Thursday, June 5, 2008

Trapped in a Mistake

A recent Carolyn Hax syndicated advice column gave an interesting answer to the question of what to do if you hate your job but can’t leave it. She asked the person to consider whether thinking you can’t leave a job is the truth or just a limited view of it.

This is exactly what I realized a while back when I took the time to seriously ask myself why we had had such terrible times with money. Instead of reiterating the usual excuses, “It’s all the fault of the grasping credit card companies,” and “The mortgage lender is gouging us,” I asked myself what actually happened to get us into a bind that lasted for a number of very unpleasant years.

And here’s what I figured out: We couldn’t afford our new house.

It doesn’t take long to realize that you can’t afford your house. Is every month’s mortgage bill taking all your cash? Are you running a balance on your credit cards that you never ran before? Is it impossible to save? Leaving out other possible factors (such as major medical bills or unemployment), the answer probably is that your new house is keeping you poor.

People hate to admit mistakes and that’s what catches us. Having made that mistake, we simply can not accept that we can and should fix it. We dig in and bend all our efforts to keeping that house instead. Yes, in the long term, there are good financial reasons to hang in there. A house is a major capital investment than can pay off big over time. But I’ve often wondered if those good financial reasons ever outweigh the amount of pain caused by being chronically broke and constantly under extreme financial pressure. There’s nothing sacred about a house. It’s just a box to protect you from the elements, and as comedian George Carlin says, “a place to keep your stuff.”

It’s the same with a job. You can quit. There will be consequences, and they should be considered seriously, especially if you might face difficulty finding another job. But we none of us are shackled to our work the way people have been throughout history by feudal systems, indentured servitude, slavery, or the like. Today, a lot of people are facing financial pressure because they bought too much house. But even so, they think they must keep the house. But is keeping a particular house a dire necessity? Or is it simply desirable, for various emotional or social reasons? I can understand a family wanting to stay in a good school district, for instance. But being the poorest person in your excellent school is no fun. So count the real price of staying, not only the supposed benefits.

Friends of mine inherited a share of a house in an affluent neighborhood and debated moving the family to it. But they realized that they could afford to buy the house, but not to live the lifestyle of that neighborhood. So instead they cashed out their share in the house and bought a much more reasonably priced house in a less expensive area. And then had plenty of cash left to furnish their new house comfortably, go on family vacations, and live in financial ease on a daily basis. It was the smart decision.

In the current real estate market, getting out of the trap of a too-expensive house is not easy. There are programs that offer various kinds of assistance, but it has been widely reported that these are difficult to access or to get to work. Still, if the result is a mortgage that has been re-sized to what you can afford, or a house sale that leaves you free and clear of debt, then it’s worth the aggravation and effort.

The idea is not to box yourself in. Not in a job, and not in a box that’s just a place to keep your stuff. Yes, we love our homes, but they shouldn’t own us. When times get tough, whatever the cause, we need to change our limited view of our choices.

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