Finding beauty

Ah, life. From Life improvements, to one small thing, to overwhelm, to just being flat-out knackered. I am glad to be here and writing as part of my commitment to writing this blog, but I have no thoughts in my head this week. It’s (finally) a beautiful day, and I just want to lie on the grass and enjoy the big blue sky.

Sometimes, I think it’s ok to just do what you want. To focus on the pleasure and not the end result.

Maybe that’s always a better way to enjoy the journey?

We’re supposed to be getting ready to move house, and this week I just didn’t want to deal with is. So I sorted through my two bookshelves, gave away the books that didn’t ‘spark joy‘. And then colour-coded the rest.

Love it or hate it (or want to tweak it) – colour-coding works for me

It turns out that colour-coding your bookshelves is a hotly debated topic. Which suggest that we all have too much time on our hands, but anyway. Some people think that it turns books into home decor rather than the very serious life statement that they are. But they *are also* decor – I look at them, in my bedroom, every day. These are books which have travelled with me, many for a long time, and form part of my mental furniture. I know what colour they are and can find them to read. And if I can’t I have just as many minutes to find it as I would if I couldn’t remember the author.

I also spent an evening making a piece of art work, thinking about movement, connection, and flow. Did it help me save more money? Nope. Did it prepare lunches for tomorrow? Not at all. But it did help me get back into some kind of flow state where I could tap into something that wasn’t just the daily grind.

Art (sort of)

In some ways this is a much more FIRE mentality that the 18-hours-a-day laser focus that I had last week. Yes of course do the work, but stop and smell the roses. And find ways where doing the work creates some freedom for you to put down the worries and the stress and get things done without thinking, second-guessing or being anxious.

Like I have to make food, but the meal-planning and budgeting around grocery shopping means that I can either mindlessly throw something together or I can take a little bit of time to make something lovely.

It reminds me a bit of Catherine Gray‘s book ‘The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary‘ – or indeed the Disney movie Soul – both of which are about taking life one deep lungful of fresh air at a time, and enjoying them all as much as possible. Truly, each one is a gift, even if it’s full of meetings, and emails, and stressy moment. There are always tiny nuggets of joy, if you look for them.

The fierce beauty of lunch

So that’s it for this week. I would love to hear about your tiny gems of joy for this week!

Overwhelm

I feel like I’m getting down to brass tacks here. My last two posts felt like digging down: from looking to improve by 1%, to trying to do just one thing. This week I have been feeling overwhelmed, and not trying to improve anything.

I want to recognise here that I am writing as a single parent, and for many of us overwhelm is just moments away at any given time. It’s also a terrifying prospect – if I fall apart, who will step in? For some people, a nearby and responsible co-parent might be on hand, or grandparents and that is wonderful. But for many, there isn’t anyone. As an expat with long working hours I have always relied on paid help which is both a solution and a cause of guilt and, frankly, expense, administration and extra work on my part.

There are no photos of my family like this, since if someone was standing behind us taking pictures it would be a matter for the police. Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

The invisible workload of mothering (yes, mothering rather than parenting, unless you are a single dad – recognising it and owning it as gendered is a feminist position) is exhausting. There is a great post from 2018 called ‘the invisible workload of motherhood is killing me‘ which, of course, I only just found time to read. Its is an accurate and helpful portrayal of what parenting looks like – and it’s just the day to day of parenting, not what it looks like to be trying to reach FIRE, or date, or anything else at the same time.

Motherhood is in any case fraught with issues. There have been a host of articles recently about fatherhood during the pandemic and how dads are starting to appreciate the whole of parenting. But this is against a background in which women are expected to take the domestic burden (unless someone chooses to step in), though we are also expected to work as well, though by the time a woman’s oldest child is 12 she is likely to be paid one-third less than male counterparts. On my FIRE journey, earning less, and being responsible for each and every cost in the home, has a significant impact on the timeline, and likelihood of becoming financially independent. It’s not like there aren’t exceptions of course. But the system is stacked against single mothers, and in my experience, also has no sympathy for us. I would be furious, if I wasn’t so tired.

And all the rest…. Credit Erica Djossa, https://www.instagram.com/happyasamother/

Following my last two posts, I have been hyper-aware this week of why I am overwhelmed. And it’s two things – first, the sheer magnitude of All The Things. Work, kids, feeding everyone, administration of the home, family and friends, and anything I need. Secondly, it’s the constant mental engagement – the ‘invisible workload’. Planning, organizing, working around, being in communication, trying to soothe, calm, engage, nourish and play.

I. Am. Knackered.

So this week I just want to get off my chest what last week, a pretty average week (since the kids are back in school but I am still not travelling yet), looks like.

Up at 5am every day. Drink coffee, shower. Put on some cream which is supposed to stop my now 40-year-old face looking like a pterodactyl. One hour’s work before getting the kids up. Make breakfasts (remembering who doesn’t like what, this week, or today) include fruit and vitamins. Drink more coffee. Answer work WhatsApp messages whilst listening to kids. Have the news on the radio – answer questions from my eldest about Gaza. Clear up breakfast stuff, get everyone to brush teeth and hair, check bags and out the door. Cycle with kids to school then either cycle home or to the office to start work by 8.30 – cycled 24 miles in total last week.

Work. Just so much of it. Last week I had 43 meetings, many of them back-to-back (to the point where I have to turn off video and sneak out to pee). Meetings with offices in Bangladesh at 6am my time, or with Colombia at 10pm my time. Meetings which I have to prepare for, do slide decks for, present at wearing a proper jacket and with brushed hair. Meetings which I get invited to 30 minutes before hand. Then reviewing documents, checking budgets, writing things for other people to present in other meetings. Sometimes getting overwhelmed by the heartbreak of working in the humanitarian field, where the work we do is to prevent human tragedy, but the human tragedies continue on a horrifying scale.

Do all the other things which are about staying ‘professionally relevant’ and making up for the time I spent off work at home with the kids. This week it was co-chairing a conference, so review 64 papers (to be fair, I did this over two weeks but outside of office hours). Have calls with peers, including people who want advice, and people I want to advise me. Fiddle about on LinkedIn to feel engaged.

Every day is a fresh start, and a 17-hour marathon. Photo by Alysha Rosly on Unsplash

Organise kids’ after school stuff, though I don’t usually pick them up (which they hate – please mummy please pick us up from school all the other mums are there). One playdate at our house, one at another. Make sure bags are ready for football training, call another mum about sharing pickup after one session. Swimming club, ballet, blah. Encourage children to carry on when they want to give up, listen to enthusiastic replays when they are excited. Give pep talks when they are not picked for something, like my daughter this week after not getting a part in a ballet after auditioning. Organise birthday party – emails emails to a trampoline place, checking prices, feeling guilty about throwing money at the problem rather than having them all do something wholesome and free at my house where I pick playdoh out of the carpet for weeks afterwards. Invite others, navigate times, dietary requirements, passive-aggressive responses. Order balloons for the birthday itself, wrap presents (thanking Previous Self who bought them).

Make six dinners (four people since I do all the cooking and we have a nanny who eats with us) = so 24 dinners. One take away as it’s a birthday. Make packed lunches for the three of us for all five days = 15 lunches. Meal plan and shop based on this, calorie count everything for myself for six days (not Saturday, that’s free). Continually stay aware of what we have in the cupboards and fridge, who might want something different, what we ate last week so that I don’t get complaints of sameness. Two supermarket visits, the main Sunday one then another one for bread/milk/eggs/fruit on Thursday. Discuss and think endlessly about how to eat better food which has less impact on the planet; how to get my daughter to eat more fruit and veg; and how much I resent always being responsible for cooking.

Got to the gym twice (for a special physiotherapist work out where I get chased around by a shouting man who makes me do squats outside where People Can See). One massage – first for 18 months, definitely the highlight. One coaching session. Read two books – finished one from last week and finally read City of Girls. Plan, research and write this blog. Hoover (not weekly, let’s be clear) the car and filed it with petrol; applied for a new driving license; paid a bill for my house in the UK; argued a utility bill for the house in Denmark which insists I pay upfront for a full year even though we are moving in July. Called my mum four times, and other friends and family – including a friend who I WhatsApp with on a daily basis – as much as possible, usually whilst doing some of the other things. Weekly budget check in – review all back accounts including savings, check spend, work out what to move around if I have gone over.

Make sure kids are bathed, teeth brushed, ready for the next day and in bed. Read to them, referee usual argument (not sure what it is about 19.30 which turns my kids into savages but there you go). Tuck them in, sing songs, calm and soothe twice when one of them came downstairs upset about something (once, a kid at school who was mean; second time, climate change and when we are all going to die). Look at their beautiful sleeping faces and ache with love. Go to bed and prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

Today’s One Thing: micro-improvements

After my blog post last week on improving by 1%, I spent the week thinking about fear and procrastination. Sometimes, even 1% can feel massive. I am personally guilty of thinking ‘oh I won’t bother with the 1% thing, it’s too small – instead next week I will do the 10% thing’. So – I won’t bother cycling today, I’ll do a proper workout tomorrow. I won’t bother counting my calories today, I’ll fast tomorrow.

In the words of the pantomime audience – oh no you won’t!

Especially if you are feeling overwhelmed, trying to make big changes feels, well, overwhelming. I can also be suspicious of the 1% idea, since it suggests that more will always need to be done. And like my small, vegetable-refusing daughter, I know damn well that it isn’t going to end with one green bean on the plate.

So today I wanted to list out some single actions which you can take. Just do one thing – then celebrate. Since FIRE for me is about living more intentionally, these aren’t just about finance but also about wellbeing.

I think of these as minimum viable actions: there is enough of a reason to do them, but not enough hassle or energy / resources required to refuse. Don’t worry about the next one, or the scale up version. Maybe it will lead to a rich new habit, or maybe you will have just done one thing. Either way, I call that a win.

Do one thing! Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

Health

  1. Breathe. Yeah yeah, if you didn’t do this one thing you wouldn’t be doing much of anything else. But actually breathing is the core to so many wellbeing approaches, including mindfulness and meditation. I always intend to do more of both but never quite find the time. Instead, just take one minute to focus on your breath. Spend that minute counting your breaths, with your hands on your abdomen, and noticing the breath coming in and out. There is a specific one-minute breathing approach in some yogic traditions and lots more to read on this one. But for me, it’s a reboot which I do after I’ve had a stressful meeting, or between work and dealing with the kids, or before driving.
  2. Have a glass of water. Drinking water has so many benefits. It can improve your mood, energy levels and clarity of thinking. Lots of times people think they are hungry they are actually thirsty, so it can also help you eat mindfully as and when you need to. Being dehydrated can make you feel sluggish, and lead to headaches, difficulty sleeping, and dry skin. Sometimes the messaging – drink 8 glasses a day! Or more! – can feel overwhelming. So just go and drink one, maybe even right now. Job done!
  3. Say no to something you don’t really want anyway. I am a sucker for grand statements. ‘I will never eat any more sweet treats in the office’. ‘I will never eat bread again’. Hm. I think we know how this one ends. Plus I use these mythical aspirations as an excuse to not ‘just do one thing’ – in this case, saying no. Try it: on cookies in the office; bread brought to the table in a restaurant; your mother’s insistence on another helping; the third beer. It doesn’t have to be the start of a regime (though it might be…) but breaking the habit of just saying yes is part of more intentionally choosing your desired response to every single decision you make.
Do one thing! Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Finance

  1. Notice if you are thinking toxic money thoughts. This might sound a bit ‘woo’ but it is genuinely hard to make changes if you are always undermining yourself. Talking all over yourself in a Sarcastic Bystander Voice whilst trying to plan or make good decisions will always mean that you lose. So for your one thing, just call it out once. If you hear the internal monologue crank up with the ‘I’ll always be broke’ – ‘it’s so much easier for them’ – ‘as a single parent, I have not hope getting out of this mess’ – turn that record off. It is exhausting battling yourself on this and you are much less likely to succeed. I love Jen Sincero’s book You Are a Badass at Making Money which goes into a lot more thinking on how to get past negative money stories, but today – all you have to do is try and turn down the volume on one thought.
  2. Check your bank accounts. All of them. Make sure you are not locked out of online banking, that you can access them all. You might set it up on your phone. Either way, checking your account means you are sure what you have (or not); what has been coming and going in terms of spend. You might notice a transaction you don’t recognise, or a direct debit you could cancel. Or you might have some extra in there that you can find a purpose for. Either way, knowing what is going on inside your bank account means that you are more able to control it. If the idea makes you feel anxious, know you are not alone – but consider whether the anxiety is really about what’s in your account, or what it means in terms of steps you might have to take.
  3. Look into your work place pension. Ok, this might feel like a sneaky way of introducing One Massive Thing, but at this point all you are doing is research. If you are employed, even part time, a work place pension is likely to be the easiest and potentially one of the best things you can do in terms of planning for retirement. In the UK as in most countries, there is also tax relief which makes it a great way to build up money – and if your employer has a match, you also get free money as a benefit of working for them. Since it comes out of your wages before they hit your bank account, it’s a simple thing to ‘set and forget’.
Do one thing! Even listening to music is a good change.

Wellbeing

  1. Replace one news bulletin with music. I am a sucker for radio – I love to know what’s going on in the world, and to keep up to date. But the constant bombardment of news these days, including how accessible and immediate it is, can feel overwhelming. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence that suggests humans have negativity-bias meaning that we internalise bad news and mentally engage with it in a way that we don’t with good news. So, why not try replacing one session of news with something else? For me, I also don’t make enough time for music which I love and really lifts my mood, so in a double-whammy I replace one bulletin with great tunes. It doesn’t stop there being bad things in the world, but neither does listening to the news on repeat.
  2. Replace one TV show with something more creative. You might not watch TV but if you do, try skipping one show to do something else. The 30 minutes or one hour could be just what you need. And it doesn’t need to be something huge – do a jigsaw puzzle (I’m not 80 years old, it’s a pandemic truth); read a book that you have had for ages but not started; make a delicious lunch for tomorrow; draw or paint something; find your knitting wool, crochet hooks or what not and put them somewhere you can reach them when the TV goes back on. TV isn’t bad, but there are other things you could do too, just once.
  3. Get some nature. Nature Deficit Disorder is really a thing, though a lot of the research focuses on children. Basically any interaction with the outdoors, is a good thing. From stopping work to spend a few minutes looking out of the window at whatever natural phenomenon you can see, to going for a full-on hike, every minute counts. Humans are programmed to engage with and respond to the environment in which we live, but modern life can make us feel disconnected. For your one thing it depends on where and how you live – but see if you can take a 20 minute walk; grow some herbs on your windowsill; or even just open the window. I changed my screensaver to a forest picture, and whilst it seems like a cop-out, just looking at it makes me feel better.

So – small things, and one-offs. Don’t forget to celebrate when you do something, however small it is – you got this.

1% Better: micro-improvements

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

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

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

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

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

Make one health change

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

But the following are permanent changes which make a difference:

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

Make one financial change

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

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

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

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

FIRE and Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ron Smith on Unsplash

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

Happy new (tax) year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity and FIRE: living along the way

Since my FIRE journey is all about living a fuller and more intentional life overall – as well as trying to organise the financial wherewithal to live on my terms – creativity is something I’ve been thinking about a lot more. With the COVID lockdown I also started to feel that I don’t have creative outlets, and a 100% focus on either work or my kids means that there are gaps in terms of fun, time for myself, and a way of living chunks of time in my imagination rather than constantly in this somewhat dystopian world.

I always thought I wasn’t creative. In particular: I cannot draw for toffee, can’t play an instrument, can’t do ‘crafts’ like sewing and knitting, and haven’t really got pleasure out of trying those things. I have friends who are brilliant at all these creative endeavours and I love to see this in them, but I’ve always thought ‘so sad, but that’s not for me’.

So recently I have been trying to reclaim creativity, to think about what it means for me in this brave new life I’m trying to create. Partly this means thinking differently about what it means to be creative.

Last weekend’s Friday night dinner. How many pomegranate seeds makes it stay winter again? Since it’s still snowing in April I will keep eating these babies and hoping it brings on spring.

Firstly, it doesn’t have to be art. I love to cook and bake, making beautiful things which are also delicious. Is it less creative because cooking feels like such a mundane task? Really consciously engaging in cooking – or anything – makes it transcend the every day and become a more imaginative and fun process. There are days I slap something in the oven and forget about it, but there are days when the warm fug of the kitchen, the murmur of the radio and the smell of fresh bread just makes everything feel that little bit better.

As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic,Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy‘.

Secondly I realised that with something of a negative mindset, if I am good at something then I don’t consider it to have a value. My internal story is ‘I’m not creative’. ‘I’m not arty’. ‘I’m not good at this stuff’. But when talking about it, I do create – not just delicious kitchen goodies but this blog for example, or long, involved bedtime stories for my kids. I used to DJ back in the day, and I love to sing. Being musical isn’t just about whether you got piano lessons as a child, nor whether you took up learning an instrument during the pandemic though that’s awesome too.

Both of these things relate to my FIRE journey in a lot of ways. From being mindful in all the things I do, to looking for ways to scale things which come easily rather than always look for the hard route. But there are two things that stand out for me when I think of FIRE and creativity: that frugality is creative, and how much people feel ‘just getting by’ stifles their creativity and drives them to FIRE and goals to live life doing what they love.

Image credit Ignite the Spark who also run a fabulous course if you need more creativity in your life

Living a frugal life means being creative.

The easy or fast way to get something done is often just to throw money at the problem. Creativity means thinking around a problem – do I need that? Is there another way to achieve that goal? Looking for alternative solutions can be creative and thrifty as well as very satisfying. I try not to buy much in the way of clothes, which means looking for new ways to dress up old outfits, even if this just means putting them together differently. I also try not to waste money on days out (though this isn’t always easy) so thinking of fun ways to hang out with the kids also leans on a creative approach and finding new ways to appreciate familiar things and opportunities.

Lots of people on the FIRE journey are doing it so they can live their creative dreams. Do what you love is great advice, but does it stop being true when you are trying to make a living from it? There are lots of great resources in the community about making an income from creative pursuits and the extent to which this is possible (or desirable) – I loved this from Our Next Life. For me I am happy with my day job, but there is so much more to life.

What do you do to get creative? What part does creativity play in your FIRE journey? I’d love to hear from you!

Budget Check In: March

Spring is springing (it’s Denmark so it seems to happen pretty late). The weather has been beautiful, the evenings getting longer, and there’s a delicious smell in the air. Budget-wise March has two close family birthdays, mothering Sunday, Easter, and school holidays. I did calculate how much I had spent half way through the month, then once again had a massive splurge in the last week. I thought about it and realised it’s because I get paid on the 23rd of the month but budget per calendar month. For some reason I can’t cope with the thought of managing the month differently so for now I am going to try and be aware of my final-week-free-for-all and see if that works.

A quarter of the way through the year already! Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash
Item Monthly BudgetSpend March % of monthly budget
Childcare costs £           1,100.00 £         1,000.6291
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £              125.00 0
Charity £                 66.67 £              28.3843
Eating out £              120.00 £              90.1675
Entertainment – subscription £                 50.00 £            118.15236
Entertainment £              100.00 £              50.8051
Kids – extra curricular £              250.000
Family £                 50.000
Groceries £              400.00 £            714.38179
Holidays  £              300.00 £            329.89 
Insurance £              200.00 £            169.3585
Personal care £                 30.00 £            248.94830
Shopping – general £                 25.00 £              14.8960
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays £                 58.33 £            251.85432
Shopping – clothes £                 29.17 0
Rent and Bills £           1,500.00 £         1,771.00118
Transport £                 41.67 £            159.18382
Utilities £              200.00 £            186.1593
TOTALS £       4,645.83 £         5,133.74111

So how did it go? Better than February, worse than January. I spent £5,133, or 11% over budget. It could have been better, but could have been worse.

  • I absolutely beasted my grocery budget AGAIN which is infuriating. I managed to spend 180% of the monthly budget which is ridiculous. I realised I have one particular trap which is the fancy supermarket delivery service (only one place does this in Denmark and it’s way more expensive than my usual Lidl) – that added £200 with no real added value.
  • I spent a lot on personal care which I had hardly budgeted for. Thanks to working from home, both my son and I have developed back and neck issues and have to go to physiotherapy. He, lucky chap, gets to go to an osteopath: I get a scary Norwegian man who shouts at me whilst I do horrendous exercises. So I spent a lot more than planned but I do get back 80% from our health insurance company which means that the £250 I spent should actually be in budget when I get refunded.
  • My entertainment subscription budget doubled but it included an annual £50 subscription for the Guardian newspaper. Technically I don’t get anything from this other than a sense of supporting Proper News since it’s free to read anyway – maybe I’m prepared to pay before it hides behind a paywall. Anyway, I could stop this cost but I am prepared to keep it for now, at least in solidarity.
Spring time sunshine and sakura. Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash
 Monthly saving planMarch% 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

And what happened with the savings? I reduced my budget on this because I was saving for the house costs – the deposit is all there but the costs like the lawyer, removal men and so on don’t come cheap and I need to be ready. So an additional £2,000 went to that making a total savings of £4,348.

Overall I spent 54% and saved 45% which I am very happy with, even though some of the spending lines took a bit of a kicking.

How has your March been? I’d love to hear from you!

Back to Basics Part 3: Know your numbers

So, you’ve got a good idea of what FIRE is, and what your FIRE number is; and worked out how quickly you want to get there and how soon it might be. This is the last post on going Back to Basics and explores what your journey might look like.

As with all ‘simple steps’ the pathway to FIRE depends on where you start. All the steps fall into three main categories: spend less, save and invest, and earn more. This blog will focus on working out your real income and expenses at this point in time, since this is the best place from which to build out plans to increase income, reduce spend, and work out what fabulous things you are going to do with the rest on your path to FIRE.

Simple steps to FIRE. Sometimes the view is great too. Photo by Khara Woods on Unsplash

The first and most important step is to know your numbers.

You will have looked a little at your projected costs when planning your retirement number, but the first step is to really understand what you have coming in and out.

What income do you have? For most people this is from one job, but if it isn’t this will take a bit longer to work out. Do you have other bits of money coming in – child benefit, working family tax credits, maintenance from your ex? Then what comes out pre-tax – pension, health insurance, student loan repayment, childcare vouchers?

If you are self-employed then try and work out the average of your income from previous months. You’ll need to take into account if your business is seasonal, or if you had significant up front costs in setting up your business for example, and it’s harder to project your profits / income in terms of growth. You should look to calculate your mandatory tax and national insurance if this isn’t done for you, and use your post-tax figure.

For now all you need is money you are sure of coming in, and anything that comes out pre-tax. Being clear on this means you know exactly what money you have to play with and what you might have already paid out for before it hits your account.

What do you usually spend? This needs to be a really honest view of what you spend, rather than an aspirational view where you think ‘well I keep meaning to stop smoking/buying lattes/my habit of buying clothes when doing the supermarket shop so I just won’t add that cost in and it will spur me on’. Be honest. Not only will it help you more in the long term but it also gives you spaces to win – if you do cut out a habit, you can celebrate it rather than setting yourself up to fail.

There are lots of ways to work out your spend but this is mine. For each of these costs, I have a spreadsheet which shows whether they are paid monthly/annually, by what method, and if by direct debit, when and from which account. Not everyone loves geeking out with spreadsheets – there is a simple budget planners available but whatever the approach you will need to spend some time getting your numbers together. When I was doing this I made a date night (with myself, if you are reading this and not single then do it with your partner so you are on the same page). I got some fancy tea and homemade cookies, put some music on and got down to business. (I realise that sounds dodgy. Ahem.)

Wherever you live, and however you get to and from work/life, you need to budget for both. Think of the house insurance premiums in Venice tho… Photo by Marijana Vasic on Unsplash
  1. Work out your fixed costs: This includes all the basics, which I find useful to put into categories:
    • Home: Rent/mortgage, gas, electric, water, council tax (or whatever the equivalent is where you are) and house or contents insurance. There might be more that comes in here which are fixed for you but not standard – I have boiler cover for example, others have ‘white goods’ insurance which covers washing machines and whatnot. This also might be different if you rent. The key is to make sure you capture things you pay for annually as well as monthly.
    • Transport: car tax and insurance; bus pass; bike insurance. This will depend on you but this is fixed costs so things like petrol or new tyres don’t come in here, however regular they are.
    • Debt repayments: if you have debt repayments, then the first focus will be on repaying this so you are free to throw all your income at building your FIRE stash. But for now if you do have them then they are fixed and need to be included here. Gezuntheit.
  2. Work out your essential but flexible costs: This is all the stuff which is essential but changeable.
    • Childcare: I include childcare in here partly because it changes as kids get older or you choose different kinds of provision. When you plan out your options, childcare is also something to play with since, certainly in my life, I feel an element of working to pay childcare so that my kids can be looked after whilst I work. So it’s essential but moveable in lots of different ways.
    • Health: depending on who and where you are, there might also be fixed costs here. In the UK I do wonder if we are ready for changes in healthcare costs which might be coming our way, but that’s for a different post. This could include glasses, dentist check ups, vitamins or prescriptions. Try and separate out the essentials and those things which might be optional.
    • Groceries: we all need to eat, but do we all need to eat organic chocolate almonds on a weekly basis? I suggest that here you are absolutely honest, and go back through your bank statements to see how much you actually spend. For lots of people this is a real shocker, but it’s also a place you can work saving magic.
    • Clothes: This is another one where looking at bank statements should help to work out what you spent over a year, for yourself and your family. I suggest separating these out since I have been guilty of overspending on kids’ clothes whilst telling myself I was doing no such thing because I was slopping about in 10 year old jeans. Check for a whole year so that you capture summer, school uniform, Christmas party frocks or whatever other seasonal changes you deal with.
    • Cosmetics: yes we all need some (well, probably) but this is another area which can be a few quid a month or a way of getting into debt. I did a cosmetics challenge and even though I rarely wear make up and think of myself as being pretty much a soap-and-water girl, this was an unexpected area I could make savings.
  3. Non-essentials: well, something of a mixed bag – and there are lots of things which can be mixed between essential and non-essential (even on one supermarket receipt), so be honest:
    • Gifts: again how much and how often you spend is very individual, but being clear on birthdays/Christmas or Hannukah or whatever/wedding presents and how much you usually spend in a year will help you make a plan and put any necessary boundaries in place.
    • Eating out: coffees, lunches, dinners, going down the pub. With COVID this seems like a sweetly reminiscent nod to idyllic days, but all those take away pizzas still count.
    • Holidays: holiday childcare might also go in here, depending on how optional it is. But this is all your holiday spends, from your tent to that business class upgrade.
    • Everything else. I was pretty surprised by just how much there was in here – and it’s why bank statements are your friend.
Do the hard work then get inspired – remember what it’s all for. Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

So there you have it – you have worked out how much you spend in an average month, and on what. If you are anything like me, you might need a stiff drink (or sugar hit) at this point. But then come back and:

Get inspired for your next steps

So that’s it! You know your numbers. For me though I found that I was really comfortable having done the nerdy bit, and struggled to get onto making a budget and finding ways to cut costs. Before we go there, spend some time getting excited about what’s coming. I motivate myself by hearing from the FIRE community, and looking at photos of Kenya (ok, sometimes doing fantasy house searches) since it’s part of my ‘why‘.

I love to fall down the grocery shopping rabbit hole so beloved to FIRE. Check out Tread Lightly, Retire Early’s post on reducing the budget whilst eating better; or the FrugalWoods many posts on grocery shopping (though whilst I totally admire their choices, I don’t get the impression food is a particularly important or interesting part of their lives). I’ve previously shared Mrs Smart Money’s challenge to split a family food budget by 50%. You could also check out accounts from reducing spend over a whole year – I got Michelle McGagh’s No Spend Year and Cait Flanders’ Year of Less out of the library when such things were open but there’s lots on line. Go get your motivation on.

So, what does your spend look like, and how did it make you feel? Would love to hear from you!

Back to Basics part 2: What are the kinds of FIRE?

Last week I wrote an introduction to FIRE and working out your FIRE number. The approach and calculations in that post also apply to basic retirement planning, since the task was to fully understand what you will need when you stop working. If you want a more step by step guide to approaching your pensions (and you’re in the UK) then check out this Meaningful Money podcast which does exactly that.

If you want to retire at 65, or at 30, you need to know your requirements. Only around 40% of Americans have tried to calculate their retirement needs (can’t find the number for British people but I suspect it might be even less). If you don’t know what your goal is or why it matters, the chances of you making it are slim.

Find your goal and align your behaviours to reach it. Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

So once you have worked out what you need per year to live on, then the fun starts.

Or maybe it doesn’t. If you do your calculation and feel like it’s a million miles (or million pounds) away, it can feel disheartening. If your net worth is zero, it can feel even more impossible. But there are two things to bear in mind:

  1. That there are different kinds of FIRE to aim for, and not all of them mean waiting until you have it all in the bank before you are independent enough to make different choices;
  2. And that the basic tenets of spending less and making more income are available to (almost) everyone.

I want to take a moment to recognise that I am coming to this from a place of privilege. Poverty is alive and growing in the UK at what should be inexcusable rates. According to the Child Poverty Action Group more than 4.2 million children – or 30% – are growing up in poverty. 44% of children in lone parent households are growing up in poverty. Children from black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be affected: 46% are now in poverty, compared with 26% of children in white British families. More than 70% of children living in poverty live in a working household – so the simplistic notion that we can all just work our way to a new life isn’t true either.

I’m not saying this to use a personal finance blog to smack about some politics – I’m saying it because not recognizing the institutional and personal privilege I do have would be not just disingenuous but would be a contribution to the kind of poverty-shaming narrative that we cannot afford if we are to care for the whole of our society. I am a single parent, and I was raised by one: we lived on benefits for a while when I was a child, and I did again as an adult with my first child. I am very fortunate to be in this position now, and I pay specific attention in my life as to how to support and build up others in that position. Ok, with that said…

Being privileged and ambitious doesn’t mean losing your humanity: being more independent gives you freedom to choose new ways to play your role in this life. Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

So then shouty lady, what are the different kinds of FIRE?

This has been something of a key discussion in the FIRE community in recent years, partly because there are so many different lives that people are interested in living. Broadly though the categories are:

  1. Barista FIRE: This is the first step for many people. It involves having enough assets or passive income to cover your most basic bills, but you need to work to make up the difference. The trick here is the ability to potentially give up a stressful and high pressure job – or one you hate – for something which brings in basic income and gives you a way to socialise. Barista FIRE is a good way to split a FIRE journey half way, and takes off some of the pressure to to save, especially if you hate your job. This allows you to top it up or to pay for luxuries. Some people also like the idea of having work to do and other ways of socialising during retirement. At the moment, this is what I am aiming for.
  2. Lean FIRE: This is about covering the basics. It’s hard to find UK – or even European – calculations, though there is, naturally, a rich discussion on Reddit. but in the US the estimate is that you will be looking for an income in retirement of about $40,000 or £29,000. Interestingly, this is around the number that WHICH thinks is needed for a ‘comfortable’ retirement in the UK. It’s also the median income in the UK. As such, this should be enough for a comfortable life style, without too much scrimping but also without expecting regular long haul luxury holidays. Assuming you were starting from scratch, you would need a pot of £725,000 to be able to comfortably draw this down. Regardless of the number, Lean FIRE is about being able to comfortably pay all your costs, including replacing things if they break, without dipping into savings or heading back to the office.
  3. Regular FIRE: this is seen as a middle ground, and was the traditional calculation of what you think you will need. It’s worth doing (as discussed in my last post) so you get a better idea of your goals and what would work for you.
  4. Fat FIRE: this is the purview of those who really do want the regular long haul luxury, or something else, anyway. Fat FIRE is retiring on a significant budget – in the US of around $100,000 per year. At £70,000 per annum, this would put you in the top 5% of all earners in the UK – you would need a pot of £1.75m. For me this is the fantasy-land stuff which is great if that’s your schtik but it’s not for me.
FIRE means being the one serving the fancy coffee, not the one buying a latte every day. Still smells amazing though! Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

For me, I am aiming for Lean FIRE but with the intention that I will work to cover additional costs. These might include helping my kids with their university costs or other expenses, or travel. I also love a lot about my work and have put a lot into building a career, so I would like to be able to take on some self employed pieces – but only if I can pick and choose, including choosing not to work.

So what’s your FIRE number? And how does that make you feel – excited that it’s closer than you thought, or terrified? I’d love to hear about it! And if you feel terrified then do come back next week when I look at simple steps toward FIRE.