Archive for Sunday, February 8, 2004

Backup plan can offer reassurance in lousy times

February 8, 2004


I'm thinking of moving to a trailer. The idea began a couple of summers ago when I saw a lot of trim double-wides on old farms in the Finger Lakes. They looked so orderly and self-contained, and the land was so lovely.

Then, poking around on eBay recently, I was amazed to see you can buy a top-of-the-line, 35-foot trailer, only slightly used, for less than $10,000. Wow! Isn't it stupid to shoulder a mountain of mortgage debt with all these trailers going for the price of a used car?

I'd like to park on a nice piece of land in the boondocks -- near a lake or river. It turns out you can buy a few acres in central Pennsylvania or New York for next to nothing.

I've been talking this up around the house but not getting a positive reception. My wife and 9-year-old son are pretty happy in our '50s ranch in the suburbs. And we don't know anyone in the hinterlands, they point out.

So for the time being the trailer idea is just a backup plan, a final resort if, say, the newspaper goes down the tubes and I have to retire 15 years ahead of schedule.

Everyone should have a backup plan. A good one, whether it's for now or sometime later, such as retirement, ought to offer more than mere survival: It should promise a life you'd like to live.

Which means, basically, figuring out what makes you happy.

Not to get too Waldonesque, but it's better, obviously, if you don't have expensive tastes. A trailer in the Alleghenies is a lot easier to get than a villa in the south of France.

I do like to travel, which can be costly. But I don't get much out of a fancy resort. A decent motel is just fine. In Aruba last winter, my family and I stayed in a pretty little place that caters to windsurfers -- and cost a fraction of what they charge at the luxury hotels down the road. Instead of shelling out small fortunes at restaurants, we barbecued.

I like to have a dependable vehicle, but I don't care how new it is, or how showy. Our 5-year-old pickup and 8-year-old station wagon should serve us for another decade at least. I won't buy another car until the house is paid for.

I like baseball. But I get more of a kick working on my children's swing than I do at a Phillies game, and the town's batting cages are free.

You get the picture.

A couple of months ago, my son and I spent a weekend in the Berkshires with a college buddy of mine whom I hadn't seen in about 20 years. He's a carpenter and homebuilder -- comfortable but not exactly rich.

Sometimes he wonders if he should have followed his father to Wall Street and made a lot of money, he told me. But in the Berkshires he's his own boss, and on nice days he knocks off at 1 and takes his bicycle for a 40-mile spin. And he's had lots and lots of time with his son. Not many corporate climbers can beat that.

Granted, a lot of this whole I-want-to-run-away-and-live-in-a-trailer thing comes from run-of-the-mill grumpiness, which will be temporary, I hope.

It's just that things seem so discouraging at the moment. The business news is full of accounts of greed and corruption. People are killing each other all over the world. And I always get a little bummed during the presidential campaign season because I hate being lied to and figure Big Money will keep sticking it to everyone else no matter who wins.

Or maybe I'm getting the flu -- I'm not usually this pessimistic.

In a few days, I'll probably snap out of it and find that things aren't really that bad.

But I won't abandon my backup plan. It's reassuring to think you could be happy in a completely different life -- one that's actually attainable.

So take a look at eBay. There are lots of trailers for sale. And since everyone wants to be hip and live near the cities, there's lots of cheap land in the hinterlands.

In a couple of weeks, you could be pulling onto a level spot, stomping on the parking brake and getting ready to enjoy the spring.

Just don't take my spot.

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