I’ve moved three times in the last 10 years — almost exactly every three years. Each time, I moved between homes of my own, each of which was very different from its predecessor.
I went from a bay-view rancher in the (overly) quiet suburban hills to a 1916 Colonial with massive, boxy, formal rooms smack dab in the center of town and, most recently, to a mid-century home on a quarter-acre located in the wooded hills, but a few minutes’ walk from the best shopping in town, the subway and freeway onramp. (I don’t actually walk onto the onramp, to be clear. I just like that it’s really close by.)
From my last house to this one was a pretty significant downsize — 1,000 square feet, almost exactly. The move, which (surprisingly) turned out to be a move in the right direction in every way, engendered a whole lot of decision-making about what could come and what had to be eliminated, in terms of household stuff.
As a result of my relatively frequent moving and the sheer overwhelm of this last move, I purchase very few new belongings these days.
As much as I love clothes, I absolutely hate the thought of moving again and giving away all the brand-new things I never wore because I prefer to wear my 10 favorite items over and over again. So, when I do venture into the shops, I have a hard and fast rule: Other than things I absolutely need, I don’t buy it unless I love it.
I don’t mean like, I mean love. An item must be the perfect color, perfect fit and perfect price before I’ll buy it. (Contrast this with a dear friend of mine who recently bemoaned her own shopaholic propensities in the opposite direction, sighing: "My bar is really low.")
Anyhow, it is against the backdrop of my must-love rule that a matrix put together by bestselling author and self-help guru Martha Beck recently caught my eye. Beck was encouraging her readers to assess prospective purchases not by their market value but, rather, by their psychic value.
"To calculate the psychic value of an item, you just need to ask, ‘How would purchasing this thing affect my life?’ " she instructed.
She went on to provide a decision rule for which items you pay top dollar for, which items you pay bottom dollar for, which items you buy only to the extent that you have discretionary dollars remaining in your monthly budget, and which items you leave at the store.
The items you really need and really love? Those are the top-dollar items. The things you really need but don’t really love are the bottom-dollar items (things you buy but spend as little as possible on).
Beck explained that what’s a top-dollar item for one person might be totally inessential to another; she paid $12,000 for her dog’s knee surgery without blinking but wears faux diamonds, while another friend pays top dollar for food but bought a discount computer.
Items you don’t really need but do really love are "remaining dollar" items you buy only to the extent you have the cash to blow on them without impairing your finances, and the no-dollar items are things you don’t really need and don’t really love.
This matrix certainly raises the bar for what most of us would buy. But what about when it comes to buying a home, especially when it comes to how much to spend on a home? With homes, it’s extremely easy to fall into fallacies around how buying the biggest, sweetest or most-remodeled home will affect our lives.
My personal experience has shown that while 3,000 square feet seemed perfect for my three-person household, it was actually too large — when we moved, I realized there were several rooms no one had even entered in who knew how long! We were paying for utilities and property taxes, among other things, for those rooms that turned out to be the most expensive storage spaces ever.
And many people expand their junk collections to fit the space they have at home. I’ve noticed a real trend lately toward right-sizing, where young families seem to understand — more than in previous generations — that there’s a "just-right" home size that is manageable, beyond which the space simply becomes a burden.
But the danger of overestimating the psychic value of a home doesn’t stop with size. It could be that, like Meghan Daum, author of "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House," you have an infinite ability to envision a number of "perfect lives" for every home type, neighborhood and even state you come across.
If you live on that farm, you’ll have the perfect ranch life. That condo? The perfect "grown-and-sexy" urban chic life. The tree-lined street? The perfect family life. And so on.
Fortunately, the sheer cost of a home (and current lending guidelines) stops most of us from moving into a Candy Spelling-style manse on the whim that our life would be perfect if we had a gift-wrapping suite.
However, it’s still the case that many people will buy more home than is actually optimal for their lives, going through the costly experiment of buying and moving, then buying and moving again to learn this lesson.
If you and your partner have very different ideas of what type of house you should buy, consider renting a home similar to the most expensive of the alternatives being discussed and living there awhile to see how it actually affects your life.
If there’s no time for that, or if you or your mate (or both of you) is having an adrenaline-induced love-fest with a home that is borderline unaffordable for you, try to have a cooling-off period and do a gut-check about how your day-to-day activities will realistically change.
For example, my mother thinks that she’ll eat more vegetables if she gets new granite countertops (long story — don’t ask). Since I have granite, I’ve encouraged her to face the reality that the vegetables will not taste different than they do now because the plate sits on granite.
And a colleague of mine, looking at the spec on Dr. Phil’s new nine-bedroom, 11-bathroom home, surmised that Phil must use a different bathroom each day of the week, then leave the other four for guests. I suspect that, in fact, the good doctor probably has his favorite shampoo and razors in one bathroom he uses every day, just like the rest of us.
The reality is that even people who live in the perfect neighborhoods and the perfect houses visit the same one or two bathrooms, one or two grocery stores, one or two coffee shops and one or two parks the vast majority of the time.
If you’re so inclined, it’s certainly fair to allocate the largest chunk of your monthly spending to paying for the place you live — you need shelter, after all, and it’s a major plus to love where you live.
But get clear on what your "needs" and "loves" are, and then get real about whether your psychic value is based on the real life you’re likely to actually live in a home, before you buy.