I bought my house in July 2006, a month that history will remember as one of the least opportune times to buy a home since our local roads were paved by FDR's WPA. In the six years that have followed, things haven’t been easy: A serial killer dropped by the north end of my street, the south end became a Superfund, and my house went underwater.
Only the last clause of the previous sentence is a metaphor. My house, thankfully, was not inundated by a massive hurricane. But a serial killer is at large in my neighborhood, and his latest victim was found two blocks from my house. The police stripped a parcel two lots down from mine looking for the murder weapon. At the other end of my street, the EPA has designated the land once home to a coal-gasification plant and fuel-oil storage facilities a bona fide Superfund site. It goes without saying that this hasn’t been good for property values.
These are events that nobody — including my mortgage broker and my real estate agent — could have foreseen in July 2006. But I’m no victim. (A single woman who moved to my neighborhood in search of a quiet life is the victim here.) My family and I are living with the consequence of our financial decisions. With hindsight, I realize that I have made some terrible, horrible, very bad mistakes.
I don’t have the bankroll to cushion us against the hits. I never have. Like many young people in the aughts, we bought as much house as we could with no money down. Bad move.
My household has more than its share of student and credit card debt. I didn’t expect my salary to be frozen for half a decade, and I assumed the spending was a temporary solution to a temporary problem. Bad assumption. Two months ago, I got a notice from my student loan company telling me that my monthly payment was about to double. It took a minute, but I thought back to the day I agreed to those repayment terms. By the time my payment obligations spike, I remember thinking, I’ll be so flush that it won’t even be an issue.
I’m not the victim of a greedy banker or a sluggish economy. I am living with the consequences of my decisions. Some of them were bad, and all of them came with risks.
There have been many far more serious victims of the Great Recession and the anemic recovery than me, of course — people who have lost their jobs, their homes, breadwinners who have lost a defining sense of self. Although I have never felt more than a step or two away, I still have a home and I still have a job.
But too often there has not been a distinction made between the victims and people, like me — among the majority of Americans who are not unemployed or underemployed, but didn’t act as prudently as they should have — who made poor decisions.
More and more, our no-fault culture looks upon people like me as victims of someone else’s misdeeds. It’s a lie. I knew what I was getting into. So did my peers — like those millennials we have read about who wept in surprise and horror when they received their first bills for six-figure educations in the arts, education and other professions that are important yet modestly paid.
Things would have been easier for all of us if the economy were booming. But if we’re going to learn anything from the Great Recession, it’s that life comes with risk, boom times aren’t a guarantee, there is a difference between being a victim of a tragedy and living with the consequences of our decisions, and we should plan accordingly.
We never know when a serial killer or superfund is around the corner.
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