Even as economy improves, some are downsizing their lives
DALLAS — Five years ago, Sam Rodela was doing exceedingly well and living large, with mutiple cars and other high-end purchases.
While the Fort Worth-reared, self-trained software architect is making more money than ever before — in the six figures — and can still afford luxury goods, he has consciously scaled back, saying that he realized that his hobbies, sports and volunteering brought him more enjoyment than acquiring possessions.
Once ensconced in a 1,200-square-foot loft, Rodela is now renting an apartment that is 800 square feet, albeit in a Dallas high rise. His Jeep Wrangler and upscale Infiniti are gone, replaced by a 6-year-old Toyota 4Runner and a mountain bike.
Instead of spending lavishly on entertainment and recreation, Rodela says he volunteers 20 to 30 hours a month with groups like the Red Cross, the DFW Federal Club Human Rights Campaign, Vogel Alcove Homeless Childcare, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the North Texas Food Bank and a student mentoring group, StudentMentor.org.
"I'm living below my means, but it offers me the freedom to do what I want," he said over a chicken Caesar salad and wheat beer at his neighborhood bar. "I'm living on about 35 to 40 percent of my monthly income as opposed to the 65 to 70 percent before. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. If your 1 ½-year-old phone works fine, why get a new one?"
By all appearances, Rodela, 33, is part of a trend that demographic and social analysts say started in the last decade and has been fueled by the economic doldrums.
'Re-evaluation of values'
"There is a downsizing and downscaling and re-evaluation of values," asserts John Zogby, a pollster and author of The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. "It's not always taking people down to a 600 square foot apartment and wearing a loin cloth, quitting their job and growing your own organic food.
"But this trend is at least 15 years old and what is significant is that it predates the recession," Zogby said in a telephone interview from near Cape Cod, Mass. "During the final years of the Clinton boom years, it was already taking place."
Zogby is not alone. In a 2011 book, Spend Shift, co-authors John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio say these mindful consumers "aren't 'radical frugalists,' Christian ascetics or extreme New Age anti-materialists. They are merely people who, in adapting to (the economic) crisis, have subtly adjusted their lives to seek greater balance and a more fulfilling existence."
Gerzema, a consultant with the marketing and communcations firm Young & Rubicam, says data collected by his company found 55 percent of Americans are fully part of this "undeclared movement," with another 26 percent sharing many of the same attitudes. While the trend started earlier, the recession that started in 2008 and ensuing years of soft economic growth apparently also played a role. (The trend holds true to varying degrees in West Europe while there are far fewer spend shifters in such emerging economies as China, India and the Czech Republic.)
Based on his surveys, Zognby sees four basic causes:
—A growing number of Americans are working for less, voluntarily or involuntarily — but mainly involuntarily. In 1991, 14 percent told Zogby's survey that someone in their household was earning less. By 2007, it was up to 27 percent and it reached 37 percent last year. "Suffice it to say, there is a sort of enforced simplification. People can't afford to chase that whole American Dream."
—Upward of 11 million Americans in the higher income brackets are saying that conspicuous consumption "isn't what cracked up to be, it's not producing the satisfaction that I want my life to be about."
—Baby Boomers, who are coming of age, "are looking for a second act in their lives, those who can't retire and those who want to make a difference. In effect, they're saying I want my life to be about something larger than me. I call it secular spiritualism."
—And the fourth source of this cultural shift, Zogby maintains, is the latest iteration of a tendency among Americans that he says doesn't get enough attention: "Our tendency to sacrifice to a higher cause."
Zogby says he has seen a decline in what he calls traditional materialism, which meant the acquisition of a big car, a big boat, a big house. In 2012, people who indicated they were "traditional materialists" were down to 22 percent of those surveyed, compared to so-called secular spiritualists who were 37 percent. By contrast, the two groups in 1998-99 had been roughly tied at 32 and 33 percent, he said.
Significantly, the percentage has dropped in all income groups, including those making more than $100,000.
But other observers insist old spending habits die hard.
As the economic recovery continues and more Americans do better, they'll pick up where they left off, predicts Ronald J. Hill, who holds an endowed chair in the marketing and business law department at Villanova University.
"As things improve and consumer confidence increases, people will return to previous spending behaviors that cause most of us to 'dis-save' — spend more than we take in," Hill said in an email.
"Why? Because 'I buy therefore I am' is the anthem of wealthy societies."
Spending less of income
Perhaps. But in Rodela's case, the software design maven is earning more than a comfortable income yet spending less of it.
From 17 until he was 29, he worked for nine different employers, including GE Commercial Finance, Verizon and Flash.net. The job hopping explains a biographical note titled Career Cowboy that accompanied his résumé. Not all went swimmingly. He co-founded Internet cafes, including one in Denton, that went belly up. He missed his goal to be a millionaire by 25.
But he wasn't doing at all badly for a high school graduate with a few Tarrant County College courses under his belt. When his friends were in college, he was the one who picked up the tab for expensive outings and provided transport. Later, he ran with the bulls Hemingway-style in Pamplona, Spain.
The end to the profligate lifestyle followed his sudden 2009 resignation from a high-tech firm in Richardson, where he was snowed under with work and never given promised assistants because of layoffs.
"I decided to stop working," he said. "I snapped. I sold both cars."
Rodela retreated to his parents' Fort Worth home for a four-month cooling-off period. (His mother is an ad designer at the Star-Telegram; his father a machinist at Lockheed.) But when he wanted to go back to work, for the first time in his young life, offers were scarce.
"I did a lot of things that didn't involve programming," he said. "I DJ'd. I did some digital art. Lived on my savings. It was a dark time. One and a half years."
Returned as consultant
His return to full-time work resumed as a contract, web-interface consultant with BlueCross BlueShield, before he landed his current position as a staff information architect at Plano-based Keste, which crafts Oracle software solutions for clients, like automating complex business processes and then making them available to their customers and others.
"When Sam lost his job, he was forced to live simply but he enjoyed it," said Jennifer Hume, who met Rodela when her best friend dated him. "So when he started earning a lot of money again, he realized he didn't need that many things to be happy."
"He's the real deal," said Hume, 33, of Fort Worth, where she works in the defense industry.
"He quit partying so much because he had outgrown it and realized he needed a new direction, a new outlet for all his focus, which is when he went into more volunteering and started his non-political political career," she said, referring to his efforts to get an appointment on a Dallas board or commission. "He's lost friends along the way who don't understand."
Now Rodela buys his cleaning supplies as Dollar General and Big Lots! ("I never pay full price"). He gets his blades online from the Dollar Shaving Club. He has no cable or satellite TV. Instead, for recreation he rides his mountain bike, runs stairs, shoots skeet, goes to $1 movie theaters and uses his company's free gym, which he often has to himself. But he doesn't skimp on his wardrobe.
Rodela makes clear that while he's no longer profligate, his new lifestyle is more nuanced. He still likes a good time, he insists.
"Life is about experiences, so I'll never sell myself short on anything," he said. "I'll hit the occasional new restaurant, concert or sporting event. But it's not because I feel entitled. It's because I feel that I've earned it."