Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Money Talk

I’ve been fighting with myself over this post for a while now. Like a lot of people, I was raised to believe you don’t talk about money — at least not any of the money matters that actually matter. You don’t tell people how much you make, and you never, ever ask what they make. You don’t ask how much a person paid for their house, their car or really anything, though you are free to discuss whatever figures a person volunteers. But on the flip side, you don’t volunteer that information either. Money is sensitive and relative and can cause hurt feelings or jealousy or disrespect when people know the actual numbers. You’re just better off not talking about it.

And yet, what is more crucial to a renovation project than money? And what benefit is this blog if it doesn’t help you through the big decisions in a renovation – and don’t so many decisions revolve around money?

What makes me think about money today is that I lost my job again. It’s actually the second time I’ve been laid off in two years. Both lay-offs were not performance-related, just the economy doing what it’s want to do. But regardless of the reason, I’m out of work, which cuts our total household income almost exactly in half.

After my first layoff, I was out of work 10 months. As frightening as that was, there was also a lot of joy in it. My previous job environment had been pretty ugly, and being free from it held some relief. I’d been burning to work on some of my own projects and potentially start a business. And as a working mom running a home renovation, I’d had so little down time that boxes from our move — two years earlier — still lurked in corners around our house, not yet unpacked. Having some time to cut through the household clutter was just a delight, whether or not we would sink like rocks financially. And don’t get me started on having more time to spend with my kids.

This time around, the situation is different and more dire. I relied on my credit card a lot during my last lay-off, and in fact ran the card to its limit. And there at the limit it remains, leaving me without any credit cushion this time around. This time around the layoff was so sudden and so unexpected that it happened to catch us right in the middle of landscaping the front yard — a moment when we were particularly cash poor with all the payments to landscapers and fence-building contractors. In fact, my last conversation with the fence builder went a little bit like this:

Fence-builder: So, we are finished with the fence and ready to take it for powder coating. Oh — we mentioned before the powder coating would be extra, right? That will be an extra $1,800.
Me: I don’t have that money.
Fence-builder: OK, then we won’t do the powder coating. That means the fence is finished, so you need to make the last payment it. That will be $2700.
Me: I don’t have that money. I can try to have it for you in a week.
Fence-builder: We need it today.
Me: I don’t have it today. I could write you a check, but it would be bad. Can you wait just a week so that I can gather my resources a bit? I just lost my job.
Fence-builder: You lost your job? Then we definitely need that money today.
Me: Well, I can give you blood. Perhaps that’s worth something on the open market? I do not have $2700 today, but I have blood.

The fact that this conversation took place rather noisily in our front yard did not, I imagine, do wonders for our reputation around the neighborhood.

If you don’t know me personally, perhaps this whole story sounds a little trite. The economy has, after all, been bad for a good, long time. How long, exactly? Let’s see — how long have we been in this house? Four years? Yes. The economy has been bad approximately four years. And maybe, if you don’t know me, you are thinking that I am irresponsible. I ordered the fence — how dare I order something that I don’t have the money to pay for?

But my point is that this is a really integral, fundamental part of a renovation for any regular working person. There are times when your chips are up and other times when they are down, way down. For us, at this moment, the chips are so far down that it’s hard to imagine there is a place called up. It’s funny — I thought the chips were down back in 2007 when we spent six months without a kitchen and washed all our dishes in a decaying green pre-renovation bathroom sink. I thought they were down when we slept with our six-month-old baby on an air mattress in the only room in the house that had finished walls and an actual light fixture (but no curtains, mind you). I thought they were down when we had to have hydraulic pumps brought in to actually lift the entire house from its center because we learned a pipe had let sewage seep for nearly 20 years, causing the whole structure to sink. The list goes on and on. But the hardest of all to face is the idea that after suffering through trial after trial, our efforts may still be for naught. We could lose it all. Even if we don’t foreclose, if we have to sell (clearly at a loss in this market), it means some other person or family will reap the benefit of our efforts. The house we custom-designed for ourselves and our family will be someone else’s property.

Standing where I stand today, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no job and no job prospects. Maybe some great job will come my way tomorrow — or maybe we will stop paying our bills and watch as the empire slowly crumbles around us. If you are reading this post because you stumbled across this blog while trying to decide for yourself whether to take on a renovation, I hope it does you some good. I hope it forces you into a gut check of sorts. If you found yourself in the same situation, would it all be worth it?

This isn't my last post on this subject. There is a lot left to be said about the money issues surrounding a home purchase or renovation. And maybe if more people had put their manners aside and had these conversations five years ago, the housing crisis would never have happened, the economy would never have slowed to a near stand-still, and I'd still have a job.


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