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Beware Lifestyle Leverage

Posted By Jim On 06/29/2011 @ 7:24 am In Personal Finance | 13 Comments

One thing that I’ve noticed with a lot of young professionals, especially if they start rising in the ranks of their firms, is that there’s some pressure to get bigger and better things. Part of the pressure comes from mainstream media and pop culture, very few stars drive Honda Civics when there are much fancier cars to be had. MTV Cribs didn’t show one bedroom efficiencies or roommates. There’s a sense that as you make more, you should enjoy it. You should treat yourself to better cars, better housing, better meals, and, presumably, a better life.

The unfortunate part in all this is that sometimes you leverage too much… you borrow more than you should and live a leveraged lifestyle. It’s also one of the gems I read in Barry Ritholtz’s column 7 life lessons from the very wealthy [3].

This is even more treacherous when you consider companies sometimes play into this in order to retain talent. Since I never worked in a “partnership-track career,” that is one in which you’re expected to kill yourself working long hours in order to get to the promised land position of “partner,” (think: lawyer, financial services) I never knew the firms were eager to help inflate the lifestyles of their up and coming talent.

They encourage up-and-comers to spend extravagantly; they extend lines of credit to their rising stars. You need a big house with a jumbo mortgage; you cannot pull up to a business meeting in anything less than the best luxury car. It is part of their corporate culture.

On the surface, that seems great. Your firm likes you and values you enough to offer these perks most people don’t get. They’re also informal golden handcuffs [4]. You can’t leave because you can’t afford it!

It’s hard not to work long hours if you need to… in order to pay for that expensive car lease or mortgage payment. Don’t turn yourself into an indentured servant.

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[3] 7 life lessons from the very wealthy: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/7-life-lessons-from-the-very-wealthy/2011/06/15/AGxw6aaH_story.html

[4] golden handcuffs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_handcuffs

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