Frugal School Holidays #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this is what we did:

Getting the most of what we already own

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

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

And doing the garden means saving money buying flowers!

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

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

But sometimes spending on a treat is totally worth it

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

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

Cost of living crisis 2: Groceries

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

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

Oh yes please! Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Meal plan. This is the most important thing, because the shopping and preparation all stems from here. Who is eating at home and when? (in 2021 this became a trick question since the answer is ‘all of you’ and ‘all the time’). What are the things you like to eat? How are you going to get your five-a-day? From then, the questions are around how you can stretch out both the food and the preparation – things like roasting a chicken then using the cold leftover meat the next day or two; or cooking a basic batch tomato sauce which can then be turned into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, or the base for a chilli. I have been meal planning for a while, but I am still terrible for thinking ‘ooh I don’t feel like that any more, let’s have something else’. It helps me to remember that this contributes to reducing food waste: UK households throw out the equivalent to a whole month’s worth of grocery budget every year whilst the amount of food wasted across the country could feed half the 7m Britons who are struggling to afford to eat. That’s something worth making our own small changes for in my view.
  2. Stock-take and write a shopping list: When you have meal planned, break it down into the ingredients you need for the week. Then check your cupboards/fridge/freezer and check you have what you need. Are there things you’ve not included but need to check, like coffee? I have a page up on the pinboard in the kitchen where I write staples like this, or flour, oil and so on. Write them all down in a list which is easy to use, organised by the shops if you’ll visit more than one, then by aisle if you can remember such things. The real trick though is a) remembering to take the damn list with you (which is why lots of people keep it on a phone app instead) and b) following it when confronted with other options.
  3. Batch cook, or batch prepare: Batch cooking is now so well known that there are whole books about it but it’s basically making things in big enough quantities to freeze additional portions and basically create your own ready meals. It’s just as much hassle and time to prepare five portions of something as it is one, and it usually works out much cheaper. Every week I make a basic roasted aubergine and tomato sauce every weekend (don’t tell my daughter it has aubergine in, fur would fly) and use this as a tomato sauce base. My top tip on batch cooking is to label everything properly, otherwise Freezer Surprise will be a regular on the menu: and freeze it in portion sizes so you don’t have to defrost and potentially waste a whole load of goodness.
  4. Batch prepare: In an effort to increase my vegetable intake, I make a dry coleslaw mix (basically just the vegetables) using the food processor, every week. This week I grated up carrot, beetroot, celeriac and spring cabbage and have used it in a standard salad, in a salmon poke bowl, and with mayo as an accompaniment to a sandwich. I also do things like prepare roasted chicken for use in lunches.
  5. Enjoy yourself. Yes we’re budgeting (and trying to save the world) but food should also be a pleasure. Make things you like to eat. Find a time when the planning and shopping works, involve the kids in talking about meals they look forward to, and involve them in prep. My son and I make a cake every week as our treat for the week, usually one for home and one with the same mixture made into cake bars for school. Then I batch cook/prep in a two-hour window at the weekend when the kids are playing or with friends, and I listen to an audio book. It genuinely feels like a pleasant time, much more so than trying to slam a meal together at 17.30 on a work night. Some people prefer an evening’s cooking with a glass of wine – it’s all about what works for you.
Last week’s food prep in our house – Sunday evening and all is ready…

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

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.

Mothering Sunday: the financial impact version

Aw, happy Mothering Sunday! This week I am full of exhausted rage, and wanted just to focus a little on what it feels like to be a single mum, and why generalised negativity from society, the media and government policy is harming this generation of children.

First though I want to recognise that Mothering Sunday is a day which can set off lots of different emotions depending on your own particular track and relationships, but either way, it’s getting warmer and hopefully you’ll have something nice on this weekend.

Being a mother is a privilege and a joy, let me say that first off.

But it is also bloody hard. It’s hard for everyone, even those who have a partner. As we have moved away from traditional societies (and in fairness all the rubbish things that they required), the safety nets of support have been removed.

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 because I am too damn busy. 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 about how fatherhood has changed 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), and in which those dads have been able to refuse to engage until they were locke at home as well. Women are 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. These days, with the cost of living crisis and lack of affordable childcare, so many low income families are struggling.

Triple chocolate brownies, the Mothering Sunday gift my 12 year old son made me ❤

The cost of living crisis disproportionately impacts women. Women consistently earn less than men across their career, which also impacts their pension and retirement years.

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. The impact of these collective issues on generational wealth cannot be ignored and it’s likely that our children will also struggle, however hard we try.

I was particularly triggered this month by an article about the failings of the Child Maintenance System which is a UK body aiming to ensure that children’s costs are fairly shared after divorce or seperation, and that any alimony is paid in a timely way. To quote the article – 90% of single parents are women… Half of single parents and their children are consigned to life below the poverty line, a penury that 60% of them would escape if fathers paid the maintenance due. The comments on the article went in to the predictable bun fight about access and custody arrangements, as well as not really understanding that maintenance is for the children, not the ex-spouse.

So in addition to the structural arrangements in which I earn less and have more responsibility, I am also supposed to do it alone since the legal system really doesn’t give a shit about holding both parents to account for the financial side.

I would be furious, if I wasn’t so tired.

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 (so, so much 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 have been dating someone who does not have children, and whilst he very loving and caring, he cannot even begin to fathom what responsibility and busyness looks like in my world. That makes me just try to hide it all so he isn’t bored or put off: and that becomes something else I have to be responsible for.

But you know what – parenting absolutely remains a joy and a privelige. I would just enjoy it more if I wasn’t expected to run on empty all the time. Big up all my single mamas this Mothering Sunday. I see you.

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.

How reaching $1 million net worth (almost) feels

Don’t forget to join me on Insta! Loving the conversation and energy over there.

So I have missed writing this blog for two weeks. This seems like pretty poor form, especially so early in the year, but honestly it was an act of radical self-care. I was in Kenya for work and took some time to connect with friends and loved ones, and really think about where I’m going. It also made me look back on where I have come from, so this post explores some of the feels I’m experiencing about getting so close to another net worth goal and what it all means. TL:DR – it’s not what I expected.

Lots of people are finding things hard at the moment. The world is (I was going to say ‘feels’ but let’s cut to the chase) unstable and scary; we’ve spent two years away from normal connections; the cost of the day to day is soaring – basically, it can feel like we’re all screwed.

View from my window this morning. No matter how bad, the sun still rises.

I’ve written a lot about gratitude but usually as more of a warm fuzzy rather than an actual practice. But gratitude is the antidote to stuckness, anxiety and fear, so when it feels like the world is screwed it’s the obvious place to go. Then someone on my Facebook asked – is there even any point starting a FIRE journey after 40? After taking a minute to feel sad about all the limiting beliefs society and ourselves live to, I had to answer HELL YES. And it also made me take time to be grateful for how far I have come, and how I now get to encourage others.

There is always a point to taking control of the things in our lives within our grasp. Being mindful with money – or work or whatever – instantly converts those thoughts and activities to a meaningful engagement with the world. It sounds obvious but getting intentional about your decisions and actions really does make a difference. It is so easy to float about thinking you will get around to something, whilst all the time you are building up a life you don’t want. So – being intentional will positively impact your life, regardless of whether it equates to your FIRE goals.

In preparing to reply to her, I checked my numbers – and realised I am at $950,000 – so almost $1 million net worth.

mmmmmhhhhmmmm

I mean, I pay close enough attention to know I was heading there but changes in the housing market in particular have really made a difference.

Ironically, my first thought was – I thought it would feel better than this.

Hear me out. I worked my backside off to get here, and I really am grateful. But perhaps there is something about having an iconic goal, and one which is actually a proxy indicator rather than the goal itself, which doesn’t feel that special? It might also be hedonic adaptation – if I went from zero to this, perhaps the feels would be different? Or perhaps I’m just an asshole.

I will run through my numbers properly next week but I also note that this net worth is not enough to retire early on: or at least it isn’t in the portfolio I have which is very largely pensions and real estate. What it does give me though, is a sense of achievement and possibility. What I need to guard against now is the hedonic treadmill and striving for more and more. And also against being ungrateful to the point that I don’t even smell the roses.

And I need to get back to what really matters. My two weeks away highlighted to me that I am less prepared to keep waiting and making compromises than I have been to date. Hoping to pile up some more money when it isn’t even making me happy – and I have enough to be financially secure to the point where I can think about taking risks – is starting to feel like the wrong bargain. But that feels like a success. I started this journey wanting to make FU money. Maybe I’m just a lot closer to saying FU.

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.

Radical subversion: radical self care

This week I was very much enjoying Tanja Hester from Our Next Life’s piece about whether it’s ‘Time to Retire FIRE’. Whilst she has been one of the founding parents of FIRE and feels much more of the social movement than someone like me who is on the periphery, she made a lot of interesting points.

Firstly, she examines how FIRE has been taken over by some loud voices who are really about making a lot of money as quickly as possible, and points to the proliferation of expensive courses, often run by people whose sole credential is that they say they don’t need to make money. Secondly, she gives a timely reminder about why so many of us got into FIRE in the first place: not to make as much money as possible, but as a way out of a capitalist system which isn’t working for most people.

For me, FIRE is both an act of radical suberversion and of radical self care.

I have a long term vision, but it’s the journey that matters...

Radical Subversion

So – the evidence suggests that the system we have currently is unfair. The poor are getting poorer whilst a tiny number of rich people get richer. The UK seems to be a post-apocolyptic hole in the ground where we can no longer even talk about whether children should not be hungry without it being seen as a political hand grenade rather than a discussion about basic humanity. The pandemic has knocked a lot of things over the edge, and there seems to be a lot less compassion about as well as a lot less money.

I’m not an anarchist, and I’m not anti-wealth – one of my favourite people is a ‘wealth manager’ and I don’t like him any less for it. But I need to find a way not to just criticise a system which is devestating to so many, but also to live on the outskirts of it. For me this means: mindful spending and engagement with how I use my money; making that money as ethically as possible; opting out of capitalist competitive fuckry; and using my finances and my other resources to make the world better for other people. I am hardly living in a commune and weaving lentils, but there is an extent to which I am able to opt out, and ironically part of that opting out means having enough money to make different choices.

If you’ll excuse another music moment, Sauti Sol start off by singing about wanting to be rich then move into wanting to be free, to be remembered, to be in place. If you remove the money from that equation, the dream remains.

Enjoy the small things….

Radical Self Care

If you grew up broke like I did, then you know the impact of financial stresses. I’ve written before about the relationship between money and mental health but there is a bone-cracking exhaustion about constantly having to think about money, how the bills are going to get paid, and what’s in the fridge. I suspect that benefits levels in the UK are set at a level where people can just scrape by but to do so takes up so much energy that we don’t all rise up and burn. it. down.

I get fed up with the idea that self care, especially for women, is about going for a massage. Surely the idea is that you really, really take care of yourself? And this means creating a solid foundation on which to do all of the other things that are important to you. If you are financially secure – not rich, but secure and confident in your own knowledge – you are free to make choices. You can choose when and how to work; the kind of relationships you want to have, with who and when; how your children are brought up; and how you bring your light to the world.

What could be more radical than prioritising yourself and owning your decisions so that you can shape your own life and the world around you?

I don’t have any great insight into what’s happening to the FIRE movement, I think because I found the part of the community that really speaks to me, and it’s like having an extra group of mates who understand you and cheer you on. But if you’re new to these ideas, I strongly recommend thinking about what brought you here – and where you want to go.

Thank you fortune cookie!

No less than the stars

So I haven’t written for the last two weeks, which is bad because part of my commitment to this blog was about learning to – well, learning to commit I guess, which might not be my natural talent – but also about engaging with the practice of writing rather than focusing on outputs.

I have been super busy with work and was assuming that was why I hadn’t written, but being super busy with work is a) normal and b) an unacceptable excuse. I loathe competitive busy-ness and everything that comes with it – the toxic showboating; the tedium of having someone spend time that could have been better spent doing the damn thing telling me why they can’t; the letting people down and excusing it away.

Anyway: safe to say that it wasn’t work. I’m not sure at this point what kind of internal transformation is going on but I feel like a snow globe that has been shaken up, and I’ve been busy in anstonishment that my soul is dancing in the glittering starlight.

ALL the glitter: Photo by Luke Besley on Unsplash

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how to get through challenging times: the small habits, the next right step, the power of faith and of looking back at where you have come from to really understand how high the mountain was that you just climbed. I know – from my trust in God but also from the data – that brighter days are coming. But I cannot tell you how astonishing it is to find that brighter days are actually here, and I am not sure quite how to react.

Everything I profess to believe, though, tells me to be grateful for it but maybe not be surprised. And not to freak out when something feels too big or good to be true any more than I should freak out when the bad stuff feels overwhelming.

In the words of the DesiderataYou are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here’. I fully believe this but I would take it another step – you are no less because you are the stars. Science (actual science, not The Lizard Times) agrees, saying that ‘almost all the elements in the human body were made in a star and may have been through several supernovas‘.

Reach for the stars because you are the stars: Photo by Phil Botha on Unsplash

What does it mean (and indeed you might ask, why is this relevant to a blog on FIRE? Though if you are asking that I cannot imagine it’s for the first time…)?

You don’t know what is coming to transform you, nor what you will look like after you’ve been through the fire. And transformation comes in all kinds of guises: from lightening bolts to erosion: from a life-changing medical diagnosis to unexpectedly and outrageously falling for someone.* You can plan for things but you can’t control it all. Yes there is data, both yours and that which comes from research or the world, your friends, the internet or whatever, but it won’t all be applicable. And even if you can know how things will work out, you can’t know what your own metamorphasis will look like. You just have to trust in the process.

So what it means is: I am not afraid. I’m not afraid or ashamed of the bad days, and I’m not afraid of being transfigured by the bright lights either. I can know that God created me and I will go back to Him: the circle never deviates from being a circle, things just look different depending on where you are. All you have to do is turn your face to the stars and marvel. That’s where you came from. Imagine who you might become.

*All examples in this blog are completely random