The following conversation was conducted over email and edited for flow and clarity.
Katrina McGhee is a Career Break and Sabbatical Coach. She helps professionals create and take successful career breaks. Because she works 100% remotely, she also lives a location-independent lifestyle (aka, she’s a digital nomad). In this interview, we are going to learn how she was able to pivot twice in her career and take a 20-month career break.
Acquania Escarne of Wealth Noir (WN): Katrina, thank you for joining me today. I am so excited to learn more about your life as a digital nomad. But before we hop into that, let’s talk about what you did before you became a coach. What job did you have after college?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: This surprises many people, but my first career was actually as a healthcare actuary! I graduated as a math major and had no idea what I would do next. The only obvious option was teaching, but that wasn’t for me. Luckily, I was recruited into actuarial science and explored that career and the healthcare industry for about eight years. I definitely learned a lot and became a spreadsheet ninja during this time, but, overall, I felt like this career choice didn’t fit me nor my personality.
WN: That’s a first for me. I don’t think I have ever spoken with a former actuary. What encouraged you to move on from that job and go back to get your MBA?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: Deciding to leave was a hard decision given the job security and great pay an actuarial career offered. But I needed something more people-centered and engaging. Nothing about what I was doing felt like it “fit” me and I was scared that I would wake up one day realizing I traded happiness for comfort. So I decided to search for a more interesting career via a full-time MBA. It seemed like a smart next step and one that would likely provide great job opportunities once I finished. Once I graduated from business school, I began a second career in market research at General Mills.
WN: That’s interesting. What were the pros and cons of going back to school?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: For me, going back to school was about widening the horizon of opportunity. I wanted to expand my life beyond the small window of healthcare, actuarial science, etc.
I went to business school with hopes of meeting new people, being inspired by new ideas and traveling abroad for the first time. And my business school experience delivered all of that and more. For me, the pros were pivoting my career path, meeting inspiring people with unique backgrounds and experiences, being exposed to new ideas and career options, interactions with successful companies, the ability to travel and study abroad three times and opening myself up to new and exciting possibilities.
As far as the cons go, the only downside for me was the cost. I loved everything about business school and I was fortunate to receive a Consortium Fellowship, which covered the full cost of my tuition. So I left my MBA program with approximately $60,000 in loans.
WN: Loans are always a downside to getting an education if you ask me. Before we started chatting, you told me you were able to pay off over $40,000 in debt in a few months? How were you able to do that? Can you share any of your debt pay off tips?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: That’s a great question! So, I actually underwent a big transformation in how I approached, managed and saved money when I started saving for a career break. It was about a year after I started at General Mills when I realized that corporate culture wasn’t for me. I decided to take a year off and travel the world and had to save $38,000 as fast as possible to make that happen.
I managed to save $40,000 in just 18 months and the new thoughts and habits I adopted during that process served me well beyond my 20-month career break. When I returned, I decided my new number one goal was to become debt-free as fast as possible. So I returned to corporate, in market research, and managed to pay off the last $42,0000 in MBA loans in just 21 months. And that includes taking a $20,000 pay cut halfway through for a new job that seemed more interesting!
As far as tips go, I’d say the best place to start is building judgement-free awareness. Track EVERYTHING that you spend and what you spend it on for one to two months. Don’t judge yourself or make yourself feel bad for purchases, just observe. When I did this, I learned that I was spending $700 a month on groceries as a single person. That was surprising but it meant I had an easy next step for making better decisions–reducing my grocery bill. One of my most random hacks was using my Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) to pay off the last $25k in loans. My HELOC had a much lower interest rate than my student loan provider and the interest on the HELOC was tax-deductible. This meant I paid that final sum off much faster.
WN: Wow, that is an impressive debt payoff story. So let’s talk about your business and life after your career break. How or why did you make the decision to go into business for yourself?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: I actually got a life coach back in those early days at General Mills. I was feeling stuck and knew I wanted out of my corporate job but unsure of what I wanted to do instead. Our time together uncovered my desire for a break and to travel around the world instead of just finding another job or career.
So life coaching was something I put in the back of my mind for another day. Once I was in the final stretch of becoming debt-free, I knew the possibilities for what I could do next were endless. So I started a program to become a certified life coach. It wasn’t on my agenda to become a business owner or solopreneur. I actually was a bit terrified of that path.
But I wanted to do something that lit me up and felt like it better aligned with my natural gifts instead of skills I’d just developed over time. I started my business part-time and on the side of my corporate gig. About six months in, I found the courage to ask about going part-time at my job and they were kind enough to accommodate me. So I was four days on at my market research job and then officially one day, plus nights and weekends, with my business. Over time, I realized my goal of going full-time in my business and I’ve been navigating my way through the entrepreneurial journey and learning curve ever since.
WN: Ok let’s hop into the fun stuff. We started this interview by sharing how you are a digital nomad. For those readers that have no idea what that is, can you explain what is a digital nomad?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: Sure! A digital nomad is someone who is able to create income from any location they choose. So they are considered location independent and able to sustain their lifestyle without a consistent “home office” or permanent residence. For me, this works because I coach my clients virtually. So whether it’s via Zoom, phone calls or email, I’m able to conduct sessions remotely. Because my job doesn’t require a physical location or permanent residence, I’ve been able to travel and live abroad while working. At the beginning of 2020, I spent 5 weeks exploring Mexico. But I opted to head back to the United States to be with family during the lockdown and beginning of the global pandemic.
WN: That’s so cool. Do you socialize with a lot of other digital nomads? Are your lives fairly similar?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: That’s a great question. At first, I was more of a solo traveler and didn’t really interact much with other digital nomads. But that all changed when I discovered the Nomad Cruise. Last fall, I boarded a two-week cruise from Barcelona to Brazil with 300 other digital nomads. We had planned programming, social events and featured speakers and workshops. It was an amazing and unique experience. And through those 14 days at sea, I made many new nomad friends and connections. I found a large variation in how we live our nomadic lives. Some digital nomads have a homebase in their native country but spend three to six months traveling around. Others work contract jobs and spend their time traveling when not contracting. Another group has completely virtual businesses like me and hop from place to place as their whims carry them.
WN: That lifestyle sounds amazing and maybe doable for some of our readers. I can’t wait until we can get back to normal travel. I am curious, what are some of the coolest places you have visited and why?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: I love this question! So some definite highlights for me have been Cuba, Buenos Aires, Vietnam and France – all for different reasons.
Cuba was an amazing experience because of the sharp contrast in their day-to-day lives. I feel like I learned so much about their unique culture, their resilience as a country and the pros and cons of their government from my time there. While many countries overrun with tourism have sort of lost parts of their culture and personality, I didn’t find this to be the case with Cuba.
Buenos Aires is my happy place. I swear every time the plane is about to land at EZE, I feel a joy and light radiate within me. I’ve traveled there twice and both times I opted to rent an apartment in the city center for a month and just explore at a leisurely pace. I appreciate the culture, the architecture, the food scene, the affordability, their passion for ice cream and the festive and social nature of the locals.
For me, Vietnam was a huge surprise. At first, I was hesitant to go but, ultimately, my interest in their food won out. I went to Vietnam to eat. But I was blown away by the landscape, the food, the affordability, the scenery and the people. While some people struggle for a connection, I found the Vietnamese people I encountered to be quite friendly and interested in me as a tourist. I once was traveling alone on a bus from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh and had two girls offer to eat lunch with me during our food stop and ended up paying for my entire meal.
Lastly, France is always a place I’m happy to visit and explore, especially the Provence region in Southern France. Their passion for food is infectious and the quaint villages add to the very picturesque scene. I think Avignon is one of my favorite places in France and I found the people there to be much more approachable and social in general.
WN: Those all sound amazing. I see why you have so many places you remember fondly. How do you plan for your trips? Do you map out everything in advance or just buy a plane ticket and wing it?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: It’s a mix. When I started, I was sure to book the big tickets like the transcontinental flights beforehand to save money. I think your approach to planning is directly related to two things: your flexibility and your budget. If you have a lot of money, you can wing it. If you have a lot of flexibility in where you go and when you go, you can wing it. If you’re not super flexible with either one of these things, book in advance!
For my first career break, I booked the big flights ahead of time. I went from the United States to Colombia, Colombia to Argentina, Argentina to Spain. But the smaller travels, which were my intra-country or nearby country trips, I did more in the moment. Buses and trains make this a much cheaper and easier option.
For my second career break, I had a crazy amount of flexibility so I played most things by ear. I booked my ticket for the Nomad Cruise, which left from Barcelona in mid-November. I had no idea what I was going to do beforehand, I just knew I wanted to see more of Europe. So I flew standby to London and planned each stop just one to three days in advance. It was an amazing experience and one I highly recommend.
WN: Wow that’s amazing. OK, now please share more about your coaching business. How does running a successful business work with your lifestyle?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: Tools like Zoom, Google Fi, Marco Polo and Gmail make my business run smoothly, even during my travels. Sometimes I find a small degree of distance and anonymity helps my clients feel even more open and vulnerable in what they share with me. As for running my business, I have the wonderful support of a Virtual Assistant, which helps me stay on track and also outsource things that I need help with. The only requirement to successfully run my business is a laptop and good internet. And honestly, there have been times where I had neither and still made it work, although I wouldn’t recommend that.
WN: Thank you so much for sharing your story today. I just have one last question. Are there any exciting products or offerings you have coming up? Anything you are currently working on now?
Katrina McGhee of Katrina McGhee Coaching: For sure! It’s almost time to open the next round of my signature six-month program, Take the Break. It’s a 1:1 coaching experience that will make a successful career break or sabbatical inevitable. With a unique mix of email, 1:1 coaching and group sessions, the results from the first round have been phenomenal.
I managed to land five job offers in just five weeks after returning from my break, so I know firsthand how to create a break that also boosts your career potential once it’s over. I’ve just opened the waitlist for those who are interested, which means a special price and bonuses when the program doors open, so I’m really excited about it. You can email me directly to join the waitlist!
This is truly my passion project and I’m so excited to help people who feel stuck, bored or burned out reclaim their spark and take a wildly-successful break. For those who aren’t yet sure about the program, I recommend downloading the free Career Break Blueprint. We work through this Blueprint together during the program, in addition to other things, but downloading the Blueprint now means getting a sneak peek at the seven elements of a successful break and getting a better understanding of how the program works. For anyone considering or even just curious about taking a break, I highly recommend it!
WN: Guys I hope you check out Katrina’s website or follow her on Pinterest, LinkedIn and Instagram. Let us know if you want to take a break and are considering working with Katrina so she can help you on your journey.
Acquania Escarne is the creator of The Purpose of Money, a community of women building generational wealth for their families one dollar at a time. As an entrepreneur, real estate investor, and licensed insurance agent, Acquania has always been passionate about financial literacy. On her website, Acquania blogs about ways to help you improve your money habits, create wealth, and invest in real estate. Follow Acquania on social media for daily tips.