Feb. 8, 2010 -- It was a simple observation that led to a major lifestyle change -- and a much smaller home -- for the Salwen family of Atlanta.
Kevin Salwen, 51, entrepreneur, was driving with his then 14-year-old daughter Hannah, when they stopped at a notoriously slow traffic light. Hannah noticed a homeless man at the corner of the intersection panhandling, while a few feet away, a Mercedes idled. She pointed out that if the man driving the expensive car traded it in for a lesser one, maybe the homeless person could get a meal.
At the time, Kevin did not think much about his daughter's remarks. "The light changed, we went on and I thought the incident was over," Kevin said. "It wasn't until Hannah brought her anger about the situation back to the dinner table that I realized she was just fuming about it."
The family had volunteered for years at a soup kitchen. But Hannah's parents realized something had changed for their daughter that day. She wanted to do more. Hannah, now 17, started questioning why her family lived in such a big house. In a fit of frustration, her mother, Joan, 49, asked, "What do you want me to do, sell the house?"
That eureka moment led to the Salwens rethinking how they lived. "If we lived with less, we could offer an opportunity for hundreds or thousands of people to have the opportunity to have a better life," Kevin said.
Halfing Their Lives
After many heated discussions around the dinner table, and convincing younger brother Joseph, then 11 years old, the Selwans decided to sell their estimated $2 million home and buy something for half the price.
They also gave away half their belongings and committed more than half the proceeds of their home sale -- $800,000 -- to the Hunger Project , to help a village in Ghana.
Their new home, costing $900,000, while very comfortable for a family of four, still caused a major recalibration in the Salwens' life. Gone was the elevator in their original home. They now shared a driveway and had a backyard 1/10 the size of their old one. But the Salwens quickly found they didn't mind sharing the tighter quarters.
"What I love about this house is there's more human interaction," Joseph, now 15, said. "I can walk room to room and every room, see someone in my family."
A trip to Ghana also cemented the family's belief that their small sacrifice had big implications. "Seeing the people's faces in Ghana, seeing how appreciative they were that we were there supporting them," Hannah said.
Kevin and Hannah have now co-written a book documenting how they "halved" their lives called, "The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back." They hope the book will inspire others to rethink how they live their lives.
The Salwens realize they're lucky to have been in such a strong financial position to make such a dramatic gesture, and that selling your family's home is not a possibility for most Americans.
"I think there's an inertia or momentum to our lives," Kevin explained. "We try to keep up with others and try to give more things to our kids because that's what we're supposed to do." He wants others to start thinking in terms of "What do we have and what do we need."
The family does admit to pine for some of the perks of the old house -- mom, Joan misses the kitchen and Hannah wishes she still had a big backyard -- but the Salwens don't regret a thing.
"When I think about where the money went," Hannah said. "When I think about where we are now as a family and our new house -- I wouldn't give it up for anything. I know where I am now is better."
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