The View From Your Recession

A reader writes:

I arrived on these shores 17 years ago with $2.35 and a college scholarship. I studied like my life depended on it (because, in a way, it did), and my work paid off. I'm now a software engineer with 2 BS degrees and an MS. Having emigrated from hell (ok, maybe not quite hell -- Nigeria -- but definitely hell-adjacent), I know first-hand what it is like to live in a society without an economic safety net. I had gone to bed many times with unresolved pangs of hunger. I wasn't going to take a chance that it would ever happen again.

I worked and saved carefully. Pinched pennies, dined on Ramen noodles and turned down the thermostat in the winter. My house has always been the smallest among my colleagues and my car is over a decade old. So, what did I do with all this money I scrimped and saved? Well, I put 70% into real-estate and 30% into retirement accounts. Big mistake. Huge!

To be clear, I have never flipped a single house. I stayed away from it because it clearly looked like a get-rich quick scheme. Instead, I purchased single family houses and apartments. Nothing flashy, just basic homes. I live in the Midwest, so we have very few multi-million dollar condos here anyway. When a few "For Sale" signs popped up, it was barely anything to take note of. But when the signs started rusting, attention begged to be payed.

Now those houses are in foreclosure and the signs are everywhere. Many are already boarded up to keep out vagrants. I owe more on most of my properties than they can be sold for because similar houses are being auctioned off at a fraction of what I paid. My girlfriend still thinks I'm loaded. I have no idea what she'll say when she realizes that the sacrifices won't bear any financial fruits.

I don't think I did anything but follow a tried-and-true path to investing. My conservative approach would have probably paid off at any other time in the history of this country. In the past 10 years I have never been without 3 jobs -- my standard 9-5, a software consulting gig and a teaching gig at my friends software training firm. My 9-5 is relatively safe (thank goodness), but my software consulting gig has been cut from 12 hours a week to 3 hours, and my friend's training business is circling the drain. Ironically, now that I most need to, I feel I don't have the strength to abuse myself like I did the last decade.

In January, I took some money out of what was left of the carnage and went to Las Vegas. After seven years without a vacation, I felt I owed something to my battered state of mind. Disillusionment is the appropriate word for my current condition. If I had been profligate, at least I would have the memories. It's hard to muster the discipline to save again. It was difficult (horrendous even) to work an average of 75 hours a week for over a decade. It stings to realize that it was all for naught. I just might go back to Vegas again. At least while I lost money there, I got drinks and -- from what I can remember -- had a heck of a time.