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What is your life worth?

How two couples avoid stress – with less.

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GETTING BY WITH LESS: Patrick Houston and Kyran Pittman and kids.
  • GETTING BY WITH LESS: Patrick Houston and Kyran Pittman and kids.

Kyran Pittman and Patrick Houston have chosen to get along with a single car. Two other couples they know have made the same decision.

“It isn’t hassle-free,” Kyran (pronounced Keer’-an) says. “We have three kids and five schedules between us, so it requires some planning and a lot of communication.”

The Houstons’ friends, Kevin and Bridget Kresse, do without cable. They say they don’t miss it, and that, with limited television, their three children are growing up with a sense of “peacefulness.”

They have time to read, draw, play and spend time with their parents, insulated, artist Kevin Kresse says, from commercials promoting the idea “that you’re not X if you don’t own Y.”

The Houstons and the Kresses have made conscious decisions to spend less on services, pare down their possessions, and, in general, simplify their financial habits in order to have more time for their families, their community, and work they enjoy.

Like most Americans, they face innumerable opportunities to spend money and take on debt. Instead, in different ways, they have chosen to become highly aware of their finances and keep a tight hand on their spending, in part so they can be more relaxed when it comes to paying their bills.

That approach, common at other times, is now rare in America. According to recent national reports, almost one-fourth of college undergraduates already carry credit-card debts of $3,000 or more. Among college graduates who left school owing some kind of debt, 42 percent of those under 35 say they are now living paycheck to paycheck.

Nor is the picture for their parents any prettier. Americans are now being warned that retirement may not be possible if they have reached middle age saddled, as many are, with heavy debt and minimal savings.

The projections are downright scary. Surveys suggest that only about a fourth of baby-boomers have harbored enough resources to live comfortably in the years ahead. Another fourth have nothing and will face a desperate situation. The future that faces the half in the middle looks increasingly precarious. Many could spend their “golden years” trying to stave off financial collapse.

Arkansans, with their lower-than-average household incomes, may find themselves especially vulnerable. Last year, before a change in the law made filing for bankruptcy harder, a record 31,000 Arkansans sought legal protection from debt.

Other Arkansans, while not in such dire condition, are feeling themselves slowly strangled by growing debt and frightening fuel costs. As unexpectedly high fuel bills get added to already large payments for mortgages, cars and credit cards, many families are beginning to see a costlier side to their living — and shopping — habits than they first suspected.

Some have been roughly forced to down-size, due to layoffs from work or catastrophic medical expenses. Uncounted others soldier on, choking down a sense of panic with every glance at their bills or the gas gauge on their cars.

What distinguishes the Kresses and the Houstons is that they did something about their financial situations. As Kyran puts it, she and Patrick sat down and deliberately “reframed” how they looked at their money. For them, as for the Kresses, that meant taking the time to reflect on what they most valued in life.

Both couples acknowledge that their conclusions are not for everyone. But they believe that the process they undertook may help others reassess their decisions about spending.

For Kevin and Bridget Kresse the question, 10 years ago, was simple: “What is your life worth?” The Houstons arrived at a similar point last year.

In both cases, the couples chose what many would consider the double risk of self-employment for one partner and the role of stay-at-home parent for the other. They determined they were going to learn to live well on whatever incomes they had.

For the Houstons, it was a scary decision.

After years in the advertising business, Patrick said the thought of another corporate job was more than he could bear. Last year, after months of planning with Kyran, and a few brave, deep breaths, he began his own graphic design business, working out of their home.

Kyran Pittman, a freelance writer, poet and blogger, also works at home, except for about 10 hours a week, which she devotes to a part-time job. Like Patrick, she was nervous about making the changes the couple was about to make. But Kyran was even more afraid of what could happen if they didn’t change.

She knows too many people, she said, who are “wasting away in jobs they hate, and buying more and more stuff.” She wondered if they were shopping “to anesthetize themselves, trying to blunt the pain.”

Years ago, the Kresses also had “job-jobs,” as Bridget calls them. She was a financial planner, Kevin a newspaper art director.

About a decade ago, when the Kresses were in their 30s, they began to actively explore the idea that less, as the saying goes, might actually be more. For them, the transition was almost easy.

Bridget’s mother, also a financial planner, had taught her daughter thrift. Then, after college, when Bridget went to work for a securities firm and began to counsel clients, she says, she got to see how their various financial decisions had “played out” in their lives.

Where work and money had been “all about accumulation,” she saw “marriages splitting up and people having nervous breakdowns.” She and Kevin talked and opted for a different road.

They gave their employers a year’s notice, lived cheaply, and saved money like mad. Then they took a four-month trip to Europe.

Friends thought they were crazy. “They thought we were flushing that money down a toilet,” Bridget recalls. “They said, ‘You could make a down-payment on a house!’ ”

Eventually, the Kresses, who are now in their 40s, did buy a house. It’s a bright, high-ceilinged older place that they bought for next to nothing a few years ago and remodeled.

But, far from bemoaning the money they spent on the trip to Europe, they look back on that experience as priceless.

It laid the foundation for their marriage, they say. It gave them time to reflect — something Kevin points out is growing increasingly scarce for workaholic Americans. And it pointed the way toward their future, for it was on that trip, Bridget says, that “Kevin decided to do his art.”

Coming back, they understood that a consequence of that “big turning point” was that they would have to “keep things scaled down.” They would live modestly and carefully in order to stay free to do the things they loved.

In 1995, while still childless, they took a four-month trip by van across the U.S. At one of the many campgrounds they visited, they met a man who particularly supported their decision.

“He had never missed a day of work,” Bridget recalls, “and then two months after he retired and got an RV, his wife died. He knelt down in front of me and he was holding my hands and tears were coming down his face. He said, ‘You all are doing the right thing. Do it now, while you have each other.’”

By now, the Kresses have been together for 27 years. They have three young children. Kevin is successful as an artist, his paintings and sculptures highly regarded, and Bridget says that she’s content.

• Content with not having a car payment, while driving a $5,000 used van.

• Content with recycled clothes and shopping at garage sales and thrift stores.

• Content with catastrophic health insurance and “a super-high deductible.”

• And content to serve their community in various ways, including contributions of Kevin’s art.

Their home is gracious, with an eclectic mix of furnishings, and — not surprisingly — lots of fine art.

“You’ve got to be secure enough in yourself to realize that you are not the big house,” Bridget says. “You are not the expensive car.”

The Houstons’ experience has been different. Both Patrick and Kyran have been divorced. They have known what it is “to lose everything,” as Kyran says. Compared to the Kresses, they have been late-comers to the pleasures of being unburdened by what Patrick calls the pressure of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

They own a comfortable house in Hillcrest that Patrick knows “could use some work.” Occasionally, when he’s tempted “to look around and compare,” he can still feel a tug towards conformity.

Thus, it was reassuring, he says, when he was recently offered a couple of high-paying jobs — and even more reassuring to decline them.

At another point in his life, Patrick would have jumped at either of the offers. Now, he says he has “a different sense of what’s valuable.” Status — whether represented by job or possessions — means less. His family and creativity mean more.

However, that is not to say that “focusing on the essentials” has been an easy lesson to learn. It has required a new kind of vision.

The Houstons now assess every decision — about how they spend their time and money — differently than before. “We see two price tags to everything,” Kyran says. “One’s the obvious one. The other is hidden. It’s about how much this will cost us in terms of our life’s energy.”

Kyran too says she undertook the family’s “big transformation” with “a lot of trepidation.”

Patrick’s father, for instance, thought he was “insane” to leave the security of a regular paycheck, and there were times when Kyran wondered if he might not be right. She admits that there were times she fought back the urge to “freak out,” what they were doing at first feeling so risky.

Now she looks back and sees the time before they started scaling back as the one that was truly dangerous. It was then, rather than now, she says, that she and Patrick were actually living “perilously close to the edge.”

Financial advisors recognize that spending habits, like many others, can be difficult to change. The routine of buying and acquiring debt is, as Kevin Kresse says, “a tough cycle to break.” But Bridget, the financial planner, takes a calm approach.

“You’ve got to get a plan,” she says. “And put it down on paper.”

Her artist husband interjects: “Things are a lot scarier when they’re just swirling around in your head.”

Bridget adds, “And you can’t be afraid to change. It is possible to sell the car. It is possible to sell the house. These are do-able things.”

What about taking losses? “Some losses,” she says, “are useful.”

Getting informed is also doable. Bridget considers herself lucky that her mom taught her how to handle money, but she points out that that knowledge is not a state secret. Getting informed about money, and then making smart decisions, such as refinancing a house at a lower interest rate, might save the equivalent of what a person could earn in a couple of years.

It also may help to reconsider some basic consumer assumptions. “A lot of people have the idea that a big car or a big house is just ‘normal,’” Bridget sighs. “They see things that some of us would consider extravagant as a basic, rock-bottom norm.”

That sense of what’s just “normal” shopping has lured millions into abnormal debt. One way out of it is to step out of what the Kresses call “the trap of what others think.”

Kyran Pittman would add to that: “You have to get literate about money. You can’t be naive and say, ‘I’m just going to rise above it.’ ”

For her and Patrick, becoming financially literate has meant getting acquainted with the basics of finance — from insurance to investments, taxes to retirement plans — in ways they say they’d “abdicated” before.

They now take seriously the need to build savings, though doing that is hard. They are learning to live within the cycles of cash flow. They’re teaching their children that, at times, allowing a wish to go unfulfilled can be “a choice and not a lack.” And, like everyone, they occasionally worry.

But now, they insist, the worry is not like before. It’s no longer a free-floating anxiety, but something they can control — because they control their spending.

Ten months into their regimen, they feel relieved and excited. For the first time, they say, they have long-term financial goals, a plan for how to reach them, and habits that will support that plan. Everything hinges on their day-to-day spending decisions.

For example, Christmas last year was a more modest affair, yet the Houstons say it lacked nothing in terms of joy.

Patrick, freed of a sense that he “is” his job, enjoys the freedom he has in his work.

And Kyran finds inspiration in her “amazing network” of women friends. Through them she has rediscovered the delights of sharing — whether that be information and advice, time spent watching each other’s kids, or passing along children’s clothes that have been outgrown.

Bridget Kresse calls it another kind of “flow.” She laughs, citing as an example the recent gift of a pair of shoes that would fit her youngest child. She’d seen those shoes before. They had belonged to one of her older children, and when they were outgrown, she’d passed them on to someone else.

The Kresses’ children, like the Houstons’, appear well dressed, well fed, and happy with the less cluttered lives their parents have chosen. The families have learned that by conserving their money they can control their time, which is something they value more.

“It’s a philosophy of simplicity that’s guiding the math,” Bridget Kresse says. “We’re careful about the decisions we make, so we don’t get ourselves into a situation where we’d have to service a debt.

“We live humbly, but it’s not because we’re pathetic. This is a very conscious decision.”

While the Kresses describe their approach to money with the ease of long familiarity, the Houstons admit they’re aflame with “the zeal of the recently converted.”

The couples agreed to talk publicly about the usually personal subject of money because, they said, they know so many people who are in economic distress.

Though the four recognize that their commitment to art has made their situations unusual, they hope that what they’ve learned about simplicity might encourage others who feel weighted with debt and stress.

They say the change is not as difficult as it may appear, and that the benefits are abundant. They encourage anyone who feels strapped to a wheel of work and debt to consider living better with less.

“Our kids get a full-time mom, we have time to enjoy our children, and Kevin can do his art stress-free,” Bridget says, “because our bills are minimal. Instead of a lot of stuff, we’ve got time.”

Kevin, glancing at their twins and baby, interjects: “And how quickly time goes by.”

As parents, the couples feel good about teaching their children healthy attitudes about money “from the get-go.” They want their children to grow up knowing the difference between needs and wants, and that saying “no” to some impulses might be a constructive choice, rather than a deprivation.

Personally, Patrick says, the rewards of change have been greater than he could have imagined.

“If you had told me 10 months ago to write down all the things I would get out of this,” he says, “I would have short-changed myself. I expected a lot. But I could not have foreseen how much richer my life would become.”


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