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Opinion Column
For the week of May 10 through May 16, 2000

SHOULD-A, WOULD-A, COULD-A: A tale of 20-20 hindsight

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

Because of recent fluctuations in the stock market, it seems I hear more than ever sentences beginning with "If only I had bought that lot on Leadville…" or "I wish I’d followed the tip" or other such regretful phrases. You can’t be alive and grown-up in today’s world without having missed some opportunity that, in retrospect, might have led to more financial or other kind of security.

Mine was selling a home in Malibu—not on but overlooking the ocean—when the market was low. Looking back on the decision, it now seems that I should have just leased out the home when I had to move. Instead I virtually traded it for a condominium in Santa Monica.

The last price it sold for (over six times the amount of the sale in 1979) would have guaranteed me a large nest egg. Instead my eggs have all wound up scrambled, as have my possessions from more moves and disasters than you would want me to share at this moment.

So, when there are discussions about "What if’s," sometimes I sigh and say ruefully, "If only I’d have kept that house, I would be independent today."

Of course there are other things I wish I’d done smarter: started a 401 K earlier; or avoided joining limited partnerships—opportunities touted in the late 70’s and early 80’s as terrific investments.

When I had real estate, I seemed to buy when it was a seller’s market and sell when it was a buyer’s. Oh yes, there are many examples of poor financial decisions I have made.

However, time and perspective have allowed me to say goodbye to those regrets and to many other non-financial misdeeds I have made in my life. I have realized, finally, that I am not destined to be among the very rich.

I saw my parents move down the financial ladder from relative affluence in San Francisco to debt in a tract house in Burbank, Calif. But I also saw that my home was warm and loving and our family life not diminished by a lack of funds.

Partly due to limited budgets, I learned to sew during my 7th grade home economics class and made almost all of my own clothes in high school. I designed my prom dresses in college and sewed dozens of outfits for my daughters when they were small.

I occasionally still make my own clothes and derive great pleasure from needlework—appliqueing and quilting. In short, I have benefited over the years from this skill, one I might not have developed if I’d had loads of money to shop.

Because we didn’t have much discretionary surplus income, I chose things I wanted carefully. More often than not my parents found ways to purchase them for me. Thus, they were highly valued and special gifts, like the dress I dreamed of for months after seeing it in our local department store. I don’t think diamonds could have made me happier than did the generosity of my parents, who saved to buy it for me.

We didn’t watch the television shows that the generation after me enjoyed where life styles like those of "Dallas" were put before people as attainable goals. I really don’t remember ever being ashamed of where I lived or of wanting a fancier house as a teenager. I drove an old clunk of a car (not my own, but the family’s), named "Denton" after a character on early television’s "Our Miss Brooks," a show about high school life. When the principal would get angry at a teenaged boy named Denton, he would send him out of the office, roaring, "Go, Denton!"

We used the same words on Friday nights when the gang would attempt to start my car for our weekly forays to Hollywood and then Bob’s Drive In in North Hollywood. I never thought of asking for a fancier car of my own.

My first purchase of an automobile was for my first year of teaching, a used Volkswagen which overheated three times on the Sepulveda Pass as I was trying to move my possessions from the San Fernando Valley to Topanga Beach, where I shared a house with four other young teachers. I loved that car, even though the steering wheel came off one morning on my way to my classes at Santa Monica High School. When I eventually replaced it with earnings from my job it was a source of great pride.

I became a teacher (not a way to attain great wealth) in part because I wanted to honor my parents’ sacrifices in sending me to college. They hoped I would get a teaching credential as "life insurance." So I did, and over the years, even as I have watched friends enter lucrative professions, I have never regretted the choice I made then to share my love of language with teenagers.

What I really regret is the energy I’ve wasted on regrets.

In other words, I don’t think that being wealthy would have made a great difference to me as I grew up, and I have learned that it doesn’t really matter now. As the old song goes, "I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night." I am healthy, I have dear friends, and I live here. What could be better?


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