You Wouldn’t Work For Free, Right? So, Why Do You?

Do you often find yourself at the end of the year with unused vacation days? If so, then you are essentially working for free. According to CNN, 23% of workers surveyed said they used all of their vacation days in the previous 12 months. That means that 77% of people had unused vacation days! Also,…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: May 26, 2023

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you decide to make a purchase via my links, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. See my disclosure for more info.

You Wouldn't Work For Free, Right? So, Why Do You?Do you often find yourself at the end of the year with unused vacation days?

If so, then you are essentially working for free.

According to CNN, 23% of workers surveyed said they used all of their vacation days in the previous 12 months. That means that 77% of people had unused vacation days!

Also, this same survey showed that the average U.S. worker uses less than HALF of their paid days off.

So, I did some more research because I find this subject so interesting. According to CNBC, on average, American workers gave up around $604 in lost benefits by ending the year with unused vacation days and other paid time off.

I find this topic interesting because when I used to work for others, I would never use all of my paid vacation days.

I usually left at least a few days at the end of each year just because I was afraid that taking all of them would make it look like I either hated my job or that I was taking advantage of the company’s vacation policy.

In my mind, using every last paid vacation day made me look bad, like I was ungrateful.

The reality is that those days are yours, and if you aren’t using those days, you are essentially spending some portion of your time working for free.

How dumb was it of me to think like that, though?! I could have taken much more vacation time and probably would have been much happier at my job.

The above statistics are alarming when we consider that workers in the United States already work far more than the average person in many other countries around the globe. Coupled with the fact that workers in the U.S. typically receive fewer vacation days in the first place means this is something that needs to be changed.

If you’re anything like the average person, then you may be leaving unused vacation days on the table, and here’s why you should be taking all as much paid time off as possible:


You’ll be happier taking more vacation days.

According to a survey done by Project Time Off, your happiness is directly related to the amount of vacation time you take. Those who took more than 75% of vacation time reported a happiness rate of 61%.

Those who took less than 25% had a happiness rate of 39%.

Of course this makes sense.

There are so many reasons to take a vacation, and so many reasons for why a person may need a break from work.

Vacations, whether you stay at home or travel somewhere far, far away, can be a great thing.

Related: 12 Money Hacks That Will Help You Save More Money


You deserve the vacation time.

You were given the vacation days for a reason – they are a part of your compensation.

Companies have vacation policies because it is best for both the company and the employee to have time off from work.

By leaving unused vacation days, which are built into your pay, you are actually throwing money away since you are technically working for free on those days.

I recommend you add up how many days you are throwing away and how much you would have been paid on those days. That’s how much money you are throwing away each year!


You’ll perform better at work.

Those who take their vacation days are often more motivated, refreshed, and more creative after a vacation.

Your brain needs a break every now and then and some time off can help you do that.

This can help you to work better when you return, so it’s a win-win for both you and the company you work for.

Related article: How To Stay Motivated And Become Successful


You’re hurting your health by leaving unused vacation days.

By working all the time and leaving unused vacation days, you are hurting your health. You are more likely to be sick, have heart disease, be depressed, be unfit, and more.

Taking all of your vacation days can help improve your health, plus you can have fun, so why not start using all of your vacation days?


You don’t have to go broke taking time off.

One reason many workers give for why they don’t take all of their vacation days is because they don’t think they can afford to go anywhere.

Well, whoever said that you had to go somewhere when you take a vacation day?! There is no weird vacation policy rule that says you must leave your city in order to take your vacation days.

Instead of spending a ton of money, you could take a staycation instead by enjoying the city you live in or just staying at home to relax. There is nothing wrong with that.

Honestly, you can even use your vacation days to take care of things you need to do around your house, work on a side hustle, or more.

Or, you could churn credit cards so that you can go on very cheap vacations (you must read How To Take A 10 Day Trip To Hawaii For $22.40 – Flights & Accommodations Included for more information).

Related article: Here’s How To Save Thousands For Your Next Vacation


Here’s how to start using all of your days.

Let’s make 2018 the year where you use all of your paid days off – no more unused vacation days at the end of the year! After all, it may help you to alleviate some of your stress, do better at work, and more.

If you want to start using those unused vacation days, here’s how you can start:

Be strategic. If you are like any normal human, you probably want to be strategic about your time off. You most likely won’t want to use all of your vacation days in January, as then you wouldn’t be able to take any other days off for the rest of the year. If your paid days off also include your sick days, then being strategic can be extremely important because you may want to save some paid days for later in the year. I usually recommend leaving just a few days for the end of the year and scheduling them for November or December. What I used to do is leave just a few days for the end of the year, and take every Friday off. I also threw in some half days towards the end of the year. But, I still didn’t use all of my paid days because I was afraid it would make me look bad!

Take a personal day. You don’t actually need to go on vacation in order to use a paid day off. Surprisingly, many people think that they can only use vacation days for an actual vacation. Instead, you may just want to take a day off and just relax. Or, maybe you just want to stay home the whole week and catch up on life. The half days and Fridays off that I mentioned in the previous bullet point were so that I could have more time for me. I would use the time to side hustle, relax, sleep in, and more.

Realize that there will always be work. One of the top reasons for leaving unused vacation days is because many people feel that they literally cannot take a day off from work. They feel that work will just pile up while they are gone, and that time off may not feel worth it once they come back to work. If that’s the case, then you may need to seek help from others at your company by having others cover for you when you are not there, trying to get tasks done before you leave, and so on. There will always be work, but it’s important to realize that you need a break too.

Remember that this is a part of your compensation. You wouldn’t let your boss keep a paycheck for a week that you worked, so why would you let them keep paid vacation days? If you have paid days off, then you should use all of them.

Have you left unused vacation days on the table? What’s your company’s vacation policy?

Filed under:

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

Like this article?

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Michelle, this is certainly an important topic. I am fortunate to work in an environment where it’s encouraged to use available vacation time, but I realize many are not.

    Taking a day or two off every now and then for projects, to help someone else out, to prepare for weekend visitors, or just for a change of pace, can be a huge blessing and stress reliever. And you’re right that days off don’t have to be big spending days.

    Great job of recognizing the mindset component, while also acknowledging real challenges in many workplace cultures!

  2. Couldn’t agree more Michelle, I think it’s insane that Americans leave so much time off on the table. I think a lot of folks don’t realize they’ll come back to work and be much more productive after a vacation, because they’re head needs to be cleared out!!

  3. Thanks for addressing this necessary paradigm shift.
    I treat vacation as an investment, I built up a nice nest egg, now I take about a day off per week.
    Still, I find my inner dialog telling me that taking vacation is a sign of lack of commitment, but I try to stay present enough to quell that thought.

    1. That’s a great way to think about it!

  4. Mr. Centsible

    Take a vacation to start/work on your blog side hustle!

  5. My situation is a little different because I technically don’t get “paid vacation days.”

    In my medical practice I “eat what I kill” which means as a radiologist I only get paid directly to the amount of studies I read.

    Early on in my career I focused too much on the money factor and rarely took any vacations at all. In fact there was a period of 2-3 years where I didn’t take any week off for vacation at all (I would have a period day off here and there, but that was it).

    I soon came to realize that this was very detrimental to my life. By not taking vacation I was accelerating my burnout (which I did indeed begin to feel) and in the long run would cost me more money if I shortened my career because of it.

    Also the money I “saved” by not taking vacation was my least valuable dollars I earned since they came in at my highest marginal tax rate.

    Now I’m at that stage where I look forward to great trips and vacations (I finally crossed a week long stay at Bali off my bucket list for instance) etc and am a much happier person because of it.

    1. Wow, good job on realizing this!

  6. Happy Monday Michelle,

    It’s another blessed day in the bonus round of making healthy changes. And you posted another thought-provoking blog for aspiring and experienced marketers to think about. One thing I really like about you blog is you discuss down-to-earth topics with no holds barred. And working for free is something no one wants to do. But as we start our side hustles from humble beginnings, we have to bear in mind that we are actually working for free because working online has no guarantees of making money 24 hours a day and virtually no money is earned after launching a blogger website and promoting affiliate programs or ads on it.

    I never worked a job in my past corporate career where I had vacation time. If I would have known that then what I know today about affiliate marketing, blogging, and how to make myself a side hustle millionaire, I would have used vacation time if I had any to work on building up the content of my site and promoting affiliate programs back in the day. I would have been a millionaire for many years if I started back then using up vacation time from my job. But the good news is as we move forward, every day presents us a new opportunity to creatively think outside of the box as a side hustle entrepreneur by working for ourselves and putting ourselves in the driver’s seat to become side hustle millionaires and not work for free.

    To be honest, had I known back then also that I had vacation time built up, I would have taken advantage of it right away not to go on a vacation. My vacation would be sitting in front of the computer or somewhere talk the way alone on my smartphone riding lots and lots of content and working on my side hustle transformation from humble beginnings to side hustle millionaire. Like yourself, I don’t like working for other people. Reason because employers require you to get up in the morning whether you feel like it or not, come to work, and sometimes stay after your shift to work on work-related projects allegedly without extra pay. I’m totally against that because if I’m going to stay after my scheduled shift to work on a related project, I want to be paid overtime and more. I don’t work for free. This is why like yourself, I’m fixated on the internet side hustle and being 100% engaged in affiliate marketing and content marketing because there’s true freedom working for yourself as it’s virtually the second best feeling in the world.

    I definitely hear what you’re saying about leaving a few vacation days on your corporate records so it doesn’t look like you hate your job. I would have taken advantage of all of it regardless of what anyone thought. One thing I don’t care about today is what people think. What people think is irrelevant to me because they’re not helping me achieve retirement. What people think is not helping to strengthen my net worth. While I take time to hear what people have to say, though I don’t care what people think, I sometimes take what people say and do and build off of it in terms of strengthening my business. I may write some content based on what someone said and add my personal thoughts to it and publish it to the site as a means of using what people said to boost my long-term SEO.

    You weren’t dumb at the time to not take all of your vacation time and use it up for your satisfaction. I surely would have if I thought of it. But the good news is, we live and learn from our past experiences and grow from it in a way to make us richer beyond gaining another dollar. What you didn’t do in the past you may do in the future as those experiences will help you make better decisions. Am I right I say? Agree? 🙂

    Thanks for another thought-provoking blog Michelle. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  7. Travis

    I had a coworker retire at 65 with over 1,000 unused sick hours, which did NOT get paid out! It was approximately six months worth of paid time off that he let go to waste. Even our supervisor kept telling him to take days off so he could burn through those hours. Sadly, he was more interested in being at the office than being at home with his wife.

    I was a lot more strategic leading up to my “retirement” (at age 35). I took off almost every Friday for a year by burning all my sick time and some vacation time. “Mental health day” was a valid medical excuse for using a sick day. Since it was always better for my mental and physical health to be out on a bike ride or hike instead of sitting in a cubicle, I made good use of those days 🙂 I finished with only four hours of unused sick time, which was accrued on my final paycheck. And even those four unused hours annoyed me since they were lost compensation.

  8. ScottyB

    Not only do I see people not use all there vacation time. People actually work on a fixed salary and work a 50 work week. Giving away an extra 10 hours a week of their time for free. Then they still feel bad about cashing out all their vacation time. Crazy!

  9. I use ALL of my vacation days lo. Unless I am saving up for a longer break I make sure that they never roll over. It’s YOUR time. You earned it. Use it.

  10. I think that at times, especially when you’ve got a lot of vacation earned, like six weeks a year, that it isn’t important to try to squeeze it all in. I was climbing the corporate ladder and that paid off big time financially and in terms of job enjoyment and also let me retire early. Now I have 52 weeks a year of vacation and all the money I need to enjoy it. Plus as you move up in a corporation a good bit of your travel takes on the same feeling as vacation. You can take your spouse along with you and a lot of the work may be social in nature which is just as relaxing as heading to the beach.

  11. Me

    I work for a company that provides no vacation days, no sick days, and where we are paid commission ONLY for full-time hours. Any time that I take off is unpaid; any work that I do has no guarantee of pay. And the commissions are minimal. I don’t feel the least bit bad when I take time off (because I need it desperately), except to know that they didn’t value me, my experience and my labor enough to give me any benefits. And I’d feel a lot better if I knew my company valued me, even MINIMALLY, though–at this point–it will never ever be enough.

    I can’t fathom ANYONE not taking all of the PTO that is given to them. That’s part of the package. TAKE IT.

    1. I’m so sorry. I hope you find something better!

  12. Mkinmunny

    I’m fortunate enough to work at a company that allows us to roll over up to 5 PTO day a year and any left on top of that are payed out matching salary. I know this is an exception not the rule. It is nice to be able to roll a few days over and take a longer vacation the next year though.

  13. Kayla

    Hubby has worked at his job for over 10 years so he gets 200 hours of PTO each year. He usually ends up using about 3 weeks (120 hours) so the remainder builds up over time. He can carry over 1 year’s worth into the next calendar year and the rest gets paid back to him. He’s fortunate, because it seems like a win win to me. His job is also relatively flexible in that he can go in early or stay late if needed as long as he gets the job done. So he doesn’t necessarily need to use PTO for a random doctor visit or kids’ event at school.

  14. Jules from

    Hi Michelle,

    Great article! And very interesting… I can’t imagine NOT using any PTO as an employee, especially if it just “disappears” at the end of the year.

    But I also think this is an important topic for entrepreneurs — those of us who work for ourselves also need to take time off, for all the reasons listed above and more. But it’s so easy to just work-work-work and forget about the “play” parts of life. I’d love to see you cover the topic from this angle, as well!

    This is the first year I’ve set a system and schedule in place to take 2 months off from my business. I’ve never done anything close to that in previous years! Of course, it’s not all at once, and I will occasionally combine/extend work-related trips into fun mini-vacations, too. But it wasn’t always possible as I was first growing my business (or it didn’t feel possible, anyway!)

    I’m also curious about how you’ve worked in time off from your business!

    Thanks for always sharing insightful information!

    With gratitude,
    Jules Tillman

  15. Melody at

    I love this article Michelle! I am huge proponent of taking your vacation days. I have friends who don’t use any vacation days, and only take trips when their work pays to fly them out for a conference, etc. I’ve had people brag to me about how they have a month’s worth of PTO saved up (what there is to brag about, beats me).

    What I don’t understand is, these are people who do not like their jobs and are not exactly happy. I just want to tell them, “TAKE YOUR VACATION DAYS! You will be SO much happier!”

    I always use up my vacation days, saving just a few days for the end of year if I get sick or something. I’ve even had an employer call me out for using my sick days and my vacation days. Needless to say I was pretty upset, because I earned those days and I had every right to use them. I didn’t even use all my PTO up before I quit and he had to pay out my unused days! (He was a cheapskate so I think he just wasn’t happy he had to pay me for those days.)

    So to echo what you said Michelle, use those days because they are YOURS and you EARNED IT!! Don’t let anyone guilt trip you, including yourself 🙂

    I don’t feel bad one bit, I work my butt off for my PTO days!

    1. Yes, more people need to take their vacation days!

  16. Eddie

    I would sell my vacation days back to the company. Easy money. Till I found out how important those days off are. I used every vacation day I had after that. And a couple I didn’t have.

  17. Megan

    Love this! I am one of those people that are guilty of not taking enough vacation days but I KNOW it’s so important to take time off… even just to do nothing! I’m thankful to work for a company where our PTO rolls over each year but I just have to tell myself that I NEED the time off!

  18. The Curious Frugal

    It definitely seems like it’s coming from a place of fear, why people don’t use all their vacation days. We all need rest. Even the hardest working, most driven type As among us. So many European countries have it figured out in terms of minimum vacation weeks per year – I think we should have much more time off than we do in North America.

  19. Janita

    This is a great post! Infact, my husband was one of these people when I first met him. I never really understood why people wouldn’t want to use their vacation days! My situation is a little different, I don’t get a certain amount of vacation days, but I made sure I asked my manager to hold my vacation pay on each check so it would add up and I could take time off. I agree that it is very important for your health to take some time, even if you can’t travel.

  20. I use a decent amount of my days. I love to travel so I take time off every few months. I refuse to get to a burnout point. I have coworkers who have never used theirs. It’s a shame.

  21. Excellent post! My husband, Josh, uses every free day he can get. We’re always plotting our next getaway even if it’s just somewhere local, so we gladly take advantage of his vacation time!

    Since we’re so liberal with vacation days, it’s always shocking when Josh finds out that one of his coworkers has weeks or even months of vacation built up. We wonder why on earth anyone would want to work that much without taking some time off!

    1. Months built up is just crazy!

  22. Love this! I also tended to not use my vacation days when I worked a 9-to-5, and man do I regret it! Did you know that companies in other countries typically have longer vacation periods for their workers? It’s normal for them to be like “Take two weeks off, you deserve it!”, and it’s true, we do! Most people work so hard, so why not enjoy that vacation time?

    1. It’s crazy how much more we work here in the US!

  23. Jake Jones

    The best part of this article is that there will “always be more work”. I just recently got into the groove of limiting my work time unless there are dire circumstances. It can definitely be a difficult thing to do, but after you break out of the habit it is so rewarding.

  24. Anita

    In Germany the minimum amount of vacation days are 24 a year. And the maximum amount of working hours are 8 a day, in exceptional cases you can work up to 10 hours, but the overhours have to be gotten rid of during the next 6 months. Nobody would think of not taking their vacation days. The American working environment is unhealthy and misanthropical. (And beside, everybody, unemployed people, too, have healthcare that covers all.)

    1. Wow, that is interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Kris

    I never thought of it that way. I usually have two weeks worth of unused vacation leftover but luckily I can carry it over to the following year and if/when I quit from my company I can cash out all of my vacation days. But I should really consider taking more time off during the year. Thanks for this reminder Michelle!!

  26. AJ White

    To each’s own, I try to remember when judging why others do what they do.

    Personally, I’m very fortunate to have excellent PTO and can carry over quite a bit. I never have worked for free by losing time at the end of year but do carry over the max allowed without losing.

    We have separate sick and vacation time. The sick can accrue without loss from one year to the next. This is a huge insurance policy in case of long medical absences. Have an employee without a lot of time and what should have been a minor surgery took him out for over a month. Poor guy was unpaid for a few weeks. Can you imagine the stress of a serious illness and worrying about money??? That’s why I save my sick leave. In less than 2 years, I’m retiring and whole months worth of sick will be added to the pension computation. The vacation time will be paid out if I don’t take the time off. Am seriously thinking of “phasing” my time near the end working longer time time off rather than getting it paid. I can’t wait!!

    1. Sounds like a great benefit!

  27. Love this! I also tended to not use my vacation days when I worked a 9-to-5, and man do I regret it! Did you know that companies in other countries typically have longer vacation periods for their workers? It’s normal for them to be like “Take two weeks off, you deserve it!”, and it’s true, we do! Most people work so hard, so why not enjoy that vacation time!

  28. Alex Kent

    My friend has suggested your blog and I read your blog. There’s plenty of fine info on your article. I idolized reading it and that I assume individuals can get plenty of facilitating from this text. I’ve got written this sort of articles, I believe you’ll get plenty of facilitating from this too. I hope you like my article, Users can get plenty of knowledge from this article. This can be an honest inspiration for your article. Best of luck your future articles.