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Monday, November 17, 2008

Playing House of Cards

Christmas is right around the corner and my daughter has one gift already bought for her. It's a kitchen set for her to play house. The miniature set of cabinetry and appliances is one step away from the building permit that will be required to erect a scaled down version of a home in the backyard. If I were any sort of carpenter, I'd have the ability to build her the ultimate dream house. It would be the kind of place that any kid would be proud to put on the annual Christmas Play House Holiday Home Tour hosted by the imaginary historical society. If we're lucky, we can get a home loan without having to jump through many hoops. The imaginary world may not be facing a financial crisis, but kids are savvy enough to know that when their parents are sitting down at the table with receipts and a calculator, they're not planning a big blowout vacation to Disney World anytime soon.

Recently, I reconnected with an old high school friend of mine on Facebook. In between saving the rain forests and making flair for the masses we got into a conversation about our childhoods. She, the daughter of a dentist, and I, the son of an Insurance Agent, both grew up in middle class suburbia. Every year they went to Florida for Christmas and I wished I could. Yet, I never went without the essentials, and on occasion we took a family vacation at the beach. While, the contrast in our lives may have seemed great, the end result was the same. We both knew nothing of what our parents had to do in order to give us those lives.

Now, we both have spouses and children and mortgages and everything that comes with it. In the middle of all this we, like many other Americans face the doom and gloom of the current financial crisis with uncertainty and trepidation. While I can't speak for her I can tell you that there are times I wonder if I'm not scared enough for my solvency. I'm sure my wife can worry enough for both of us, but I don't seem to be too afraid of the next down day on the Dow. Why? Because I didn't get in over my head when the glass ceiling was as vaulted as the half million dollar homes bought and sold on the sub prime mortgage market.

I spent a month jumping through hoops to get a first time home buyer's loan from the state in order to secure a lower interest rate. I have a 30 year mortgage at a fixed rate of 4.55%. We bought our house in 2004 at the height of the housing boom. Left and right people were getting those pie in the sky brick homes in tightly spaced, treeless, housing plans where you measure success not only by the size of your bank account but by the height of the grass on your lawn and the rules governing it. While salivating sellers were being lead around by Realtors touting over inflated listing prices and blinded buyers were convinced that they could afford any price based on the mythical mortgages offered, I was looking at a middle of the road price tag on what could be a starter home without the structural deficiencies that would be beguile a budding buyer. In short, I went vanilla.

Vanilla's not so bad, looking back now. My mortgage gets paid every month on time with no worries and by my calculations, I'd be paying the same, if not more, in rent for my townhouse where I previously resided. We have one car payment and are slowly chipping away at one credit card that has followed us around since our engagement. I'd say vanilla tastes pretty good about now.

In terms of employment, I'm still on the fence with that one. I want to believe that my job is secure, but I see the signs on the wall. It may not be tomorrow or next week, but eventually my position may be eliminated. The problem with being owned by a bigger corporation, based in another country, is that even though we meet or exceed market expectations for 20+ continuous quarters doesn't mean we don't have to suffer when the economy tanks. Workforce reductions and spending freezes affect us all and I'm still actively searching for another job. But the work is there and it's keeping me busy, which is probably a good thing when "The Bobs" finally come around.

The trick has been not to show signs of weakness, anywhere. I'm the sole income stream. I'm one half of the decision team. The world can come crumbling down around me and I have to remain calm for my wife, and more importantly, my daughter. She's still too young to comprehend any of the issues going on in the world but she picks up on stress and negativity very well. It was that conversation about my childhood that got me thinking. Perhaps things weren't that great. Perhaps my parents were just real good at hiding the truth. In the 80's we had that little problem called the S&L scandal and the economy tanked in August on Black Monday. If everything is indeed cyclical, we should have seen this coming back around. I had no clue what happened but heard from friends and saw on the news that the economy was in trouble. Maybe my parents' vanilla lifestyle kept us out of danger or maybe they just hid the problems and managed their finances in such a way that we rode out the worst with little effect.

Regardless of how things happened, I went about my business playing video games and baseball with my friends. Now, 20 years later I'm in the same boat as my parents were. Yet, here I am making sure that my daughter's second Christmas is one for the books. She'll have her kitchen play set and they'll be no need for her to reenact the struggles of the middle class around her small kitchen table with her Winnie the Pooh filling in for Suze Orman and Rabbit, the collection agent, calling her on her PlaySkool phone, looking for delinquent credit card payments. I intend for her to not worry about the issues we face as adults. She's a kid and needs to be a kid for as long as possible. Childhood doesn't last long enough and is only a fraction of our lifespan. Besides, if she's really hell bent on helping out, we'll set up a Snoopy Snow Cone Starbucks and she can make biscotti with her Easy Bake Oven. We'll even put put out a tip jar to help dear old Dad pay for her convertible power wheels. It's the least we can do to help the cause.

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