OPINION: Our post-pandemic attitude towards wealth

A senior couple standing and hugging outdoors at dusk, caravan holiday trip.

Financial expert Peter Sharkey explores why people have re-evaluated their attitude towards wealth during the past two years - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to a report in the New York Times last month, research undertaken in the United States found that almost two-thirds (60pc) of people have re-evaluated their attitude towards and perception of wealth during the past two years.

The article suggested that Americans’ definition of wealth was no longer determined solely according to the amount of capital an individual accumulates. It noted that in 2018, 65pc of people surveyed said that monetary wealth gave them peace of mind. By late 2021, however, the figure had dropped to 53pc.

The newspaper said that isolation has changed people’s minds and aspirations – a collective attitudinal change replicated on this side of the Atlantic. Lockdown certainly highlighted life’s inherent fragility, but also the relative ease with which we can take pleasure from simple things like taking a stroll or listening to music.

Two years has been more than sufficient for millions of people to conclude that, rather than simply accumulate more monetary wealth, they want instead to do something with it – perhaps helping their families and loved ones, for instance, by giving them a leg-up on the property ladder or investing in a family business start-up.

It’s noticeable that the sum of money people said they need to be ‘financially comfortable’ has fallen from £681,000 to £455,000 in the space of four years (2018-22). It appears that for huge numbers of people their focus has shifted: money is no longer an objective but a tool used to maintain a healthy, active and enjoyable lifestyle.

Not many folks have £455,000 in liquid assets such as cash, but a surprisingly large number, estimated at 8.6 million UK households, own their own home mortgage-free. According to the most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average value of these homes is £271,000.

Readers of a certain age will recall the rather antiquated (but hugely effective) process by which they bought their first home. I remember my wife and I had to save the deposit for our first home with Abbey National Building Society. We both worked to assemble the necessary funds before the society deemed us a decent risk and offered us a mortgage.

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Getting over the deposit hurdle as first-time buyers back in the 1980s was achievable, but property ownership since has not been without its setbacks. Crippling interest rates (remember when base rates were 13pc?); periodic concerns, particularly when business wasn’t going too well, about repaying the mortgage; the constant investment required to keep the place up together. Gradually, however, you reach the finishing line – most people repay their mortgage at the age of 59 – and you realise just how much effort has gone into creating the wealth wrapped up in this building you call home.

Nowadays, middle-aged (and older) homeowners can access a percentage of that wealth, free of tax, and use it howsoever they want. Not surprisingly, the first question most people ask is: “How much of my property’s wealth can I withdraw?”

The answer is dependent upon several factors. For example, the age of the youngest homeowner forms the basis of any equity release calculation. He or she must be at least 55 years of age. The property’s current market value and condition are also considerations: the home’s minimum valuation must be at least £70,000 and if any major repairs are required, they must be completed before the equity release process is completed. The minimum amount homeowners may withdraw from their property is usually £10,000.

There are several other aspects of equity release worthy of note and it should be said that releasing value from the family home is not for everyone. It could, for example, have an impact on your right to means-tested state benefits. It’s also worth emphasising the fact that equity release involves a form of borrowing, usually a lifetime mortgage, although unlike the mortgage for which you probably saved frantically back in the day, there is no obligation to repay a penny: the outstanding lifetime mortgage is settled either when you die or move to full-time residential care and the property is sold.

Welcoming our first proper spring since 2019 enhances a pervasive sense of renewal and opportunity. Releasing equity from the home, rather than letting it sit untouched, offers homeowners who have mulled over their situation for the past two years a chance to start living their lives again. We may remain mindful of life’s inherent fragility, but many older folks are similarly aware of the most famous call to action of them all: carpe diem.

For more financial advice, check out Peter Sharkey’s regular blog, The Week In Numbers.