The food delivery rider somersaulted over his handlebars. Instinctively raising his arm to save his face from hitting the ground. Broken wrist for certain, bending in a stomach-churning direction other than what nature intended.
He favoured his shoulder as he sat up, suggesting a matching broken collarbone. A rapidly spreading puddle of what looked like chicken jalfrezi mixed with black daal oozed from the bottom of his crushed delivery backpack.
A chorus of impatient car horns sounded up and down the four-lane road, as an off-duty nurse helped the rider move onto the pavement. I retrieved his bicycle from the middle of the busy intersection, as an impatient bus driver made the barest of token efforts to avoid running me over.
The most memorable part of the incident wasn’t the spectacular fall, nor the rider’s narrow escape from becoming roadkill. It was his expression.
I would have expected anger, shock, surprise, or pain. Instead, there was fear.
The nurse attempted to ask him about his injuries, but the rider’s only concern was that he would lose his below minimum wage livelihood. A broken bone or three was an inconvenience. Loss of income appeared to be a catastrophe.
The line between financial survival and oblivion can be a fine one indeed.
Recently I heard from an old school friend. For as long as I’ve known her, her greatest fear has been “getting old”.
Terrified of growing up.
No longer being cool.
Turning into her parents.
Now aged almost 50, she still buys her clothes at “fast fashion” stores. Goes clubbing and to raves. Parties harder than any ten teenagers on a Saturday night. Embarrasses her children by wearing bikinis that are gravity-defying marvels of modern engineering.
She had just moved her family into a six-bedroom McMansion with a swimming pool in the backyard.
I was thrilled for her, and I must confess, also somewhat surprised.
Years ago, she had dreamt of living in a trendy suburb walking distance from the beach. An aspiration that should have proved to be an impossible dream, as the financial realities of sky-high property prices cruelled yet another young person’s desires.
After months of fruitless househunting, she hired a buying agent who earned their commission via an awkward compromise. A detached double garage located behind a family home, which an amateur property developer had converted into a tiny one-bedroom “cottage”. Ok, for a single person or a loved-up couple who didn’t mind living on top of one another. Thoroughly impractical for her family of four.
Her daughter slept on a mezzanine platform suspended above the lounge, accessible via a ladder. Her son’s “bedroom” was a toddler bed in a hallway beside the draughty back door.
Endless tensions and compromise ensued. Vanity address versus creature comforts.
Now, after years of runaway price appreciation, the converted garage was worth a small fortune.
Much to the surprise of everyone, not least herself, my friend decided it was time to move to her “forever” house. One where her family could each have their own space. One that could host the vast extended family feasts she dreamt of cooking, just like the ones her grandmother used to make back in the old country. One which could comfortably accommodate house guests, including her future grandchildren.
She sold the converted garage and purchased a McMansion, located in an unfashionable suburb too close to the airport and nowhere near the beach. A few weeks after making the move, she seems happy. Her long-suffering husband is still in shock. Wondering who this suspiciously pragmatic imposter was, and what they had done with his real wife?
When I asked her about the thinking behind the move, my friend said she had realised constantly fighting her fears was a losing battle. The outcome was both inevitable and beyond her control. There was only so much magic that botox, hair dye, and a pair of Spanx can wield.
She had asked herself what was the worst that could happen?
Then asked how likely that outcome was? What the potential upsides might be if things went right?
Eventually, she realised that her address was different to her identity. She could grow old disgracefully anywhere, but now she would do so in comfort and surrounded by a bit more space.
Fear of missing out
Whether we realise it or not, many of our behaviours are influenced by our financial fears.
Fear of change.
Fear of rejection.
Fear of the unknown.
Which may prevent us from applying for a promotion. Negotiating a pay rise. Pursuing advancement and opportunity beyond the safe comfortable cocoon of our current domain, industry, or workplace.
As my children were fond of saying when they were toddlers: “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”.
Facing our fears can certainly be scary, and not without some risk. However, seldom will the outcomes match our worst nightmares. We might be told no, denting our confidence or humbling our ego, but rejection is rarely fatal.
How many friends have you seen smote on the spot for making a cheeky offer on a property?
How many colleagues have made the walk of shame as they were escorted from the premises after asking for a pay raise?
Now ask yourself, how many of your peers sought to advance themselves and succeeded?
For most of us, the latter group would comfortably outnumber the former. This suggests that the odds of success outweigh the odds of blowing ourselves up. There are no guarantees of course, but when we allow our fears to hold us back then we will die wondering rather than realising our potential or living our dreams.
Recently, I found myself walking along the Kentish coastline, enjoying the sunshine and admiring some of the homes with glorious ocean views. Many were the standard unimaginative dour terrace houses. However, a few were beautiful and unique. Grand Designs.
Now I must confess, I am partial to a bit of property porn. I am also not above the occasional bout of house envy.
Some of my family and friends live in their own individual “wow haus”.
A house with a breathtaking view over a lake.
Hilltop homes possessing stunning ocean vistas.
Sprawling suburban homes backing onto nature reserves, visited at dusk by tame kangaroos.
Homes with beautiful gardens that put more than a few botanical gardens to shame.
As I strolled along the coastal path, I idly wondered why I didn’t live in a dream house, like those I was walking past?
As a grown-up with a comfortable bank balance, doing so would certainly be within my gift.
Therefore my not living in a dream house in a beautiful location must be a choice.
The reality is probably a combination of all those things. A choice nonetheless. One that I must own.
However, deep down, I knew the real reason I didn’t live in a dream house: fear.
Fear of liquidating my cash flow generating investments. Converting them into a cash consuming asset.
Fear of committing to a mortgage comparably sized to the national debt of a banana republic.
Fear that as a consequence, the option of returning to my preferred semi-retired lifestyle would vanish. The absence or reduction of passive income streams throwing my perpetual money-making machine into reverse gear. Requiring more bills and purchases to be funded via selling my time. Transforming my job from a questionable lifestyle choice into a financial life support mechanism. A similarly fragile existence to that of the terrified delivery rider.
Curiously, that does not mean that I am opposed to the idea of homeownership in principle.
Far from it. Much like my university friend, I think homeownership is a good thing. Something I have been thinking about more and more of late. A comfortable safe place to call my own is an attractive prospect.
No, my aspirations and fears collide over budget and location.
I don’t want an either/or choice of house or a portfolio of cash flowing investments. I require both.
A house shouldn’t cost the owner their financial independence, but rather preserve its longevity.
Which is possible in about 90% of the country, including those dream houses lining the coastal path. Just not where I currently choose to live. With its short commute. Where my kids happily attend schools and enjoy strong social groups. Another choice I must own.
A problem, but not a geographic one. One bourne out of financial fears.
My earlier observations would suggest confronting those fears.
Taking bold action.
Consequences be damned.
Replacing uncertainty with certainty, whether via a successful outcome or otherwise.
Relocate, at the cost of a huge blast radius. Disrupt my kids’ comfortable routines. Blow up their social lives. Change their schools. Cut them off from their familiar surroundings and support networks. All to indulge my passing fancy of a dream house by the sea. Putting my needs above theirs.
Or buy within commuting distance of my current home. Trigger many of those very things I have been financially fearful of. An outcome rich in irony. Viable at the current negative real mortgage interest rates. Potentially ruinous when interest rates eventually revert to their mean. Putting my children’s time-bound needs above my own.
Or perhaps choose the default option. A continuation of the status quo. Seek contentment from the constant chugging of my perpetual money-making machine. Find solace in the cold embrace of low-cost index tracker funds and the dwindling returns found in landlording.
I must confess I found homeownership sorely tempting as I continued my walk along the coastal path past all the dream houses. Right up until the point I reached the train station for the ride home. Where I had to wait for an hour for the next train, followed by the 90-minute long commute back into the city.
Something the locals regularly endure. Twice a day. Every weekday. When the trains are working.
By the time I had arrived back in London, that vast time investment wasted on commuting had more than cured me of any desire for a coastal dream house for as long as I still regularly visited work sites.
Fear that life is too short to endure a lengthy commute.
Certain that happiness is not found in an expensive overcrowded commuter train.
Recognising that homeownership cannot bring happiness. Instead, we bring it with us (or not) wherever we happen to live.
And yet homeownership remains a fascinating emotional proposition.
An attractive lifestyle choice.
An awkward financial choice, where the numbers seldom add up and often make little sense. Yet we do it anyway!
A decision that, whether we realise it or not, is often born out of fear.
Buying the title of king or queen of our own castle. Fearing we aren’t in control anywhere else in our lives.
Creating a safe and welcoming escape. Fearing the big bad scary world outside.
Purchasing certainty today, in the form of a home that nobody can take away from us. Fearing a future plagued by ever-changing rules, rising prices, and endless uncertainty.
Seeking the enforced savings that servicing a mortgage demands. Fearing we lack the financial discipline or knowledge to accumulate wealth any other way.
Whatever the outcome, the important thing is to understand what motivations are driving our behaviours.
Wherever fear is playing a role, we could do worse than adopting the whimsical approach of my university friend. The same approach embraced by LeanFIRE seekers, tiny house occupants, and van life enthusiasts the world over.
Asking what is the worst that can happen? Then doing it anyway.
Even when the heart says yes, but the numbers say no.
Perhaps especially then.