Five years ago, Linda and Michael Lenich finally had the trappings of middle-class success: a three-bedroom house in the suburbs and two cars to get there. They belonged to a health club and spent many evenings at swank restaurants.
They also owed $12,000, not counting their mortgage.Today, they are debt-free, with enough money saved to consider retiring. And they're only in their 40s.
The Leniches didn't win the lottery or discover a genuine get-rich-quick scheme. They simplified.
"We went from saving very little, to saving 50 percent or more of our income," said Michael Lenich, a quality manager for a utility company.
Before the turnabout, their debt included an $8,000 car loan, $4,000 on credit cards and $39,000 still owed for their house in South Holland. Now they have a $150,000 nest egg.
The Leniches, who have no children, are part of a small if burgeoning movement intent on a cure for "affluenza" - a trend of the 1980s and 1990s whose chief symptom, they say, is excessive consumption.
They point to the downside.
Despite a strong national economy, personal bankruptcies are on the rise. Last year, for the first time, the number of Americans filing for personal bankruptcies exceeded 1 million. According to Federal Reserve figures, by early October, outstanding consumer debt had reached a seasonally adjusted $1.23 trillion.
The Leniches and those of like mind blame unprecedented levels of wealth - and striving for more. In addition to unmanageable debt, this "affluenza" harms families, communities and the natural world, they say.
"We have gotten into this very affluent, high-stress lifestyle, which is harming the environment and does not bring people more satisfaction," said Ellen Furnari, who heads the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes simpler living. The center, which is based in Burlington, Vt., is a private, non-profit foundation supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Global Wallace Foundation, among others.
The center advocates cost and time-saving alternatives such as using public transportation and watching less television. "It's easier to take charge of your life without being bombarded by advertising all the time," Furnari said.
Rather than charging major purchases on credit cards, first save enough cash to buy them. In addition to eliminating any interest payments, consider whether the purchase is really necessary.
The Leniches got the center's message five years ago. Then they revolted.
They canceled magazine subscriptions and their health club membership. They scaled back their shopping. They quit working to exhaustion just to keep up with the Joneses, a competition that only led to more debt. Their monthly expenses plunged, from $5,000 to $2,000.
The Leniches still enjoy a middle-class existence. They still have the house, the pair of cars.
But they walk three miles to the public library to read their favorite periodicals. Rather than blow money eating out, they invite friends over for dinner.
"It's nothing big," said 40-year-old Linda Lenich, who works in a quilt-making shop. "It's all the little things that make the difference."
The Leniches spoke recently about their lifestyle revolution before addressing a focus group. Some 40 people gathered in Chicago, allowing the Vermont center to test its ideas on Midwesterners. The couple attend such meetings as volunteers to explain the center's aims.
Since their lifestyle makeover, the Leniches found they could afford to travel to Europe - three times - on a combined income of $76,000.
At 43, Michael Lenich is contemplating retirement in a year or two. His outlook is better, too. "We are much more peaceful and at ease," he said.
The Center for a New American Dream was set up in response to the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit. The gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, concluded that the major cause of environmental degradation around the world was the unsustainable level of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries.
There are social costs as well, critics of free-wheeling consumption say. Time spent getting to work, then working extra hours, shopping and watching television is time not spent at family meals, in conversation with relatives and friends, and visiting neighbors.
"People often think simplifying means giving up things, but in reality people find it is about getting what they want," Furnari said.
J.R. Remke, 30, an accountant at the national headquarters of the YMCA, once found much of his entertainment in shopping until he was "dragged kicking and screaming by a girlfriend" to change his attitude and stop the spending he couldn't afford.
Despite a healthy income, only a few years ago, Remke's $4,500 in credit card debt had driven him back home to live with his parents in the far northwest Chicago suburb of Palatine.
Remke's plan was to save money and pay off the cards. Instead, freed of rent obligations, Remke continued filling his clothes closet, buying compact discs and going to rock concerts. He also acquired a new pickup truck. His credit card bill soared to $12,000.
At last, he began to heed his girlfriend, who learned about the Vermont center from out-of-state friends and from support groups that the center spawned in Chicago.
Remke got rid of his truck. He donated more than 40 dress shirts to charity and sold some 150 CDs to a secondhand store. By late October, his debt was whittled to $84.45.
Today, Remke is back in an apartment in Chicago and living well on his $43,000 salary. He rides a bicycle to work and buys clothes as he needs them. He still browses music stores, but he reads up on musicians before buying their CDs.
"I associated simplicity with deprivation," Remke said. "But I am happier, more at ease and I have a lot more freedom."
Self-discipline is the key to breaking the over-spending habit. But for those who need an extra nudge, the Center for a New American Dream recommends freezing credit cards - literally, in ice. That way, they'll need to be thawed before they can be used.