Why Taking Unpaid Leave Was Worth It

Dreams, we all have them. Some are very big and audacious; others are impossible to ever comprehend (but still we dream). I have many of these kinds of dreams and I am always so scared, always asking myself if I’m not crazy to dream this big. Dreaming of being a Mandela Washington Fellow (MWF) was one such dream. I would daydream for hours on end, imagining receiving a call from the US Embassy in Lesotho. The conversation, emotions and excitement were so vivid it almost felt real. I would smile at the thought of boarding the plane from Moshoeshoe 1 International Airport and making my way to the United States of America. I would randomly break into a celebratory dance, energized by the idea of being away for 7 weeks, working with like-minded young Africans. This was a sweet dream and I was determined to make it a reality!

I wrote down this dream on the list of things I wanted to achieve in 2017, but as fate would have it, my application was unsuccessful. Disappointed and sad, I forced myself to keep this dream on the list of things I had to achieve (I mean the goal was not achieved, so erasing it was not right!). When the 2019 applications opened, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The possibility of being a Mandela Washington Fellow (MWF) excited me so much (despite my failed application previously) that I started thinking about how I would handle things at work should I be successful. I mean, it’s not every employer that would give you 7 weeks off work with full pay; so how would I deal with my monthly commitments should I be selected?

“If your dreams don’t scare you; they are not big enough” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

The only viable option was to take unpaid leave and this came with a lot of financial implications- I needed to have a plan. It was after submitting my application in October 2018 that I knew I needed to have a financial plan in place to provide for the unpaid leave I intended to take. Without wasting any time, I started calculating how much I would need to cover the 7 weeks away in the US- I have monthly insurance premiums, home and personal loan instalments, utilities, savings and investment debit orders. All these required me to provide for them because having a bad account record with unpaid debit orders and loan instalments in arrears is NOT a good look (and I was about to risk it). So the road and planning to unpaid leave was underway.

How did I do this?

Well, I’ve been working hard to increase my sources of income over the last few years and there was no better time than now to take full advantage of this.

Salary and bonus

Working for an asset management company (at the time) I was fortunate enough to receive a performance bonus in March 2019. Part of this bonus was allocated towards my unpaid leave. Making this sacrifice was very hard because I wanted to use this money for other projects. I also used my monthly savings to add to the unpaid leave pool. I cannot imagine how this would have been possible without a monthly salary (so I’m very appreciative of my monthly salary).

Additional income from part-time lecturing and MC’ing.

When people say increase your sources of income, I now appreciate why it’s important to do so. Every year, I do part- time lecturing (which takes up a lot of my time). The additional income, although not a lot however, helped me with closing the gap. I saved some of this income, adding to the unpaid leave pool which put ease on the financial strain. I also started monetizing my MC’ing skills which is great! Again this income is not much (yet…), but it contributed significantly to the plan. This experience taught me never take anything for granted.

Proceeds from ice sales

Although the side hustle is still very small, it helped me in a big way; every cent counts right? I was grateful of that M500.00 generated from selling ice, because it contributed towards one of the many debit orders I needed to provide for. I learnt never to underestimate how much those side hustles help! It’s in times like these that you will realise how much they contribute towards your goal, so having a side hustles is necessary!

Being away for 7 weeks on unpaid leave was hard, but I learnt just how important building an emergency fund is. The recommendation is to have 3-6 times your monthly expenses saved should anything happen. Had my emergency fund been intact, taking unpaid leave to participate in this amazing program wouldn’t have been hard; but because I didn’t have one- I needed a robust plan and needed it very fast.

Looking back, I have no regrets taking unpaid leave. The experience was worth so much more and I come back more energized, inspired and committed to making ALL of my dreams a reality. I also learnt so much more from this experience for example, the importance of saving for rainy days and having a solid savings plan in place. The next time I attempt anything like this, I will be prepared and ready! Yes, my new target is to have savings to cover me for 8-10 months (very audacious dream right here ).

So do your dreams scare you?

If they don’t then you aren’t dreaming BIG enough. But if they do scare you, do not be scared to take unpaid leave. Make sure you have enough savings in place, take the risk and follow your dreams!

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