Should I buy or keep on renting?

One of my goals from the list last week was to work through some options for housing since this is by far our biggest spend.

As so often happens, once the thought was there, things started to move around it. I had a call from our landlord saying they are moving back to Denmark from overseas, meaning that we definitely have to move by June 2021. We love our house but in some ways this is good news – since we have to move anyway, it’s forced me to look at options.

In this blog I use all my real figures, except… I have never shared the real cost of my rent. Because it’s HUGE and makes me feel ridiculous. It’s not super expensive within the Danish market, given the size of house etc, and we already chose to live out in the ‘burbs to save. But the real cost is (gulp) £3,350 per month. That’s the equivalent to more than £40,000 per year or one-third more than the total average salary in the UK. Copenhagen is 16th most expensive of 589 cities in the world, but I still do a little vomit of terror every time I pay rent.

To note – in my figures to date, I have removed a chunk of the cost of living benefit I received, and the same amount off the rent. So the figures balance, but it’s not exactly accurate.

Hygge – the ultimate Danish approach to staying home. Photo Credit. if this was us I assume my other kid would be off making us hot chocolate!

Before I get into the finance side of things, one of the things I have realised during this blog is that as a single mum, my approach to financial decisions has a big chunk of emotion in the mix. Whilst that’s probably true for a lot of people, being solely responsible for small people means that I focus a lot on home, safety, and planning for what would happen if I lost my income. We also moved around a lot when I was a kid, then as a serial-expat, moving has been something I do at least every few years, often living in company-managed accommodation where I know it’s only temporary. And whilst home is super important, my work (and personal and other financial issues) mean that my 11 year old son has lived in 11 homes to date. So – lots of emotion around decisions about where we live.

So I came from the position of wanting security, and wanting to see where we could make savings (and potentially make some money at the end, but it’s not guaranteed). I have four years on my contract here, and the kids are loving Copenhagen. So I decided to look into buying a home. Doing that whilst an expat is complicated – there is a fantastic and very detailed guide here. If you want to buy before you have lived here for five years, you need a special permission and you are also obliged to sell the property within six months if you leave the country. So there is a higher risk that you might have to sell at a bad time. For me this has meant thinking more about the home I would buy and discounting some which I like because there are things which might make it hard to sell – road noise in particular seems to be a no-go.

Not buying a house like this but isn’t Copenhagen pretty! Photo Credit.

With that in mind, I started to explore mortgages. And I have to say, coming from the super-cautious (at least after the 2008 crisis anyway) UK, this has been really easy. I need a 10% deposit, but the mortgage interest is only 1%, fixed, for 30 years. At that level, even living here for five years means I would pay off a decent chunk of capital in addition to having lower monthly costs. I will have to pay taxes which are included in my current rent but with this, the amount I will save on monthly outgoings (including paying off a small loan I need to take out to get to the 10%) and capital paid off is as below:

      Two years Three Years Four years
 Savings on monthly outgoings     £          31,617  £          47,425  £          63,234
 Capital paid off     £          30,713  £          46,511  £          62,610
 TOTAL saved + capital owned    £        62,330  £         93,936  £       125,844

For me, there is enough wiggle room in there to take the risk that the house will need major repairs (these should come out in the ‘condition report’ which is like a survey) or the value goes down, for it to be worth it. It’s not a totally fair comparison since the amount we can borrow means we will have to move a couple of train stops further out where rent would be slightly cheaper anyway, but it’s close.

All the reading and reflecting I have been doing the last few weeks has reminded me again that FIRE, and financial decision making in general, is based so much on what we want out of life, and what that translates into in terms of balancing risks and benefits. 

So this week I am going to start looking at houses!

Getting intentional: maximise time, and other limited resources

So I feel like I haven’t posted much recently about actual finances, and I promise to come back to it – I’m finishing off a review of my September and Qtr 3 total spending, and will share more detail and reflections on that in coming posts.

I also firmly believe that the FIRE discussion is about so much more than finance: it’s about working out what matters in life, and how to live consciously. Paula Pant is a total star in helping think this through and her Afford Anything podcast is regular inspiration to me. As she says, “You can afford anything but not everything”. Anything which is a limited resource – so yes money for sure, but also time, focus, commitment – needs to be managed conciously in the way which gives you the best version of yourself.

Paula asks two questions and uses these as a way to dive deeply into a range of subjects. Recently I found myself going back to these:

  1. How can we make smarter decisions about our money, time and life?
  2. How can we align our daily behaviors and habits with the lifestyle we
    value most?

Whilst question 1 is something I spend a lot of time on, question 2 has been more lacking. There are moments, as in my exploration of my Beauty Habit where it has come more to the forefront. In addition to asking the question “Do I need to spend money on this? What does it add to my life?” I also asked “How does buying this align to my beliefs, about the planet, and about how I value myself?”. But building this question into a more regular habit is trickier.

I’ve talked about two books recently but they have really shifted things for me in the past few months: Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky is first. There’s a lot of information in this excellent book (and blog) and to be honest I have acted on maybe 10% of it. Key things have been under their pillar of ‘laser’ intensity – getting rid of white noise. So I have trimmed through email subscriptions, apps, meetings (blimey I wish I could do this with more meetings, but working out what would be career limiting, and seeing how to model and incentivise keeping meetings to an essential minimum with my team). Basically decluttering the things which take up my time when I don’t see the value. Make Time also talks a lot about highlights which speaks directly to where I struggle in reaching my goals: finding the activities which fall between long term goals and short term tasks. Spending a few minutes in the morning planning a highlight around these activities, even if it’s focused time with my kids, means that I start the day with something in mind that really matters.

The other book is Personality Isn’t Permanent by Benjamin Hardy. The style doesn’t always gel with me, but the overarching message does – that we are not locked into being “who we are” and that the actions we take today, however small, really do build the futures we want. If we are unintentional, then we can also create futures that we DON’T want.

Today really does create tomorrow – Image from Benjamin Hardy’s Blog.

As with many others, Hardy talks about journaling and setting goals daily. I’ve always totally believed in this idea but never found the time or motivation to do it myself. I read lots of brilliant things about Morning Pages, but the caveat that these should be THREE pages of longhand thoughts ensure that I never felt I could fit it in. Taking the ideas from these two books I started a practice last month:

  1. Get up 15 minutes earlier. For me this is 05:30, which is early but the fact that I only had to add 15 minutes makes it less painful.
  2. Take a shower, and get dressed.
  3. Go downstairs and before doing anything else (even turning on the coffee pot) sit down at the table.
  4. Meditate for 5 minutes. It’s not a lot, just a little deep breathing, a little silent prayer.
  5. Write however much I want in my journal. It’s been about 1 page per day so far. Start with gratitude – what am I thankful for?
  6. Then write a highlight and some goals for the day.
  7. And when it’s done, turn the coffee on and go about my day.

It’s a small practice but I feel the benefits. Best of all I don’t even think about doing it now – days I have slept a little late (or had one glass of wine too many the night before) or woken up with a ton of urgent work to get on with, I still do it. And I definitely feel the benefits.

What are your small tweaks which are making you edge closer to your goals?

So, how are we doing here? May budget and spends

Enough of the soul searching – what am I actually spending?

In my mind, lock-down has been a time of spending no money. Certainly you have to be both inventive and patient to hit the normal spending levels, since it has meant either queuing, or ordering things which take a long time to be delivered. I just received a fire bowl for the garden which we ordered in April and which arrived this week, but minus the actual bowl – a two month wait for a totally useless stand…

May was the month we went back to work and school here in Denmark. It was also my daughter’s 7th birthday party and since we weren’t able to have family or friends over, I definitely spoiled her a bit to try and make it more special.

It was also the month I started planning and paying for things to do in the long school holidays. Since we can’t travel back to the UK I had to cancel long made plans – thankfully being able to either move it all to next year or get refunds – but then think about what we are actually going to *do* for the next two months.

So here’s what we spent. And it reminds me why I think of myself as being ‘fake frugal’. There are no ridiculous purchases in here, nothing really out of the way or extravagant (or that felt like it, at least). And yet I still managed to overspend by almost £ 1,000.00.

Charity £       30.00£150.00
Insurance £    277.00£277.00
Rent and utilities £ 1,500.00£1,500.00
Childcare £ 1,000.00£1,000.00
Groceries £    300.00£793.36
Holidays £    300.00£858.84
Transport  £    300.00£36.00
Entertainment £    200.00£247.03
Eating out £    175.00£57.37
TOTAL £ 4,082.00£4,919.60
Planned vs actual spend: May 2020
Game over? Hell no!

So what went well? Bills, childcare, insurances all stayed the same. I upped our charity giving all throughout lock-down because things are so tough right now for so many people (to the Single Aid Mamas crowd fund, an amazing group of other single mums in the same line of work that I am in, a number of whom lost their income during this period: to Age UK given that older people are having a hard time: and to the Trussell Trust who are supporting food banks across the UK).

The bulk of the extra spend was on groceries. Whilst it does feel as though food is getting more expensive, this is also down to eating every meal at home (and the related decrease in eating out budget). It is also because like lots of people I have been really into cooking as something fun to do during the lockdown. As a wannabe frugaleer, I normally cook from scratch 5 nights a week, and make packed lunches. But we have really tried new things, got into baking, and also continued to keep a healthy level of food stocked up in the house in case the quarantine gets strict again.

But this was something of a wake up call. Just because I feel like we’re not doing much, or spending much, keeping track of the numbers is the only way to be sure. In May, I did manage to put  £ 800 into my savings,  £250 into the children’s accounts, and make a £ 2,000 mortgage over-payment. So whilst it wasn’t a great month, it still worked out.

Aluta continua!

A dream life: now and then

One of the first questions people ask themselves on the financial independence journey (after ‘where on earth does all my money go??’) is – why? Why would I go against the grain of consumerism, spending, striving? What do I want for my life instead?

Some people like to get crystal clear about their dream life. Dave Sawyer talks about finding what matters to you – he and his wife have a vision of their future selves in Andalusia. And fair play to them.

For me it’s crucial to think of a dream life, now and in the future. I want to spend more time with my kids, but working like crazy to save for ten years means I’ll have time to spend with them when they are in their late teens and probably less keen to hang out with mum. Plenty of FIRE people manage both of course, and with two incomes you can make a whole range of choices: share the childcare or have one parent stay at home for example. Living off one income is naturally promoted as a path to saving money. For the single parent, there is only ever one income. I need to be able to make choices which give us quality of life now, whilst preparing for that imagined future.

In these crazy times where keeping on with saving, looking after the children and generally keeping the wheels on with life, it can be easy to lose sight of the ‘why’. Whilst I am clear about my Big Dream, and about the small steps I need to take this week, the middle bit is hazier. So in the spirit of remembering the way, I wanted to share my dream.

I’ve had the same one for almost 20 years and it still delights me every time I think about it. My plan, with the kids, is to move back to Kenya (I am not from there but spent many happy years – so this is caveated with the need to fulfill the residency requirements which is helped in most countries, including Kenya, by being financially independent). We’ll build or develop a house with a stunning view, acacia trees, the Rift Valley to wake up to. Interesting occasional work (that I can say yes or no to); sundowners on the balcony with fantastic company; friends around a huge dining table. Somewhere stable the kids can always call home. Bliss. And well worth walking this path, especially if I can do it whilst cherishing every day.

So I panicked – just a little. Here’s what I learnt

Sigh. So it’s been a month since my last post since I needed a little time to adjust to the new normal. Homeschooling my two kids whilst working full time from home (and since my job is in the field of humanitarian response, my day job has become way more hectic) is exhausting: add to that worrying about elderly parents in another country and just trying to keep the wheels on our daily life and I didn’t have much energy to spare.

After my last post, I spent another week watching my funds crashing, and it felt like my dreams and plans were crashing too. I think being so early on in my journey made this pretty scary – like watching someone lop off branches which are just starting to blossom. I was awake every night for about two weeks obsessing about what to do, and in the end, I sold.

I sold two-thirds of my savings portfolio and put it into a savings account. My savings overall took a huge hit. I know, I know: selling when the market goes down only converts paper losses into real losses. But it was almost worth it to get the decent nightly sleep I needed to face my daily litany of tasks.

So here’s what I learnt:

  1. My risk tolerance looks different to what I thought. The ability to tolerate risk is a huge part of making financial decisions. It turns out that risks feel different when they are really happening compared to how I thought it would feel (uh, duh). The COVID pandemic also meant that I had my first taste of realising risk as an investor when nothing is stable – people’s jobs, my family’s health, the general sense of how close we are to The End Of Days… Risk wasn’t just something that related to my emotions about my investments, but to the sense of stability in the world at large.
  2. My long-term game is stronger than my short and medium term. As well as my stocks and shares ISA (where I pulled money from) I have three pension pots, plus I have been working on kids’ savings. I didn’t touch any of this, or even look at the balances. These feel so long term that the crisis NOW doesn’t affect them in my mental planning.
  3. That does mean I need to work out my investment policy statement. This is a relatively simple document which sets out, why, what, how, for how long, and how you will know your approach is working. I realised that whilst in my mind I was investing for the long term, my mental planning around the ‘what next’ in my life saw me spending that money earlier than makes sense for it to be in funds. Once I understood this disconnect I gave myself permission to pull funds. But setting out a clearer strategy would have given me metrics to work through options rather than just relying on my need to sleep.
  4. Having an emergency fund really, really matters. Before I started investing, I had created an emergency fund. I have this set out to two accounts: my usual bank where I pay my mortgage, bills and whatnot has an attached savings account where I have three months of those expenses. Then I have a separate savings account (so I don’t see it and am not tempted in case I feel the need to slide money around) which has another three months plus additional in case I struggle to cut costs I anticipate would be possible if I lost my job. In total I have four months of take home pay which should cover seven months plus of all our costs. Knowing that money was there is making a huge difference to my emotional well-being. Without it, I might have felt the need to pull all my investments.
  5. It’s my money, and to some extent my decisions are therefore always the right ones. From the point of Kantian moral philosophy (bear with me) I am not a means to the end of a successful financial future: I am an end in myself. Whilst this might sound like the noise of me disappearing up my own jacksie, it is a reminder that I am more than the sum total of my financial decision making. During the obsessing, twisty turny evenings of trying to work out what to do this became super helpful. I had to stop listening to all my favourite podcasts, because they were all screeching about not selling, and I had already done so. Remembering what it’s all about, and who is in charge, for was crucial.

Living life in these hard times with a little bit of grace and forgiveness is more important than ever. As a single mum with lone and total responsibility for my household’s finances, it’s only my permission which is needed and me who has to clear it up if it all goes wrong. So whilst I panicked (a little), I am also proud that I had my emergency fund in order as well. And I learnt a huge amount that I can apply to get financially even stronger moving forward.

Playing the long game

A lot of working on finances is about playing the long game. What do you want now, vs what you want later? What does choosing to spend that money – on a latte, a pair of shoes, more expensive rent – mean for the future?

For me it has also been about learning patience. Being able to create new habits, and do the same good things day in and out even when I feel like I really deserve a break. Making daily good choices: packing a lunch for work, checking bank balances (but NOT my savings – more on this later), looking up free events so I can take the kids out at the weekend without blowing the bank.

The monthly good choices are easier because they’re automated: bills, savings, mortgage over-payments, pension – they’re good habits because I don’t get a chance to overthink them. There’s lots of good information about automation in the FIRE movement: as the Mad Fientist says, “Figure out your investing plan… then take yourself out of the equation as much as possible so that you don’t get in your own way”.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

They are good habits that have taken a while to form, and I will talk about how in coming posts. This week I have been reflecting on them in the middle of the stock market freefall where my savings (that I have proudly scratched together in the years before my salary increased) lost 10% during about ten days. I know, I know – they’re only losses if you realise them by selling out too early. And you should only invest money if you plan to spend it in a long enough time frame to see it through ups and downs.

So I have tried to add some more good habits. Leaving the money alone, not even opening the lid to peek in and see what’s going on. Carrying on investing and saving, and planning for a brilliant future – even if this week it feels a little bit further away.

Perchance to dream…

Sometimes the daily grind of being a full-time working single mum can mean that I can feel that I don’t deserve to dream big – I can barely make it to bedtime without letting something drop. And when I read financial independence blogs about ‘living on one partner’s salary whilst saving the other’, it seems so unlikely that it’s a path for me. But this blog is born out of hope, and out of the belief that if I can have got this far, then frankly anything is possible.

So – what is the dream?

If my year of avid podcast listening to the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) crew (more on the background and where to find inspiration – and, let’s be honest, advice about how to do things properly, later) I found two key starting questions:

Why do you want this? What’s your goal?

Yesterday, the fact that my day in the office was rough enough to take the skin off my nose, was enough for me to want to have F-You money. As J L Collins notes in that article, “I may not have known what it was called, but I knew what it was and why it is important.  There are many things money can buy, but the most valuable of all is freedom.  Freedom to do what you want and work for whom you respect”. F-You money means the freedom to make choices; to take time out before burnout, to spend time with my kids when they need me, to pursue other projects. It means taking a job because I want to, not because I have to in order to get the bills paid.

Right now, I can’t see a way on one income to become totally FI. I don’t know if that’s just me being a weenie, or if there is some rational logic in there. But I know that working toward having enough financial security to make different work choices would transform my life, and in working toward that – taking control of my money and making it work for me – is a great place to start. And a place which makes me feel less like a rabbit-in-the-headlights who has to do all or nothing.

How do you think you’ll get there? The five year plan

My five year plan feels ludicrously ambitious (though when I look at FIRE extremers it looks more like someone saying ‘I’m saving up my 20 pence pieces in a jar!’ and blogging about it). A lot of these goals are based on a long back-story which will come in other posts, but for now I want to put these out there. By July 2024 I intend to:

Be mortgage free. I have been overpaying for a while and have £78,120 left. I will also be debating (at length, probably) the reasons to overpay a mortgage rather than invest given low interest rates – and how this relates to my risk tolerance as a single parent.

Have enough in pension funds to bring in £12,000 per year. I paid in two year’s pension contributions at 23-24, then nothings for 12 more years. Partly this was due to free-lancing/taking time off to have kids/being broke, but I could kick myself. More on the detail of this to come, but the figure is based on the small defined benefit pensions I have and pension calculations rather than a ‘sum in the bank’.

Have £120,000 in low cost index funds. This is the combination of my current savings nest-egg – £40,000 – plus maxing out the £20,000 tax free stocks and shares ISA contribution per year.

Achieving these goals means saving about 40% of my income.

So, there are the reasons, and the ambition. Next week, the plan of how to get there.

Wait, what? Handbags?

The idea of the Brilliant Ladies’ Handbag Club comes from an all-women group I used to attend. It was created to help women set and achieve their goals, from cleaning out the attic to getting their start-up on the road. That group was called something else, but my then 6-year-old son renamed it to the BLHC, because just attending made me brighter, happier, and more focused. Since then, I have focused on working out what I want to do with my one wild and precious life – and it turns out the answer isn’t ‘work for a salary’. It probably isn’t ‘do yoga on the beach’ either to be fair – but wouldn’t it be great to choose?

I love the image of the handbag: full of useful tools; creative things like books, postctards, dried out daisies, and colouring pens; somewhere to dive in and finding things I didn’t know were there but turn back up just at the right time. My handbag always has nourishing snacks (and plenty of sweets, because you never know – also spare underpants, because you never know) to keep you going on the way. And a phone and a list of contacts in case I get lonely on the journey.

I’ve spent a year diving into a brilliant community around FIRE (financial independence, retire early) and whilst it’s becoming more diverse, as s British single mother there is only a small amount of it which resonates – which feels like me. So the Brilliant Ladies’ Handbag Club is an online place for me to chronicle my journey, reflect and store all the nuggets of wisdom along the way and share them with like-minded people. If you’re interested in FIRE; taking control of your money, even when things get tough, and in doing so stick it to the consumerist man; dreaming and building a different life; or just looking for some company, then come on in. Amongst the sweeties and the underpants, might be your tribe.