance. There have been years where we’ve had to be realistic and say, “If our health insurance costs double, that’s our sabbatical savings right there.”

By defining travel as a goal, it started to become the lens through which we made other financial decisions.
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Putting savings in ‘buckets’

Julie: We don’t feel like we’re making financial sacrifices for this lifestyle. For us, it’s about what we prioritize versus what we sacrifice. For example, we drive an older model car, but we’re not car people, so it’s not a sacrifice. To us, it’s just practical.

Brett: I’d say we’re both generally in tune with how much we’re spending and what we’re spending it on. We have all our accounts hooked up to a web-based personal finance service. Initially, I set up a monthly budget and was watching that closely for a stretch. It gave us a sense of what our actual monthly spending tended to be so we could use that information to set financial targets for our businesses.

Julie: As for the summer sabbatical, we set money aside in a separate bucket. Instead of putting 30% away for taxes, we put 40% away; and 10% goes straight to sabbatical. That’s the rule.

Brett: The bucket system we set up with our financial planner is a useful tool. It gives us structure for disciplined savings but also the flexibility to temporarily borrow from a bucket while one of us waits for a payment that might be delayed.

Each of our business accounts is hooked up to an “external” savings account entirely separate from our day-to-day savings/checking account. As soon as checks come in, we move 40 percent into that “external” account. It then gets subdivided into the “taxes" and “sabbatical" buckets.

Moving that money out of our business accounts immediately gives us a realistic view of how much money each business has on hand for monthly salary. Keeping it in a separate savings account provides a clear separation of our daily spending from our longer-term planning and tax obligations. 

We’re both generally in tune with how much we’re spending and what we’re spending it on.
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Making the sabbatical work

Julie: Thankfully, we’ve picked up some cost-cutting tricks along the way. For instance, a plane ticket to Cape Town for a weekend is the same cost as going for a month. Because we book longer trips, we have wiggle room as to when we arrive and depart. We can fly out on a Tuesday, if it’s cheaper. We can stay an extra day if it saves us extra money.

Also, we rent out our house while we’re away and use that money to pay for our housing on the road — almost like a one-to-one transfer. We learned that most places become more affordable the longer you stay. It’s economical for owners not to have to constantly turn over their place. If you rent for 28 days or more, the cancellation is more severe, but they offer significant discounts, upwards of 30 to 40%.

Brett: We’ve also picked up some tips for traveling with a young child. A well-researched and organized online map can be your best friend while traveling with a kiddo. It’s super useful to know where the closest playground, kid-centric tourist spot and ice cream shop is.

Embracing all the constraints

Julie: Our flexible work schedules and freedom to be remote is what enables us to take these amazing trips. Of course, we dream of the day we can take a real, deadline-free sabbatical, and since we’re with our daughter, that’s its own creative constraint — in the best possible way. We try to keep to her routine and tuck her into bed at a reasonable hour each night.

So we have the opportunity to work at night, and we take it. When we’re in Cape Town, we’ll work from around 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., which is noon to 6 p.m. (Central Standard Time).

Dining out is a small thing if you’re on a week-long vacation, but a month of eating out quickly adds up. Because we’re renting an apartment or house, we buy groceries and cook in. When we go on adventures, we pack a lunch. It’s a simple way to save but a smart one.

child on parent's shoulder holding rainbow flag

Brett: Going to the grocery store in a foreign country is one of my favorite activities. There’s something about sharing such a mundane and universal experience with the locals that provides a lovely sense of place. We definitely try to incorporate local ingredients, recipes and delicacies into our cooking where we can. Being able to bring those recipes or ingredients back is a fun way to carry home little bits of our trip.

Julie: Overall, these trips are the best and hardest thing to plan for. It’s this incredible experience that we have as a family. My daughter refers to herself as a traveler. She talks about trips that we’ve taken and gets excited about future travels. This is the best investment we can make in helping her discover a wider world and her place in it.

Brett: We come home from the trips feeling recharged, more deeply connected and packed full of wonderful memories. We’re a better, stronger, healthier little family as a result.

Deborah Ziff Soriano

spoke with Julie Schumacher and Brett Burwell to hear their story. Deborah’s latest balancing act involves two kids, a Labradoodle and a paddle board. Her work has been published in U.S. News & World Report, the Chicago Tribune and AAA Magazine.