During my 20s, I was broke. I bought my first house and lived alone, stretched to my limits. I had three maxed-out credit cards and lived paycheck to paycheck.
Today, I’m in my 40s, married and in a much better financial situation. My 401(k) has done very well over the last 20 years. We have slush money invested in the stock market, a savings account that matches our salaries, and enough money for travel several times a year. We have no credit-card debt.
Here’s my issue: My experience in my 20s has had a major impact on how I view debt and money. I’m obsessed over it. I drive a car that’s falling apart to avoid a car payment. I wear shoes that are three years old, and purchase insoles or laces as necessary.
I buy my jeans on eBay EBAY, +0.03% and shirts from outlet stores. We live in a small condo because a $300,000 mortgage would just be hovering over me in my sleep. I would be chained to my career to pay for it.
“ ‘My experience in my 20s has had a major impact on how I view debt and money. I’m obsessed over it.’ ”
Our appliances are 20 years old. Much to my wife’s dismay, I keep fixing them with a $10 part. I am comfortable living this way. I grew up on hand-me-down clothes and I shop in thrift-store shoes. Our quality of life is really good compared to when I was a kid.
This is affecting our overall happiness. Our friends have much nicer homes with stone facades, big bedrooms and hotel-like master bathrooms. Every other neighbor drives a newer Lexus or Audi. Our friends and other people on social media are doing fun things all the time, or at least creating the impression that they’re in the Florida Keys every couple months.
I live in fear. I’m afraid of credit-card debt. I never want to go through that again. I fear that if I bought a $300,000 home in the suburbs I could lose my job next month. People lose their jobs all the time. I don’t want to be one of those people who lost their house due to financial hardship.
I worry that another downturn could happen, and the house would lose a third of its value. I don’t even know if I want to live here for the rest of my life. My issue is more than simply living frugally. It’s an everyday, obsessive worry about money.
I also have to consider my spouse, who desperately wants that nice house and sends me Zillow Z, -2.48% links every day. She bugs me about nice appliances, and is constantly talking about our friends’ kitchen. Ultimately, I want those things too.
I feel un-American, refusing to take on house debt, car debt and credit-card debt so that neighbors in our suburbs can see that we have “nice” things. Hey, the stone isn’t real, the trim molding is plastic composite and the doors are hollow anyway!
What can I do?
In Search of Balance
Did somebody say thrift stores?
On the contrary, your thriftiness and ability to stretch your dollars and cents are very American — as is your ability to learn from past mistakes, and do the best to ensure that you and your wife have a good life. A lot of people remember the lessons of the Great Recession, and how many Americans overextended themselves, particularly by buying property. And that was far from just a malady in the U.S.
But you have given yourself a second act financially. I don’t know anything more American than that. Give yourself credit for not being obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, and not feeling like you have to compete.
Where you appear to have become stuck is your ability to enjoy what you have, and let go and live a little, even if it means meeting your wife halfway. The reason we all work is so we can have a comfortable — and hopefully happy — life. By reliving your experience from your 20s and punishing yourself in your 40s, you are holding yourself back emotionally. You need to believe that you really deserve what you have achieved, and you deserve happiness to be happy.
Perhaps the same saboteur that led to your financial mismanagement in the past is playing a role in your fear of losing what you have earned today. We all know the acronym False Experiences Appearing Real or one like it, but in order to free yourself from that you have to do battle with your saboteur on two fronts: Look back and examine why you won’t allow yourself to relax and be happy, and look forward and put your faith in a financial plan that’s in both your and your wife’s comfort zones.
Without a plan, we would all be living a little on the edge. With help from an adviser or a financial therapist, you can put some of these demons to rest.
You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at email@example.com.
Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook FB, -0.99% group where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.
By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.