Scratch troubled, we are screwed as a country

I read with great alarm on CFO.com that as the housing and mortgage crisis deepens, people are dipping into or even cashing out retirement funds.

“In the last four or five months we have seen an absolute onslaught of people trying to do hardship withdrawals and loans out of 401(k)s,” Mark Anderson, CFO of Granite City Electric, told CFO magazine in October. “What has happened with housing and the economy has really blown up for people at the lower end of the spectrum.”

When you cash out a retirement fund to pay down a mortgage, you take a double hit. First, you lose the money itself in a market that is declining rapidly, dumping good money after bad. Second, and most perilously, you create an enormous opportunity cost for yourself that you will in all likelihood never recoup in your lifetime.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say you are an eager 21 year old college graduate, with a great outlook on life, a job that pays a salary of $2,000 a month before taxes, and 45 years in the workforce ahead of you. If you start saving today, 3% of your income with employers that match with a 3% contribution, and your investments give a safe return of 6% over your working lifetime, you’ll retire at the age of 66 with roughly $330,000, give or take.

Now, let’s say you, at the age of 50, make some bad choices and consider bailing yourself out of a mortgage problem with the $110,000 you’ve accrued so far in life. Boom, problem solved, right? Wrong. You’re now in incredible trouble. You will retire in 15 years with a grand total of only $35,000 in the bank (at the same savings rate). To retire with the same amount of money as you would have had, you would need to save 30% of your income instead of 3%, have an employer that matched 6%, and hope for an 11% return over those 15 years. Otherwise, you have to depend on the government and HOPE that Social Security is still solvent when you retire – otherwise, you will not retire.

What SHOULD you do if you find yourself in super-serious, no end in sight mortgage trouble? Walk away. Mail in the keys to your lender, declare bankruptcy, rent a nice apartment somewhere, and work off the bankruptcy. Does foreclosure look bad? Yes. Foreclosure and bankruptcy means you’ll be paying cash for a lot of things for a while. But it lasts 7 or 10 years at the most. 7 to 10 years of bad credit is easily survivable, and you may even develop good personal spending habits by only being able to spend what you have. Compare 7 to 10 years of conservative living with 30 years as an elderly man or woman trying to make ends meet with meager savings. Can’t declare bankruptcy? Leave the country. As long as you have useful skills, there are PLENTY of nations on this planet that are all very nice, and very few of them have credit bureaus connected to the United States.

Truth: the United States is NOT the best country in the world. It’s one of many very good countries, and any flag-waving moron who blindly believes that one country is the best has probably never traveled more than 20 miles past his doorstep. LOTS of good countries in the world.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, they’ve already dived off the cliff, and that means a certain percentage of the population in the years to come will be gambling that social services and the government can assist them in their “golden years”.

Is that a gamble you’d take?

Like the old Willie Nelson song goes, know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to RUN.

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