These days, working for an investment bank is akin to being labelled a child molester. Bankers walk around in public with their heads bowed to avoid meeting new people and facing that dreaded question: "So, what line of business are you in?"
Until two years ago, I was in that line of business. Not as a City fat cat or a trader earning £1m bonuses; I was one of the hard-working managers behind the scenes. It feels a long way from my current lifestyle as a stay-at-home dad and house-husband, living in the country. So how did I switch from attending meetings with testosterone- fuelled high-flyers (including the women) to leading a life where the biggest decision in my day is whether to bake fairy cakes or flapjacks? No, I was not one of the many recent redundancies – I got out in the nick of time, though more due to overwork than having any kind of sixth sense about what was in store for the banking world. It was just time for a change – and a radical one.
Until 2006 I'd worked in the City for 16 years without a break between jobs. I was 41 years old and led a global team of 30-plus staff with responsibility for several high-profile projects. Ironically, my role was to implement business processes and IT systems to calculate the major risks banks faced – ensuring they had sufficient capital to survive highly unlikely market, credit and operational events. Events that have since proved to be more likely than anyone ever dreamt. So, in a way, I was one of the good guys, and I'm fortunate that no bank I worked at has gone under, or lost its depositors' money... yet.
On the home front, my wife, Gillian, was halfway through her teacher training, serving her apprenticeship at the same primary school our two children – Bethany, 11, and Christian, 8 – attended. On the surface, we looked like a typical family with two lovely kids, two caring parents, and two good jobs to pay the mortgage. What was the problem?
The problem was the amount of time my work absorbed. A typical weekday started before my children woke and ended after they'd gone to bed. Weekends were supposedly "family time", but were struck by project deadlines and IT roll-outs. Throw in the odd financial crisis – yes, they happened back then too – be that a hedge-fund crash, a disaster recovery event, or just a BlackBerry buzzing like a mosquito all night in our bedroom, and it would be fair to say I had a severe case of work-life imbalance.
Things came to a head when I found myself caught between the need to please my family and the need to appease my boss. When one particular system roll-out and "go-live" turned into a system roll over and die, I was forced to spend an entire family meal on my phone standing outside a pub in Surrey while my wife, kids and friends waved despairingly at me through the window.
The atmosphere in the car on the way home was as frosty as the weather outside. "You might as well have not been there," said my furious wife as our children dozed in the back. I told her I had no choice as there had been issues to sort. "There are always issues!" came her reply. She demanded I turn off my BlackBerry, but I pleaded that my boss would be on my case if I missed a problem at work. "The problem you're missing is right here with your family," Gillian said in a voice laced with sadness. Her words haunted me as we finished the journey back home in silence. That was the turning point that made me realise something had to change.
A few weeks later, after some serious project planning of my own for a change, I handed in my resignation – banks don't tend to offer sabbaticals – served out my full three months' notice and began a "gap" year at home to do some seriously overdue family bonding.
The transition from busy days in the office to solitude at home wasn't as easy as I had expected. I began to feel I needed a challenge – problems to solve, people to meet, things to do. Being at home all day, every day, sounded great in principle, but in practice I found that I missed the sense of purpose, of accomplishment, of status that I had in my former job. It wasn't long before I realised that "spending quality time with my family" was turning into "watching daytime television, surfing the internet, and waiting for emails other than spam in my inbox". It was time to apply some of my project management skills on myself. '
I created a to-do list as long a basketball player's arm, defined a role for myself at home and set myself goals within that role. Armed with quantifiable objectives and a renewed sense of purpose, I threw myself into domesticity with the same energy I'd applied in banking. I walked my children to school, attended class assemblies and school concerts, ferried them to and from drama, football, dance and "you-name-it-they're-in-it" club. By day, I was chief cook, washer-upper, head gardener, cleaner and odd-job man. By night I was a psychologist for my wife, providing a supportive ear and a glass of wine to offset the daily demands of her teacher training.
I discovered that managing children was not so different to managing awkward clients – they were just shorter. I was also invited on to the board of an executive committee – for my son's cub-scout group. It wasn't long before my project-management skills were put to good use when I was asked to organise the annual fund-raising cake stall. After scoping the requirements – and (in familiar terms) identifying the three "critical success factors" of table, sticky labels and doilies – I implemented a successful (and again, familiar) "three-pillar marketing strategy" based on emails, hand-outs, and badgering parents with the line, "Without your support, the future of YOUR child's cub pack could be seriously at risk." In business you can't afford to waver.
The night before our go-live, my own efforts at baking weren't as fruitful as I'd expected. I'd been forced to substitute, in the manner of supermarket home deliveries, for several key ingredients missing from our cupboards. The resultant banana and orange muffins tasted delicious but looked like, and had the texture of, scones. Undeterred, I implemented a "disaster recovery plan", rebranded my creation – and the "scuffin" was born. Grannies still ask me for the recipe and at the next meeting of the executive committee I was happy to report a year-on-year increase in cake-sale profits of 15 per cent. At that moment I felt as good as I had done while reporting major project successes to senior bank members at a board table – even though we were now in the scout group chairman's living-room, and, in real terms, the profits I announced were barely enough to buy a new rope for knot practice.
My year out proved such a success with my family that it has been extended to this day. My wife has assumed the role of chief bread-winner, while I now make the bread. We've had to flex our lifestyle considerably to fit our reduced income [see box, page 47], but in many ways that has had unexpected benefits. For example, giving up holidays in the sun opened our eyes to the simple joys of family camping, and our social diary is still full, albeit we now entertain at home rather than go to restaurants. We also shop around more, getting the best deals on food, services and money matters – something I never had the time or inclination to do before, as the only thing I wanted to do when I got home at night was eat, unwind and sleep.
And as for the happiness and closeness this has brought us as a family, financial analysts can only dream of such positive returns. So perhaps it is possible to have your cake and eat it – provided it's a scuffin. n
How to downsize your income – and survive
Steve Barley's radical change in lifestyle came at a price. His family shifted from a joint to a single income, which required some serious financial planning. Here are some of the ways they pulled through
Meals out were one luxury we could no longer afford. Not wanting to compromise on our social life, we instigated a Come Dine With Me theme among our friends – rotating around each other's houses for informal dinner parties rather than paying restaurant prices
To avoid paying tradespeople for simple jobs, I did an evening class in bricklaying to mend a garden wall and brushed up on my DIY and car-maintenance skills using books, advice from friends and internet help forums
As a family we became more inventive when giving birthday and Christmas presents. We ensured the recipients valued our gifts for what they were rather than what they cost
My son and I created a vegetable patch in the garden. I did the digging, he did the seeding and several months later we all ate the results. We're now looking into getting an allotment
Expensive holidays abroad were no longer an option, so we bought a family tent and went on camping trips instead
Calling our insurance, utility, phone and internet service providers about better deals made us realise we had been paying over the odds for years
Our children's clarinet lessons were one luxury we didn't want to lose, but by sharing the lessons with another family we halved the cost. We share many other things too, such as lifts to after-school clubs and the co-hosting of parties, plus we regularly swap unwanted books, DVDs, and CDs with other families.
I intend to take up part-time IT tutoring locally to pay for the occasional luxury, but overall I can safely say we have less money but a far richer lifestyle. SB