Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Compass to Guide Me

The other night, over dinner with another couple, the topic of foreclosures came up. Specifically, the latest trend: that people who are underwater but not in financial distress are walking away from their homes.

I had just had a conversation about this that morning. A trusted spiritual adviser confessed he didn’t get it. How people could sign a contract, then decide not to live up to it. People were fickle, he concluded. When things were good, everyone jumped on the bandwagon. But when things went south, they jumped ship and tried to distance themselves from commitments they made. I had agreed wholeheartedly.

That exchange was still fresh in my mind, so I said, “I know. I don’t get that.”

I was surprised when the husband of the other couple defended the practice. He called it “strategic foreclosure.” He asked with all the shenanigans the banks were getting away with, why I wouldn’t do it.

“Why would what the banks do have any bearing on my decision to pay my mortgage?” I asked.

Our friend went on to say that there are experts who advocate walking away as the smartest financial decision. The ding on a person’s credit wasn’t all that bad these days because there were so many people who had foreclosures, he said. He argued that the value of my own home was affected by what the banks did. He wanted me to feel as outraged as he did.

“Why should we feel bad about sticking it to the banks?” he wanted to know.

What I wanted to say is that dishonesty and manipulation work against my recovery. I wanted to tell him about the exercise with the folded paper. How if I put what someone had done to me on one side, and what I had done as a result on the other, then tore the paper in half and threw away the first side, what I would be left with is what I had done. I thought about the amends I would have to make.

I didn’t say this. From my experience, it doesn’t help to talk recovery to someone who doesn’t want what I have.

I agreed that what happened affected everyone, us included. But I pointed out that we paid a fair market price for our house and got a good rate on a 30-year fixed loan. No one took advantage of us. The market had changed, yes. And that sucked. But that was reality. I accepted that.

In truth, we’d like to sell our house and live up at the land. But that just wasn’t in the cards for us right now. I felt fortunate that we weren’t among those who need to sell.

My husband threw in the fact that people walking away from their mortgages would just make the situation worse for everyone.

The more we talked, the more agitated our friend got.

I shrugged and said it just wasn’t something we were going to do. My husband asked about dessert. With relief, we moved on to other topics.

A few days later I saw the wife. She was in bad humor. I asked what was wrong.

“I just have some decisions to make,” she said.

I said I was sorry and to let me know if there was anything I could do.

Eventually, it came out. She said that she and her husband had their house appraised and it was worth half of what they paid for it. I took from it that they were considering a “strategic foreclosure.”

“Why is that a problem for you?” I asked.

She looked at me as if I were crazy. “It will never be worth what I owe,” she said.

“Of course it will,” I said.

“Not as soon as people are saying,” she answered. “Not for years.”

I admitted that the situation sucked for people who had to sell their houses in this market, and I was grateful I wasn’t one of them.

“Are you planning to leave?” I asked.

She just looked at me glumly. I dropped it.

Then her phone rang. I heard her say that their massage therapist was coming over that night. She said they got in-home massages once a month, which cost them no more than they would pay for a dinner out and a nice bottle of wine.

Listening to her, I began feeling judgmental and self-righteous. And I realized that works against my recovery, every bit as much as dishonesty and manipulation.

So I decided to think about this couple differently. Instead, of judging them, I decided to view them with compassion. I decided to feel compassion for their distress they felt and for the consequences they may face for the choices that were theirs to make.

At the same time, I felt grateful that I have a program that teaches me to accept what is. That my husband and I can still afford to pay our mortgage and choose to do so. That we will not have to sustain a diminished credit rating or make an amends in the future. I felt grateful for a home I love, regardless of whether any appraiser sees the value in it or not.


  1. I hear you in so many ways. I would fall into self righteousness also when I thought about a couple willing to walk away from their house and financial responsibility but still having an in home masseuse come over once a month. you got me going! lol

    I like your transition to compassion though...

  2. What an unsettling story. It is hard to stick to my moral compass when others are losing a grip on theirs. But think of the alternative. You did good.

  3. Kathy,
    This is a good way to handle this. I have this conversation with a relative sometimes. He defends his compromising choices and I just try to speak the truth. It is all I have. Without truth I would be lost. It does make me sad to think that so many have lost sight of the truth. There is right and wrong and consequences for each. For me I could not sleep at night if I did something like that.
    It reminds me of a song I heard once .....One of the lines said, "What if one day we woke up and we were living our lives upside down?" Sometimes when I talk to people it seems that up is down and down is up.

    When did walking away become acceptable. :(


  4. I loved what you said about taking responsibility for your own actions and not for the actions of others. It is so hard! This strong sense of morality, intense sense of justice, is something I've felt was my responsibility in the past. I felt it was my duty to get others to see things as I see them.

    In fact, it is not. Other people, or institutions, are not my problem and thank GOD! Who needs it? It's enough to handle my own problems.

    Our house is also worth half what we bought it for. We have borrowed against our house to pay tuition for our kids and now we owe more than it's worth - after almost fifteen years in this home. I only pray that we will be able to continue making the payments and will find our way out of this financial mess in time. Its all I can do. It would break my heart to walk away from this house... in so many ways. I certainly would not choose it.

    great post, as usual. Gives me a lot to think about and to be grateful for.

  5. Great post!! It is so hard not to judge others when we feel they are wrong!!

  6. I live my life according to the concept of obedience to the unenforceable laws--doing the right thing whether or not people are watching or it will get you in trouble. I wish everyone felt the same.

  7. What a great post! Between the house we sold (and had to bring a HUGE check to closing), and the house we bought, value now down about $150,000 from what we paid... it's hard to hear about people walking away as a "strategic foreclosure". My husband and I feel the same way you do.
    We also feel, we are planning to stay here, so the value doesn't matter. Someday the kids can complain their inheritance wasn't worth as much - lol :)
    I am so impressed with your working through this - I must say, just reading your post, I still can not get where you got. I mean... well, in a case like this I'd probably have to "fake it 'til I make it"!
    Hey - meeting last night was about slogans - we shared our favorites, of course the two I shared were from you ("my Al-Anon friend on the computer"). The warning sirens (repeating 3xs=controlling) and about if your name's not on it...
    Just wanted to say thanks for helping me daily down here in Florida :)
    God bless.

  8. I am grateful to have a home that we can afford. We live simply. I, too, have compassion for those people who are stressing over financial stuff without having any steps or tools. I would be a mess without the stability of my program. You didn't take on another's stuff..I can learn from that.