Few moments in life are more exhilarating — and terrifying — than the day you quit your job to pursue something else, whether it’s your own business, full-time parenting, or a mini-retirement to travel the world.

A few months back, we wrote about Kevin O’Connell, founder of The Niche Movement, an organization devoted to helping young adults not just find jobs, but careers they love. His mission may be a tall order: For every 18-to-34 year old who dreams of a better job, many would be happy just to have a job.

As of 2013, the U.S. economy needed to add 4.1 million new entry- and early-level jobs to match pre-rescission employment levels, according to a report by public policy think tank Demos. They also forecast that America, at its current job growth rate, won’t reach full employment until 2022. Even then, workers under 25 will face unemployment rates double the national average. Right now, 45 percent of all unemployed Americans are young adults, some 5.6 million people in all.

So is it any wonder that someone who finds a job — especially if it’s lucrative — feels reluctant to leave the financial safety of such a “golden cage”?

In our interview with O’Connell we covered many of the existential questions you should ask before quitting your job to pursue a dream, but what about the cold, hard numbers? Does it ever make financial sense to quit your job, or should you just take a leap of faith and quit anyway? If you want to ensure you’re financially prepared before you quit, what should you do? How much money do you need to save?

Here are some thoughts.

1. You’ll need some savings; save at least six months’ expenses

Unless you have another source of income already in the bag (or you’re going to be relying on a partner’s income), quitting your job without some kid of safety net is a bit reckless. Consider six months’ of living expenses a comfortable minimum to put in the bank before you quit.

This figure holds true especially for those going the entrepreneurial route in high tech, as you can’t expect angel funding the moment you get your bright idea for an app or startup. And the sad fact is that just 26 percent of all Americans (one in four) have no emergency savings, a Bankrate.com poll reveals.

To avoid that situation you’ll want squirrel away six months financial padding, according to Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin, an executive coach psychologist cited in a recent Forbes column: “Since the average job search takes about four to six months, you should craft a plan of action.” And that plan of action should entail the following…

2. Plan to live on (much) less

If career change is important, you simply can’t “afford” to hold it hostage because you’re resisting a lifestyle change. Financial scholars call this the “hedonic treadmill.” That is, human beings adapt quickly to the achievements and lifestyle advances they make, and happiness peaks as we level off to the new normal. (If you prefer, think of it as the fiscal equivalent of new car smell wearing off.)

One minute you’re happy living off ramen noodles and splitting the rent with three roomies; the next, you have a ritzy apartment to yourself, a big screen TV and a Beemer parked out front. OK, so that’s not all of us, but you get the idea: Once we mount the hedonic treadmill, we soon forget about our happy circumstances in earlier days, and loathe stepping backwards.

But you don’t have to travel all the way back to Ramen Noodleland. Consider incremental changes: a cheaper apartment, a less expensive car, fewer nights and lunches eating out. (You should also approach hitting the bar with caution, though some sacrifices are easier to make than others.)

The more you can cut back, the further your savings will go; the same amount of money required for six months can last perhaps twice as long and give you more breathing room.

3. Ramp up to takeoff

Maybe it’s an odd analogy, but it fits the job switch strategy well: Seasoned musicians in the studio don’t merely jump into a tune. They’ll play four or five bars in warm up mode so that when the song actually starts, they’re right on beat and in sync.

Likewise, a job shift isn’t something we can approach abruptly. Start making your plans weeks or even months before you leave your current gig.

  • How will you cover health insurance, for example?
  • If you’ve been making 401(k) contributions, will you roll it over? How will you continue to save for retirement?
  • Do you need to replace certain perks of your job (free gym access, for example) with an affordable membership elsewhere, or by hitting the running trail?
  • Will you need to apply for credit in the near future? (It’s harder to do without an active paystub.)

4. Seek counsel from others who have done it

You may think you’re alone on making the leap, but you’re only solo in making a leap in general.

Use your social network (especially LinkedIn) to get advice from others who’ve faced the same situation. Here you’ll find financial mentors especially helpful as you develop a checklist of moves to make.

5. Always, always leave on good terms

You may not love your job. Heck, you may hate it. But resist the urge to let your boss (or any of your coworkers) know that. If you were a good employee, your old employer may be your best safety net as you go out on your own. If things don’t work, you can always beg for your old job back.

To smooth over your departure, give plenty of notice. If you’re going out on your own, more than two weeks may be appropriate. And when your boss asks why you are leaving, emphasize the opportunities you want to pursue, not the job you’re trying to escape.

6. Before you quit, ask yourself if it’s the right move

As a newspaper staff writer and editor, I used my day job to subsidize my passions in music. As a freelancer, I still do. This allows me to avoid taking gigs I find distasteful (such as playing in a cover band) and take on projects I truly love — and make money doing. (Last year, I scored an independent film; the year before, I placed a remix in a Disney movie. “Prom” was a lousy flick, but that’s another story.)

This need not be arts-related; you can assay teaching by becoming an adjunct. But when you become your own patron, you follow in the footsteps of artists from many generations before. Three of the greatest poets of the 20th Century had day jobs. After all, it’s hard to make a living writing poems, even if you’re famous for it. T.S. Eliot worked as a bank clerk; William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Some of you studied them in college lit classes. Poetry was hardly “a hobby” for all three.

I’ll say it again: Switches are stressors, even if they excite you. I’m sure O’Connell “gets it.” I just hope his Niche Movement accommodates this sure fact with financial wisdom. It’s exciting to follow your heart, but you’ll need your head for numbers as well. You can’t accomplish the transition otherwise, period. But properly prepared money-wise, you’re in the best position possible to go for it.

What about you? Are you preparing financially to quit your job? What have you done; and what worries you? Let us know in a comment.