A Guide to Quitting Your Job

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Everyone, sometime or another, dreams of quitting. For millions, the fantasy is real.

More than 4.5 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in November alone — the highest one-month total on record. Much of the turnover has been in hospitality, retail and other lower-wage jobs that have been particularly challenging during the pandemic. But the desire to move on — whether quietly or with a very public flourish — cuts across industries.

“Everyone was playing musical chairs and constantly in motion, and in 2020 the music stopped and people looked around and said: ‘How did I even get here? I didn’t even know I was playing this game,’” said Jess Wass, a career coach and consultant in New York. “They are coming to me more because they are miserable — they hit their breaking point and figure there must be another way.”

Switching jobs is usually a reliable way to secure a meaningful raise, more rewarding work or an improved work-life equilibrium, but rushing down that road could lead to poor decisions.

Consider this your guide to making an exit — gracefully — without leaving any money on the table.

Before you start mentally crafting a resignation letter, career coaches suggest starting with some questions: Ask yourself what’s motivating you to leave and what you think you need to thrive.

“What is the core essence you are looking to change?” said Gala Jackson, director of coaching and lead executive career coach at Ellevest, a financial management firm for women. “We know that when you are doing aligned work, or mission-focused work, and you feel honored and respected, you are more likely to stay in that role.”

A lot of people have merely absorbed what others’ visions of success look like, rather than their own, Ms. Wass said. She tells clients to evaluate several areas. Look at the work you do daily; what do you enjoy the most? Look at relationships with managers and colleagues, which play a significant role in job satisfaction. Are you using your strengths, which can make you feel more engaged and fulfilled? Is your work aligned with your values?

“We often do things based on expectations we have of ourselves and others have of us,” Ms. Wass said. “It’s really important to take a step back and ask yourself, ‘What is most important to me?’”

Sometimes those answers lead to an awakening — and a complete career change. Others find that their dissatisfaction can be remedied with a thoughtful conversation with the boss, including about pay.

“What is the core essence you are looking to change?” said Gala Jackson, director of coaching and lead executive career coach at Ellevest, a financial management firm for women.
Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

The safest route is to have another job lined up before you quit — and many people can’t do it any other way. But if you plan on jumping without knowing where you’ll land, you should start by figuring out how much it costs you to live.

Make a list of your nonnegotiable monthly expenses — mortgage, rent, food, utilities, insurance, car payments, other debt, child care — and a list of what you can do without. If you don’t already have an emergency fund, you should save at least three to six months’ worth of expenses. Even if your job search doesn’t take that long, that sum doesn’t account for costs you can’t anticipate.

If you own a home, applying for a home equity line of credit before you quit (and lose your pay stubs) can provide added security. “You may not need it, but it is a nice thing to fall back on for extra cash because it is much cheaper than drawing on credit cards,” said Laura Rotter, a financial planner in White Plains, N.Y.

A Roth individual retirement account can also act as backstop: Contributions, but not earnings, can be withdrawn without penalty.

Before you leave, be sure to use (or lose) the money you’ve set aside in your flexible spending accounts, whether for medical or dependent care expenses. Expenses must be incurred before you leave.

There’s good news for employees here, and it may surprise you: You’re entitled to the full health care F.S.A. amount you elected to set aside — even though the money is taken out of your paycheck over the course of the year. If you elected to set aside $2,000 for medical expenses but have had only $1,000 taken out of your checks by the time you leave, you can still spend the entire sum. And your employer can’t make you pay back the difference.

“An employer is stuck with the bill,” said Karen Burke, an adviser with the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, a trade organization.

Dependent care accounts are different: Employees can be reimbursed only for expenses up to the amount that has been deducted from their paychecks.

Health savings accounts, which are typically used in conjunction with high-deductible health plans, aren’t use-it-or-lose-it. That money is yours to keep even if you don’t spend it; the account isn’t tied to an employer.

“The account would stay put, and could still be used to reimburse or pay for qualified medical expenses,” said Frank Fiorille, vice president of risk, compliance and data analytics at Paychex. But you can’t make new contributions, unless you open a new high-deductible plan elsewhere.

Check to see how much vacation or other paid time off you have not yet used and may be owed, and whether it can still be used or paid out; that could help cushion your job search fund, if you’re creating one. Also be sure you know when other perks, including bonuses, may be paid out or become available, such as soon-to-be-vested stock options.

If you’re holding any stock options that allow you to buy shares at a discount, find out how long you have to cash them in after you leave, Ms. Rotter said, adding that it’s commonly three months from your last day. For any options that aren’t vested, however, you’ll probably be leaving money on the table.

If you’ve been putting off appointments, it may make sense to book them before you start over with a new deductible and possibly a new provider network. The next order of business is to find out when your coverage ends: It could be cut off on your last day, for example, or it may last for the rest of the month.

Then, review your options carefully. “Everyone needs their health coverage right now, more than ever,” said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you don’t expect to have employer-provided coverage for a while (or you’re going to be your own boss), there are a few possibilities. COBRA — a continuation of your employer’s plan, usually for up to 18 months — is costly because you’ll generally be picking up your employer’s share of the premium.

If you’re married or have a partner with access to an employer-provided plan, your loss of coverage generally should entitle you to a special enrollment period for your partner’s plan — whether your quitting ends coverage for one or both of you.

And then there’s coverage made available through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Compared with more robust employer-provided coverage, marketplace plans “are not what you are used to,” Ms. Pollitz said. “But there will definitely be something out there if you leave your job. ”

For the rest of the year, marketplace plans have enhanced subsidies, which means more people will qualify for cheaper coverage than they would have before a March 2021 stimulus package, sometimes for no premium. And if your income drops to less than 138 percent of the poverty level, you are likely to qualify for Medicaid in most states.

You’ll probably be giving up any insurance perks that came with the job, such as life or disability insurance.

Life insurance can be supplemented with a term policy, which is easier to do (or at least cheaper) when you’re younger and in good health. But disability coverage is usually much more expensive and harder to set up, and many people tend to go without it.

“Unfortunately when you leave, it goes away,” Ms. Burke of SHRM said. “With another employer, you start from scratch.”

Are you borrowing money from your 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan? You may have to pay it back quickly. Otherwise, the balance may be treated as a taxable distribution (with a 10 percent penalty, usually if you’re under 55).

Loan rules vary by plan: Some will require you to pay the loan back within 45 to 60 days, according to Fidelity, one of the largest plan administrators. Contact your plan administrator for specifics.

Don’t lose hope if you fail to pay it back on time, though. You can avoid taxes and penalties by instead putting the missing money into an I.R.A. This is technically a rollover, and is a good solution — as long as you do it by the time you file your tax return the next year.

If you don’t have any loans, you’ll still need to decide what to do with your retirement account. You may be permitted to keep the money in your old employer’s plan, though you will want to evaluate whether it’s worth rolling it over into an I.R.A. or a new employer’s plan. (Smaller balances, often under $5,000, may be sent directly to you instead.)

Two weeks’ notice is still common practice; the initial conversation should be with your direct manager. You’ll probably need to write resignation letters to your supervisor and human resources; there’s no obligation to provide a reason.

And you may be asked to leave right away, whether you’re going to a close competitor or not. So be prepared for that possibility well before you give notice.

It should go without saying, but leaving on a positive note keeps your options open, which is particularly important for people who are early in their careers. “You may need this job for future references,” Ms. Burke said, or “you may need to come back to them after you have grown.” Tempting as it may be to post an “I quit” video on Instagram or #QuitTok, save the feedback for your exit interview.

Career coaches also suggest putting together a transition memo about your responsibilities for your manager, which will garner good will with the former colleagues taking over your duties.

After you’ve alerted your manager and human resources about your plans, inform the people you’ve built relationships with, perhaps over coffee or lunch.

Ms. Jackson of Ellevest also suggests setting up chats with other senior leaders or colleagues you’ve always wanted to connect with before you leave. Those relationships “supersede the organizations we work for, especially if you are staying in the industry,” she said.

Perhaps most important: Take time for yourself.

After two years of pandemic disruptions, everyone is burned out. Give yourself a break between gigs, if you can afford to, career coaches said. Then you can begin your new job feeling refreshed, ready to do your best work.

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