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Taking a Gap Year at 50: One Couple’s Experience

They've downsized, minimalized and are ready to break free


From the moment my husband and I were married in 1987, we spent most of our time photographing life as it happened. So in 1994 — after he had lost three jobs due to downsizing and my government job was precarious — we figured: Why not turn our love of photography into a business?
 
We specialized in weddings and quickly built a site with thousands of our images online. Soon, brides and grooms flew us into remote locations and wild venues, all for that magical day in their lives when two become one. Once we had a toddler in tow, we brought our daughter along. And it worked … for a while.
 
When your young child says: “I want to join the soccer team” and “Why can’t I go to my friend’s birthday party on Saturday?” things change. So we changed. Instead of traveling for weddings every weekend, we created a coaching business to help other photographers with their marketing and sales strategies. We also bought a house in a Denver suburb and settled into a nice, normal lifestyle.
 
(MORE: Taking a ‘Gap Year’ in Midlife)
 
But deep inside, our need and desire for travel and adventure never let go.
 
The years flew by and in 2011, we found ourselves attending college fairs. At one, a small table caught our eye. It wasn’t very busy and the woman behind it welcomed us over.
 
“Have you ever thought about a gap year?” she asked, looking at our daughter, thinking she might like a year off between high school and college. With glassy eyes, our daughter shoved the brochure into her bag and moved on to the next table.
 
But my husband and I stared longingly into each other’s eyes. A gap year? The idea took hold, not with our daughter, but with us.
 
What would we do with a year away from our old lives? At the age of 50, how would this impact our future? What would we do with a year where we could have new experiences in a new place? What would we discover about ourselves?
 
(MORE: 4 Ways to Change Careers In Midlife)

We knew we wouldn’t leave until our daughter was safely tucked away into her college campus life. But we also knew that facing an empty nest would be difficult for us. What if we used our new freedom to discover who we truly are and what we wanted for the rest of our lives? 
 
Then we started asking ourselves five key questions and took action on each:
 
1. What really mattered most to us? We’d always enjoyed experiences more than anything. Our house was nice, but we realized we’d happily trade it in for less yard work and home maintenance and more time to travel and discover new places and things.
 
So in 2012, we sold our 3,300-square-foot home and traded it in for an 1,100-square-foot apartment a mile away, while our daughter finished her last year in high school.
 
2. What did we really need? When you reduce your living space by two-thirds, you quickly discover that you have too much stuff. What’s more, when you really start looking at your stuff and making a mental evaluation of how much meaning each item truly has, you quickly discover that you have very little attachment to most of it.
 
So we minimalized, simplified, and quickly sold or donated most of our belongings. What we held onto was what meant the most to us.
 
3. What really made us happy? When my husband and I looked at everything we’d accomplished and all we had, we decided that three things were integral to our happiness: our relationships, the places we traveled to and the experiences we had.
 
So we quickly decided that our gap year had to help grow and nurture all three.
 
4. What should we do and where? Too much opportunity can sometimes be worse than no opportunity at all. That’s how we felt as we tried to narrow down our gap year destination and what we’d do once we got there.
 
After determining that slow travel was best for us, we chose to rent a home in the Pacific Northwest to use as our base while we’d travel into Canada and down the seaboard into California.  
 
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5. How would we finance it? Our savings could only go so far and we didn’t want to put them at risk.
 
So we started changing our lives in a variety of ways. First, we sold our photography business and banked the profits. Then, we set up an online business we could run from a laptop, which we’d learned while coaching photography clients. (We also knew our new digital skills could let us share our gap year experiences).
 
Now it’s September 2014, we’ve said our goodbyes to family and friends, and our gap year is becoming a reality.
 
We know our year will come to an end all too soon. And while we don’t have any definite plans for what will come after, we’re already looking at where we might move then. A different state? A different country? Only time will tell.
 
There’s a popular song that talks about the regrets the singer has from his first 30 years and how he’ll use those concepts to change in his next 30 years. We use that song as our guide, only with a twist. We’ve enjoyed so much and have come so far in our first 50 years, the question for us is: How can we apply our life lessons to make our next 50 the best?
 
If the first five decades are any indication, we’re about to start out on the adventure of our lives.

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