Frugal challenge: the grocery budget

Ah food. Pancakes with sugar and lemon on a Sunday morning. The smell of roasting chicken with garlic and thyme. An apple so crisp it’s like cracking ice. Watching a movie with your arm sunk up to the elbow in a bag of Cheetos. Heaven.

Also known as The Giant Budget Sink Hole.

Food matters to me. It makes me think of family, taking care of my children, and warm hygge home making times. I always cooked with my granny and my mum, and as kids we had to be able to prepare one meal a week for the whole family by the time we were 9 years old. This is something I do with my own kids: it makes no sense to raise children who can’t feed themselves! Plus then I get a night off.

With my ethical hat on I also care about where food comes from and that that does to the planet, as well as to our health as a family. The debates during Brexit about food standards have been divisive (Brexit topic shocker!) but also showed me how little I had appreciated the standards in place for animal welfare and ethical consumerism. The desire for cheap food, without caring where it comes from and any longer term impacts, opens up some terrifying options for dystopian future, and I say that in a time which sometimes feels more like dystopian right-now than anything else. In Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, she introduces ChickieNobs: the delicious, easy pieces of chicken we love to eat so much grown in a lab without the need for actual animals. That novel was written eight years ago – last year, start ups were raising hundreds of millions of dollars to do exactly that through the growth of ‘cultured meats‘.

In spite of all that, I would be pretty happy to arrive at *this* party. Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

All this to say, when it comes to food, as with all aspects of FIRE, it really matters that it’s about value and not just price. This year, I want to commit to making more conscious decisions about food. I was raised a vegetarian from birth, and stayed that way until I was 26. So a lot of our meat consumption is about ease, and about having one fussy child who is vehemently anti-vegetable. And laziness on my part. But I’m increasingly aware of the need to do better in this area, and how the small choices I make contribute to my own FIRE journey and to my footprint on the planet.

But I also think of myself as someone who is frugal with food, and that just ain’t so. In 2020 I spent £6,160 on groceries plus £2,100 on eating out. I am so, so fierce about not eating out that I am frankly astonished at that last figure: I go for dinner with friends maybe once or twice per year, and whilst we do have a take out pizza once a month the bill is usually £30 a time, so the rest is a mystery. This year I budgeted £4,800 for groceries, so savings are going to have to be made. It took me a while to get to a realistic grocery budget, but it will take a while for it to stick. I love Mrs Smart Money’s guide to setting a grocery budget, and if you are looking for inspiration, do read about her no spend year and how she slashed her spending on food without losing out on quality.

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

Ideally following the shopping list rather than just staring in surprise at the receipt. Photo credit

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

  1. Meal plan. This is the most important thing, because the shopping and preparation all stems from here. Who is eating at home and when (in 2020 and, seemingly, 2021 this is a trick question since the answer is ‘all of you’ and ‘all the time’). What are the things you like to eat? How are you going to get your five-a-day? From then, the questions are around how you can stretch out both the food and the preparation – things like roasting a chicken then using the cold leftover meat the next day or two; or cooking a basic batch tomato sauce which can then be turned into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, or the base for a chilli. I have been meal planning for a while, but I am still terrible for thinking ‘ooh I don’t feel like that any more, let’s have something else’. Practice makes perfect.
  2. Stock-take and write a shopping list: When you have meal planned, break it down into the ingredients you need for the week. Then check your cupboards/fridge/freezer and check you have what you need. Are there things you’ve not included but need to check, like coffee? I have a page up on the pinboard in the kitchen where I write staples like this, or flour, oil and so on Write them all down in a list which is easy to use, organised by the shops if you’ll visit more than one, then by aisle if you can remember such things.
  3. Batch cook, or batch prepare: Batch cooking is now so well known that there are whole books about it but it’s basically making things in big enough quantities to freeze additional portions and basically create your own ready meals. It’s just as much hassle and time to prepare five portions of something as it is one, and it usually works out much cheaper. Every week I make a basic roasted aubergine and tomato sauce every weekend (don’t tell my daughter it has aubergine in, fur would fly) and use this as a tomato sauce base. My top tip on batch cooking is to label everything properly, otherwise Freezer Surprise will be a regular on the menu: and freeze it in portion sizes so you don’t have to defrost and potentially waste a whole load of goodness.
  4. Batch prepare: In an effort to increase my vegetable intake, I make a dry coleslaw mix (basically just the vegetables) using the food processor, every week. This week I grated up carrot, beetroot, celeriac and spring cabbage and have used it in a standard salad, in a salmon poke bowl, and with mayo as an accompaniment to a sandwich. I also do things like prepare roasted chicken for use in lunches.
  5. Enjoy yourself. Yes we’re budgeting (and trying to save the world) but food should also be a pleasure. Make things you like to eat. Find a time when the planning and shopping works, involve the kids in talking about meals they look forward to, and involve them in prep. My son and I make a cake every week as our treat for the week, usually one for home and one with the same mixture made into cake bars for school. Then I batch cook/prep in a two-hour window at the weekend when the kids are playing or with friends, and I listen to an audio book. It genuinely feels like a pleasant time, much more so than trying to slam a meal together at 17.30 on a work night. Some people prefer an evening’s cooking with a glass of wine – it’s all about what works for you.
This week’s cake (and a reminder to remove the Christmas table cloth): Victoria Sponge.

So – how do you keep your grocery budget down? I’d love to hear your tips!

Keeping the wheels on

So after all manner of craziness in 2020, this year seems to have started off the same. From high hopes during the lockdown over the Christmas holidays, we have continued in, um, lockdown. Last week it was announced that the school closures and strict measures here in Denmark will last basically until February half term. Since I am not a politician I am happy to do what I’m told but … jeez, I wish we didn’t have to.

So far we have done two weeks of homeschool/work from home. As a single parent it really isn’t easy, but I have a job that I can move around more or less so I can start early and finish late, and – by far the most important thing at the moment – a boss who understands my needs and helps facilitate some flexibility. It’s still tricky: whilst bookending extra hours when the kids are in bed works for the family, it’s tough for me; and whilst I give as much attention to the children as I can, it still isn’t enough. And we are so priveliged with a garden, enough money to buy and store food, and a house full of books/craft supplies/gin – my heart goes out to other single mums doing this without those things.

The cosy fire I wish we were hanging out in front of, instead of in front of our screens all day. Photo by Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

I wanted to briefly reflect in this post about how to keep the wheels on – how to keep things on track when things are tough. It’s a phrase I used a lot last year, and sometime it’s all I can managed. However, as long as those wheels are on and and turning, there are small opportunities to thrive.

Some simple tips – some of which are easier than others:

Be kind to yourself: so obvious but so important. You are doing your best in really hard times. Talk to yourself as you would a cherished friend – you got this.

Nourish yourself. The more time I spend at home, the more slovenly I become. Whilst this lockdown might not be the barbecue and soda bread glory of the first one, making sure that I eat well (with vegetables / fruit / grains / enough water / blahdy adult things), don’t have too much alcohol or caffeine (or, let’s be honest about individual vices, Cheetos) and generally treat my body like it matters, really helps. Plus I love time in the kitchen, and sticking to having all meal times around the table eating together with no screens means that there is something of a routine and care.

Work out what self care means to you – then practice it. I have a whole post written in my head about how self care for women ≠ bubble baths, but for now I just want to say – it’s ok to work out what it means for you. Do you need time to read in silence? To have fresh air? To recognise what issues are nagging in your mind, and resolve them? I do believe that personal finance is a true area of self care: the most basic meaning of taking care of yourself is making sure you are ok, and finance is surely part of that. I have a list of nagging items – decalcify the taps (thanks to Denmark’s hard water, all our taps are only ever days away from total lime-scale-seizure), sort out a drawer full of random things, fix my son’s bike – and I try and do one a week. The list never gets any shorter, but my sense that I am managing stays strong.

A semi-ironic bubble bath. Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash

Do something offline. Not everyone might need this, but I just cannot spend all my time with a screen. Whilst we usually have an hour of TV in the evening after dinner, I try not to watch TV or go back on my computer unless I am working. Instead I am reading all the books that I insist I cannot get rid of, and also doing glamorous pursuits like jigsaws, and knitting – though I am totally crap at knitting, and just basically fiddle around with wool and sigh whilst listening to podcasts. My kids also desperately need this as they are not used to being on the computer as much as homeschool demands, and so we are also doing other things in the evening – playing board games, and doing a Su Doku or crossword together which I print off during the day, or my son has been teaching me chess and then beating me witless.

Go outside. Probably the most overused advice, but it makes such a difference. Even with the lockdown (and the weather) it’s possible to get out. Fresh air, daylight (if we’re lucky) and just Not Being In The House somehow restocks all my reserves of patience. Even Harvard research says it’s right.

Stay connected. As an expat I have always known that I don’t live surrounded by friends and family. The upside is that we make new communities every time we move. Having moved just before the pandemic hit though, we hadn’t quite got settled here before we had to lock down, and I don’t mind admitting that I have felt incredibly isolated over the last year. Some online communities, including FIRE, definitely help – others, such as Twitter, send me further into a dystopian panic. Knowing how you like to connect to others, and making the effort to do so even if you really don’t feel like it, can make such a difference. Kind of like going outdoors, but outdoors from your own mind.

Don’t lose sight of your goals. Sometimes recently my goals feel laughably pointless, in the face of so much uncertainty. But then I realised that the uncertainty makes having goals even more important, giving a sense of control when everything else has gone off piste. Having in mind a positive future makes me calmer about what’s going on now, and also more positive. I am also aware from previous sod-it episodes that it’s the small steps that really drive progress toward goals, and keeping myself accountable for achieving those small wins keeps me on track. Or at least it will do once I have finished off all the Christmas chocolates!

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

So – what is keeping you going right now? What are your ideas for thriving in spite of the challenges? Look forward to hearing from you!

Happy New Year #2. Budgets

In preparing for 2021 I spent some more time on my budgets. I’ve written about where I underestimated my 2020 budget before, and I have added in those changes – both the unknowns (utility bills) and the real underestimation (groceries). I also spent some time thinking about what matters to us as a family and where else we could make compromises.

This led me to some interesting conclusions. One of the things I love about the FIRE movement is that you tailor it exactly to you: your own wants and needs; what you find important now and in the future; and the options you see for your coming years. For me personally, I am always juggling compromises. If I want to work, I need to have childcare and the most likely thing is that I am going to pay for it. If I want to work in my chosen field then I have to travel, and have childcare which is available overnight and for days at a time. And so on and so forth. Setting budgets though helps me to think about those compromises and priorities, and how to get a balance that works for myself and my kids. I find it really empowering because it’s taking an intentional approach to money, and matching my actions to my aspirations.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So for 2021 these are the things I am not prepared to compropmise on:

  • Childcare. We have a nanny who has been with us since my youngest was 3. With the pandemic and lockdown, I haven’t been travelling and haven’t needed overnight care etc in the way I usually do. But I still need childcare and value the care and engagement we get from our nanny, so this won’t change even though with all the additional costs (health care, insurance, travel) it’s not cheap.
  • Kids’ clubs. I was quite shocked about how much these are in Copenhagen, and I’ve gone back and forth about the right balance. Since my kids are only young once and working means I don’t have time to e.g. take them swimming every week, I have decided to keep this in but limit it two two per child. This means they get to see friends, do sports (and lots and lots of dance…) and keep broad interests whilst ensuring I am not going crazy on this budget line.
  • Holidays: I’ve kept in a decent line for this in 2021, though I hope it will be less since we have some vouchers from holidays we couldn’t take due to COVID which have rolled over to this year (well, fingers crossed that this happens and we don’t roll them over whilst staying at home FOREVER).

So what is the budget? It’s very similar to 2020’s actuals – a budget of £ 4,645 per month or  £ 65,618 over the year. The breakdown is planned as below – this is an average over the year where some costs are annual, and some come out in specific months etc:

 Annual PlanMonthly Budget
Childcare costs £              13,200 £            1,100.00
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £                1,500 £               125.00
Charity £                   800 £                 66.67
Eating out £                1,440 £               120.00
Entertainment – media £                   600 £                 50.00
Entertainment – going out £                1,200 £               100.00
Kids – extra curricular £                3,000 £               250.00
Family £                   600 £                 50.00
Groceries £                4,800 £               400.00
Holidays  £                3,600 £               300.00
Insurance £                2,400 £               200.00
Personal care £                   360 £                 30.00
Shopping – general £                   300 £                 25.00
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays £                   700 £                 58.33
Shopping – clothes £                   350 £                 29.17
Rent and Bills £              20,400 £            1,700.00
Transport £                   500 £                 41.67
TOTAL SPEND £         65,618 £       4,645.83

To be honest it still feels like a lot.

However, the planned savings (shown below) mean that it would be another year where I spend 60% and save 40%. Again, this doesn’t include anything pre-tax, so money paid for health insurance, or my employer pension to which I pay around £17,000 per year:

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash
 Annual PlanMonthly Budget
Mortgage £            10,310 £                    865
Mortgage Overpayment  £            15,200 £                1,250
 Emergency Fund  £               1,200 £                    100
ISA £            20,000 £                1,250
Kids’ savings £               2,976 £                    248
SIPP (private pension)  £               2,400 £                    300
 TOTAL SAVINGS £ 41,776 £    3,148

This would put me on track to finish paying off the mortgage on my UK home by the end of 2022, earlier than I had planned, and to max out my ISA as well as paying into kids’ savings and a personal pension. So even though the spending is quite high, I am definitely working toward my financial goals.

The one unknown is housing. We’ve been looking to buy a home here in Copenhagen which would suck in savings (though this would become equity) and reduce monthly outgoings. So far, we have put in an offer and lost out on one home and we have an offer under consideration this week (please cross your fingers for me!). If we can’t find something by about March I will look to rent, since we have to be out of this rented house by July.

Once the housing is exactly known I will tweak the budget. I do feel like we could save more, and will keep coming back to the budget throughout the year to see what else we can trim away. Either way, we’ll keep on enjoying the free pleasures in this life, and the knowledge that we are trying to live mindfully. What’s your plan for 2021 and how are you going to stick to it? Let me know!

A beautiful (free) day out walking in the snowy woods in what we hope will become our new neighbourhood ❤

Happy New Year #1. Intentions

Woohoo, it’s here! After 2020 lasting for what felt like 91 years, 2021 has rolled in.

Truthfully though, in reviewing my 2020 I feel extremely blessed by how much I managed to drive forward on most of my goals. I fully recognise and appreciate how much of this was down to luck – to being in a stable job, to having found FIRE and got myself set up with an emergency fund which took the edge of the panic, and to being in a country where the approach to managing COVID was fast and easily understood.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

But I’m still excited about 2021 even though I absolutely hope that it is better for most people – and for humanity and for the planet. This is part one of two New Year blogs: this one covering intention setting, and the next one outlining specific FIRE goals for next year.

So where to start. A recent New York Times article suggested that people should aim small for 2021. Lots of commentators agrees that small is beautiful – in an interview with Glennon Doyle she talks about how small goals are easier to work toward, and easier to build into your life with grace ad confidence rather than creating new ways to beat yourself up about. Around 80% of people don’t stick to their New Year’s resolutions, so it’s clear that another approach is needed.

Focus on intentions before goals

So before getting to goals I want to focus on intentions. Goals are future focused, and brilliant for laying out a vision and planning how to get there. That’s a really important task, and with the small-and-kindly mantra above, it really works for me. But setting intentions are about mindfully living in the now. It’s the idea of setting out how you want to behave, to feel and to approach situations which you can come back to easily and often if you feel you’re veering away from your true north.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Intentions are simpler to come up with than goals since they are a heartfelt statement about who is your authentic self. Who is the real and brightest version of you? How would you need to show up each and every time to be that wonderful true self? Intentions are ways of nudging yourself gently back into that space. The fact that this is the space from which you are more likely to be able to achieve your goals is also great news!

And as I’ve written about before, so much of the FIRE movement is about mindfulness and living with intention. By taking time to think about who you are and what you want, the decisions you make are part of actively engaging with every aspect of your life.

Intentions 2021

So, what are my intentions for this year? I have focused on areas where I feel that I don’t ‘live my truth’ – where I get narky, stubborn, or downright unhelpful. These are all things which make me feel worse too, and where I spend valuable time and energy stressing about how I should have done things better. I’ve written these all in the present tense so they are immediately real and actionable at any moment.

  1. I treat myself with compassion and forgiveness, gently recognising and letting go of any shame.
  2. I nourish myself and others, my community, and the planet, by proactively being an active participant.
  3. I value and am grateful for the past that got me here, but I know I don’t live there any more: I am free to move beyond my past, with love.
  4. I easily and graciously give and receive love.
  5. I take each situation and each day with openness, courage and kindness, and amplify others doing the same.
  6. I take time to be and express gratitude and to celebrate myself and others, remembering that ALL of this is a miracle.

So – what do you think, is it worth setting intentions? And if so, what are yours?

2020 Inspiration List: books, blogs and more

With a huge thank you to everyone in the FIRE community and beyond who has shared their content and ideas this year. Staying in touch with the community has been even more crucial than before, since isolation has often felt very much like being cut off from everything and everyone. Carrying on with the journey and its ups and downs has only been possible thanks to those brilliant folks, as well as to others who are working on thoughtful, gracious approaches to how we can live more intentionally. Do let me know what I’ve missed or what has inspired you this year – I would love new ideas!

Proper Books

So I read a lot – as a single mum, once the kids are in bed my time is my own (however knackered I am). I listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks as these are great for when I’m cleaning / cooking / doing chores: but I read every night as part of my sleep routine. I seem to have an awkward addiction to old detective novels <twirls Poirot-like moustache> but I try and make time for inspiring media as well. These days when there is so much bad news as well, it’s nice to have something which makes you feel better rather than increasingly dystopian, so I’m sharing brief highlights from this year. I also read the Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake – both of which I recommend without hesitation but since I had nightmares for a week after each of them, you might want to read them *not* during global meltdown.

Quick note on links – I have tried to use independent bookshops here but these are of course available elsewhere.

Personality Isn’t Permanent: Benjamin, Jr. Hardy

Not FIRE related but a brilliant book about exploring limiting beliefs. The main idea is focusing on your ‘future self’ and directing your energy to this future. This is based on anything being achievable, and the things, or characteristics which you think might be holding you back are eminently changeable. I am not sure there is anything new here, but it is well explained and organised, with key points such as ‘just do it’ – taking action, and ‘forcing function‘ whereby humans can adapt to just get on with something, learning and becoming richer from the experience.

Make Time: Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky

I read this after hearing an interview with the authors on the Choose FI Podcast – and found that there was tons of simple and immediately actionable advice. After reading, I immediately reorganised my phone so that time-wasting apps, what the book calls ‘infinity pools’ are either deleted or much harder to find. I also used it to plan out a morning routine which I have stuck to since August: mindfulness, gratitude journaling, and planning out a highlight and simple goals. The value from these changes is immeasurable, and there is more to pick up each time I read the book.

The Unexpected joy of the Ordinary: Catherine Gray

This book really resonated with me. Gray works through the miraculousness of every day life, echoing the idea that comparison is the thief of joy, and investigating evidence about what really makes us happy. Considering how modern life is making us increasingly anxious and depressed, this book invites you to consider a simpler, more mindful way of living in which we are ready to jump off the hedonic treadmill.

Free online content

I continued to devour blogs and podcasts this year, finding regular inspiration and ideas from others on the same path. In particular:

  • I have loved A Purple Lifes incredible blog over the past years, and since she hit early retirement and quitting her job in 2020 I wanted to celebrate her here, and share with you to see what a journey looks like from start to realising-its-not-a-finish.
  • I also love Our Rich Journey. This year they moved to Portugal as a family with two kids similar in age to mine – something we would love to do as well. Their advice is simple and actionable, and their energy is infectious (awkward choice of word for 2020 but I’m gonna stick with it).
  • Financial Independence Europe has a special place in my 2020 heart since I made my podcast debut there this year, but it’s also chockful of relevant advice in a movement which can feel very American. They have episodes on all subjects to do with FI and just with living different, intentional lives.

Other stuff

I watched The Biggest Little Farm on an aeroplane back in February when such things were possible, and loved it (the irony of enjoying a film about conscious care for the earth from my high-carbon plane seat notwithstanding). It’s a story of a family choosing a different life after they lost their jobs, and bought and brought back to life an incredible bio-diverse farm.

Share what inspires you

I’d love to hear what you enjoyed in 2020, or things to add to my reading list for 2021!

The Red Briefcase: 2020 spending review

‘It’s the most… wonderful tiiiime… of the yeeeeaaaar’ <sings>. Hannukah is just finished and we are heading into Christmas, both of which we love. And we’re up to the end of year spending review, which we are *hoping* to love.

2020 has been quite the year, hasn’t it? I am writing this whilst we are in self-isolation (again) and trying to enjoy ourselves without all the usual festive celebrations of friends, family, and going out. It is particularly hard this year since we can’t travel and it’s just the kids and I far from home. In spite of that I know we are in a much, much luckier place than others with a stable income; living in a fantastic country; and in a house big enough to play, work and study in for weeks at a time. At this time of gratitude and miracles, I am definitely counting our blessings. But this post is also about counting our income, outgoings and savings.

It hurts me to share any space with Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak but that red briefcase is the traditional home for the spending review going into the UK parliament. No comments here on that budget. (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

So what was the plan?

I set my plan for spending and saving back on January 21st, the first blog post here. Below is the actuals and percentages. Overall I spent around £65,000 this year, £15,000, or about one-third more than planned.

Item Monthly Annual Actual % spent
Charity  £              30  £              360  £          830.00 230%
Insurance  £            277  £           3,324  £       3,324.00 100%
Rent and utilities  £         1,500  £         18,000  £     20,098.77 112%
Childcare  £         1,000  £        12,000  £     21,939.86 183%
Groceries  £            300  £           3,600  £       6,160.68 171%
Holidays  £            300  £           3,600  £       1,910.71 53%
Transport   £            300  £           3,600  £       2,723.52 76%
Entertainment  £            200  £           2,400  £          917.20 38%
Eating out  £            175  £           2,100  £       2,006.95 96%
Family       £       2,986.73  
Shopping      £       2,090.63  
TOTAL  £         4,082  £         48,984  £     64,989.04 133%

What the reckoning showed me, once I got over feeling queasy, was as follows:

  • I radically underestimated some areas – I had no budget for shopping (clothes, gifts, personal care), for example. I also hadn’t understood some of the bills needed to be paid in Denmark (hello surprise £ 1,000 utility charge that I thought was part of the water bill!). I also spend 180% of the grocery bill, and whilst some of this is just poor planning and shopping, it is also clear that costs here are much much more than the UK given that I still shop at LIDL.
  • Whilst COVID didn’t impact my income, it meant that there were significant spends on unplanned areas such as holiday childcare when plans to have my parents come and stay (or the kids go to them in the UK) had to be put on ice – I spent 170% of childcare and holiday budgets due to these changes. Some of the grocery spend was also COVID related: at least now I have long-life milk and a lot of pasta and rice in the hold!
  • The uncomfortable truth is that I budgeted without working on a frugal plan meaning that I consistently didn’t hit targets because I have been using the budget as a guide and not as a plan. I added a budget line of ‘family’ then just added in everything which might upset the budget lines elsewhere, but of course the overall overspend is the same.

This budget also doesn’t include – money to savings, pre-tax contributions to health insurance and pensions, or the income and expenditure on my UK property. So what did I save?

Mortgage overpayments £         11,576
 Triodos  £         11,000
Stocks and Shares ISA  £         11,673
Kids savings £           2,976
Pension (SIPP) £           2,900
 TOTAL SAVED / INVESTED £    40,126
Feel better about this bit!

So I spent 61% of my income, and saved 39%. Given the unexpected (or poorly planned) expenditures, I am really happy with that.

Celebrating with our amazing Christmas tree 🙂

Net Worth Snapshot

Confession time – previously I was calculating my net worth at the end of March, since the UK tax year ends April 5th. This means that I have the 6 month change, and the 18 month changes, which is useful but not quite the ‘end of year review’ I had in mind. In any case, here they are. The big additions from the budgets above is the employer contribution to pension.

 Value Dec 2020Value April 2020Value April 2019
 Pensions  £         163,540 £         134,240 £       105,675
 Savings  £           83,287 £           68,500 £         26,000
 House Equity £         343,000 £         323,223 £       304,000
 Emergency Fund  £           10,000 £           15,000 £           3,500
  £         599,827 £         540,963 £        439,175
Changes in net worth

Three of my four pensions are ‘defined benefit’ meaning that increases here come from money paid in to my current work pension (also defined benefit); and money paid in plus changes to investments on my SIPP. Over this time, my house hasn’t increased in value, so any change is mortgage capital paid off. There were a ton of challenges or mistakes this year which I tried hard to put right – I pulled money out of the S&S ISA when I panicked back in March, and put £5,000 back in which has grown again with the shift in the stock market at the end of the year.

Either way this shows an increase in net worth of £68,000 over six months – an average of £10,600 per month, or £154,000 over 18 months, a monthly average increase of £8,500. That is incredible – and I know based partly on having a great salary and a lot of other privileges and benefits like having bought a home at a good time etc. But it’s something to be proud of, and to spur me on to a much tighter-budget in 2021!

How was your 2020?? And how is it making you feel as we head into planning and dreaming for the year ahead? I would love to hear from you!

Photo Credit/ Matthew Hoffman

Loving what is

With apologies to paraphrasing Byron Katie, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘loving what is’. I am prone to envy – an emotion so toxic and at odds with my ethics that I rarely even admit to friends that I feel like this. In trying to unpack why I feel envious, and the impact it has on how I interact with others and live my own life, I keep coming back to gratitude.

And it’s a relief – it’s so much simpler to find ways to be grateful rather than trying to ‘stop being envious’. It struck me that gratitude is the only tool available for digging out the roots of envy and getting on with a positive life.

Say it loud!

In thinking about this area, I realised I have some limiting – and, frankly, horrendous – beliefs. I share them here not to totally put you off me (though I understand if that’s the case) but because recognising them is part of forgiving myself for feeling this way then weeding them out:

  1. I worked hard for what I have – others were lucky. This is not something I believe with any part of my rational brain, but I see thoughts based on this popping up when someone is doing well. This has been really stark for me with housing, partly because in the UK at least, people who were on the property ladder some time back, or had family support at a crucial moment, are in a position that nobody could get to starting from now. Our landlord recently told me that the house we rent from them (at huge cost) has gone up $100,000 in the last year. Whilst the system is stacked in a certain way, I conveniently forget the times it has worked in my favour.
  2. I deserve more. Oh dear. This is particularly toxic because at its core is dissatisfaction and lack of gratitude for where I am now. Which – whilst it’s not perfect – is ridiculous. My income puts me in the top 1% world wide. I am healthy and so are my amazing kids (touch wood) – and I have amazing kids. I live in the fifth happiest city in the world, one which is so safe that my 11 year old can go alone to hang out with friends. There is so much to be grateful for I am amazed that I can find the brain space to focus on the bullshit instead of weeping with happiness every day, but somehow it happens.
  3. It wouldn’t be like this if I wasn’t a single parent. I have a specially wide jealous streak for two-parent households where I compare their options (including to work hard, take breaks, have an income double mine because there are two adults in their household) which is also unfair. There are all sorts of reasons why people are where they are on their path, and all sorts of unseen compromises. I had to make the decisions which were right for my family, and manage the consequences instead of constantly thinking ‘what if’.
Recognition is the first step in resisting.

So why does this matter? Apart from it making me unpleasantly whingy (at least in my head) these kind of thoughts become limiting beliefs and it takes work to get over those. This has led to limiting myself – if I really believe that others are lucky and I work hard, why bother working hard? If I am ‘unlucky’ how do I believe that things are going to work out? Its also exhausting and boring to feel this way, and it makes me negative. Consciously hearing how these beliefs play out in how I talk to people, and interact with them, has led to some very uncomfortable recognitions about myself.

But happily none of this is ingrained – every day provides a chance for change and growth. Now that’s something to be grateful for!

Should I buy or keep on renting?

One of my goals from the list last week was to work through some options for housing since this is by far our biggest spend.

As so often happens, once the thought was there, things started to move around it. I had a call from our landlord saying they are moving back to Denmark from overseas, meaning that we definitely have to move by June 2021. We love our house but in some ways this is good news – since we have to move anyway, it’s forced me to look at options.

In this blog I use all my real figures, except… I have never shared the real cost of my rent. Because it’s HUGE and makes me feel ridiculous. It’s not super expensive within the Danish market, given the size of house etc, and we already chose to live out in the ‘burbs to save. But the real cost is (gulp) £3,350 per month. That’s the equivalent to more than £40,000 per year or one-third more than the total average salary in the UK. Copenhagen is 16th most expensive of 589 cities in the world, but I still do a little vomit of terror every time I pay rent.

To note – in my figures to date, I have removed a chunk of the cost of living benefit I received, and the same amount off the rent. So the figures balance, but it’s not exactly accurate.

Hygge – the ultimate Danish approach to staying home. Photo Credit. if this was us I assume my other kid would be off making us hot chocolate!

Before I get into the finance side of things, one of the things I have realised during this blog is that as a single mum, my approach to financial decisions has a big chunk of emotion in the mix. Whilst that’s probably true for a lot of people, being solely responsible for small people means that I focus a lot on home, safety, and planning for what would happen if I lost my income. We also moved around a lot when I was a kid, then as a serial-expat, moving has been something I do at least every few years, often living in company-managed accommodation where I know it’s only temporary. And whilst home is super important, my work (and personal and other financial issues) mean that my 11 year old son has lived in 11 homes to date. So – lots of emotion around decisions about where we live.

So I came from the position of wanting security, and wanting to see where we could make savings (and potentially make some money at the end, but it’s not guaranteed). I have four years on my contract here, and the kids are loving Copenhagen. So I decided to look into buying a home. Doing that whilst an expat is complicated – there is a fantastic and very detailed guide here. If you want to buy before you have lived here for five years, you need a special permission and you are also obliged to sell the property within six months if you leave the country. So there is a higher risk that you might have to sell at a bad time. For me this has meant thinking more about the home I would buy and discounting some which I like because there are things which might make it hard to sell – road noise in particular seems to be a no-go.

Not buying a house like this but isn’t Copenhagen pretty! Photo Credit.

With that in mind, I started to explore mortgages. And I have to say, coming from the super-cautious (at least after the 2008 crisis anyway) UK, this has been really easy. I need a 10% deposit, but the mortgage interest is only 1%, fixed, for 30 years. At that level, even living here for five years means I would pay off a decent chunk of capital in addition to having lower monthly costs. I will have to pay taxes which are included in my current rent but with this, the amount I will save on monthly outgoings (including paying off a small loan I need to take out to get to the 10%) and capital paid off is as below:

      Two years Three Years Four years
 Savings on monthly outgoings     £          31,617  £          47,425  £          63,234
 Capital paid off     £          30,713  £          46,511  £          62,610
 TOTAL saved + capital owned    £        62,330  £         93,936  £       125,844

For me, there is enough wiggle room in there to take the risk that the house will need major repairs (these should come out in the ‘condition report’ which is like a survey) or the value goes down, for it to be worth it. It’s not a totally fair comparison since the amount we can borrow means we will have to move a couple of train stops further out where rent would be slightly cheaper anyway, but it’s close.

All the reading and reflecting I have been doing the last few weeks has reminded me again that FIRE, and financial decision making in general, is based so much on what we want out of life, and what that translates into in terms of balancing risks and benefits. 

So this week I am going to start looking at houses!

Great things can happen!

So it’s not a political blog but it’s impossible to live in the world without being effected by what is going on. And if you really care – about other people, about those more vulnerable than yourself, about the planet – then it’s less about being effected and more about playing your role. So like millions of people all over the world today, I feel more hopeful that great things can happen, and full of respect for people who push every day to make the world better for everyone.

In some ways, the path to financial independence feels like a small and pathetic series of tiny actions, compared to the major global events which are shaping the world today. On the other, what is more radical than living consciously, choosing to accept or reject things like mindless consumerism and waste? Choosing instead to build community and support others? And how do the big things happen without the little decisions?

When you’re in the middle of things, it can feel like things are not moving. Example – instead of embracing my lockdown weight, I’ve been working to lose it. Calorie counting now for the past nine weeks and it feels never ending. Shockingly, I still look pretty similar – but looking over the progress I have been losing 1lb per week. Now that’s real results! And it’s good results whilst also leaving space to have days where I Just Can’t Do It and need a beer and a pie. Finding a way that really works for you whilst still converting small progressive wins into long term achievements is crucial to having sticking power.

So my small actions for this week are:

  1. Finalising my September spends and being ready to write them up on the blog next week;
  2. Planning a budget for Christmas / Hannukah and being prepared to stick to it;
  3. Working through some options for housing since this is by far our biggest spend and I think there are other possibilities for 2021 onwards;
  4. Try and lose another 1lb!

What are your plans for this week? Remember – great things can happen!

Getting back in the budget saddle

I missed posting last week, mostly because I was nestled in a shame spiral about my spending – fun! Self reflection is always challenging, for me especially when it’s something I think I am doing well at. I started this blog from the perspective of ‘I am largely sticking to my budget’: ‘I am in a good place and want to get better’: ‘I’ve a five year plan and few doubts.’

O. M. G.

So it’s partly been the habit-trashing of COVID and the change to being without additional help from my family, contact with friends, or regular travel with work. But it’s also been just taking my eye off the ball. I realised last week that I don’t really track my budget any more as I am spending, something which happened when I started using my Danish account instead of my Monzo card which tracks all spend for you against a pre-set budget. Instead I review spending a few weeks after month end, and it becomes an inventory of my stupid.

After some initial reflection last week I concentrated on getting the two gnarly issues sorted from my budget. The first was getting a realistic view of the utilities budgets. In Denmark, there are no price comparison websites and few options when it comes to utilities providers. A proper review of these costs show I spend £405 per month on utilities – almost £5,000 per year, and significantly under what was in my original monthly budget. I also looked at kids clubs and holidays – action there is TBD since the options range from cutting it altogether to reducing it significantly, and this can only be done through more of a lifestyle prioritisation exercise. It will also depend if my parents can help out with holiday childcare again post-COVID – whatever post-COVID looks like…

It was also useful to give myself a break and think about self-talk on these issues. I love Brené Brown and she has some great advice on money and shame. It’s important to note that as a single mum, whilst I can have conversations with others, I am responsible for all the decision making – and praise or blame. And personally I find that the FIRE community can be quite light on failure, sending you back to Dave Ramsay if you get stuck in early stages. However, since shame spirals are characterized by feeling like everything compounds the original feeling, I can also believe this is my perception. With that said, I’m sharing the tips I found most relevant:

  1. Show yourself compassion. Interestingly Harvard Medical School’s paper on self compassion covers a lot of the micro-habits I have been trying to put in place recently – from journaling to meditation. The tips about ‘comforting your body’ also opened up other ideas. As Jen Sincero says, we can treat our bodies like a windsock flailing behind our brains, doing ourselves harm but also missing opportunities to improve and support ourselves in simple ways.
  2. Be courageous. For me undertaking the calculations and spending reviews – then sharing them on this blog, are courageous. To be even more so, I need to start tracking spend during the month to look it in the eye on a regular basis, and be brave enough to stop spending, say no, or course correct.
  3. Celebrate the small wins. This I really struggle with. Some of the small wins are really small, and when they turn into habit I don’t appreciate them anymore. Examples like packing lunches for work, cycling to the office, choosing free weekend activities and so on don’t get noticed. Here I need to create small goals such as no-spend days – or indeed just sticking to the damn budget for things like eating out – and celebrating those.

So – aluta continua! How do you keep going when things aren’t going well?

Image credit: https://alchetron.com/A-luta-continua