Dear Mrs. Riches,
Last year, my husband got a new job, one that paid him several times more than he was making before. We were so excited and immediately put our starter house on the market, bought a new home carrying a $600,000 mortgage, and hired someone to renovate the basement for $50,000. We charged the basement redo on credit cards, sure that we would have the money to pay it back come bonus time. Fast forward to now: My husband just lost his job and because his industry is in trouble, he is having difficulty finding another one. To top it all off, the housing market has slowed down in our area so if we try to resell, we'll lose big-time. I'm writing for two reasons: one, to warn other people not to be as dumb as we were, and two, to ask if you have any words of wisdom to offer us now that we're in this mess.
--Filled With Regret
Dear Filled With Regret,
I'm so sorry. What a very difficult way to learn a hard financial lesson: that a dollar in hand is worth two on speculation. In retrospect, it's easy to see that you were overly giddy with your newfound wealth, as many of us would be. But thinking that you could count on that good fortune indefinitely led you to take some big financial risks.
Sadly, you're certainly not alone in your plight. Consider how many folks overextended themselves in the last few years with high-risk mortgages (including option ARMs and interest-only mortgages) and who are now saddled with rising payments they may not be able to afford. An ever-increasing number of homeowners are facing foreclosure, something that may have been unimaginable to them just a few short years ago.
It won't be easy to get out of your messy financial situation but you can do it. You and your husband need to work together and face the situation head on. It is not the time for blaming; you will need all of your energy to make some of the very difficult decisions facing you both.
First, gather information. Meet with a real estate agent to determine how your home would be priced for resale, as well as how much you would be able to make if you rented it out. Do some more research into your husband's industry: is it slow everywhere right now or are there some locations where his job is in demand? Is his skill set transferable to other positions? Second, consider all of your options. Identify ways you can cut costs. Take on side jobs to supplement your income. Consider a move to an area of the country with a lower cost of living. Weigh the benefits versus the downsides of selling your home. Third, before you get in major trouble with your credit card company, negotiate with them to lower your interest rate and set up a payment plan. Fourth, read everything you can about getting out of debt. After the dust has settled from this situation, you and your husband will need to develop a plan for staying out of debt and restoring your family's financial health.
The lesson you learned, though tough, is an important one for folks to hear. Live like you can't count on your next paycheck and boon or bust, you'll fare just fine.
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Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email. The Fool has a disclosure policy.