Choosing To Be Time-Rich Instead of House-Broke

The young couple who live across the street from me are selling their home. I’ll be sad to see them go because they’ve become friends and we’ve watched their son Timmy grow from a toddler to a boy. Where are they going? They’ve decided it’s time for a bigger house in a more affluent neighborhood. Of course, it’s hard to sit in judgment after doing something similar years ago. Still, I hope they never find themselves so pressed for time that they forget what gives life meaning, and instead becoming slaves to a big mortgage and extravagant home expenses. In other words, I hope they never find themselves house-broke and unable to do anything about it.

My neighbors aren’t alone. Millions of people around the world routinely buy into the idea that the pursuit of money and the things it affords are more valuable and important than their time. And nowhere is that truth more apparent than in the homes people buy. Even when most of us would admit that time is a precious and dwindling resource, many still seem more than willing to trade it for the outward appearance of material items and goods. Has it always been that way, and is there anything we can do to start honoring a time-rich life instead?

When Did It Start?

Like most baby boomers, I can vividly recall visiting Disneyland when I was a kid. One of my favorite rides in Tomorrowland was the “Carousel of Progress.” There we marveled at a series of families who in the past didn’t even have the benefit of electricity, all the way through to a modern family with every conceivable time-saving advantage. The dream was that our future would offer so many technological products that we’d be free from the drudgery of physical labor and tedious work. Instead, what we have evolved into is not freedom from technology but a deep attachment to the choices and entertainment that each new gadget offers.

Meanwhile, with progress marching forward and offering such tempting devices to delight and amuse, our culture slowly drifted away from the more esoteric values and meaning that we all used to rely on for living fulfilled lives. Internal satisfactions like family, relationships, spirituality, learning, service to others and community all seem to give way to an external focus on money and what it can buy. Rather than an internal quality without a price tag, money has usurped our seeking as the holy grail. And the price tag is often nearly all of the 24 hours in our days.

Don’t get me wrong. Like most people, I enjoy many of the advantages of our modern life and appreciate some of the oppression that has disappeared throughout the eons.   Yet, I recognize that it is very easy to forget that what makes for a meaningful, happy and abundant life isn’t all that stuff in the first place.

Somewhere along the line, many of us decided that money was more important than our time. You hear it everywhere. Just this morning I read online the rant of one writer who felt insulted that certain websites would not pay her for her writing. Even suggesting that her writing was only valuable in terms of money is to tie her worth and value as a writer, and as a person, to the amount of income she generates. Is that really what we want to do? Aren’t each of us worthy beyond our incomes? Is our only value what we produce? Is productivity the ultimate god? By tying our inherent worth to our income, we reduce ourselves to mere robots without a soul. Unless of course we’ve morphed into the technology that we used to dream about as kids?

What Can We Do About It?

Back in the 1980s, there was a fitness guru on television who used to scream to the audience, “Stop the madness.”   That woman was talking about our addiction to food, but I think it might be SMART for all of us to be equally determined when it comes to the everyday choices of sacrificing our time for more stuff. Sounds logical, right? But it’s hard. Even when talking to our young neighbors about what kind of house they hoped to buy, we chickened out and instead offered support and encouragement. Of course, when they told us that both the Realtor and Loan Officer were urging them to purchase a more expensive home just because they qualified for it, we couldn’t help ourselves and reminded them, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” As for the rest of it, most of us need to learn for ourselves that evidence of true wealth doesn’t come from the house you live in, the car you drive, or how much money you take home at the end of the week.

So what can you do? After doing a little research and combing through my personal life experience, here are six things I think might help to remind us what is most important.

  1. Take steps to Rightsize your life.  I won’t go into one of my favorite topics any further because I’ve written about it so much already (and you can find it here on the blog or in my book). Just remember that rightsizing is the conscious and unique choices you make so that you can live as free, happy and fulfilled as possible.
  1. Just because you can buy something, doesn’t mean you should. Unfortunately, the real estate business is notorious for urging people to buy the biggest and most expensive home you can finance. Don’t do it! Always figure out first and foremost what you can easily afford below your means, and then give that amount to whoever you are working with to help guide the purchase. If they try to sell you something more, then get another Realtor!
  1. Refuse to buy a home on impulse. Take the time to make a list of what is vital to you (including that price you can easily afford) and then stick to that list. The more impulsive the purchase, the more you will likely regret it.
  1. Remember that studies show that the longer your commute, the more unhappy you will be. It’s true. Never buy that nicer house further away from where you work thinking it will be worth the drive. Trust me—it won’t. That drive will affect you and your family every single day. Your time with your loved ones is far more valuable than a nicer home.
  1. Never buy a home thinking it will be a good investment. As I’ve written about before, any place you live is an ongoing expense. Make sure that cost is affordable. On the other hand, investments are what generate income.   As the last housing collapse proved, home prices can go down as well us up, so never buy one that you can’t easily afford.  Always ask yourself if the tradeoff of time is worth the monthly cost of your current home. And if you expect a loved one to sacrifice their time for you or the family, what are you telling them about what you value most of all?
  1. Always assume that the real costs to live in any home will be about 20% more than your mortgage payment. Unfortunately, most people neglect to consider that when purchasing and then end up having to work more hours to cover the expense. There is no denying that some expenses add value to your life, but choose wisely.

Distressingly, nearly 50% of most people’s income in the U.S. is now going to either their mortgage or for their rent. Clearly, lots of people are house-broke rather than time-rich. Obviously, if you are barely making enough money to pay either, your choices are limited. But if you have a choice, never choose big and more expensive as a tradeoff for your precious time. The chances are good that you will never, at the end of your life, look back and think, “Oh I’m so glad I spent so much of my life working to pay for that house.”

This morning I woke up when I wanted without an alarm clock. I wrote in my journal before taking a two-mile walk with my dog and my husband, Thom. Back home I did a little work, and then Thom and I rode our bikes to our nearby library where we take a yoga class. Following that we met a couple of girl friends for a long leisurely lunch before finally coming home to write this post.

It’s true that I live in a modest neighborhood in a modest home. But the freedom and time that I have by living a rightsized life makes me feel incredibly abundant. I would never trade my time-rich life for a more lavish home, a more expensive car or a collection of “stuff”. Hopefully, the time will soon arrive when each of us begins to value our time far more than the size or look of our home or what we put inside of it. Until then, the SMART choice is to remember to treasure our time.

Flicker photo credit here.

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