Turning a Creative Sabbatical Into Your Career - Dalia Katan
This week we have Dalia who shares her story of building a "career" out of pursuing her creative passions through passive and active income sources.
Occupation: CEO at Presently, Freelance Strategy Consultant
Salary Range: $10-12K a month during the months she freelances while bootstrapping her startup; doesn't freelance each month out of the year
Location: Los Angeles
Student Loans/Debts: N/A
Monthly Expenses: $1700 - $2400 - Rent, Food, Adobe, Bonsai, iCloud, Spotify Premium, Zapier, Miscellaneous Startup Costs / Subscriptions
Tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to college and when did you graduate? What has the overarching path of your career looked like thus far?
I was born and raised in Queens, NY to two immigrant parents under a very multicultural roof - we had four languages spoken in the house at any given moment! I studied international affairs and entrepreneurship at Princeton and graduated in 2015. My career has been defined by two interwoven paths: design and impact.
I actually started working quite young! I built a graphic design company at age 13 that grew to over 4 million annual users and also interned each summer in high school with my local Congressman. The skills I learned during these experiences definitely helped me stand out in future roles.
Fast forward to college: my internships included leading marketing at a tech startup after a month-long summer exchange program, working as a private wealth management intern at UBS, and interning as a consultant at IBM GBS. I also held a few different campus jobs.
After graduation, I decided to take a role with Deloitte, joining their strategy consulting practice in NYC. I had the choice of a deferred start date (more on that later!) and began working in January 2016. At the end of my first year, I transferred to San Francisco permanently when I was offered an innovation fellowship in Deloitte’s SF office. There, I combined my passions for design and impact when I kickstarted the expansion of Deloitte’s innovation practice to the West Coast and simultaneously secured a $450K grant to start a refugee inclusion program.
However, working on your passions doesn’t exclude you from burning out. Although I loved my work and my colleagues, pouring my whole heart into my work led me to burn out after three years. I left Deloitte to embark on a creative sabbatical, aiming to redesign my life around curiosity and creativity.
One of the many side projects that emerged from my creative sabbatical became the startup I now run. I’m currently the founder and CEO of Presently, a fintech startup that makes it easy for friends and family to collaborate on a single group gift for any special occasion. I also started doing some freelance strategy consulting during my creative sabbatical, advising companies on growth and brand strategy. I still manage 2-3 clients at any given point as I bootstrap my startup.
Tell me a bit more about your sabbatical.
I took a gap year after graduation, and a creative sabbatical after Deloitte - you’ll see why they’re different!
My gap ‘year’: My start class at Deloitte was lucky to have an 8-month gap before starting, along with half of our $10,000 signing bonus to fund our adventures. This time was a great reset for me, as well as an opportunity to try a bunch of new things. I volunteered for two nonprofits in Israel, traveled Southeast Asia and Europe, worked for a fun tech startup in NYC, and by month 6 of 8, I -- for the first time in my 21 years -- ran out of things to do, and learned to just chill out and do nothing. It was during this time that I started to realize the relationship between boredom and creativity and began to really appreciate what it means to live fully.
My creative sabbatical: Human-centered design teaches us to navigate the world with empathy and experimentation; to question everything, listen deeply, and be unafraid to try new things. I quit Deloitte almost two years ago and started my second sabbatical, which I called a creative sabbatical. Applying the same principles of human-centered design to my own life, I wanted to find out: what would happen if I design my life around my curiosity? And, how might one find a financially sustainable way of living a life that looks like that? This creative sabbatical was defined by three different chapters: first, time to reset, reflect, and reconnect with my intuition. Second, time to celebrate play and the pure love of learning. Third, building a financially sustainable alternative model for life.
What made this sabbatical different from the gap year is that my gap year had clear goals based on what I thought one ‘should’ do with their time, while the goals of sabbatical were defined only by different mindsets for growth and desire to create a sandbox of time to explore. So, I let curiosity take the wheel, and from that time emerged a ton of projects and learning opportunities, which you can read all about here. I believe strongly that humans aren’t made to live only during their “time off” or dedicate their “time on” to a single job. I was (and still am) intent on finding different forms of active and passive income that would allow me, and others, to still live as ‘humanly’ as possible - regardless of their interests, background, or privilege.
A ton of stuff to unpack here, let's start with the first time you thought about personal finances for yourself? Was it in college while getting an education or was it when you started your first job?
I've always been taught to save, especially coming from an immigrant family, but getting my first credit card right before college was when I really started to think about personal finance as more than just saving or spending. I began reading blogs like The Points Guy and NerdWallet to learn about different credit card bonuses and point structures, and how to be a little bit more intentional about how I spend my money for the most cash back return.
During one of my college internships, I created my first spending budget, which was a spreadsheet with how much money I was making, all of my necessary expenses, and how I’d need to spend to either break even or save that summer.
How did you spend and save smartly in college?
I am grateful that my parents could help me pay for tuition and food while in college - it’s definitely a privilege. For any spending outside of tuition, I made sure that was money that I earned myself. I worked a few campus jobs throughout my four years that would give me the income I needed to support any additional expenses, like books or clothing.
Was financial security something that you were thinking about when you were choosing your first job?
Yes, which is why I made sure to negotiate each of my offers, but I ended up not taking the best offer. Google, for example, offered me a bigger total package when including stock options, and were receptive to negotiating. The recruiter at Deloitte applauded me for negotiating as a woman (apparently not enough women do that as compared to men!) but they did not negotiate entry-level offers.
While salary was important, I decided that the broad experience I would gain at Deloitte and the ability to be close to family was more important. In the spirit of transparency, Deloitte’s offer at $72,500 and a $10,000 signing bonus was still a great starting point and made me feel financially secure.
What does your financial system look like now? Do you track your expenses?
I don’t have a regular financial system now, but rather a mentality and general guidelines that I refine every 6 months or so. This mentality and the guidelines were based on those that I defined at the start of my creative sabbatical, and have grown with me over the last two years. This system prioritizes knowing generally how much I’m earning and spending each month, realistic guidelines around spend in key categories (based in life decisions like how often I eat out versus cook at home), and practices around self-care.
What did your financial system look like during your creative sabbatical?
Before I left Deloitte and entered my creative sabbatical, I knew it would be important for me to have a plan to understand how much money I wanted to save, what expenses I’d have to scale down before and after leaving, and how much runway I would have based on my projected spend and savings. Essentially, I was trying to answer two question: (1) When would I be financially ready to leave? (2) How much time would I have to figure out how to financially sustain myself outside of a full-time role before I’d have to start looking another job?
My savings: After Deloitte, I had $5K in my checking account, $10K in an HYSA, and $75K in my brokerage account (I saved nearly a year’s worth of salary after three years). I thought of them as three different categories of spend, parallel to three different chapters of my sabbatical. My checking account, Category 1, was a free for all: I gave myself full permission to self-care for about 2-3 months with that money to reset, reflect, and reconnect with my intuition after three intense years of consulting. I can’t stress enough how important dedicated self-care time is!
Category 2 was the $10,000 in my HYSA, which synced up with the chapter dedicated to exploration and experimentation. This unrestricted time for ‘play’ would allow me to follow my newly-replenished curiosity and see what activities brought me joy. My hypothesis was that some of those activities that brought me joy would also naturally present opportunities for income. My only ‘rule’ was that once I got through half of this fund I would need to try bringing in some income, perhaps from some of my newfound hobbies and activities. I estimated that this category would give me 4-5 months of runway.
Category 3 was the $75,000 set aside in my brokerage account. I would have had to dip into those savings if I used up Category 2, which was a boundary I didn’t want to cross. If I reached that point, I told myself I’d need to find a sustainable source of income - i.e., find a job. Fortunately, I haven't had to take from these savings, as the various income streams I built-in chapter two have helped me earn back the money I spent during my creative sabbatical, leaving me financially up from when I started.
Here’s how I tracked my financial system:
My budget tracker (pictured below): First, I made a list of all my anticipated monthly expenses - such as rent, food, transportation, shopping, etc. In parallel, I made a list of my savings in different accounts. Then, I created a 12-month timeline in Excel - the columns were months and the rows were various spend/earn calculations. The first row of that table was how much income I was making that month (some odd jobs here and there at the beginning of my sabbatical, like research surveys or tutoring, and later on my freelance income). The second row was the sum of my monthly spending (my expenses estimates from step 1 + any one-off expenses that month). All one-off expenses were tracked underneath the table under the respective month with credits listed as negative expenses, for example: purchasing a flight (+$200 in expenses) or receiving cash for my birthday (-$200 in expenses). The third row was a cumulative tracker of my spending month to month so I could tell how much I was spending year-to-date.s
I also had several rows to calculate the growth of my savings and my runway. The first savings row was assuming a 0% growth of my savings. The savings with interest assumed that my savings would grow 1-2% monthly, which was conservative since the stock market grew at a higher rate, but it was helpful to take a conservative estimate.
How I used this: I used it at the beginning of my creative sabbatical to calculate my runway and set personal objectives for life decisions around food, travel, etc. For six months, I’d check in every month to add in any additional monthly expenses and see how I was tracking toward Category 1/2 spend. After six months, I started making income and I felt it was time to re-evaluate those personal objectives. I also felt like I had a good pulse on how I was faring with those objectives after seeing my spending over those six months, so instead of continuing to use this tracker, I started internalizing the objectives and calculations.
Was there a percentage you were trying to target with your spending?
There wasn't necessarily a percentage that I was trying to stay at. I wasn’t tracking my spending by the dollar; instead, I set guidelines for myself.
When it came to food, for example, I felt comfortable eating out 3-4 times a week (especially so I could still do fun things with friends!), but wanted to cook the remainder of my meals at home. When it came to transportation, I felt comfortable taking four UberX’s a week but wanted to either walk (after all, I had all the time in the world!), take public transport, or take an UberPool for the remainder.
Dalia’s calculation for her Uber budget (2 x $10 uberXs a week, 10 x $4 UberPools a week, x4 weeks in a month)
Dalia’s calculation for her Food budget (First two sets are weekdays, where I assume a $2 breakfast, $5 lunch, and $10 dinner 4 days a week (which assumes I’m cooking); one weekday a week with a $2 breakfast, $15 lunch (eat out) and $25 dinner (eat out). The last two are weekends, I assumed I was eating dinners out with friends so it would be a bit more pricey. x4 weeks in a month. This helped me gauge a general spend for food.)
I trusted myself to stay in those guidelines on average, so I only tracked expenses that were out of the ordinary. This way I could enjoy my day-to-day without being overly concerned about spending, but still trusted that I was within the runway that I’d given myself. I was also tracking the money I was making so I could see the percentage change of my savings, and see if I was spending more than I was making and vice versa.
Have you had to make any big lifestyle changes since working at Deloitte?
I definitely walk a lot more! When I was still living in San Francisco, I was walking 3-6 miles almost every day purely because I had the luxury of time - I didn’t have anywhere I had to be and could take the slow path rather than paying for convenience. I also cook more at home because eating out is not financially sustainable (I also don’t drink, which saves me a ton on average).
I also play a lot more - I’ve picked up so many fun projects, some one-time, and some that I still do to this day. I’m also a lot more comfortable with boredom and try to cultivate it in my day-to-day as I see myself working more creatively as a result.
On the flip side, in my first year after Deloitte, I wasn’t spending enough on things that brought me joy, like concerts or trips, which was a huge shame! I was depriving myself of a lot of great creative energy and inspiration and would have prioritized that more in retrospect.
That’s a big lesson I learned around that time: you can't live by the same budget your whole life. At some point, you need to stop and reevaluate how your financial situation changed, what are the new guidelines you want to live by, what are the things that bring you the most joy, etc. If I lived the rest of my life like I did the first six months - well, I wouldn’t be very happy, and wouldn’t be giving myself enough self-care.
So one thing I caution against is forever living on the same budget and forgetting to reevaluate your goals as your life situation changes.
Have there been any big challenges or mistakes made you would caution against?
It's important to note that all of the life and financial advice that I'm giving is in the context of someone who wants to redesign their life and find financial independence. It's different from the advice I’d give to someone who is prioritizing stability, or working a full-time job to support a family.
Having an accountability buddy is really important, especially if you're going to do the non-traditional life path. Someone who can check in on you, instead of you always having to be the one to reach out. When you're not in a formal environment where you have a manager or peers to do a monthly check-in with, you don't always have the chance to have someone listen to your own reflections or even force you to reflect. It was also helpful to have someone make sure I was on track with what I set up as the important values for myself.
Giving myself permission to spend on myself was another lesson. We talk a lot about budgeting and saving and being financially responsible but we don't talk a lot about spending on the things that bring us joy.
I eventually also realized I had to reassess my budget more frequently, as my financial situation was changing, and the tight lifestyle I was living wasn’t sustainable (or necessary) for long.
By the way, we should be spending on things not only because they bring us joy, but also because that's how the economy stays afloat. As soon as I started earning money again through freelancing during my creative sabbatical, I found myself wanted to pass it forward and support other freelancers and business owners.
Is there a right or wrong way to go after passive income?
People think passive income means they don't have to do any work. All income sources require effort, it's just about finding the work that doesn't feel like work. So whether you're building an app that takes 100 hours to build but then becomes passive income or whether you're writing articles that become passive income later on, you're still doing the hours of work to set it up. It's about finding the thing that resonates with you with the skills you have and the things that you enjoy.
The second part is there is no one size fits all. You have to explore all the different options (I think about this in terms of five categories of passive income) and find the one that feels most fun to you because what works for someone else might not work for you.
What financial decisions are you considering for the future?
I've been freelancing for almost 18 months, on and off. I've stopped taking new clients for the time being because I've earned back enough in this time that I'd like to re-carve out space and time to explore other projects - coming back to my creative sabbatical life design.
I'd also love to buy a house or invest in some kind of property that I could turn into an Airbnb. I'm still figuring out how much saved up is enough for the down payment, whether I can qualify for a mortgage without consistent income, or if it even makes sense for me to invest in such a long-term investment vehicle.
I just moved to L.A. recently, so I'm thinking about buying a car since I need one here so I'm thinking about what the best decision for that is - and whether I can monetize it when it’s not in use through an app like Getaround. (Update: not possible during COVID!)
If you could give a piece of like actionable advice for college students to do today whether that's especially kind of centered around like their personal finance journey, what would it be?
Be intentional with how, when, and where you spend your money. That can be translated in a number of ways. It could mean spending on the things that bring you joy and prioritizing those things. It could mean setting guidelines on how often you cook vs. eat out because all those are great savings opportunities. It could also mean choosing to spend intentionally on small businesses vs the Amazons of the world.
What credit cards do you own and why did you get those ones?
Chase Sapphire Reserve - Go-to for everything due to 1.5x point redemption - 3% cashback on travel and food
Discover It Card - One of my first cards, no fees, keeping it around for my credit score
Chase Freedom - 5% cashback on rotating categories
Chase Freedom Unlimited - 3% cashback on the first $3,000 you spend, will cancel this in the second year
These Chase cards are great because you can transfer all that over for the Ultimate Rewards point.
Chase Debit Card
United Explorer Mileage Plus Card - Was about to make a $3,000 vacation purchase so I got this one because of their bonuses.
What tools/apps/services do you use to manage your money?
Chase - Checking Account (Category 1 of Savings) and 3 Credit Cards
Wealthfront - High Yield Savings Account (Category 2 of Savings)
Robinhood - Brokerage (Category 3 of Savings)
Airtable and Excel to manage my budgeting sheets, CRM, etc.
Wave Apps for Bookkeeping
Bonsai for invoicing and contracts for freelancing
Zapier automates my life - from managing subscriptions on my newsletter to the backend of my startup.
Resources you recommend?
Check out Dalia's website! Daliakatan.com
Check out Presently Presently.fun
Motley Fool for which stocks to invest in.
Most personal finance blogs only share stories of the people who have it all under control, save 50% of their income, and retire early. While that is impressive, some of us want a career and some of us just need our almond matcha latte every morning. However, we all still face the same woes when it comes to managing our personal finances. MoneyStories is a series of interviews with young professionals and recent graduates sharing their stories on how they have and are navigating their personal finances.
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the interviewee, not the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee, or any other group or individual.