April 29th, 2010
Kevin and Hannah Salwen
April 29th, 2010
Our family is a fairly prototypical American foursome: my wife, Joan, and I live with our two teenagers in a nice house with two dogs. The kids play baseball and volleyball, we like to ride bikes and take family vacations. On the financial front, we have more than most – through hard work, good education and some career luck. And a few years back, we moved into our large, beautiful “dream house,” thinking it would bring us the joy we desired.
But as our children aged over the next decade, our sense of togetherness began to fade away. There was no tidal wave, just steady erosion. In the big dream house, we scattered in different directions. At dinner, conversations began to center on to-do lists instead of meaningful dialogue. Outside the house, as we drove from activity to activity, the TV in the back seat kept the kids entertained – and our family from connecting. Was money the problem? Probably not. But it certainly wasn’t making our life richer.
Then we did something audacious.
At the urging of then-14-year-old Hannah, we decided to sell our dream house and move to a home half the size, giving the price difference, more than $800,000, to charity. Half for us, half to try to make the world a little better. In other words, we were choosing to stop accumulating and start downsizing. Now, more than 2 years later, I can tell you we live better smaller. Not just as well, but better.
Our decision, made almost hastily after Hannah demanded that we become “a family that makes a difference in the world, even if it’s a small difference,” launched us on a journey that would take us well out of our comfort zone. We spent a year as a family – researching, meeting, debating, voting – as we tried to figure out how to make the world a little bit better with our funds.
We started with the big questions: If we had a bunch of money, would we want to help a few people a lot or a lot of people a little (say, providing malaria nets to thousands). We studied water (over a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean H2O), homelessness (as many as 3.5 million Americans a year) and poverty (one in six people worldwide live on about $1 a day).
After our year of research, we decided to work with The Hunger Project, an American-based nonprofit that runs an amazing program to help African, Asian and South America villagers move from poverty to self-reliance. Our funds are invested in the villagers of Ghana, where during our community visits we have been blown away by their industriousness and warmth despite the poverty.
You might wonder what it’s like to go back to living in half the space. We did too. Would it feel squeezed or sacrificial? Two years later, I can tell you this: It was the best move we ever made; not the best house by any means, but the best move.
Sure, there are places where our half-house feels cramped. One big loss was natural light, particularly in the kitchen. Our treadmill had to be exiled to the unheated garage. The coat closet was one-third the size of our old one, and in the back of the house, far from any door. None of this, of course, was more than a minor hassle, a problem to be worked around. It was a bit like going from a weekend at the Four Seasons to a stay at the Hampton Inn. There was nothing wrong with the new property; living there just required a shift in mindset. And of course the thought of complaining was ludicrous, especially when we thought about the people living on a dollar a day who were benefiting from our investment – not to mention those who were involuntarily downsizing.
Far more importantly, our family began to live more tightly, and as a result more cohesively. We play Ping-Pong together or duets at the piano. As we learned to live smaller and built our family project, those interconnected moments became more frequent. The more we shared, the more we bonded, the more we trusted. The Secret Sauce to togetherness was to be out there together in the community, no matter how you define community.
We don’t expect others to sell their houses. We chose to because we had more than enough house. But we think everyone can find something in their lives they have more than enough of, whether it’s time (half the hours of TV a week) or treasure (half the clothes in your closet). Just gather your family or community, figure out your half and go for it.
Our family set out to make a small difference in the world and ended up transforming ourselves. We basically traded “stuff” for a closer family unit. That’s living richer.