Joe and Cindy Pfender had it made. They owned a beautiful, brand new 2,200-square-foot home set on one-half acre outside of Houston. Their home was located in a lovely neighborhood brimming with Southern hospitality and seven community pools for those hot Texas summers. They were the proud parents of three children — Chelsea, 6; Shane, 2; and Quinn, the baby.
Joe worked hard to provide this lifestyle for his wife and children. Every morning he left for work at 7 a.m. and returned 12 or more hours later. His commute took 45 minutes each way. He spent his evenings reading and responding to more than 200 e-mail messages related to his job as a regional sales manager for a major steamship line. Pressure from senior management and customers was constant, but Joe handled it quite well — at least that’s how it appeared from the outside. He entertained his customers frequently with drinks and dinners in fine restaurants. Many weekends he was away on business trips. Joe had the feeling that his work week never really began or ended.
Not surprisingly, Cindy began to feel like a single parent. On those frequent evenings when Joe did not make it home for dinner, she hauled the kids off to a fast food restaurant for dinner, a distraction — something of a treat to compensate for their missing father and husband.
One day Chelsea came to her dad with a drawing and proudly announced, “Daddy, look what I did!” Joe pointed to each person in the picture and asked Chelsea to tell him about each one. Chelsea responded, “That’s Quinn. He’s crying. That’s Shane. He just hit Quinn. I am reading a book and Mommy is cooking dinner.” Chelsea then pointed to the remaining figure, saying, “That’s you, Daddy.”
“But why is my face all colored in?” Joe asked.
“That’s not your face, Daddy, that’s the back of your head. You’re working on your computer.”
Chelsea’s drawing was a stunning revelation to Joe. He envisioned his daughter all grown up and remembering her dad as a person who was always working, a person who was not there for her. At that moment, Joe understood what was most important to him. It was not the status and stimulation of his job, his house, the swimming pools, or the health club. It was his wife and his three children. As Joe reflected, “No amount of money or position or home or belongings can replace supporting one another and going through the process of raising our children together.”
Joe and Cindy’s story is representative of millions of people who are questioning what it really means to have the “good life” we have worked so hard to achieve. According to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, Americans earned twice as much money at the close of the 20th century than in 1957; yet the percentage of people who reported that they were “very happy” had declined during the same period.
We feel trapped in an almost compulsive drive to amass more wealth, status, and power. There is an addictive quality to this consumer-driven lifestyle. No doubt about it, each additional boost of wealth, status, and power gives us a high that feels good. But like any addiction, the high is fleeting, often leaving us feeling worse than ever and convinced that the solution is to get more.
For many years before Joe Pfender’s revelation, Joe had adjusted to his workload and the rest of the family adjusted to his absence. However, even though Joe was an expert in dealing with the stress inherent in a corporate bureaucracy, the internal pressure was building. It felt like a pressure cooker, and Joe realized that something would have to give. He remembers one day when he drove to work, parked his car in the lot, and reached for his cell phone to call Cindy. “I just can’t do this anymore. I just can’t stand this one more day,” he announced. Cindy’s support was immediate and total. She assured Joe that they would and could find another way to make it work. Joe doesn’t know what he would have done if Cindy had not supported him at that low point. As he reflects now, “You and your spouse need to be on the same page to make this all work.”
When clarity arrives, fear often subsides and courage prevails. Once Joe and Cindy saw clearly what they wanted, they found the inner strength to act on it. But it was far from easy. At first, Joe didn’t know how to restructure his career. He sought career counseling and read books, searching for work alternatives. After about six months, the Pfenders were ready to make their move. Joe quit his job and the family moved to a Philadelphia suburb, where Joe joined his brother as a broker of ocean transportation services.
Another motivation for the move to the Philadelphia area was to be closer to Joe and Cindy’s extended family — their parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. The Pfender children would now be able to play with their 15 cousins frequently.
Joe and Cindy bought a two-bedroom twin home (also called a “duplex” in some parts of the country) with a small yard. Their house payments are comparable to what they paid in Houston for a lot less house, but as Joe sees it, “We have less to clean, repair, renovate, and maintain.”
Joe and his brother are partners in the steamship brokerage business. They rent a two-room office with views of farmland (complete with weathervane) and Joe is only five minutes from home. He leaves for work around 8:30 a.m. and is home by 6 p.m. Gone are the business suits, the time spent entertaining clients in bars and restaurants, and the daily hour and a half commute. Now he wears jeans to work and brown bags his lunch.
And they lived happily ever after — but, of course, life is not like that. The lives of the Pfender family are dramatically different, and substantially better, but not without some struggle. Joe’s income as an entrepreneur is about $7,000 less annually than what he earned at his corporate job. This drop in income is a challenge for Cindy, who manages a strict family budget for clothes, house repairs, gifts, car maintenance, and food. She admits it is sometimes painful to have to monitor their expenses constantly, but even so, she feels their lives are much more satisfying and fulfilling than when they had more money. Joe and Cindy are trying hard to live credit card-debt-free, and in the two years since their move, they have not incurred additional debt.
Many small adjustments add up to some considerable change. The Pfenders now send Chelsea to their parish Catholic school, rather than an expensive private school. They do not eat out as often as before, preferring to share at-home dinners with friends and family. They exercise at home with videos and weights instead of paying for a health club membership. No more bills for a housecleaner, lawn service, or dry cleaning. And of course they no longer have the expense of flying home to visit family; they are home.
Joe confesses that a part of him misses flying first class and eating at five-star restaurants. Cindy misses having a brand new home and a cleaning lady. However, they feel that these luxuries are easy to give up when considering what they are getting in return. Joe now spends time with his family, relaxing, puttering around the house, and even doing some painting and repairs. He can take his daughter to school and has time and energy to play with his children. Cindy doesn’t feel like a single parent anymore.
Joe and Cindy continue to discover additional fringe benefits of a downscaled lifestyle. For example, their physical health has improved. Cooking and eating at home means more fresh produce, fewer high-fat foods, and less alcohol. Now they have time to exercise and can do it at home for free. They have the energy to enjoy the outdoors and four seasons to do it in.
Joe’s colleagues thought Joe had gone off the deep end when he walked away from a successful position that earned him a substantial income and considerable prestige. However, one of Joe’s friends put it succinctly when he told Joe, “You just did what we all have wanted to do but never had the guts.”
Joe’s focus is clear: “I believe in creating your own life, not letting others control it. Simplifying makes this process that much easier.” Amen. CD