Frugal school holidays #1

Kids have gone back to school this week! Woo and quite literally Hoo! They really needed these 8.5 weeks (8.5! Seriously??) off as last year was crazy, including some health issues, all of us getting COVID, I was doing two jobs and permanently either out or stressed… So we all needed a bit of down time.

In 2020 I wrote a series of posts about the crazy expense of school holidays as well as sharing a ton of frugal ideas to enjoy them without breaking the bank. 2020 was admittedly different since lockdown had meant that the kids and I had basically spent months together trapped at home trying to work and homeschool, and I was pretty much out of good ideas for nice things to do together. Denmark had also just opened up, and we were desperate to get out of the house and into the big wide world in case it shut down again.

Spending a LOT of time on Denmark’s fabulous beaches (though wishing they were a bit warmer…)

But it meant that I spent £4,065 in addition to our regular spending during the 2020 summer holidays which feels ridiculous. Managing long school holidays is a challenge for all working families, but for single parents where household income is lower, and there isn’t an option to tag team between parents using their annual leave it is a huge problem. My father has long term worsening health issues which meant he had to shelter in place and now needs 24 hour care, and whilst in previous years I would usually either take my kids to stay with their grandparents for 2-3 weeks, or have my mum come and stay with us, this hasn’t been an option since COVID.

In the UK this year, thanks to the number of companies which went out of business during the pandemic, summer childcare has risen by as much as 25% in some places and with fewer spots available options are likely to be further away and cost more in petrol or travel. Overall research suggests that parents will pay an average additional £900 per child for the summer holidays if they cannot take time off work. Given that single parents already earn significantly less than others, and that 75% report that childcare costs are greater than their basic living costs and one-third of working mothers say that their childcare costs are the same as or higher than their salary

Easier to find things to do when the weather is like this!

From a personal point of view – and recognising that being on a relatively high income and with basic childcare options that continue in the summer – I knew that this year I really had to do things differently. Last week I wrote about commitment to paying off a bridging loan, and since I was horribly aware of the financial vortex of the summer holidays, I made a clear decision and plan to have a frugal holiday and put that money against the loan. (If you havn’t read the post, I paid off £25,000 plus interest in 19 months, and the final £5,000 came from summer holiday choices).

I tracked additional spend during the 2022 holidays. I didn’t count our regular childcare budget of £800 monthly – since I employ a nanny due to my work hours and travel needs, I need her all year round. I also didn’t count usual supermarket or travel spend on our train cards though I did include two supermarket shops which were clearly for treats. So I included holidays clubs, days out, money spent on books, subscriptions etc specifically for the holidays, the cost of a ‘self care day’ which I had as a day’s leave, and eating out since it’s something we don’t usually do. In total I spent an additional £1,377 over the school holiday period – or one-third of the cost of the 2020 holidays.

Books, website subscriptions etc £    100.00
Holiday club x 3 weeks £    886.50
Day out expenses £    192.10
Eating out expenses £    113.00
Self care day £      85.32
TOTAL £ 1,376.92
Additional costs for the holiday period
SO MUCH BEACH!

Next week I will share more on what we actually did – and on how I learnt to embrace boredom and unmanaged time as something critical for my kids’ ability to navigate this world.

I also tracked some of the frugal ideas for the holidays over on this blog’s Instagram page, come join me if you want a sneak peek!

Commitment #2

Last week I posted on my Insta about paying off £27,000 in 19 months and I wanted to talk about it in a bit more detail here and how it relates to my thinking on commitment.

Generally I don’t carry debt. I appreciate there are a number of schools of thought on this one, especially about ‘good debt‘, credit card benefits and so on but for me it always comes back to the kinds of risk I am willing to take (TL:DR – not many, usually based on complex zombie apolocalypse scenarios where I can’t look after my kids).

But when I was buying a house last year it turned out that I couldn’t bridge the gap between my deposit and the mortgage. I had 10% as a down payment but needed more to be able to access the financing. I had already scrimped hard to get the downpayment together and, with fees and costs associated with moving, just couldn’t make the rest in the right time frame without leaving myself with no emergency fund at all. So I took a bridging loan, just as a personal loan from my regular bank.

I figured that adding it as a risk to the overall house buying approach should work. Photo by Ingrid Martinussen on Unsplash

But in taking out that loan I made a commitment to pay it off as quickly as possible. The total to repay including interest over the original 60 months was £29,349 for a £25,000 loan. This felt like more interest than I was willing to pay, and was definitely a spur to get it out of the way. My original monthly payments were £500 per month, and with this rate I paid back £1,400 on average every month.

And now, aside from mortgages, I am debt free again. And it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders.

One dictionary definition of commitment is an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action. For me, having this loan restricted my actions in other areas, which was interesting since I already thought I was quite frugal:

  • This is the big one – no holidays. I value travel and connection with my kids and our worldwide family but I cut it out for this period other than going to visit my sick father. Everything else felt like it could wait. So one month in Kenya long planned for this summer got cancelled and that money paid off the last £5,000. Interestingly planning this trip also raised issues of commitment about how others were showing up (or not) for me, which made the decision to cancel a lot easier.
  • A ‘squeeze tax’ on most of my other spending. Basically this meant reducing groceries and other discretionary spend by about 10%. It also showed me what the space is in my budget, though I am aware I don’t live that close to the knife edge anyway. I added in two additional meals a week to be prepared on a Sunday meaning I could use up odds and ends, use the slow cooker, and generally remove the temptation to nip out and spend more money on food as the week headed to Friday. Ditto with packing lunches for the office. And clothes – I spent around £120 on clothes in this total period for all three of us.
  • Cancelled all subscriptions. All but one. I used to regularly check I wasn’t being charged for things I didn’t want, but here I cut out everything I didn’t actively value.
  • Got energy from freaking out. I have been writing about the cost of living crisis which we are all freaking out about, whether a little or a lot. I made the decision to take the loan when I could easily manage the monthly payment, and looking down the barrel of rising prices everywhere, made me really conscious that I needed to tighten down my commitments.

The take away for me was that through commitment all things are possible. This isn’t going to be true if you are already living close to the breadline, but for many of us on the FIRE journey, our ability to squeeze more out of our budgets depends on where we are trying to go. I have never quite managed to find the same drive for investing and saving as I found for paying off this debt which is showing me some interesting tactics and opportunities to get better (or clearer) at getting inspired in those other areas.

So I feel pretty proud of this. Being able to commit to something, and see it through with very minimal support, really keeps me confident of my ability to chart this path, however much it changes along the way. So stay committed. Stay focused. Sometimes restricting freedom of action can feel limiting, but remember that you have a bigger goal in mind.

Commitment #1

I just missed a week. A whole week over on my Insta and a week of posting here.

I thought about both, over and over. But I was too busy, too tired, too focused on a whole load of other issues in my life and in my head.

It was disappointing because I had a made a commitment to post – to write out my feelings and my journey, give myself time and space to think, and be there to support others. I made a commitment to just show up, and keep showing up.

These past few weeks and months have made me think a lot about commitment. As it’s such a critical part of our life journeys – financially, spiritually, at work, and in relationships – I want to write a few posts about it. They might feel a bit different to how I ususally post so I am grateful for your being with me whilst I think this stuff through.

Or should you? Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

My first question is – when do I need to choose between commitment and self care?

There is real value in committing to something, and even more in being consistent. But are there times when it is better to waver, and to just look after myself? Is it better to honour my word, or to give that time inwards to rest and recover? Does it matter how I approach that in terms of messaging, or preparation? I know plenty of people who just change their mind and their plans at the last minute, sometimes for good reasons. Am I ok to be one of them?

This is a forked stick I come to often. This post is absolutely not about this blog, but it’s a good personal example of things that I am committed to but I don’t have to do it. I tend to write my blog on Sunday mornings, when I could be doing a myriad of other meaningful things, many of which fall under the heading of ‘self care’. I mean, often it’s getting some extra sleep after a beer or two over the odds the night before (which raises entirely different questions about how I view self care issues against areas of life which are a challenge vs over the easy, but equally impactful, decisions on going out for a drink…). But it might be getting ready for the week, taking it easy, or going for a walk with the kids. So there are a whole load of ways I can talk myself out of sitting down to write, and can validate those feelings.

So – here comes a stinger, for me anyway – a blog is such a strange creature. I know it gets read, but not so much whether anyone cares if I show up week after week. I believe and hope it adds some value, but if I stopped writing, the waves of the internet would soon wash over any castle built on this sand. Nothing would really happen if I don’t show up.

The waves will wash it all away. But what remains? Photo by Sean Oulashin on Unsplash

Which means that the most important thing about the commitment I made to writing this blog, is the commitment I made to myself.

And keeping these promises, without external accountability, are the hardest ones.

Whether I tell you I will meet you for lunch, water your plants, call you on Wednesday, or love you forever – unless something completedly unexpected happens, which it rarely does – I will do it. There are many people not like this (again, a whole other post) but for me, if I say it, I mean it. If I have said the words, you can expect the action.

But I don’t give myself the same kind of respect. If I tell myself I will wake up at 5, stop smoking, get fitter, or love myself forever – these are all totally negotiable.

Which leads me back to the question on how to make decisions between commitment and self care. And over the past few weeks I have concluded this: making and keeping commitments to myself are an act of radical self care.

I am not sure why this feels like news. I mean – this is the basis of a financial independence journey, right? Committing to a vision for a future and regular acts which will create that, are exactly in this space. Nobody else cares if I do it or not. Nobody is impressed if I succeed. Nobody goes hungry (sorry, kids, you will have to get yourselves through college though) if I don’t. But I have such devotion to the belief that God made me to live and contribute through my best life on this earth, and faith in that plan, that I do it anyway.

What is confusing for me is why I struggle with this message in other parts of my life when the core remains absolutely the same. When I have made an agreement as well as a commitment – whether that is to go to work and do my best, or how I try and act as a mum – I can stay in the zone. When it comes to things which feel more optional, especially good habits and high expectations around health and relationships, I find it much harder to be so consistent. I don’t know if it’s a need for results, or a need for reciprocation (or, frankly, whether I need therapy) but everything else feels more fuzzy. More optional. Perhaps I have less faith in how things will turn out. And that is defining how, and if, I show up.

Foundation stones, and building up. Or give up and throw them in the waves? Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Walk with integrity: but where you going?

This week I have been thinking about a bunch of things: how we know who to trust, and what happens when we’re wrong; how much trust we put into people we follow online and the extent to which they are actually selling us something; and the impact all of this has on being able to follow our own journey with integrity.

I fear these internal conversations are also turning me into a bit of an asshole. I especially hate being sold to. One of my reasons for getting involved in the FIRE movement is because taking control of your money is an act of radical subversion and radical self care. Deciding what you want out of life; what you will spend and how that will impact your community / planet / sense of joy; what role you will play outside of being a Worker Bee: all these are closely linked to your finances, and are absolutely the liberation pathway to living your life on your own damn terms.

There seems to have been a lot of slippage in the FIRE movement toward focusing back on personal finance in a more standard way. This is necessary to a certain extent: getting all existential is not the only thing you need if you are waking up in a cold sweat about your inability to service your debts. But sharing tools isn’t the only thing we are here for. Realistically, and I can say this as someone who consumes a fair amount of media on personal finance, social or otherwise, the tools and tips on personal finance are not complicated. It is the job of assessing them, working out what is right for you, and putting them into play which is hard. And for me, I could only put them into play once the existentialist piece was clear in my heart.

Remeber than not choosing your own path means you are implicit in whatever is swirling around you. Photo by Corey Young on Unsplash

A net result of this move back into the more standard world of personal finance is that I feel increasingly like I am being sold to by my peers. This isn’t to say that FIRE should exclusively be filled with people who have the time and resources to give away their advice for free, especially as this would mean only people who reach financial independence and then have that time – and who are disproportionately white, male and married, at least those who talk about it online – would share their stories. But I personally am not interested in buying an online course about real estate in the USA, or downloading a workbook which turns out to be ‘the world’s most basic questions ever.pdf’, or buying a product based on your ability to get commission on it.

It is more than that though. We have always been sold dreams, but these are usually other people’s. Surrounding yourself with these dreams, whether they are in the name of financial independence or in the name of being the kind of rich, flashy person who can buy up the bar, risks that you will drown out what you really want. The advertising industry is based on creating desires that can never be fulfilled: this year’s new iPhone that you might be lusting after will be out of date in a few months. Lifestyle envy leads to excessive consumption and waste, which is also leading to envirionmental degredation. We are trashing the planet for shit that doesn’t matter at all: for shit we probably don’t even want or get satisfaction from.

I am seeing a lot more of this combination in recent times. There is a Kenyan lifestyle and personal finance blogger who I have always liked (and is a friend of a friend, this Nairobi of ours has no chill). But I just can’t follow her anymore. There is the dual approach of selling through her personal brand, which is basically ‘you should strive to be pretty, well-dressed, and well made up, as I am – or you will not be interesting or taken seriously‘. The second approach is basically product placement, including MCing courses for other people, or pushing financial products. But there is literally no content. We are just invited to be voyeurs, buy what she recommends, and strive to be more like her. To be clear this is totally standard for an influencer so I am not singling her out, but it’s surprising to me (in ways it probably shouldn’t be) that so much of what was a vibrant and radical personal finance space is now full of this kind of approach.

Realistically, I am 42. It might literally be that I am too old for this shit, and whatever I strive for I am not going to be a hot girl. Probably I don’t fully appreciate the IG generation and therefore have no business getting all up in my feelings. Either way, honestly I am not eye-rollingly negative about people forging their path and doing well through hard work and passion, especially when they are clearly meeting a need with their audience. But I am concerned that we will find all we have left is our ability to be sold to, whether by the big companies or by our friends. And what it means when all this white noise is so loud that it drowns out our own truths.

Own your truth and say it out loud – even if it’s not the same as everyone else’s. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

What this means for me is being more thoughtful about who I surround myself with, in real life and in terms of what I consume media-wise. It’s ok to not want what you are told to want, and to give those things no time in your head. It’s ok to be aware of the impact your life and choices have on others and have that be part of how you live with integrity. It’s ok to want more: and for that wanting not to be about the kind of consumer crap that might impress the table at the bar but about forging a real life, for the long term.

And it’s ok to recognise where you are different to others, and to recognise that this doesn’t make you better or make them bad: it just makes you both individual, beautiful humans doing what you can to follow your own star.

What might you need to change to get a clearer vision? Photo by Matt Noble on Unsplash

Cost of living crisis 2: Groceries

Food means a lot to me. At a basic level, it’s a key part of our every day life but it is also somewhere memories are made and locked in. From the soft comfort of my granny’s potato pie (literally mashed potato, onions and cheese baked in a pie dish with cheese on top aka best comfort food ever) to the smokey, social delights of nyama choma and the perfect mukimo accompanied by a cold beer, food is so evocative. A lot of the discussion on my Brilliant Ladies’ Insta are about frugal food and keeping costs low whilst keeping quality and enjoyment high.

Food is central to good times and bad in my culture – no difficult family conversation, lengthy future planning session, or celebration – of either life or death – would be possible without a central table of food to act as referee and peace keeper between the participants. In my own house, food is linked in my mind to love, to taking care of my children and creating a cosy, secure home with our own small traditions.

Oh yes please! Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

These days though there are also two less comforting sides to feeding the family. Firstly, and the focus of this post, is the soaring cost of groceries and how to manage your budget. The second is the ethical aspects of food – industrial farming methods and animal welfare issues, exploitative employment practices, and reliance on cheap imports which have a heavy environmental footprint, are all real concerns when making choices in the supermarket.

Food prices in the UK have traditionally been quite low compared to the rest of Europe, but this ‘golden era‘ came to an end during 2022. Rises in inflation and fuel prices, as well as global shortages and issues with supply chains means that food is getting more expensive. In January, poverty campaigner Jack Monroe highlighted how the way tracking rising prices are calculated glosses over the impact on lower income families. By last month, 92% of Britons claimed they were cutting back on grocery and food costs in order to reduce their outgoings: both in relation to the cost of food but also to save they money needed to respond to increases in fuel and household energy. Food price rises in the UK are shortly expected to have reached 15% within one year. Kenya has seen a similar rise, and is seeing the impact of rising fuel costs on transporting food into and around the country. So it looks like either granny’s potato pie, or that plate of nyama choma, is going to cost a lot more this year.

The modern day equivalent of heading into Tiffany. Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

So – what can you do to keep an eye on your grocery budget?

We already shop at discount supermarkets: in Denmark that means LIDL (and my mum and I talk on the phone about whether they have the same things on offer in the UK as here. Rock and roll): and Rema 1000. These are so much cheaper than the fancy supermarket, and I am also not tempted by the delicious bouji foods which are on offer there.

The building blocks of cutting food spending seem pretty easy, but, like any diet habit, it’s about how much you stick to them and whether you have emotional splurges:

  1. Meal plan. This is the most important thing, because the shopping and preparation all stems from here. Who is eating at home and when? (in 2021 this became a trick question since the answer is ‘all of you’ and ‘all the time’). What are the things you like to eat? How are you going to get your five-a-day? From then, the questions are around how you can stretch out both the food and the preparation – things like roasting a chicken then using the cold leftover meat the next day or two; or cooking a basic batch tomato sauce which can then be turned into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, or the base for a chilli. I have been meal planning for a while, but I am still terrible for thinking ‘ooh I don’t feel like that any more, let’s have something else’. It helps me to remember that this contributes to reducing food waste: UK households throw out the equivalent to a whole month’s worth of grocery budget every year whilst the amount of food wasted across the country could feed half the 7m Britons who are struggling to afford to eat. That’s something worth making our own small changes for in my view.
  2. Stock-take and write a shopping list: When you have meal planned, break it down into the ingredients you need for the week. Then check your cupboards/fridge/freezer and check you have what you need. Are there things you’ve not included but need to check, like coffee? I have a page up on the pinboard in the kitchen where I write staples like this, or flour, oil and so on. Write them all down in a list which is easy to use, organised by the shops if you’ll visit more than one, then by aisle if you can remember such things. The real trick though is a) remembering to take the damn list with you (which is why lots of people keep it on a phone app instead) and b) following it when confronted with other options.
  3. Batch cook, or batch prepare: Batch cooking is now so well known that there are whole books about it but it’s basically making things in big enough quantities to freeze additional portions and basically create your own ready meals. It’s just as much hassle and time to prepare five portions of something as it is one, and it usually works out much cheaper. Every week I make a basic roasted aubergine and tomato sauce every weekend (don’t tell my daughter it has aubergine in, fur would fly) and use this as a tomato sauce base. My top tip on batch cooking is to label everything properly, otherwise Freezer Surprise will be a regular on the menu: and freeze it in portion sizes so you don’t have to defrost and potentially waste a whole load of goodness.
  4. Batch prepare: In an effort to increase my vegetable intake, I make a dry coleslaw mix (basically just the vegetables) using the food processor, every week. This week I grated up carrot, beetroot, celeriac and spring cabbage and have used it in a standard salad, in a salmon poke bowl, and with mayo as an accompaniment to a sandwich. I also do things like prepare roasted chicken for use in lunches.
  5. Enjoy yourself. Yes we’re budgeting (and trying to save the world) but food should also be a pleasure. Make things you like to eat. Find a time when the planning and shopping works, involve the kids in talking about meals they look forward to, and involve them in prep. My son and I make a cake every week as our treat for the week, usually one for home and one with the same mixture made into cake bars for school. Then I batch cook/prep in a two-hour window at the weekend when the kids are playing or with friends, and I listen to an audio book. It genuinely feels like a pleasant time, much more so than trying to slam a meal together at 17.30 on a work night. Some people prefer an evening’s cooking with a glass of wine – it’s all about what works for you.
Last week’s food prep in our house – Sunday evening and all is ready…

How is the rising cost of food impacting you? I’d love to hear your tips!

Cost of living crisis 1: Energy

Quick reminder to come and get your flowers (or a random selection of inspiration, poor jokes from me and photos taken my by daughter) on my Insta.

The soaring cost of living crisis is real. You don’t need to understand inflation, changes in base interest rates or why the stock market is having a wobble to know that your supermarket shop is costing more. Indeed, there are so many cause-and-or-effect conversations about the macro-economics of it all that at the moment I don’t care. But I do know that I just got a water bill for the equivalent of £4,000. And that’s just one of my skyrocketing utility bills which are stacking up like an angry little bomb waiting to go off.

I wanted to write a few posts looking at different aspects of what is going on and why, and how we can navigate it and stay sane and solvent. Starting this week with energy as it’s top of mind, and one area where increases are making a terrifying dent in people’s pockets.

Even the moths have flown. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

So what can you do about your energy bills?

My focus here is for the UK though a lot of the household tips are universal. Whilst I live in Denmark, the utility market remains a total mystery. We don’t have many companies, especially since in urban areas a lot of energy is from the Kommune or local council. This means there are no switching or price comparison services. So whilst prices are going through the roof the options are a) turning everything off or b) saving money elsewhere.

In the UK, energy costs have already doubled for many households and will likely rise by October to almost £3,000. With the median income in the UK being £31,400, this means that energy only (not even all utilities) is costing households 10% of their income. Unfortunately switching deals is not likely to make any difference and is not even available to most unless you get an ‘existing customer’ deal. And watch out if you do switch since exit fees have gone up 10 times in the last year.

The idea of creating competition in the energy sector in order to benefit customers has only created a monster market where providers can do what they like. Issues in Ukraine are exacerbating fears around supply, but these price rises have been coming for a while and are only possible on the back of the ‘competitive’ set up.

Pulling money from your bank account all the way into the horizon. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

The main things you can do to save energy are things we should all be doing anyway for environmental purposes. Unfotunately some of them require an outlay at the start which might not be possible in these belt tightening days but some are pretty simple.

Big outlay changes

  • Look at your heating system. Is your boiler efficient? There are simple ways to check. Generally putting in a new boiler unless you absolutely have to isn’t going to save you anything, but when you do, shop around for the most efficient kind going.
  • Think about insulating your house more efficiently. When I was growing up my best friend had cling film across all the windows to reduce heating bills, so it doesn’t all mean huge outlays on triple glazing. There are some great tips on insulation from the Energy Trust – such as fitting a hot water tank with an insulating jacket at a cost of about £25 which will save you £35 a year in heating costs and 115kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Consider generating your own electricity. This can be very expensive, and most of the government grants have ended. But with the energy crisis likely to be long term, it’s worth exploring if you have any spare cash to invest here. Solar is the obvious one for homes, with a lot to think about before you take the leap.
  • Check if your appliances are energy efficient and consider replacing them, once they are dead, with a focus on efficiency. White goods especially – fridge, freezer, washing machine, oven – are massive energy leakers.
Turn off that tumble dryer! Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

Day to day changes

  • Use your timer and thermostat. This is the easiest way to save money and help the environment, just having the heating on when and where you actually need it. Go through the house and turn down radiators where you don’t need them on.
  • Turn down the thermostat already. Most money saving and environmental groups recommend 68 degrees (20 celsius) in the winter. Remember how cold your grandparents’ house was? You’re aiming for a bit warmer than that. Don’t expect to be walking around in a t-shirt, instead invest in a fluffy dressing gown and socks, and pretend it’s intentional hygge.
  • Decide what you will use less. Tumble driers are particularly energy heavy: dry outside in the summer, or get a couple of clothes racks and dry inside. When I lived in a badly ventilated flat, drying clothes inside contributed to mould and meant that I had to have the heating on and the window open so I used to go to the laundrette which takes time and money in a different way. So one to think about how best to manage depending on your circumstances.
  • Turn off all standby appliances, including turning off plugs which aren’t in use. My grandparents always turned everything off at the plug at night in case of lightening – this isn’t a bad idea just in order to stop energy leakage.
  • Make sure you have a full load every time you turn on the washing machine or dish washer. Wash your clothes at 30 degrees – it really does work. Use the eco setting if you have one. The one on my dishwasher lasts 3 hours and is really noisy so I load the dishwasher during the day then put it on after breakfast when I leave for work.
  • Check out your fridge and freezer. Fridges should be set between 3-5 degrees, and freezers need defrosting regularly (this is a job on my list. Note to self – do not do this with a knife or you will regret it). Fridges actually work more efficiently when they are nearly full so add that extra milk or whatever and you will save on the energy bill.
  • If you are really struggling, there might be help: Citizens’ Advice can help out.
Protest signs in London 2022. Flickr/Gary Knight

Finally, consider the politics. My blog is about personal finance, but this is so closely linked to politics that it’s hard to keep out. There might not be simple answers, but the people who are already the most vulnerable are going to be the hardest hit and the most hurt. And that’s something we can all care about.

Happy Father’s Day

Caveat: bit of a controversial post. Consider yourself warned.

Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads out there. To all those who miss their dads; all those who never knew them; all those for whom ill health, distance, or social norms have made relationships difficult. Basically all the same things I say on Mothering Sunday. All parents matter.

Today I have been thinking about the ‘bitter single mums’ trope which is particularly active on social media on Father’s Day (seriously – why do you have the time? Shouldn’t you actually be hanging out with your kids?) and about a series of conversations I’ve had on toxic masculinity and how men are so undervalued by society that their only possible reaction is violence and disrespect. I am not a psychologist or a social scientist so I am perhaps even less qualified than usual to write this blog, but these are things on my mind so I share them with you, with these caveats in place.

Add your own definition. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The FIRE movement has a lot of great parenting role models. On a personal level I find the amount of people who reach FIRE based on spending one partner’s income tedious and irrelevant, but I get that for many folk it’s a new way of thinking about family spending. Lots of FIRE people got on this path in order to spend more time with their kids, and to be better parents, and that is something to celebrate. Mr Money Mustache has a lot to say on parenting his son, including since he and his wife divorced. Brad and Jonathan in Choose FI are always talking about their kids and how their FIRE pathway has focused on being with their children, and on leaving a legacy.

In fact there are lots of brilliant dads out there, of course there are. My own father, and the father of my children, don’t fall into this category but I don’t hate them for it – my children have never heard a bad word from my mouth about their father. The issue is that I have to make up for it, financially, emotionally, in terms of time spent and choices made and so on. And that’s not ideal but it’s ok. I am very lucky though in that I have an amazing step-father, fathers of friends (two of whom I have been really close to and sadly passed away this year), uncles and all. And I have friends, family and colleagues where I have so much respect for the way the father shows up, that it really inspires me on a daily basis. So I salute all those fabulous men: we see you. You’re doing great.

A Palestinian father bathing his daughter and neice, giving them as much of a normal happy childhood as he can in spite of the chaos all around. Credit: Wissam Nasser

There is, though, an increase in the number of women having to parent alone. There is plenty of blame around this, and there are multiple sides to every story, but the truth is that men are now allowed to absent themselves in a way that society permits. In my personal experience, this lack of involvement doesn’t stop them loudly complaining about how their ex will not facilitate the kind of contact they want with their children. The kind of people who complain in this way are, again in my experience, the same who want contact on a whim, when it’s convenient for them, and will change those times at the drop of a bar bill.

In Kenya, the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta has even made the issue of single parents as one of his key concerns. Globally Kenya is one of the countries where women are most likely to become a single parent, with almost 60% of women likely to be single by the time they are 45, whether or not they have children. Kenyatta’s concern was with the rise in the percentage of single parent households from 25% in 2009 to 38% today. I am not Kenyan but I lived there for a long time and intend to return for the RE aspect of FIRE (watch this space for posts on that thought process, white privilege and colonialist mindset – I’m here for self critique and growth as well, of course). It is one of the places where I find being a single parent the hardest, since even though there are so many of us, it is seen through a lens of shame and ‘burdenhood’ which basically makes me a social pariah. This kind of nonsense article, which paints women as insatiably greedy and self-centred, character developing then abandoning poor, defenceless Kenyan guys, just fills me with rage.

It’s also ironic when – look, I’m just going to say this and take the flack – Kenyan men are seemingly happy to pay for a whole lot of whatever when it comes to relationships. And I mean prepared to pay rent/transport/salon for your side chick (girlfriend) for years, but you think that I, as someone who earns 10 times more than you, is going to be a financial burden? Kthxbye.

There is also a growing narrative around the issues of toxic masulinity, and how men feeling undervalued, undermined and unable to navigate the changes in society mean that they are struggling to find ways to act as men, husbands and fathers in this brave new world. Masculinity itself isn’t toxic, that much should be obvious. So challenges men are facing are absolutely something which we need as a society to deal with in order to create a world that works for everyone. But at the same time this cannot be an excuse for gender-based violence or refusing to look after your own children. And it will bleed into the next generation. If you as a man are struggling with masculinity and shifts in social expectations, it should be obvious that if you have children – and not just sons – they will need you are a role model to work through those challenges with.

The seed never falls far from the tree. Photo by Bibhash Banerjee on Unsplash

In short, we could all do better. This world is not binary: most parents are both good and bad depending on the day. I might be doing it alone but it doesn’t mean I am any good at it, just that I don’t have the luxury of deciding to step out for years at a time.

And I am all for putting in the work to create a world where men feel appreciated, valued and heard. Where they can grow into their power in a way which doesn’t involve crushing (either physically, emotionally or financially) the women and children in their lives. That’s something that we can all believe in. Happy Father’s Day.

A home of one’s own

With apologies in advance that this blog isn’t the jolliest place to be, I do want to tangle with some critical topics as well as being here for encouragement on these journeys. There is so much content out there about how easy financial independence is – just get out there and do it!! – but it doesn’t ring true for me. It is absolutely not impossible, but if the system is stacked against you, you will feel the burn a hell of a lot more. And for me, I am comfortable in both looking at my own journey and how it’s working, and what is going on out there which is impacting others – and what some of this means for equality.

I’ve written a lot about specific elements of the system and how it works either for or against particular minorities (check out posts on how racialised the financial systems are plus the financial constraints and stacked barriers for single mothers. I also want to say up front that I recognise the privileges that I come with so I am not saying this to ‘own’ or appropriate these issues, but to talk openly about areas where and how I am tangling with them personally. In my view, refusing to acknowledge how systemic power structures work is part of institutionalising privilege in order to extend it’s power, so calling it out has to be part of how we can meaningfully respond. I also find it both essential to understand in terms of why things feel like they move so slowly for me.

A room of one’s own? Not for you, soz. Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash

This week’s post was kicked off for me by reading an article about why single women in the UK cannot afford to buy a home based on an excellent 2019 report with the same title as this blog post. House prices in the UK are unaffordable for so many that those on median wages – which includes nurses and frontline health care workers – will not be able to access a mortgage in more than three-quarters of the country. This has greater implications for women, because women are more likely to be in low paid jobs and are also more likely to work part time due to caring responsibilities.

The impact on being able to buy is significant. Women need over 12 times their annual salaries to buy a home in England: a whacking 50% more than men, who need eight times. In London and the South East, which are both the most expensive areas of the UK and the two where the gender pay gap is largest, women need 18 times their annual earnings. Given that the very most British mortgage companies are likely to lend a maximum of five times annual earnings – an amount which is anticipated to reduce as inflation bites – it means that these women will never be able to buy a home without external support.

Or maybe this is more like it? Photo by Reba Spike on Unsplash

There were two other statistics which felt like a slap in the face. Firstly, there is no region in England where private rented housing is affordable on a woman’s median earnings. This is not true for men, where this is only the case in London. Secondly, single mothers are two-thirds of all statutory homeless families with children (i.e. the groups of people for whom the State has to take some responsibility), a figure which is striking when they are only one-quarter of all families with dependent children.

Basically there is zero chance to single women on median incomes and don’t have any additional financial support to either buy or rent in the majority of the UK. That feels pretty terrifying to me. I earn a (significantly) above average salary and managed to get on the housing ladder early. But under these socio-economic shifts my mum as a frontline worker and single parent would not have been able to buy a house, something which would have seriously impacted on our security growing up; how well she will manage in her old age; and what generational wealth looks like. And what does it mean for my daughter and how I should help her plan for her future?

I’m obsessed by this house I can’t afford so sharing it just because why not

So what is the point of this post? I am not on a median income, and I own both a home we live in and a rental. I haven’t been able to get to the point where I can leverage them into any kind of real estate empire though which seems to be some magic formula for at least those in the US working on FIRE but I am unbelievably blessed to even just have a foot on the ladder. Some days I need to both recognise the luck that I have had in the draw, and how things are looking for others. And why this should matter for all of us: we never journey alone.

Quick reminder to come and join me (and the FIRE community) on Instagram @brilliantladiesmoney I am probably more fun there 😀

Protecting your joy

I’ve been thinking a lot about comparison recently, and it really is the thief of joy.

This weekend it was Shavuot, the Jewish festival which celebrates the giving of the ten commandments. The tenth commandment is about not coveting what others have, be it their ass, or their wife’s ass (see what I did there??) Whilst this makes sense from the perspective of discouraging jealousy and conflict in a community, it also strikes me that there is something in there about not comparing yourself to others and finding yourself wanting.

Celebrating! Image credit.

Comparison is the thief of joy because it diminishes your own space, achievements and uniqueness. It also sets up a narrative in which whatever you have is not enough, and that leads to a lack of gratitude for the space you are living in.

I absolutely loved Paula Pant’s recent podcast episode with Molly West Duffy talking about how to keep your feelings, and particularly your envy and covetousness, in check. Whilst it might seem obvious that these emotions are not a good place to live from, the podcast talked specifically about ways of ensuring that – even if you are feeling those things, as we all do at times – they are not driving your decision making.

Their cup might be bigger, but maybe yours is just perfect for you? Photo by Vanesa Giaconi on Unsplash

To me, part of what mindful living means is remembering that it’s ok to have moments where you feel covetous, or envious, and forgiving yourself for it. But it also means moving on from it quickly, and not letting it cloud my judgement. I sometimes compare my life now to what it could have been if I had done things earlier, and that’s not a very helpful line of thinking. Being grateful and present for how things are, and planning for the future, feels like a much better way to approach things and reminds me to stay focused rather than comparing myself with others.

Staying strong

I’ve had lots of topics in my head this week to write about – the possible impact of inflation in investments; how to get started with real estate; my tax return (I am SO MUCH FUN at parties). But sitting here this Sunday morning I just feel – crappy. It’s been a busy few weeks but it has felt sort of like a deflating balloon: handing off at the end of my temporary promotion (after almost nine months of working my ass off); hitting some financial walls that I wasn’t expecting; finding it hard to get the enthusiasm together to plan for the summer, which should be exciting but I. Just. Can’t.

I mean, really. Consider how many people in your life ask this question becuase they care about the answer. Credit Finn /Unsplash

I feel lonely. And that’s a difficult spot to be in and stay motivated. There is something about having to constantly be my own cheerleader, my own auditor, commentator, coach, tiger mom or whatever else is just exhausting. Right now, nothing is motivating me enough to play all these roles and keep myself on track. I want to just lie down in a dark room – and unless I can pull myself out of it and get back to a place of peace, that is exactly what I will end up doing.

It is also hard to accept that when you start growing into your self, you leave people behind. The simplest antidote to loneliness feels like it’s company. So we go and hang out with those friends at the bar, take someone home for the night, get into social media scrolling. But all those things feel so empty that they can make the loneliness feel worse – make you feel like you are creating white noise instead of real connection, to distract yourself from doing the hard things.

Somewhere between these two things is where I am spending a lot of my time at the moment. I’m struggling with my own judgement about what matters, who to trust, and how to voice my needs. Honestly, I am scared that the depth of my need for closeness means that I am prepared to overlook a lot of small things which are flags that there are people who aren’t really that bothered about me after all. And I just don’t know where to go with that at the moment.

I wrote a post in January about loneliness, how it is more common than even, and the impact it has on our well-being. In that post I focused on three strategies for mitigating the feelings of loneliness and finding the kind of peace which acts as a foundation when things get rough. The first was building a stronger community, whether with family or friends, all the other Sunderland supporters you can find (good luck with that) or the girls you play Roller Derby with. My second strategy is around focusing on the calendar. Having rituals or activities which mark the passing of the seasons – from new year’s resolutions, spring cleaning, or The First BBQ of the Summer – makes me feel more like an active participant in something positive. Finally perhaps it’s about learning to listen, and to be heard. Building meaningful connections can take time and can be challenging – especially if you are feeling low – but it’s really worth it.

The JFK quote above though is also a reminder that finding peace, which is the first step to pretty much everything else really, is a transformational process even at personal level. It means taking down walls, building up new boundaries, reframing pathways and just keeping on going with the constant shift. This article about the habits that people give up on the road to peace was insightful and is helping me think about my own reactions. It talks about moving away from toxic people, from comfort, from the pursuit of perfection or impressing others, or from holding grudges (this is my own personal favourite).

But even though it sounds obvious, transformation is hard. Growth is painful. Moving away from people, and having that level of certainty in yourself and your pathway, can be lonely and exhausting. Thinking about where you will be in five years might be the right approach when you’re struggling to keep going, but if you’re doing that whilst watching people you have moved on from have The Best Party Ever on IG then it can feel like a fictitious bargain made only in your mind. I have days like today when I forget how these feelings and challenges show up, but I know that I always get through them, however crappy I feel for a little while. It’s ok. We got this.

And if it gets on top, go somewhere that reminds you of the powerful certainties of this world, and get it back into perspective. Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Don’t Panic!

TL:DR – don’t panic! Whilst I’m not the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, those two little words do have to give particular comfort. Especially without the exclamation mark, which suggests that panic of some kind is right around the corner. But it’s Sunday morning, and I am three coffees in and heading to a kids’ birthday party once I’ve written this, so perhaps I need the drama. But whatever you do, don’t let your panic define your actions.

This week I have been thinking a lot about doom and gloom. More than usual, in any case. I wouldn’t say that I have Eeyore tendancies but the world is a busy, scary and sometime relentless old place these days, so a bit of doom is on the agenda. From the endless heartbreaking news from Ukraine, to the real debates about what the exceptionalism shown in that situation means for the reckoning coming for the colonialist staus quo, to the ridiculous news that the UK has a monkeypox outbreak (I mean – really?): it can feel like the only time I hear the word ‘positive’ is when a friend does a COVID test.

Really don’t, even if you can’t hitchhike your way off the planet

But what is going on in the world of FIRE, of savings and investments? There have been a few things that struck me recently and I try to keep coming back to these:

This is even more true in the world of finances i.e. literally everybody’s day to day world. The soaring cost of living, shortages of fuel, eggs, potatoes or whatever is real. Every time I go to the supermarket there are empty shelves, and shelves full of things at a price that I am not willing to pay. In the UK, the price of cheese (CHEESE!) has gone up by almost one-quarter. Once the costs of Marmite and tea start to spiral out of control we will all be shafted, frankly. (Denmark is powered by licorice and pork products, neither of which we eat so I focus all my crazy-hoarder-lady issues elsewhere).

Beautiful! But can you afford any of it?? Photo by ja ma on Unsplash
  1. Plan for the worst, then remember this is what you did. My Crypto portfolio has totally crashed. In the last two weeks, more than $300 billion has been wiped off the value of Crypto overall, so this is not really a surprise. There was real panic that Coinbase was going to go bust – and take people’s money with it. Whilst that didn’t happen, Luna, a popular Crypto token, did, taking $40bn with it. My reaction has been to do absolutely nothing. I refuse to look at my portfolio other than on the twice-monthly date I always look at it. And then I refuse to act or worry about it. This is based on the fact that when I invested in Crypto, recognising that it is high risk, I did so only with what I consider to be beach money. This is money where if I lose it, it means not taking the kids to the beach in the summer, rather than meaning I can’t pay the rent. So when I freak out about losing it all in Crypto, I try and thank my previous financial planning self, and then just not worry about it.
  2. Remeber you are not a mystic. Don’t make decisions based on crystal ball gazing. The thing weighing much more on my mind is house prices and whether they will crash. And this is also one where my attachment to my net worth is at odds with a moral sense that rapid house price increases really are shafting those less well off in a way which will impact on generational wealth for a long time to come. The reason I put this one under the heading of trying to predict the future, is because a) we really don’t know and b) none of the ‘experts’ can agree. Whilst there is a general sense that the market cannot keep rising, particularly in light of inflation and changes to mortgage interest rates, there is no evidence at this point that the housing market is actually slowing down. I’ve been thinking about selling my house in the UK to diversify my assets but I need to make this decision on a range of factors – none of which is whether I can guess the future.
  3. Use this time to deep dive into your risk tolerance and decision making, rather than wanting to act. In March 2020, I panicked, and sold out a significant chunk of my investments. This was based literally on being inexperienced, and freaking out. I wrote a lot about it at the time, both the why and the results. This has definitely impacted on my holdings now but I have to chalk it up to an experience that I needed to get better at investing. It also gave me space to think about what my risk tolerance really really looks like, and how I can build that in to my investing (and my life).
Beautiful! But can you afford any of it? 😉 Photo by Travel-Cents on Unsplash

More next week on overall approaches to investing, but I wanted to start with some thinking – and reassurance – that however doom laden the picture is, panicking is definitely not the answer. Trust yourself, your knowledge, and your planning. You’ll survive the storm.

Don’t forget if you want more cakes/sunrises/Barbies and less doom, come and join me on Insta.

Baggage ≠ Peace

So I have been out for a while, trying to deal with being very close to burnout. Feeling better now, but taking that space was critical. I tend to keep pushing myself well beyond what is a good idea, then getting surprised when things start to fall apart. The last few weeks I have been thinking about this and about the sense of going through life with baggage – as a single parent but also in general, as we all do – with the results and scars of our past mistakes and misfortunes, fears and triggers.

This is showing up in my life in a few ways at the moment. From the FIRE perspective, for many people the concept of baggage means coming into this journey deep in debt. And not just in debt, but with the habits, choice and often value systems which led to that debt in the first place. For me as with others, it’s more coming in and realising what I have wasted in getting here and what kind of different position I could be in. But the worst waste of time would be to get stuck in those feelings instead of getting up and at it. Your time is always now.

I was talking to a friend last night who has recently become an expat, a move which has given him a bird’s eye view of his home town. Realising that the years of making just enough money to go out and kick it with friends meant living life, which was all about ‘having fun’ actually kept him in stasis for decades. Now this could be a cause for regret. But equally, our journeys are what made us: looking backward and sneering at our younger selves is not going to change the past, though it might diminish the value that we did find. Being able to make peace with whatever our baggage is – the poor decisions, the risks that we miscalculated, that person we continued to trust in spite of there being more red flags than the bunting at the Communist Party conference – is to make it manageable and be able to take that past along on a brand new journey.

I wrote a while ago about loving what is‘ – that sense of accepting and loving the present just as it is, something which is a critical step on the pathway to peace. The ability to reflect on my own triggers and limiting beliefs means that I can at least recognise them when they come up. Something like shaking hands across the divide. This is what making baggage manageable means to me: it’s not denying it but recognising my part in it, and the positives that either came through the results or through the journey. Kind of like taking a luggage trolley full of giant suitcases, feeding them into a magic vortex machine, and coming out with a little badge that you wear to remember without being tripped over by it. Or, as per my experience last week, you can just give your bags to Kenya Airways and never see them again. Either way, it works.

Making peace can be hard. It can also feel counter-intuitive in a world where – especially with FIRE, and at my stage of life – it’s all about striving. How is it possible to come from a place of tranquility and still have enough drive to get out there? The quote above from Eckhart Tolle speaks to this I think. So much of what we do is about rearranging circumstances, or the small things (or indeed the deckchairs on the Titanic) instead of rearranging how we look on the inside.

Don’t get me wrong, this internal rearranging can be just as tough as making peace. Encouraging the tectonic plates to shift inside you requires tenacity and strength. Especially when it raises questions about whether you will continue to accept the systems you have been brought up with, to live inside the structures you have internalised and all the comfortable spots you’re used to seeking solace in, however damaging.

As I start the long process of moving back to Nairobi, being able to focus on the inner work instead of the busy-work of administration, is critical. The organising bit is easy (actually it’s a massive pain in the ass, but meh) but the work on finding my peace is much harder. Who am I now, as opposed to when I last lived there? Who are my people, how do I feel about how I have moved compared to them and the spaces we find ourselves in? What are the values I have instilled in my myself and my own children and how will these blend or clash? How can I stay open to the great things coming whilst not being so attached to certain things working out that for them to go wrong would destroy me?

All those questions are critical but they aren’t things I need answers to right now. Coming to them with an internal stillness and certainty gives a certain protection both from the intensity of negative results and from freaking the F out. That has to be worth it.

Happy New (tax) year!

Ah here we are again. In the inexplicable British system (is it to do with an old byelaw about swords? No?) the tax year runs from 6th April, so this time of year always feels like a time for a fresh start. It might feel more like this if it would stop snowing and really get on with the business of Turning On Spring but let’s see. Oh, and it also means a bunch of work, but we’re here for that too.

So what are the things you need to be thinking about?

As with all new year’s exercises it boils down to wrapping up last year and preparing for the next one. There will be some major changes to be aware of for the 2022-23 year, thanks to Rishi Sunak’s budget but if you want fuller details of what those are I suggest you have a look at this fuller list of upcoming tax changes and what they might mean for you. Basically – he has likely done you no favours. In a post in 2020 I actually used a picture of Rishi but this year I can’t do it, even ironically. It feels like we are all being pushed too close to the financial brink to find any of this funny any more.

My main focus today is on the wrapping up at the end of the tax year. This means two things: preparing for my tax return and looking back on how I spent, saved or invested my money. This week I will focus on prepaing tax returns, in order to get the boring stuff out of the way first.

Prepare for your tax return

Caveat: Firstly, I am not a financial advisor (pretty obviously, I mean my personal finance Instagram is mostly pictures of Barbies or food). There are lots of people out there who can help you with all the details of your taxes, and I am not one of them. But I am sharing my own approach here because why not.

Secondly, not everyone needs to do a tax return. However if you are the following then you do:

  • You are working for yourself – either as someone who is self-employed or someone who makes income from additional sources to their regular job which is not taxed elsewhere, e.g. from rental income;
  • You are a partner in a partnership business;
  • You are a minister of religion – any faith or denomination;
  • You are a trustee or the executor of an estate.

If you are unclear, the best thing is to consult an Independent Financial Advisor since getting it wrong in either direction could cost you a lot of time and stress.

Spring is in the air, though taking its own sweet time to arrive…. Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

As with so many things in life, the best time to start preparing for your tax return is this time last year. No really. The easiest way to do your taxes is little by little, so if you can get cracking with a simple spreadsheet and way of monitoring income and expenses, your life will be so much easier next year.

Of course the complexity of your tax directly relates to the complexity of your income. I have income from employment, from a rental property, from savings interest (but not dividends which have separate rules), and some overseas stuff plus I also pay into a personal pension which has its own tax benefits. So I need to complete four forms. HMRC really are the best place to start since their factsheets and whatnot are actually quite helpful. Another great thing about getting started early is you can call HMRC and ask them questions before they get closer to the 31st October deadline for filing paper forms and start to have a collective breakdown.

HMRC – surprisingly helpful if you get in early. Photo credit.

So the first things to do are to make sure you know if you need to file a self assessment; and if so, what forms do you need to complete. Once you have that, you can pull together all of your paperwork and start ploughing through it. You will need to know what expenses you can claim, and make sure you keep copies of all relevant documents.

In terms of when and how you get organised, you can do what I do and have a personal date night once a month with all my financial paperwork and a beer and just get it done. I do feel a little bit squirmy and sad saying that, but I find it so much easier than getting in a panic once a year. I also have a friend who has a week long retreat with her tax return and uses it as a way of engaging with gratitude for the year that has past. Whilst I absolutely love that as an approach, it’s not for me. So – as with every element of personal finance – go ahead and find whatever works to make the process as simple and painless for you as possible.

Even in your tax return.

See – I managed to talk about tax returns without making a joke about Rishi Sunak’s family circumstances. So anything is possible!

What are you going to do today to further your personal or financial journey? Whatever it is, I hope it will be full of joy.

Mind the (early retirement) gap

Quick reminder to come and join me (and the FIRE community) on Instagram @brilliantladiesmoney. At least join once a week for the Friday Banger – music that inspires me on my journey – definitely my favourite moment of the week. From Sauti Sol to Sizzla (plus artists who don’t begin with S), it’s all the tunes that get me back on track.

Following my posts on working out what you need to retire on and looking at where my current portfolio will take me I wanted to talk about the early retirement gap.

Unsurprisingly, most non-FIRE retirement discussions focus on investing in pensions. Paying into pensions is a tax efficient way to save, and has the added benefit of hiding your money from yourself so you can’t change your mind about your future plans and spunk it all on a beach house. But the early retirement gap is the time between quitting traditional employment and being able to access your pensions.

Mmmm beach house though. Photo by Harshil Gudka on Unsplash

Looking at my portfolio really showed how critical this gap is. Since my assets are heavy on real estate and on pensions, there is a gaping hole in the middle where more flexible options should be. Add in the need to wait for pension income, and it might be time to rethink the plan a little.

So I went back to basics in terms of what I will need and when, and mapped out income against it. This resulted in a long and complex spreadsheet which I won’t share here but started from the premise of living until I am 80. I already wrote about being at the ‘tail end’ or probably half way through my allotted time on this earth – and I would caution that you think about this stuff when you are in strong existential form as I found it quite depressing. Anyway – it’s infinitely less depressing than not thinking about it and ending up broke, so here we go.

You will see I put in some assumptions and I wanted to unpack two of these a little. The net result though if I follow my plan to retire at 50 is three years where my expenses will still be super high, then 15 years of gap until pensions kick in.

The impact of having kids and the choices we make. I don’t know where I would be financially if I hadn’t had children, but without them I could already retire on my current portfolio. I wouldn’t change them for the world of course – this is purely a financial observation. If you want rantings about how the system is stacked against single mothers, then pretty much the rest of the blog awaits you.

One big question though for the next phase is about whether I support my children through higher education, assuming they want to go. I have already committed to putting them through private schools, most of which is based on the fact that we move country every three years and need some consistency. Part of me absolutely wants to make sure they get through university debt-free. Whilst debt levels in the UK is still nothing like the USA, it is heading in that direction. On the other hand, with the right money mentality and guidance, there is nothing to stop them getting scholarships, working and managing what debt they had to get through on their own. The FIRE community tends towards the latter, with Mr Money Mustache in particular being vocal about both reducing costs for college and letting your children use the tools you have given them and find their own way.

I looked at the most basic costs for a UK college education and it would add around £20,000 per year per child to my expenses. Because of the age gap between my kids, I would need to cover this for six years, three of which are after my planned early retirement date. So that’s likely £120,000 in total that I would need to earn in that period in order to cash flow it.

In some ways this is a conversation that will never end though – will I help my kids buy their first house, look after their kids for them, whatever else? Or just focus on not being a burden to them and help out when I can? It is one of the times I hate being the only parent giving financial support, because whilst I don’t want them to miss out, it’s a lot.

Will an Oxford education even still be relevant in the future? Photo by Ben Seymour on Unsplash

Pension dates and what the future looks like. This is another interesting question which I never really thought about until I hit 40 and my future as a creaking elder suddenly felt a whole lot closer. Most of the US podcasts on FIRE assume that pensions kick in from 59.5 but in the UK – at least with pensions in any way connected to the public sector – pension age is 67. This really does add a lot of years that have to be covered by investments or income. By the time I retire, this could easily be 70 years old. Public sector pensions may be great because they are defined benefit but they are also pegged to the national pensionable age so there is a chance these will all shift to be much later. And pensionable age continues to increase, as the overall population ages and there are more people drawing pensions than paying into them. Which I understand but it’s hard to plan when the goalposts keep moving.

I have also bravely added in the UK State Pension which I struggle to believe will exist as anything other than a means-tested benefit by the time I retire. And whilst at £716 per month or £8,592 per year, it’s not enough to live off it would make a significant difference to how much I need in my overall portfolio. However I hold it very lightly as a possibility in spite of paying tax and NI for my whole career, even the overseas year. We already have ample evidence that the UK Government will not hesitate to shaft women (and by shaft I mean change the age at which they can access their pension with almost not notice, then underpay women £1 billion and not even bother to try and clear it up) if they think they can get away with it.

Planning for the sunset years <cries in Young Person> Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

So that is how it looks. The gap is real but thankfully there are a number of ways to think about filling it without having to stay in full time employment – more on that in a future post. For now though, working out exactly what this looks like and what the options are makes me feel more confident about making movements.

What does your early retirement planning look like and how are you thinking about future support to your kids?

Mothering Sunday: the financial impact version

Aw, happy Mothering Sunday! This week I am full of exhausted rage, and wanted just to focus a little on what it feels like to be a single mum, and why generalised negativity from society, the media and government policy is harming this generation of children.

First though I want to recognise that Mothering Sunday is a day which can set off lots of different emotions depending on your own particular track and relationships, but either way, it’s getting warmer and hopefully you’ll have something nice on this weekend.

Being a mother is a privilege and a joy, let me say that first off.

But it is also bloody hard. It’s hard for everyone, even those who have a partner. As we have moved away from traditional societies (and in fairness all the rubbish things that they required), the safety nets of support have been removed.

The invisible workload of mothering (yes, mothering rather than parenting, unless you are a single dad – recognising it and owning it as gendered is a feminist position) is exhausting. There is a great post from 2018 called ‘the invisible workload of motherhood is killing me‘ which, of course, I only just found time to read because I am too damn busy. Its is an accurate and helpful portrayal of what parenting looks like – and it’s just the day to day of parenting, not what it looks like to be trying to reach FIRE, or date, or anything else at the same time.

Motherhood is in any case fraught with issues. There have been a host of articles about how fatherhood has changed during the pandemic and how dads are starting to appreciate the ‘whole’ of parenting. But this is against a background in which women are expected to take the domestic burden (unless someone chooses to step in), and in which those dads have been able to refuse to engage until they were locke at home as well. Women are expected to work as well, though by the time a woman’s oldest child is 12 she is likely to be paid one-third less than male counterparts. These days, with the cost of living crisis and lack of affordable childcare, so many low income families are struggling.

Triple chocolate brownies, the Mothering Sunday gift my 12 year old son made me ❤

The cost of living crisis disproportionately impacts women. Women consistently earn less than men across their career, which also impacts their pension and retirement years.

On my FIRE journey, earning less, and being responsible for each and every cost in the home, has a significant impact on the timeline, and likelihood of becoming financially independent. It’s not like there aren’t exceptions of course. But the system is stacked against single mothers, and in my experience, also has no sympathy for us. The impact of these collective issues on generational wealth cannot be ignored and it’s likely that our children will also struggle, however hard we try.

I was particularly triggered this month by an article about the failings of the Child Maintenance System which is a UK body aiming to ensure that children’s costs are fairly shared after divorce or seperation, and that any alimony is paid in a timely way. To quote the article – 90% of single parents are women… Half of single parents and their children are consigned to life below the poverty line, a penury that 60% of them would escape if fathers paid the maintenance due. The comments on the article went in to the predictable bun fight about access and custody arrangements, as well as not really understanding that maintenance is for the children, not the ex-spouse.

So in addition to the structural arrangements in which I earn less and have more responsibility, I am also supposed to do it alone since the legal system really doesn’t give a shit about holding both parents to account for the financial side.

I would be furious, if I wasn’t so tired.

I have been hyper-aware this week of why I am overwhelmed. And it’s two things – first, the sheer magnitude of All The Things. Work (so, so much work), kids, feeding everyone, administration of the home, family and friends, and anything I need. Secondly, it’s the constant mental engagement – the ‘invisible workload’. Planning, organizing, working around, being in communication, trying to soothe, calm, engage, nourish and play. I have been dating someone who does not have children, and whilst he very loving and caring, he cannot even begin to fathom what responsibility and busyness looks like in my world. That makes me just try to hide it all so he isn’t bored or put off: and that becomes something else I have to be responsible for.

But you know what – parenting absolutely remains a joy and a privelige. I would just enjoy it more if I wasn’t expected to run on empty all the time. Big up all my single mamas this Mothering Sunday. I see you.

My portfolio: what’s it made of?

I’ve been writing a series of posts about what it feels like to reach a net worth goal and also what it has made me reflect on in terms of what you actually need to retire on. This post is an exploration of my portfolio and what it means to me, both now and around next steps on planning. Do come and join me on Insta where I also look at my day to day actions and thoughts on all these things (and some more random stuff as well, let’s be honest).

So, what is my portfolio built up of?

It’s made up of three different areas, each of which has its own story and function.

Pensions £   234,973
Savings £      39,207
Property equity £    443,497
TOTAL £     717,677
Net worth as of February 2022
A lot of my net worth is property equity which is not really accessible but means I can dream about living in a fabulous house like this on in Nairobi…

Property

So 60% of my net worth is property equity. This is across two homes. I rented out my main residence in the UK when I got a job overseas and it is still tenanted. This means that the interest rate isn’t great (abot 4%) but I have focused on paying off this mortgage as a matter of priority. That’s based largely on my risk appetite (AKA terror of losing my job and making my kids homeless) and whilst I realise it might not be the most rationale approach to wealth building, it gives me a sense of comfort. I had a huge deposit from the sale of my previous home, so the mortgage was only £156,000 to start with and I have paid off £111,000 in the past six years.

This property is also my only passive income stream, bringing in £1,250 gross, or about £900 net of all costs since I have a letting agent manage it and of course have to ensure that everything is in good working order.

My second property is the home that we live in in Denmark. I wrote a lot about the decision to buy, and then about freaking out about the cost of property here but on balance I still think it was the right decision. Aside from the ridiculous cost of rent, the housing market is crazy at the moment and I have friends who cannot find places to rent. So again – it’s not just a financial decision but one about stability.

I don’t try and overpay the mortgage on this house. Partly because it’s so huge I just won’t make a dent, but also because we will sell this when we move country again. So since housing is a significant monthly cost, I just pay it and hope that I get a return on investment that is better than paying rent to someone else.

I am interested in having more of a property porfolio but it’s so hard in the UK. I listen to a lot of great FIRE podcasts from the US and everything – from the financing, to the market – just seems miles away. There are also ethical issues, in both directions, about being a private landlord but that’s a post for another day.

Savings

The result of buying a second home though was that my savings and investments took a massive hit. I went from almost £100,000 in savings to around £20,000 which I have built back up. That amount includes my emergency fund of £10,000 and the rest is in a stocks and shares ISA.

This is the area that I really want to focus on as there is so much room for growth. I also feel very property heavy in terms of the portfolio overall, and it’s money that just stays tied up.

Whether you’re saving for a rainy day or a cloud forest holiday, this is the most flexible part of your portfolio. Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Pensions

So this is the confusing area I think. Most of the FIRE community talks about total pension pots, and for me that is around

But the majority of my pensions are defined benefit which works totally differently. Have a look here for a simple explanation but basically, defined benefit means that the pot doesn’t really matter: what I will receive as a pension is guaranteed. This is a great place to be in lots of ways, though it is limited in terms of flexibility. I can’t, for example, decide where those pensions are invested. But in terms of security and planning they really work.

So what is interesting is not so much the overall pot as how much each one will pay out in retirement. The figures below show both the current pot value calculated as the transfer value (what I would get if I cashed out or wanted to move it) and also what it’s scheduled to pay out. All of the defined benefit schemes pay out when I am 67, so I also need to focus on what could be quite a long period to bridge if I want to retire at 50.

One thing to note is that the third pension pot will pay that out if I carry on contributing at this level for another two years – if I leave the job before then, they just pay me out the transfer value. So I need to stay here at least a bit longer!

PensionsTransfer valuePension on retirement
TOTALS £ 234,973£23,316
 SIPP £ 42,983£400
 Defined benefit pension 1 £ 39,462£1,400
 Defined benefit pension 2 £ 62,304£6,250
 Defined benefit pension 3 £ 90,224£15,266

You can see from this that they aren’t all equal. Each one has a totally different rate of return.

It does make me question the value of investing in the SIPP, as works out as a 1% rate of withdrawal which doesn’t seem that smart. Once I lock in my defined benefit pensions, I might stop this one and focus on saving and investing in other ways.

So that’s it. There are other very small pots in there like crypto but these are the real pillars of my financial plan. I do need to think about rebalancing them but for now I will end on a picture of the kitchen from that same house – because dreaming big is what it’s all about.

Kitchen goals

What do you actually need to retire on?

Last week I wrote about how my net worth is now $950,000, and how I was feeling about it. Do come and join me on Insta where I tell the same stories but with a lot fewer words, and with photos of Barbies. What’s not to like?!

This week I want to talk through what the limitations of my net worth are. Not because I’m ungrateful or want to scare off people who are much earlier on in the journey, but because there are impacts to how we organise a portfolio which means that net worth doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story in terms of what I need to retire on.

So let’s go back to basics. The FIRE approach to early retirement takes as standard the 4% rule: basically, you need to save 25 times your annual financial requirements, then you will be able to withdraw 4% each year in a way which will keep you going for at least 30 years.

Yes ma’am! Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash

There has been a huge amount of discussion on this in the FIRE community and outside. The 4% rule comes from the fairly standardised view of return on investment in the stock market. The S&P500 for example has an annualised return rate of 7.5% over the past decades. So if you assume inflation gobbles up 3%, you’re left with 4% that you can withdraw before impacting on the capital.

Right now, there are commentators noting that the 4% rule might not work as well in future, as the stock market goes into a period of instability (or, you know, total global apocalyptic meltdown). Others point out that, on balance, the markets always right themselves eventually. At the point of drawdown though the issue is this – if you are retired and you need to spend out of your portfolio, you can’t wait for the market to resettle, and you can’t withdraw based on an average. So if you need to take money at a challenging time when the markets are down, you will either only be able to take out less, or it will diminish your capital.

As an aside, if you are new to this journey you really don’t need to know everything about the stock market but you might want to explore a little – I love Paula Pant’s recent basics guide.

Enjoy yourself! Either by talking about the stock market, or by planning your fantasy life when you retire. I know which I prefer… Photo by Jay-Pee Peña 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

(Side bar – I do my financial planning in GBP£ but calculate my net worth in US$ because it looks better. I know, I know, the games we play with ourselves…)

The reason this matters is because it has a significant impact on how much you need to save in the first place. I worked on the basis that I need £30,000 per year to live on – there are a lot of assumptions and years of budgeting behind this, but broadly, it works. Which? have a fascinating annual survey of how much retirees spend annually, and they calculate that £31,000 per year is enough for a single person to have a ‘luxury retirement’. But this assume the person is older, without the need to financially support children or their own elderly parents. It also says that spending on food and drink dramatically decrease and let’s face it – that’s not going to be me.

To withdraw 4% and have this be £30,000 per year in retirement, I would need to save 25 times that amount. So 25 x 30,000 = £750,000 ($975,000), which is very close to where I am. Using a more conservative approach would suggest using the 3% rule instead, or saving 33 x 30,000 = £990,000 ($1.23m).

There are lots of caveats to this in terms of how you do your planning and what it means, but it is also a stark reminder of where the mindful money aspect comes in to play. It sounds obvious, but the more you want to spend in the future, the more you have to save now. This also means looking at paying down debt, or paying off your home: basically balancing your expenditure with your planning.

Gather up your courage and do your calculations. Big Shaq is with you!

That means that the first and most important step is to know your numbers. Next week I will walk through my portfolio and some of the challenges in calculating an early retirement age, especially around accounting for defined benefit pensions, and deciding how to treat buying a house vs renting, as well as understanding what each of these options means in your planning.

Until then, I hope you enjoy working through some of your numbers. I’d love to hear from you, here or on Insta, about how it’s going and whether there are any more hacks and ideas I can help with.

How reaching $1 million net worth (almost) feels

Don’t forget to join me on Insta! Loving the conversation and energy over there.

So I have missed writing this blog for two weeks. This seems like pretty poor form, especially so early in the year, but honestly it was an act of radical self-care. I was in Kenya for work and took some time to connect with friends and loved ones, and really think about where I’m going. It also made me look back on where I have come from, so this post explores some of the feels I’m experiencing about getting so close to another net worth goal and what it all means. TL:DR – it’s not what I expected.

Lots of people are finding things hard at the moment. The world is (I was going to say ‘feels’ but let’s cut to the chase) unstable and scary; we’ve spent two years away from normal connections; the cost of the day to day is soaring – basically, it can feel like we’re all screwed.

View from my window this morning. No matter how bad, the sun still rises.

I’ve written a lot about gratitude but usually as more of a warm fuzzy rather than an actual practice. But gratitude is the antidote to stuckness, anxiety and fear, so when it feels like the world is screwed it’s the obvious place to go. Then someone on my Facebook asked – is there even any point starting a FIRE journey after 40? After taking a minute to feel sad about all the limiting beliefs society and ourselves live to, I had to answer HELL YES. And it also made me take time to be grateful for how far I have come, and how I now get to encourage others.

There is always a point to taking control of the things in our lives within our grasp. Being mindful with money – or work or whatever – instantly converts those thoughts and activities to a meaningful engagement with the world. It sounds obvious but getting intentional about your decisions and actions really does make a difference. It is so easy to float about thinking you will get around to something, whilst all the time you are building up a life you don’t want. So – being intentional will positively impact your life, regardless of whether it equates to your FIRE goals.

In preparing to reply to her, I checked my numbers – and realised I am at $950,000 – so almost $1 million net worth.

mmmmmhhhhmmmm

I mean, I pay close enough attention to know I was heading there but changes in the housing market in particular have really made a difference.

Ironically, my first thought was – I thought it would feel better than this.

Hear me out. I worked my backside off to get here, and I really am grateful. But perhaps there is something about having an iconic goal, and one which is actually a proxy indicator rather than the goal itself, which doesn’t feel that special? It might also be hedonic adaptation – if I went from zero to this, perhaps the feels would be different? Or perhaps I’m just an asshole.

I will run through my numbers properly next week but I also note that this net worth is not enough to retire early on: or at least it isn’t in the portfolio I have which is very largely pensions and real estate. What it does give me though, is a sense of achievement and possibility. What I need to guard against now is the hedonic treadmill and striving for more and more. And also against being ungrateful to the point that I don’t even smell the roses.

And I need to get back to what really matters. My two weeks away highlighted to me that I am less prepared to keep waiting and making compromises than I have been to date. Hoping to pile up some more money when it isn’t even making me happy – and I have enough to be financially secure to the point where I can think about taking risks – is starting to feel like the wrong bargain. But that feels like a success. I started this journey wanting to make FU money. Maybe I’m just a lot closer to saying FU.

Valentine’s Day Massacre: The financial inequality of single parenting

I originally posted this in February 2021, but it contains such critical reflections on financial inequalities that face single parents that I wanted to come back to it. Things are even worse one year on: the impact of repeat COVID lockdowns but without the financial cushioning; soaring utility costs; rising inflation – in short, a cost of living crisis which is exacerbated by stagnant wages and new challenges in juggling work and childcare. So I have made some updates but the message is broadly, unhappily, the same.

Being a jolly sort of soul (and, obviously, single), Valentine’s Day seemed like the perfect time. I considered doing a post on self-care and self-love and how this relates to FIRE, but whilst it’s great to work on being positive and hold yourself to account, sometimes it’s necessary to look at structural inequalities and burn. it. all. down.

This isn’t a post about how hard it is to do all of this on one income, though that’s true. There are more single people in the world than ever, around 45% of the adult population in the global North, and there is evidence that they are happier than married counterparts. I am not an evangelist for the single state – indeed I would be happier in a commune than living alone – but I do sometimes imagine what I could achieve if I was part of a couple with the added energy, income, time and other resources and it makes me dizzy.

There’s a lot of love out there, even if you’re single. Duh. Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

So no, it’s not just jealousy or the basic ‘2 incomes is better than 1’ point. In the UK and many other countries, ‘couple privilege‘ is a real thing: outside of the obvious difference in having two incomes, there are tax privileges to having a spouse for example. There are a myriad of hidden costs to being single, from holidays to supermarket norms, not to mention the cost of housing and how single people are viewed as a greater risk in terms of accessing a mortgage.

In addition to this, for single parents there are punitive financial measures specifically designed to impact on us. Don’t forget that our current Prime Minister called the children of single mothers “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” (ironic given his contribution to the creation of single mothers). And don’t his policies show this belief. Changes and restrictions in benefits (most of which are not actually spent on ‘dole scroungers’) including family benefits are pushing single parent families even further into poverty. The British charity the Child Poverty Action Group have talked about the ‘war on lone parents’ and cited evidence that current policy really does try and make it harder for single parent families, presumably as a deterrent for the terrible mess we make of society.

Research in the UK shows that this approach has been so successful that it is not possible for a single parent on median earnings to reach a decent minimum living standard. Indeed, the gap between earnings and costs are getting worse thanks for austerity and benefit cuts, and price rises. For lone parents working full time on median earnings, the shortfall has risen from 6% to 16% in the past ten years.

In 2019, the overall cost of a child up to age 18 years (including rent and childcare) was £185,000 for lone parents (up 19% since 2012) and £151,000 for couples (up 5.5% since 2012). A greater cost, on half the possible income. It feels hard because it IS hard.

Maybe we should be angry instead of ashamed. Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

In a previous job where I was posted overseas for a British company there were significant benefits available for a spouse that I was unable to tap into for either of my children’s secondary parents – their father, or their grandmother. These benefits included the cost of flights to spend time with us, or if one of them had wanted to live with me, pension contributions. I lost out on around £20,000 per year because those benefits could only go to someone with whom I had a very particular intimate relationship. I felt totally judged by 1950s hetero normative rules: you can have the money if you still go to bed with the person with whom you had children, but if not, forget it.

The attitudes here, both in the treatment of those on benefits and low wages, and those of us in a much higher tax bracket, are united by the same message. You have failed, and you should be ashamed.

And we are ashamed. Parents who have to bring up their children on the bread line already feel like they are failing without being told. A New York Times article talks about how normal this all is. Whilst being frugal, getting a side hustle and so on are the building blocks of FIRE they are also par for the course when making ends meet. It’s the same shame that stops people asking for help; stops them checking to see if they have the benefits they are entitled to, or asking for adjustments to working hours. It’s the same shame that in my own petty way, stopped me from questioning why I was paying 50% of a bill where I was clearly not benefitting from 50% of the purchase.

I am blessed to be able to bring up my children without stinting – on luxuries as well as the basics, where we are frugal it’s out of choice – but I am also constantly anxious about what happens if I can’t work. We don’t have a second income to lean back on. We don’t have a plan B.

Lessening that anxiety is one of the reasons that financial independence is worth so much as a single parent. There are loads of brilliant exes out there who co-parent and equally share the financial burden but I can honestly say that I don’t know any of them myself. When you have sufficient issues with someone that you made the enormous decision to break up your family, relying on them financially can be challenging however easy it is. Sometimes the plan B just isn’t possible.

But sometimes, we also need to think about how society – and communities like FIRE – can help us create new plans. Love is so much more than just romantic: for our kids, for our community, our planet and each other. Happy valentine’s day to us all.

Love one another, wherever you are at. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

New Year 4: You need (some sort of) budget

Well yeah it’s February but there are still 11 months left of the year, so don’t worry if your New Year’s resolutions are taking a while to kick off. As with everything to do with changing habits and mindsets – or indeed with personal finance – takes time.

In my previous posts, I promised to come back to the concept of budgeting. Lots of people start here but whilst I agree it is super important to know where your money is going and how to spend more mindfully, starting with the budget always makes me feel like it’s putting the least interesting bit first and there’s a risk you will get put off before you get to the thrill of setting yourself up for your dreams. That doesn’t work for everyone though, so do things in the other that you find the most inspiring.

You need to get excited, and to put your foundations in place: do whichever most turns you on first. Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

There are equally a ton of different ways to create a budget and it depends on where you are with your finances.

Zero-Based Budgets

Best for: people with limited incomes, or challenges with spending habits

The idea here is to give every single penny of your income a job – to allocate it an ensure that it doens’t wander off by itself. It’s a monthly budget based on an assessment of all your fixed costs, then where you allocate funds to discretionary spending and to savings. Once this is done, all you have to do is track your spending and basically stop if you are about to go over any of your planned limits.

There is lots of information on estabishing a zero-based budget but all you really need to know is a detailed list of your income and usual expenses:

  • Fixed costs – the basics to keep the wheels on your life;
  • Discretionary costs – including groceries since how much we spend on this can vary so widely, along with things like clothes, cosmetics, entertainment etc;
  • Irregular costs – these could be either fixed, like a car service or discretionary, like an annual subscription, but you need to be able to plan for them (or choose to cut them out) or they will mess up your monthly plan.

Once you have done an audit of all of these costs and listed them out, take a really good look. Are you being realistic? Over-ambitious in terms of cutting costs, or too lenient? If you are at the point of making a budget it’s because you want something more important so focus on that instead of on feeling like you’re cutting all the treats out of your life. Building your future is literally the best treat you could have.

Budgeting is just organising what you have so it gets spent in the ways you intend. Photo by Andreas Näslund on Unsplash

50/30/20 Budget

Good for: people who want a framework then a bit more freedom, but are still getting started on a financial independence journey.

This is pretty similar to what I do, thought with the cost of childcare it’s more like 65/15/20. It’s a pretty simple way of guiding your money rather than tethering it down, which is why it is easier to do if you have some slack in your budget and aren’t troubled by impulse spending.

You set out your expenses into buckets: 50% for needs, 30% for wants, and 20% for savings. You will need to know your fixed costs, then be prepared to budget down on your needs so that they fit within your budget envelope. It’s a really good way to get started in terms of savings – or paying down debt – and trimming your budget in a way which helps you to build good habits. You will still need to roughly track what is going to each bucket during the month so that you can make sure that the ‘wants’ 30% isn’t going off track but you can also be secure in the knowlegde that you have covered all your bases, and you are living within your means.

Extreme Budgeting

Best for: those who are really driven by their goals and have flexibility. Or who love budgeting.

This seems to be a pretty common story in the FIRE movement, but it’s not something which has ever really worked for me. I could argue this is because of lack of flexibility though these are linked partly to my status as a single parent and partly to other choices, like staying in a career which prevents geo-arbitrage.

This is a huge leap from either of the other two, which are more focused on the basics of mindful money. Extreme budgeting can be done in fact with either a zero-based budget, or using different percentages with the same 50/30/20 approach but the focus is on drastically reducing spending. Here you would audit your spending then really interrogate it. What can ou cut back on? What would that mean for your life – moving house, selling your car, cleaning your own house? I like the focus on a Marie Kondo-esque focus on what brings you joy and cutting it out. There is often a focus on discretionary spending, but this can also be applied to your fixed costs – maybe that big house isn’t bringing you what you thought it would, and you can consider downsizing for example. As with all budgets, it’s totally personal, so for me one latte a week brings me joy so I buy one on Sundays whilst my daughter is at ballet class and really savour it: buying another one at any time feels like a waste of money rather than a treat, so I just don’t do it.

There are brilliant resources from people who live this way and have done brilliantly on their FIRE journeys. Try the Frugalwoods blog or book (which I love though the couples element personally puts me off a little) or try Michelle McGagh’s No Spend Year for a detailed and inspiring journey from the UK.

Find the joy in everything, even budgeting – you are owning your future. Photo by Taylor Heery on Unsplash

There are a lot of different options and you might need to try a few, or move on from one to another. The main thing is to get started: to be mindful with your money you need to know what you want it to do, and then intentionally guide where it is going. There is always going to be an element of tracking as well, especially at the start, and I will talk about tools for that too in future posts. Budgeting can feel like a tricky process to get started with, but it is putting you in control, and that’s a great feeling.

How do you do your budget and what tips do you have? I’d love to hear from you!

Beach money: investing and risk

I’m taking a break from the New Year Money guides to riff a little. This week has been filled with stories of stock market crashes, crypto circling the drain, and general doom. Quick reminder that when weeks like this seem long, do join me for mindful money hacks and positivity over on Instagram @brilliant_ladies_money. Now with added Barbies and reggae!

So I wanted to chat a bit about risk, opportunity and how growing into your power means making decisions you really believe in: feeling your way through the different options and trusting that you have your foundations on point, whilst still showing up with courage.

Either way, let’s make it to the beach. Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

If you spend enough time on social media it is easy to believe that we are all missing out on the ability to make easy millions through crypto, NFTs (IKR?), or indeed being eight years old and making videos of oursleves opening gifts. I don’t believe it’s all snake oil though. My parents, like many working class people, refused to have anything to do with investing or the stock market because of deep suspicion, and it harmed their finances in the end. On my mum’s side I think it was partly her left wing politics but for both of them it was definitely lack of trust that the system could benefit them in any way, as well as lack of confidence. I think I’m the only person in my family to have investments, and it still causes my mum to freak out.

I thought a lot of this was historical, but a study by Forbes shows that 65% of people aged 18-40 say that investing in the stock market is scary or intimidating. But this is the interesting thing about perceived risks: that age group is also the most likely to be familiar with cryptocurrencies; have holdings or expect to buy crypto in the future. There are a lot of brave investors out there as well who see engagement with Wall Street as part of the great Battle Between Good and Evil. Whilst it’s not totally clear who is on which side, the pandemic, climate change and heated global politics means it’s not hard to get the sense that the End of Days are on the way. This week was the anniversary of GameStop – the memestock phenomenon that saw average small investors drive up the price of GameStop shares by 1,700% through enouragement on reddit. If you are interested in hearing more about that, and about understanding the ethics of engaging with the stock market and how to impact it, I really recommend Paula Pant’s podcast on the topic.

Whatever you do, make sure you understand the risks. Photo by janilson furtado on Unsplash

After a few years of investing – and freaking out, and sometimes doing stupid things – here’s what I learnt:

Your portfolio should have different options depending on your risk tolerance based on what you want that money for and the consequences of losing it. There is room for both the tortoise and the hare here: room indeed even for the Pink Fairy Armadillo. The question is choosing the right vehicle for your money at any particular point. If you are socking money away for retirement you already know:

  • What your time horizon is, and probably that you have a long period to invest meaning that you can choose vehicles which take a longer time to generate a return, as well as needing to factor in inflation. The long horizon also makes it wise to look at tax implications since you will, hopefully, be making a bunch of money over a long period.
  • That you need to be sure there will be money by the time you retire, so your risk tolerance will likely change as you get closer to the date and you will have a chance to rebalance so it makes sense to find a mechanism which allows that.
  • The consequences of not investing wisely would have a massive impact on the later seasons of your life. If you lose your retirement fund, it increases the likelihood that you will have to work way, way past when you want to and are more at the mercy of health issues, not able to help out adult children and so on. Basically, it’s not where we want to end up, and for my generation who worked 15-20 years before pension auto-enrollment but will probably get to retirement after the State Pension has gone up in smoke, it is a very real destination.

Balancing the options therein should get the balance between comfort and discomfort.

  • Get the very basics right first. If you have a clear saving and investing strategy for the money you have coming in based on hierarchy you will create a foundational level of comfort which frees you to be courageous elsewhere. Allocate the money that needs to be there to pay your bills, keep your kids fed and a roof over your heads, and it removes a whole load of late-night anxiety. This money is not something you need to invest anywhere, at any time. Keep it accessible, and spend it – it’s what you made it for. Check out my post on working out your fixed outgoings, and go from there.
  • Prepare for emergencies. I am a total catastrophiser. I think working in the humanitarian sector for so long, coupled with a few unexpected life disasters and an overactive imagination means that the only answer I ever have to the question ‘what could possibly go wrong’ is ‘EVERY DAMN THING’! Whether you think they are coming or not, having rainy day money, or an emergency fund, means that you won’t be thrown off course by a broken down car, month without work, or whatever else. Keep it accessible but don’t spend it unless you have to – it’s there to protect you later on. As I say to my kids, boredom is not an emergency.
Beauty has foundations and grandeur. Work out what needs to be where to hit the right balance. Photo by Johannes Ludwig on Unsplash

After that, base decisions on what you are prepared to lose.

  • Optimism bias means that we are programmed to think about what we have to gain. Negative Nelly over here says – but what about what you might lose? There is a reason though why this is the right question to ask when thinking about investing. With the examples above of retirement, monthly costs and emergency funds, the answers are quite different. The risk balance for retirement is also cushioned by the longer time horizon, and by the fact that (hopefully) you can delay using that money by a few months or years if you need to ride out an occurance in the market.
  • Conversely working this out gives you a whole load of freedom for other pots of money. I have a few super high risk investments which have all been done with what I call beach money. This is money where if I lose it all it means I can’t take my kids to the beach for a holiday – not that we can’t pay our rent. It means I can be brave (or ill informed, let’s be fair) and it really doesn’t matter. I have about $10,000 of beach money investments across angel investments and crypto, and I only really think about it when I am getting antsy that I might be missing out on something.

Working out your priorities means you will create a framework in which you can have certainty and risk where you need to. Let me know how you balance this out, I love hearing from you!

New Year 3: Paying yourself first

Firstly – huge thanks to everyone who has joined me on @brilliant_ladies_money over on Instagram. It has been eye opening for me to post every day over there, and really inspired me to connect with the FIRE community in another way.

Secondly – I know we are getting close to the point where you have to stop saying ‘happy new year!’ January has been smoke this year and it’s almost done. But I wanted to carry on with the series about planning for your money, and to talk about the step after you work out your basic outgoings.

Last week I shared how to audit your fixed costs: all the money that you know for sure has to be made and spent to keep the wheels on. This week I want to introduce the idea of paying yourself first. Basically, this means mentally going straight from fixed costs to your saving goals, instead of going to work on your discretionary spending budget.

It can be hard to start, but waiting for things to sort themselves out is harder. Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

There are a couple of caveats with this. If you are living on the breadline or only just making ends meet each month, then this method is not likely to suit you. I really want to recognise that so many people are struggling in these hard times: the impact of prices hike in the UK where the rising cost of living is now a crisis for people who are at the ‘normal’ end of the income spectrum is shocking. I will reflect on this – and how to cope – in future posts, but for now I just wanted to recognise what is going on in the world. Secondly, if you have struggled with controlling your spending in the past, you might be better off working to a zero-based budget to tighten the reins. Again I will talk to this in future posts, but for now I wanted to reflect on how I am planning my own money for 2022.

Working out how to ‘pay yourself first’

You know when you get paid, all those good intentions about saving or paying off extra debt seem to get pushed to one side? Bills get paid, the monthly take away gets bought, and then things just sort of slide. And this happens over and over again, even when people’s incomes increase.

This is often down to two things: hedonic adaptation, and Parkinson’s Law. Together these basically mean that as you make more money, your perceived needs and wants expand; and if you have money to spend, your needs will expand to spend it. The only way to overcome this is to be mindful with both your money, and your wants and needs and plan accordingly.

Get that pot ready! Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Set your self payment plan

Once you have worked out your fixed costs as a percentage of your take home pay, you then know what you have left to play with. In my case I spend 65% of my income on the fixed basics, leaving 35% for everything else – whether that’s groceries, holidays, or savings.

For the last few years, I have been trying to save 30% of my income. Since I pay a healthy amount into my pension pre-tax – the equivalent of 15% of my post-tax income – this has been easy to surpass. But in 2022 I want to consciously try and save 20% of my take home pay. Realistically this will mean cutting back in terms of spending. But for me the mental exercise of setting saving goals and sticking to them is more doable and inspiring than setting a tight budget and then saving what is left. They amount to the same thing, so it will depend on what turns you on as to which is useful.

Saving 20% as standard

I calculated that I have £7,500 as monthly take home with £2,538 left after fixed costs. This means I should be saving £1,500 per month. Currently I do the following:

SIPP personal pension £    300.00
ISA savings £    500.00
Children’s’ ISA £    200.00
Children’s’ Junior Pensions £      50.00
Emergency fund top up £    100.00
TOTAL £ 1,150.00

I also overpay my mortgage by £500.00 a month which goes mostly to capital so I count that in my mind when I think about savings.

Planning for the future. It looks beautiful. Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

So with a total of £1,650 I am at my 20%. I am fine with keeping to that amount but I will review whether I should be paying off my mortgage or focusing my savings in a different way this year. I will talk more in future about options for savings and investing, and how to make those precious parts of your income work for you.

Next week I will talk about the spending part, and ways to look at how to best use the rest of my income. There are lots of ways to do this which facilitate planning for bigger or less regular costs like holidays or repairs. But once my savings goals are set, I feel much more in control.

Let me know how your financial planning is going! And good luck with this exercise, I hope you found it useful.

New Year 2: Auditing your fixed costs

First of all, in line with ‘new year, new challenges’ I am thrilled to let you know that I have set up an Instagram account, @brilliant_ladies_money linked to this blog. Do join me for daily tips, hacks and inspiration on mindful living and growing into your financial power – plus I’d love to see what you are working on!

Last week I wrote about giving yourself a break: this week, it’s more about knuckling down and finding ways to do some of the foundational tasks on which you can build out your financial independence journey.

Whilst most people think about going straight to budgeting, my feeling is that can seem like a huge mountain of joylessness. and sometimes that is offset by knowing how great you will feel afterwards but – a mountain is a mountain, you know? So I recommend splitting this out and focusing first of all on an audit of your fixed costs.

Maybe boring but necessary – find that paperwork! Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Undertaking an audit of your finances literally just means going through the details of your spending and working out what your outgoings are, and how often they are paid. I am not talking about discretionary spending at this point – that will be what you have left over once you have done steps one and two. And you don’t need to include things which go out of your pre-tax salary like pension contributions or healthcare since all we are doing is balancing your take-homie budget. There are tons of different ways to do these things, and they key is trying something and sticking to it long enough to see if it works for you.

So, what are all the things that you have to pay regularly, whether monthly or annually? We’ll talk about ways to plan for the non-monthly outoings but for now, just make sure they are in here.

  1. Think about your fixed costs and what they might be – housing, transport and childcare are usually the three biggest. Think about your utilities, council taxes, car service or tax, income tax if you are self-employed or have side hustles and so on. It would also include debt repayments if you have them. How to fast track debt repayments is a different discussion: for now just list them out.  The list doesn’t include regular payments which you could choose to live without, like media subscriptions: only the essentials.
  2. Go through your direct debits and standing orders first, listing out the detailed amount, what it’s for, and when it goes out of your account into a spreadsheet or notebooks. You can write this down however you like but it’s easier to use a spreadsheet because then you can change figures and it makes it easier to track your overall spending over time.
  3. Go through your bank statements and identify other areas where you might have other regular costs. I pay our public transport passes via a recurring card payment so they only show up on my statements. Add these into the spreadsheet. You might need to scour a full year of statements, but if you have in mind when your fixed costs come out you can be a bit more focused.
It can even be beautiful before you start the climb, but the view is much better from the top. Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

This is what my real numbers look like. And I know the actual amounts are OUTRAGEOUS but I live in Denmark – which also explains the salary – so it’s also pretty standard. I will chat another time on the sky-rocketing utility bills happening all over Europe (when I can find the time in between putting extra jumpers on), but for now, this is what I expect to have as monthly fixed outgoings in 2022:

Personal insurance £               11.48
Home insurance £               38.33
Car insurance £               54.91
Buildings insurance £               88.29
Insurance Totals £         193.01
Electricity £             147.62
Internet £               35.70
Water  £             209.72
Gas & hot water £             494.13
Security (offset by cheaper insurance) £               32.94
Council tax £             302.59
Utilities Totals £      1,222.70
DK Loan £             788.22
Mortgage £         1,045.30
Deposit Loan (more on this later…) £             498.00
House Repayment £      2,331.52
Train passes £             100.00
Car service and tax £               25.00
Transport Totals £         125.00
 Childcare Totals£      1,089.45 
 MONTHLY FIXED TOTALS£      4,961.68 

Remember that this is your life, and your money. Some people see childcare as negotiable and might look at this and see how to rebalance their priorities with their spouse. That is not my life, so this stays as a fixed cost. Ditto transport – whilst people can change how they approach transport, I don’t plan to do so this year so it’s going to stay fixed.

And that’s it! Everything else you spend is discretionary. And yes there are other things you need to stay alive like food, but we’ll deal with the monster topic that is grocery shopping in part three.

Once you know what your fixed costs, are, take your income, and minus these costs. Then you have the money you have left over to save and to spend. For me that’s £7,500 as monthly take home meaning I have £2,538 left. That means my fixed costs are already 65% of my monthly income.

Next week we’re going to work on what this means for saving, spending, and making it all come together for the changes you want to see in your life.

It will make everything so much simpler for the next step. Photo by Pablo Arroyo on Unsplash

Let me know if you undertake this process and how it works for you. And here’s looking forward to a fabulous 2022!

New Year 1: Getting started with money

So here we are again, another year! Having started off with a cheerful little post on loneliness, I wanted to come back to thinking as the FIRE community, where you are definitely not alone. Whether you are new to thinking about personal finance or fully on your path, the new year offers a moment to take stock and think about where you want to be, and how you will get there.

Woop! Photo by zero take on Unsplash

Now, I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. As my dear friend said – why add pressure? Why not just resolve to be kind to yourself, and treat yourself well? I think that is sage advice, but I do like to find tangible ways to treat myself well (and also to myself, said with love – this does not involve a cold beer and some cheese straws).  I’ve written before about how managing your finances is an act of radical self care and it’s certainly true for me.

I know lots of people find thinking about finance stressful: try imagining instead that dealing with your money is a way of reducing stress now and in the future. You might have to sit and do some tedious legwork now, but what if it meant no more sleepless nights worrying about money? What if it freed up some brain space for you to dream and act on those plans? Now that’s worth a resolution.

So my advice to you, especially if you are just getting started, is to give yourself a break. We’ve all had a hard few years, and a lot of the financial (and other) news coming out suggests that 2022 isn’t going to be a bunch of roses either. The most important thing though is to give yourself some grace and some space, not just because you deserve it but because when you are ready to work on your finances (or your weight, your love life or your novel) you will come from a place where you are more centred and compassionate, and more able to engage.

New year, same old you, but maybe with some new ideas. Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

I also believe there are a lot of easier ways to cut through the white noise of financial confusion. My next few posts will cover some options as to how to knock your finances into shape for 2022, when you are ready.

There is a ton of financial guidance out at this time of year. January feels like a fresh start, plus it’s common to come out of the holiday period feeling a bit queasy about overspending, or about carrying debt into yet another year. Sometimes the advice can be helpful, but I find many of them either over simplify – “set a budget and stick to it” is a frequent gem which makes me think “oh thanks! :facepalm:” – or cram so many different things in that it can feel overwhelming.

So my new year financial resolutions are limited to the following:

  • Audit: Work out what my fixed costs are;
  • Pay myself first: Work out what I can reasonably save and ensure that it is automated to come out straight after I get paid;
  • Burn the budget: Basically, I’m not going to sweat what happens with the rest of my money. I mean, within reason.

And that’s it. Simples! Looking forward to sharing my audit process, and my own results, next week. Until then, put your feet up and finish off the Christmas chocolates. You got this.

Grace and space first: everything else will come. Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Wait, what? Handbags?

The idea of the Brilliant Ladies’ Handbag Club comes from an all-women group I used to attend. It was created to help women set and achieve their goals, from cleaning out the attic to getting their start-up on the road. That group was called something else, but my then 6-year-old son renamed it to the BLHC, because just attending made me brighter, happier, and more focused. Since then, I have focused on working out what I want to do with my one wild and precious life – and it turns out the answer isn’t ‘work for a salary’. It probably isn’t ‘do yoga on the beach’ either to be fair – but wouldn’t it be great to choose?

I love the image of the handbag: full of useful tools; creative things like books, postctards, dried out daisies, and colouring pens; somewhere to dive in and finding things I didn’t know were there but turn back up just at the right time. My handbag always has nourishing snacks (and plenty of sweets, because you never know – also spare underpants, because you never know) to keep you going on the way. And a phone and a list of contacts in case I get lonely on the journey.

I’ve spent a year diving into a brilliant community around FIRE (financial independence, retire early) and whilst it’s becoming more diverse, as s British single mother there is only a small amount of it which resonates – which feels like me. So the Brilliant Ladies’ Handbag Club is an online place for me to chronicle my journey, reflect and store all the nuggets of wisdom along the way and share them with like-minded people. If you’re interested in FIRE; taking control of your money, even when things get tough, and in doing so stick it to the consumerist man; dreaming and building a different life; or just looking for some company, then come on in. Amongst the sweeties and the underpants, might be your tribe.