What Giving Up Money for Buddhism Taught Me

What buddhism taught me about money

Kathy Southard has spent the past seven years studying Buddhism

In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic.
Today, Kathy Southard shares how she went from enjoying a six-figure income to relinquishing that comfortable life to go on a year-long, bare-bones Buddhist retreat. 

In the spring of 2007, I found myself at a sudden turning point: packing my bags to leave the London apartment I shared with my boyfriend, and moving to a Buddhist sangha (community) house.

That was the first step in finding a greater sense of freedom and happiness—with several twists and turns along the way.

Auspicious Beginnings

In 2004, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One day, I saw the movie “Love, Actually” and thought that London looked like a great, romantic city­—the next morning, I got an email about social work opportunities in London. Within a week, they interviewed me, and I had the job.

My rental apartment came already furnished, and I’ve always been really pared down, so I was mostly just moving clothes. I also travel light—the most precious thing that I have is a paintbrush.

The cost of living is really high in London, and the exchange rate was roughly two dollars to the pound. But I worked for the National Health Service, the government-run public healthcare system, so my paycheck was in pounds and I didn’t need to worry about steep health insurance costs.

As soon as I got to London in 2005, I met my boyfriend. The stars aligned.

Living Not-So-Large in London

In 2006, I moved in with my boyfriend. As an investment banker, he was making much more than I was–about $200,000 to my roughly $50,000–so we split things in proportion to our income, each paying shared bills by a percentage.

Even with our combined salaries, we lived simply because London is such an expensive city. I’d been studying Buddhism for seven years at that point–which teaches non-attachment to material things–so my focus was on those teachings, rather than fancy dinners and other luxuries.

Working for the NHS also gave me perspective: I knew that I was lucky and well-off compared to many other people. And since my boyfriend was down-to-earth, we generally saw eye-to-eye on our lifestyle.

We didn’t agree on everything, however. My boyfriend was wonderful in many ways, but he wasn’t interested in Buddhism. And he didn’t like when I did too many retreats, using my vacation time to travel without him. He would have taken me anywhere in the world–we visited Prague, France and Italy together–but I felt that going on a retreat was more meaningful.

Eventually, he wanted to buy us a big house and take care of me financially, while I stayed home. I knew in my heart that we weren’t meant to be together, but it took a conversation with my Buddhist teacher at a weekend retreat to convince me that it wasn’t right.

When I came home, I broke up with him. It was the first of many big financial lessons that I’d learn: I needed my own source of income. My own sense of self-worth.

  • Diane

    You are very brave to follow your heart in a world that tells you to listen to factors outside of yourself such as money and “being reasonable.” I too took a leap of faith and moved to Virginia with no job lined up, no finacial security because I needed to leave NYC (where I grew up). I got a job in 2 months as people were telling me that I was crazy and probably wouldn’t find work in this economy. I have true purpose now and let my spirituality lead my decisions rather than just my mind. I contemplate, pray, meditate, and then take the leap. God bless you and your journey and for ebign brave.

  • evr

    I hope your experience inspires more people to do what they really want in life, and I hope everything works out for you when you move to NYC. I live in NYC and this town certainly needs more people like you to influence us all to focus on what’s most important. 

  • Rebeccakija

    I just left a comfortable yet unfulfilling relationship two weeks ago. My timing couldn’t get any worse, I feel sad and lonely and miserable, yet, I know what you’re saying by feeling a different kind of happy. I finally have hope in my future, I’m walking tall, and I WANT to exercise… Who knew? Sometimes in life you have to be brave and take a leap of faith. Thanks for your story.

    • Yukasa Shida

      I am going through exactly the same situation right now. You are totally right!

  • terri merritts

    I bet when she gets to New York she’ll find it stressful and expensive too (it is) and clearly she hasn’t got the right temperament to be a social worker as you have to put the needs of others first. Also, when potential employers see her work a job for a year, take a sabbatical for a year, return and quit, then move to another country, well, this not an impressive work history. 

    I work, manage to travel the world, am happily married, got grad degrees, am a mom, do a lot of volunteer work and exercise daily. You don’t have to run off to a Buddhist retreat to be happy and relaxed and you can damage your ability to save for the future and earn  enough to live a good life by taking jobs then immediately taking year long sabbaticals or quitting. Why does she keep moving or planning to move only to the most expensive cities on the planet? 

    • Diane

      That’s good for you, but she had to do what she needed to do to be happy. What does it matter to you how she does it? Why can’t you just be supportive instead of being critical of her decisions. And she just like cities. Give the woman a break.  

    • CK

      You’re right; most people are far too scared to do what the woman in the article has done.

    • Grace

      Stop making this about you, Terri.  I’m sorry that you don’t have the right temperament to read this woman’s story without criticizing her for listening to her heart and doing what she really wants to do.  

    • Parfum362

      Terri is right. It is important that the writer fulfill her spiritual quest as that is what makes her heart sing, but don’t expect future HR managers to be impressed with her work history.  It’s just a fact.  And as a Buddhist  the writer knows all about cause and effect, but she will find the right job for her.

      Also, the title of this article should be “What Giving Up My Boyfriend’s Money Taught Me”.  It wasn’t her six figures, it was his.

    • http://bornagaingreen.wordpress.com/ Cait

      Apparently, the life lessons she learned from attending a Buddhist retreat were MUCH more meaningful than, as you put it, making sure she can “save for the future and earn enough to live a good life.” The theme of this article wasn’t how to save money by becoming Buddhist; rather, it was how unimportant money seemed because of her newfound awareness of REAL living, and how to detach yourself from the greed of money and fancy things.

    • Kathy

      As far as this article goes, I thought it was interesting/odd someone would want to interview me about what I had done by coming to a monastery. A LearnVest journalist saw that I’d commented on a blog about rich people feeling poor.  I wrote I understood, but now I feel richer than ever without any money, which is true. My choices and what I am doing didn’t seem that special to me as I know lots of people who do this, in fact I am surrounded by much, much braver people at the monastery who do this their whole lives, not just a year. Also, my ”work” and training at the monastery is working with myself and the others here to be better and more available to working with others when I leave here.  It is training in compassion and kindness which I hope dearly will spill out when I go back to my professional career.   The first person to start with is one’s self and then naturally you are more like this with others.   I am not pretending to be better than anyone and everyone has their own path. I really hope that is clear.  I don’t recommend anyone doing what I’m doing actually, unless one really has the desire to do so.  

      To be a mother is an incredible responsiblity, I have a lot of respect for mothers.  I would not be able to have the same lifestyle that I have now if I were one.  It might be nice to be one, one day, but so far, I’ve not met the right partner.  And yes, I love big multicultural cities.  I love knowing and befriending people from all corners of the earth and broadening my view of humanity, which just seems easier to do in a big multinational city. I don’t think I’ll get too stress out in NY after 7 years spent living in London.  Well, I might, but I do know how to cope.  Buddhism/ meditation is not a method for teaching how to escape suffering, stress, or pain, it is a method in how to look at one’s mind as the source of this and by understanding deeply one’s mind, you can still have the same problems, but you might be better equipped to deal with them.  Meditation is training in how to overcome one’s habitual tendencies that cause difficult emotional reactions and lessen clinging to one’s self. Also, on my work history, I was with my last employer for 6 years.  I tend to pack up and leave ever 3 years.  I would like to stop this and am working on that.  Merry Christmas.  I wish you peace.

      • Thomama

        Thank you for your thoughtful response.  There are any number of ways to live, and yours is but one.  

        As a mother, an important component of my children’s welfare is my actually my own well-being; meditation and retreat is a way I take care of myself, and in turn, I  care better for my children.  

        While you may never impress, nor work for, the Terri’s of this world, there are many others awed and inspired by your journey, myself among them.  You will find work, I’m sure, amongst kindred spirits.  

  • Janie_s2000

    That is so interesting! You are wiser than your years, doing this before you get further in years, now you can put into practice or at least use it as a point of reference. Kudos to you for following your heart.

  • EDG

    I love that she did this! Its a dream and she followed it!

  • Beanr84

    bitch