Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sunk Cost vs. Pricing Tough Love

“Sunk cost” relates to “throwing good money after bad.” We’ve invested in a course of action and it has not paid off, but do we stop? No. We keep doing it. “In for a penny, in for a pound” is another adage that demonstrates how people feel and act. When we commit to something, we do it wholeheartedly. That’s a good trait. But when we are doggedly loyal to our mistakes, such commitment is not to our advantage.

A lot of people still have not fully accepted the reality that their houses are not worth what they paid for them only a few years ago. Many people are trying to sell, either because they are overextended financially, or they have lost their jobs, or they have changed their plan to live in that house and want to move elsewhere. Having good reasons to sell is fine, but it does not make the market any better. It does not mean you will break even on the investment, let alone make a profit.

How do we change our stubborn feelings that this item was worth X yesterday and still should be worth X today, even when everything around us says it is not? One way is to gather lots of information. If you’re planning to sell your house, look at the MLS, the multiple listings of homes for sale, and see what the sale prices are for homes in your neighborhood with and without your amenities. And then forget the fact that you like your home better. A buyer might not care about your wallpaper or your granite, and instead will consider your distance from a busy street, or whether you have a fenced yard as more significant. That’s why the next step is a talk with a real estate agent who knows your area and can tell you what the final sales prices were nearby. Real estate agents know what the average sales prices are, regardless of personal style, and you’d be wise to heed their estimates.

(By the way, some people think that they can break even by selling their homes without paying an agent. This is usually a mistake, because your house does not get on the MLS, and many buyers will not deal directly with a seller. You always want the biggest pool of potential buyers, not just the ones who happen to drive down your street and see your homemade sign.)

If you want to sell personal possessions on eBay, Craigslist, through a classified ad, or at a yard sale, check out the prices other people assign to similar items. And what they sold for, if they sold at all. Then, think about what it is worth to you to be rid of your clutter or that clunky old car. Does it really matter what you paid for it, if keeping it means that you must keep paying for it? It shouldn’t. And yes, you bought that lamp for $50, but nobody is going to buy your used lamp for $50; you need to remember that possessions depreciate. Too many of us are paying for storage of possessions that aren’t worth the monthly rent. Purge them.

I recognize that it is hard to think realistically about our possessions. That’s why so many people lose out in the stock market. They buy too high, see the stock tumbling, and keep holding on in hopes of recouping their original investment. It does not work that way. Take the loss and go on to better prospects.

Thinking strategically is another way to deal with hard-to-swallow realities. If you and your family invested $100,000 in your college education, in a down economy you might be forced to take a job that only pays $10 an hour. A job that you could have had without all the years at school and all that tuition money. But if taking that job means the difference between being able to make ends meet and not, obviously, you take the job while looking for a better one. But don't just sign on for any old job. Try to pick the employment that also offers some advantage related to your preferred career. Pay attention to the business model of the company. Actively seek to learn on the job. Think of it as an internship, and you might produce less stomach bile during the months you have to hold on while still searching for something with more promise that relates to your career interests. And remember, many people have ended up with successful careers doing things they never trained for in school.

Effective sales people know that selling is compromise. Each side has to give up something and must get something. In a depressed market, what you might give up is a high dollar sales price for your house or other possessions, or a high dollar income that is consonant with your training and experience. But what you’d get is some peace of mind, and often that is well worth the compromise. And your feelings about sunk cost won't sink you.

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