Expert Q&A: A guide to downshifting

By Emma Lunn

Simply put, "downshifting" means living on less -- much less. Rather than simply making a budget and shopping for deals, a downshift often involves drastic life changes such as moving into a smaller home, selling a car and giving up the luxuries you once took for granted.

Such changes aren't easy -- yet they can be a way to pay off thousands in credit card debt or to stay afloat after a job loss. Others, such as blogger and life coach Sally Lever, take the downshifting plunge willingly. We talked to her about what she gave up -- and what she gained. What made you decide to downshift?


Sally Lever is a life coach and blogger 
 who specialises in downshifting

Sally Lever: Having spent about 10 years working in high technology, international companies, the downshift really began for me when I had my first baby and I started to realise what really mattered to me. I felt drawn to spending plenty of time with my child, and I started to think about the money, the ego, the high status and credo I'd been enjoying and how little I valued that in comparison. What were the first steps you took toward downshifting?

Lever: I gave up my corporate responsibilities and started working part time from home. Although the going was tough, we managed to stay in our suburban London home by cutting out non-essential purchases.

A few years later, my husband and I decided to take it a step further. By that time we had two children, and I wanted to home-educate them. In order to do that, I realised that I'd have to sell my part-time business. At that point, our income dropped below our outgoings again, only more so. We sold our house and left for a less extravagant lifestyle in the West Country. What is your relationship with credit cards? Do you use them?

Lever: I have one for business and one for personal use, both with an ethical bank -- Smile (part of the Co-Operative Bank). However, they're used only for emergencies, for the guarantee on a few large capital purchases and car hire (I don't own a car). They are paid off each month, and so I don't pay interest. The rest I paid off and cut up about 12 years ago. Can someone downshift and still use credit cards and debt responsibly?

Lever: Well, I think I use them responsibly, so the answer would be yes. However, I think carrying thousands of pounds in debt, over and above servicing a mortgage, is probably out of alignment with the values underpinning downshifting. Did you make any downshifting mistakes that you've learned from?

Lever: Yes, too many to mention. Despite reading lots about others who'd downshifted before us, and talking with quite a few too, it's still swimming against the tide in relation to the consensus reality. So it can be challenging mentally and emotionally as well as in practical, financial terms. Have you had any relapses into your old lifestyle?

Lever:  We had an accidental relapse last Christmas. We rely mostly on public transport to travel long distances, and that was sporadic or non-existent over the Christmas holiday period, so we booked a hire car -- the smallest they had on offer to save money and carbon dioxide -- for a few days to visit relatives. When we arrived to collect the car, the man at reception apologised that he'd been unable to secure a small car as promised, and could he offer us a slightly larger one at the same hire charge? We agreed, only to find that (thinking we'd be thrilled) he'd set aside their most luxurious, top of the range, gas-guzzling Audi A4. How did you get your family on board with downsizing?

Lever: At the point where I was considering home education as an option for the children, I simply asked them what they would prefer to do -- stay at school or be educated at home. They choose the latter, no hesitation. My ex-husband had a few reservations about that, but soon saw how much happier the children were once we'd started. He was happy to move house too, as it led to a less stressful working life for him too. Our outgoings reduced considerably, so he was under less pressure to earn loads of money to keep up with the bills. What's your top tip for someone who is considering going down the same path as you?

Lever: Each person's path is different, but I would say have the courage to follow your heart, rather than succumbing to social pressures to stay on the treadmill. And, don't go alone -- find kindred spirits who think as you do and build up a mutual support network, on and offline. Of course, hiring a downshifting coach can help enormously as well.

See related: Debt payoff strategy: Selling your stuff, Blogger Q&A: The diary of a frugal family

Published: 5 July 2012