Not every high school grad wants to go straight into college or career training. For many, a gap year is the right choice because the last thing they want to do is hit the books—again!
The question is, how to afford one? Who has the money for an expensive program abroad and college, right? However, that’s not the best way to frame the question, says Julia Rogers, founder of Enroute Consulting. While it’s important to start the planning process with an understanding of your personal finance picture, it’s even more important to distinguish between how to pay for it and the potential big-picture return on investment that could reduce future education costs.
“What you discover about yourself and your interests on your gap year has direct implications for your higher education journey,” Rogers says. “Where you go to school, how much you’re spending on your education, or if you even need a 4-year degree.”
With the college debt crisis and student completion crisis, a gap year can be a crucial tool for the college journey and career clarity, she says. In other words, investing something up front can pay off on the back end with a more streamlined education path.
But don’t let “investment” derail you. A gap year doesn’t have to mean shelling out a bunch of cash. “I wholeheartedly believe any student can afford a gap year,” says Katherine Stievater, founder of Gap Year Solutions. “There are so many options that don’t cost a lot of money.”
But before you start planning the budget, you have to figure out what you want to do. Here’s what to consider.
Start With Transparent Conversations
Whether you’re the student mulling a gap year or the parent of gap-seeking student, start with transparent financial conversations, Rogers says. Selecting an all-inclusive gap program abroad can indeed be beyond reach for many families, but don’t write off international travel if that’s your goal.
Besides discussing finances and expectations of the student, the family discussion should address a student’s maturity (maybe don’t use that word with your kid)—in other words, where the student is starting from, Rogers says. Some youngsters are ready to work and save up to travel independently or head to another city for an internship, while others need a more supportive environment. Parents, think about whether your student has any struggles and what root causes might be, Rogers says. That can guide your gapper’s planning.
Explore Gap Goals and Options
Some experts say the best gap year experiences are structured with intentional learning with peers and mentors. Stievater likes to see students get out of their hometown, but a gap year can be anything you want it to be, she says. “Working with your budget is the priority and then understanding what you can do and where you can go within that budget,” she says. That could be working for a year, service work, an adventure job in another state or country, career exploration through an internship, or WWOOFing on an organic farm internationally or domestically. Sky’s the limit, really.
Once you figure out your goals, you can zero in on affordable options. For ideas, spend some time exploring Gap Year Association and Go Overseas. Don’t get bogged down by program potential costs. Use the sites to spur ideas. You can also spend some money up front for a consultant like Rogers or Stievater who can guide you to opportunities you might not have heard of.
Check Out Low-cost Gap Experiences
It’s common for gap students to finance part or all of their gap year themselves, Stievater says. A portion of the year can be devoted to working and saving for a shorter experience. But there are also year-long programs offering work and volunteer opportunities with housing that enable students to leave home with a less cushy bank account.
One way to give back domestically (and get your housing) is to sign up for Americorps, an organization that offers 10-12-month volunteer options, Rogers says. Under the Americorps umbrella, Americorps NCCC offers volunteering in communities around the country through local and national nonprofits. FEMA Corps gives students the experience of working in emergency management. Through City Year, students work in schools as student success coaches.
The Student Conservation Association offers opportunities to protect and rehab national parks, marine sanctuaries, and community greenspaces in any state. Also explore Service Year Alliance for more service opportunities in nonprofits and public organizations.
Similar to WWOOFing, you can find other labor exchange work for room and board or short-term adventure jobs through sites like Workaway and BackdoorJobs.com. Both Workaway and WWOOF allow you to vet the locations and hosts through online reviews. As a general rule, women will do better to avoid solo workstays in remote locations. “Look for transparent communication with a potential host, detailed profile listings, and positive recent reviews,” Rogers says.
All of these ideas take time to research, so don’t put it off. Structured programs, if that’s your thing, or internships may require applications by a certain deadline. International travel requires a passport and possibly visas. Meanwhile, you (the student) need to determine how much to save in advance. An adventure job or work exchange might be feasible without hefty financial planning.
Be sure to look for scholarships if you’re set on a more costly structured program. Some programs offer reduced fees or scholarships based on family income.
Start prioritizing savings by figuring out how to live cheaply (likely with parents). HerMoney’s new book How to Money offers tons of tips for young people about creating a budget and sticking to it.
Good luck! A gap year can be life-changing. Whatever you do, it’s going to pave the way for a more fulfilling educational experience when you go back to the books.
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