Hi Sandi

I know you are often looking for article ideas and I’m wondering if you would feel in the mood to write something to motivate folks who are doing okay, have a plan, no debt,….but need to avoid the temptation to go into debt (aka buy a cottage). It’s nice not having debt, but I could use a lecture on staying focused and sticking to the plan. 

~L

Let’s unpack this request a little, because it seems as though there’s more than just “tell me not to do an unwise thing” going on here. There’s a lot to say about the specific temptation – the cottage, and the borrowing to get it – but there’s even more to say about the whole concept of goals, motivation, and success. What I really want to know is why “doing okay”isn’t enough for you.

Are you really okay?

Like every professional everywhere, my knee-jerk response is to believe that what you really need is me, so forgive the bias inherent in this question: how do you know you’re okay? Are you using your lack of debt as a proxy for overall financial well-being? It’s dangerous to move on to the advanced classes before mastering the prerequisites, so before graduating to  “now what”, re-examine your true financial situation, and be careful to identify any risks to your ongoing stability that you might have overlooked.

Are you aiming at what you’re really interested in?

If you’re spending well, saving appropriately, on track for the goals you’ve planned, and have adequately protected yourself from as much risk as you can, congratulations. Why aren’t you satisfied? Is it possible that the plan you have right now isn’t motivating you because it isn’t actually what you want?

In my profession, we’re very guilty of focusing on the goals to the exclusion of anything else – the educations, the vacations, the retirements, and leaving the meaning and fulfilment (which can’t be measured and don’t pay a commission) to sort themselves out. This is partly because we’re trained to think in the language of dollars and cents and amortization and future values and rates of return, and have a very difficult time translating those useful concepts into the language of humans and relate them to meaning and relationships and value. We focus on reaching SMART goals, but don’t spend much time worrying about whether the direction we’re headed is the right one.

I want to pause here for a minute and illustrate what I mean when I talk about the difference between goals and direction by going on a canoe trip together down the Spanish River. Our friend is going to drop us off at Duke Lake on Saturday, and will be at Agnew Lake Lodge the following Saturday to pick us up. That means that our specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goal is to be at Agnew Lake Lodge in seven days. Everything else is direction.

Spanish River Canoe Route

This means that we have a whole host of choices in front of us:

  • We could paddle flat out, make it to the Lodge by Wednesday afternoon, and lounge around until our friend shows up
  • We could take it easy, picking the perfect campsites and enjoying long afternoons by the river
  • We could run each set of rapids twice, because we love whitewater so much

Of course, it also means that there are quite a few things outside of our control that will have an effect on how enjoyable the trip is and how quickly we reach our destination (or if we reach it at all). One of us could get sick and need to be evacuated. There could be a flood, fire, or crazy bear attack.

Our goal – the Lodge on Saturday – might not be the most important thing about this trip. Let’s face it, our goal is only the thing that happens at the end. If the goal was Being at the Lodge rather than Getting to the Lodge, our perception of the journey itself would change dramatically. Forget paddling, let’s just drive to the Lodge and hang out for a week, right?

I could go on with the analogy, but I think you get the picture. Goals are important – they’re the proverbial tip of the iceburg – visible, measurable, top of mind in a traditional financial planning engagement – but direction is what’s going on under the surface. Goals change. Purposeful direction doesn’t change much.

Let’s talk about this cottage thing

So is the lure of the cottage really about the cottage? Or is it about the cottage lifestyle? Is it possible that the thing you’re tempted to go into debt to buy is just a stand-in for the kind of life you wish you had?

I live in beautiful Muskoka, which means that from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving thousands of folks from Toronto stream past my front porch on the way to their cottages. I envy them their early mornings on the dock, days spent canoeing on the lake or reading in a hammock, and long evenings around the campfire, I really do. I’m intimately acquainted with the dream of cottage life.

But I’m also intimately acquainted with the work involved in owning the cottage life instead of renting it for a week or two in the summer. People who own their cottages have to either pay for property maintenance or spend a lot of cottage time repairing the dock, opening or closing for the season, fighting carpenter ants, trimming back trees, fixing the roof, and repairing the garbage bin after (another) bear visit. Owning a cottage costs money and time. You’d better be really, really clear that you want what you’re buying.

Would-be cottage owners sometimes think to solve the problem of cost of their vacation property by renting it out, which – of course – means that there’s even less cottage time to go around, and even more maintenance to do yourself or pay someone else to do to keep the property clean and rent-able. Being able to deduct the partial cost of owning and operating your cottage as a rental property and breaking even on cost doesn’t offset the fact that you won’t be the one there enjoying it most of the time.

Asking “now what?” might be signal that you want something else

So the real cottage question is this: what is it about the cottage (or any temptation to go “off-plan”) that is more attractive to you than the goals you already have, and does it make sense for you to re-examine those goals? Is your life too fast? Too crowded? Too busy? Do you need to be purposeful about taking time off and giving yourself permission to relax? Do you just need to get outside more?

If you’ve critically examined your desire to own a cottage and it’s not a stand-in for something else that’s missing from your life, and if the realistic costs are well within your ability to pay without jeopardizing your financial well-being, or if you’re willing to sacrifice equally costly goals to move towards this one, then maybe you should do it.

Where’s the sense in saving wisely for a goal you might not actually want?

 

 

Sandi Martin

Sandi Martin is an ex-banker and fee only financial planner who specializes in working with regular folks who suspect their money might be a bit of a mess. She lives in beautiful Muskoka with her husband and three children, and works online and by phone with clients across Canada.

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