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 Crypot 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.

Happy New (tax) year!

Ah here we are again. In the inexplicable British system (is it to do with an old byelaw about swords? No?) the tax year runs from 6th April, so this time of year always feels like a time for a fresh start. It might feel more like this if it would stop snowing and really get on with the business of Turning On Spring but let’s see. Oh, and it also means a bunch of work, but we’re here for that too.

So what are the things you need to be thinking about?

As with all new year’s exercises it boils down to wrapping up last year and preparing for the next one. There will be some major changes to be aware of for the 2022-23 year, thanks to Rishi Sunak’s budget but if you want fuller details of what those are I suggest you have a look at this fuller list of upcoming tax changes and what they might mean for you. Basically – he has likely done you no favours. In a post in 2020 I actually used a picture of Rishi but this year I can’t do it, even ironically. It feels like we are all being pushed too close to the financial brink to find any of this funny any more.

My main focus today is on the wrapping up at the end of the tax year. This means two things: preparing for my tax return and looking back on how I spent, saved or invested my money. This week I will focus on prepaing tax returns, in order to get the boring stuff out of the way first.

Prepare for your tax return

Caveat: Firstly, I am not a financial advisor (pretty obviously, I mean my personal finance Instagram is mostly pictures of Barbies or food). There are lots of people out there who can help you with all the details of your taxes, and I am not one of them. But I am sharing my own approach here because why not.

Secondly, not everyone needs to do a tax return. However if you are the following then you do:

  • You are working for yourself – either as someone who is self-employed or someone who makes income from additional sources to their regular job which is not taxed elsewhere, e.g. from rental income;
  • You are a partner in a partnership business;
  • You are a minister of religion – any faith or denomination;
  • You are a trustee or the executor of an estate.

If you are unclear, the best thing is to consult an Independent Financial Advisor since getting it wrong in either direction could cost you a lot of time and stress.

Spring is in the air, though taking its own sweet time to arrive…. Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

As with so many things in life, the best time to start preparing for your tax return is this time last year. No really. The easiest way to do your taxes is little by little, so if you can get cracking with a simple spreadsheet and way of monitoring income and expenses, your life will be so much easier next year.

Of course the complexity of your tax directly relates to the complexity of your income. I have income from employment, from a rental property, from savings interest (but not dividends which have separate rules), and some overseas stuff plus I also pay into a personal pension which has its own tax benefits. So I need to complete four forms. HMRC really are the best place to start since their factsheets and whatnot are actually quite helpful. Another great thing about getting started early is you can call HMRC and ask them questions before they get closer to the 31st October deadline for filing paper forms and start to have a collective breakdown.

HMRC – surprisingly helpful if you get in early. Photo credit.

So the first things to do are to make sure you know if you need to file a self assessment; and if so, what forms do you need to complete. Once you have that, you can pull together all of your paperwork and start ploughing through it. You will need to know what expenses you can claim, and make sure you keep copies of all relevant documents.

In terms of when and how you get organised, you can do what I do and have a personal date night once a month with all my financial paperwork and a beer and just get it done. I do feel a little bit squirmy and sad saying that, but I find it so much easier than getting in a panic once a year. I also have a friend who has a week long retreat with her tax return and uses it as a way of engaging with gratitude for the year that has past. Whilst I absolutely love that as an approach, it’s not for me. So – as with every element of personal finance – go ahead and find whatever works to make the process as simple and painless for you as possible.

Even in your tax return.

See – I managed to talk about tax returns without making a joke about Rishi Sunak’s family circumstances. So anything is possible!

What are you going to do today to further your personal or financial journey? Whatever it is, I hope it will be full of joy.

My portfolio: what’s it made of?

I’ve been writing a series of posts about what it feels like to reach a net worth goal and also what it has made me reflect on in terms of what you actually need to retire on. This post is an exploration of my portfolio and what it means to me, both now and around next steps on planning. Do come and join me on Insta where I also look at my day to day actions and thoughts on all these things (and some more random stuff as well, let’s be honest).

So, what is my portfolio built up of?

It’s made up of three different areas, each of which has its own story and function.

Pensions £   234,973
Savings £      39,207
Property equity £    443,497
TOTAL £     717,677
Net worth as of February 2022
A lot of my net worth is property equity which is not really accessible but means I can dream about living in a fabulous house like this on in Nairobi…

Property

So 60% of my net worth is property equity. This is across two homes. I rented out my main residence in the UK when I got a job overseas and it is still tenanted. This means that the interest rate isn’t great (abot 4%) but I have focused on paying off this mortgage as a matter of priority. That’s based largely on my risk appetite (AKA terror of losing my job and making my kids homeless) and whilst I realise it might not be the most rationale approach to wealth building, it gives me a sense of comfort. I had a huge deposit from the sale of my previous home, so the mortgage was only £156,000 to start with and I have paid off £111,000 in the past six years.

This property is also my only passive income stream, bringing in £1,250 gross, or about £900 net of all costs since I have a letting agent manage it and of course have to ensure that everything is in good working order.

My second property is the home that we live in in Denmark. I wrote a lot about the decision to buy, and then about freaking out about the cost of property here but on balance I still think it was the right decision. Aside from the ridiculous cost of rent, the housing market is crazy at the moment and I have friends who cannot find places to rent. So again – it’s not just a financial decision but one about stability.

I don’t try and overpay the mortgage on this house. Partly because it’s so huge I just won’t make a dent, but also because we will sell this when we move country again. So since housing is a significant monthly cost, I just pay it and hope that I get a return on investment that is better than paying rent to someone else.

I am interested in having more of a property porfolio but it’s so hard in the UK. I listen to a lot of great FIRE podcasts from the US and everything – from the financing, to the market – just seems miles away. There are also ethical issues, in both directions, about being a private landlord but that’s a post for another day.

Savings

The result of buying a second home though was that my savings and investments took a massive hit. I went from almost £100,000 in savings to around £20,000 which I have built back up. That amount includes my emergency fund of £10,000 and the rest is in a stocks and shares ISA.

This is the area that I really want to focus on as there is so much room for growth. I also feel very property heavy in terms of the portfolio overall, and it’s money that just stays tied up.

Whether you’re saving for a rainy day or a cloud forest holiday, this is the most flexible part of your portfolio. Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Pensions

So this is the confusing area I think. Most of the FIRE community talks about total pension pots, and for me that is around

But the majority of my pensions are defined benefit which works totally differently. Have a look here for a simple explanation but basically, defined benefit means that the pot doesn’t really matter: what I will receive as a pension is guaranteed. This is a great place to be in lots of ways, though it is limited in terms of flexibility. I can’t, for example, decide where those pensions are invested. But in terms of security and planning they really work.

So what is interesting is not so much the overall pot as how much each one will pay out in retirement. The figures below show both the current pot value calculated as the transfer value (what I would get if I cashed out or wanted to move it) and also what it’s scheduled to pay out. All of the defined benefit schemes pay out when I am 67, so I also need to focus on what could be quite a long period to bridge if I want to retire at 50.

One thing to note is that the third pension pot will pay that out if I carry on contributing at this level for another two years – if I leave the job before then, they just pay me out the transfer value. So I need to stay here at least a bit longer!

PensionsTransfer valuePension on retirement
TOTALS £ 234,973£23,316
 SIPP £ 42,983£400
 Defined benefit pension 1 £ 39,462£1,400
 Defined benefit pension 2 £ 62,304£6,250
 Defined benefit pension 3 £ 90,224£15,266

You can see from this that they aren’t all equal. Each one has a totally different rate of return.

It does make me question the value of investing in the SIPP, as works out as a 1% rate of withdrawal which doesn’t seem that smart. Once I lock in my defined benefit pensions, I might stop this one and focus on saving and investing in other ways.

So that’s it. There are other very small pots in there like crypto but these are the real pillars of my financial plan. I do need to think about rebalancing them but for now I will end on a picture of the kitchen from that same house – because dreaming big is what it’s all about.

Kitchen goals

What do you actually need to retire on?

Last week I wrote about how my net worth is now $950,000, and how I was feeling about it. Do come and join me on Insta where I tell the same stories but with a lot fewer words, and with photos of Barbies. What’s not to like?!

This week I want to talk through what the limitations of my net worth are. Not because I’m ungrateful or want to scare off people who are much earlier on in the journey, but because there are impacts to how we organise a portfolio which means that net worth doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story in terms of what I need to retire on.

So let’s go back to basics. The FIRE approach to early retirement takes as standard the 4% rule: basically, you need to save 25 times your annual financial requirements, then you will be able to withdraw 4% each year in a way which will keep you going for at least 30 years.

Yes ma’am! Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash

There has been a huge amount of discussion on this in the FIRE community and outside. The 4% rule comes from the fairly standardised view of return on investment in the stock market. The S&P500 for example has an annualised return rate of 7.5% over the past decades. So if you assume inflation gobbles up 3%, you’re left with 4% that you can withdraw before impacting on the capital.

Right now, there are commentators noting that the 4% rule might not work as well in future, as the stock market goes into a period of instability (or, you know, total global apocalyptic meltdown). Others point out that, on balance, the markets always right themselves eventually. At the point of drawdown though the issue is this – if you are retired and you need to spend out of your portfolio, you can’t wait for the market to resettle, and you can’t withdraw based on an average. So if you need to take money at a challenging time when the markets are down, you will either only be able to take out less, or it will diminish your capital.

As an aside, if you are new to this journey you really don’t need to know everything about the stock market but you might want to explore a little – I love Paula Pant’s recent basics guide.

Enjoy yourself! Either by talking about the stock market, or by planning your fantasy life when you retire. I know which I prefer… Photo by Jay-Pee Peña 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

(Side bar – I do my financial planning in GBP£ but calculate my net worth in US$ because it looks better. I know, I know, the games we play with ourselves…)

The reason this matters is because it has a significant impact on how much you need to save in the first place. I worked on the basis that I need £30,000 per year to live on – there are a lot of assumptions and years of budgeting behind this, but broadly, it works. Which? have a fascinating annual survey of how much retirees spend annually, and they calculate that £31,000 per year is enough for a single person to have a ‘luxury retirement’. But this assume the person is older, without the need to financially support children or their own elderly parents. It also says that spending on food and drink dramatically decrease and let’s face it – that’s not going to be me.

To withdraw 4% and have this be £30,000 per year in retirement, I would need to save 25 times that amount. So 25 x 30,000 = £750,000 ($975,000), which is very close to where I am. Using a more conservative approach would suggest using the 3% rule instead, or saving 33 x 30,000 = £990,000 ($1.23m).

There are lots of caveats to this in terms of how you do your planning and what it means, but it is also a stark reminder of where the mindful money aspect comes in to play. It sounds obvious, but the more you want to spend in the future, the more you have to save now. This also means looking at paying down debt, or paying off your home: basically balancing your expenditure with your planning.

Gather up your courage and do your calculations. Big Shaq is with you!

That means that the first and most important step is to know your numbers. Next week I will walk through my portfolio and some of the challenges in calculating an early retirement age, especially around accounting for defined benefit pensions, and deciding how to treat buying a house vs renting, as well as understanding what each of these options means in your planning.

Until then, I hope you enjoy working through some of your numbers. I’d love to hear from you, here or on Insta, about how it’s going and whether there are any more hacks and ideas I can help with.

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!

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.

We bought a $1m house!

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

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

Yes WE can 😉 Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

In case I didn’t mention it enough 😉

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

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

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

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

Getting ready for this… Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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

Budget Check In: May

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

Hurray for May! Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budget Check In: April

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

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

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

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

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

  • The majority of the addition was holiday costs where I spent £2,154, making the non-holiday total £4,319 which I don’t feel too bad about. That is a LOT less than I spent last year because I wasn’t bounced into booking whatever holiday clubs were left. It covers six weeks of holiday clubs (three per child) doing a mix of swimming, football, trampoline camp and a STEM camp for my daughter which looks awesome. It also covers flights to the UK and a week’s Air BnB for me to go and spend some quality time with my friends which, let’s be honest after 14 months at home, I am desperate for. So I am pretty pleased. I will need to hire a car, and spend some other bits but that should be the bulk of the holiday spend. All in all though I definitely under budget for holidays and I will need to make a plan since I have spent the entire annual holiday budget.
  • I spent again on personal care including visits to the dentist for all of us. This is something I should be able to claim back, but for now I will leave it here and balance it at the end of the quarter. For now I have lovely clean teeth and a sticker which says ‘I was brave at the dentist’.
  • I spent about £300 on gifts which is mostly for my daughter’s birthday, but included a few things for friends and family who are far away and having a hard time. I try to concentrate on being lovingly in touch with people by phone and message, but sometimes a little something in the post can make a big difference, so I am ok with spending money here.
Getting that giddy spring feeling. Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash
 Monthly saving planApril% of plan
Mortgage (UK house)  £                500 £              500100
Mortgage Overpayment  £                500 £              500100
Emergency Fund  £                  100 £               100100
ISA £               1,250 £               50040
Kids savings £                   248 £               248100
SIPP £                   300 £               300100
  £   2,898.00 £ 2,348.0087

So what did I save? Again I focused on getting the last of the money together for our house move in July, so I have saved the removal costs and some extra for getting things painted etc. So there is nothing amazing in terms of savings this month but I carried on with the usual basics which is still savings (or paying toward capital) of £ 2,348.

So this month, a very unimpressive savings rate of 20% compared to spending 80%. In theory though I should be able to to save more over the coming months since those big holiday costs are paid out, so I will make a plan to do so. And head back toward more conscious spending once the thrilling spring feelings start to wear off.

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

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