Afford The Life You Want
If you have dreams, go for them. With a smart, thoughtful strategy and the proper commitment to your goals, you don't have to let money stand in your way
By Cybele Weisser

(MONEY Magazine) – Have you ever thought that your life would be richer if you made a real change? Not just slogging one rung higher on the corporate ladder or botoxing away those crow's-feet, but rather the sort of change that jolts your life off its current track and propels it down a profoundly new path. Judging from both anecdotal evidence and surveys, chances are good that such radical ambitions well up in you from time to time. Nearly half of all Americans say they're itching to leave their jobs. Some 40% are eager to start their own businesses. About two-thirds of working moms (and many dads) want to stay home with the kids, at least for a time. Countless others dream of finding the means to lead a simpler existence, move to a less crowded area or otherwise slow down their lives.

More than any other factor, what stands between the lives people say they want and the lives they've settled for is money. Dreams are expensive. To launch a business, for example, you may need lots of capital, and eventually you will have to give up the security of your current salary. And kicking back to a less stressful life can squeeze your standard of living. But while money is always an issue, the question any serious dreamer needs to ask is this: Is money an insurmountable obstacle? Or is it just an excuse? As you'll see from the stories below, there are few financial hurdles you can't clear with unflagging commitment and a smart plan. "It's the all-or-nothing fallacy: People believe they have to gamble all their savings to make a major life change, and they're too sensible to do that," says Barbara Sher, author of It's Only Too Late if You Don't Start Now: How to Create Your Second Life at Any Age. "But if you set up the right strategy and stick with it, most goals, or at least a version of them, are well within reach."

Before you permanently shelve your hopes (and run the risk that you'll forever regret what might have been), at least examine how you might put yourself on a practical path to your goals. On the pages that follow, you will meet four families who have succeeded in making their own transition from the life they had to the life they really wanted. Their stories prove that while such dramatic moves always involve trade-offs, there's no particular magic to making them happen. And while the dreams of these four families may not match yours exactly, you'll have no trouble recognizing the impulse behind them. So read on. All you have to lose is your excuses.

Define the Dream

A major problem with many change-your-life ambitions is that they're too vague. Simply saying "I want to work for myself" or "I want to simplify my life" doesn't give you much to work with. As Sher points out, "The more specific you can be about what you hope to gain, the better your chances of getting what you really want."

To better develop your vision, you'll have to do research. Read books, scour the Internet, talk to others who have followed a similar path, and try to develop a detailed sense of what the life you want really involves. (See "Counsel for Dreamers," at right, for websites that can help.) Don't just focus on the positive. Says Damian Birkel, a career counselor in Winston-Salem, N.C.: "Find out what people hate about what they do and what keeps them up at night."

Then, like Bob and Sandy Delonis, 47 and 54, use what you've learned to refine your goal. When the couple first decided to act on their long-held dream of chucking their corporate jobs at a local power plant to run a bed and breakfast, they figured they'd open a small inn within 100 miles of their home in Charlotte, N.C. Before quitting their jobs, they spent a year reading books, attending industry seminars and talking to other innkeepers to bone up on the business. "I was surprised to find out that a bed and breakfast is a very low-profit business," says Bob. "The expenses, especially the food bills, are higher than you might think."

Through the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, the Delonises found a study of the costs and profit margins for inns of different sizes, and discovered that inns with 10 or more rooms are usually more profitable than smaller ones. They also concluded that purchasing an existing inn would be easier than establishing a new customer base. Their conversations with local innkeepers, most of whom had second jobs, also prompted them to rethink their location. "Occupancy rate is a big factor in profitability, and the season in North Carolina is just too short to make money," says Sandy.

So the couple extended their search to properties further south, scouting locations in Savannah, Charleston and eastern Florida. Eventually they settled on the Mango Inn, a 10-room establishment in Lake Worth, Fla. with a solid roster of repeat customers. They spent $1.4 million to acquire the B&B last July, financed partly by the sale of their $525,000 home in Charlotte and partly with a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. Rooms at the Mango Inn rent for between $110 and $250 a night, depending on the season, and the Delonises figure they need a 50% occupancy rate to break even and 60% to turn a profit. Notes Bob: "Over time, we hope to make a comfortable living, but the big profit will come from our equity in the property when we sell later on."

Develop a Plan

Once you've articulated your vision and researched what it takes to make it work, you've got to squarely address the key issue: figuring out how to pay for it. The plan has to be pragmatic, based not on what you think the dream will cost or how your income and expenses might change as a result, but on what your research shows it will cost. Sit down at the kitchen table, roll up your sleeves, and run the numbers. (For some key steps, see "Nail Down the Financing" on page 67.) Ask yourself, How much can I realistically expect to earn for the first month, six months, year, five years after I make this change? How can I raise the additional money I'll need? What can I alter to make my goal more affordable? Then, as Corey and Laurie Davis of Minneapolis did, try to develop several financial strategies that can help you achieve the dream.

Even before their first child was born seven years ago, the Davises, both 41, were focused on a single, overarching goal: They wanted their kids to be raised by a stay-at-home mom or dad. "I worked in a day-care center for a while, and I believe that children are simply happier with their parents," says Corey, a sales manager. But having one spouse at home and giving up half of their combined salary, then $70,000, seemed out of the question. "The life adjustments we'd have to make seemed impossible," says Laurie, a marketing professional. "But Corey and I were determined that when we had children, we would raise them."

So when Audrey, now 7, came along, followed by Madeline, 5 and Emily, 2, the Davises came up with a plan to live on a single income. They sharply reined in their spending, rarely buying new furniture or clothes, and renting movies from the library instead of the local video store. They made sacrifices: Rather than buy a second car, Corey spent years biking between home and work, nine miles each way, during the frigid Minneapolis winters. They also drew the line at what sacrifices they wouldn't make, like giving up swimming lessons for the kids. And they stayed flexible, switching roles as stay-at-home parent several times during the past few years, depending on who had the better job opportunity at the time.

Last fall, Laurie, who'd been home for the prior 4½ years, was recruited for a lucrative job at a medical device company. Although their combined salaries would have boosted their income to nearly six figures, Corey didn't hesitate to quit his job as manager of a sporting goods store to take his turn as full-time dad. "We tell each other we can have a nicer car and a bigger house later," says Corey. "At first, it looks like we're making a sacrifice, but when we think about the greater goal, it's no sacrifice at all."

Explore Trade-offs

Sometimes, though, no matter how you crunch the numbers, you just can't make the math work. In that case, you need to consider the compromises you'd be willing to make. Perhaps you could extend the time horizon of the goal from, say, two years to three or scale back your initial ambitions. Or maybe you could move to a lower-cost location. "Don't think in terms of trade-offs, think about trade-ons," says Barbara Moses, author of What Next? The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life. "Focus on the things you will be getting, not on what you're giving up."

That's the approach taken six years ago by Floyd Blair, now 40, who at the time was working for a nonprofit organization that helped homeless individuals. Part of his job as manager of a residence for HIV-positive homeless men involved advocating to get them health and other benefits, which in turn sparked an intense desire to get a law degree. Yet law school, a big financial commitment for anyone, seemed all but impossible for Blair, then a father of three children, living in New York City and married to Carolyn, a $33,000-a-year schoolteacher. Not only would he have to pay as much as $50,000 a year in tuition and expenses, but he'd have to give up his own $30,000 annual salary for three full years.

So the Blairs made the difficult decision to move to lower-cost Baltimore, where Floyd had been accepted at the University of Maryland's law school. "We're both lifelong New Yorkers and so are all of our family," Floyd says. "We didn't know anyone at all in Baltimore." But moving would save them almost $700 a month in rent and car insurance payments. More important, once Carolyn, now 42, found a teaching job there, Floyd qualified as a state resident. That cut his tuition to about $15,000 a year, or less than half the cost of a private school. Loans covered the bill. "I knew I would graduate with a lot of debt, but I figured I would triple my former salary," he says.

For three years, Floyd attended classes all day, took the bus home at night to eat dinner with his family, then drove back to school to study. When money ran low, he took a part-time job to make sure the kids would have Christmas gifts. "I would wake up at two or three in the morning and think, Wow, what am I doing?" he says. But today, Floyd, now the father of five (pictured on page 66, from left: Jamani, 5; David, 9; Randi, 7; Dovetta, 12; and Victoria, 10), has a job that he loves as deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, and he's earning four times his former salary. "This was a huge risk," he says. "But you have to take a huge risk in order to have a huge payoff."

Take a Test Run

One way to make the switch less risky: Take baby steps instead of giant leaps toward your goal. Try living on the budget you'll have to make do with in your new life before you give up your old one. Start your new business as a sideline venture instead of launching a full-scale operation from the outset. If you keep your day job, you get the benefit of a steady income while you explore whether your new direction is really right for you—in effect, you'll be working with a safety net.

Consider Phil Coccioletti, 51, a successful model and actor, who had longed for a career making films. In the early '90s a musician friend asked him to direct a music video, which was later picked up by MTV. Shortly thereafter, he got a shot at directing a travel video for Puerto Rico's film commission. "When that project came up, I thought, Hey, this is really happening. I'm going to make the change now," Coccioletti says.

But upon further reflection, he decided it was simply too risky to give up his day job. So he decided to run his production company as a sideline and continue modeling. The film business grew slowly but steadily over time, with occasional dry spells. Phil's wife Barbara, 42, a former model who now runs a home decor and accessories store in Irvington, N.Y., was supportive throughout. "As a business owner herself, Barbara knows there are hills and valleys and times when it will be slow," he says.

In 2000, the stock market crashed, the advertising business hit a wall and modeling assignments suddenly became scarce. But by then, Phil's production company was doing well enough to support him and his family. Four years later, he's still mostly making videos for a living, even though he continues to accept the occasional modeling assignment. As Coccioletti notes, "I've learned that you always have to have something to fall back on."

Have a Plan B

Face it, there is no way to save or strategize enough to cover every contingency. Kids get sick, jobs don't work out, businesses fail. That's why a well-thought-out backup plan is so vital. In many cases, the best fallback is indeed a return to your former occupation or employer, so take care not to burn any bridges.

If you encounter a setback, don't give up. Two months after Bob and Sandy Delonis opened the Mango Inn, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne swept through Florida, destroying hundreds of homes in the area. Water damage forced the couple to shut down for most of September. But after a few weeks of tough cleanup work, Bob and Sandy were ready to reopen. To their surprise, business didn't suffer. "The big resorts in the area couldn't clean up as fast, so they began referring customers to us," says Bob. "It ended up being quite a boon to our business."

The lesson: There will always be setbacks when you undertake a daring life change, and you can't let them stop you. Besides, setbacks are inevitable in life. The question is, Will they happen to you in the life you have or the one you really want?