Why Are You Not Using All Your Vacation Days?

Hi, yes, you. Did you run out of vacation days last year? No? What’s wrong?

As Americans, we’re doing a piss-poor job of vacationing. Are you an American? You might be part of the problem. Americans left 169 million paid vacation days on the table in 2014. The average American gets about 10 paid days off per year, plus six federal holidays, which is 16 days per year. Four out of 10 of us used zero of those days last year. This is bullshit.

Allow me, for a quick second, to explain the concept of paid vacation, if for some reason your employer has done a poor job of it: This is time you get paid to not work. Like your employer actually pays you money—the same amount you would be paid to come into the office for 8 hours—to stay out of the office for a day. Or several consecutive days.

The President of the United States takes vacations. So do air traffic controllers, and emergency room doctors, who arguably have really, really important jobs. I’m not saying your job isn’t as important as their jobs, but I think you could afford to take advantage of those paid vacation days.

Bah, you say, I can’t leave my job. There’s too much going on right now. Hold on there. Are you calling all of your co-workers incompetent meatheads? That’s what it sounds like. You’re saying they can’t handle it without you, that things would fall apart in your absence. Stop being a jerk. They obviously haven’t sunk the ship yet. You can put it on cruise control for a few days and let them steer a little bit. Especially if you were the one who hired them—if you think they can’t handle it for a few days, you obviously did a terrible job of hiring solid team members.

According to surveys, if you are in management, you very likely part of the problem because you make your employees feel like they can’t take a day off. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? You know that Bob, in a typical day at his desk, is only working about 60 percent of the day anyway, when he’s not looking at Facebook, eating lunch, or sitting in meetings listening to all your amazing ideas. You might as well encourage him to take a week or two off, so on that Monday he comes back into the office, he’ll actually be productive because so much stuff backed up while he was gone.

My dad works his ass off: 65 hours a week for going on 41 years. He works six days a week, and usually a couple hours on Sundays, managing a team of 15 people. He is a model of a hardworking American. And he took 42 days of vacation last year. 42 days! That’s 100 percent of his paid vacation. He understands math, and if he has a vacation day, he takes it, whether it’s going to ride his bike for a week in Vermont or just hitting a little white ball around the golf course near his house. He is batting 1.000 on vacation, practicing for retirement next year, which is the Ultimate Vacation.

Vacations are expensive, you say. You can’t afford to take all that time, travel all that distance, hotel rooms, rental cars, meals at restaurants, blah blah blah.

Here’s a revelation: You can use vacation days on something other than “a vacation.” You can take a day off, get a sandwich, and go sit on a park bench and read a paperback and watch people jog by. And GET PAID TO DO IT. Total cost: $0, unless you include the sandwich, but you shouldn’t, because you would eat lunch whether you were working or not. You could also take five days off in a row, drive your car to a campsite somewhere with a few hours of your house, and spend a week walking around in nature and staring at campfires instead of your e-mail. And that doesn’t cost much—especially when you consider your company is paying you to sit there and not read e-mails.

So do your part, this year, to keep this country from becoming The United States of Sucking at Taking Vacations.


18 replies on “Why Are You Not Using All Your Vacation Days?

  • Jake

    I’d recommend a burrito instead of a sandwich, but that’s just me…even if you had a burrito hat trick, you are still only looking at ~$20 for the day- not bad.

    This post resonates with me completely. The other thing I love about Americans is that Bob is literally watching the clock at work (it’s like Bill Murray in What About Bob “baby steps to 4’oclock…baby steps to 4’oclock…”) until it hits 5pm and then he’s out of there like a dog on the scent. The problem is that Bob wasn’t doing shit for the last hour (at least) while at work and was just sitting at his desk so his coworkers don’t think he’s a lazy slacker. The other problem is that it clogs the roads if everyone leaves at the same time.

    To that I say: Fuck that. With smartphones we are all constantly working incessantly from the moment we wake in the morning (several of the first emails I send each day are while butt-naked from the coziness of my bed) until we shut our eyes to the poisonous blue glow of our smartphones in bed.

    Though it doesn’t work for all jobs, the concept of a ROWE (Results Oriented Work Environment) is fantastic. Netflix was one of the earlier pioneers of this concept, and it goes like this: Get your work done. If you want to work nocturnally and sleep all day- fine. If you want to work 45 hours on, and then take 45 hours off- fine. Just get your work done, communicate with your manager and get it done however best suits you and your lifestyle.

    Now go get out in nature!

    • Dan

      This works really well for some jobs and not for others. Banker tellers, servers, or really anything service (and not product) oriented and tends not to work so well. Many jobs require that you’re available to help other people during specific hours and so they can’t choose to just duck out for half a day and work the rest at midnight… but that’s pretty obvious. Otherwise, yes, I agree, it’s a great concept if folks are responsible and take pride in their work. If they don’t, it shows pretty quickly and you can show them the door.

      However, in all cases, it’s critical folks take their vacation days for both the reasons you and the author state. Absolutely on-board with that.

  • Karen Handsfield

    Yes, yes, and yes. (Types the woman who has had to work off negative vacation day balances *twice* in the past seven years.)

  • Pitt

    I have been thinking about time off lately. Specifically how to get more. I always run out so I am doing my part. Food for thought, I read that if you spend an average of 10 minutes a day going poop in a office bathroom, that adds up to 40 hours a year. That is an entire week of paid pooping a year.

  • Matt Viara

    I work a job that is flexible. I go in to early to get out early and can work from home if it’s more convenient. I can get even get away with eeking out a few “extra days” of vacation as long as my work is done. I really don’t enjoy my job but having that type of flexibility is a huge upside. At least I’m not killing myself and my relationships to work 60+ hours a week.

    Down side of all that flexibility is the pay isn’t as much as I’d like to make. To counteract that we’ve set our life up as best as we can to make it feasible. My wife and I are of the same mind set which is a huge help. We bought a small house. Drive 10+ year old cars with 100k+ miles on them. Shop at consignment stores. Grow our own veggies. Pick up “free” stuff on the side of the road and religiously peruse Craigslist. Do all the work on the house ourselves, which eats up some of spare time, but is so rewarding. It’s not the easiest way to live but we have autonomy and are engaged in things that matter as opposed to working like dogs just to pay it all out for goods and services while withering away at work.

    Those choices also make the 3-4 day long weekend vacations a lot easier. Living in Maine doesn’t hurt, but that was a choice too. The hardest part is not getting insecure about not “going for it” career wise. Seeing what other people have on social media makes us doubt our choices sometimes. In the end though, we’re happy to have what we have and to feel lucky.

  • Megan

    I wish there was some national bank of vacation (like a sick bank) and everyone who isn’t using their vacation could put it in the bank and those of us who use up all our paid time off would use their vacation for them.

    I miss BCM’s 4 weeks of vacation! Sigh…

    Oh, and I also think ROWE and unlimited time off are the way to get the best from your employees. If you get your work done in 10 hours/week and meet your goals, props to you. Go home and get outside!

  • Velosopher

    I’ve never had a problem with taking time off; more like the opposite. Got myself into some deep debt doing what I wanted to in my 20s and 30s. Then went back to the grind to balance the books. Last year, I jumped ship from an abusive non-profit corporation and went private practice as a therapist. It can be stressful, but the payoffs are large. Among them is *mornings off.* I still ride at least 4 times a week, albeit briefly sometimes. Vacations are harder—I don’t get paid if I don’t work—but my wife and I took three nights in a nearby state park last week, and five days in wild Southern Utah in the spring, so I must be doing something right!

  • Ben

    Because it’s hard to advance in my industry if you take a lot of vacation days. You’re never told you can’t take them – the opposite in fact – but, after a few years, you realize being gone for more than two or three days labels you as a slacker. It’s not the worst thing in the world as I don’t punch a clock or have to be in the office from 9-5, but you can’t completely unplug for more than a day or two without negative consequence.

  • Jen

    YES. I have never understood why people don’t take their paid vacation days. Aren’t paid vacation days part of the point of having an actual office job where you get things like paid vacation days? And I like the suggestion above that there should be a vacation day bank!

  • Brian McGloin

    If one is really astute, they will use their time in the cube to plan a vacation. I did that when I was a poorly-paid contractor on an Air Force base (the drama and whining from those swine, oh dear … ) I used my not-very-productive “working” time to read everything I could about Burning Man and figure out how to make it work.

    I was paid (poorly) to plan it and I was paid (poorly) to go.

    Americans are overworked and underpaid. I think it’s a fear of losing the job that keeps people from going anywhere, or the thought it has to be an epic sitcom-style “family vacation.”

    When I lived in Connecticut, I used to take day trips to Rhode Island or spend days at the beach or on the Appalachian Trail.

  • Rachel @ Betty LIVIN

    I have a workaholic sister who rarely takes vacations and will go into work sick because she thinks her branch can’t operate without her for a day. I am always telling her “you are not a doctor- your work can wait!” I’m the opposite. I sued all my vacation days up by May this year- oops!

  • Sirene

    As a full-time employee (LMT) who gets no paid sick leave, holidays or vacation, I just might beat the next person I meet who doesn’t use his/her paid vacation.

  • Jay Long

    Great essay. Paid time off is a beautiful thing; many take it for granted. Staring at campfires sounds fairly awesome about right now.

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