This story is the second of four profiles of couples taking a third metric approach to matrimony, prioritizing wellbeing and fun ahead of wealth, status and being constantly "on." Check out how Meghan and Josh used the same strategy to transform their marriage.
Sarah and Jeff Russell hadn’t been in the workforce that long when it stopped making sense to them.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2006 with a degree in environmental studies, Sarah couldn’t find a position in her field so she worked in 9-to-5 administrative jobs. Her husband, Jeff, now 30, worked as a bartender and a bouncer, a draining gig involving long, late hours with a demanding (read: drunk) clientele. Their individual unhappiness put a lot of strain on their marriage, as did the fact that they worked almost opposite schedules.
"It's hard to connect when you only see each other in passing,” said Sarah. “If both people are stressed in their jobs, I think you bring that home. Some of that anxiety and frustration transfers to the relationship with your spouse -- how could it not?”
In 2010, Sarah, now 28, started to question, “this model where we work 40 hours a week regardless of what jobs actually require to get things done.” Her frustration and restlessness became even more pronounced when she and Jeff decided they were ready to have kids.
“Thinking about how we want to run a family, it isn't two parents working two jobs running around and not having quality family time," Sarah said. Both she and Jeff were raised by stay-at-home moms. ”We always had it in the back of our minds that if we could do it financially, we would love to have one of us to stay at home.”
So they decided to do something radical: quit their jobs.
As Sarah described in a blog post in April 2012, the couple had a six-month plan to get their finances in order. They worked longer hours, paid down some debt, and saved to replace Sarah's $36,000 salary and the money Jeff made in tips, and to cover their health insurance.
"We knew we were taking a big risk, especially given the state of the economy and the difficulty many people are having finding jobs, but we're young and our condo payment is cheap," she said.
They wanted a six-month emergency fund, but “both of us just hit the point where it was like, ‘We can't do this anymore. We've set ourselves up as well as we can,'” Sarah wrote in the post.
Their plan worked. Sarah immediately established a successful freelance career in digital marketing, then was hired by one of her clients to work full-time in a remote position with flexible hours.
Now Sarah wakes up around 6:30 and works through the morning, taking a break around 10 to work out. Jeff gets up around 11. They have lunch together and if it’s a weekday, Sarah does a few more hours of work. Their home in Madison, Wis., is a two-bedroom, townhouse-style condo so when she’s writing, Jeff can be on a different floor reading or handling projects around the house.
“Then we come back together again for dinner and enjoy the evening, whether that means going out with friends or taking a walk,” said Sarah. She turns in around 11, and Jeff, still a night owl after all those years working late shifts, usually stays up until around 2 reading or playing video games.
After spending so little time together, it was strange at first to be together all the time, but their slightly different schedules help them maintain their own space. "We still have our own interests and our own activities, so it's not like we're spending so much time together that we're bored of each other," said Sarah.
Their stress levels had never been lower, and in November 2012, Sarah got pregnant.
But it was six months later when tragedy struck, that the changes they made yielded their most important benefit. In April, Sarah’s pregnancy ended in stillbirth. In the aftermath, Sarah said, she and Jeff have grown even closer, but she's not sure that would have been the case if they hadn't quit their jobs.
"Having both of us at home let us work through thoughts and feelings as they came up. My employer was tremendously supportive and understanding, and having the flexibility in my schedule that they've given me made it easier to schedule things like doctors appointments, counselor visits and whatever else we needed to do to heal," she said.
Sarah and Jeff are trying to get pregnant again. Until they have kids, Jeff has gone back to work part-time in a hotel in guest services, a much healthier and lower-stress work environment than a bar. Sarah is still working remotely in the same job. She said they are working “with that same conscious attention to [the question], 'are these jobs giving us the freedom that we wanted originally?'"
Are they worried about the stress parenthood will likely bring or the toll it could exact on their marriage? “Yeah, for sure,” Sarah said.
“Not that that would ever deter us,” she added. “We aren't dealing with stressful jobs alongside the stress of raising a child. I think that that's going to be a positive thing.”
Remarkably, Sarah isn't concerned about money, even though having a child will mean many additional expenses. Her field pays well, she said, and “because our focus isn't on the accumulation of wealth or things, we don't worry. We don't live in a huge house, we aren't taking expensive vacations, our car isn't new. We've deliberately chosen to simplify our lives.”
Distilling out what wasn't important has in turn strengthened their marriage. "To not bring home a ton of stress has been wonderful in terms of our ability to communicate, our sex life, all of it. When you're not carrying around a bunch of frustration, that automatically puts you in a better mood and carries over into the relationship that you have with your partner,” said Sarah. “We're a lot closer as a result.”