Many of us want to simplify our lives and consume less, but for a growing few it entails a lifestyle change that goes much deeper. Sally Lever had a life of affluence, traveling the world for multinationals as a sales-team trainer. She and her family traded it all in for a simple life in the country, where she now works as a sustainable living coach, helping others follow in her foot-steps.
If the monstrous crowds of shoppers along Oxford and Regent Streets in the heart of London on a Saturday afternoon are any indication, we are still light years as a society from shedding our addiction to retail therapy.But for too many, the incessant pressure to open our wallets and stretch our credit to the limit has taken its toll. And frightening increases in the amount of personal debt and bankruptcies are only part of the equation.
Many of us are fundamentally reassessing the real value of what we buy, and the cost it is having on our families, our identity, and our happiness.
According to a study by the British Market Research Bureau, nearly 90 percent of Britons said they believed British society was too materialistic. And in the same study 25 percent of Britons were found to have “downshifted” their lives in some way, earning and spending less to live better.
While most of us are only making minor adjustments to our purchasing habits, some are taking it a giant leap further, making wholesale lifestyle transformations and trading in fast-paced professional lives in exchange for more time with their family or leisure for themselves.
Sally Lever, a life coach who specializes in helping people make the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, says she’s never regretted her decision to leave a high-paid, jet-setting career and a large home just outside of London in exchange for a simple life in the West Country.
“I miss absolutely nothing from my life before downshifting,” she writes in a book on the topic she contributed to. “Far from it – I feel as though I’ve gained so much: time, wisdom, courage, love and community…”
Not that Weaver was a bulgar munching hippie who couldn’t handle the pressures of professional city living.
“I was very conventional,” she admits to me when I speak to her about her former life. But more than conventional, she was quite exceptional. Educated with a Masters degree from Oxford, she ascended the ladder of success, training sales-teams for several large multinationals.
“For about 10 years I was traveling all over the world. I had a very affluent, fast paced life,” she says.
But then, something changed. While for some people redundancy from work or a chronic illness forces them to make a radical lifestyle change, for Sally it was much more personal.
“The change really happened when I had my first baby and I started to realize what really mattered to me. I really wanted to be with my child, and you start to think, the money, the ego, and high status, does that really matter?” she says.
Sally gave up her professional responsibilities and starting working part time from home. Although the going was tough, the family managed to stay in their suburban London home with only her husband’s salary by cutting out non-essential purchases.
A few years later, Sally and her husband decided to take it a step further. Their two children, Elliot and George, they decided, would be home schooled, and to do that she would sell her part time business and the family packed up and left for the town of Wells (population: 11,000) in the West Country.
There they bought a “modest sized home with a big garden” as Sally describes it, and cook all their own food, spending as much time as they can with family.
“It was surprisingly easy and liberating to get rid of things,” she says of the move. “We got rid of quite a bit of furniture and technology, because we moved to a much smaller home so there wasn’t room for it anymore. The television went. I have very few clothes now, no make-up. We went from 2 cars to 1. And we’re about to put this one on the market now.”
Although Sally chose the more radical route of moving from a comfortable suburban lifestyle to a far simpler rural existence, studies show that downshifting more often happens in smaller gulps.
Women and people in their 30’s are also slightly more likely to make the change, and although higher-income individuals tend to downshift more than lower-income ones, it is otherwise evenly spread across social brackets.
Many downshift by switching to part-time work, changing jobs and accepting lower paid work, or stopping working altogether.
Sally’s children became more independent in their learning after 5 years of home schooling, allowing Sally to retrain as a coach and work part-time from home.
Sally says working for herself was part of her lifestyle decision. “It makes a big difference. I wouldn’t want to work for someone else,” she says. “A lot of energy is spent commuting….and then there’s the clothes. We don’t take into account all the costs associated with working for others”.
More than 30% of downshifters in a 2003 study said their reason for downshifting was to spend more time with their family. Work and the constant pressures to live up to the Jones were preventing them from being with what really mattered to them.
Consuming less is often not a goal in itself but the result of a decision to earn less to be able to spend time doing the things and being with the people that really matter to them.
The gradual reduction in spending has also left a dramatic mark on the kind of lifestyle Sally and her family live.“Christmas is almost gone,” she jokes, laughing. “It’s not the big consumer frenzy it used to be.”
And far from wanting to deprive her children of the material trappings of the holidays, it’s they who took the matter into their own hands:
“The kids were 10 and 12 when it started. They asked me if they could negotiate. They said they would accept a rise in their pocket money in exchange for no Christmas presents,” she says.
“I thought it would be too hard for them, but they were fine with it. They stuck with it. And they don’t ask for much at the birthdays either now,” she says, laughingly.
Now embarking on their own post-secondary careers, Elliot and George (20 and 22 respectively) haven’t lost sight of the lessons picked up at home. According to Sally, neither of them drive and they both lead a “reasonably frugal lifestyle.”
“It’s something that crops up in conversation quite a lot, especially when their peers question how and why we do some things differently. But they’re mostly used to this now. They both understand the reasons for living this way and are fine with it.”
The shift from suburbia to simple living would not be without its hardships however. The changes took its toll on her personal life and she split from her husband after 19 years of marriage.
“It calls on you to ask what is really important to you, and it can go quite deep,” Sally told me.
“We reached a point where we had to deal with it deeper and we did have a difference of opinion. My values changed more than his. I would say he stayed with the lifestyle, whereas I wanted to go further. He still leads quite an affluent life now,” she says.
Now 52 and remarried with someone who shares in her values (Steve, her husband, runs a yoga teacher training school), and with Elliot and George grown up and either studying or in employment, Sally is busy working again, though not like before.
Now she’s helping others make the same transformative changes she started making two decades ago. Working around 20 hours a week mostly from home, Sally has between 5 and 10 one-to-one clients at any given time who she coaches on sustainable living and business while also running training courses for various organizations.
While coming from a diverse range of backgrounds, Sally’s clients share something significant in common: “What they have in common seems to be a willingness to work on themselves, to question ‘business as usual’ and many other aspects of the current consensus reality, to aspire to live and work in a way that’s more in harmony with the needs of the planet and of other human beings, to reduce stress and to live in peace.”
90% of downshifters in the former study said they were happy with the changes that came with downshifting, and while Sally may not be rolling in it as she used to (she unrhetorically describes the money she’s earning now as “enough”), she is more pleased with the intangible qualities of her new life:
“In terms of being mostly at peace, happy and following my chosen path, yes,” she answers when I ask her whether she sees herself as a success.
Sitting in yoga pants, Sally tells me how she’ll spend her Thursday: “I’ll be working this morning from home, then I’ll cook lunch. I´ll spend time with my youngest son, then a Skype call with my web support. We finish quite early, and wind down with some meditation before bed.”
Her new life, the impetus of which was the desire to be with her baby, has developed into a full-blown life philosophy.
“For me this has been as much a spiritual journey and awakening as anything else. I’ve realised how much of our conventional existence is dictated to us,” she writes in the book.
“I feel bemused when others view the prospect of downshifting as some kind of terrible hardship. For me, this is a wonderful blessing.”
UPDATE: Since this article was first published, Sally has downshifted even further with the sale of her second car. The family is now entirely car-free. Son George is following in the family tradition and is now self employed, working from home.