The Upside of Downsizing: How Two Families Cut Back for the Things That Matter Most to Them
Eight years ago, teenager Hannah Salwen startled her family members. She questioned why they lived in such a big house when others didn’t have homes at all. Her parents, Kevin and Joan, took her concerns seriously, and her younger brother, Joseph, got on board as well.
The result was a family project that would change their perspective. The Salwens moved from their 6,500-square-foot home to a smaller house and gave more than half of the sale proceeds to help several villages in Ghana. With less room and a desire to simplify further, they gave away half of their belongings as well.
Although the move had roots in altruism, Kevin says the family gained much more than it gave up, as he and Hannah collaboratively documented a few years later in the book The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back. They realized, for example, that material items—like a big house with lots of individual spaces and cars with personal DVD players and headphones—were significant obstacles to family intimacy.
“At Hannah’s prompting, we realized there was an inertia that had taken over our lives,” Kevin reflects. “Like many people, we were on autopilot trying to keep up with others and give more things to our kids—because that’s what people are supposed to do, right? But it gets to the point where accumulation doesn’t bring joy anymore.”
Some friends voiced concerns: What if the Salwens ended up needing the money they gave away? “You don’t have to fear a move like this if you plan for it,” Kevin said. “We never once put our family at financial risk. Our financial professional helped us ensure our insurance protections were in place, our retirement planning was on track, and our kids’ college funds were secure.”
They’ve never looked back. “Bottom line, we traded stuff for more connectedness and closeness with the most important people in our lives,” he says. “I like to say we added by subtraction.”
Investing in People
Rod and Kathleen Smith have a similar philosophy. Over the course of their marriage and raising three children, they bought and paid for two homes. As the children started building lives for themselves, the Smiths perceived a choice. Rod explains, “We could ratchet our lifestyle up again. We could maintain our current situation. Or we could downsize.”
In taking the third option, the Smiths also changed their locale. With a job that allows Rod to live anywhere, he and Kathleen had long been considering a move. “There’s a spot in most couples’ lives where you seem to go on autopilot,” he says. “And for some people, this precipitates a midlife meltdown. We thought, ‘We can live anywhere we want; why not try something new?’ Our choice not only appealed to us; it offered a lower cost of living.
“As a result, we have more disposable income to invest in our children’s and grandchildren’s lives. For example, we helped one buy a home and two pursue further education,” he explains. The couple’s favorite charities also benefited from the new disposable income.
The Smiths also feel free of the burdens that can come with an excess of belongings. “My mother told me a long time ago: The more stuff you own, the more it requires of you,” says Rod. “At one point we had a number of cars, a boat, a big house, and a large lawn. I found I couldn’t enjoy most of it because I was so busy taking care of it. By streamlining, we have more free time to do what we want, and we feel more financially free.”
If you’re ready to take a step in this direction, here are some ideas for starting slowly:
- Look at possessions with a fresh perspective. “I had this expensive pen I’d won through a company promotion,” recalls Rod Smith. “I stopped carrying it since I was worried I’d lose it. So I put it in a drawer. Finally, I thought, ‘Why am I keeping this?’”
- Be selective with sentimental items. Keep one thing as a signature piece from a special person and/or as a memento from a particular part of your life. This approach can enhance freedom to give other things away, sell them, or hand them down as heirlooms.
- Consider “borrowing” versus buying. In keeping with the family’s belief in sharing, Hannah Salwen, now 22, co-founded a New York-based startup called Baro, which helps people rent items from power tools to sports equipment.
From gaining time and money that used to be spent managing belongings to feeling satisfaction in helping others both far and near, these two families continue to feel positive about their decisions. As Kevin Salwen puts it, “Our choice also slowed us down to understand the world a little better. Our purchasing decisions are more deliberate now. And we think that’s a healthier place to be.”