Jun 052009

I vividly remember three times in my life that a banker really got under my skin. The first time was back in the early 80s. I had a small auto repair shop, and there was a new engine analyzer I wanted. When I went in to borrow the money, the banker said he didn’t think it was a good idea. I wondered what he knew about fixing cars. The second time in the late 80s, I went in to borrow money to buy two three-plex apartment units. He said no, so I went to the bank across the street and was turned down again. I went back to the first bank and begged, and got the job done. The third time was when Heather and I were dating. I was in the process of refinancing an apartment house to pay for remodeling of our shop, and the banker came in and gave me a rough time. His loan officer had already given the OK to the deal, but the President of the bank stopped by to tell me that I should be more conservative. He said that I was in plenty deep, and they weren’t going to help. I was furious.

The problem was how deeply rooted I was in this small town we lived in. I had bought too much real estate, and invested so much in business property, that I had felt trapped for years. I didn’t know what else to do. I was well known in the town and very active, and when that happens you don’t please everyone. The cruelty and gossip were getting me down, and much of our focus was on getting out of Dodge as often as possible. Heather became my partner in change.

We took a long look at what we had been doing. For the first year we dated, Heather introduced me to frugal living (previously a foreign concept to me). At first, I got into the frugality thing because it was fun. I thought it was cute how Heather saved money and made do with very little. We went to Goodwill and found items for our home, kitchen utensils, and clothes. Soon my whole wardrobe was from Goodwill. Heather started saving quite a bit of money. The rat-race had made me crazy for almost five years, and I was serious about getting out.

I didn’t know what I would do without the auto shop, and real estate sales income is not very consistent in a small town. I feared moving to another area and failing. Heather convinced me that I could do anything and be successful. The final straw was a run-in with our Neanderthal neighbor. Heather said she didn’t want to live in that town anymore, and we were on the same page.

Heather had already put away over $40,000 during the first year we were together. I always say that for every $5 I bring home, she puts $8 of it in the bank. This was a solid start, and we started paying off on mortgage loans.

When we started sifting through the hoard of stuff in storage, it was what Niecy Nash on Clean House would call a “hot mess.” Garage stalls full of “mayhem and foolishness,” she would say. We had already begun getting rid of stuff, selling things on E-Bay, and building up savings. Heather had developed a strong E-Bay business, and we used it to start selling big ticket items like the Harley, a snowmobile and trailer, and a collector car. We marketed some of the other cars through car club newsletters. We donated boxes of trinkets, trading cards, and worthless collectibles to a home for handicapped children to be auctioned off to a car club I belonged to. Proceeds went toward needs for the less fortunate kids, and we got the tax deduction.

The biggest ticket items were next. We started selling off the real estate. I was afraid of the taxes that would have to be paid on capital gains. Some of the properties were purchased many years earlier at far below current value, and a large amount of depreciation had been taken on my yearly tax returns. One of the properties was really a tough one, because the tax bill would be more than the equity. We traded that one for another property that we did quite well on.

All of the money from each sale went to pay off others, and soon the end was in sight. All the while, we scrimped, saved, and paid things down. Life was getting much easier. In 2004, I started a real estate appraisal career and soon found that Heather was right when she told me I didn’t need that town. We had sold the auto shop, and I had a new career that I could take anywhere. We sold the 1923 bungalow and temporarily moved into one of our apartments, while we searched for our new town.

18-month-old Bee playing with sidewalk chalk in front of the bungalow. She called it “cawch.”

At that point, we had not decided to totally simplify. I thought I needed to take the money and reinvest in rental property in another town. I guess I still lacked a little confidence without the old crutches of investments. That all changed when we finally found our new town. After failed attempts with two different contractors to build a new house, we finally found an existing home and sold our building lot. It had been four crazy years of work to pare down.

Heather had recently accepted Christ, and He would soon call me. I guess God realized that I had enough insanity and distraction, and that it was my time. We settled in to sell the last of the rental properties that were left in the old town, and sever the roots. On July 3, 2007, we closed on the property that allowed us to pay off all that was left, including our home. The cars were paid for in cash, the last loan was paid, we still had one rental house left, and another one sold on contract. The Banker no longer owned me.

My car has 140,000 miles on it now, but it’s going strong. I still do all the service on it in my own home shop (complete with hoist). When it gives up, we will go get a one-year-old used replacement, with money Heather has earmarked for that purpose. We continue to live debt free, below our means, garage saling, couponing, saving, laughing about the memories, and best of all, wanting what we have.

Making a short story long, Heather’s husband

Footnote: About a year ago, the old Banker gave me a call. Their local Rotary Club was having a party for all of the past Presidents, and he was in charge of inviting me. It was with great pleasure that I told him, “No thanks, I think I’ll pass”.