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Five months into her pregnancy, Karen Cordaway discovered that her mother was losing her battle with cancer. Plans for a brief maternity leave from teaching suddenly shifted to an immediate, unpaid one-year absence so she could be on call for her mom. Thanks to a big savings cushion and major budget cuts, Cordaway and her husband stayed afloat sans her salary. But the East Haven, Conn., couple depleted their emergency fund and dialed back their retirement savings. Cordaway has no regrets about taking that year off, but admits, “You don’t understand the magnitude of the decision until you go through the experience.”

In fact, Met Life found that for someone over 50 who leaves work temporarily to care for a loved one, the average lifetime setback is $303,880, including lost wages and retirement benefits. Should you need to lean out, keep damage to a minimum with these moves:

1. Avoid Red Ink

Start living on one salary as soon as you foresee quitting, says David Bach, vice chairman at Edelman Finan­cial Services. Meanwhile, bank your paychecks to help build a cushion before resigning. If you must leave suddenly, quickly retool your budget by setting aside funds for essential expenses first. “The three most important are housing, health, and food,” says New York financial planner Stacy Francis. Pare other costs to fit into what’s left over.

2. Get Help From the Government

You might not need to quit, depen­ding on how much time off you require. The Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers at companies with 50 or more employees who have certain family circumstances unpaid but protected leave for 12 weeks. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island residents may also benefit from paid family leave laws in their states. Must quit? A “compelling personal reason”—like caring for a very sick relative—may entitle you to unemployment insurance from your state. Find your state’s benefits at

3. Reapply for Your Job

If you need to quit—but wish to return—make the case now for a comeback. And to leave your employer with goodwill toward you, try to give more than two weeks’ notice, says LinkedIn career expert Nicole Williams. Maybe even suggest a replacement. Also, “never let go of your network,” she says. “Maintaining relationships shows that you’re still involved in the industry. If a job opens down the line, they’ll be more open to recommending it to you.”

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