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If your desire for home ownership is growing, and you’ve been furiously saving for that 20 percent down payment, you may want to take a moment to reconsider.

The American dream is expensive and evolving. After you pay your mortgage, there’s still more to pay: taxes, insurances, home maintenance expenses and sometimes a mandatory homeowners association fee, which typically runs between $200 and $600 a month. Additionally, many of us are upside down on our loans (meaning we owe more than our house is worth), so what was once a solid investment is a lot more complicated these days.

Hedge fund manager and author James Altucher believes that home ownership is not the smartest use of your funds because it’s not liquid cash. If you need your money quickly, you can’t get it out quickly. “You pay maintenance on your house and all these other expenses,” Altucher says in an AOL Real Estate article. “You have all this work you have to always do on your investment: mow the lawn, shovel the snow. If you really believe housing is a great investment, you can buy housing stocks, stock that relate to the housing market. But owning a home just isn’t a good investment. Your cash is completely gone. The closing costs, the maintenance, the taxes.”

So let’s say you’ve decided that home ownership is currently not for you. You may be wondering what to do with the money you’ve saved for that down payment.

Pay off your debt: The smartest thing you could do would be to pay off all of your debts, including car loans, personal debts and credit card debts. “Make this the year you tackle that credit card debt once and for all,” says financial expert Suze Orman on Oprah.com.

“Doing so will make you and your family stronger and happier – forever. What happens to the stock market and the housing market is completely beyond your control. Credit card debt, however, is completely within your control. Every time you pay off a card with a 15 percent interest rate, you get a 15 percent return on your money.”

Be Safe: That down payment is probably the amount you should have as a safety net. You never know when an emergency, like a job loss, serious health issue or divorce, will strike. “Every family should have an emergency savings account that can cover at least eight months of living expenses,” Orman says. “And I also want every woman to have her own personal savings account that could support her for at least three months because you never know.”

Prepare: According to Credit.com, that down payment money could be used for two futures: yours and your kids. Take half of the down payment to invest in your own retirement. “Commit to maxing out your 401(k) or any other retirement plan your employer may offer in 2012,” writes Philip Cioppa at Credit.com. “If you do not have an employer-sponsored plan, open up and max out your contributions to an IRA. Even if you can’t max out – be consistent – put something in this important bucket.”

Take the other half to invest in your children’s future. “If you have children, open up and contribute to your child’s 529 education fund,” Cioppa says. “Utilize your state’s 529 sponsored-plan to gain tax benefits on your state income taxes, where applicable.”

Maybe it’s time to reinvent the American dream and have it more focused on the original thought of life, liberty and that grand ol’ pursuit of happiness. Having a mortgage payment won’t necessarily make you happy. Maybe instead of spending that down payment on a new home, you could focus on making your family safe, your future secure and your financial state of mind happy.

(C) 2012 McClatchy-Tribune News Service. All Rights Reserved.