Thursday, July 29, 2010

Decisions... and Change

Making a Decision can be a painful and stressful experience. But deciding not to decide is also making a decision.

I recently had to make one of the more momentous decisions in my life and it has not been an easy experience. Actually, there have been other decisions in my life which have been more important than this, but at the time I made those decisions, I didn't realize how important they were. I just stumbled into things at that early age, and hoped everything would work out OK. In retrospect, that was much easier.

As you get older, however, things change. To begin with, you appreciate more how decisions affect your life. And moreover, as an older person, you don't have the luxury of a "do over" as much as you did when you were young. Suddenly, each decision in life seems less reversible and more important. You have savings, you have a job, you have a house, and what you decide to do is more and more important.

Many people react to this stress by deciding not to decide. So they stay at a job they hate, at a factory that is closing, and act surprised when they are laid off. "I never saw it coming," they say, but what they really mean is "I refused to see it coming and take action, because that would involve making a decision, and decisions scare me."

Why does deciding scare people? It is funny, but it does. People, as I have noted in my companion Losing Weight Now blog, are afraid of something as trivial as a bad meal, much less investing in the wrong mutual fund. So they shun a new restaurant experience on the premise that the risk of having a bad entree is too much risk to take. Many folks will only try a new restaurant if it gets good reviews or if all their friends go there and like it first - or if the parking lot is full and there is a line out the door.

But not deciding can be worse than making a bad decision. In the recent recession, many folks have lost their jobs or found themselves upside-down on a house and unable to afford the payments. Rather than cut their losses and move on, they cash in their savings to pay the mortgage for a few more months, hoping, against all common sense, that somehow it will all magically turn out OK for them. In the end, they lose the house, go bankrupt, and lose their life savings.

A better decision than not deciding is to decide - to see how things are trending and take action. Short-sale the house and walk away, rather then squander all your savings trying to "hold on" for a few more months. But few people do this, and the reason usually is pride - they don't want to be seen as "giving up" on their lifestyle. So rather than make a smart move and sell when they can, they end up with their possessions on the street and their house being sold at auction.

Thus, not deciding is usually worse than making a "wrong" decision. You are better off taking hold of the helm and guiding the ship than to let the wheel spin and hope your boat doesn't end up on the rocks.

For me, the difficult decision has been retirement. At age 50, I can basically afford to retire now. Or, I can keep working in order to support a large collection of consumer goods. When I was in my 20's, it seemed like having a lot of "stuff" was important. Now, in my 50's, I want to own as little as possible.

So, I could keep going as I was, on the premise that making a decision would be difficult (suppose I chose wrongly?) and to avoid being seen (by who?) as "giving up" - or I could make a decision and change my life.

I decided.

We are going to retire and live on Jekyll Island. I can do this and have one home, paid for, two cars, paid for, and no debt, and money in the bank. So..... why not do it? With reduced expenses, we can afford to travel more and do different things. We will still go North every year to escape the heat, but instead of owning a home up there, we will stay in our RV or on our boat or rent a cottage - for far less than the cost of ownership.

Real Estate prices have stabilized and will not skyrocket anytime soon. So selling now is not "missing out" on some later Real Estate pricing boom. Frankly, in this market, if you can sell for more than you paid, you are doing well, and we are doing well. We can afford to rent a lake cottage for less than what we are paying in Real Estate taxes on our home there.

This will mean a big change in our life and it will mean downsizing a lot. We have two houses full of furniture and two sets of everything you could possibly own - from vacuum cleaners to coffee makers to socks and underwear, to cars and appliances.

And it is a scary decision to make, too. Are we doing the right thing? Are we selling the right house? Most folks would laugh at our indecision - being able to MAKE such a decision is a luxury that most cannot even fathom.

But I think it is the right decision, for the following reasons:

1. We always intended to sell the NY house and move to Jekyll full time. It was just a matter of "when" not "if".

2. Taxes are lower in Georgia than New York, so it would be better to sell there than vice-versa.

3. We are Georgia residents and I am admitted to the Georgia Bar.

4. The Jekyll Property is more likely to increase in value as the island is revitalized.

5. Four golf courses, miles of deserted beaches, bike trails, recreation.

6. Single-level living and 36" wide doors will make for better retirement options.

7. Summer vacation options "up North" by camper are much greater than options for spending winters "down South". Florida gets pretty crowded in January.

The agonizing over making this decision was horrible. Having made it, now we can relax, and it makes a lot of other decisions for us. Now we can concentrate on downsizing and changing our live. And you know what? Change is exciting and fun. It means getting rid of a lot of "things" we thought we would have forever. But life changes and your needs change, so oftentimes, things you thought you'd always have, well, you don't need them anymore.

What do I need with six bicycles and four kayaks, anyway? Time to sell and move on...

Change can be invigorating and a good antidote (or preventative) to depression. Many people stay in the same mode, year after year, and wonder why they are not happy. I prefer to do different things at different times in my life and not feel "locked in" to decisions I made decades ago.

Yet most people do just the opposite - "staying the course" on decisions they made years back, as if they could not be reversed.

My Father preached this false religion, often telling us that "once you decide to so something, you have to stick with it!" - as if changing conditions and events could not be factored in. Perhaps that was his consolation or logic for staying with a job and a family he no longer wanted. "Stick with it" was all he had. But in the long run, change probably would have been a better idea.

I look forward to this next phase in my life. The next decade should be more exciting and fun - with less work to do and more things to do. Less things to own and more places to see. More golf, less work. And less reliance on a "job" to stay solvent from day to day.

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