For Ann Colford, giving up the car, the high status job and the nice wardrobe wasn't really a choice. It was a survival tactic. After working as a successful accountant for over 10 years, Colford moved into a management position with Spokane County.
"I was making in excess of $40,000, had a car, a nice apartment," she says, describing a lifestyle of dinners out and new clothes. She says she wasn't unhappy. At what turned out to be the height of her career, managing the tech network for a county building, Colford says everything changed.
"It was at that point my cousin, Peter Colford, who was the KREM-2 weather anchor before Tom Sherry, developed cancer, got sick and died. He was 39," she recalls. "I was 35 at the time, and it was a big wakeup call. There are no guarantees. [I told myself], 'You may not see 40, and if you're not spending your days doing what you like to do, you need to do something about it.'"
But Colford, like so many others, was scared of change. She had a lifestyle that required the income she earned. Besides, if she gave it all up, what would she do with her time?
"It was tremendously scary, incredibly scary," Colford says of her decision to leave her job. "And it didn't help to have people I knew and worked with basically thinking I was going crazy. They would say, 'What are you going to do?' and 'How are you going to make it?' I guess I just said, 'I'm going to step off the cliff and hope I'll survive.'"
Dr. Amy Paris, a clinical psychologist in Spokane, says when people begin feeling like they can't slow down because everything will fall apart, the first thing they should do is stop altogether.
"When people get to that point, they need to stop and evaluate their priorities; they can see what's negotiable and what's not," she says. "What is [your] life goal and what is [your] purpose? By answering that, [people] will begin to find what they are trying to accomplish in their lifetime and will have a frame upon which to make decisions about what they're doing with their time day to day."
For Colford, stopping was not an option. Not a big risk-taker by nature, Colford said her body made the decision for her.
"I had panic attacks associated with work and was stressed all of the time. I was irritable, too. I just didn't know what my path was, and after I began having serious anxiety attacks, I thought, 'I have to slow down.' I didn't know what I wanted, but I knew what I had wasn't it. So I walked into my boss's office one day and handed in my resignation and said, 'Bye. I'm gone in two weeks,' and walked out the door."
It's the kind of announcement many people dream of. Colford just did it. Still, she says there was no immediate relief.
"I felt very much alone when I was making the decision. It' s not just the financial thing, but in our culture, giving up your job is a loss of identity -- when people say, 'What do you do?' that's code for 'Who are you?' It was a loss. I carried around my business cards in my purse for more than a year after I left because I didn't have a current identity that I could flash to people," Colford chuckles. "It was like, 'I don't know who I am, but here, this is who I used to be!'"
After quitting her job, Colford had to make some tough decisions. The lease was up on her car, so she turned it in and decided to use her legs and public transportation instead. The clothes went, and so did the dinners out. Colford cashed in her unused vacation time -- a month's worth -- and bought herself a month of time.
"The panic attacks stopped right away," she says. "I was reveling in the idea of not waking up to an alarm. I went from $40,000 a year to making $5.50 an hour at a bookstore."
Colford was able to get some part-time hours at Waldenbooks during the holiday season. "It was another lesson, again, that in our society, you are worth what people pay you and we tend to equate money with success and happiness. I didn't realize I harbored those ideologies until I was faced with the internal reaction that the value of my time had dropped as far as the marketplace was concerned. Eventually, I came to [see] that what someone else pays me for my time isn't a statement of my value; I have to get that from inside."
The Take Back Your Time movement hadn't emerged when Colford was taking her life back, but she says the movement's call for policy change in America (see "The Platform," page 22) is important because it may allow those without the advantages she had to take back some of their time.
"Taking a step like I did was probably easier for me than it might be for other people because I'm not married, I don't have children and there's no one else dependent on my income," Colford says. "But on the flip side, I had no safety net -- no spouse with an income or family with money. I did it on my own."
Colford said doing it on her own took more than just budgeting.
"I was learning how to place value on my own time and going through the discernment process of how I was going to exchange my time for money."
Ann says she decided to go back to graduate school. She moved back to New England, where she is originally from, and obtained a master's degree in American Studies. She's since returned to Spokane and writes part time for several area publications, including The Inlander. She drives a 15-year-old car and says she will never be able to own a house. She struggles to pay her student loans. She also says she's never been happier.
"I did not like the person I was becoming before, or rather, the person I was in danger of becoming," Colford says, referring to her consumer-driven past. "I like tweaking the culture."
Colford says one of the major bonuses of her lifestyle is that her ecological "footprint" is lighter. She eats whole foods from an organic farm and spends more time cooking than going out to eat.
"In my neighborhood, I have one bag of trash that goes into the [apartment complex bin]. I walk to the market to buy my groceries because it accomplishes three things: it keeps me healthy because I'm getting exercise, it ensures I don't buy too much because I have to haul it all back, and it saves gasoline."
Colford explains that owning her time means she has more of it to spend on relationships.
"My dad had Alzheimer's, and he passed away three years ago," she says, tearing up. "I had the time to be present with him and my mom during that time in our family." Now, she says, she cares for her mother. "I have the time and the emotional wherewithal to help her."
Even though she says giving up her old life didn't feel liberating right away -- and even felt terrifying -- she made the journey from "not unhappy" to "following my bliss."
"I'm not trying to say that poverty equals happiness. I have compassion for people who are caught up in the cycle of poverty. But I do think that money doesn't buy happiness either," she says. "The other day I was watching one of those home improvement shows and there was this house where a designer just built a new closet in the master suite. This closet was bigger than my bedroom! It had more cabinets than my kitchen. I thought, 'The more stuff you have, the more you have to think about what to do with your stuff, where to keep your stuff, how to move your stuff, store your stuff, even get enough use out of your stuff.' I was like, 'Who needs stuff?' The way I see it, the more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you."
Publication date: 07/01/04