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.
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.