The Donnell family once earned twice as much as they do now per year, but they cut back — by choice — to focus on what mattered most to them. Clockwise are Gregg, Lola, Kelly and Isabel.
The Donnell family once earned twice as much as they do now per year, but they cut back — by choice — to focus on what mattered most to them. Clockwise are Gregg, Lola, Kelly and Isabel. Ted Robbins/NPR
Part of a series, Living In The Middle
Between them, Gregg and Lola Donnell of Phoenix earn right around the nation's median income of roughly $50,000 a year. Sometimes it can be a challenge for Gregg and Lola and their three kids — Tyler, 16; Isabel, 8; and Kelly, 4 — to get by.
The couple could work more, but then they'd have less time for what matters to them.
A Lifestyle Change
Gregg Donnell builds and repairs computers as a freelance IT consultant. He says the recession had a mixed effect on his business.
"The number of computers that I used to sell has definitely gone down, but it has also picked up in more repairs," Gregg says.
His income has stayed steady at roughly $20,000 a year. Lola earns about $30,000 plus benefits working part time as a medical technician in a nearby hospital lab. A decade ago, the couple earned twice as much — about $100,000 a year. Gregg sold insurance, and they lived in tony North Scottsdale. But he wasn't happy.
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"We were on this treadmill of making money, making as much money as possible every year, and feeling that we always had to increase that because we wanted to buy more things and live in a nice house and have nice cars and everything else," he says.
At the same time, Lola didn't get a job she'd dreamed of, working at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. That's a painful memory.
"I remember I prayed, I prayed so hard. I still didn't get a job. But there was a sense of letting go," she says.
They were both ready to make big changes. So in 2000, they moved from Scottsdale to a home in a modest neighborhood in Phoenix. They grew spiritually; their home is filled with Catholic imagery — a tapestry of the Last Supper, crosses in nearly every room. They decided to work less so they could spend more time with their children. So they cut their expenses along with their income.
While others chose to borrow and spend more than they made before the recession, Gregg says he and Lola chose not just to live within their means, but to live within their needs.
"We realize we don't need as much. The things we have are very good. We're very fortunate to have what we have," he says.
But a simpler lifestyle does not mean simple choices. Their 1999 Subaru Forester is worth about $4,000 and it needs $2,500 worth of work. Gregg was almost at the point of buying a new car, but doing so would mean new car payments.
"We kind of talked about it, and I think we're going to go ahead and fix the car, maybe do pieces at a time rather than paying $2,000 or $2,500 all at once," he says.
Gregg also makes money go further by bartering his computer expertise in exchange for landscaping services and home repair. Tyler, the 16-year-old, is getting good-enough grades for a scholarship to Arizona State University next year. And the Donnells use credit cards for everything.
"We use our credit cards to rack up miles, like the girls and my wife are all traveling to Florida for free on Southwest because of our credit card," Gregg says.
They pay off their cards every month. And they recently took a trip as a couple. They drove to Sedona with their tent, but they ended up getting a free room in a luxury resort by sitting through a time-share presentation.
"Let's just say it was one of the best times I've ever had," Lola says.
So, the Donnells don't feel they've really given up much. They can cover their $600-a-month mortgage — while the home across the street is a short sale and several others on the block are in foreclosure. Gregg says his investments took a big hit in the recession, but they've come back some, and he's even managed to save enough to live for a year if they both lose their jobs. Lola says she's had time to meditate and reflect.
"I'm learning that it's a benevolent universe," she says.
The Donnells choose to live in the middle. It helps them feel comfortable financially, emotionally and spiritually.