Leaving a Crazy Lifestyle Behind

by Lucynda Koesters

"It was a life I wanted to leave behind," says Marijo Varney, 36, of Keene, New Hampshire, referencing her "crazy" dual-income existence of two years ago. Husband, Jim, 40, a Quality Engineer for a large medical company worked two hours away from home. Marijo, mom, an Assistant Speech Therapist, worked among four different schools with a case load of 35 - 50 students. Seventh grade daughter, Kristin, was constantly sick, having been diagnosed with Colitis. Fourth grade son, Peter, was a diagnosed Dyslexic having trouble in school. The household also included a dog named Cocoa, a cat named Rascal, a kitten named Jasmine and a 35 gallon fish tank with 18 swimming critters. Some would say this family's existence wasn't crazy, but impossible. Marijo, through determination and sheer will, finally managed to put the brakes on this mad menage, quitting her job and transforming her family's lives.

"Life before" typically found Marijo shouldering the brunt of the household burdens. With Jim working two hours away, most of the family's needs fell to Marijo. She recalls, "(Jim) would leave every morning at 6:00 a.m. and get home about 7:00 p.m. in the evening. I, on the other hand, traveled between four schools 30 minutes from the house. I would leave at 7:00 a.m. and get home at 4:00 - 5:00 p.m. every day. When the children got sick, I would have to run back to town to get them and go back to work after dropping them at home. I was purchasing convenience foods and even had the Schwan's man come to the house (delivering frozen food). My house was a mess because I was too tired to keep it picked up. After work, I was car pooling to girl scouts, dance, soccer, karate, friends' houses and more. Family life was hard to squeeze in because we needed the weekends to get caught up on all the things we could not do during the week."

In addition to the normal hassles of a dual-income lifestyle, an emotionally and physically exhausted Marijo struggled to overcome her family's increasing problems, including her own diagnosed illness, Inflammatory Bowel Disease. She relates, "I was on all kinds of medication trying to get the attack under control. While all this was going on, Kristin's doctor's diagnosed her with non-specific colitis. She was ill constantly. I kept getting the phone call from the school nurse saying Kristin was there again. I would drive the 1/2 hour to get her, bring her home and then go back to work. When the doctor's appointment came along, I would have to go into work late. I found myself becoming very stressed. Peter was in fourth grade that year and having a terrible year. Every morning, it was a fight to get him out of bed. It was also the year that I decided to insist they test Peter for a learning disability. They found that he was Dyslexic and had a superior IQ. He was struggling with reading and writing and was bored because they were not challenging him intellectually. Nice mix, huh?"

The threesome managed to finish out the school year, looking forward to the summer respite. However, near the end of the school year, Marijo was told that the following year, all the therapists would be switching schools and she would be placed in a school further from home (an hour away). This proved to be the last straw.

That summer, Marijo finally decided to look for a way out. She read every "misery living" book she could get her hands on, including Misery Moms by Jonni McCoy, The Twightwad Gazette Books I, II, and III and Mary Hunt's (The Cheapskate Monthly)three books. Says Marijo, "I just ate the information up."

Then, Marijo took the "what is it costing you to work" test (included in The Tightwad Gazette I and Miserly Moms). She looked first at the expenses of working. Hers' included child care, taxes (local, federal, state), commuting fees (tolls, parking, etc.), gasoline and mileage, car insurance (extra car, nicer car for the job, etc.), clothes (new clothes, cleaners, accessories, etc.), gifts for co-workers, fast-food lunches and breakfasts, convenience foods at home, extra eating out, occasional housekeeping help, hair care, and medical bills (due to stress-related illnesses). Then, she totaled the cost of all of the expenses and subtracted that total from her income. Marijo discovered she was actually losing about $600 per month due to her job. She relates, "Imagine working full-time and losing money! I immediately took this information to my husband and I can honestly say he was as shocked as me."

At this point, Marijo began to change the way she shopped for food and clothing. She began paying bills off and planning for a simpler lifestyle. "I also changed my way of thinking about life," she says.

The closer school came, the more anxious Marijo became. She and husband Jim analyzed the situation and jointly decided that Marijo should resign. Marijo's income contribution was roughly 30% of their total income and both she and Jim were very concerned about losing her paycheck. She says, "After all, we both had college loans to pay off and two children who would be looking at college. The reading that I did helped to change my way of thinking and living."

Of her actual resignation, Marijo says, "It was a very hard decision but my stomach felt better within minutes of giving my boss my resignation. I felt a big burden lifting from my shoulders. At first it seemed like a lot of income (to lose), but when you figure the higher tax rate, and every other expense, I am able to make it up by staying home."

The family gradually transitioned to life with less income. Marijo immediately put all her new-found frugal living knowledge to the test. She reduced her food budget substantially by cooking from scratch, buying groceries in bulk, eliminating convenience foods and employing the once-a-month cooking method. She discovered the difference between true needs and simple wants: "When I first left my job, I would feel guilty if the kids asked for something and the money was not readily available. I do not mean necessities, I am talking about the wants. I have realized the difference between real needs and wants. I am always asking, 'Do we really need this or do we just want this?' My children started asking the same questions. They are also beginning to realize that we just don't go spend money because we have it or don't have it."

The Varney family made their transition about two years ago. Are they a one-income success? The answer lies mostly with the children, Kristin, now 16 years old, and Peter, 13.

Two years ago, Kristin was a constantly-sick seventh grader. The first year Marijo was at home, Kristin battled mono and missed all but two months of school. With the help of her mother and a home tutor, Kristin was able to finish the year with honors. Says Marijo, "tell me I could have done that and worked full time!"

Kristin's illnesses have now eased and she has become a confident, well-adjusted teenager. She enjoys doing community service projects with her church youth group, is learning to sew and is focused on a future in medicine or law. Asked for her input on the changes her mother brought to the family, Kristin relates, "I am happier, I feel more relaxed about calling (Mom) when I do not feel well, I like the fact that (mom cooks) good meals now, and I like the TLC (mom gives) me. Mom, you are more patient when I come to you with my problems!"

As for Peter, two years ago as a fourth grader, he was struggling with reading and writing (due to dyslexia) and was bored intellectually. How has the new lifestyle affected him? Marijo ecstatically proclaims: "we just had his three year evaluation meeting and in the time that I have been home, (Peter) is now reading on the seventh grade level! When he started sixth grade last year, he was reading at a beginning fourth grade level!"

Peter has become a stand-out young man who participates actively in his church youth group, is a history buff, and loves spending hours creating Lego buildings and ships. Peter is also an honors student and would like to become an engineer or architect.

For other dual income families looking to make a transition to one income, the Varney's advise several things. First, they suggest taking the financial test: how much is it costing to work out of the house? They also recommend reading Mary Hunt's books, Money Makeover and The Best of the Cheapskate Monthly. Next, they believe a debt reduction plan is important. Once the debt (credit cards, college loans, car loans, doctor bills, etc.) plan is in place, they suggest sticking to it for one year. In the meantime, Marijo believes it is important to implement a bulk grocery buying and cooking plan. Finally, they urge sticking to the plans until results begin to show and it's certain they will work. Then and only then, do they suggest making a goal to leave a full-time job or cut back to part-time.

What was the hardest thing Marijo dealt with after leaving her job? She says, "I would have to say the guilt of not bringing in a paycheck. Allowing myself to realize that being an at-home mom was a full time job. My extended family believes that if you have a college education, and you are not working for money, then you are wasting what you paid for. I disagree. I have come to realize that my education helps me to be a better person and for that, I am a better mother. My husband has been wonderful helping me to deal with the guilt. He constantly reassures me that the decision was the right one."

In addition to dealing with feelings of guilt, Marijo relates several other things she's learned: "My family is number one in my life. . .we do not have to keep up with the neighbors. If they want all the new gadgets and toys, let them. I am happy looking for something second hand and I always ask myself, 'is this an item that I want or do I need this item?' If it is a want, I ask myself how it will change my life and will I use it on a regular basis."

Finally, she says, "I still feel guilty at times, but I keep reminding myself that staying home with my children, even though they are teenagers, is better for everyone. My children are happier, I am happier and healthier, my husband is happier. I am doing the right thing by staying home with my children. . .I wish other parents could see that it is possible to stay home, survive, and have healthy, happy, children."

The Varney family can be reached at: mjvarney@cheshire.net.

Lucynda Koesters is the author of "Finding Your Way Home, How to Become a Successful Stay-at-Home Parent".

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