Living on less
Times are tough, but could the new frugality make us healthier and happier than we’ve been in years?
COLIN CAMPBELL AND JASON KIRBY | October 22, 2008 |
A few years ago Kelly Hollingsworth could have been described as a woman who had it all. A young money manager living in the U.S. Virgin Islands and then New York City, she was part of a small team that managed a multi-million-dollar hedge fund, pulling down a handsome salary for her efforts. She lived a life of excess seemingly ripped from the script for Sex and the City. “I had this income so I dressed a certain way,” she says. “I was taking private Pilates lessons four days a week, private opera lessons three days a week, there were manicures, pedicures, facials, Botox and nutritionists.” Even then it all felt a little unreal, says Hollingsworth. “Occasionally I felt like I wanted off the ride.”
Then at the end of 2006, the partners closed shop. Out of a job, Hollingsworth packed her things and moved to Coeur d’Alene, the sleepy city in western Idaho where she grew up. If life as a hedge fund manager meant having heaps of money but barely a minute to stop and smell the proverbial roses, her circumstances were now reversed. But as Hollingsworth adjusted to her new, slower lifestyle, she began to appreciate its subtler pleasures. Such as time. What Hollingsworth had wanted to do during her hedge fund days was write. And so she sat down and penned her first novel, Soup in the City, a sort of anti-SATC clarion call for happy, frugal living.
Her timing couldn’t have been better: the book, which came out a few months ago, could be a chick-lit anthem for thousands in Hollingsworth’s industry who find themselves facing a similar downshift, one they didn’t choose. The book follows the life of Avery St. George, a well-paid but aimless Manhattan girl whose pursuit of an A-list lifestyle leads her to splurge and fall heavily into debt. When Avery suddenly loses her lucrative finance job amid the economic slowdown, she’s forced to adjust to a simpler life. In so doing she awakens to its joys, much as the book’s author did. “One of the happy discoveries of not having people pay me for my time anymore is that I get to do anything I wanted,” Hollingsworth says. “You start connecting to the basic things we all find pleasure in, like making homemade soup. When you’re making a lot of money, it’s almost fiscally irresponsible to waste time doing those things. You say, ‘I can’t afford to make soup, I make $300 an hour—my time is worth too much.’ ” It may have been a useful lesson: now even if Hollingsworth wanted to go back to her high-earning, big-spending ways, she couldn’t. “There are probably 30,000 people just like me out on the street looking for a job today,” she says. “That’s a little scary.”
The economic crisis that’s spreading around the globe like wildfire through a dry forest is scary. Even level-headed economists are scratching their heads and wondering what the long-term fallout will be. “It’s historic and it’s global,” says Sherry Cooper, chief economist of BMO Capital Markets. Banks are not only unwilling to loan money to each other but cutting off even credit-worthy individuals in search of mortgages. “Confidence has been just slashed, no one knows how this will work itself out,” says Cooper. There’s a growing sense that our lifestyles are about to be dramatically transformed. For the first time in as much as half a century, a new, “frugal future,” as some economists have come to call it, seems all but inevitable. “Frugality is now replacing frivolity,” declared Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg. Households are about to be put on a radical diet; debt is a dirty word again, and living within one’s means could soon be a fact of life.
But even beyond a deep economic recession, there are signs that meaningful social change is brewing. As environmental fears push us from Hummers to hybrids, and a younger, tech-savvy generation rebels against the “Bigger is Better” boomer mantra, a long-overdue cultural shift could be in the works, say observers. It may all be culminating in a kind of “perfect storm” that pushes us into a new age of post-materialism, says David Grusky, a sociologist at Stanford University. “People are becoming disillusioned with material excesses spawned by the vast run-up of wealth and income.” And therein lies a potential silver lining. This financial crisis may be the equivalent of Buckley’s cold medicine—awful tasting, but good for what ails us financially and spiritually. In fact, a simpler, pared-down and debt-free lifestyle just might make us happier and healthier than we’ve been in years.