Several years into my first career I did what many young women and men do and said “I do.” A few years later, our son was born. I continued to work and thanks to a business networking group in my hometown, I learned a great deal about career planning and saving. At one of these meetings, the speaker shared the startling statistic that at least half of us in the room would eventually divorce. ‘Not me,’ I thought. Full of career savvy and on the corporate track to a leadership position, I went back to work after our son was born.
Fast forward to about the time my son turned 10 – and you guessed it – found myself in a divorce. The house was now too big and tough to maintain on my own. We moved to a smaller home. Then, my average-salary job was eliminated and we moved to another smaller home, but I never spent my equity on anything other than the next home. After the divorce, I never ate into the equity with a second mortgage – even while unemployed.
The housing crisis hit and my last house sat on the market for more than a year, dashing my plans to downsize once my son moved away. Then our town – Nashville – suffered a devastating flood that wiped out the underside of my home. Repairs were not cheap and when the house sold 19 months after the first listing, there was a considerable net loss. Five years after purchase I sold it for about what I’d paid for it and of course a realtor got a nice percentage of that. This hurt. This was not in my financial plans.
My retirement goals included the optimistic goal of owning my home outright by age 55. I’ve done it earlier than that. How? Considerable down-sizing. Accepting the new normal with grace and guts. Sold off most of my furniture and moved to a condo, then sold that one and moved into one that I could pay for completely, no mortgage.
Breakdown on home costs/sizes over 22 years:
Year Square Feet Purchase Price Sold
1991 2300 SF $172,000 $210,000
1998 3600 SF $275,000 $315,000
2002 2700 SF $272,000 $295,000
2007 2200 SF $272,000 $272,000
2012 800 SF $122,500 Not for Sale
Follow Your Passion
Last year I enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design to complete a master’s degree in writing. Writing is my passion, always has been. My first career consisted of marketing, public relations, and consulting. While an MBA probably would have been a wiser investment, the path I chose has silenced what I call that ‘Jiminy cricket’ voice in my mind that kept telling me I wasn’t using all of talents, nagging me to follow my dream. The decision took me to a new housing market – Atlanta.
For this last downsizing, I sold or donated most of my furniture. Paying for storage – except in very rare circumstances – is one of the largest wastes of money ever invented. My new condo, paid for in full, is essentially a one bedroom with one walk-in closet. Is it tough? Yes, it’s a tight squeeze. Is it worth it? You bet. By American standards it’s awfully small. But I own it outright, something to celebrate. My monthly bills include condo fees – around $300 a month – and taxes.
No mortgage. It’s a fabulous feeling. When I want to travel, I turn the water off, lock the door and that’s it. No yard to maintain, no concern about packages left at the front door.
True, I’m taking on some student loan debt, but I expect to have that paid off in less than two years.I also took advantage of good grades to apply for scholarships. This paid off, too, and I’m grateful to generous donors who believe in higher education as a wise investment.
Would I have been better off to have stayed in the first house my husband and I bought? Perhaps. But a university wanted to buy it and we wanted to live in a safer suburb where my son could ride a bike. I think we made the right decision. He’s 22 and he’s still riding bikes, in fact, he prefers biking to driving.
Did I ever expect to work this hard and this many years to live in a place just a bit bigger than my first dorm room? No. But many people endured terrible sacrifices in the last economic meltdown. My goal had been to have my home paid for by the time I turned 55. I’m not in the home I envisioned, but I beat the goal by quite a few years.
My next plan? After grad school, my husband and I will look into real estate in the mountains or by the beach, possibly even overseas. We plan to pay that mortgage off in 10 years or less. Or we just won’t buy. We are realists. We want to travel and we’re planning to pay for that by teaching English as a second language. Until that novel hits the best-seller list. Or until we reach age 70. Whichever comes first.