Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.
If you’ve read some of my previous Man Vs. Debt posts, maybe you know that my background is NOT in personal finance. I’m a writer, first and foremost, and my experience comes mainly through 13 years as a professional journalist.
One of the absolute best parts of journalism for me is that everyone has a story - an experience, a personal philosophy or a unique quality or accomplishment that could help someone else change their way of thinking.
With that in mind, one of my goals on Man Vs. Debt is to share more of our community’s stories. I know, Baker, Courtney and I are hands-down the three most interesting people you’ll ever meet, right? HA. We’re not quite that cool, and our experiences are just that – our experiences.
There are more stories to tell. There are more experiences to share.
Today, I’m kicking off what I hope will be an occasional series of informal interviews with Man Vs. Debt community members by talking with Spencer and Laura Hanson. They blog at Lost and Found Family, and are part of the Man Vs. Debt Facebook community, where I originally heard about their amazing lifestyle!
They’re also great videographers, so I’ve interspersed some videos of their family SHOWING their new life as they tell about it.
Tell us a little about who you guys are.
Spencer: I am 30, Laura is 28, Zack is 4.5, and Austin in 3 years old. We hoped that life might have more to offer than a job and a house, so we decided to go searching for it.
So start with the “before picture.” A year or two ago, what were you all doing, how were you feeling, and just generally what was your life like?
Spencer: I started fresh out of BYU in June 2007 working as a mechanical engineer for Hewlett Packard designing industrial printers.
I had worked my entire life to get to that point, studying and worrying long hours, even in elementary school, to win those perfect report cards that would be my tickets to my big career and happy life.
The first couple of years working as an engineer were good. I enjoyed the creative process, the challenge of a difficult problem, and the satisfaction of a design well-done. But things at work changed, and I changed, and the thrill faded.
By the end of my 3rd year I felt like I was watching a depressing drama of myself squander my life away. I wanted to make a meaningful difference. I wanted more precious hours with my precious wife and boys.
The life I had worked so hard to get seemed to be more a trap than a party.
Laura: In some ways my life seemed nearly perfect. I had a great husband with a well-paying job, two beautiful little boys whom I had the privilege of devoting all my time to raising, and a house I loved in San Diego county. At the same time, our lifestyle demanded a lot from us, particularly from Spencer.
He worked all week long while the boys and I played, and a large portion of our family time was spent improving the house and yard. I enjoyed creating a garden and orchard but had a tough time keeping up with the gophers and crabgrass. For the most part I was happy, but that happiness was incomplete because Spencer missed out on so much of it. It was also a pretty selfish kind of happiness.
I believe in the value of my role as a mother, but sometimes I thought that my children would gain more if we spent more time reaching out to others. There just didn’t seem to be enough time for that.
Over the last few years, Spencer and I both developed new and somewhat radical ideas about life, in part influenced by a homeschooling lecture we attended by Shannon Brooks. We wanted to do more with our lives but felt unable to pursue the kind of independence we envisioned, trapped by our mortgage. We had ideas for businesses we could build in our free time, and we hoped we could eventually sustain ourselves well enough for Spencer to quit his full-time job.
But we didn’t really have enough time to develop most of those ideas, not in a way that generated a profit, so the dream seemed a long way away.
What was the critical moment at which you decided, “We want something different than all that?” Can you describe what led to that?
Spencer: I don’t think there was a critical moment where we decided we wanted something different. This realization came on gradually, more like a sunrise than a light switch. There was, however, a critical moment that we decided that we would do something about it.
Over the last couple of years, it was the little things that kept piling up, slowly squeezing the life out of us, that eventually made us crack. The pay-cuts at work. The long hours to make a design deadline. Stressing out to make sure a batch of parts was delivered on the 11th instead of on the 13th. Pretending I cared about attending this or that meeting. Getting home too tired or frustrated to want to play and laugh with my sweet, disappointed boys. Worrying about the housing market that continued to fall, despite all our efforts to improve our house.
I think we knew all along, deep down, that we wanted something different. It was just a matter of time before we would have to consciously choose between nonfulfillment or serious life change.
On March 2nd, 2012 I arrived at work feeling particularly low. I booted up my computer and stared into my endless list of unread emails. A feeling of suffocation built up as I forced myself to read through one email after another. I jumped up from my desk and rushed outside for a walk. I felt powerless and trapped. I felt like screaming. I felt like crying. A couple of nights earlier Laura and I had brainstormed some crazy possibilities of just leaving it all behind and starting over. It sounded fun, the same way that flying an F22 sounded fun.
I was never going to do it. How would I support my family? I was afraid.
I forced myself to calm down and identify my fears. I started to think through possible solutions. Then I forced myself to picture what our life might be like if we were to succeed. The picture of success in my head was awesome. I saw us working together as a family, accomplishing goals that mattered to us. I saw us helping people, not necessarily in big ways, but in small, personal ways. I saw us thrilled to meet new friends and learn new things. I saw us living very simply to make our new life possible, but happy nonetheless.
I rushed back to my desk and emailed my vision to Laura, excited by the possibility that we might actually decide to go.
We let the idea simmer for a couple of weeks, and then on March 12th, we called our Realtors. We were doing it. We didn’t have any of the details figured out yet, but selling our house felt right.
Laura: Early in 2012, I realized that our dream for becoming profitable entrepreneurs “on the side” was not likely to ever happen – our mortgage was just too high, and we’re really not that big of risk takers. And even if we could do it, the cost of the demand on our family would be too high – we were already doing too much. The house would have to go.
My daily interactions with the boys provided clarity and a sense of urgency. We missed Spencer when he was at work, and for as long as the boys could talk we regularly discussed the reasons that daddy went to work: Mainly, that HP paid him a lot of money for his design work which we then used to pay for our house, van, food, and various other things.
I began to realize it wasn’t a trade any of us wanted. We could live for far less, and we’’d rather give up those expensive things and have daddy with us.
After passing a beggar on the road near our home, Zack asked if we could help him. I told him we didn’t have any food with us that time and I didn’t know what else to say. Sometimes we brought food with us that we could hand out, but for the most part we ignored the needy on the streets and my excuses seemed too lame to voice aloud. It was one of those moments I’m always grateful for as a parent, when my children reveal something about my life that needs change.
I told him it was time for us to change our lives and give more attention to the needy, but I didn’t have any specific plan. I started thinking about it more seriously, but there were so many obstacles. We needed more time together so we could serve together.
Self-employment became a more serious goal, but the urgency came from a new form of creative play the boys exhibited. They started pretending to go to work, and I hated it. They’d grab a lunch box and head off to another part of the house to be alone for several minutes at a time.
Their work was so boring – it was all about being away from the family, not about accomplishing anything. I wanted them to look forward to being fathers and providing for a family, but not like that.
There should be more to life than working to pay for a house, car and iPhone. I knew they needed a better example now, not in five or ten years.
How did you decide the “what’s next” part – Costa Rica, selling your stuff, and so on?
Spencer: The next steps came to us one at a time, like walking through a cave with a matchstick for light. We knew we wanted to simplify and get out of debt, but that was about it. We put a few things up for sale on Craigslist. We looked hard and long at all our finances. We talked together about what we truly wanted. We researched our options. Each day was another baby step toward a new life, without knowing where we might end up.
We decided on Costa Rica because it stirred our souls as somewhere exotic and new. It had a reputation of being relatively safe and inexpensive. I had lived for 2 years in Argentina, so the prospect of revitalizing my Spanish was also appealing.
We hoped Costa Rica might hold some fun business opportunities because of it’s reputation as a tourism hot spot and expat retirement destination.
Our adventure had to start somewhere. Why not Costa Rica?
Laura: I started researching our options, but nothing really appealed to me. I knew I didn’t want this busy, expensive life, but I didn’t think I wanted a secluded country life either, at least not right now. I wanted more people, more variety, more culture, and I couldn’t think of anywhere in the country I really wanted to live (since our families are spread out).
Would we be happy living outside of the U.S.? I could hardly bring myself to consider it, it seemed so absurd. But remembering that one of my cousins had moved to Argentina with her young family two years earlier, I decided to contact her about the experience. The day I heard back from her (Feb. 27, 2012) was the day we began planning our new life. Her email gave me hope that we could find safe, comfortable places to live in various countries, and at a fraction of the cost we were now paying.
It rekindled in me a long-buried desire to travel the world, and made me realize that this was what I’d always wanted. I just hadn’t known it was possible.
With this new vision of living abroad, several factors needed to be considered. Could we take our children abroad without feeling seriously threatened by crime and kidnapping? Would we have access to clean food and water and reliable health care in the event of an emergency? Could we afford to live in any of those “safe” places? What kind of government permission would we need to live in various countries? After only a few days of perusing expat websites and discussion forums, I became convinced that we could find safe places to live in many countries. That made the plan actually seem doable, and my enthusiasm skyrocketed. We made a list of countries that appealed to us, and I started researching the cost of living, cost of flights, VISA requirements, etc.
We wanted to live places – not pass through as tourists – so we could really get to know the people and ways of living and maybe help them in some way. Besides, travel gets expensive and we would have to make our savings last. However, we learned that most countries have a 90-day limit of stay for tourists, so we had the idea of moving from country to country every three months.
We wanted the flexibility to go where the wind blew us without having to haul stuff everywhere. Besides, there’s something romantic about the idea of traveling with passports, computers, and little else, and an adventure of the sort seemed like a good next step for us. Costa Rica was a perfect place to start – it’s safe, affordable, exotic, yet third world. It had the added appeal of being close to home and Spanish-speaking, which seemed best for our first foreign country.
The deal maker was selling the house. We had to become free from that huge financial obligation in order to quit Spencer’s job. Once we realized we could do this and we wanted it, we made the move of putting our house on the market.
Talk about your stuff-purging mindset. I see that you guys have gotten rid of an awful lot, including, apparently, a house and… ducks??? How did you decide what to get rid of? What was the hardest thing to part with? (And do you miss it?)
Spencer: We had the goal of being completely mobile. We decided for us “mobile” meant 2 suitcases each. We started making piles of what we thought we might want to take. Whatever wasn’t in the adventure piles went up on Craigslist. We kept whittling at our piles until everything fit into our 8 suitcases.
But after the grueling decision had been made and it was gone, we found that we didn’t really miss it. We miss our dog. We miss our cars. Laura sometimes misses her Bosch mixer when mixing or chopping by hand. Sometimes I miss my mountain bike. Sometimes we miss our ducks.
But for the most part we don’t miss much of anything, despite how difficult it was to get rid of in the moment. Actually, I find the opposite to be true. I am glad to be rid of it. Stuff is heavy, both physically and emotionally. Now that it is gone, it is like a burden has been lifted.
I think our house was the hardest to part with. I had a love-hate relationship with the house. On one hand, the house was very much a part of us. So many memories, so many careful hours crafting it to our design. On the other hand, the house was an intense drain on money, time, and effort. There was always something to worry about, always something to fix. We do miss our fruit trees, our blackberry bushes, and our big, carpeted playroom. But for the most part, we are relieved to be free of the hindering responsibility of a house.
Laura: How much did I love my stuff? This was the second big question I dealt with that first week (besides “Can we reasonably and responsibly move our family to a foreign country?”), before I was sure I wanted to do this.
Until that point, I had never considered myself materialistic. But as I walked through my house looking at everything, I realized I was seriously attached to the stuff, and I wasn’t sure I could give it up. Besides the monetary value, I had a history with everything in my house. I’d saved and bargain-shopped to buy it, I’d cleaned it and found it a place to belong, and I’d made it useful or fun for my family. The idea of giving it all up seemed like a huge loss, but it didn’t make sense to keep it all if we were going to country hop. I had to choose one or the other.
Spencer and I did some serious soul-searching. We asked ourselves what our lives were for, and what we wanted most for ourselves and our family. The perspective I gained diminished the value of most of those things I was so attached to. I realized that most of them could be replaced with money, and if I ever wanted or needed them again I could get them.
I also realized that I had a lot of things just in case I ever needed or wanted them, while there were people who needed and wanted them now. As the days passed, my attitude toward my things changed and I began to feel liberated. The whole process was very interesting. Soon, it seemed like a gross contradiction for me to keep it all, and that became my secret to success.
I made it a goal to find the right people for each of my things. If I could find someone who wanted something of mine as much as or more than I wanted it, then it felt like a win instead of a loss, and I actually grew spiritually as I experienced a new kind of generosity.
I don’t miss my things as much as I expected to. Who needs a Bosch Universal Mixer when there’s a delicious and cheap bakery just down the street? I miss the variety of foods and spices that used to fill my pantry. I miss our bikes – maybe we’ll buy some here. I miss our animals, but there are dogs and chickens and cows aplenty here, so it’s not too bad.
How much would you say you sold altogether? What did you do with the money?
Spencer: We made about $9000 from the stuff we sold, and another $10,500 for the cars. Most of this money went into savings to carry us through on our adventure. We did end up spending about $7,000 on the stuff that would enable our new lifestyle, as itemized on our Tool Box page.
Tell us some more about the actual sales process. Where did you primarily sell? Any particular horror stories – or wins?
Spencer: Most of our big sales were made via Craigslist. Several times we set up our entire house as a store, where everything visible was for sale, but these whole-house-garage sales weren’t too successful. We didn’t advertise well, and not very many people came. About $800 came from these garage sales. The rest was from Craigslist.
Selling stuff was much more a chore than either of us anticipated. It was such a pain, in fact, that we ended up giving many things away. We focused our energy on the bigger-dollar items, way too overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to sell everything.
My favorite win was selling my mountain bike on Craigslist to a guy named Devin. Not only was he the perfect home for my beloved bike, but he also put us in contact with his sister, Andrea, who moved to Costa Rica a few years earlier. As it turns out, Andrea and her family are some of the nicest and coolest people we have ever met. They even led us to the house we are now renting from the wonderful Mora family. I’m thrilled to look back and see how something so small, like selling a bike on Craigslist, can be the beginning of something so big, like life-long friendships.
Our biggest loss, by far, was our house. We bought it in October 2008 for $295k. We invested $30k and thousands of hours improving it, and sold it in June 2012 for $256k. This was certainly not the best feeling, but we recognized our situation as a classic case of sunk costs. We knew it only made sense for us to consider the costs and benefits going forward, not the money and effort we had already invested.
Laura: We were fortunate to find excellent Realtors who helped us sell our house very quickly, which we absolutely needed for this to happen.
Something else surprising and fun was how much I enjoyed meeting people through craigslist. It seemed like nearly everyone who came over was excited about our plans. These new, fleeting friends added a richness to the otherwise mundane job of selling all our possessions, so much that it felt like our adventure began three months before we actually left the house.
Now that you’ve made this huge change, you’ve done some pretty amazing things. Talk about your life now, and what you guys are doing!
Spencer: Our life is pretty different now. I thought it would be weird not rushing to a cubicle every morning, but I don’t feel nearly as out of place as I thought I might. Of course, I do have several projects keeping me busy, which affords me a sense of purpose, despite being jobless.
We are still trying to find our groove. We’ve been in our new house for a month now, but it still feels like we’re getting started. As the days go on we are finding our rhythm for shopping, homeschooling, working, cleaning, exploring, and everything else, but to be honest we feel a bit disorganized and overwhelmed. Every day 100 ideas and possibilities pull us in different directions. The sheer quantity can be a bit paralyzing at times.
There are so many great things we could dedicate ourselves to, it’s hard to know what to do first. We have 3 underlying goals to guide our decisions going forward:
- Draw closer as a family.
- Encourage and help other families to draw closer.
- Stay mobile to go wherever we feel drawn.
Here are the major projects we’re currently working on:
- Teaching free English classes for adults and children at the local community center with a blend of literature, music, games, and science activities. The hope is to video some of these lessons and activities and post them on our Baby Scientists YouTube channel for others to enjoy as well. Laura is a fantastic teacher, so I’m excited to see how this evolves.
- Exploring Costa Rica and sharing our adventures on lostandfoundfamily.com. The goal is to create a fun and useful travel resource for an authentic cultural experience that just can’t be had at the bigger, more touristy resorts.
- Writing and illustrating children’s stories with my talented brothers and cousin and sharing these on our new website, brotherswhim.com. This has been progressing slower than I would like, but I am very excited for the potential of what this could become. I think stories are a fantastic way of teaching and understanding truth, for adults and children alike.
- Learning about effective, natural ways to be healthier and sharing these on Laura’s new website, mommybynature.org. Laura has learned a lot about essential oils, and uses them everyday for everything from cleaning, to reducing fevers, to relieving headaches, to treating bee-stings, to clearing acne, to removing warts. I think Laura can do great things with what she is learning about natural health.
Laura: Some days seem pretty much the same as before – I cook, we eat, the boys laugh and play – but even regular living is more relaxed now.
Instead of dreading grocery shopping and struggling to squeeze it into my schedule, I look forward to those walks into town. I have time to let the boys help me in the kitchen and to invest one-on-one time teaching them how to do chores.
Speaking of chores, there are a lot less of those since we have so much less stuff, which gives me more time for reading and playing. I have a low-maintenance garden. We enjoy keeping up family relationships through Facetime and Google Hangouts, similarly to how we did before except maybe more frequently now.
We’ve taken steps to begin teaching English classes in our town center. Some days involve mostly work, while others are all play. As we become more settled here, we’ll play even more. It’s beautiful here whether we’re hiking through a rainforest or our own backyard. What’s more beautiful than the scenery is the new friendships we’re making. We keep meeting incredible people who invite us into their lives and homes and make us so happy we made room in our lives for them.
How do you feel this trip has changed your family’s relationships with each other?
I feel more connected to my wife and boys than I ever have before. I love working together with Laura on projects that matter to us. I love tag-teaming the boys with her so that we can both accomplish more. I love falling in love with her more every day as we connect more deeply by working together toward common goals. I feel like we’re a team now, and it’s an amazing feeling.
Laura: From that fateful day at the end of February, Spencer and I have enjoyed a new kind of closeness. When you consciously and jointly choose to put your spouse and children first, a new kind of trust is born. It makes you brave. It makes you giddy.
Spencer and I are learning to work together at a whole new level than we did before (and we made a pretty good team before). We’re still adjusting to our new roles, but our relationship is already stronger and I can see it becoming more so almost every day.
It makes me reminiscent of a similar decision we made early in our marriage, almost exactly eight years ago. We were newlyweds as well as full-time students working part-time jobs, but we decided to quit our jobs so we’d have more time for each other. For years we looked back on that decision as the best we’d ever made (besides deciding to get married), and I think we’re going to look back on this decision in a similar way.
What’s the single biggest difference in how you feel now vs. before?
Spencer: Now I feel like I have control over my life. Before I didn’t. I love waking up and working on what I want to work on because it matters to me. There is an inner sense of peace and power that comes with being able to do this.
Laura: I feel more. More purposeful, more enthusiastic, more alive. I was happy, but I’m more happy. I had hope, but I’m more hopeful. I feel more love within my family and with God.
What’s the single biggest struggle you have now?
Spencer: Adjusting to not having a car is more difficult than we anticipated. But every day we learn a bit more of which bus goes where, and where to buy what. It’s hard, but I feel like it is a good, character-building hard. If we could afford a car, we’d get one. Until then we’re making do with the buses.
Laura: The language! I am familiar with Spanish but not yet able to interact much with others on my own. It makes me more dependent on Spencer than I’m used to, and it’s harder for me to get to know my new friends.
Where do you see your family going from here?
Spencer: I suspect we’ll have the travel bug for another couple of years to come. Maybe Bali, maybe Malaysia, maybe Ireland, maybe we’ll stay in Costa Rica. We don’t really know. I am pretty sure we’ll eventually end back up in the United States close to family, but we have no idea what the future might hold. Pretty exciting. There is a whole world of possibility out there.
Laura: Originally, I thought we might country hop for three months at a time with occasional trips back to the states. For the most part, I have the same plan in mind except on a different time frame. Three months isn’t long enough to get to know a neighborhood. We signed a six-month contract at this house, but I think even that will be too short.
I’d like to do a mix of visiting a few places for a few months and then settling somewhere more long term before moving around again. I’d like to experience a variety of places such as India, Ireland, Alaska, and Singapore, not to mention other regions of the U.S. We might stick to Spanish-speaking countries for a while, then live in some French-speaking countries intermixed with English-speaking countries so we’re not constantly stressed out by new languages.
What one challenge would you give to Man Vs. Debt readers – something they should do today or this week to get closer to living their dreams?
Spencer: Ask yourself every day what you truly want. Have it written down and look at it every day. Maybe this list is 1 item long. Maybe it’s 50. Maybe it’s the same list for 20 years, maybe you tweak it daily. However you do it, don’t let a day go by that you don’t come face to face with the question, “What do I want?” Without knowing that, chances are, you’ll be running in the wrong direction. Know your Happy. Chase your Happy.
Laura: Think about what you do with your life – what matters and what doesn’t – and drop one of the doesn’ts.
Any parting words of advice for our community?
Spencer: We’re way too inexperienced at all this to be giving advice. I guess our advice would be for others to jump into their dream where they shouldn’t be giving advice either!
Hearing Spencer and Laura’s story reinvigorated me in a way that’s hard to describe. I’m a fellow job-leaving, homeschooling, wanting-something-different type, but I think it’s more than that. I think their teamwork is what really stands out.
Are you willing to figure out what you really want – and to drop a “doesn’t matter” so you can go for it? Who’s on your team who will help you make that happen?
Comment and let us know!