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Another sign of the times

Extreme Makeover becomes extreme foreclosure:

More than 1,800 people showed up to help ABCs “Extreme Makeover” team demolish a family’s decrepit home and replace it with a sparkling, four-bedroom mini-mansion in 2005.

Three years later, the reality TV show’s most ambitious project at the time has become the latest victim of the foreclosure crisis.

After the Harper family used the two-story home as collateral for a $450,000 loan, it’s set to go to auction on the steps of the Clayton County Courthouse Aug. 5.

This isn’t so much evidence of the troubled U.S. economy as it is of the phony bill of goods Americans have been sold over the last couple of decades. It’s been drilled into our heads — and you still see this attitude on television shows like HGTV’s My House is Worth What? — that saving money is old hat, and that our homes are our piggy banks. Who needs to budget? Get a second mortgage!

Those days are done, at least for a while.

And maybe that’s a good thing. Old-fashioned wealth accumulation — spending less than you earn and putting the difference someplace safe — is overdue for a comeback.

This “finance your way to wealth” lie is exploding. First of all, it’s not real wealth when we borrow the money, it’s only the appearance of wealth. The really wealthy guys are the ones who own the banks that own the mortgages and credit cards that loaned us the money.

Second, the game has become an unsustainable financial pyramid, one so rickety that even some of the guys at the top are taking a fall. IndyMac was the first savings institution to go down, and Mutual of Omaha bought up two more banks out west over the weekend that were due to fold. Wachovia, Washington Mutual, and many others are wobbling.

We’re as guilty as anyone of buying into the lie. We refinanced our home in St. Louis a couple of times to finance the lifestyle we wanted. Our grandparents would have been appalled. And frankly, I was stunned at the value the appraiser put on our home just before the bubble burst two years ago.

No more. We’re having a blast eating at home, walking when we can, and shopping at flea markets and the local Goodwill. The anecdotal evidence reaching my eyes suggests that a lot of people are doing the same thing.

Our town recently lost its Golden Corral buffet restaurant, and I see that the Bennigan’s chain surprised customers today by shutting the doors at many of its locations in one of the largest restaurant bankruptcies ever. The Baker’s Square and Village Inn restaurants filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

It’s a pretty clear picture, once you tune out the static from the major media (“Stocks soar after another drop in oil prices”): Fewer people can afford the higher cost of food, or even the gasoline to get to the restaurants. The consumer economy is staggering.

And if nothing else comes from this self-inflicted economic hangover, maybe we’ll remember for a little while that lunch is never free, the best things in life are, and the piper — damn his uncharitable hide — always shows up and demands to be paid.

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