I just got out of a hot shower, and am sipping a cup of hot chocolate while I listen to music on my iPhone in my heated apartment, while I write this article on a computer that allows me instant access to more information than I could ever process, so you'll never convince me that life as a medieval peasant was better than my life today. However, there is one area that the peasants have us beat--they got a ton of days off.

Lynn Parramore, at evonomics, looked at what the leisure time of a peasant was like. Now granted, time off didn't mean trips to the beach, but there certainly wasn't the obligation to answer correspondence in the evenings. Of course, not being able to read was definitely part of that.

The Catholic Church, which controlled many areas of Europe, enforced holidays, where no work was allowed. In addition, things like weddings and births demanded time off, meaning your average peasant worked about 150 days per year.

Your average American works a lot more. With a five-day work week and 52 weeks per year, there are about 260 work days in any given year. US workers receive an average 8 paid holidays and 8 vacation days. Which brings the average worker to 244 days of work per year--considerably more than our peasant ancestors.

It's silly, of course, to compare a modern worker to a peasant. They may have not worked because the Church wouldn't allow them to, but that doesn't mean it was a paid day off, or pleasant. They died early. There were no brownies available, and let's talk about plumbing, shall we?

But, it does point out that our higher standard of living comes at a price. If we want nice things, we need to work more than our ancestors. However, 55 percent of us leave unused vacation days on the table. Why on earth are we working for free? It's $61.4 billion in benefits we give up.

Well, we like nice things, and some bosses punish us for taking a vacation, even when it's part of the compensation package. Some of us want to climb to the top and are willing to sacrifice our time off. Some of us just really claim we have to work in order to avoid going on vacation with the inlaws.

It's November right now, and most companies have calendar year vacation programs, which means you might be in danger of losing your unused vacation days. If you have a use it or lose it policy, or are only allowed to roll over a certain amount of vacation days, then it's time to take vacation.

Things may be too busy to take a whole week, and your spouse and kids may have to work or be in school (schools can be insanely picky about letting your kids out of school for fun things), but that doesn't mean you can't use your vacation. Here are some suggestions for not wasting your compensation package:

  • Donate your unused vacation days to a sick co-worker who wouldn't get paid otherwise. Many companies have these programs in place to help cancer or other long term disease patients.
  • Take one day a week off to do whatever you want. Go shopping. Watch a movie. Clean out the basement. (Okay, that's what your spouse wants you to do.)
  • Take your vacation in half day increments and go home early every Friday or come in late every Monday between now and December 31. You'll be rested and ready for the holidays and won't get behind on your work.

Whatever you do, don't give up something you've earned--vacation time. While working more has definitely contributed to our better lifestyles, too much work isn't good for us either. Try being a bit more like a peasant, except with all your teeth.