Saturday, March 3, 2018

Escape From Fairfax County!

The big city is a good place to go to make money, but it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  So many people get caught up in the "rat race" but it is a race they willingly enter.

A reader sends a link to a story about "poor" Washingtonians who are making six-figure salaries but are utterly broke.   And I know the story isn't false, because we used to live there and knew people like this - and nearly became ones ourselves.   Most major metropolitan areas are like this - folks like the lady from Buckhead (a suburb of Atlanta) who gigglingly confessed to me that she was a "serial refinancer" of her house.   She was a successful lawyer, of course, and was dressed to the nines and had a $5000 handbag.   But she was utterly broke.

How is this possible?  It happens - to a lot of people.  When I moved to the DC area, I was shocked, as a country boy, how fast everyone drove and how aggressive they were.   Prices of everything seemed ridiculously high - particularly housing.  I despaired that I would never fit in there or get ahead in life.  Sure the pay was more than I was making in depressed Syracuse, New York, but the cost of living was easily double.

Within a decade, I was a lawyer with my own practice, owning my own office building and two rental properties.   I got right down there in the mud with the rest of them and fought like hell to get ahead.   And it worked.   Sometimes, people need a challenge to get ahead in life, and the big city was a challenge to me, a challenge that I met.

But I saw a trap in the making.  It was all-too-easy to think that the world revolved around Washington, or that what my neighbors in Alexandria thought was important.   And it was very easy to spend all that money as fast as you made it, on fancy cars, fancy houses, take-out meals, restaurant meals, night clubs, fancy clothes, and whatnot.  For parents, the trap also includes exclusive private schools and all the fancy toys for the kids (including a new car on their 16th birthday!).   You make a lot of money and spend it all and borrow a dollar more.   It is the appearance of wealth, not actual wealth.

The only way to avoid this trap is to either live below your salary - which is hard to do - or move to a less expensive area and hopefully take the big salary with you.   A friend of mine works for a gourmet food chain in New York City.  He runs the most profitable store in the chain, which sells out of food every night.   He hopes to work there a few more years and then transfer to some more bucolic branch of the same company.  Company policy is that he would make the same salary he makes in Manhattan, even if he went to live in the sticks.   Smart move.  Smart, because right now, he spends most of his income trying to live in Manhattan - which is one of the most expensive places to live on Earth.

We were fortunate in that we resisted the urge to "move up" to a fancier house.  Most of my friends, upon graduating law school and getting that six-figure salary job (those were the days, in the Patent business) bought a half-million dollar house or more.   I kept our $189,000 house and bought investment properties instead.   But even then, I blew through a lot of cash buying cars and "stuff" and eating out and "treating myself" because I thought I could afford it.  And I ran up a lot of debt in the process.   It was pretty idiotic.

We were fortunate that at the height of the real estate debacle, someone offered us a wheelbarrow of money for our house - to tear it down - so we left.   And we got out just before the market crashed.   Others were less fortunate - buying houses at the peak, and now looking at years of expensive mortgage payments on a house they couldn't sell for what they paid for it - much less what was the balance on the loan!   They were literally stuck in a high-dollar lifestyle, and if the high-buck job went away, well, sayornara my friend!

Of course, it is hard to "feel sorry" for someone making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year who is broke because they choose a lifestyle based on impressing their neighbors, as opposed to banking the money, living more frugally, and having a plan of escape.   It is sad, but most people are like cattle, and they do what the other cattle do.  They are nervous and afraid - like cattle - so they follow the herd, even if the grass in the middle of the herd is trampled down and pooped on.   They are scared to be at the edge of the herd, as that is where predators lay.   But the edge is also where the grass is green and fresh - and you can see where you are headed.  Not only that, at the edge of the herd, you have a choice of where you want to head.

We were fortunate in that we escaped from Fairfax County.   We got out before we got drawn into a lifestyle that was not something we wanted or needed.  And the lure is very strong - people will regale you with tales of excess and status, and ridicule you for not following that dream.   What do you mean by having white appliances.  Everyone has stainless!  And you need to lease a new BMW!  That's how it is done!

Since we marched to the tune of a different drummer, we never fell for that nonsense.   We simply didn't want to be beholden to an employer or a "job" in order to have gold-plated shackles chaining us to our desk.   It wasn't worth it.

Others feel differently.   "Did you see my new shackles?" they say, "Platinum!  I love being a wage slave!  I get to treat myself to lots of shiny trinkets and consumer goods!"

But without money, they will never have real wealth.   And with real wealth comes real power - the power to say, "fuck this, I quit!"

And that, my friends, is a beautiful feeling - and nicer than 10,000 leased BMWs lined up end-to-end!