On a Sunday afternoon, we stood on the side of a road above the ocean. We didn’t glance at the Camps Bay houses spread out below us, nor the sea beyond them, though I’m sure we must have been shading our eyes, for at a certain time in the South African summer afternoon, the ocean turns into a glittering sheet of broken glass. We might as well have been blind.
Our Chevy’s engine had seized in the middle of our Sunday drive, and we could only think of the tow truck’s dubious arrival, how on earth we were going to afford a new car.
Spencer writhed and bawled the way I would have liked to if I weren’t keeping one eye on the curve in the road for our tow, and the other eye on the sidewalk for muggers and panhandlers. Although I wished Spencer would quiet down so I could think, his tears turned out to be an appropriate final burst of contempt for both a car and a way of life.
At that moment, David was deciding he was done giving his time and creativity to a lifestyle that relegated “family time” to Sunday drives and still kept us constantly vulnerable to the financial ruin of faulty engines.
The Lead Up
To reach our personal breaking point, we had started the script early. In 2005 I was busy amassing debt in college while David was working for rent and party money at an Amazon call center. David worked his way up for four years and by 2009 Amazon was sending him to advise startup teams within Amazon. I, on the other hand, had no idea what I was going to do after college, and moved in with my parents until my sense of adventure kicked in and I quit my temp job in Spokane to move to Seattle with $600, my cat, and the hope of a job.
David and I met when I lucked out with a temporary position via the Kelly agency and the good word of two alumnae from my college. As divine intervention would have it, that position happened to be on the team David had just been sent to advise. We began to date, and I found that for the first time in my life, being in a relationship was easy. Amazon, however, was wonderfully challenging, and after six months of hard work and another generous dollop of divine assistance in the form of my championing manager, I was hired on permanently. David got a transfer to Seattle, and our lives together began.
By ages 24 and 23 respectively, David and I were splitting our lives between each other and 50-60 hour work weeks at Amazon. At that point in our lives, there wasn’t a conflict between personal freedom and working long hours for someone else. In fact, the rigor of a fast-paced job is a blessing, especially when you need to build experience and expertise. I couldn’t have been a nomad or worked for myself at age 23. I needed structure, externally imposed expectations, and the time to figure out what I wanted.
After a year in Seattle, I noticed that at some point I had begun to feel constantly guilty. On the one hand, I maxed out at 55 hours. I knew I should be working at home every night if I wanted to stand out, but I couldn’t help falling onto the couch and opening a book. On the other hand, the reading reminded me that as someone who’d decided to be a “writer” at age 5, I was putting off my real passion.
So, in 2011 we were antsy. We wanted to travel. David had always loved travel, and I thought that working overseas might fulfill my observational hunger, the constant curiosity about how people live in other parts of the world. We were incredibly lucky that Amazon afforded us this.
We had positions that sent us all over the world, and we kept those positions while moving to Amazon’s European home base in Luxembourg. I would go on a business trip and find myself overwhelmed by the diversity of existence: that an ex-military complex in the Philippines now serving as an outsourced call center was actually believed by its employees to be haunted; that our Argentinian colleagues hated the IMF’s western imperialism so vehemently and that they had huge nighttime improv drum parties in the middle of Buenos Aires; that South Africans were friendly toward us at the same time that they could be incredibly hostile toward one another. The experiences were heady and intoxicating. Each trip would offer us a day’s glimpse into another existence. Once we boarded the plane to go back to Luxembourg, we always wanted more.
We were ecstatic when we got the chance to move again. Spencer was born in Luxembourg, and three months later David was offered a transfer to South Africa. We’d had enough gray skies, we’d seen enough chateaus and castles. We moved.
This was an important moment, because my job didn’t have an equivalent in South Africa. It had become clear that to advance further at Amazon I needed to move back to Seattle. I decided to resign, both to spend more time with Spencer and to try to make a career out of writing.
When we got to South Africa, David was now in the position of supporting three people on one salary. This was more than doable in the 1950s, when minimum wage workers in the US could pay a month’s rent for less than a week and a half of full-time work. We thought that because David would be heading up his business’ expansion into the Cape Town office, that it should be doable for us too. The script also promised us a house, so we signed up for a mortgage and bought one.
The Cracks Widen
Our house turned out to have latent water damage. Convex ceiling, cracking, nastily creeping horror movie sort of damage. You should have had an inspection, you say. You’re right, we should have. The fact remains that we were not financially covered for any unplanned expenses.
Of David’s gross income, we were spending:
- 33.2% on Taxes
- 15% on Mortgage (Rates are higher in South Africa for Foreigners)
- 10% on One Trip to the US (Family Visits)
- 11% on Groceries
- 10% on Retirement
- 6% on Childcare
- 4% on Health Care
- 2.5% on Utilities
- 1.4% on Petrol
We had about 7% leeway for extravagances like household furnishings, clothing, restaurants, unplanned expenses, oh, and Spencer’s college and short-term savings. It’s doable, but after putting the decade of our twenties into working so hard…sue us, we wanted more than subsistence.
At the same time, my plans to write had been subsumed by the administration of dealing with the faulty house; a lawsuit, contractors, paying bills, etc. Suddenly I was a house mistress, and while I loved spending time with Spencer, I sorely needed intellectual stimulation. Meanwhile, David’s full workday and half hour commute (which is tame compared to some commutes) meant that he was getting home twenty minutes before Spencer’s bedtime. When Spencer started talking, I had to debrief David on translations because he wasn’t there to witness the new words himself.
There was little flexibility for David to take off work if he needed to; we imagined all the missed baseball games that would add up in the years to come. In his position, David could have taken off work, but the commute was too much to go out and back to work; when he took off, it had to be a full half or whole day. Somewhere along the way, we stopped appreciating beauty; we were too stressed to see it.
In this day and age, we do not believe that it’s too much to ask for both partners to work in a fulfilling career, to both be as present as they want in their children’s lives, and to be financially stable.
For us, that meant giving up the house and all of the strings attached to it: mowing the lawn, fixing the lights, redoing the kitchen, paying the insurance, paying the mortgage, all the things that push the walls in.
Perhaps you want to know how we actually think we can swing a mobile, self-employed existence, and I promise to tell you, but it was important to list the reasons why we are where we are. For some people, home ownership is still a dream come true; they’re willing to lock up a significant portion of their income and savings. If this isn’t you, there are options. A brave new world awaits.
Read our other installments of Giving Up the Script:
ii. The Lead Up
iii. Selling Our House to Become Digital Nomads
iv. Selling Everything to Become Digital Nomads: Intro