A home of one’s own

With apologies in advance that this blog isn’t the jolliest place to be, I do want to tangle with some critical topics as well as being here for encouragement on these journeys. There is so much content out there about how easy financial independence is – just get out there and do it!! – but it doesn’t ring true for me. It is absolutely not impossible, but if the system is stacked against you, you will feel the burn a hell of a lot more. And for me, I am comfortable in both looking at my own journey and how it’s working, and what is going on out there which is impacting others – and what some of this means for equality.

I’ve written a lot about specific elements of the system and how it works either for or against particular minorities (check out posts on how racialised the financial systems are plus the financial constraints and stacked barriers for single mothers. I also want to say up front that I recognise the privileges that I come with so I am not saying this to ‘own’ or appropriate these issues, but to talk openly about areas where and how I am tangling with them personally. In my view, refusing to acknowledge how systemic power structures work is part of institutionalising privilege in order to extend it’s power, so calling it out has to be part of how we can meaningfully respond. I also find it both essential to understand in terms of why things feel like they move so slowly for me.

A room of one’s own? Not for you, soz. Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash

This week’s post was kicked off for me by reading an article about why single women in the UK cannot afford to buy a home based on an excellent 2019 report with the same title as this blog post. House prices in the UK are unaffordable for so many that those on median wages – which includes nurses and frontline health care workers – will not be able to access a mortgage in more than three-quarters of the country. This has greater implications for women, because women are more likely to be in low paid jobs and are also more likely to work part time due to caring responsibilities.

The impact on being able to buy is significant. Women need over 12 times their annual salaries to buy a home in England: a whacking 50% more than men, who need eight times. In London and the South East, which are both the most expensive areas of the UK and the two where the gender pay gap is largest, women need 18 times their annual earnings. Given that the very most British mortgage companies are likely to lend a maximum of five times annual earnings – an amount which is anticipated to reduce as inflation bites – it means that these women will never be able to buy a home without external support.

Or maybe this is more like it? Photo by Reba Spike on Unsplash

There were two other statistics which felt like a slap in the face. Firstly, there is no region in England where private rented housing is affordable on a woman’s median earnings. This is not true for men, where this is only the case in London. Secondly, single mothers are two-thirds of all statutory homeless families with children (i.e. the groups of people for whom the State has to take some responsibility), a figure which is striking when they are only one-quarter of all families with dependent children.

Basically there is zero chance to single women on median incomes and don’t have any additional financial support to either buy or rent in the majority of the UK. That feels pretty terrifying to me. I earn a (significantly) above average salary and managed to get on the housing ladder early. But under these socio-economic shifts my mum as a frontline worker and single parent would not have been able to buy a house, something which would have seriously impacted on our security growing up; how well she will manage in her old age; and what generational wealth looks like. And what does it mean for my daughter and how I should help her plan for her future?

I’m obsessed by this house I can’t afford so sharing it just because why not

So what is the point of this post? I am not on a median income, and I own both a home we live in and a rental. I haven’t been able to get to the point where I can leverage them into any kind of real estate empire though which seems to be some magic formula for at least those in the US working on FIRE but I am unbelievably blessed to even just have a foot on the ladder. Some days I need to both recognise the luck that I have had in the draw, and how things are looking for others. And why this should matter for all of us: we never journey alone.

Quick reminder to come and join me (and the FIRE community) on Instagram @brilliantladiesmoney I am probably more fun there 😀

Valentine’s Day Massacre: The financial inequality of single parenting

I originally posted this in February 2021, but it contains such critical reflections on financial inequalities that face single parents that I wanted to come back to it. Things are even worse one year on: the impact of repeat COVID lockdowns but without the financial cushioning; soaring utility costs; rising inflation – in short, a cost of living crisis which is exacerbated by stagnant wages and new challenges in juggling work and childcare. So I have made some updates but the message is broadly, unhappily, the same.

Being a jolly sort of soul (and, obviously, single), Valentine’s Day seemed like the perfect time. I considered doing a post on self-care and self-love and how this relates to FIRE, but whilst it’s great to work on being positive and hold yourself to account, sometimes it’s necessary to look at structural inequalities and burn. it. all. down.

This isn’t a post about how hard it is to do all of this on one income, though that’s true. There are more single people in the world than ever, around 45% of the adult population in the global North, and there is evidence that they are happier than married counterparts. I am not an evangelist for the single state – indeed I would be happier in a commune than living alone – but I do sometimes imagine what I could achieve if I was part of a couple with the added energy, income, time and other resources and it makes me dizzy.

There’s a lot of love out there, even if you’re single. Duh. Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

So no, it’s not just jealousy or the basic ‘2 incomes is better than 1’ point. In the UK and many other countries, ‘couple privilege‘ is a real thing: outside of the obvious difference in having two incomes, there are tax privileges to having a spouse for example. There are a myriad of hidden costs to being single, from holidays to supermarket norms, not to mention the cost of housing and how single people are viewed as a greater risk in terms of accessing a mortgage.

In addition to this, for single parents there are punitive financial measures specifically designed to impact on us. Don’t forget that our current Prime Minister called the children of single mothers “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” (ironic given his contribution to the creation of single mothers). And don’t his policies show this belief. Changes and restrictions in benefits (most of which are not actually spent on ‘dole scroungers’) including family benefits are pushing single parent families even further into poverty. The British charity the Child Poverty Action Group have talked about the ‘war on lone parents’ and cited evidence that current policy really does try and make it harder for single parent families, presumably as a deterrent for the terrible mess we make of society.

Research in the UK shows that this approach has been so successful that it is not possible for a single parent on median earnings to reach a decent minimum living standard. Indeed, the gap between earnings and costs are getting worse thanks for austerity and benefit cuts, and price rises. For lone parents working full time on median earnings, the shortfall has risen from 6% to 16% in the past ten years.

In 2019, the overall cost of a child up to age 18 years (including rent and childcare) was £185,000 for lone parents (up 19% since 2012) and £151,000 for couples (up 5.5% since 2012). A greater cost, on half the possible income. It feels hard because it IS hard.

Maybe we should be angry instead of ashamed. Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

In a previous job where I was posted overseas for a British company there were significant benefits available for a spouse that I was unable to tap into for either of my children’s secondary parents – their father, or their grandmother. These benefits included the cost of flights to spend time with us, or if one of them had wanted to live with me, pension contributions. I lost out on around £20,000 per year because those benefits could only go to someone with whom I had a very particular intimate relationship. I felt totally judged by 1950s hetero normative rules: you can have the money if you still go to bed with the person with whom you had children, but if not, forget it.

The attitudes here, both in the treatment of those on benefits and low wages, and those of us in a much higher tax bracket, are united by the same message. You have failed, and you should be ashamed.

And we are ashamed. Parents who have to bring up their children on the bread line already feel like they are failing without being told. A New York Times article talks about how normal this all is. Whilst being frugal, getting a side hustle and so on are the building blocks of FIRE they are also par for the course when making ends meet. It’s the same shame that stops people asking for help; stops them checking to see if they have the benefits they are entitled to, or asking for adjustments to working hours. It’s the same shame that in my own petty way, stopped me from questioning why I was paying 50% of a bill where I was clearly not benefitting from 50% of the purchase.

I am blessed to be able to bring up my children without stinting – on luxuries as well as the basics, where we are frugal it’s out of choice – but I am also constantly anxious about what happens if I can’t work. We don’t have a second income to lean back on. We don’t have a plan B.

Lessening that anxiety is one of the reasons that financial independence is worth so much as a single parent. There are loads of brilliant exes out there who co-parent and equally share the financial burden but I can honestly say that I don’t know any of them myself. When you have sufficient issues with someone that you made the enormous decision to break up your family, relying on them financially can be challenging however easy it is. Sometimes the plan B just isn’t possible.

But sometimes, we also need to think about how society – and communities like FIRE – can help us create new plans. Love is so much more than just romantic: for our kids, for our community, our planet and each other. Happy valentine’s day to us all.

Love one another, wherever you are at. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

House buying and the single parent

I wrote in November that I was thinking about buying a house here in Denmark. My contract is, all things being equal, at least for another 3.5 years, which means an awful lot more horribly expensive rent. Plus since my landlord is coming back and we have to move anyway, incurring both the costs of spending an awful lot of time looking for somewhere and organising and paying for movers.

So we have bought a house!

I’ve been looking since September, and it has been absolutely brutal. As with many places, already high house prices have continued to rise during COVID and family properties (as we are looking for) have increased even more as people look to move out of apartments. In Denmark, the supply is also quite low, meaning that there just aren’t enough properties to go around. I almost wish we had bought the first thing we saw in September, since that will have gone up in price by about 8% since we saw it.

The ideal Copenhagen home (clue: our new house does not look like this). Photo Credit, Architectural Digest

It is even worse in the UK where house prices are soaring. People moving out of cities, or flats; a lack of housing stock; the temporary suspension of Stamp Duty; and realising what an incredible amount of house you can buy pretty much anywhere in the country if you sell a London home means that the average house price in the UK is now £256,000 – up a whopping £100,000 since 2012.

In the UK, you can usually borrow four-and-a-half times your income meaning you need to earn £56,888 in order to qualify for a mortgage. With the average income being just over £31,400 (and that already the median, so it will be skewed by very high and very low earners) this means that the majority of people – and any single person who is not a majorly high-earner – is priced out of the UK housing market. Since one-third of single parents were living in poverty before the pandemic, and have been one of the groups hardest hit in terms of income partly due to an inability to work and manage kids at home alone, buying a house can seem a million miles away from many single parents who are already working their hardest to create a secure future for their kids.

Denmark, like many countries, has other alternative options including Andelsbolig which is co-operative housing offering both affordable rental and houses to purchase. The conditions of being part of the co-op mean that it’s not possible to take advantage of the system and the apartments (not usually houses) stay in the relevant pricing market and can benefit others in the future should someone move on.

This is Iffley Lock in Oxford, near Iffley, where I would buy a house if I magically became a millionaire. Photo by Lia Tzanidaki on Unsplash

This month, the Australian government took the incredible step of recognising this issue for their citizens and actually doing something about it. The New Home Guarantee scheme will allow single parents to buy with just a 2% deposit, with the federal authorities guaranteeing the other 18%. It is only available to 10,000 women (about 10% of Australia’s 1 million single mums) and whilst that might be a drop in the ocean it has to be celebrated as an approach which both recognises that we have assets and incomes but struggle to get over specific hoops in many financial processes.

I wonder if the UK Government would back a similar scheme? Though with the income needed to buy a house, there will still be struggles for the majority of the almost 3 million single parents in the UK. Sometimes I think the best solution is housing co-ops where we can live with multiple families and share some of the burden.

Together for all! Photo Credit: Radical Routes (and check them out if you are interested in housing co-ops)

But until we get to radical social change, creating support structures so that all families can leverage their income-generating power to build assets and have somewhere secure for their children to grow, should be an area for policy makers to think about. Generational wealth has a significant impact on society, and single parenthood – and the intuitional fabric which keeps people in poverty stuck in that cycle – prevents people from building wealth to hand on. There is a direct relationship with this and continued income inequality which has wide-ranging social implications. And, if you are living it, absolutely sucks you dry.

What’s your story been with housing? I would love to hear from you!