Pension planning

So I think a lot about pensions. Pensions are by far the biggest topic when I talk to women in the same sector as I am. Or single parents. Or anyone who has moved between jobs, or between traditional jobs and entrepreneurship. So, everyone really.

There are a few different schools of thought. Many younger people I speak to have such little faith in the pensions industry that they are not convinced of the need to invest in retirement vehicles. In fact one-third of savers don’t have faith in the industry – and this survey was done with savers, so imagine the additional people who don’t have faith to the point where they just don’t save. Almost 60% of people believe they will not have enough to retire on, with women being significantly less confident about their ability to retire at all, or comfortably.

Not totally relevant but much more interesting than pictures of currency notes and clocks. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I’ve written a couple of times about calculating what you need to retire on, and on working out across your own financial journeys, especially if you want to retire early, where you might have gaps in your income prior to being able to access pension funds.

One tricky area to work through is the difference between defined benefit and defined contribution pensions. Sometimes I imagine myself on the Dave Ramsey show explaining at length why I don’t have $1million in retirement, and why that doesn’t matter because I am largely in defined benefit pensions. I realise that we have now plumbed the depths of my boring internal monologue, but putting that aside, let’s continue.

The first point is that defined benefit pensions are largely in the public sector, and they are increasingly rare. The second is that you will very rarely be able to choose which one you get. You may, if you are joining public service, be offered this option. And – whislt I don’t normally give unequivocal advice – you should always choose defined benefits for the reasons outlined below:

Some of the differences across pension type

Defined benefit pensions are usually linked to the length of service in the company, so it can feel pretty small or silly, but it all adds up. The greatest benefit to defined contribution is that a) you can choose where to invest the funds yourself and b) you can usually roll pension contributions into a single fund as you move jobs.

I have three defined benefit pensions, and one SIPP which I invest into regardless of how good my company pension looks. The figures below assume I stay in my current job for another two years: many defined benefit pensions require a minimum stay with the organisation. So how do my pensions look?

  Transfer valueAnnual guaranteed
income retirement
Defined benefit pension 1 £          62,304 £            6,250
Defined benefit pension 2 £          39,462 £            1,400
Defined benefit pension 3 £        104,864 £          15,266
  £        206,630 £          22,916
Self Invested Personal Pension (SIPP) £          44,075 £               400
TOTAL ACROSS ALL £        250,705 £          23,316

Even a quick glance suggests that the benefit from the defined pension is better than the defined contribution on the SIPP. However – and it’s a significant caveat – the SIPP will grow with the market. Or hopefully grow, in these days, who knows.

This is where it gets interesting. Using the more traditional FIRE rule of 4% withdrawal, to achieve the  £30,000 per year in retirement I would need to save £750,000 overall. Side bar – Mustachian Calcs are great calculators for working this sort of thing out. As you can see, I am not far off from that £30,000, and indeed would reach it if I could add in the UK State Pension (caveats galore!) but my portfolio ‘value’ is only around one-third of that net worth calculation.

Definitely more on this in blogs to come. It’s both a tangled old web, and a cornerstone of what we’re trying to do here. So do come back and join me on Instagram for more.

The Fear

Things seem pretty scary at the moment. Climate disasters, war in Ukraine, Ebola in Uganda, right wing shifts in Italy, significant remilitarisation in Europe, a soaring cost of living – I could go on. Having always been a political animal I now refuse to have the news on in the morning because it makes me want to go back to bed and just stay there.

Writing a blog about personal finance (and I mean that in the loosest sense) means that recognising the impact political and socio-economic changes have on people’s lives and opportunities is critical. There is a big difference between painting a falsely aspirational picture versus giving people hope and courage to try a different path and see how they can succeed in their context.

So I just wanted to take today to talk about The Fear and why it’s not unfounded.

100% faith over fear. But it takes a lot to say faithful in an unstable world when you keep getting kicked down. Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Personal finance is largely built on evidence-based faith. We look at the options open to us; historical shifts, values and movements; and our own future plans and needs. Then use all that information to triangulate the best options. I mean – this is what happens ideally. Sometimes we get hopeful, or greedy, and it’s more like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Sometimes we freak out, and it’s more like flipping over a table full of delicious food in order to hide underneath it. But in essence, making decisions means assessing what we think will happen, in our lives and in the markets, and trying to match them up with available options.

Take deciding to invest in the stock market. This is traditionally somewhere where it’s easy to be fearful, and decide not to get involved (caveat – there are other excellent political reasons not to do so, but that’s for another time). It is also a place where people are likely not to realise that not investing creates other risks around having their savings eroded by inflation. But intentional action always feels more scary than unintentional inaction, even where the impact might be the same.

Over a long period of time, the stock market has consistently gone up. As the financial planners say, it is time in the market, not timing the market that delivers results. Taking the graph below which models the sorry history of a fictional investor who puts money in just at the worst possible time, we see that he still benefits from compound interest and ended up with a 7.98% annualised return.

In other words, however disastrous certain moments were, the net result of investing in the stock market has been positive.

Modelling of a single, ill-timed (and imaginary) investor. Credit

The massive caveat here is that if the market crashes at a point where you need your money, you are screwed. And that’s where The Fear comes in. In the example above, if that investor had lost their job and been forced to pull out their savings to live off, or reached pensionable age and had to cash out an invested pension, they would not have won.

This is all aside from people freaking out and pulling their own money at the wrong time, like I did in 2020. If you are in a position where you must – either for reasons of perception or fact – have to take money out of the market at a time when it is down, you will lose.

This week I have been reading Nomadland (also a film). This amazing book charts what has happened to the “invisible casualties of the Great Recession”, largely older people who unexpectedly found that, in spite of investing in it for years, the American Dream would be forever out of their reach. There is more I want to reflect on about the changing nature of work – most of the people featured in the book will never be able to retire but are forced to work seasonal, temporary jobs – but that’s for another time.

Having a global financial shitstorm happen at a time in your own life where for whatever reason – divorce, illness, getting to an age where you are considered disposable – on top of all the other institutionalised inequalities that impact on people’s ability to make ends meet, can push you permantly to the bottom of the heap. Whils the stock market recovered from the 2008 mega crash, and people who were able to stay in the market have done very well indeed, 10 million Americans lost their homes. For those who lost their homes but were upside down on the mortgage or on other debt, they could spend many years paying for something they no longer own. Having to make money to service a debt for a dream they suddenly couldn’t afford.

So The Fear is real. It’s not to stop any of us from dreaming, or investing, or anything else. I still wanted to recognise how quickly things can go left: there are long term impacts that we can still see, and blithely ignoring the possibilities is just foolishness. I want to leave with these two photos from Detroit of a residential street 9 years apart, in 2009 and 2018. Detroit was one of the hardest hit areas during the recession, meaning there are a lot of streets like this.

It’s ok to be afraid and still look for ways to keep moving in faith: in fact, that’s maybe all we have. But remember that there are people and places which have been erased by these historical financial moments. And they won’t be coming back.

From a community to an overgrown pathway in less than ten years. Read the full story and see other examples here.

Frugal School Holidays #2

Carrying on from last week’s posts about the cost of school holidays and what I ended up spending, I wanted to share a bit more on what we actually did. I also shared activities and ideas throughout the holidays on this blog’s Instagram account: come and join us!

There was a big shift in my thinking this year for a couple of reasons. One of these is just the age of kids – a lot of my suggestions don’t work if you have younger kids who need a lot more supervision. I would say though that ages about 4-8 are the best for frugal holidays as long as you can take time off work to hang out with them (and that’s a big, big if). Now mine are 9 and 13, they have different needs and opportunities.

The other thing that changed for me was taking an active decision to let my kids get bored.

I have always been clear with them that their boredom is not my responsibility. But there is also tremendous pressure to fill our kids’ time with endless opportunity and stimulation. So much of the insistence that we have our children do so much outside of school is a concern that they will get left behind: without all the extra tutoring, music, sports blahdy blah they will somehow be less rounded, less competitive and overall less successful. If you are in a country where yours it not the majority culture, there might also be language or religious classes or community events which are important in making sure your kids feel their roots. That’s a lot of expectations we’re putting on our kids, and they are exhausted. And so are we.

An article in Psychology Today is clear that parental expectations, and a zombie apocolypse view of the world where missing out on the right college means Your Life Is Over is pushing parents to put too much pressure on their kids. As the article notes, whilst extra-curricular pursuits were a hobby or a chance to try new things,“each activity is now one more area for social comparison and thus one more possible source of stress and anxiety“. Another article sounded the alarm for the impact of this on children in terms of squeezing out valuable family time. A survey in the UK found that 90% of children went to after school activities 4-5 times per week often getting home as late as 8 or 9pm, meaning chances of meaningful family conversation, or a relaxed dinner where you chat through the day, are slim.

Internet suggestion for a photo of borderom 😀 Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash

Aside from the existentialist question as to the future of Higher Education (which is a whoooole other conversation), cramming in so much to our kids’ days is putting huge pressure on them, but also onto us as parents emotionally, financially and in terms logistics and organisational skills. Especially when there is only one parent and no family around. I don’t want to spend all my weekends watching football or basketball matches (as a side note – don’t attend U11 basketball matches with a hangover. The noise will make you wish you were dead) or schlepping children across town for various activities. Often both of my kids will need me to take them somewhere, attend or support them or whatever, at the same time. And I just can’t.

So with all this in mind, I decided that we all needed a break over the summer. And this meant cancelling a long held plan to go to Kenya for four weeks (there were other reasons for this but actually it was something of a relief in terms of money and having to organise All The Things) and then sitting down with the kids to talk about what a more relaxed and frugal summer meant. I also had to work all but two weeks of the holiday, and travelled for work for parts of three weeks.

So this is what we did:

Getting the most of what we already own

Use holiday clubs when you have to. In previous years I used clubs to keep the kids entertained and busy. This year I only used them for when I was travelling, since they will have a nanny around to keep them safe and fed, but they need more in terms of things to do. My daughter did three clubs which were actually great – explorers, where they went out every day on the train and poked about Copenhagen; analogue photography where they learned to use cameras and to take and develop their own pictures and had an exhibition; and, more randomly, badminton and origami. She loved them, made some friends who then came to play at the weekend, and got out of the house. But the three weeks were definitely enough.

Take a chance to use what you already have. I feel like in spite of general frugality, we have a LOT of stuff. We got out a bunch of things which have been sitting around since we moved, putting up gymnastics rings and a ladder into a convenient tree, and finding badminton and tennis racquets for games in the garden. I threw all our ‘sand toys’ into the back of the car so they would always be on hand. We also spent a few days of my holidays going through all the stuff in my daughter’s room to get rid of clothes, books and toys which she has grown out of. This all went on Freecycle so other families will get to enjoy them, whislt she has a clearer view of things she actually likes. I also encouraged her to get out things she hasn’t used for a while or made time to play with: sticker and activity books, craft kits and so on, many of which were good fun over the holidays.

And doing the garden means saving money buying flowers!

Help them think of projects. We also sat down and came up with ideas of things they can work on when I am not there, using what’s around. We thought about things they can do when bored (reading, drawing, small craft things), and projects where I did buy some additional bits and pieces. My son worked his way through some focused phsyics and maths work (yeah, no idea where he gets it from), worked out how to set up a telescope he had for Christmas and spent evenings star gazing and looking up astronomy facts, and practiced his clarinet. My daughter learnt how to use our sewing machine and made clothes for her Barbies, looked after the vegetable patch in the garden, and researched and made bee and insect houses.

Think of stuff to do as a family. We did a lot this summer, but most of it free and none of it ‘thrilling’. We went to the beach many many times. Whilst we used to go for an hour or so we got in the habit of packing a picnic, rugs and books and making a whole morning of it. We walked in forests, around lakes, and all through the centre of Copenhagen which is a great place to explore. I have a couple of memberships we buy annually (to the Danish Architecture Museum which is super cheap and gives you free coffee and to an amusement park which is super expensive but definitely exciting) and we made use of them. We researched and cooked recipes which we hadn’t made before – I recommend doing this with one kid at a time if they are like mine – played boardgames, watched all the Marvel films we hadn’t seen before, and got into a podcast about political systems. It’s all individual, but my point here is that fun doesn’t have to be novel, or fresh or expensive. Treats and time together can be pretty simple.

But sometimes spending on a treat is totally worth it

Spend on things that do make a difference. Brunch or dinner out; a book or a two-month subscription; decent coffee – whatever it is that you will appreciate, do it. The flipside of recognising that throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them is realising that when you do spend mindfully, on things that make a difference to you, it feels that much sweeter.

That was our summer! We had a lot of fun, and saw a lot more of our city. The kids got bored, and got creative. I think we read about 20 books each (either from the local library where we visited weekly, or things which had sat on shelves unread for a while. We cooked, baked, gardened, sewed and played games. And saved a ton of money.

Frugal school holidays #1

Kids have gone back to school this week! Woo and quite literally Hoo! They really needed these 8.5 weeks (8.5! Seriously??) off as last year was crazy, including some health issues, all of us getting COVID, I was doing two jobs and permanently either out or stressed… So we all needed a bit of down time.

In 2020 I wrote a series of posts about the crazy expense of school holidays as well as sharing a ton of frugal ideas to enjoy them without breaking the bank. 2020 was admittedly different since lockdown had meant that the kids and I had basically spent months together trapped at home trying to work and homeschool, and I was pretty much out of good ideas for nice things to do together. Denmark had also just opened up, and we were desperate to get out of the house and into the big wide world in case it shut down again.

Spending a LOT of time on Denmark’s fabulous beaches (though wishing they were a bit warmer…)

But it meant that I spent £4,065 in addition to our regular spending during the 2020 summer holidays which feels ridiculous. Managing long school holidays is a challenge for all working families, but for single parents where household income is lower, and there isn’t an option to tag team between parents using their annual leave it is a huge problem. My father has long term worsening health issues which meant he had to shelter in place and now needs 24 hour care, and whilst in previous years I would usually either take my kids to stay with their grandparents for 2-3 weeks, or have my mum come and stay with us, this hasn’t been an option since COVID.

In the UK this year, thanks to the number of companies which went out of business during the pandemic, summer childcare has risen by as much as 25% in some places and with fewer spots available options are likely to be further away and cost more in petrol or travel. Overall research suggests that parents will pay an average additional £900 per child for the summer holidays if they cannot take time off work. Given that single parents already earn significantly less than others, and that 75% report that childcare costs are greater than their basic living costs and one-third of working mothers say that their childcare costs are the same as or higher than their salary

Easier to find things to do when the weather is like this!

From a personal point of view – and recognising that being on a relatively high income and with basic childcare options that continue in the summer – I knew that this year I really had to do things differently. Last week I wrote about commitment to paying off a bridging loan, and since I was horribly aware of the financial vortex of the summer holidays, I made a clear decision and plan to have a frugal holiday and put that money against the loan. (If you havn’t read the post, I paid off £25,000 plus interest in 19 months, and the final £5,000 came from summer holiday choices).

I tracked additional spend during the 2022 holidays. I didn’t count our regular childcare budget of £800 monthly – since I employ a nanny due to my work hours and travel needs, I need her all year round. I also didn’t count usual supermarket or travel spend on our train cards though I did include two supermarket shops which were clearly for treats. So I included holidays clubs, days out, money spent on books, subscriptions etc specifically for the holidays, the cost of a ‘self care day’ which I had as a day’s leave, and eating out since it’s something we don’t usually do. In total I spent an additional £1,377 over the school holiday period – or one-third of the cost of the 2020 holidays.

Books, website subscriptions etc £    100.00
Holiday club x 3 weeks £    886.50
Day out expenses £    192.10
Eating out expenses £    113.00
Self care day £      85.32
TOTAL £ 1,376.92
Additional costs for the holiday period
SO MUCH BEACH!

Next week I will share more on what we actually did – and on how I learnt to embrace boredom and unmanaged time as something critical for my kids’ ability to navigate this world.

I also tracked some of the frugal ideas for the holidays over on this blog’s Instagram page, come join me if you want a sneak peek!

Commitment #2

Last week I posted on my Insta about paying off £27,000 in 19 months and I wanted to talk about it in a bit more detail here and how it relates to my thinking on commitment.

Generally I don’t carry debt. I appreciate there are a number of schools of thought on this one, especially about ‘good debt‘, credit card benefits and so on but for me it always comes back to the kinds of risk I am willing to take (TL:DR – not many, usually based on complex zombie apolocalypse scenarios where I can’t look after my kids).

But when I was buying a house last year it turned out that I couldn’t bridge the gap between my deposit and the mortgage. I had 10% as a down payment but needed more to be able to access the financing. I had already scrimped hard to get the downpayment together and, with fees and costs associated with moving, just couldn’t make the rest in the right time frame without leaving myself with no emergency fund at all. So I took a bridging loan, just as a personal loan from my regular bank.

I figured that adding it as a risk to the overall house buying approach should work. Photo by Ingrid Martinussen on Unsplash

But in taking out that loan I made a commitment to pay it off as quickly as possible. The total to repay including interest over the original 60 months was £29,349 for a £25,000 loan. This felt like more interest than I was willing to pay, and was definitely a spur to get it out of the way. My original monthly payments were £500 per month, and with this rate I paid back £1,400 on average every month.

And now, aside from mortgages, I am debt free again. And it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders.

One dictionary definition of commitment is an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action. For me, having this loan restricted my actions in other areas, which was interesting since I already thought I was quite frugal:

  • This is the big one – no holidays. I value travel and connection with my kids and our worldwide family but I cut it out for this period other than going to visit my sick father. Everything else felt like it could wait. So one month in Kenya long planned for this summer got cancelled and that money paid off the last £5,000. Interestingly planning this trip also raised issues of commitment about how others were showing up (or not) for me, which made the decision to cancel a lot easier.
  • A ‘squeeze tax’ on most of my other spending. Basically this meant reducing groceries and other discretionary spend by about 10%. It also showed me what the space is in my budget, though I am aware I don’t live that close to the knife edge anyway. I added in two additional meals a week to be prepared on a Sunday meaning I could use up odds and ends, use the slow cooker, and generally remove the temptation to nip out and spend more money on food as the week headed to Friday. Ditto with packing lunches for the office. And clothes – I spent around £120 on clothes in this total period for all three of us.
  • Cancelled all subscriptions. All but one. I used to regularly check I wasn’t being charged for things I didn’t want, but here I cut out everything I didn’t actively value.
  • Got energy from freaking out. I have been writing about the cost of living crisis which we are all freaking out about, whether a little or a lot. I made the decision to take the loan when I could easily manage the monthly payment, and looking down the barrel of rising prices everywhere, made me really conscious that I needed to tighten down my commitments.

The take away for me was that through commitment all things are possible. This isn’t going to be true if you are already living close to the breadline, but for many of us on the FIRE journey, our ability to squeeze more out of our budgets depends on where we are trying to go. I have never quite managed to find the same drive for investing and saving as I found for paying off this debt which is showing me some interesting tactics and opportunities to get better (or clearer) at getting inspired in those other areas.

So I feel pretty proud of this. Being able to commit to something, and see it through with very minimal support, really keeps me confident of my ability to chart this path, however much it changes along the way. So stay committed. Stay focused. Sometimes restricting freedom of action can feel limiting, but remember that you have a bigger goal in mind.

Walk with integrity: but where you going?

This week I have been thinking about a bunch of things: how we know who to trust, and what happens when we’re wrong; how much trust we put into people we follow online and the extent to which they are actually selling us something; and the impact all of this has on being able to follow our own journey with integrity.

I fear these internal conversations are also turning me into a bit of an asshole. I especially hate being sold to. One of my reasons for getting involved in the FIRE movement is because taking control of your money is an act of radical subversion and radical self care. Deciding what you want out of life; what you will spend and how that will impact your community / planet / sense of joy; what role you will play outside of being a Worker Bee: all these are closely linked to your finances, and are absolutely the liberation pathway to living your life on your own damn terms.

There seems to have been a lot of slippage in the FIRE movement toward focusing back on personal finance in a more standard way. This is necessary to a certain extent: getting all existential is not the only thing you need if you are waking up in a cold sweat about your inability to service your debts. But sharing tools isn’t the only thing we are here for. Realistically, and I can say this as someone who consumes a fair amount of media on personal finance, social or otherwise, the tools and tips on personal finance are not complicated. It is the job of assessing them, working out what is right for you, and putting them into play which is hard. And for me, I could only put them into play once the existentialist piece was clear in my heart.

Remeber than not choosing your own path means you are implicit in whatever is swirling around you. Photo by Corey Young on Unsplash

A net result of this move back into the more standard world of personal finance is that I feel increasingly like I am being sold to by my peers. This isn’t to say that FIRE should exclusively be filled with people who have the time and resources to give away their advice for free, especially as this would mean only people who reach financial independence and then have that time – and who are disproportionately white, male and married, at least those who talk about it online – would share their stories. But I personally am not interested in buying an online course about real estate in the USA, or downloading a workbook which turns out to be ‘the world’s most basic questions ever.pdf’, or buying a product based on your ability to get commission on it.

It is more than that though. We have always been sold dreams, but these are usually other people’s. Surrounding yourself with these dreams, whether they are in the name of financial independence or in the name of being the kind of rich, flashy person who can buy up the bar, risks that you will drown out what you really want. The advertising industry is based on creating desires that can never be fulfilled: this year’s new iPhone that you might be lusting after will be out of date in a few months. Lifestyle envy leads to excessive consumption and waste, which is also leading to envirionmental degredation. We are trashing the planet for shit that doesn’t matter at all: for shit we probably don’t even want or get satisfaction from.

I am seeing a lot more of this combination in recent times. There is a Kenyan lifestyle and personal finance blogger who I have always liked (and is a friend of a friend, this Nairobi of ours has no chill). But I just can’t follow her anymore. There is the dual approach of selling through her personal brand, which is basically ‘you should strive to be pretty, well-dressed, and well made up, as I am – or you will not be interesting or taken seriously‘. The second approach is basically product placement, including MCing courses for other people, or pushing financial products. But there is literally no content. We are just invited to be voyeurs, buy what she recommends, and strive to be more like her. To be clear this is totally standard for an influencer so I am not singling her out, but it’s surprising to me (in ways it probably shouldn’t be) that so much of what was a vibrant and radical personal finance space is now full of this kind of approach.

Realistically, I am 42. It might literally be that I am too old for this shit, and whatever I strive for I am not going to be a hot girl. Probably I don’t fully appreciate the IG generation and therefore have no business getting all up in my feelings. Either way, honestly I am not eye-rollingly negative about people forging their path and doing well through hard work and passion, especially when they are clearly meeting a need with their audience. But I am concerned that we will find all we have left is our ability to be sold to, whether by the big companies or by our friends. And what it means when all this white noise is so loud that it drowns out our own truths.

Own your truth and say it out loud – even if it’s not the same as everyone else’s. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

What this means for me is being more thoughtful about who I surround myself with, in real life and in terms of what I consume media-wise. It’s ok to not want what you are told to want, and to give those things no time in your head. It’s ok to be aware of the impact your life and choices have on others and have that be part of how you live with integrity. It’s ok to want more: and for that wanting not to be about the kind of consumer crap that might impress the table at the bar but about forging a real life, for the long term.

And it’s ok to recognise where you are different to others, and to recognise that this doesn’t make you better or make them bad: it just makes you both individual, beautiful humans doing what you can to follow your own star.

What might you need to change to get a clearer vision? Photo by Matt Noble on Unsplash

Cost of living crisis 2: Groceries

Food means a lot to me. At a basic level, it’s a key part of our every day life but it is also somewhere memories are made and locked in. From the soft comfort of my granny’s potato pie (literally mashed potato, onions and cheese baked in a pie dish with cheese on top aka best comfort food ever) to the smokey, social delights of nyama choma and the perfect mukimo accompanied by a cold beer, food is so evocative. A lot of the discussion on my Brilliant Ladies’ Insta are about frugal food and keeping costs low whilst keeping quality and enjoyment high.

Food is central to good times and bad in my culture – no difficult family conversation, lengthy future planning session, or celebration – of either life or death – would be possible without a central table of food to act as referee and peace keeper between the participants. In my own house, food is linked in my mind to love, to taking care of my children and creating a cosy, secure home with our own small traditions.

Oh yes please! Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

These days though there are also two less comforting sides to feeding the family. Firstly, and the focus of this post, is the soaring cost of groceries and how to manage your budget. The second is the ethical aspects of food – industrial farming methods and animal welfare issues, exploitative employment practices, and reliance on cheap imports which have a heavy environmental footprint, are all real concerns when making choices in the supermarket.

Food prices in the UK have traditionally been quite low compared to the rest of Europe, but this ‘golden era‘ came to an end during 2022. Rises in inflation and fuel prices, as well as global shortages and issues with supply chains means that food is getting more expensive. In January, poverty campaigner Jack Monroe highlighted how the way tracking rising prices are calculated glosses over the impact on lower income families. By last month, 92% of Britons claimed they were cutting back on grocery and food costs in order to reduce their outgoings: both in relation to the cost of food but also to save they money needed to respond to increases in fuel and household energy. Food price rises in the UK are shortly expected to have reached 15% within one year. Kenya has seen a similar rise, and is seeing the impact of rising fuel costs on transporting food into and around the country. So it looks like either granny’s potato pie, or that plate of nyama choma, is going to cost a lot more this year.

The modern day equivalent of heading into Tiffany. Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

So – what can you do to keep an eye on your grocery budget?

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.

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 2021 this became 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’. It helps me to remember that this contributes to reducing food waste: UK households throw out the equivalent to a whole month’s worth of grocery budget every year whilst the amount of food wasted across the country could feed half the 7m Britons who are struggling to afford to eat. That’s something worth making our own small changes for in my view.
  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. The real trick though is a) remembering to take the damn list with you (which is why lots of people keep it on a phone app instead) and b) following it when confronted with other options.
  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.
Last week’s food prep in our house – Sunday evening and all is ready…

How is the rising cost of food impacting you? I’d love to hear your tips!

Cost of living crisis 1: Energy

Quick reminder to come and get your flowers (or a random selection of inspiration, poor jokes from me and photos taken my by daughter) on my Insta.

The soaring cost of living crisis is real. You don’t need to understand inflation, changes in base interest rates or why the stock market is having a wobble to know that your supermarket shop is costing more. Indeed, there are so many cause-and-or-effect conversations about the macro-economics of it all that at the moment I don’t care. But I do know that I just got a water bill for the equivalent of £4,000. And that’s just one of my skyrocketing utility bills which are stacking up like an angry little bomb waiting to go off.

I wanted to write a few posts looking at different aspects of what is going on and why, and how we can navigate it and stay sane and solvent. Starting this week with energy as it’s top of mind, and one area where increases are making a terrifying dent in people’s pockets.

Even the moths have flown. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

So what can you do about your energy bills?

My focus here is for the UK though a lot of the household tips are universal. Whilst I live in Denmark, the utility market remains a total mystery. We don’t have many companies, especially since in urban areas a lot of energy is from the Kommune or local council. This means there are no switching or price comparison services. So whilst prices are going through the roof the options are a) turning everything off or b) saving money elsewhere.

In the UK, energy costs have already doubled for many households and will likely rise by October to almost £3,000. With the median income in the UK being £31,400, this means that energy only (not even all utilities) is costing households 10% of their income. Unfortunately switching deals is not likely to make any difference and is not even available to most unless you get an ‘existing customer’ deal. And watch out if you do switch since exit fees have gone up 10 times in the last year.

The idea of creating competition in the energy sector in order to benefit customers has only created a monster market where providers can do what they like. Issues in Ukraine are exacerbating fears around supply, but these price rises have been coming for a while and are only possible on the back of the ‘competitive’ set up.

Pulling money from your bank account all the way into the horizon. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

The main things you can do to save energy are things we should all be doing anyway for environmental purposes. Unfotunately some of them require an outlay at the start which might not be possible in these belt tightening days but some are pretty simple.

Big outlay changes

  • Look at your heating system. Is your boiler efficient? There are simple ways to check. Generally putting in a new boiler unless you absolutely have to isn’t going to save you anything, but when you do, shop around for the most efficient kind going.
  • Think about insulating your house more efficiently. When I was growing up my best friend had cling film across all the windows to reduce heating bills, so it doesn’t all mean huge outlays on triple glazing. There are some great tips on insulation from the Energy Trust – such as fitting a hot water tank with an insulating jacket at a cost of about £25 which will save you £35 a year in heating costs and 115kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Consider generating your own electricity. This can be very expensive, and most of the government grants have ended. But with the energy crisis likely to be long term, it’s worth exploring if you have any spare cash to invest here. Solar is the obvious one for homes, with a lot to think about before you take the leap.
  • Check if your appliances are energy efficient and consider replacing them, once they are dead, with a focus on efficiency. White goods especially – fridge, freezer, washing machine, oven – are massive energy leakers.
Turn off that tumble dryer! Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

Day to day changes

  • Use your timer and thermostat. This is the easiest way to save money and help the environment, just having the heating on when and where you actually need it. Go through the house and turn down radiators where you don’t need them on.
  • Turn down the thermostat already. Most money saving and environmental groups recommend 68 degrees (20 celsius) in the winter. Remember how cold your grandparents’ house was? You’re aiming for a bit warmer than that. Don’t expect to be walking around in a t-shirt, instead invest in a fluffy dressing gown and socks, and pretend it’s intentional hygge.
  • Decide what you will use less. Tumble driers are particularly energy heavy: dry outside in the summer, or get a couple of clothes racks and dry inside. When I lived in a badly ventilated flat, drying clothes inside contributed to mould and meant that I had to have the heating on and the window open so I used to go to the laundrette which takes time and money in a different way. So one to think about how best to manage depending on your circumstances.
  • Turn off all standby appliances, including turning off plugs which aren’t in use. My grandparents always turned everything off at the plug at night in case of lightening – this isn’t a bad idea just in order to stop energy leakage.
  • Make sure you have a full load every time you turn on the washing machine or dish washer. Wash your clothes at 30 degrees – it really does work. Use the eco setting if you have one. The one on my dishwasher lasts 3 hours and is really noisy so I load the dishwasher during the day then put it on after breakfast when I leave for work.
  • Check out your fridge and freezer. Fridges should be set between 3-5 degrees, and freezers need defrosting regularly (this is a job on my list. Note to self – do not do this with a knife or you will regret it). Fridges actually work more efficiently when they are nearly full so add that extra milk or whatever and you will save on the energy bill.
  • If you are really struggling, there might be help: Citizens’ Advice can help out.
Protest signs in London 2022. Flickr/Gary Knight

Finally, consider the politics. My blog is about personal finance, but this is so closely linked to politics that it’s hard to keep out. There might not be simple answers, but the people who are already the most vulnerable are going to be the hardest hit and the most hurt. And that’s something we can all care about.

Don’t Panic!

TL:DR – don’t panic! Whilst I’m not the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, those two little words do have to give particular comfort. Especially without the exclamation mark, which suggests that panic of some kind is right around the corner. But it’s Sunday morning, and I am three coffees in and heading to a kids’ birthday party once I’ve written this, so perhaps I need the drama. But whatever you do, don’t let your panic define your actions.

This week I have been thinking a lot about doom and gloom. More than usual, in any case. I wouldn’t say that I have Eeyore tendancies but the world is a busy, scary and sometime relentless old place these days, so a bit of doom is on the agenda. From the endless heartbreaking news from Ukraine, to the real debates about what the exceptionalism shown in that situation means for the reckoning coming for the colonialist staus quo, to the ridiculous news that the UK has a monkeypox outbreak (I mean – really?): it can feel like the only time I hear the word ‘positive’ is when a friend does a COVID test.

Really don’t, even if you can’t hitchhike your way off the planet

But what is going on in the world of FIRE, of savings and investments? There have been a few things that struck me recently and I try to keep coming back to these:

This is even more true in the world of finances i.e. literally everybody’s day to day world. The soaring cost of living, shortages of fuel, eggs, potatoes or whatever is real. Every time I go to the supermarket there are empty shelves, and shelves full of things at a price that I am not willing to pay. In the UK, the price of cheese (CHEESE!) has gone up by almost one-quarter. Once the costs of Marmite and tea start to spiral out of control we will all be shafted, frankly. (Denmark is powered by licorice and pork products, neither of which we eat so I focus all my crazy-hoarder-lady issues elsewhere).

Beautiful! But can you afford any of it?? Photo by ja ma on Unsplash
  1. Plan for the worst, then remember this is what you did. My Crypto portfolio has totally crashed. In the last two weeks, more than $300 billion has been wiped off the value of Crypto overall, so this is not really a surprise. There was real panic that Coinbase was going to go bust – and take people’s money with it. Whilst that didn’t happen, Luna, a popular Crypto token, did, taking $40bn with it. My reaction has been to do absolutely nothing. I refuse to look at my portfolio other than on the twice-monthly date I always look at it. And then I refuse to act or worry about it. This is based on the fact that when I invested in Crypto, recognising that it is high risk, I did so only with what I consider to be beach money. This is money where if I lose it, it means not taking the kids to the beach in the summer, rather than meaning I can’t pay the rent. So when I freak out about losing it all in Crypto, I try and thank my previous financial planning self, and then just not worry about it.
  2. Remeber you are not a mystic. Don’t make decisions based on crystal ball gazing. The thing weighing much more on my mind is house prices and whether they will crash. And this is also one where my attachment to my net worth is at odds with a moral sense that rapid house price increases really are shafting those less well off in a way which will impact on generational wealth for a long time to come. The reason I put this one under the heading of trying to predict the future, is because a) we really don’t know and b) none of the ‘experts’ can agree. Whilst there is a general sense that the market cannot keep rising, particularly in light of inflation and changes to mortgage interest rates, there is no evidence at this point that the housing market is actually slowing down. I’ve been thinking about selling my house in the UK to diversify my assets but I need to make this decision on a range of factors – none of which is whether I can guess the future.
  3. Use this time to deep dive into your risk tolerance and decision making, rather than wanting to act. In March 2020, I panicked, and sold out a significant chunk of my investments. This was based literally on being inexperienced, and freaking out. I wrote a lot about it at the time, both the why and the results. This has definitely impacted on my holdings now but I have to chalk it up to an experience that I needed to get better at investing. It also gave me space to think about what my risk tolerance really really looks like, and how I can build that in to my investing (and my life).
Beautiful! But can you afford any of it? 😉 Photo by Travel-Cents on Unsplash

More next week on overall approaches to investing, but I wanted to start with some thinking – and reassurance – that however doom laden the picture is, panicking is definitely not the answer. Trust yourself, your knowledge, and your planning. You’ll survive the storm.

Don’t forget if you want more cakes/sunrises/Barbies and less doom, come and join me on Insta.

Baggage ≠ Peace

So I have been out for a while, trying to deal with being very close to burnout. Feeling better now, but taking that space was critical. I tend to keep pushing myself well beyond what is a good idea, then getting surprised when things start to fall apart. The last few weeks I have been thinking about this and about the sense of going through life with baggage – as a single parent but also in general, as we all do – with the results and scars of our past mistakes and misfortunes, fears and triggers.

This is showing up in my life in a few ways at the moment. From the FIRE perspective, for many people the concept of baggage means coming into this journey deep in debt. And not just in debt, but with the habits, choice and often value systems which led to that debt in the first place. For me as with others, it’s more coming in and realising what I have wasted in getting here and what kind of different position I could be in. But the worst waste of time would be to get stuck in those feelings instead of getting up and at it. Your time is always now.

I was talking to a friend last night who has recently become an expat, a move which has given him a bird’s eye view of his home town. Realising that the years of making just enough money to go out and kick it with friends meant living life, which was all about ‘having fun’ actually kept him in stasis for decades. Now this could be a cause for regret. But equally, our journeys are what made us: looking backward and sneering at our younger selves is not going to change the past, though it might diminish the value that we did find. Being able to make peace with whatever our baggage is – the poor decisions, the risks that we miscalculated, that person we continued to trust in spite of there being more red flags than the bunting at the Communist Party conference – is to make it manageable and be able to take that past along on a brand new journey.

I wrote a while ago about loving what is‘ – that sense of accepting and loving the present just as it is, something which is a critical step on the pathway to peace. The ability to reflect on my own triggers and limiting beliefs means that I can at least recognise them when they come up. Something like shaking hands across the divide. This is what making baggage manageable means to me: it’s not denying it but recognising my part in it, and the positives that either came through the results or through the journey. Kind of like taking a luggage trolley full of giant suitcases, feeding them into a magic vortex machine, and coming out with a little badge that you wear to remember without being tripped over by it. Or, as per my experience last week, you can just give your bags to Kenya Airways and never see them again. Either way, it works.

Making peace can be hard. It can also feel counter-intuitive in a world where – especially with FIRE, and at my stage of life – it’s all about striving. How is it possible to come from a place of tranquility and still have enough drive to get out there? The quote above from Eckhart Tolle speaks to this I think. So much of what we do is about rearranging circumstances, or the small things (or indeed the deckchairs on the Titanic) instead of rearranging how we look on the inside.

Don’t get me wrong, this internal rearranging can be just as tough as making peace. Encouraging the tectonic plates to shift inside you requires tenacity and strength. Especially when it raises questions about whether you will continue to accept the systems you have been brought up with, to live inside the structures you have internalised and all the comfortable spots you’re used to seeking solace in, however damaging.

As I start the long process of moving back to Nairobi, being able to focus on the inner work instead of the busy-work of administration, is critical. The organising bit is easy (actually it’s a massive pain in the ass, but meh) but the work on finding my peace is much harder. Who am I now, as opposed to when I last lived there? Who are my people, how do I feel about how I have moved compared to them and the spaces we find ourselves in? What are the values I have instilled in my myself and my own children and how will these blend or clash? How can I stay open to the great things coming whilst not being so attached to certain things working out that for them to go wrong would destroy me?

All those questions are critical but they aren’t things I need answers to right now. Coming to them with an internal stillness and certainty gives a certain protection both from the intensity of negative results and from freaking the F out. That has to be worth it.