Home » I quit my dream job at 32 and spent $34,000 to travel the world—here are my 4 biggest regrets

I quit my dream job at 32 and spent $34,000 to travel the world—here are my 4 biggest regrets

I was 28 years old when I landed my dream video producer job at CNBC. I would throw off the covers every morning, excited to dive into the work I felt I was born to do. I flew through the days, but often woke up in the dead of the night with a creeping sense of dread. 

I imagined time racing by at warp speed until I suddenly woke up at age 80, regretting that I lived to work, instead of working to live. After all, I’d spent most of my adult life focused on the future. Burned out and chronically anxious, I’d lost my ability to live in the present. 

So I quit my job at 32, bought a one-way ticket to Peru, and spent a year and a half — and $34,000 — exploring 18 countries across South America and Asia. Every day was a “choose your own adventure,” involving choices good and bad. I learned lessons the hard way about balancing preparation, productivity and play. 

Here are the regrets that taught me when to prioritize happiness in the moment, and when to sacrifice it for a better future. 

1. I worried about money so much, I missed out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences

When I landed in Rio De Janeiro in December 2022, I immediately didn’t want to be there. I wished I were still in Buenos Aires, celebrating Argentina’s World Cup victory in the streets with my friends.

Instead, I sat alone in my Airbnb watching Instagram Stories with a pit in my stomach, because I’d booked my flight from Argentina to Brazil weeks in advance, for fear of prices going up. 

As soon as I arrived in Rio, I booked the cheapest flight to Bogotá, Colombia. That meant I left Brazil on my birthday, three days before Rio’s famous New Year’s festivities, and watched my new friends partying lavishly via Instagram Stories while alone in my hotel.

I was so obsessed with planning ahead to feel in control that I missed out on major life experiences.

Helen Zhao

From that point on, I kept plans open-ended, allowing new connections and discoveries to determine how long I wanted to stay. Now I start each day with a loose vision for what I’d like to accomplish and flexibility to pivot in response to the unexpected. I learned to live my life guided by joy rather than anxiety.

2. I spent a lot of my life savings, delaying other goals

The $34,000 I spent on my sabbatical was a significant portion of my life savings. Now, at 34, I have very little saved for retirement, I’m far from a down payment on a house in my hometown of Los Angeles, and I’m not ready to have kids.

While I don’t regret my sabbatical or even how much I spent on it, I do regret that a lack of preparation in my young adulthood landed me in the position of having to choose between personal fulfillment and financial security.

By the time I graduated from UCLA, I could decode Shakespeare but had no idea how to pay my bills. I spent much of my 20s either unemployed or working low-wage internships, and suffered anxiety and burnout trying to catch up.

Had I studied personal finance and started saving, investing and career planning in high school, I believe I could’ve taken my sabbatical without significantly delaying other life goals. 

3. I stopped investing completely

I began investing in stocks in 2020, exuberant as the market hit one high after another. But after the market declined in 2022 and I lost all my gains, I was scared to lose more. 

I stopped contributing to my Roth IRA and my brokerage account as soon as I quit my job in August 2022, and missed out on an opportunity to build wealth.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Helen Zhao

Siem Reap, Cambodia

I wish I’d continued investing throughout my travels, putting $200 each month into a large-cap index fund. I could have afforded it, since I had enough savings left over after my sabbatical. But to ease my fears of running out of money, I also could have spent less on nice restaurants, clothing, daily lattes and cocktails.

4. I was careless with my belongings

At the lowest moment of my trip, I was crying hysterically on the side of a busy road in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Two minutes earlier, I’d been walking through a touristy area with my phone in my back pocket, lost in the music I was listening to, feeling carefree and on top of the world. 

Suddenly, I felt a hand reach into my pocket and snatch my two-month-old iPhone 13. The culprit fled on a motorbike and chasing it proved futile. I broke down, feeling helpless, alone and scared without my phone in a foreign country. I lost all my photos. The next day, I paid nearly $800 for a new phone.

I lost my belongings on more than one occasion, and it cost me a lot of money, time and energy. While I was meticulous about my to-do lists and flights, I was sometimes careless in other contexts.

The mistakes I made while traveling taught me when to let go, but also when to be more in control.

Helen Zhao is a former video producer and writer at CNBC. Before joining CNBC as a news associate, she covered residential real estate for the LA Business Journal. She’s a California native and a proud USC Trojan and UCLA Bruin. 

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