10 Overrated Life Decisions

By: Dave Roos
Some Miami voters waited up to three hours to cast their ballots in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Was it worth the time?
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The first edition of The Game of LIFE hit stores in 1960. For generations of American families, the popular board game has served as a blueprint for making major life decisions. There's a logical progression to the game. First, you go to college. Then, you start a career, get married, have babies, hopefully get a promotion, roll the dice with stocks and bank loans, and dream of retiring peacefully at Countryside Acres.

It's the status quo for many Americans, but who says real life needs to play out like a board game? Or that there's only one path to happiness, and it requires 2.33 children and a four-bedroom Colonial in the suburbs? Maybe, just maybe, some of real life's most important decisions are wildly overrated.


Before you take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans (this ain't Monopoly money) or propose to your high school sweetheart, consult our list of the top 10 life decisions that may not pay off.

10: Going to College

Going to college should be a purposeful decision. Make sure you don’t get yourself in deep debt and that your major gets you a well-paying job.

Your parents and teachers have been singing the praises of a college education from the day you spelled "CAT" with a set of alphabet blocks. You've heard it a thousand times. College is the path to a fulfilling, well-paying career; college is the greatest time of your life!

Or is it?


It might depend who's footing the bill. The average cost of a single year at a four-year private American college in 2010 to 2011 was $32,617 [source: National Center for Education Statistics]. To cover that kind of tuition, two-thirds of U.S. college students take out loans. The average student loan debt for the class of 2011 was $26,600, the highest on record [source: Ellis].

True, workers with college degrees can make considerably more over the course of their careers than those with only a high-school diploma. But what if you drop out of college before you get your degree? According to a 2013 report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 46 percent of college students (and 63 percent of African-American students) don't graduate within six years [source: Resmovits]. Now you're in debt with no degree to help pay it off.

Even if you get a degree, your choice of major may leave you unemployable in a tight job market. For instance, in 2010, anthropology and archeology majors had a 10.5 percent unemployment rate on average and a starting salary of $28,000. A film major earned $30,000 and experienced a 12.9 percent unemployment rate [source: Goudreau].

9: Voting

Voters in Silver Spring, Md. wait in a two-block line to vote. If you're that determined, at least be informed of the candidates and the issues before casting your ballot.
Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Don't get us wrong, we're not knocking voting. It feels great to walk out of a polling place with an "I voted" sticker on your chest and know that you helped select the next president/state senator/school board member. But could the true value of your vote be overrated?

First, there's the whole Electoral College thing. If you are a Republican and live in a state that's overwhelmingly blue, your single vote isn't worth much in a presidential election. If the U.S. elected its presidents by popular vote, then your vote would be added to the millions tallied in other states. But with the "winner takes all" system of electors, your vote is negated by your neighbors'.


Even in popular vote contests, the odds of a single vote determining the decision are highly unfavorable. In a study of 40,000 state legislative elections dating back to 1898, only seven were decided by a single vote. A 1910 election in Buffalo was the only congressional election of the century to be decided by a single vote [source: Mangu-Ward]. Your vote would have more of an impact in a primary or run-off but voters tend to skip those unless there's a hot-button issue on the ballot as well.

Sadly, if you really want your preferred candidate to get elected, your money is probably worth more than your vote. In a survey of congressional elections in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008, the candidate who raised the most money won the contest between 73 and 94 percent of the time [source: Jacobson].

8: Getting Married

Marriage can be hazardous to your health. On the other hand, divorce can be hazardous to your wealth. So choose wisely.

Love and marriage are inextricably tied in the American psyche. As Frank Sinatra crooned in the 1950s, "You can't have one without the other." Or can you? Is there any compelling reason, beyond social norms, for a loving couple to get married? What might be the downside to tying the knot?

Marriage is a legally binding contract with serious implications for breaching that contract. If you are dating someone and they cheat on you, you break up and that's it. But if you are married and the love of your life is unfaithful, you can't just break up. You need to get a divorce, an emotionally and financially sapping legal proceeding. According to researchers at Ohio State, divorce drains an individual's wealth by an average of 77 percent, and that goes for both men and women [source: Grabmeier].


Then there are the health effects of marriage, which are frequently touted as highly positive. Married people live longer on average and experience fewer chronic diseases. But those studies ignore the unfortunate existence of the unhappy marriage. According to some studies, a troubled and stressful relationship causes as much damage to the heart as a smoking habit. And divorced people tend to have more physical ailments than single people of the same age who never married [source: Parker-Pope].

7: Having a Baby

"Having my baby...What a lovely way to say how much you love me…" Sure is -- as long as you have the cash.

There are moments of incomparable joy as a parent — those first steps, your name on their lips, watching them grow and thrive — that we wouldn't trade for the world. But are there aspects of having a baby that are overrated? Absolutely.

First, there are the physical demands of parenthood. If the trauma of labor and delivery isn't enough, there are the months — if not years — of sleep deprivation. And the loss of sexual activity because you're both just too tired [source: BBC]


Then there are the financial demands of children. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which releases an annual report on the cost of raising children, a middle-class American family spends between $10,000 and $15,000 a year on each child from birth to age 18. Higher-income families — earning more than $102,870 a year — spend between $20,000 and $25,000 on each kid per year [source: USDA]. Is it any wonder that some financially prudent young couples are opting out of parenthood for the significant cash savings [source: Taha]?

Again, we aren't arguing that having a baby isn't "worth it." Just that there are pros and cons to every major life decision, and if you can't live with the cons, pay attention to this final figure: The dollar investment in a single condom has a 9 million percent return compared to the cost of raising a child [source: Hind].

6: Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Sometimes the view from top is worse than the view from the bottom.

There is a mindset in corporate America that if you aren't moving forward, you're falling behind. The idea of progress in a corporate career is to get promoted, or at least get a significant raise. To tread water in the same position at the same salary is a sign of failure. Before you base your life satisfaction on the title on your cubicle wall, remember that they call it a "rat race" for a reason.

Why might a promotion be overrated? For starters, some people are very happy in their current position and have no interest in managing a team, attending tons of meetings, or traveling every other week. For those employees, it's smarter to say you are flattered by offers of promotion but feel you can contribute more to the company in your current position [source: Tahmincioglu]. It doesn't hurt to ask for the raise, though.


Other people find the very idea of a corporate work environment creatively stifling and emotionally draining. The answer for many such folks is to ditch the rat race and launch their own business. Sometimes it takes one of the other life events on our list, like getting married or having a baby, to trigger the entrepreneurial spirit [source: Pierce]. But if the finances fall into place, the result — being your own boss and getting paid to do something you actually like — can be more satisfying than the most coveted corner office.

5: Buying a House

Marquita Ealy of the Richmond, California chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) tours a foreclosed home. Foreclosure is one of the risks you take if you buy a home before you are ready.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Buying a home is the crowning achievement of the American dream. Renting is seen as transient and unsettled, while home ownership is a sign of financial and emotional stability. A home is an opportunity to put down roots — a foundation on which to build the future of your family.

Or, it could be a gaping money pit.


If you can't pay your rent, you can break your lease with minimal penalties. If you can't pay your mortgage, you are looking at foreclosure, which will drag down your credit score.

If you're renting and your water heater starts leaking, that's the landlord's problem. If you own your home, it's your problem. If you aren't handy, you'll have to pay someone to come fix it or pay for a replacement.

If you're still undecided between renting or buying, use a simple formula called the "price-to-rent ratio," or P/R ratio. Here's how it works. Find two similar houses or apartments in your target neighborhood, one that's for sale and one that's for rent (Web sites like Trulia make this easy). Take the sales price and divide it by the annual cost of renting (monthly rent times 12). If the number is greater than 20, then it's a better financial deal to rent [source: Roth].

4: Relocating for a New Job

It might be flattering to be considered for a job in another location but make sure it will work out for you long-term.

Relocating for a new job is exciting — a fresh start in a new city, often with a better salary. But you need to ask yourself some serious questions before skipping town for greener pastures. First of all, if you own a home, will you be able to sell it? Or will a weak housing market mean taking a big loss on what you originally paid? If you lose tens of thousands of dollars by selling now, make sure your salary hike in the new job will cover it [source: Levin-Epstein].

You also need to gauge the new company's commitment to you [source: Smith]. Are they covering moving expenses? Is there a clear path for promotion and growth within the company? And how strong is the company itself? Does it have the business model and track record to ensure long-term success? It would be a huge waste of time, energy and money to relocate only to watch the business fold in a year.


Other important considerations: your spouse's job prospects, your kids' new schools and how well you fit into the culture of the new city.

3: Exercising More

Exercise can actually be bad for you if you do it the wrong way. So see a doctor before you begin any exercise program.
Michael Greenberg/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Exercise is undeniably a good thing ... but it's also possible to have too much of a good thing. Let's start with yoga, a low-impact workout practiced by an estimated 20 million Americans. In yoga studios across the country, uninitiated students are put through the standard paces of downward-facing dog and basic inversions like headstands. But some top yogis argue that even basic yoga positions can cause serious injury to people with existing health problems like back or joint issues [source: Broad].

And what about those marathon runners, the very model of physical fitness and endurance? A number of recent studies have shown that extreme endurance training can actually damage the heart. The prolonged cardiovascular stress of running a marathon can cause problems like arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), calcification and even scarring. According to the research, there's a limit to how much the heart can be pushed before it sustains damage. The culprit appears to be inflammation of the heart tissue during prolonged endurance training [source: Collier Cool].


Another inconvenient truth of exercise: It's not a great way to lose weight. Major changes in diet — avoiding carbohydrates, sugars and starchy foods — will do much more to slim your waistline than walking briskly on the treadmill for 30 minutes a day [source: Bowden]. While an hour of vigorous daily exercise has proven effective for maintaining weight loss, exercise alone isn't the most efficient way to shed unwanted pounds.

2: Retiring

This is the dream of retirement -- happy couple on the beach. But what is the reality?
Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

The traditional retirement fantasy goes something like this: Fishing on the lake with your buddies, traveling the world with your spouse, touring the country, and visiting the grandkids in a mobile home. Or simply sleeping in and reading a good book in the La-Z-Boy.

The harsh financial reality of modern retirement is radically different. Because of longer life expectancies and dwindling savings and investment returns, many retirees have to pinch every penny to maintain their standard of living. In some cases, they have to take low-wage jobs to make ends meet. In February 2013, the average 401(k) balance of people 55 and older was $143,300, not nearly enough to last 30 or 40 years, even with Social Security [source: Martin].


Even if you are financially prepared for retirement, you might find the experience profoundly overrated. Gone are the mental stimulation of your job, the social interaction of your work environment, and the sense of purpose and accomplishment that was built into your everyday routine.

That's why some older workers advise against retiring until you are physically unable to do the work [source: Moeller]. Thanks to a 1986 amendment to the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, it's illegal for most jobs to have a mandatory retirement age [source: EEOC]. Depending on your line of work, you could easily postpone retirement into your 70s and even 80s. By that point, you'll have more money to live out your retirement fantasies, and the fish at the lake will still be biting.

1: Prolonging Life at All Cost

Doctors prepare to insert a tube in a patient's chest. Should doctors extend patients' lives at all cost?

Physicians and surgeons working in America's hospitals have access to cutting-edge procedures that can prolong the lives of patients living with chronic diseases. But they don't necessarily want them for themselves.

According to a Johns Hopkins University study of older physicians, 90 percent would not want CPR if they were in a coma. Only 25 percent of the public gives the same answer [source: Cohen]. Doctors know that the odds of recovering from "successful" CPR are extremely low, but the odds of broken ribs and increased pain are very high [source: Murray].

In private, many doctors are intensely troubled by the "anything and everything" approach to saving lives [source: Murray]. What's the point of extending a life for a few short months if it means living in an intensive care unit connected to dozens of tubes and numbed to unconsciousness by pain medication?

And then there's the cost. A full quarter of all Medicare spending pays for hospitals stays and procedures for 5 percent of people in their last year of life. And then there's everything that Medicare doesn't cover. An American couple can expect to spend more than $50,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs in the last five years of life [source: Wang]. Some procedures greatly improve and extend quality of life, but not all.

The best advice is to put end-of-life directives in writing, whether we want every possible medical procedure to prolong life, or to die peacefully without being recesisiated or put on life support.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Overrated Life Decisions

Having made eight out of the ten major life decisions on this list, I feel like I can speak with some confidence about the relative value of each. First, I should say that I don't regret a single major life decision so far. I went to college, got married relatively young, have three amazing kids and a mortgage. All of them have worked out wonderfully. And the ones that didn't work out as wonderfully — climbing the corporate ladder, relocating for a new job — I chalk up to valuable learning experiences. As my editor explained, the point of this article is not to slam anyone's decision to get married or retire, but to point out the pros and cons of each, and encourage readers to think hard about some of life's most potentially "life-changing" choices. In The Game of LIFE, you can always clear the board and start over. In real life, you have to live with your decisions, good or bad.

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