Any article or discussion about co-housing is bound to allude to the economic advantage involved in sharing lives and expenses. So over this and next week I want to explore two questions on the theme of money: does co-housing really offer serious savings, and how does our personal prosperity link to how we construct our retirement years?
This week’s theme:
Money gives you freedom to make mistakes
The common wisdom is that if you’re rich, you have more choice than if you aren’t. True, but I think the larger truth is that when you’ve got lots of money, you can more easily back out of your choices. That’s what gives you the freedom – and having the freedom to make mistakes has to be a real lubricant for a lively life.
Consider my cousin who, over hard-working and careful years, has acquired a good deal of money. He owns properties in the mountains, in the desert, on the seaside, near his ageing mother and far from his ageing mother. He can afford to drive or fly when and where he wants. He and his wife work hard on their various houses, but when their energy runs out they’ll be able to afford staff, health care, live-in assistance. Their potential retirement headquarters is what you could almost call a castle. It sits furnished and quiet now, awaiting their visits and, eventually, the day when they settle in. When that happens, he could fill that mansion with family or friends if he wanted to, or he and his wife could choose to live a quiet and private life within its elegant confines.
So his wealth gives him choice, and allows him ease in backing out of wrong choices. I’ve seen him say, “Whoops,” and write off a million or so. He can choose to retire to the mansion, then change his mind and move to a condo in Arizona. He could afford to be a co-housing benefactor and live communally, or not. He could co-habit with family or friends, then change his mind and graciously withdraw the offer, as he won’t have to rent out parts of the house to make ends meet. There are few constraints in this aspect of his life.
For some reason, Vitamin Joe just popped into mind. He’s someone I met during my days of teaching in semi-rural Alberta, and he existed firmly at the other end of the housing spectrum. Vitamin Joe lived on the shores of Battle Lake in a shack on what he called “govmint propity”. He roamed the countryside, trapped game, picked berries, collected some pension. Probably his biggest living expense was the garlic that gave him his name, consumed raw in great volume. Believe me, you could smell Vitamin Joe before you could see him, and when he stopped your car and stuck his head in the window for a chat, it was a life-defining experience.
When I think about Vitamin Joe, I make the assumption that he wasn’t an eccentric billionaire who left a fortune to his bemused offspring. Most likely he was just someone who had no money and therefore few choices about where and how to live. His lifestyle may have been tightly constrained by lack of money, but he clearly wouldn’t have relished a communal existence. It must be said that his financial limitations didn’t appear to trouble him much.
Most of us are somewhere in between Vitamin Joe and my prosperous cousin. We have choices, but we have to choose carefully because we can’t back out easily. We might relish a household filled with people, but we know from a lifetime of experience of divorces and betrayals and nursed grudges that it’s easy to make a mistake and expensive to retreat.
Last week I described us Shedders as a cautious lot, choosing to rent together first to test the communal waters. That prudence was dictated by finances. Our plan was both driven and constrained by economics all the way through. We reckoned we would profit from sharing expenses, but we also knew it would be financially challenging for us to reverse out of a big mistake. We recognised that we needed to go forward carefully.
A further cautionary tale: we (the Shedders) have friends who moved into a co-housing situation with another couple some years ago. Like us, the four of them were driven in part by finances. Each couple had a vision for a good-sized property to be used as a working farm, and they couldn’t afford it separately. Unlike us, they didn’t know each other particularly well. They met, liked one another, shared their enthusiasm, and jumped in. Within two years the project and the friendships were in strife. They scraped their way out of the agreement, but I know it must have involved severe financial hardship for all parties.
What are we to make of this?
Well, the Vitamin Joes among us don’t need to worry, nor do those who have very healthy retirement portfolios. But the rest of us are well-advised to tread carefully, staying awake to the fact that our mistakes may have greater consequences than those of our wealthy cousins.
All said, I’m the last person who would advise against taking risks. Let’s call it an informed boldness, and practice it regularly.
* * *
“Judy and Mike hard at work building a new garden with broad bean pole tower as the centrepiece. (Plants are products of a shopping expedition to the Gloucester markets.)”
Consider this miracle: while Rick and I are away in Canada, our house is being attended, our gardens cared for. Not only that but improvements are happening! There will be beans and some other species I can’t identify in the photo to eat. My food bill will be slightly smaller and my intake reliably organic. All this because I share my household with my carefully-chosen mates.
(The downside is that I miss them a lot while I’m away.)
That’s all a lead-in to next week’s post, where I’ll explore more about the kinds of savings we Shedders experience.