What I want everyone to know about downshifting

…and the one thing I myself don’t get yet

downshifting noun UK /ˈdaʊn.ʃɪf.tɪŋ/ US /ˈdaʊn.ʃɪf.tɪŋ/ the practice of leaving a job that is well paid and difficult in order to do something that gives you more time and satisfaction…

…but less money. (And let me add, it’s much less money)

I was working as an hourly paid teacher of English with British Council when I decided to downshift. Ongoing mental health struggles that had played dodgeball with my brains since 2015 had returned for a rematch and I was having trouble keeping my lines straight. Also, my line manager at BC (and a dear friend) had suddenly up and left not just the organisation but the country, and I felt quite rudderless, especially because I had just undertaken a challenging 2-year course that would help me achieve more at my job with the hopes that he would be around to guide and supervise me through it. Along with that, there were hostile people in the company whom I did not wish to work with, my friends had all left the teaching centre and it had become difficult to pretend that money was that important to me.

I had been noodling with the idea of starting my own teaching practice, small but qualitatively at par with the best of them, and felt that I was financially and mentally sound enough to start planning that too. This was all happening circa mid-2019. So, I put the plan into motion — started reducing my hours at BC, rented out a room to turn into my tutorial space, worked in there myself (putting up wallpaper, scavenging for new and old things I could repurpose and reuse in there, laying down flooring mats) to make it ready in time for the upcoming teaching season (Aug-Sep). I designed flyers, invitations, rate cards, ID cards and little bitty things that would lend a personal touch to my brand — and till date I look at them with fondness and pride; they’re some of my best work. I spent thousands on the renovation and advertisement materials and held open classes every day inviting people to come get a sense of what I was offering. Few got in touch and even fewer came through, but that was to be expected. By December, I was spending a lot of time in that room, testing out equipment (I had a projector and a large 3D-enabled white board) and making lesson plans for what I would teach. In January, I set up the Instagram and Facebook pages and started the social media posts; I had plans to send out flyers once the winters had relented a little and people were more willing to come out of their homes.

But wait, if I started all this in 2019, and this is next February then that means the year is…yep, you’ve got that right, 2020. March 20th, I met with the local newspaper guy to discuss the distribution plan for the flyers. March 23rd our world shut down indefinitely. Approximately 15000 flyers, 2000 rate cards, 1000 open class invitations and 200 ID cards instantly became kindling (I mean, not really, I still have them, but you get the point).

My plan to downshift was sandwiched between the promise of a more personal teaching practice and the possibility of having more time to devote to animal welfare. Instead, I was stuck with piles of promo material mocking me from the corner of my book shelf and a panic to start earning again which, if I’m being honest, has not left me yet.

The other day I found myself saying that I feel like I’ve failed at this aspect of my life.

And unlike the other aspect where (people think) I have failed — marriage and shit — this one actually counts because I genuinely did not think I would be standing here at my age.

It also makes turning 40 sound like a bitter end instead of a celebration of reaching my midlife without losing a limb. Maybe by the time I am 40, I will be in a better place, but so far it looks very unlikely that that will occur. The world is just shit right now and it’s getting shittier by the day.

However, during these two years I have also realised how little people know or understand about the concept of downshifting and how it is essential that I, for my own peace of mind, talk about it more.

On similar lines, I want to write this out because I am equal parts amazed and disturbed by the unwillingness of people around me to discuss money like it’s not just any other thing.

Here’s something that I have found — for me money is a part of my existence, but not the defining nor driving force behind it. I know that I need money but that it is a need similar in nature to my other needs for food, water, shelter, companionship and intellectual stimulation. I will not survive were I to lose on any one of these, and that’s a fact. Money does not rest on a higher altar than the rest of them.

Sometimes, I feel like it does for others around me though. Like, whenever I talk about money or earning or a similar topic, an uncomfortable pall settles around the room, a din that only I can hear. I continue to talk, to ‘discuss’, but I know in my heart that I’ll be the only one talking with others nodding politely/hazily till I finish and invariably take my very-desired leave. What is it about money that makes them so uncomfortable, I wonder? It’s deeply odd to me and I find it cringe-worthy to say the least. It’s almost like money is such a magnanimous and impregnable higher truth that the mere acknowledgement of it makes us heretics or blasphemous at the very least. Or maybe, it’s that just having to discuss soemthing as banal as money makes them step down on the social mobility ladder they’ve spent years climbing. Like just the act of acknowledging that we all run on moolah is too pedestrian, too…plebeian.

Often I find myself wanting to ask them, ‘why do you look so uncomfortable? Why can’t you talk about this? Is it because you think that talking about money in and of itself is admitting that you need it? That I need it? And if so, is that such a terrible thing? To need something to which we have universally decided to attach the highest value? Why does it have to be a collective secret that you impress upon everyone?’ It’s baffling to me. It’s laughable how little people want to talk about it, considering it’s the only thing they function on. Anyway, people are weird.

So, what does downshifting mean when it’s all cracked up? Here are a few lived descriptors:

  • Constant budgeting is a choice, not a need (and I love it)
  • Using a product till it is finished becomes important and fulfilling part of daily life
  • Choosing to not indulge in one’s every whim becomes an acquired skill (that feels great)
  • There are good months and bad months and you can feel the entire range of your emotional spectrum on payday
  • Even with steady employment, the danger of a sudden expense is real and frequent, especially if you work with animals
  • Splurging mindlessly starts to really feel horrible, especially when you see the amount of trash it generates for the planet
  • Not wanting to waste stuff becomes a desire, because stuff costs money and stuff has value and stuff causes landfills to fill up (landfills that could be used to give the kids of the future houses)
  • The frivolity with which people spend your money or expect you to spend money on them can be shocking
  • If you dress well, don’t constantly whine about money and are generally well-kept, people assume hyper-solvency on your behalf

To repeat myself for the sake for continuation, I am not the sorts to be defined by my money or how many brands I have or use — I never have been. I take after my father who was urban cool, had one or two choice items that he would spend money on once in a while and just pantster’d the rest. He found one clothing store that carried affordable stuff he liked near our house and he spent decades shopping there (and so did I). I loved that. Just having what you need and nothing more. It was easy.

Even today, I try to maintain that as much as I can. I will spend on something intelligent or efficacious, like a vacuum cleaner that helps ease my severe allergies, but not on a single-use plastic tube of something that isn’t cruelty free, isn’t vegan, isn’t responsibly sourced, and aggressively markets against all Indian beauty ideals. It will be like I’m paying them to make me feel badly about my entire self. And my self worth has never been tied too closely to how much hair my follicles produce on every crevice of my body or which size pants I am buying. If I’m fat, I’m fat and that’s okay because when I was not, they still called me fat and you don’t see me dying over that so…

I am learning now that how much I make is directly connected to how much I think I will need. There are always overhead expenses — cats to save, repairs and fixes, house appliances breaking, some asshole not paying for the cab ride taking their abandoned kittens to a new forever home, the usual stuff — and I am usually prepared for that. But then there are months like December when everything sort of shuts down and my employer forgets to tell me that there won’t be too much work coming my way because they’re not getting much work, and it sends me into a tizzy because guess what, my geyser will still stop working, two of my cats will still decide to saunter in with a new wound or a cold, my one good pair of leggings that lasted me all of my daily-shelter-going days, a few solid months of walking/jogging and a couple of years of fairly regular use will rip on my first day back at the gym (nothing to see here, keep walking folks) and ASSHOLES WILL STILL ABANDON KITTENS AND REFUSE TO BEAR ANY COSTS FOR THEIR DEPARTURES because OH, THEY ARE ASSHOLES!!!

In such cases I use my savings. But now I use them all up. That’s the difference.

I try to save at least 15% of all my earnings but I end up using most of that up each month.

Minki is growing up and I feed all my cats premium food and don’t spare any costs on their care. I sponsor three separate houses with cat food because they cannot (or if they can, they refuse to try and now it’s been too long for me to ask/check. If they are decent, they will ask me to stop when they can afford it. If they keep thinking I’m a bank because of the size of my house — which I didn’t buy — well then, appearances count I suppose).

I also end up spending a lot on minor things like cab rides for kitten foster parents who end up asking me for cab fare, cat food, litter and other such items which I then have to give because what am I going to do, not give them? There are hidden expenses in all shelter-related work — litter trays breaking, a cat has come in pregnant and paralysed, needs x-ray and ultrasound, and no body to take her to the x-ray place so I do the trips and the treatment rounds. All of this keeps going out of my pocket.

I also have health issues that run deep. My allergies cost me in regular medicines. I have to get tests done sometimes and other times buy emergency stock of medicines. Consultations are expensive and so are specialised prescription drugs.

I sponsor sterilisations for shelter cats hoping once they are ready for release they will at least not keep having kittens, only to learn that they have died from a secondary infection days after I got them sterilised because nobody bothered to release them on time and how is that my fault??? It’s utterly crushing when this happens and each cat costs me anywhere between 2500 and 3200 all told.

When someone downshifts, they don’t do it without a plan. The issue is, that plan cannot be made public. It is a personal and private decision, to be maintained and adjusted personally and privately. But of course because we live in a social environment, the plausibility of that falls under a rather harsh perspective. After paying 28–30k for my part of the home+our cats+bills, I am left with the right amount to cater to my stray cat work, my own expenses (my one decadence is ordering in and I budget for that, strictly making sure that I never overspend on a meal and ensuring that I eat from paper-packaging friendly places as much as I can and not waste food), some city travel money and some emergency funds. What I don’t like to budget for is, well, everything else.

A few things I have had to give up:

  1. Any kind of travel or holiday. Although, I will change this once the world opens up properly again and I find a place which does not actively abuse their animals (I’m looking at you, Phuket, you stinking, elephant-enslaving, white-people-worshipping, racist-to-your-own-people pisspot)
  2. Overindulgence in superior quality alcohol just because. Listen, if you know me, you know I’ve never been such a drinker. I’ve always enjoyed the same drink, and am happy with or without it. Nothing gets me over the top and I’m never in the mood to ruin myself and be reminded the next day of what a fool I was the day before. So on all those counts, I’m good. But I did develop a taste of the finer spirits and now I limit myself to Jameson — familiar and affordable. I want to spend on better bottles but I don’t see the point.
  3. Similarly, clothes and shoes and bags, oh my. I just don’t get it, and I get it even less no with all the information on how brands source their raw materials and what fast fashion means for the earth. I can’t bring myself to go to malls and buy a dress for 6000 or a t shirt for 2000 and justify it in any possible way. The kicker is, if i’m feeling fit and happy, I’ll feel that way regardless of the price tag of my clothes and if I feel like shit, well, you get it.
  4. Buying expensive presents for others. If you’ve been in my inner circle, you’ve received something from me. I’ll admit, I used to have a bit of a mania for gift-giving earlier. I’ve done it all, from handmade greeting cards to handmade lanterns. But today, gifts are reserved for the select few (most of them are cats) and otherwise, whenever there is need for mass gifting, I go with vegan or organic cookies, made by my friend Isha and wrapped by yours truly. It’s delicious, it’s personalised and it’s wrapped in pretty origami. A gift could do worse!

I’m sure there are many things I’m forgetting here, not because I am not thorough when making notes for an essay but because there is so much of daily life that isn’t happening right now that I’m sure some aspects of downshifting have just…shifted out of the way (eugh, even I hated that). Maybe I will come back to this some day soon (let’s raise our eyes to the heavens in silent prayers, everyone) and update it with some real time impacts of this economical lifestyle. Till then, if you have thoughts on downshifting, or if you or someone you know has tried it, would you be a dear and tell me about it? I genuinely want to hear other people’s take on this seemingly unnatural frugality that I have chosen to embrace.

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