Downshifting to a Better Life

By Marie Sherlock


Grandparents Find That Simplifying Their Lives Leaves More Time For What’s Most Important

David Heitmiller and Jacque Blix dote on their 14-month-old grandson, Erik. But the Seattle couple live 1,400 miles from Erik’s home in San Diego, hardly conducive to developing a close relationship with their first grandchild. That’s why they’ve arranged to “winter” each year in Southern California just 20 minutes from Erik’s home, close enough for plenty of leisurely days spent swinging at the park and visiting the zoo.

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But Heitmiller, 56, and Blix, 53, aren’t jet-setters who’ve retired early with bloated stock portfolios and second and third homes in vacation locales. Despite their middle-class existence, they were able to leave the workaday world behind more than eight years ago by embracing an increasingly popular lifestyle philosophy called downshifting.

Downshifting, also referred to as simplifying, involves scaling back on expenditures – everything from homes to hot pads – resulting in the ability to work fewer hours and even, in many cases, to retire early. According to estimates by The Center for a New American Dream based on Roper and Gallup polls, somewhere between 15 percent and 25 percent of the American public is actively pursuing downshifting. The time they free up is spent on those aspects of life that are of true value to the downshifters. For Heitmiller and Blix and many others like them, downshifting allows them to focus on their genuine interests, pastimes like volunteering and community work, favorite hobbies – and grandparenting.

According to Carol Holst, the founder and director of Seeds of Simplicity, a program of Cornell University that focuses on simplicity, downshifting is particularly attractive to young grandparents.

“This is a time when those ‘meaning of life’ questions come to the forefront,” Holst reasons. “As folks enter the grandparenting years, with their own children grown, they’re at a point where they can start contemplating the deeper aspects of life.”



">Downshifting is often misunderstood, notes Holst. Most important, she says, downshifting is not about deprivation. “It’s about adding meaning and joy to our lives,” she explains.

Jacque Blix agrees. “It’s not about poverty, not about giving up things. It’s about focusing on what’s most important and getting rid of the material stuff that doesn’t matter. It’s really about redefining ‘success’ and about living in concert with your values.”

John Myhre, another downshifted grandparent, concurs. “It’s about living a free life,” explains Myhre, 68, of Ojai, Calif. “You’re freed to do those things that will elevate your well-being and the well-being of those around you.”


">The Benefits for Grandparents

">Holst believes there are many reasons that grandparents are choosing to simplify. “They want more control over their life, their time and their money,” she says. By doing so, many are able to retire early.

And, with its focus on inner growth, simplicity debunks the youth-focused messages of the larger society, making downshifting particularly attractive to the grandparent demographic. “They want to feel good about themselves in a culture that makes them feel bad,” Holst explains.

Myhre is a good example of how downshifting can bring more time, happiness and fulfillment – on less. In 1995, Myhre’s wife died after a long bout with cancer. Between caring for her, maintaining the family home and working as a landscape architect, Myhre’s life had been very stressful for years.

“I really wanted to simplify my life,” he recalls. He sold his house – complete with a swimming pool, spa and lawns – and bought a low-upkeep condominium. “I went from spending eight hours a week cleaning out the pool and spa and doing lawncare to five minutes of maintenance a week,” he says.

He also cut back on a host of smaller expenses – canceling cable TV, enjoying nutritious homemade meals instead of eating out, checking out books and videos at his local library instead of buying and renting them.

The end result for Myhre was a mortgage-free home, a maximum of 15 hours of work weekly and ample stressless hours to devote to his true interests, including his grandchildren, Cameron and Avalon. Myhre also takes art classes, writes fiction and poetry, entertains friends, rides his bicycle, and is involved in several civic organizations.

“The big motivation for simplifying for me was to free up time for those things that I feel are my passion, my mission for being on this planet,” reasons Myhre.

Blix and Heitmiller are also active, dynamic individuals. They both contribute their time to a number of good causes. Jacque is a master gardener through her local extension service and she also quilts and teaches yoga. Heitmiller is an avid bicyclist and a tireless volunteer. “We couldn’t have done all this if we hadn’t simplified,” says Heitmiller.


The Mechanics of Downshifting

Myhre’s story – moving to a condominium, cutting back on expenditures – is typical of the downshifting methods utilized by many simplifying grandparents.

Heitmiller and Blix also eventually downscaled to a smaller home, but their first downshifting efforts came about in 1991 when they took a course called “Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence.” That course became the book Your Money or Your Life (see Resources), first published in 1992. This downshifting primer guides readers through a nine-step program which, if faithfully followed, results in the “crossover point,” where earnings from investments equal expenditures.

The core of the program is Step 4, which asks readers to determine “how much is enough?” By developing “an internal yardstick for fulfillment,” simplifiers can gauge whether their financial life is in sync with their values, the crux of the simplicity experience, according to Heitmiller and Blix.

“It changed our lives,” says Heitmiller of the course. Blix adds that “the biggest change was in our attitude and the way we looked at stuff. We cut our spending and maximized our savings.” The two also realized that they had already accumulated a fair amount of money, an amount that, by living a lower expenditure lifestyle, was nearly enough to retire on. When they discovered a method of tapping into their 401(k) money without penalty, through “Substantially Equal Periodic Payments” (see your accountant), they determined that they could retire while still in their 40s.

This example illustrates how resourceful downshifters can be. Heitmiller and Blix’s temporary home near their young grandson is another example of a creative downshifting strategy. The couple is staying in a yurt – a circular, fiberglass structure, 22 feet in diameter and equipped with a kitchenette, shower and composting toilet – rent-free in exchange for some gardening and handyman labor.

With a goal of more time for life, downshifters investigate alternatives to the usual way of doing things, options that are low cost and often more environmentally sustainable, too.


The Bottom Line

In the end, say all of these downshifters, your time is your most valuable asset. Whether your real passions are family, hobbies, volunteering, travel or a combination of these, simplifying gives you the flexibility to pursue them.

Blix urges other grandparents to ask themselves this one question: What is my legacy? “Your grandkids won’t care that you lived in a huge house, owned lots of technological gizmos or bought them lots of toys,” she says. “It’s the time that you spend with them that they’ll remember,” Heitmiller adds.

“We wouldn’t choose any other way,” he concludes, the ultimate testimonial to the win-win nature of downshifting.





The Complete Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle, by Amy Dacyczyn, Villard, 1998.

The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, by Cecile Andrews, HarperCollins, 1997.

The Simple Living Guide, by Janet Luhrs, Broadway Books, 1997.

Simple Living Oasis (formerly Simple Living Journal),; quarterly publication that inspires and supports people to live simply; $18 per year; 800-318-5725.

Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, by Duane Elgin, Quill, 1993.

Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Penguin Books, 1999.

Unplug the Christmas Machine, by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, Quill/William Morrow, 1991.


Organizations & Web sites

• Alternative for Simple;   800-821-6153.

• The Center for A New American;  877-68-DREAM.

lass=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">• The New Road Map;  206-527-0437.

lass=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">• Seeds of;  877-UNSTUFF.

lass=MsoNormal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">• The Simple Living;  800-318-5725.

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Related Reading:

Many grandparents find themselves experiencing an annual quandary: What to get the grandkids? In  Simplifying the Holidays discover the four things that kids really want.

Marie Sherlock is a frequent contributor to United Parenting Publications. She is the author of
Living Simply with Children, to be published by Three Rivers Press in January 2003.

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