Being the selfish person I am, the first thing I thought when I saw that the Swedish furniture store IKEA was having a contest offering a one-year sabbatical and $100,000 to advance a project that improves the lives of others, was "Cool, I could really kick back for a year and do a lot of deep thinking for $100,000. That would really improve my life."
A sabbatical is supposed to be a year of rest and used to acquire new skills or training, as teachers often do every seven years. I'm not a teacher, but a year off from being underemployed and having to work at my many part-time jobs after being laid off as a journalist two years ago sounds great. I could use a $100,000 sabbatical. It's the year of helping others that throws me.
If a sabbatical is truly supposed to be a year off to acquire new skills or training, shouldn't the person on the sabbatical get the training? You mean I have to share? Is that how they do it in Scandinavia?
One person will win $100,000 and a three-day trip to a spa in Arizona that includes a treatment and an hour-long session with a life coach (It's true, look it up in the contest rules, No. 7). The Arizona trip increases the retail value of the prize to $128,000. After taxes and a personal cut for taking a year off from work, the prize amount drops to $18,000 to help mankind, but we'll get to that later.
The rules of the contest, which has an entry deadline of Nov. 8, make it clear from the start in rule No. 1 that the winning essay must tell how the contestant would improve the lives of others over the next year: "Identify a specific project or program you would work with and how you, as an individual, could positively impact and improve the lives of others," the rules say. And give a brief budget outlining how you'd spend the $100,000 prize money. It can be to help mankind, animal welfare, the environment or any other good cause to improve life -- just not solely your own.
There's no getting around it: The winner must help others with their prize money and can't take a year off to enjoy whatever $100,000 will buy without having to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket.
There's one loophole for greedy people -- up to half of the prize money can help offset the winner's living expenses if they take a year off from work to volunteer and/or work on the project they come up with. The winner doesn't have to take an actual sabbatical or leave of absence from work. They could just volunteer on weekends while working their regular day job. But if they take a year off from work, they could get up to $50,000 from the contest. The rest of the money could be donated to a program you're working with, such as a homeless shelter, as long as you are an active participant in the project for a year.
Another thing to keep in mind -- and there's no escaping this -- is that the winner is responsible for paying taxes. This isn't the Virginia Lottery, where the winner takes home $100,000 tax free because the gross amount of the jackpot is $140,850, with $40,850 going to pay taxes.
The median U.S. household income is $50,303, and a federal tax rate of 25% on the $128,000 full retail value of the prize would equate to $32,000. Subtract that from the $100,000 in cash, and that leaves the winner with $68,000. The $68,000 you're left with is a few thousand dollars short of the amount needed to buy happiness -- but still a good chunk of cash until you take $50,000 of it while taking a year off from work, leaving $18,000 to help mankind.
That's $18,000 the winner didn't have before to help people, so it's still a gain for some organization. But considering that IKEA is spending up to $100 million on its new ad campaign for the year in calling itself "The Life Improvement Store," the $18,000 to help a group from "The Life Improvement Project" looks less like a sabbatical to help others by volunteering and more like a working vacation.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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