The first thing you can do is find out what benefits are afforded to you under the law or your company’s policies.
In many cases you will encounter the Family and Medical Leave Act. This is a federal law that guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave during any 12-month period for an employee’s serious medical condition or to care for a parent, spouse or child.
Employees retain their benefits during this time. They are also entitled to return to their same or an equivalent job at the end.
There are caveats. FMLA applies only if you work at a public agency or company with 50 or more employees. You also must have been employed there at least a year and worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months before your leave.
Federal law does not require FMLA leave to be paid, but the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2013 Employee Benefits Survey found that 21 percent of organizations did offer paid family leave. Additionally, 26 percent of organizations offered family leave above FMLA’s requirements.
Some states also have employer requirements that go beyond FMLA’s terms.
Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at SHRM, points out that this means in some states employees can take time off to care for an aunt or other relative that may not be covered under federal law.
You should also investigate if you qualify for short-term disability pay or can use sick or vacation pay during your absence. Some companies also allow people to borrow ahead on vacation time that they haven’t earned yet.
It seems obvious, but setting money aside ahead of time can pay off later.
A number of experts, like Nancy Bearg, co-author of the book “Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break,” suggest creating a new account or slush fund that is dedicated solely for your time off.
Don’t touch this account until you are on leave. And as you lead up to your departure, take time to really consider your needs versus your wants and trim wherever possible to set aside extra cash.
One helpful hint is to ask yourself when you are looking at a discretionary item like a new pair of shoes, “Do I want this or would I rather have money for (your goal—Italy, the baby or extra time with my ill mother)?”
Again and again, experts cautioned against using retirement savings, because the penalties and tax consequences rarely make it worth it.
Cut costs wherever you can—cancel cable, club memberships or other recurring costs that you might not even use during leave. Sell extra items around the house for cash. And if possible, pay down debts beforehand so you have one less expense to manage, Bearg suggests.
Saving doesn’t stop there. You can cut expenses while you are out, too.
If you are on traveling during your leave, consider renting out your place to save on housing costs. Sell your car or store it, and adjust insurance accordingly to save.
Don’t forget to leave a cushion in your savings, in case the break is longer than expected or some other expense arises. Make sure to factor in the costs for continuing your health insurance into your budget as well.
While on leave, spend only on the things that matter most. You may also want to look into opportunities to make cash while you are out, if your job allows. This could include babysitting another child if you are already home with your own or teaching English overseas if you are traveling.
Taxes may be the last thing on your mind, but there are some benefits to consider.
Some employers offer flexible spending accounts, which allow employees to put cash aside pre-tax to help cover medical costs. Tapping this could help lower your costs.
There are similar accounts you can set up for dependent care costs, such as for elder care or childcare. This may help ease some of the sting from expenses either during your leave or upon your return.
And if your living situation has dramatically changed, such as the addition of another dependent or major disability, you may want to speak to a tax professional about what expenses you can deduct on your taxes in the future.