A Home or Retirement?

What will it be -- buy a house or save for retirement? A piece of the American dream, or golden years that are truly golden?

That's a choice many Americans will have to make as the cost of a roof and four walls continues to rise. According to a report released by the Center for Housing Policy, the number of households devoting at least half of their salaries to housing has increased 67% over the past four years. That leaves the other half to cover food, transportation, insurance, clothing, and so on. For lower- to middle-income families, there's not much room for retirement savings.

And it doesn't look like the cost of housing will decrease anytime soon. This morning, the National Association of Realtors announced that previously owned, single-family home sales increased 6.1% in October. The increased demand has driven up the median price of a home 9.8% year over year to $159,600. Personal income just hasn't been able to keep up.

The solution for many families is to make do with much less house. In Retire at 45, Tom Jacobs (TMF Tom9) writes about a friend who might be able to retire a couple of decades ahead of schedule, partially due to keeping housing costs under control. Specifically, this fellow raises five kids in a three-bedroom home. Sounds crazy, but ask your grandparents (and even your parents) how much room they had growing up. As a country, we've become accustomed to bigger houses, even as family size has shrunk. Tom summarized this perfectly in his article:

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average new house boasted 983 square feet in 1950, 1,500 in 1970, 2,080 in 1990, and 2,285 in 2000. At the same time, have you noticed families getting any larger? Since 1970, the average occupancy of that average house decreased 16%. We need 50% more space for 16% fewer of us.

The other solution, of course, is to find a way to save for retirement, no matter what. Though contributing to a 401(k) or an IRA is not compulsory, it's really not optional for people who want to retire one day. Even contributing a $100 or $200 a month will add up to thousands of dollars over the years.

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