I'm lucky I decided not to take a gap year in 2008. Here's my advice for students considering taking one in 2020.

© Courtesy of Cheryl Rodewig   The author during a trip to Paris in 2010. Courtesy of Cheryl Rodewig

By Cheryl Rodewig, Business Insider

  • Cheryl Rodewig is a travel writer and digital marketing strategist.
  • She graduated from college a year early in May 2007 and was considering taking a gap year to travel, but soon decided against it and found a job.
  • When the financial crisis hit a year later, Rodewig saw many of her fellow graduates struggling to find work, and realized how lucky she'd been to not put off beginning her career.
  • If you're considering taking a gap year after high school or college due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodewig recommends doing a 'worst-case scenario analysis,' and finding a way to make and save money.

You never know what small decisions will have a lasting impact on your life.

I finished college a year ahead of my classmates. Thanks to a few summer courses and a couple credits from high school, I was able to move my graduation date up from May 2008 to May 2007. I figured an early graduation would allow me to start my career that much sooner, although I had only the haziest idea what that career might be. It would also give me time to travel.


My passion for travel began with study abroad

© Courtesy of Cheryl Rodewig   Rodewig with fellow international students and friends studying abroad in France during college. Courtesy of Cheryl Rodewig

During my senior year of college, I signed up to spend a semester in Le Mans, just two hours from Paris. For four months, I immersed myself in a new culture, spoke another language, met students from around the globe, and explored landmarks across Europe. I fell in love with all of it, I was hooked.

Trying to figure out how I could travel more after graduation, I flirted with the idea of taking an English teaching gig in Micronesia for the upcoming academic year. It would be another culture to discover, the cost of living was lower, and I could put my English degree to some use while figuring out what to do next.

I didn't think of it as a gap year. While the idea of taking a break before or after college has been around for decades, it's gained popularity in the US more recently, as this Google Trends chart illustrates. (That spike in May 2016 was when Malia Obama announced she'd be taking a gap year.)

But whatever you call it, I finally decided against spending a year abroad before getting down to business. There were other life factors at play. My bank account, after three years of sporadic part-time work, was hardly overflowing. My fiancĂ© meanwhile, found a job in Georgia — the state, not the country. So much for world travel.


Turns out, I'm incredibly fortunate I didn't take that gap year

I got a job in journalism that summer, just months before the bottom fell out of the economy with the global financial crisis. I saw updates from friends on Facebook who graduated in the spring of 2008. Many listed Etsy shops or multi-level marketing positions as their current employment while they searched for something more permanent. Others moved back with their parents temporarily to make ends meet.

It felt like glimpsing an alternate future of what might have been had I taken that year off. My first job out of college didn't pay much, but it did allow me to build some savings that would eventually turn into my first emergency fund.


Just because it's risky doesn't mean you shouldn't do it — you should just understand the risks

Odds are, if you take a gap year, you won't come back to an economy trundling through a recession of historic proportions. But you might.

And if you did, would you still be able to secure the extra work you might need to pay your way through college? If you've already graduated, will it affect your ability to get established in your field?

We already know that those who joined the workforce during or shortly after the 2008 recession had lower earnings relative to other groups, effectively stunting their lifetime wage growth. It's just one example of a small twist of circumstances that can have far-reaching effects.

Consider, too, that the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over. We don't know how things will shake out when it comes to the economy, health concerns, or border closures. Now might not be the safest time for an international trip.


Weigh the long-term versus short-term tradeoffs

Delayed gratification is often touted as superior. The famous marshmallow psychology experiment in the 1970s, even if it's been mostly debunked, quintessentially sums up one of the main questions of life: Would you rather have one marshmallow now or two later?

Waiting for two isn't always the wiser choice. If you put off your gap year till you're 65, you might not be able to go at all. You could have health issues. Family obligations could tie you down. Micronesia could be under water.

On the other hand, if you invest the money you would spend on a gap year now, you could easily have thousands more later, thanks to the magic of compound interest. Being more financially secure can afford the opportunity for other life-broadening experiences down the road, whether that's travel, charity work, starting your own business, or something else.


My advice: Do a worst-case scenario analysis

Think about what you would do if you couldn't find work when you finished your gap year, or what would happen if you had to cut your trip short for some reason. How would your plans change? How could you adapt?

People often assume they can pick up a part-time job if they need to, but in a down market, more workers are unemployed, making competition for any job that much fiercer.

If you're set on a gap year, I recommend creating an emergency fund. Choose a minimum balance on your bank account that you're comfortable with, preferably enough to see you through three to six months of expenses when you get back. Then don't dip into that money during your gap year, no matter how tempting it may be to spend it on souvenirs, drinks with friends, or that hot air balloon ride above the city.

© Courtesy of Cheryl Rodewig   The author visiting the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy, on a vacation in 2015. Courtesy of Cheryl Rodewig

Personally, I'm glad I didn't take a gap year. As an older adult, I've been able to revisit and rediscover more of the places I loved, such as the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. My husband and I have also traveled extensively together, including earlier this year when we lived in the south of France for a short time. And even when things went terribly wrong — due to a global pandemic no one predicted — we still had the financial safety net to land on our feet. It's hard to understate how essential that has been.

It's easy to romanticize a yearlong escape when you're 20, but I've found that experiences later in life can be just as rewarding, maybe even more so. Be kind to your future self. There are adventures yet to come.

See more at: Business Insider

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