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How downshifting led me to a TV career, Bardem and Barcelona

I wish I knew the term downshifting back when I was a college senior surrounded by future “titans of industry”. As a Harvard economics major, it was easy to see your job choices as: investment banker, consultant, venture capitalist or trader. Those were the firms that came to campus to recruit, making it easy to believe that the real world looked a lot like Wall Street.

Many of us chose to be drafted into finance. Flipping through the 15th anniversary report for my class, I am overwhelmed by the diversity of job titles in the investment sector.

In just the first few pages, I find an investment manager, hedge fund analyst, general partner in private equity, managing director in private equity, financial services marketing manager, private equity investor, investment banking director of emerging market sales, someone who simply does “investments” and a classmate who is specialized in “structuring and marketing (structured credit derivatives). global fixed income.”

(On a side note: in the notes section, few of these “titans” talk much about their work- unlike those classmates who chose creative or service-oriented careers-, except to describe it as “challenging” or “corporate”. Instead they focus on their spouse, kids, dogs and golf.).

I almost became one of them. While at 21-years-old what I really wanted to do was answer my questions about life and to study people, I majored in economics because I was afraid. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I wanted security.

Now, I’m realizing that downshifting can offer financial security. This practice of “simplifying one’s lifestyle and becoming less materialistic” guarantees that you won’t need those astronomical paychecks. Paychecks that don’t offer any guarantee. Because something I’ve learned in the 2 decades since I started college: a big salary just makes it easier to spend big.

In debt on a 6 figure salary

I knew “kids” making 6 figures right out of college and still struggling to pay off their school loans. When you become an investment banker or a corporate lawyer, there seems to be an inverse relationship between salary and savings.

When you’re surrounded by money, life just costs more: from the suits and the dry cleaning to the fancy food (according to Zagats, in 2005 a nice meal in Manhattan cost on average $112.49) to bottle service at nightclubs ($500 for a bottle of Grey Goose vodka at Manhattan’s Bungalow 8).

A couple years ago, I was talking to an acquaintance who had voted for George Bush because he liked the tax rebate he was getting as an over $200,000/year wage earner. He not only liked his tax cut, but he felt it was necessary.

While less than 3% of US households earn $200,000 and above, this New Yorker didn’t feel rich as a member of this group. After all, it wasn’t easy paying for an apartment in Manhattan, a weekend/summer home in the Hamptons, private school for his son, nice dinners out, vacations, etc.

When it costs $438,800 per year to “live well”

In 2007, Forbes magazine did a survey on “What it costs to live well in the US“. They averaged incomes and spending for residents of different cities across the country.

For New York City they found that you need an annual net income after taxes of $483,800 “to live well”. And this accounts for a yearly savings of just $4,800. Where did the money go? The magazine breaks it down typical annual expenses:

  • Home payments: $215,832.
  • Vacation home payments (they assumed a place in the Hamptons): $105,488.
  • Cars: $18,900.
  • Dining Out: $12,480.
  • Food at home: $12,480.
  • Travel: $22,300.
  • Health Care: $5,900.
  • Utilities: $7,200.
  • Private School: $26,000.
  • College: $30,300.
  • Other: $22,100.
  • Savings: $4,800.

Studies show that happiness is not based on how much money you have, but if you have as much as, or more than, the people around you. So perhaps, living amongst certain Manhattan crowds, it’s easy to feel needy of tax relief even with an upper echelon salary. But only if you choose those values.

Downshifted in the West Village: longboarding and burritos in the park

When I lived in New York (from 2000 to 2005 or so), my salary wasn’t bad, but I chose to live a “downshifted” life. I shared a West Village apartment- for only $800 per month- with 3 other roommates who became some of my closest friends.

I rarely took cabs, and even the $2/ride metro was hardly necessary given that I mostly walked, biked and for awhile longboard skateboarded (thanks to my brother’s influence).

I’d pay for an occasional fancy restaurant meal out with girlfriends- $40 or $80-, but most of the time we would find a cheap diner ($10), cook in someone’s apartment or eat burritos in the park.

I never felt I was sacrificing. I’ve just never noticed the effect of the expense of a meal on the quality of conversation.

Perhaps this is due to my upbringing. Growing up, dining out meant PB&J in the park or the back of the car; vacation destinations were anywhere we could find a housesit within driving distance (for 8 of us piled in an old station wagon); gifts were recycled; clothes handed-down, etc.

Groomed to downshift

I was groomed to be a downshifter. So my decision to opt for the “safe” economics degree in college was a deviation. And it didn’t last. After graduation, I turned down the few job offers I had that would have involved working in cubicle with spreadsheets and moved home. There I could better think about what I wanted to do with my life without financial pressure.

Of course, I didn’t escape the societal pressure to make money. When I began an internship at the local tv station, I still remember a family friend telling me, “you got an Ivy League education to get paid $5 per day”.

Perhaps if I had had the terminology at the time, I could have given value to my decision. I could have explained that I was a lifetime downshifter: a big salary, and what I could buy with it, weren’t my end goals.

My goal in all of this saving over the years wasn’t to become rich, but to become free. Free to work when and how I wanted. When I completed my first show for a major network under my own production company, I turned down all offers for follow up gigs because they were just too “packaged”, “repackaged”, “reproduced”, “celebrity-driven”…

Nico Bardem Barcelona

It’s fortunate I held out for less money. Soon afterward I accepted a gig that took me to Spain where I was introduced to Javier Bardem (in perfect downshifted form, he was the first actor I’ve interviewed to show up without any agents, managers or publicists), Spanish cinema, Barcelona, and, a bit later, my future husband (Nico).

Now that I’ve relocated to Bardem’s country, I have been forced to move into an even lower gear as I’ve left most of my tv production work back in Manhattan. I am now surrounded by fellow “downshifters”, mostly fellow expats who’ve left their “careers” in their homelands in search of something attractively liveable about Barcelona. For a Hollywood version of the Catalan capital and its foreigners, see Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona (starring Bardem). Or for a reality version, I interviewed my friend- and fellow expat- Yuko a few years ago about her decision to leave Tokyo for Barcelona).

I have high hopes for downshifting, on a macro level, in helping us rich countries battle our addiction to consumption (when I talked to Worldwatch’s Gary Gardner, he also saw it as a potential tool).

If it becomes trendy, perhaps everyone will start downshifting with the Jones: wearing their wardrobes an extra season or eschewing that house in the Hamptons for “staycations” in the city (one of my favorite fourth of July weekends was spent biking the deserted streets of downtown Manhattan).

On a personal level, maybe I’m just rationalizing a less ambitious life path, but I do wake up most days feeling lucky… though with plenty of uncertainty. And I guess that is what I like most about being downshifted, not knowing what comes next.