Holidays!

A very quick post this week, since I am on holiday in the UK. I am VERY excited to be here, since we haven’t been home for 18 months due to COVID.

We are in quarantine though, and since Denmark put the UK on the red list as of this week, we will have to do the same when we get back. I’m not making political points here about how any country manages COVID but I will say that it has cost us (for one adult and two kids) £800 on COVID tests – and none of that needed to be spent in Denmark.

A beautiful spot to be isolating!

I am lucky enough to quarantine with family, so we are also enjoying a lot of quality time. After the last few months of preparing the house move, this is a much needed break. I love our lives as expats, but I am also really glad to be home for a while. Plus we already had fish and chips (with chip shop gravy mmmmmmm), so the world is a happy place.

More finance thoughts in August after two weeks off, but wishing you some lovely time in the sun until then!

Budget Check In: June

Ah June. Long (it’s Denmark, so very, very long) days; al fresco dinners in the garden; the start of the summer holidays; *all* the football at the Euros; and the last month in our rental home. I knew June and July were going to be pretty brutal, and that has been the case so far. Trying to juggle work which is super busy, the kids and school or clubs (or ‘I’m boooooooored muuuuuums’) and moving house has been a huge pain. My ability to handle pain is probably evident in my overspending this month.

A note on my budget check ins: I was reading through the other check ins from this year and it felt a bit like watching a learner driver repeatedly start off doing pretty well, then start skidding around, and crash toward the end of the test, every. single. time. I know I’ve overspent every month, to a greater or lesser extent, and whilst I do a lot of hand-wringing at the start of the month I have always got good reasons (ahem) to go ahead with the spend anyway. Recognising this, I plan to do a budget and spend overhaul from September, giving me the summer to get settled in the new house and really work out what I am doing, my medium term goals, and – more importantly – a plan.

Half way through the year! Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

So how did it go? It wasn’t that bad, but I can see a couple of interesting choices glaring out from the grid below.

Item Monthly BudgetSpend June% of monthly budget
Childcare costs £       1,100.00 £          726.3066
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £          125.00 £                   –  0
Charity £            66.67 £            67.95102
Eating out £          120.00 £          165.23138
Entertainment – subscription £            50.00 £            18.9538
Entertainment £          100.00 £          335.39335
Kids – extra curricular £          250.00 £       1,276.11510
Family £            50.00 £          292.01584
Groceries £          400.00 £          657.84164
Holidays  £          300.00 £                   –   
Insurance £          200.00 £          493.99247
Personal care £            30.00 £            57.39191
Shopping – general £            25.00 £          539.492158
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays £            58.33 £          434.32745
Shopping – clothes £            29.17 £            15.0051
Rent and Bills £       1,500.00 £       1,500.00100
Transport £            41.67 £          173.74417
Utilities £          200.00 £          112.5156
TOTALS £   4,645.83 £       6,913.21 

So, once again I overspent my budget by A LOT, spending £6,913 against a budget of £4,645:

  • My mum finally managed to come and visit which was amazing but meant covering her flights, tests and so on. This was well worth it for the support it povided us during a challenging time, and since she is on a small pension there is no way I would let her cover this.
  • I paid out for my daughter’s three after school clubs for the 2021-22 school year since they opened the registration for current students and the spots fill up quickly. This cost £1,275, or about £127 a month for the duration of the clubs. Since all her friends (four of them!) have left school this summer and moved away (downside to the expat life) and things might feel a bit lonely for her, I figure that having some clubs where she also has friends will be comforting.
  • I had three big splurges, one of which was an accident:
    • Since it was the Euros football was on, and I LOVE football, I went to see most of the matches at the pub with friends. The atmosphere was amazing, and supporting both Denmark and England meant a lot ot good times. It also meant a £300 bar tab over the month.
    • We had a few colleagues in my team leave this month as well, some people who have been in the team for five years. We had a huge team dinner and I covered the bill of £350 with an understanding that we would work out how to share this – that hasn’t happened yet, but it will.
    • I, um, might have had a moment during a LEGO sale. It was half price and I have two LEGO-loving kids, so a £400 moment occurred. This will cover my son’t upcoming birthday and major Christmas gifts for them both, so I tell myself it was a good idea!
It might be coming home… Photo by Robert Anderson on Unsplash

So what did I save? Again I focused on getting the last of the money together for our house move including £3,000 for the removal men/house preparation etc , so I have just been putting extra into my current account to make sure the money is there for whatever comes up. No great savings news then, but at least I carried on with the usual basics which is still savings (or paying toward capital) of £ 2,348.

 Monthly saving planMay% of plan
Mortgage (UK house)  £                500 £              500100
Mortgage Overpayment  £                500 £              500100
Emergency Fund  £                  100 £               100100
ISA £               1,250 £               50040
Kids savings £                   248 £               248100
SIPP £                   300 £               300100
  £   2,898.00 £ 2,348.0087

So this month, again, an unimpressive savings rate of 20% compared to spending 80%. July will also likely be odd again due to the move but I am glad that at least I kept to the regular savings. I need to do a mid year review of our net worth, since I have moved a lot into the new house.

So how was your June? And your summer budget planning? I’d love to hear from you!

Beautiful June! Photo by Ann on Unsplash

House buying – luck, privilege, and focus

I wrote last week about buying a $1 milion home: over the last few days we got the keys and have been cleaning, painting and generally getting ready for the furniture move on Monday. Oh, and sort of freaking out about the whole thing but that’s pretty normal.

Some of the discussions I’ve had since then got me thinking – given how hard it is to buy a house as a single parent, how did I get here?

I want to say upfront that I never had a divorce settlement. I didn’t “get half the house” or much less “take him to the cleaners”. For all sorts of reasons that probably require some kind of therapy to understand, my marriage didn’t involve the mingling of finances, or equal financial engagement, at all. The good thing is that we took that attitude to the divorce meaning that I took out what I put in. Given that it was my money anyway, and I also did all the childcare, I can live with that. Note: many other ways of being married, or divorced, or thinking about money and marriage are available, and I wish you joy of them.

My first home purchase was in a tower block (not this one) Photo by Ben Allan on Unsplash

So how DID I get here?

A combination of luck, privilege and focus. It’s important to recognise that the focus itself might not have been enough – luck (mostly around timing) and privilege definitely helped. That’s not to say that this is not an option for others, but I see a lot of people talking about how they bought a house all by themselves whilst the back story shows how much they relied on their parents. So let’s be honest. I found it hard – other people will find it much much harder. But it’s not impossible.

House 1: bought for £55,000 sold for £110,000

My partner and I decided to try and buy twenty years ago, when I was 22. We had been living together for five years and rents in our home town were rising all the time. Even at that point the average property price for a two-bedroom home (a flat in the fancy part of town, a house in the non-fancy) was £170,000, and amount that would have required me to be earning £45,000. I was fortunate to get a great job out of university on £18,000, but that was still a world awya, and my partner’s self-employed income was limited as he established his business.

So we found the only thing we could afford, in a tower block on a housing estate, and bought it. We were always really frugal, and had been saving since we got together, saving £10,000. The flat was on the eighth floor though, meaning it wasn’t possible to get a mortgage. Here’s the privilege: my partner’s parents lent us the rest of the money. We set up a repayment plan in line with current mortgage rates, and continued to be frugal, doing a lot of work ourselves and taking in a lodger in the second bedroom though we didn’t pay off much extra on the loan.

When we split up four years later, we had the flat valued at £110,000. Based on splitting the equity 50:50, I got £30,000. I put this in a savings account and went off to pursue my humanitarian career overseas.

House 2: bought for £170,000, sold for £270,000

So by this point I am 30, and have a baby. I have a confused marriage where he is overseas (and not contributing anything financially or emotionally) and things are rocky. I am back in my hometown and the cost of living seems to be crazy. For the first time, I am fully responsible for another human being and realise I have no idea what I’m doing.

So I decide to buy a house and settle down. I still have an income that counts for a mortgage, even though it’s from a charity based overseas. And since I was living in South Sudan / Uganda / Rwanda for the past four years I have also added to my savings pot so with the equity from my first home I have a £70,000 deposit.

The glorious kitchen of my second home

The luck here is that it is 2009. House prices dropped by 16% in 2008 and I looked at a lot of repossessions which seemed heart-breaking. I wanted to stay on the same housing estate, but also realised pretty quickly that I couldn’t afford to live in another part of town. So I was looking at the lower end of the price range for a house. And my goodness I saw some unloved, filthy heaps.

Eventually I found a four bed house in a quiet cul-de-sac (important on a house estate with a reputation for joy riders) and put in an offer. Then I found that the flipside to 2008 was that banks were not keen to lend money to single people with precarious incomes. Around the same time my lovely granny passed away and left my family an inheritance (likely the only one we will ever get since we are not that kind of family). The bank will still not lend me the money. So again with the privilege – my mum and siblings club together their inheritances and lend me the other £100,000.

It’s hard to overestimate how much work needed doing: it had no heating at all, asbestos in the roof, single glazing, an extension which hadn’t been approved and had to be formalised by building standards, a kitchen where there were actual human turds in the cupboards. Safe to say I called in a lot of favours over the years, and did a lot on credit.

I had another two years overseas with my work, and rented the place out. Since I wasn’t entitled to a pension in that job (long story – I keep planning a series of posts entitled ‘mistakes I made with pensions, and why it’s a massive headache’ so do come back for more) I focused on the house as my main asset and worked on paying off my family. In 2014 I came back, thinking I would stay in the UK, and realised that now my son was older I didn’t want to stay on our housing estate. So I sold the house for £270,000, repayed my family loans, and had £140,000 to use as a deposit.

Phew. I think I would have made it without the family help as banks unclenched and my income settled, but it might have taken a lot longer. And living in a city where house prices have gone up 300% in 20 years, every year counts.

Sensible countryside! Photo by Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

House 3: Bought for £352,000. Currently worth £400,000

This is my sensible house, and ironically we have only ever lived in it for six months. I bought really planning to stay in the UK, but then with work and other issues (not least pension obsession which kicked in at 35) I took another overseas job with the kids and we moved to west Africa. I rented the house out, and, given that accommodation was provided in my new job, I put a lot of extra money toward the mortgage. I took out a mortgage of £152,000 and currently owe just £50,000 – that means I have paid off £100,000 in five years. I aim to have it completely paid off by the time we leave Denmark.

So there we go. A rollercoaster ride which would not have been possible without the support of family, an early start, a high savings rate and a risk-taking approach. I wanted to just put some honesty out there about how this all happened for me – however hard I work and save (and I do work and save very hard) without that additional help, things would at the very least have taken a lot longer.

So – whats your housing story? And how can we think about collectively helping one another for those people in our situation who don’t have family support? I’d love to hear from you!

We bought a $1m house!

I wrote recently about buying a house as a single parent (TL:DR – it’s really, really hard) but this week I want to share the exciting news that we are about to move in to our new home. and for lots of reasons, it’s a home worth $1 million. [note – I usually share my figures in £ but it sounds better in dollars so I am doing it, just this once].

Side note: I was talking to a married friend about this and she said ‘but why do you keep saying WE bought a house? I mean, you’re doing it alone’. In mentally wrestling with this I can’t decide if it makes me feel annoyed since my family unit counts as a ‘we’ since it isn’t a pronoun that couples somehow own. Or perhaps she meant it in a kindly way to recognise the challenges. Either way, it’s the kind of comment which wastes my mental space so I share it with you here in the hope that I can then forget about it. In case it stays confusing, ‘we’ in our case means myself and my children. Plus I promised that we can get a cat, so the moggy counts too.

Yes WE can 😉 Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

So, we bought a house! I wrote back in November about planning to do this, a post which built on three months of decision making since our landlord told us that – like many people during COVID – had decided that they wanted to move back home. It has been a long long process since then, and it has meant putting other financial goals on the backburner. Plus actually it has been stressful and knackering, but since we had to move out anyway some of this was unavoidable.

I shared this before but if you are really interested in the nuts and bolts of buying a house in Denmark you need this fantastic and very detailed guide, but below are the steps that I took as a British expat:

1. Had a browse of the market. This was the point when I realised what kind of price band we were looking at. We wanted a house with a garden, in the suburbs, with four bedrooms and some separated space (i.e. not a single storey) so that there is room to have childcare support who can stay over, and within walking distance to the train which will take us to work and school. Unfortunately this is what pretty much everyone else is looking for especially post-COVID, driving up the speed of the market and house prices. But this was a useful step as it showed me the kind of thing that was available and the amount of mortgage I would need to make it work.

2. Looked for a mortgage. In Denmark, there aren’t really mortgage brokers which means you have to do all the legwork yourself. In the end I used a broker who specialises in working with expats since, not surprisingly, all the paperwork including the surveys are all in Danish. The first calls I made to banks showed that I was eligible for a mortgage but as an expat I would need a 20% deposit – or to find, up front, about £155,000. It is testament to how much I wanted to get out of paying our extortionate rent that I looked into remortgaging my UK home in order to find this deposit. I couldn’t make this work (for lots of reasons though I did find one broker who would do it, it came with conditions I didn’t want to accept) so I went to the Danish broker. They found me a mortgage with a 10% deposit (where the bank provides the 80% mortgage still but then also grants a 10% loan). In the end this was a saving grace since it made me stick to a lower overall budget. And let’s be frank, that was still a budget of $1m which makes me twitch just a little every time I think about it.

In case I didn’t mention it enough 😉

3. Made some hard financial decisions. The 10% requirement means that I had to find £80,000 for the deposit. I was able to do this by pulling various savings and investments. I took out almost my whole £40,000 emergency fund leaving just £3,000. I also pulled money from investments – with stocks and shares ISA there’s no fees or penalties to take money out, but I withdrew a lot and left £12,000. I really reflected for a long time on whether this was a good idea, since it took a lot to build up those pots of money, but looking at the balance of risk I think that we stand to be better off in the long run unless a black swan event turns up. And we might have had enough of those for a while….

4. Looked for a house. Oh. My. Goodness. this was the painful bit. Being a) on a tight budget (for Copenhagen) and b) quite detail oriented, I ended up looking at 40 houses. I made offers on two, both of which were rejected – one where someone else beat us to it, and one where the survey showed it needed a new roof and the owners wouldn’t accept a lower offer based on the money needed to do that. But, after spending every weekend for months looking at houses, we finally found a house that fits the bill. Hurray!

5. Did all the paperwork and processes. This is pretty easy in Denmark thankfully – the bank also has amazing processes where they organise paying over the mortgage at the right moments which also removes the possibility of getting scammed which scared me witless when buying my UK home. You have to have home insurance in place, and a kind of insurance which protects everyone in case there is something that the house survey has missed.

6. Made my peace with the compromises. So I am not quite there with this one, but it’s coming. We had to move further out than I would have wanted, and to a slightly different part of town to where we are now (and where our friends are). We are at the top end of my ‘distance from train’ condition, ditto ‘size of garden’. But I am hopeful that once we settle in and stop comparing to where we are now, I’ll forget about these things and enjoy our new home in peace.

Getting ready for this… Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

So there we go. I post on Sundays, and this time next week (all being well) we will have the new house and be sorting it out – the weekend after we will be all moved in. Wish us luck!

Hope!

Hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson said. After a few weeks of ‘coping’, this week I am back to full on hope.

Hope is the foundation of all my decision making – and the thing which keeps me tenacious and working in spite of appearances when it feels like things aren’t moving. Believing that you can change things, whether it’s your bank balance or how the world views you, means believing in the possibilities enough to carry on.

Yes indeed. Photo by Ron Smith on Unsplash

There have been so many things which make me feel blessed and hopeful recently. The summer weather and breeze, spending hours at the beach getting some energy back (and some vitamin D). The end of another school year and brilliant school reports for both my kids talking about how they are doing well but how they are kind and thoughtful: reminding me that however I feel I am doing as a parent, it’s good enough. Small things, but small things is what we have.

FIRE is all about hope to me. Hoping that I can give my kids a better future – including being there for them in person at different times in their lives, really loving them, and giving them the conditions to thrive. Hoping that I can live my values. Hoping that I can support my family by myself but doing so in a way which aligns to my values and my contribution to the world.

But hope isn’t enough by itself.

Feathers of hope: Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Showing up day after day, doing the work, making the tweaks. One thing I’ve learnt is the need to be patient with myself. Keeping the faith is half the battle – the other half is doing the next right thing, however tiny it feels.

What is making you hopeful this week? I’d love to hear from you!

Budget Check In: May

May has been AMAZING weather wise – sunny and warm, beautiful blue skies and suddenly every single plant in Copenhagen has sprung into stunning lush greenness. We’ve been swimming in the sea a few times (ok, it’s still freezing but it’s refreshing and the sand is warm and it’s totally worth it). Getting into the last months at this rented house and doing a lot of decluttering, and winding down to the end of the school year. So a busy month, and one which feels a bit more positive – change is a’coming.

Hurray for May! Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Budget wise, it’s been better than last month but still not amazing. My daughter’s birthday is in May, and whilst I bought most of her gifts in April I paid for her party this month. Last year we did a COVID-friendly budget party at home but this year I am so crazy with work and getting ready to move that I figured I would just throw money at the problem. She had a wonderful party, and I didn’t have to clean up afterward, so it was worth it!

Item Monthly BudgetSpend May% of monthly budget
Childcare costs £           1,100.00 £       872.7175
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £              125.00 £                –  0
Charity £                 66.67 £          14.8822
Eating out £              120.00 £       241.96202
Entertainment – subscription £                 50.00 £          79.37159
Entertainment £              100.00 £       156.19156
Kids – extra curricular £              250.00 £                –  0
Family £                 50.00 £          22.3745
Groceries £              400.00 £       855.33214
Holidays  £              300.00 £       489.59116
Insurance £              200.00 £                –  0
Personal care £                 30.00 £       185.30618
Shopping – general £                 25.00 £          45.58182
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays £                 58.33 £       951.721632
Shopping – clothes £                 29.17 £          72.15247
Rent and Bills £           1,500.00 £       1000 0
Transport £                 41.67 £       138.92333
Utilities £              200.00 £    1,559.59780
TOTALS £       4,645.83 £    5,886.65130

So, once again I overspent my budget BUT by much less than last month. I spent £5,886 against a budget of £4,645:

  • I realise that I have radically under-estimated gifts, parties and what not for my children’s birthdays. In my mind, I am a super frugal righteous parent, but that’s not who I am in real life. There are definitely elements of making up for the lack of family in there – they don’t get gifts from their dad or his family, and only from my mum and brother. So there’s a lot to make up for. I only get them things they will really love / use, so even though there is an element of guilt, it doesn’t feel wasteful.
  • Grocery spend continues to be way over. I need to properly focus on this, but will do so when we move to the new house and I get a bit of head-space. Currently we’re just getting by – I’ll get to it.
  • Utility bills were insane this month and will probably be terrible next month as I tie up everything we owe for this place. I had huge bills on water – where the company asked me to pay for the whole year up front even though I said I would be moving out in July, um no thanks – and also on heating. I hope the new house has cheaper bills than here, but if not, it will be worth putting some time into fixing whatever the issues are.
  • I spent again on personal care including visits to osteopath. This is something I should be able to claim back, but for now I will leave it here and balance it at the end of the quarter.
  • Finally I spent a bit more on transport due to bike issues, but I love my bike and get a huge amount of value out of it, so I will live with this.
Sea-swimming, Copenhagen style. Photo by Kevin Angelsø on Unsplash
 Monthly saving planMay% of plan
Mortgage (UK house)  £                500 £              500100
Mortgage Overpayment  £                500 £              500100
Emergency Fund  £                  100 £               100100
ISA £               1,250 £               50040
Kids savings £                   248 £               248100
SIPP £                   300 £               300100
  £   2,898.00 £ 2,348.0087

So what did I save? Again I focused on getting the last of the money together for our house move in July, so I have just been putting extra into my current account to make sure the money is there for whatever comes up. No great savings news then, but at least I carried on with the usual basics which is still savings (or paying toward capital) of £ 2,348.

So this month, a very unimpressive savings rate of 20% compared to spending 80%. July will also likely be odd due to the move but in August I am going to revise the budget and properly commit to it.

How was your May? Would love to hear from you!

House buying and the single parent

I wrote in November that I was thinking about buying a house here in Denmark. My contract is, all things being equal, at least for another 3.5 years, which means an awful lot more horribly expensive rent. Plus since my landlord is coming back and we have to move anyway, incurring both the costs of spending an awful lot of time looking for somewhere and organising and paying for movers.

So we have bought a house!

I’ve been looking since September, and it has been absolutely brutal. As with many places, already high house prices have continued to rise during COVID and family properties (as we are looking for) have increased even more as people look to move out of apartments. In Denmark, the supply is also quite low, meaning that there just aren’t enough properties to go around. I almost wish we had bought the first thing we saw in September, since that will have gone up in price by about 8% since we saw it.

The ideal Copenhagen home (clue: our new house does not look like this). Photo Credit, Architectural Digest

It is even worse in the UK where house prices are soaring. People moving out of cities, or flats; a lack of housing stock; the temporary suspension of Stamp Duty; and realising what an incredible amount of house you can buy pretty much anywhere in the country if you sell a London home means that the average house price in the UK is now £256,000 – up a whopping £100,000 since 2012.

In the UK, you can usually borrow four-and-a-half times your income meaning you need to earn £56,888 in order to qualify for a mortgage. With the average income being just over £31,400 (and that already the median, so it will be skewed by very high and very low earners) this means that the majority of people – and any single person who is not a majorly high-earner – is priced out of the UK housing market. Since one-third of single parents were living in poverty before the pandemic, and have been one of the groups hardest hit in terms of income partly due to an inability to work and manage kids at home alone, buying a house can seem a million miles away from many single parents who are already working their hardest to create a secure future for their kids.

Denmark, like many countries, has other alternative options including Andelsbolig which is co-operative housing offering both affordable rental and houses to purchase. The conditions of being part of the co-op mean that it’s not possible to take advantage of the system and the apartments (not usually houses) stay in the relevant pricing market and can benefit others in the future should someone move on.

This is Iffley Lock in Oxford, near Iffley, where I would buy a house if I magically became a millionaire. Photo by Lia Tzanidaki on Unsplash

This month, the Australian government took the incredible step of recognising this issue for their citizens and actually doing something about it. The New Home Guarantee scheme will allow single parents to buy with just a 2% deposit, with the federal authorities guaranteeing the other 18%. It is only available to 10,000 women (about 10% of Australia’s 1 million single mums) and whilst that might be a drop in the ocean it has to be celebrated as an approach which both recognises that we have assets and incomes but struggle to get over specific hoops in many financial processes.

I wonder if the UK Government would back a similar scheme? Though with the income needed to buy a house, there will still be struggles for the majority of the almost 3 million single parents in the UK. Sometimes I think the best solution is housing co-ops where we can live with multiple families and share some of the burden.

Together for all! Photo Credit: Radical Routes (and check them out if you are interested in housing co-ops)

But until we get to radical social change, creating support structures so that all families can leverage their income-generating power to build assets and have somewhere secure for their children to grow, should be an area for policy makers to think about. Generational wealth has a significant impact on society, and single parenthood – and the intuitional fabric which keeps people in poverty stuck in that cycle – prevents people from building wealth to hand on. There is a direct relationship with this and continued income inequality which has wide-ranging social implications. And, if you are living it, absolutely sucks you dry.

What’s your story been with housing? I would love to hear from you!

Finding beauty

Ah, life. From Life improvements, to one small thing, to overwhelm, to just being flat-out knackered. I am glad to be here and writing as part of my commitment to writing this blog, but I have no thoughts in my head this week. It’s (finally) a beautiful day, and I just want to lie on the grass and enjoy the big blue sky.

Sometimes, I think it’s ok to just do what you want. To focus on the pleasure and not the end result.

Maybe that’s always a better way to enjoy the journey?

We’re supposed to be getting ready to move house, and this week I just didn’t want to deal with is. So I sorted through my two bookshelves, gave away the books that didn’t ‘spark joy‘. And then colour-coded the rest.

Love it or hate it (or want to tweak it) – colour-coding works for me

It turns out that colour-coding your bookshelves is a hotly debated topic. Which suggest that we all have too much time on our hands, but anyway. Some people think that it turns books into home decor rather than the very serious life statement that they are. But they *are also* decor – I look at them, in my bedroom, every day. These are books which have travelled with me, many for a long time, and form part of my mental furniture. I know what colour they are and can find them to read. And if I can’t I have just as many minutes to find it as I would if I couldn’t remember the author.

I also spent an evening making a piece of art work, thinking about movement, connection, and flow. Did it help me save more money? Nope. Did it prepare lunches for tomorrow? Not at all. But it did help me get back into some kind of flow state where I could tap into something that wasn’t just the daily grind.

Art (sort of)

In some ways this is a much more FIRE mentality that the 18-hours-a-day laser focus that I had last week. Yes of course do the work, but stop and smell the roses. And find ways where doing the work creates some freedom for you to put down the worries and the stress and get things done without thinking, second-guessing or being anxious.

Like I have to make food, but the meal-planning and budgeting around grocery shopping means that I can either mindlessly throw something together or I can take a little bit of time to make something lovely.

It reminds me a bit of Catherine Gray‘s book ‘The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary‘ – or indeed the Disney movie Soul – both of which are about taking life one deep lungful of fresh air at a time, and enjoying them all as much as possible. Truly, each one is a gift, even if it’s full of meetings, and emails, and stressy moment. There are always tiny nuggets of joy, if you look for them.

The fierce beauty of lunch

So that’s it for this week. I would love to hear about your tiny gems of joy for this week!

Overwhelm

I feel like I’m getting down to brass tacks here. My last two posts felt like digging down: from looking to improve by 1%, to trying to do just one thing. This week I have been feeling overwhelmed, and not trying to improve anything.

I want to recognise here that I am writing as a single parent, and for many of us overwhelm is just moments away at any given time. It’s also a terrifying prospect – if I fall apart, who will step in? For some people, a nearby and responsible co-parent might be on hand, or grandparents and that is wonderful. But for many, there isn’t anyone. As an expat with long working hours I have always relied on paid help which is both a solution and a cause of guilt and, frankly, expense, administration and extra work on my part.

There are no photos of my family like this, since if someone was standing behind us taking pictures it would be a matter for the police. Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

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. 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 recently about fatherhood 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), though we are also 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. 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. I would be furious, if I wasn’t so tired.

And all the rest…. Credit Erica Djossa, https://www.instagram.com/happyasamother/

Following my last two posts, 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, 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. Am. Knackered.

So this week I just want to get off my chest what last week, a pretty average week (since the kids are back in school but I am still not travelling yet), looks like.

Up at 5am every day. Drink coffee, shower. Put on some cream which is supposed to stop my now 40-year-old face looking like a pterodactyl. One hour’s work before getting the kids up. Make breakfasts (remembering who doesn’t like what, this week, or today) include fruit and vitamins. Drink more coffee. Answer work WhatsApp messages whilst listening to kids. Have the news on the radio – answer questions from my eldest about Gaza. Clear up breakfast stuff, get everyone to brush teeth and hair, check bags and out the door. Cycle with kids to school then either cycle home or to the office to start work by 8.30 – cycled 24 miles in total last week.

Work. Just so much of it. Last week I had 43 meetings, many of them back-to-back (to the point where I have to turn off video and sneak out to pee). Meetings with offices in Bangladesh at 6am my time, or with Colombia at 10pm my time. Meetings which I have to prepare for, do slide decks for, present at wearing a proper jacket and with brushed hair. Meetings which I get invited to 30 minutes before hand. Then reviewing documents, checking budgets, writing things for other people to present in other meetings. Sometimes getting overwhelmed by the heartbreak of working in the humanitarian field, where the work we do is to prevent human tragedy, but the human tragedies continue on a horrifying scale.

Do all the other things which are about staying ‘professionally relevant’ and making up for the time I spent off work at home with the kids. This week it was co-chairing a conference, so review 64 papers (to be fair, I did this over two weeks but outside of office hours). Have calls with peers, including people who want advice, and people I want to advise me. Fiddle about on LinkedIn to feel engaged.

Every day is a fresh start, and a 17-hour marathon. Photo by Alysha Rosly on Unsplash

Organise kids’ after school stuff, though I don’t usually pick them up (which they hate – please mummy please pick us up from school all the other mums are there). One playdate at our house, one at another. Make sure bags are ready for football training, call another mum about sharing pickup after one session. Swimming club, ballet, blah. Encourage children to carry on when they want to give up, listen to enthusiastic replays when they are excited. Give pep talks when they are not picked for something, like my daughter this week after not getting a part in a ballet after auditioning. Organise birthday party – emails emails to a trampoline place, checking prices, feeling guilty about throwing money at the problem rather than having them all do something wholesome and free at my house where I pick playdoh out of the carpet for weeks afterwards. Invite others, navigate times, dietary requirements, passive-aggressive responses. Order balloons for the birthday itself, wrap presents (thanking Previous Self who bought them).

Make six dinners (four people since I do all the cooking and we have a nanny who eats with us) = so 24 dinners. One take away as it’s a birthday. Make packed lunches for the three of us for all five days = 15 lunches. Meal plan and shop based on this, calorie count everything for myself for six days (not Saturday, that’s free). Continually stay aware of what we have in the cupboards and fridge, who might want something different, what we ate last week so that I don’t get complaints of sameness. Two supermarket visits, the main Sunday one then another one for bread/milk/eggs/fruit on Thursday. Discuss and think endlessly about how to eat better food which has less impact on the planet; how to get my daughter to eat more fruit and veg; and how much I resent always being responsible for cooking.

Got to the gym twice (for a special physiotherapist work out where I get chased around by a shouting man who makes me do squats outside where People Can See). One massage – first for 18 months, definitely the highlight. One coaching session. Read two books – finished one from last week and finally read City of Girls. Plan, research and write this blog. Hoover (not weekly, let’s be clear) the car and filed it with petrol; applied for a new driving license; paid a bill for my house in the UK; argued a utility bill for the house in Denmark which insists I pay upfront for a full year even though we are moving in July. Called my mum four times, and other friends and family – including a friend who I WhatsApp with on a daily basis – as much as possible, usually whilst doing some of the other things. Weekly budget check in – review all back accounts including savings, check spend, work out what to move around if I have gone over.

Make sure kids are bathed, teeth brushed, ready for the next day and in bed. Read to them, referee usual argument (not sure what it is about 19.30 which turns my kids into savages but there you go). Tuck them in, sing songs, calm and soothe twice when one of them came downstairs upset about something (once, a kid at school who was mean; second time, climate change and when we are all going to die). Look at their beautiful sleeping faces and ache with love. Go to bed and prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

Today’s One Thing: micro-improvements

After my blog post last week on improving by 1%, I spent the week thinking about fear and procrastination. Sometimes, even 1% can feel massive. I am personally guilty of thinking ‘oh I won’t bother with the 1% thing, it’s too small – instead next week I will do the 10% thing’. So – I won’t bother cycling today, I’ll do a proper workout tomorrow. I won’t bother counting my calories today, I’ll fast tomorrow.

In the words of the pantomime audience – oh no you won’t!

Especially if you are feeling overwhelmed, trying to make big changes feels, well, overwhelming. I can also be suspicious of the 1% idea, since it suggests that more will always need to be done. And like my small, vegetable-refusing daughter, I know damn well that it isn’t going to end with one green bean on the plate.

So today I wanted to list out some single actions which you can take. Just do one thing – then celebrate. Since FIRE for me is about living more intentionally, these aren’t just about finance but also about wellbeing.

I think of these as minimum viable actions: there is enough of a reason to do them, but not enough hassle or energy / resources required to refuse. Don’t worry about the next one, or the scale up version. Maybe it will lead to a rich new habit, or maybe you will have just done one thing. Either way, I call that a win.

Do one thing! Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

Health

  1. Breathe. Yeah yeah, if you didn’t do this one thing you wouldn’t be doing much of anything else. But actually breathing is the core to so many wellbeing approaches, including mindfulness and meditation. I always intend to do more of both but never quite find the time. Instead, just take one minute to focus on your breath. Spend that minute counting your breaths, with your hands on your abdomen, and noticing the breath coming in and out. There is a specific one-minute breathing approach in some yogic traditions and lots more to read on this one. But for me, it’s a reboot which I do after I’ve had a stressful meeting, or between work and dealing with the kids, or before driving.
  2. Have a glass of water. Drinking water has so many benefits. It can improve your mood, energy levels and clarity of thinking. Lots of times people think they are hungry they are actually thirsty, so it can also help you eat mindfully as and when you need to. Being dehydrated can make you feel sluggish, and lead to headaches, difficulty sleeping, and dry skin. Sometimes the messaging – drink 8 glasses a day! Or more! – can feel overwhelming. So just go and drink one, maybe even right now. Job done!
  3. Say no to something you don’t really want anyway. I am a sucker for grand statements. ‘I will never eat any more sweet treats in the office’. ‘I will never eat bread again’. Hm. I think we know how this one ends. Plus I use these mythical aspirations as an excuse to not ‘just do one thing’ – in this case, saying no. Try it: on cookies in the office; bread brought to the table in a restaurant; your mother’s insistence on another helping; the third beer. It doesn’t have to be the start of a regime (though it might be…) but breaking the habit of just saying yes is part of more intentionally choosing your desired response to every single decision you make.
Do one thing! Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Finance

  1. Notice if you are thinking toxic money thoughts. This might sound a bit ‘woo’ but it is genuinely hard to make changes if you are always undermining yourself. Talking all over yourself in a Sarcastic Bystander Voice whilst trying to plan or make good decisions will always mean that you lose. So for your one thing, just call it out once. If you hear the internal monologue crank up with the ‘I’ll always be broke’ – ‘it’s so much easier for them’ – ‘as a single parent, I have not hope getting out of this mess’ – turn that record off. It is exhausting battling yourself on this and you are much less likely to succeed. I love Jen Sincero’s book You Are a Badass at Making Money which goes into a lot more thinking on how to get past negative money stories, but today – all you have to do is try and turn down the volume on one thought.
  2. Check your bank accounts. All of them. Make sure you are not locked out of online banking, that you can access them all. You might set it up on your phone. Either way, checking your account means you are sure what you have (or not); what has been coming and going in terms of spend. You might notice a transaction you don’t recognise, or a direct debit you could cancel. Or you might have some extra in there that you can find a purpose for. Either way, knowing what is going on inside your bank account means that you are more able to control it. If the idea makes you feel anxious, know you are not alone – but consider whether the anxiety is really about what’s in your account, or what it means in terms of steps you might have to take.
  3. Look into your work place pension. Ok, this might feel like a sneaky way of introducing One Massive Thing, but at this point all you are doing is research. If you are employed, even part time, a work place pension is likely to be the easiest and potentially one of the best things you can do in terms of planning for retirement. In the UK as in most countries, there is also tax relief which makes it a great way to build up money – and if your employer has a match, you also get free money as a benefit of working for them. Since it comes out of your wages before they hit your bank account, it’s a simple thing to ‘set and forget’.
Do one thing! Even listening to music is a good change.

Wellbeing

  1. Replace one news bulletin with music. I am a sucker for radio – I love to know what’s going on in the world, and to keep up to date. But the constant bombardment of news these days, including how accessible and immediate it is, can feel overwhelming. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence that suggests humans have negativity-bias meaning that we internalise bad news and mentally engage with it in a way that we don’t with good news. So, why not try replacing one session of news with something else? For me, I also don’t make enough time for music which I love and really lifts my mood, so in a double-whammy I replace one bulletin with great tunes. It doesn’t stop there being bad things in the world, but neither does listening to the news on repeat.
  2. Replace one TV show with something more creative. You might not watch TV but if you do, try skipping one show to do something else. The 30 minutes or one hour could be just what you need. And it doesn’t need to be something huge – do a jigsaw puzzle (I’m not 80 years old, it’s a pandemic truth); read a book that you have had for ages but not started; make a delicious lunch for tomorrow; draw or paint something; find your knitting wool, crochet hooks or what not and put them somewhere you can reach them when the TV goes back on. TV isn’t bad, but there are other things you could do too, just once.
  3. Get some nature. Nature Deficit Disorder is really a thing, though a lot of the research focuses on children. Basically any interaction with the outdoors, is a good thing. From stopping work to spend a few minutes looking out of the window at whatever natural phenomenon you can see, to going for a full-on hike, every minute counts. Humans are programmed to engage with and respond to the environment in which we live, but modern life can make us feel disconnected. For your one thing it depends on where and how you live – but see if you can take a 20 minute walk; grow some herbs on your windowsill; or even just open the window. I changed my screensaver to a forest picture, and whilst it seems like a cop-out, just looking at it makes me feel better.

So – small things, and one-offs. Don’t forget to celebrate when you do something, however small it is – you got this.