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.

Catching up – and taking a pause

So, I’ve unintentionally (or without planning to) been away for a month. What with getting the kids back to school and a million things going on at work, I haven’t found much time.

What I have been looking for in all the hectic is ways to catch a pause – moments of self care and taking time which don’t take me off the FIRE path. Often when I think about FIRE, read blogs or listen to podcasts, it can feel like the calm comes after the FIREstorm. Or there are mid-point goals, like going part time at work, or sabbaticals. There is lots of interesting information about mini-retirements: planning and negotiating time out of normal work. With my work and family responsibilities I can’t see this happening for at least a few years. Whilst that might be my own limited thinking, I wanted to try and at least build some pause into smaller blocks of time.

Both a relevant image and a fantastic tune!

First things – clearing out space in my day. I read the fantastic book Make Time which has a huge range of suggestions for ways to clear out time in your day (or week) and also space in your mind. I would really recommend reading the book, but there’s also a great podcast by Choose FI where they interview the author. I started implementing some of the ideas immediately, and the one which has made the most difference was clearing out my phone’s home screen. This along with turning off almost all notifications means I’m no longer wasting time in what they call ‘infinity pools‘ – apps which endlessly refresh and encourage endless scrolling.

Second – making things feel special makes it feel like a break. There are a few areas where five extra minutes (or less) can make something feel like a treat, and break up the day. Setting out my lunch on a proper plate, with a glass of iced water means even if I am eating at my desk I feel the change in rhythm of the day. Setting the table nicely when I am home and getting dinner out for the kids ditto. Mixing a cocktail for whilst I am making dinner (with alcohol or no) also marks the break between work and family time – even if I know full well the laptop is going on again after the children are asleep – and feels like a decadent luxury. None of these things cost more money or include any fuss: a few minutes really makes a difference.

Plus you can use up those bits left in the bottom of the bottles

Third – take a pause on the inside. I have been meaning to take up meditation for such a long time it’s become something of a running joke. There’s a lot of evidence of the benefits of meditation : helping with anxiety and stress, creating space in a mind which is ‘on’ all the time. I also recently read Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed in which she talks about how meditation helps her manage and juggle things even in the hardest times. I had a conversation with a friend in which I committed to meditate once, the next day, for five minutes. I did it, then … nothing for the next few days. Then, in one of those moments of serendipity my daughter had a school assignment to meditate twice that week. Since then we have meditated together every evening before bed – a much needed pause each evening in a stressful world.

Whether you have five minutes or five hours, find a way to take a break. I love this infographic with 50 ideas from Karen Horneffer-Ginter – it’s available to print out for free and full of inspiration.

From Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit

I highly recommend finding ways to pause in your day – or your week, or month. Creating spaces lets the light in, to think about the future and fine-tune plans, but also enjoy the now. Enjoy your moments of calm!

Ethical living and FIRE

I had a question from a reader about my ethical stance to investing and thought it was such a great question I would focus on it for this post. This will focus on my personal experience, with the next one focusing on the background to ethical investing and some things to think about.

What does it mean to be ethical and to be striving for financial independence? How can I get the best returns for my money whilst not investing in things that I don’t believe in? How can I be working toward a better life for my children if on the other hand my money is supporting companies who are destroying the planet our kids will inherit?

Money or green things??

In terms of my own experience, when I was growing up my mum always invested ethically as a family. Well, my family had such huge issues with supporting companies that didn’t align with our values that we didn’t invest at all. Instead our money went into Credit Unions, until Triodos Bank opened in the UK in 1995. With changes to a) my ability to make my own adult decisions and b) the massive increase in ethical investment options, I’ve certainly moved on from that approach.

The ethics of investing – and daily life – are very much part of the road to FIRE for me. Being intentional with money is the first step on the path. What do I want? How does that translate into the decision I am going to make about spending money on this?

Regular daily practice of FIRE, and of ethical living, is about buying less – not about ‘doing without’ but recognising how little most of us really need to add to the things we have to live comfortable, fulfilling lives. There is a link to the zero waste movement (which was again something we did as kids, but was more due to a ‘being broke’ movement). Buying things to use briefly then throw away should be inconceivable, but it’s shockingly common place. Planning meals means we create less waste, as does actively packing leftovers for lunches at work, keeping small vegetable leftovers in the freezer to make soup, and (trying at least) to grow our own. Hand-me-downs, buying second hand, and borrowing things like tools or occasional sports gear from mates or co-ops, all mean fewer things to buy.

Ethical decisions are in all aspects of our lives [Photo Credit]

In the ever-inspiring Your Money Or Your Life, the authors encourage you to question yourself before every purchase not just whether you need something but whether you can take care of it, get value from it, and lovingly pass it on once you have finished with it. These remain great questions, and are easy to ask. If I do need to buy something, how do I plan to dispose of it? What will the impact of that be on the environment, and on me and my time?

In terms of investing, I do invest in ETFs but the solutions here feel imperfect. I have the majority of the UK funds in my ISA in this fund which is available on Fidelity in the UK and is listed as an ethical fund though a quick glance at the top holdings reveals some of the challenges in ethical investing (come back for the next blog post for more on this). I hold my emergency fund in Triodos Bank, which doesn’t have a significant range of products but is best for me for savings (rather than investment).

As ever, I should think it’s abundantly clear but the caveat here is that I am not a financial advisor and share this personal information as food for thought only.

There are so many other aspects to living well whilst living ethically that it’s a topic I hope to come back to. How do you manage these concerns in your FIRE journey? Would love to hear from you!

Frugal (um…) summer holidays. Part 2: the actual frugal bit

So, most of our holiday periods are usually taken up with free stuff. But this COVID period had two issues: one, the places and things which haven’t yet reopened, or which are at least working to a smaller capacity; two, the fact that I have already run through every single idea (and website) known to mankind about free stuff to do at home. We have been really lucky with the lockdown lifting here, so whilst things aren’t back to normal, they are much, much easier.

Biggest success: playdates

This wasn’t allowed during lockdown of course, meaning it was even more exciting to have friends over. We have done this, a LOT.

Baking, cooking, and unusual eating

Since the lockdown started in March to date, we have watched the entirety of season 1-5 of the Great British Bake Off as a family. It feels like the first time the kids have been old enough to watch something that isn’t cartoons, and it’s been an eye opener for post-dinner down time. We’ve been inspired to make tartes au citron, ‘self-saucing puddings’ (didn’t even know what they were but they’re a fantastic store-cupboard treat, do try our favourite recipe), brownies, bread rolls, bao buns, and so much more. Nothing has included fancy ingredients, and none of them (yet) has been a disaster.

To liven things up we also ate ‘unusually’. Picnics in the garden or on the beach; dinners barbecued outside; meals with a menu, place settings and wine glasses. Again, nothing fancy or that really cost money (other than a gas canister for the barbecue that we would have bought anyway) but something which created a bit of change and fun. We also had a birthday tea party for my daughter’s toy cat, which took up whole days in making paper bunting and streamers, party invitations (for all the other stuffed animals) little cat-size cakes and more. We got the Good Tea Set out (a gift a long time ago from a boss who was clearing her mum’s house out) and had a blast.

Caveat: I *may* have put some weight on this year.

Make the most of free attractions

Some trusty favourite free days out (Småland play area in IKEA, anyone?!) are still closed, but we’re lucky that most of the museums, parks and so on have reopened.

Denmark in particular is fantastic for sea swimming and beaches. There are lots close to us, and others which are a short drive or train ride away. I tend to drive, because it means we can take a huge packed lunch and enough towels and toys to keep us going all day. The water is cold, but we are definitely getting braver. And I have a selection of Lidl ice lollies in the freezer at home so that I don’t have to fork out for one on the beach.

Sorting stuff out

Well maybe not fun, but totally worth it. And I’ve been using the other fun stuff to bribe the kids into doing this. We’ve been decluttering, sorting through all their clothes and giving them to charity shops; fixing up toys (or chucking out things which really are beyond repair); working on the garden (tip – I have no skills whatsoever at this) but we grew at least six tomatoes, woop! And the garden looks nice when we’re having out stuffed toy themes picnics.

So – what are your favourite frugal holiday activities?

Frugal (um…) summer holidays. Part 1: the spendy bit

What a funny old year. The kids had a bit more than half a term at school, since COVID-19 related school closures arrived in Denmark on 12th March. The February half term had been the first holiday we really took since we moved here last summer, and I was so exhausted from work and work-travel that we spent it in Lalandia – a Danish holiday resort with cabins, a water park and plenty of stuff to do regardless of the weather. Then months of home schooling including lockdown Easter holidays, and a return to school for four weeks up to the start of the school holidays in the first week of June.

Image Credit: CLOSED goshdarnit.

All of this means that I feel like we have been at home *forever*. Don’t get me wrong, I love home – and we rent a lovely big house with plenty of room and a garden, partly chosen because I’d never lived in Scandinavia before and figured we’d spend all our time indoors – so it’s not exactly a punishment. But, like most families, we are used to a lot of external activity, and as an expat single parent, travel and holidays together are how we stay connected with family and friends. Usually in the summer we travel back to the UK, and my children stay with my parents for a few weeks. With my dad’s health issues, this was out of the question sadly. Missing my parents, and missing out on grandparent time, has been so hard these past few months.

So – what have we been up to? And, now we’re about half way through, how frugal was it? This post if about the ‘spendy’ parts of the summer (getting all the guilt out of my system). The next post will be about all the lovely free things we did 🙂

Going on a local holiday

We did go on holiday. I booked two ‘five day weekend’ breaks, one to Bornholm straight after school closed, and another which is coming up at the end of July, about two weeks before school reopens.

Bornholm is a Danish island which was totally magical, and well worth it. It’s sort of like Cornwall in the 1950s, with lots of different beaches and a safe family vibe. We drove, taking plenty of board games and other rainy-day amusements, and took the ferry. The holiday cost £1,100 which included travel, bed and breakfast, and an activity every day – we tried stand up paddle boarding, kayaking and rock climbing, and fell into bed absolutely knackered at the end of every day. It was wonderful but Denmark is expensive and I haven’t got my frugal hacks in place yet: for comparison, aside from the flights, the cost was the same as we spent for a similar package to Bali last year. But it felt very much like time and money well spent.

The holiday booked for the end of July was £700, and also includes activities, a water park and access to a spa (hallelujah!). So, total upfront holiday cost = £1,800. I will add all the incidentals (meals, spending, etc) together when I do the July budgets.

Holiday Clubs

Since I am still working full time, some of the weeks are spent in holiday clubs. There are quite a few for my son since he’s older and loves sport. Football club is £110 per week, and a spendier sea sports club was £150. So that was three weeks covered. For my daughter, there was much less choice and I put her in the school club. This was £735 for two weeks, which feels outrageous. She loved the club, but the activities were nothing I couldn’t have done with her and a friend or two at home (if I wasn’t working…). So it doesn’t quite feel like money well-spent. Plus £160 for a week of trampoline club.

Image credit: holiday club artwork.

So, £1,265 on holiday clubs. If I am honest, I looked down the barrel of eight weeks of summer holidays on top of the lockdown, and freaked out. We still have the usual childcare costs of £800 which cover wrap-around hours, the costs of looking after one child when the other is in club etc so all in all, it was a lot – £2,265 to be precise, over the whole period. But holiday childcare IS expensive, and for single parents, where there isn’t an option to tag-team annual leave (or indeed have one parent with a term-time job), it’s even starker. The 2019 results of an annual UK survey about the cost of childcare in the summer found that parents pay an average of £138 per week per child. For my two, this summer would equate to £2,208, or pretty much where I came in.

Frugal success?

Not really. That’s £4,065 on unusual spending, and I will have carried on with a larger groceries bill etc. Interestingly, it made me reflect a lot on why I work and what I want out of life. That is a huge amount of money for the summer holidays, and nothing we have done felt extravagant (not like Bali last year!). And I feel like I was paying to be at work, since if I wasn’t working at least the club part wouldn’t have been necessary. I also recognise that I made the choices here: my kids wouldn’t actually have died of boredom by staying home and just meeting up with friends. Maybe it’s guilt money for them having to spend the summer hanging out at home without me. Either way, food for thought.

The next blog post will focus on the frugal wins – there were many of those too!

Courage: beginning!

First up: I’m thrilled this week to share my first ever podcast. I was interviewed by the fabulous Financial Independence Europe podcast, who kindly offered to talk to me about my journey to FIRE as a single parent. In spite of spending a lot of time thinking ‘surely nobody will be interested in this?! Surely my story is too boring / unique / specific / shameful to be relevant?!’ Then I thought about taking the path of courage, one where I dare to be different, to stand out. And I’m really glad I did!

I very much enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my journey, and maybe encourage others in a similar predicament to get started. You can listen to the podcast episode here and do sign up to the FI Europe podcast, it’s one of my go-to listens.

So, how are we doing here? May budget and spends

Enough of the soul searching – what am I actually spending?

In my mind, lock-down has been a time of spending no money. Certainly you have to be both inventive and patient to hit the normal spending levels, since it has meant either queuing, or ordering things which take a long time to be delivered. I just received a fire bowl for the garden which we ordered in April and which arrived this week, but minus the actual bowl – a two month wait for a totally useless stand…

May was the month we went back to work and school here in Denmark. It was also my daughter’s 7th birthday party and since we weren’t able to have family or friends over, I definitely spoiled her a bit to try and make it more special.

It was also the month I started planning and paying for things to do in the long school holidays. Since we can’t travel back to the UK I had to cancel long made plans – thankfully being able to either move it all to next year or get refunds – but then think about what we are actually going to *do* for the next two months.

So here’s what we spent. And it reminds me why I think of myself as being ‘fake frugal’. There are no ridiculous purchases in here, nothing really out of the way or extravagant (or that felt like it, at least). And yet I still managed to overspend by almost £ 1,000.00.

 PlannedMay-20
Charity £       30.00£150.00
Insurance £    277.00£277.00
Rent and utilities £ 1,500.00£1,500.00
Childcare £ 1,000.00£1,000.00
Groceries £    300.00£793.36
Holidays £    300.00£858.84
Transport  £    300.00£36.00
Entertainment £    200.00£247.03
Eating out £    175.00£57.37
TOTAL £ 4,082.00£4,919.60
Planned vs actual spend: May 2020
Game over? Hell no!

So what went well? Bills, childcare, insurances all stayed the same. I upped our charity giving all throughout lock-down because things are so tough right now for so many people (to the Single Aid Mamas crowd fund, an amazing group of other single mums in the same line of work that I am in, a number of whom lost their income during this period: to Age UK given that older people are having a hard time: and to the Trussell Trust who are supporting food banks across the UK).

The bulk of the extra spend was on groceries. Whilst it does feel as though food is getting more expensive, this is also down to eating every meal at home (and the related decrease in eating out budget). It is also because like lots of people I have been really into cooking as something fun to do during the lockdown. As a wannabe frugaleer, I normally cook from scratch 5 nights a week, and make packed lunches. But we have really tried new things, got into baking, and also continued to keep a healthy level of food stocked up in the house in case the quarantine gets strict again.

But this was something of a wake up call. Just because I feel like we’re not doing much, or spending much, keeping track of the numbers is the only way to be sure. In May, I did manage to put  £ 800 into my savings,  £250 into the children’s accounts, and make a £ 2,000 mortgage over-payment. So whilst it wasn’t a great month, it still worked out.

Aluta continua!

A dream life: now and then

One of the first questions people ask themselves on the financial independence journey (after ‘where on earth does all my money go??’) is – why? Why would I go against the grain of consumerism, spending, striving? What do I want for my life instead?

Some people like to get crystal clear about their dream life. Dave Sawyer talks about finding what matters to you – he and his wife have a vision of their future selves in Andalusia. And fair play to them.

For me it’s crucial to think of a dream life, now and in the future. I want to spend more time with my kids, but working like crazy to save for ten years means I’ll have time to spend with them when they are in their late teens and probably less keen to hang out with mum. Plenty of FIRE people manage both of course, and with two incomes you can make a whole range of choices: share the childcare or have one parent stay at home for example. Living off one income is naturally promoted as a path to saving money. For the single parent, there is only ever one income. I need to be able to make choices which give us quality of life now, whilst preparing for that imagined future.

In these crazy times where keeping on with saving, looking after the children and generally keeping the wheels on with life, it can be easy to lose sight of the ‘why’. Whilst I am clear about my Big Dream, and about the small steps I need to take this week, the middle bit is hazier. So in the spirit of remembering the way, I wanted to share my dream.

I’ve had the same one for almost 20 years and it still delights me every time I think about it. My plan, with the kids, is to move back to Kenya (I am not from there but spent many happy years – so this is caveated with the need to fulfill the residency requirements which is helped in most countries, including Kenya, by being financially independent). We’ll build or develop a house with a stunning view, acacia trees, the Rift Valley to wake up to. Interesting occasional work (that I can say yes or no to); sundowners on the balcony with fantastic company; friends around a huge dining table. Somewhere stable the kids can always call home. Bliss. And well worth walking this path, especially if I can do it whilst cherishing every day.

One foot at a time

A friend from the original Brilliant Ladies Handbag Club sent me the photo below this week, during a week of self-doubt and anxiety and general woe. Not from anything major, just the current lockdown, working at home, kids having a tricky time sort of stuff.

This helped me for two reasons: one, that someone was thinking of me. Two, that I have been things so many things before, this is just one of many. And it’s not always necessary to do something momentous – rather, just to keep plodding on.

So that’s it for this week. Turn up, do the things you need to. Meal plan, shop, use up leftovers. Hug the kids, make time to play with them, don’t feel bad about putting them in front of the TV when it’s all a bit much. Have a walk, have a nap. Have a little cry in the bath. Then get up and carry on. Remember what you have, how hard some of it might have been, how you have always made it through. Keep going. You got this.

So I panicked – just a little. Here’s what I learnt

Sigh. So it’s been a month since my last post since I needed a little time to adjust to the new normal. Homeschooling my two kids whilst working full time from home (and since my job is in the field of humanitarian response, my day job has become way more hectic) is exhausting: add to that worrying about elderly parents in another country and just trying to keep the wheels on our daily life and I didn’t have much energy to spare.

After my last post, I spent another week watching my funds crashing, and it felt like my dreams and plans were crashing too. I think being so early on in my journey made this pretty scary – like watching someone lop off branches which are just starting to blossom. I was awake every night for about two weeks obsessing about what to do, and in the end, I sold.

I sold two-thirds of my savings portfolio and put it into a savings account. My savings overall took a huge hit. I know, I know: selling when the market goes down only converts paper losses into real losses. But it was almost worth it to get the decent nightly sleep I needed to face my daily litany of tasks.

So here’s what I learnt:

  1. My risk tolerance looks different to what I thought. The ability to tolerate risk is a huge part of making financial decisions. It turns out that risks feel different when they are really happening compared to how I thought it would feel (uh, duh). The COVID pandemic also meant that I had my first taste of realising risk as an investor when nothing is stable – people’s jobs, my family’s health, the general sense of how close we are to The End Of Days… Risk wasn’t just something that related to my emotions about my investments, but to the sense of stability in the world at large.
  2. My long-term game is stronger than my short and medium term. As well as my stocks and shares ISA (where I pulled money from) I have three pension pots, plus I have been working on kids’ savings. I didn’t touch any of this, or even look at the balances. These feel so long term that the crisis NOW doesn’t affect them in my mental planning.
  3. That does mean I need to work out my investment policy statement. This is a relatively simple document which sets out, why, what, how, for how long, and how you will know your approach is working. I realised that whilst in my mind I was investing for the long term, my mental planning around the ‘what next’ in my life saw me spending that money earlier than makes sense for it to be in funds. Once I understood this disconnect I gave myself permission to pull funds. But setting out a clearer strategy would have given me metrics to work through options rather than just relying on my need to sleep.
  4. Having an emergency fund really, really matters. Before I started investing, I had created an emergency fund. I have this set out to two accounts: my usual bank where I pay my mortgage, bills and whatnot has an attached savings account where I have three months of those expenses. Then I have a separate savings account (so I don’t see it and am not tempted in case I feel the need to slide money around) which has another three months plus additional in case I struggle to cut costs I anticipate would be possible if I lost my job. In total I have four months of take home pay which should cover seven months plus of all our costs. Knowing that money was there is making a huge difference to my emotional well-being. Without it, I might have felt the need to pull all my investments.
  5. It’s my money, and to some extent my decisions are therefore always the right ones. From the point of Kantian moral philosophy (bear with me) I am not a means to the end of a successful financial future: I am an end in myself. Whilst this might sound like the noise of me disappearing up my own jacksie, it is a reminder that I am more than the sum total of my financial decision making. During the obsessing, twisty turny evenings of trying to work out what to do this became super helpful. I had to stop listening to all my favourite podcasts, because they were all screeching about not selling, and I had already done so. Remembering what it’s all about, and who is in charge, for was crucial.

Living life in these hard times with a little bit of grace and forgiveness is more important than ever. As a single mum with lone and total responsibility for my household’s finances, it’s only my permission which is needed and me who has to clear it up if it all goes wrong. So whilst I panicked (a little), I am also proud that I had my emergency fund in order as well. And I learnt a huge amount that I can apply to get financially even stronger moving forward.

An attitude of gratitude – grin and bear (market) it

Just a month ago I was jauntily planning my future, posting about dreams of building on my small but proudly created foundation. Since then the Bear Market and general chaos-fest of COVID-19 has arrived, and my savings have lost almost 25%. I wrote last week about carrying on with good habits: this week we are on lockdown from schools, the office and all public institutions are closed, and the world feels like it holds a number of possible, uncertain and potentially Armageddon-esque, futures.

So, what are we to do? Other than keep on keeping on?

For this week, I am going to concentrate on all the other things. Firstly, counting my blessings. Yes, I am somehow supposed to home-school the kids whilst continuing to work from home full time. But what is also true is that I will get to spend some much-needed time with the children; that we are well resourced (internet, craft supplies, a garden etc) to manage this.

I also recognise how lucky I am to have a job. I spend a lot of time fantasizing about living with more freedom and growing my side hustles, but right now I am just glad to have a job with a great boss who understands my circumstances and can be flexible whilst I juggle working and having the kids at home. And whilst I appreciate you can never rely 100% on employment, right now I am pretty damn glad to be here.

I have been thinking a lot about people who don’t have this security – the small business owners who can’t open during COVID restrictions; the almost 1 million people in the UK who are on zero hours contracts who won’t get paid if the can’t work. Drops in the stock market and a huge rise in financial uncertainty is likely to hit charitable giving and make 2020 bumpier than it is already. One in 50 families in the UK uses a foodbank (with numbers continuing to increase) but if donations significantly slowdown then foodbanks will be unable to cope and help people in need. Already vulnerable populations are likely to be the hardest hit, so as well as counting my blessings, trying to keep the kids calm (and doing something that isn’t watching TV or shrieking) I’ve donated to Age UK.

Stay healthy and happy, people!