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

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

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

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

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

Zero-Based Budgets

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

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

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

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

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

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

50/30/20 Budget

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

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

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

Extreme Budgeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beach money: investing and risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year 3: Paying yourself first

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

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

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

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

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

Working out how to ‘pay yourself first’

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

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

Get that pot ready! Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Set your self payment plan

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

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

Saving 20% as standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year 2: Auditing your fixed costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year 1: Getting started with money

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

Woop! Photo by zero take on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year reflections: Loneliness

I wanted to start off this year recognising that there seems to be an epidemic of loneliness. This has real implications for us as a society, and I believe means specific things for those of us who were already on solo journeys before all the craziness of COVID cut off our social networks.

Almost half of all people in the UK report feeling lonely sometimes, and 18% of Americans note that they have only one person – or nobody – that they can rely on. Young people and those over 65 are particularly at risk of feeling lonely, and this has increased with the lockdown restrictions.

And loneliness really matters, not just for mental wellbeing but also for our physical health. Feeling isolated is linked to early mortality, poor cardivascular health, depression and suicide. In fact it is so serious that the negative health impact of loneliness is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Sometimes when I feel lonely I also feel a bit ashamed about it, like I’m the unpopular kid at school standing in a corner whilst the fun and noise goes on around me. But reminders about the impact of feeling like this means it’s important to sometimes look it in the eye.

Wandering lonely as a cloud. Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

In my own social circles I see real evidence of people struggling to feel connected and secure, and it’s something that I have noticed in myself as well.

Being a single parent is a pretty lonely place. Being responsible for all the decisions and actions, being good and bad cop, and being where the buck stops on All. The. Things. can get exhausting. Add into the mix the other things that I’m trying to do, whether in terms of work, family, friendship or interests, and the spinning plates sometimes drop. Then add in trying to follow the road less travelled into FIRE, female senior leadership and mindful living and sometimes I feel like a leaf being blown about in a gale.

I also recognise that not all cultures operate in the same way, so the kinds of family or community that might lean in to support me don’t really exist in Europe. The rise of one-person households; the culture of ‘busyness’; urban planning and how we interact with our neighbours; work culture: all of these things create friction in human interactions which in turn increases the sense of isolation.

Sometimes you’re a leaf in a gale, sometimes you’re pure gold. Photo by GraceHues Photography on Unsplash

In spite of this, recognising that loneliness comes with going down the road less travelled, loosens its negative grip on me. So ok, single parenting is lonley precisely because we are doing it alone. And having a vision outside of the norm – following FIRE, being an entrepreneur or a leader – necessarily means carving your own path. Sometimes that path feels lonely and sometimes it feels liberating.

Amen! Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

So what are the opportunities to mitigate loneliness whilst still creating your own life? The first strategy has to be around building a stronger community. Maybe it’s taking time to speak with your friends – and really speak with them, not just having a laugh down the pub (though that has its mental health benefits too…). Maybe it’s engaging family, or working on some of the more challenging relationships which support your healing. Maybe it’s joining up with, or building a new community, whether in your neighbourhood or online.

My second strategy is around focusing on the calendar. Whilst Judaism has traditions which mark the weeks and phases of the year, the main thing for me is to recognise the seasons and celebrate or act in accordance. This is even more important to me since living in Denmark where the winter can feel depressing and lonely, and taking it gently matters more. Having rituals or activities which mark the passing of the seasons – from new year’s resolutions, to the new school year – makes me feel more like an active participant in something positive.

Finally perhaps it’s about learning to listen, and to be heard. Being prepared to open up, to share what isn’t working and ask when you need something, matters. Listening and being open to hearing difficult things from others, also matters. Building meaningful connections can take time and can be challenging – especially if you are feeling low – but it’s really worth it.

So – what are your ideas for combatting loneliness? Wishing you a happy and nourishing 2022!

2021 Inspiration List: books, podcasts and more

As this is the last Sunday of 2021 I thought I’d focus this blog on the things which inspired and kept me going during this year. As I said in 2020, I read a lot – and with the never-ending loop of lockdowns we probably all read a lot more – and whilst I carried on with real commitment to my regular schedule of 1930s murder mysteries and books about politics, I got through a lot of new things as well.

And it’s almost done. Photo by Nadin Mario on Unsplash

This was also the year I pretty much quit watching things. There are a couple of notable exceptions (and the family 30 minutes down time after dinner would not be the same without The Simpsons) but it just stopped being something I do on my own. I listened to a *lot* more music, and unlike 2020 spent more time hanging out with people: dating, going to a twice-weekly exercise class, watching the Euros and the World Cup Qualifiers in the pub with friends, at workshops, and back out on a travel schedule.

So it feels like its been a nice mix, and I hope some of these ideas spark some new thoughts with you too. Do let me know what has been inspiring you this year, I’d love to know!

Books

Mostly I read on my Kindle or get things out from the English section of the fabulous library here in Copenhagen, but I do love a Proper Book. Even though this was also the year that I aged disgracefully enough to need reading glasses, I still read every night before I go to sleep. Just these days I have to stay awake long enough to take my glasses off and not crush them.

All the links below are to independent bookshops, but these are available in most formats and places.

Atomic Habits: James Clear

This came out two years ago and I listened to a lot of podcasts and discussions about its content, but reading it genuinely changed my life. There is something simple but compelling about his messages: sort out the things that matter to you, whatever they are; be aware of the time-sinks, infinity pools and dross that this corporate world is sending you and block them out where you can; and find the minimum viable action then just do it. It’s a great antidote to overwhelm.

Four Thousand Weeks: Oliver Burkeman

I wrote about this recently but this was also a game changer for me. Burkeman posits that since the average life expectancy is four thousand weeks, we should find ways to focus on what we really care about. He presents a history of time management and also why it doesn’t really work. Linking this to our collective FOMO, Burkeman talks through why reclaiming your time can’t be done by reorganising your diary but needs to be done by rethinking priorities.

Untamed: Glennon Doyle

Ah the great feminist call to action. I loved this book so much that I read it three times this year. Doyle focuses on naming the ties that bind us as women moving in this world, and talks through how, in her own life, she has untethered herself. It is very clear as to why this makes the world a freer, fairer and better place for all of us – so if you are even vaguely interested in the concept of allyship, read this one.

Podcasts

I remained very much a creature of habit this year and will include those here for anyone new to this journey, but there were one or two notable exceptions:

Rice At Home: This is one of the new additions to my listening and I cannot recommend it highly enough – especially if ‘there’s rice at home’ is something you heard regularly as a child! The team had a few months off in early 2021 and came back strong, looking at black-owned business, entrepreneurship and financial independence from the perspective of peer learning and support.

Afford Anything: the inimitable Paula Pant continued to bring weekly wisdom this year, talking through the choices that we have to make with our money, focus and energy in order to make a life which suits us and where we really move.

Journey to Launch: I listened to this more in 2021 as she is some steps ahead of me. Getting into thinking about side hustles, passive income streams and the ‘what next’ of a financial independence journey is where I’m at, and her passion, personal story and diverse range of speakers is really inspiring.

Choose FI: this was another staple during 2021, though a lot of it starts to feel like conversations we’ve had before. It remains a really good basic resource (though I didn’t think much of their book…) and a great community for when you need dusting off and putting back on the path.

Blogs

I read many fewer blogs this year. I don’t know if people stopped writing after being so productive in 2020 or if I just ran out of bandwith. Lots of old blog friends also moved well past where I’m at and whilst I am super proud of them, I don’t find reading about post-FI useful. The one I did keep going back to was Our Next Life. I love their thoughtful reflections on life then and now, and also on the FIRE community and where we might collectively be going.

Music

Not strictly relevant, but this is where I got a lot of joy and energy from in 2022. So sharing just one, in case it’s something you need to hear.

Gangsta: Kojey Radical : perhaps not what you expect from the title but it’s a track about being raised by a single mum and growing into an amazing adult. Love everything about this especially the lyric: I wonder what the answer is / my mama said forgiveness is/ go handle your businesses. Big up all the single mums out there. We got this.

For some beautiful photos of Kojey and his mum you can read this full article.

Hope the last mile of 2021 is treating you well – I can’t tell you what a pleasure it has been sharing this year with you. See you on the flip side!

Don’t curse the darkness: light a candle

Whilst I will come back to the ‘Creating the future’ thinking, this week it’s Hannukah, so I wanted to stop for a minute and think about miracles, and gratitude. It’s a recurring theme in this blog, but it’s something which is central to how I think about mindful living – and let’s face it, more gratitude in this sometimes cold and scary world can only be a good thing.

Hannukah celebrates the story of power over adversity, and of accepting grace. It’a basd on a historical story from Jerusalem in 168 BC when the Greeek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned Jewish practice and defiled the Jewish Temple in the city by installing an alter to Zeus and sacrificing pigs. The Maccabees, a small army of Jews (and not a football team) rebelled, regaining control of the temple where they removed the false alter and worked to reconsecrate the temple. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day which wasn’t enough for the necessary rituals. And then the miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days.

Yes it did! http://www.hannahkallio.org

There’s a lot of discussion about how Hannukah was a minor Jewish festival which has become increasingly visible because it’s fun (candles, doughnuts and games – what’s not to like?!), and it’s usually around Christmas. But I love it because it’s a time of year to celebrate the miracles which surround us, and sit and stare in wonder.

But why does that matter? To me it matters because within the noise of the daily struggle, the challenges of striving and growing, the sheer astonishing, fierce, splendid grind of being human, we need to make time to be quiet. Not just to go inside yourself and see what’s there, but to get to the horizon where your power ends and feel your way into what higer power is with you.

Be a candle, lighting up a dark world. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

At Hannukah you usually say ‘a miracle happened here’ if you’re in Israel, but I like to say it because miracles are happening to and within us all, all the time. Rabbi Heschel, philosopher and civil rights activist who marched with Dr King, talks a lot about why taking time to recognise this matters, saying:

People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state: it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.

Source: The Wisdom of Heschel” ― Abraham Joshua Heschel

There’s a lot of evidence that gratitude makes you happier – that people who make time to be thankful have better health, stronger relationships, and are more robust. And it makes sense if you are focused on working toward your goals that not stopping to celebrate how far you’ve come will rob you of opportunities to be proud and joyful. And they are all feelings you need, to spur you on as you climb your next mountain.

From Epicurus, who was around at the same time as the sacking of the Temple

So this week,I suggest taking some time to pull over for a minute from the highway swerving of your day-to-day and taking a moment to celebrate what has happened in your life. A miracle happened here.

Creating the future: part II

In my last post I was talking about getting inspired to work on future planning. I always end up focusing at strange points when I get in to visioning and planning: either very granular and what-do-I-need-to-do-today or totally random fantasy visioning. I wanted to spend some focused time thinking about all the different aspects of my life and where I want to be in five years, to give me something to work backwards from.

I will be 47 in five years time. That feels horribly close to – well, just close to being dead. I don’t know why 47 sounds so freaking old compared to 45 and whilst I did think about doing a three year plan just so I could feel better about it, it was a good moment to face my fears and remember that aging is such a privilege. My kids will be 17 and 13: and parenting teenagers, preparing them for this world of ours, is a whole other thing. But it’s also a phase I want to be present for to support them – and enjoy their company – as they get ready to fly.

Yeah baby. Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

So I wanted to start with the vision. I organised my thinking into nine key areas: health, career, money, family, relationships, social, spiritual, home and service. I then spent my journalling time this week just thinking about these nine areas, and letting my imagination take me wherever. I found this quite challenging as I think I have a very clear vision, but I have clarity on a few random bits and lots of missing pieces.

For about 10 years I’ve had the same vision. It is literally a snapshot image of my future – I don’t know where it came from but it simply and neatly encapsulates all of the aspects. I am in my house in Nairobi, walking to the front door to welcome some friends coming for dinner. I’m so comfortable in my body – wearing a fairly simple grey dress but it really shows off my figure; my heels are comfortable (this is how we know it’s a fantasy) and my hair is up. I’m walking through to the hallway and noticing how much my home feels like me: the beautiful fabrics, the light, happy family photos and collected paintings on the wall. I’m looking forward to an evening with great company, there’s delicious food to enjoy together with my friend and my kids. There’s a palpable sense of peace. As I get to the hallway, my partner stops me briefly, kisses my neck and smiles.

And that’s it. But I find that vision of my future so completely compelling that I feel like I’ve been making moves towards it for more than a decade. Sometimes it feels too little to hope for, and sometimes it feels too much. But either way, it is more likely to come true if I have a more focused approach to getting there.

This is Arijiju aka the most fabulous place in Kenya, but since this is my fantasy let’s pretend this is my house

So – more specifically, where do I want to be? I worked through the nine areas and really thought about where I want to be in five years. And I came up with the following. Again – I don’t know if it’s to want too little or too much, but for now, this feels like me. The only hard one was relationships because there’s something about expressing a desire to have a partner which makes me really squeamish. Partly there’s something needy about it – we aren’t supposed to want these things, just to hang around looking pretty and disinterested until someone chooses us and we swoon. But also partly because I am really happy single, and wanting something else feels like a diminishment of this. Enough caveats though: let me just say it’s something I would like, and I am not embarrassed about that. Shame is for amateurs.

The five year goal setting

Health
Healthy and well, taking care of myself
Happy and comfortable in my body
Fit and confident in my movements and physique
Well dressed and put together but confident enough to not have to do this all the time
Starting midlife proud of how I look and feel, in a good mental health space
Money
Taking home $15,000 per month based on either employment, passive income, business or consultancies
UK mortgage paid off and generating passive income
Guaranteed £40,000 per annum pension income on retirement even if I don’t contribute more
Able to cashflow all needs or receive benefits to same amount
Career
Doing work which builds on my existing skills, gives me fresh challenges, and creates positive impact
If in an organization, senior enough to make a difference to the culture
If in business/self-employed, passionate and capable enough to be building toward scale and impact
Inspiring and motivating others in the sector
Environment/home
Be living in Kenya, preferably in a house I have bought somewhere near the city but that feels like the country
Be comfortable at home, have a calm environment where there are always people around the kitchen table
Spend time in nature
Relationships
Be with a partner with the same level of aspiration, ambition and care that I have for my life (including my sex life)
Feel secure and cherished, without fear
Family Connect fully with family including moving past previous issues where relevant
Be raising healthy, happy, conscious children who are a force for good in the world and growing towards independence but secure at home and in their sense of self
Social
Stay connected to my core friendship group, making an effort with those people who live far
Spend my social time mindfully in a way which nourishes me and lives my values
Spiritual/wellbeing
Living life from a place of gratitude including through prayer, meditation etc
Make spiritual connections / community, whatever that looks like
Service
Actively engage in service around community issues which are meaningful to me
Ensure strong family care
Care about and engage in politics, whilst not drowning in it
Where do I want to be in five years?

It was a really interesting exercise. I don’t think any of the aspects were surprising, but I liked how congruent they felt – and how much they gave me a sense of calm focus.

Next week I plan to work on money and career, and start mapping out a bit more in terms of shorter goals and steps. Aluta continua!

What will you do with your one wild and precious life? Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Creating the future: part I

I love setting goals. There is a real sense of purpose that comes with thinking about goals, and a feeling that you are creating a meaningful future.

I also love goal setting because it’s free (woohoo) and feels great. Whilst it’s crucial to have a vision and targets, for myself I know I can use thinking about goals as a way of staring off into the middle-distance whilst feeling like I am achieving something.

The last few weeks for me have been around looking at my life with a real focus on creating a plan. Abe Lincoln said “The best way to predict the future is to create it” and right now I’m so inspired by the future I’m predicting that actually starting to go deep into the detail feels like a joy.

Planning for the future with this stunning view in Kampala. Lucky girl!

One aspect of this shift in focus has been consciously trying to engage more with postive energy. Mr Giver-Of-Stars and I had a few days in Kampala and the amount of positive motivation and the influence that has had on my current thinking is immense. It’s obvious, but if you’re feeling stuck then having a fresh persepctive – especially from someone you admire – can get you back on track.

The first thing has been going back to get clarity on my goals. And yes this involved a bit more middle-distance-staring, but if you’re overlooking Lake Victoria then that’s no bad thing. One difference this time was considering HARD goals (as opposed to SMART goals which might be useful but just make me think of poorly-run office retreats). HARD goals focus on more existentialist concerns, and invite you to consider four facets of your goals, the extent to which they are Heartfelt, Animated, Required, Difficult.

There is a lot of evidence that people are more motivated by goals which are difficult: that the challenge is the thing that pushes us to move ahead. Conversely, the challenges have to be achievable otherwise the mountain is too steep. For me, aiming to become an Olympic gymnast for example, is probably a few steps (or a few twirly-ribboned dance moves) too far. But pushing yourself is exhilarating, so set your boundaries as wide as possible and go for it.

Keep going: the sun will rise again

The last two years though have shown how much things can change. As such, the idea of setting goals which are heartfelt and make you feel animated. A deep connection to your goal means that you are more likely not just to reach it but to be able to nimbly react to changing circumstances and continue to work towards it. This malleability also means you can flex your approach as needed: whilst the plan absolutely matters, the attachment is to achieving the results.

So this week I am planning to take all that motivation and energy and head back over to my five-year plan. See you on the flip side!