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.

1% Better: micro-improvements

A lot of FIRE approaches are about life changing decisions and sometimes they can just seem HUGE. Getting rid of debt, saving millions of pounds, and establishing major shifts in lifestyle can all seem like mountains which are just too big to climb.

This week I’ve been thinking about the small changes and how they really do add up to change, even though it can feel like daily habits which don’t add up to much. When I feel like that, I go back to the great book Atomic Habits which firstly sets out easier ways to get to something to be a habit, and not something you have to talk yourself into doing. It is also a great reminder that all the little steps do add up to the big achievements – and they really are the journey.

This week I also listened to a great Choose FI podcast episode this week with James Clear who wrote Atomic Habits, focusing on the idea that improving by 1% per day makes you 37 times better over the course of a year. So I was inspired to share some of the things I have (or intend to…) worked on to try and make my life 1% better, over and over again.

Here are ten tips of small things you can do, this week, to get that 1%.

Better days without the headaches. Photo by Hoang Le on Unsplash

Make one health change

I have struggled with my weight since I was a teenager, and it’s something I find both time-consuming and crushingly boring to think about all the time. The 1% approach has been really helpful for me in finding little things I can do rather than ‘going on a diet’. To be totally honest, COVID has shafted my diet in a lot of ways (the kitchen is just so CLOSE BY that I can’t ignore it) so I am back on calorie counting, but it’s temporary to get back in the zone. This week I only lost 1lb which feels like small recompense for all the meal-organising and biscuit-refusing that went on, but of course the only way to lose weight is a little at a time.

But the following are permanent changes which make a difference:

  1. Make four touch points to drink large glasses of water: first thing in the morning as I am turning the coffee on: once in the afternoon when I sit back down to work after lunch (or after lunchtime meetings): once when I get home: and just after I put the kids to bed. These are all ‘moments’ which happen every day, and it means that I manage to drink about 3 liters of water, which is the recommended amount for women. I end up drinking more either during the day or in herbal tea or whatever, but it means I get hydrated without thinking about it.
  2. Don’t eat after dinner. Ok, since it’s just me and the kids we eat quite early and we’re normally done by 18.30 – I know for lots of people with longer commutes, or different shifts this might not work. But I eat dinner and then nothing else. When I take the kids up to bed, I brush my teeth as well which also puts me off eating more. This single change has made a huge difference, as all the late night picking, chocolate in front of the telly or just miscellaneous grazing is then off the menu (see what I did there?!). It also means that I accidentally do 12:12 intermittent fasting since I don’t eat between 1900 and 0700, a full twelve hours. By itself it’s not enough to lose weight – the same link suggests that 12 hour fasting is the minimum we should do to give our bodies a break from digestion and boost metabolism – but it short-circuited the late evening mindless eating for me.
  3. Have vegetables with every meal. Maybe you good people do this anyway, but if I was left to my own devices I would live off coffee and Cheetos. I got in the habit of having salad with lunch and dinner, making a pot of coleslaw (no dressing but prepared salad basically) twice a week and just having a serving with each meal. Apparently it’s even better to have a salad before you eat, since you are less likely to leave it on your plate, and the fibre will make you feel fuller and consequently eat less. Sometimes for us it’s a few spoons of green beans out of the freezer. Either way, it has massively increased my vegetable intake.
  4. Reduce your caffeine intake. Having already mentioned coffee twice I should say that last year I switched to only drinking half-caffeine coffee. I used to be able to neck as much coffee as I wanted at any time of day but as I get older (ahem) I have been noticing that it affects me more. Rather than change my habit, I changed my coffee. Easy!
  5. There are some things I find harder. Exercise for me (again, maybe you wonderful healthy people don’t struggle with this) but I have never found anything that has turned into an easy habit. I wrote before about cycling home from work which I do at least twice a week, but I talk to myself about whether I am going to cycle or take the train every. single. time. Still I make myself do it and appreciate the benefits, but it’s through intention rather than a new habit. However, every week that I cycle I get 1% better and fitter, making me more and more likely to keep going. So find something you can stomach, and just do it once a week.
Climbing a mountain one step at a time (in Kenya of course). Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Make one financial change

I feel like a lot of this blog is about the small tweaks which help on the journey toward financial independence, but in terms of real 1% actions, things which have helped me are:

  1. Automate something. There are a million tricks around automation in your finances, with the basic premise being that you are likely to get in your own way at some point. I set up a monthly direct debit to both my ISA (savings) and SIPP (pension) but then also automated the investing against a pre-determined portfolio. So now I don’t need to do anything and it still happens. The approach of ‘set it and forget it’ really does work since it basically takes me and all my worries and twitches out of the investing. And it meant that I continued to invest even when the market was tanking and I panicked: that continued investing meant that things evened out, in the end.
  2. De-automate something. The flip side of taking yourself out of the equation is places where you really do need to get involved. One example is de-automating your insurances so that you get a chance to find the best deals every year. You need to keep an eye on this – though your insurance company is likely to send you a reminder anyway – so that you don’t find yourself without insurance. But you can save around £300 a year by negotiating your insurance, and even more than that if you go through a cashback site. Which take me neatly to:
  3. Set up accounts on cashback sites. Spending money is still spending money, but the biggest returns I’ve had from cash back sites have been on things like insurance or home broadband which I was going to pay for anyway. These sites don’t exist in Denmark, and I always feel like I am missing something. In the UK I use TopCashBack but there is a great article on the different sites and things to think about when using this approach.
  4. Find a way to save that don’t involve, without thinking about it. There are a bunch of ways to do this, a lot of them attached to your debit card. I have a Monzo card and I set up the ‘coin jar’ feature, which rounds up the payment to the nearest £1 and puts it into a savings account. I don’t notice it going out, and it nets about £25 a month in savings – currently, since I never think about it, I have £600 in savings this way, which I plan to use for spends when we go on holiday. It feels like free money, which is the best kind. But there are lots of other apps and approaches available for painless saving. I heard a lot about Plum, though I’ve never used it – but it links to your banks, works out how much you can save, and uses AI to set it up and encourage you to do more.
  5. Sort out your paperwork. Ok, so not everyone has physical paperwork any more, but we all have documents and for most people, there is something they could do to make it better. This is a great area for 1% improvements because it’s so easy to start wherever you are. If you are early on in your journey you might need to just open the bills piling up on the table. Or you might usefully ring up to reduce your credit card limit; go through one month of bank statements and look for any direct debits you might not have remembered; or update your budget spreadsheets. My big job, which I am doing in little 1% chunks, is putting together a Legacy Folder for if the worst happens to me – but more on what that entails in a future post. For now, just pick a small job you’ve been putting off, and get to it.
Finding wholeness in the pieces. Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

So there’s ten things, either on health or finances. There are loads more ideas on just making life that little bit better – if you want more inspiration, try the new Podcast Just One Thing, which has 15 minute episodes about small changes which can make a big difference.

And let me know what changes you will make this month – I’d love to hear from you!

Budget Check In: April

Ah April! Season of – well, we’re in Denmark, so season of sunshine plus snow showers plus beautiful blossoms whilst still having to wear a scarf and gloves. Personally it has been a mixed month as well. My step dad had an accident and fell down the stairs, and whilst he’s fine apart from a beard full of stitches, it has opened up the conversations about how we are going to collectively support my parents as they move into their next phase of life. On the other hand, easing of some lockdown restrictions and a change in weather means I feel a little bit less like a rat in a cage. So overall, onwards and upwards.

The start of a new financial year – summer is on the way (sort of)! Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Budget wise, it’s been a mixed month. My daughter’s birthday is in May, and with the reopening of things – or at least the expectation of reopening – my thoughts have turned to booking in plans for the summer. So whilst I didn’t really overspend for April itself, I have spent a lot of money on May-July. We did have one day where the malls reopened, and we went shopping which is unusual. I felt so giddy: look at all the shops! Look at all the lovely things! What if we have to get stuck at home AGAIN and we haven’t bought knitting needles!? So we managed to spend about £60 with no plan. And then we went back to avoiding malls.

Item Monthly BudgetSpend April% of monthly budget
Childcare costs £           1,100.00 £       572.7152
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £              125.00 
Charity £                 66.67 £          14.8822
Eating out £              120.00 £       167.57140
Entertainment – subscription £                 50.00 £          84.97170
Entertainment £              100.00 £          17.7318
Kids – extra curricular £              250.00
Family £                 50.00 £       183.85368
Groceries £              400.00 £       736.91184
Holidays  £              300.00 £    2,154.87718
Insurance £              200.00 £       127.0064
Personal care £                 30.00 £       231.84773
Shopping – general £                 25.00 £          60.12240
Shopping – gifts / birthdays £                 58.33 £       301.31517
Shopping – clothes £                 29.17 £          30.73105
Rent and Bills £           1,500.00 £    1,500.00100
Transport £                 41.67 £          87.80211
Utilities £              200.00 £       193.2297
TOTALS £        4,645.83 £    6,473.92 

So, once again I overspent my budget, spending £6,473 against a budget of £4,645:

  • The majority of the addition was holiday costs where I spent £2,154, making the non-holiday total £4,319 which I don’t feel too bad about. That is a LOT less than I spent last year because I wasn’t bounced into booking whatever holiday clubs were left. It covers six weeks of holiday clubs (three per child) doing a mix of swimming, football, trampoline camp and a STEM camp for my daughter which looks awesome. It also covers flights to the UK and a week’s Air BnB for me to go and spend some quality time with my friends which, let’s be honest after 14 months at home, I am desperate for. So I am pretty pleased. I will need to hire a car, and spend some other bits but that should be the bulk of the holiday spend. All in all though I definitely under budget for holidays and I will need to make a plan since I have spent the entire annual holiday budget.
  • I spent again on personal care including visits to the dentist for all of us. 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. For now I have lovely clean teeth and a sticker which says ‘I was brave at the dentist’.
  • I spent about £300 on gifts which is mostly for my daughter’s birthday, but included a few things for friends and family who are far away and having a hard time. I try to concentrate on being lovingly in touch with people by phone and message, but sometimes a little something in the post can make a big difference, so I am ok with spending money here.
Getting that giddy spring feeling. Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash
 Monthly saving planApril% 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 saved the removal costs and some extra for getting things painted etc. So there is nothing amazing in terms of savings this month but 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%. In theory though I should be able to to save more over the coming months since those big holiday costs are paid out, so I will make a plan to do so. And head back toward more conscious spending once the thrilling spring feelings start to wear off.

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

More Copenhagen spring beauty. Come on, you feel it too!

FIRE and Race

There are times where the world feels like it’s on fire. My heart has been so broken over the last year – George Floyd, the reaction to Black Lives Matter in the UK, the whitewashing report that “found” there is no racism in the UK. So much falling apart. This isn’t a political blog by any means, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that personal finance is apolitical. And it won’t matter how much money I save if society is unlivable for my children, and other people’s.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how race relates to FIRE. I am white, British woman, and have written before about coming to FIRE from a place of so many privileges. I am well aware that doesn’t give me a credible platform to discuss issues of race, so I come to this post from the position of someone living in a society which is visibly unfair, and reflecting on what that means. Where possible, this post links to the voices of people of colour to better hear what people have to say.

The thinking behind FIRE is that it’s accessible for everyone which is true, but it’s important to recognise that people have different starting points and different obstacles. In spite of what the British government report might say, as Amanda Parker writes in the FT, institutional racism is real. This doesn’t mean that people of colour can’t or won’t succeed of course – but it does mean that the hurdles in their pathway start at birth and impact on life and financial opportunities which impact across a life time, and across generations. Parker unpacks the report, noting that it “…cite[s] people from ethnically diverse backgrounds who “make it” as evidence that they didn’t face disproportionate disadvantage on their way to success… The report also cites educational outcomes — at GCSE level — as evidence that the UK is no longer racist. But it then ignores the disparity in earnings among ethnically diverse people [and] ignores the TUC report (based on the government’s own data) showing that ethnically diverse people have been disproportionately affected by redundancies during the pandemic.”

Imagine if we spent as many resources fighting racism as we did COVID: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In the USA, there is more of a recognition (though not much in the way of attempts to institutionally remove it) of the Black Tax. As Lynnette Khalfani-Cox writes, “the median Black household has a net worth of just $24,100, a fraction of the $188,200 in net worth the median white household has, 2019 Federal Reserve data shows. And these numbers don’t always show the nuance of financial instability for many Black families. A quarter of Black households have zero or negative net worth, compared with a tenth of white families, according to the Economic Policy Institute.” So the results are stark, but they come from generational, structural causes: a myriad of ways in which people of colour are less likely to receive a good education, less likely to be supported with career development or receive stable contracts, less likely to inherit money but much more likely to need to provide a financial safety net for family members, and less likely to be offered loans or mortgages. For more on the Black Tax, check out this episode of the Journey to Launch podcast, and the work of Shawn D. Rochester who is featured.

Disparity in household income and net worth is just as stark in the UK. 2020 figures found that white household income is 63% higher than Black households. Whilst approaches to tax and the benefits system makes a difference to take-home pay, especially for lower income households, even once those are taken into account Black households still have 18% less in terms of ‘final income’. The impact of that is obvious: I save what I don’t need to spend. Being in a position where your income is more likely to only cover basic needs will clearly make it harder to save. Black and Bangladeshi households in the UK have 10p in assets or savings, to every £1 of white-owned assets. For more on how things look for women of colour in particular in the UK, and sage advice on personal finance, check out Selina Flavius’ Black Girl Finance.

Photo by Ron Smith on Unsplash

So – this maybe doesn’t feel like a post full of hope. But part of any solution has to be the ability to honestly look at challenging issues, and talk about them. Then maybe together, we can start to make changes.

Happy new (tax) year!

In the UK, for various nefarious reasons, the tax year starts on 6th April. I love spring anyway with its sense of fresh starts, but the new tax year always feels like a great moment to take stock of where I am financially. So here’s some of the things you might want to think about whilst enjoying the start of the nice weather.

New year fun times, the financial way. Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
  1. Check out your pension: The tax-free amount that you can pay into a personal pension stays at £40,000 for the 2021/22 tax year in the UK. The lifetime allowance for pension savings remains at £1,073,100 (not a problem for me right now, but good to know!). I’ve written before about working out how much you need in retirement but it’s good to keep an regular eye on where you are at.
    • Make the most of your work pension: if you have a workplace pension, check how much you are paying in and what the employer match is. Since your contribution comes out pre-tax, and hopefully you get a top up, this can often be the best option for pension planning. I pay 10% of my salary to my work place pension, and it’s a significant chunk of my monthly savings.
    • Check out personal pension options: If you don’t have a workplace pension you might have done this already. The most tax efficient way to do this in the UK might be a Self Invested Personal Pensions (SIPP). I have a SIPP with Fidelity, invested in low-cost index funds. At the start of the tax year, I check the investments and if needed rebalance the percentages across the various different funds.
    • Check your state pension projection: If you’re in the UK, check your national insurance contributions and what it means for your state pension. You shouldn’t need to do this every tax year but just putting it out there as a reminder!
Happy financial spring cleaning 🙂

2. Check out your investments. Depending on where you are in your financial journey this could be lots of things, from opening up your piggy bank (thought note, this is not investing!) to reviewing your enormous portfolio. The ISA is a brilliant tax wrapper for UK residents, and comes in lots of different types: cash, stocks and shares, junior. The tax allowance for 2021-2 is £20,000 per person, and you have the tax year to use it since it can’t be rolled over. For me, I have all my investments in a stocks and shares ISA – there are places you can compare the S&S ISA options. At the start of the new tax year I check my investments, and rebalance them if needed. I also check my monthly ISA contribution to try and make the most of the personal allowance – to use up the personal allowance would take £1,666 per month.

3. Set up your financial plan for the year. You might have done this in January, which is when I do my goal setting and overall planning, but because of tax returns, I keep my spreadsheets from April-March, and have a lovely time at the start of April setting them up for the new year.

4. Get ready for your tax return. Ok, you don’t need to start work on it right now but it’s good to get things (receipts, invoices etc) together ready for the fabulous time to come.

So – what are your rituals for the new tax year? Would love to hear from you!