I’m running an informal book club devoted to All the Money in the World here on this blog. You can start at any point; there are links to previous weeks at the bottom of this post.
This week we’re talking about Chapter 4, “Laughing at the Joneses.” In this chapter, I look at the American Dream of home ownership, and specifically, the big suburban house with 2 cars and a yard. Most people seem to want such things, and so it’s worth looking at whether these widely desired goods make us happy. (If you haven’t bought the book yet, you can cheat this week! There’s a long-ish excerpt from Chapter 4 available for a free download from 800CEORead and their “Change This” manifesto program. Follow that link to get it).
This topic definitely became more personal for me over the last year. In early March of 2011, my husband and I decided to start looking at homes in the Philadelphia suburbs. We’d been living in New York City for years, but we didn’t have to live there, and there were starting to be some good reasons not to: the desperate hunt for a kindergarten slot I saw friends going through, NYC’s tax rates, the third child we’d recently learned we were expecting. When we visited friends with homes, our kids had lots of fun playing in basements and yards. So we decided to start looking for basements, yards, and good public schools, and within about 6 weeks, we’d closed on a lovely home in Gladwyne, PA. Within a few months, I’d bought my first car, and this spring we decided not to renew our lawn service contract, so now we’re dealing with our sea of green too. (Actually, not too vast a sea. One of the attractions of this house was a lot of professional landscaping involving ground cover of plants that grow well here. We barely had to water last summer).
As a long-time NYC resident, I had some worries about moving to the ‘burbs. I’ve liked it more than I thought I would for a few reasons. First, we live near “downtown” of our little village, and can walk to a grocery store, post office, ATM, library, hair salon, coffee shop, my son’s preschool, etc. I don’t need to be in my car to leave the house. Second, we live a mere 15-20 minutes from downtown Philly. I love that we can go to some hip restaurant, then hop in our car and be in our house with a yard near several nature trails 20 minutes later. This is really hard to pull off in NYC. And speaking of NYC? Well, I go back pretty frequently. I get in my car, drive to Philly’s 30th street station, and take the train. It can be a 2-hour door to door trip. And when I go, it’s like I’m in NYC as a 23-year-old again, not trying to cram my double stroller into the back of a cab.
It turns out you can buy a lot of train tickets and nights in hotels for the difference in cost of living.
But anyway, writing a book about money made me think a lot as we were buying the house and then getting used to our new and more rustic Pennsylvania home. Having read Sarah Susanka’s Not-so-big house books (thanks to recommendations from blog readers), I was more aware of things like design vs. sheer square footage. We avoided houses with huge marble entryways. No one except the pizza delivery guy is going to use the front door anyway. Often, moves to the ‘burbs mean longer commutes, but not in our case. We made sure to buy near things we’d use. I love that taking Jasper to school can be an 8-minute project. We bought in a down market, and didn’t buy into the various online budget calculators of how much house we could afford. That frees up cash for other things.
“The Joneses” are a powerful factor in our mental lives. What I mean by laughing at the Joneses is spending less on positional items (housing, cars) so you can spend more on other things: experiences, charity, hobbies, or just not having to work as much. It means knowing how miserable a commute can be, and not trading off an extra bedroom for an additional 10 minutes every weekday morning and evening of your life. It means knowing that the big lawn means either more time spent caring for it, or more money out the door to pay someone else to do so.
The question for this week: what kind of advice would you give to a young couple shopping for their first home? What do you like about your home, and what do you consider a trade off — maybe one you’re not thrilled with, or one you’re dealing with because of a larger goal?
photo courtesy flickr user srqpix