The inequality of single parenting

It won’t surprise you to know that this isn’t the life I had planned; not the life I expected. I was raised by a single mother, and I thought I had done everything I could not to become one. Not because I didn’t love my childhood, but because I could see how hard everything was for her.

And I know how lucky I am. I write a lot in this blog about gratitude, and I really mean it. There are so many people out there who can’t have children for whatever reason and the impact this can have on their mental health and sense of self. There are so many people without the blessings I have had which result in me having a great career, good health, family and friends, the ability to provide for my children and watch them grow, and so, so much more. I am thankful every day.

But I am also exhausted. And frustrated. And sometimes I just want to scream into the dark night and I can’t even go for a beer or a run or have a chat without organising childcare and dealing with my children’s emotional needs first. During these months of home-schooling and juggling working fulltime from home, along with the usual home-and-child-admin and without the occasional respite of my mum coming to stay, I am just getting worse and worse at parenting – worse and worse at holding it all together. I’m not alone: research from the University of Oxford – and indeed common sense and even a cursory glance at social media – shows parents’ mental health has been massively impacted by this challenging period.

Sometimes I feel *this* sad and there isn’t even someone to take a photo of my back. Boo. Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

What-ifs have always been a mainstay of those 3am thought spirals. What if I had had children with someone else, and stayed together? What if I never meet anyone else? Might I meet someone if I were thinner/ prettier/ younger/ less career-motivated / didn’t move around so much? What will happen to me when my kids move out? Will we all make it until then?

I started this blog because I so rarely come across people like me in the FIRE movement. Sometimes I think it’s because we’re all just coping, all just knackered. There have been challenges to the lack of diversity in the FIRE movement and some brilliant female role models out there, and there are absolutely some single mums and single women. But the majority feels to me like couples: acres of material about getting your spouse on board; hours of podcasts of people who live off one income and save the rest, or have one parent stay home. Being a single parent sometimes feels like having fewer choices: like having the box you’re in get smaller and smaller.

We are not going to be near a beach like this on holiday but it made me feel calmer just looking at it. Beautiful but tenuous. Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Today’s gripe though, is more pedestrian. It’s about how single parent family status isn’t taken into account, and how shitty it is to either make a fuss to make it fair, or swallow it down and just make yourself angry whilst everyone else gets to feel ok.

This week we booked a holiday for the February half term (free to some extent since I got a refund from a holiday booked outside of Denmark so the cost already shows up in my 2020 budget!) in a summer house not too far from here. We booked with a family we like a lot: kids are good friends, we sometimes hang out all together for dinner and board games, and the mum is someone I go for occasional mum-drinks with others from school. All sounds great. But we are three (in two bedrooms) they are four (in three bedrooms). We agreed to do a grocery shop and share costs, but my daughter basically doesn’t eat (a story for another time) whereas one of their boys and the husband really wolf food down. She sent me the bill for my share today, which is a straight 50% of the total cost of both the rental and the food. Of course I paid it without a qualm and now sit up working on my stomach ulcer.

Sigh.

Call her! you think. Make a point, she’s not a mind reader! my mother would say. But you know – we have this all. the. time. And not just with money. Last time we went on holiday with two families there was an agreement where one set of parents would relax whilst the other set would look after the kids (usually split into mums and dads, taking it in turns). But when I went to relax there were mutterings that I wasn’t doing my share of the childcare: that I was taking advantage. So I ended up on child duty for the entire time, and relaxed even less than I would have if I was at home.

So we end up not holidaying with other families, and having it be more expensive. Or indeed just swallowing the cost rather than make a fuss and having it cost the same as it does for a two-income-family-of-four.

Next week I will write a more evidence based blog about the financial inequality of single parenting (and indeed being single). But for now, thanks for being a safe space for when things get hard.

Keeping the wheels on

So after all manner of craziness in 2020, this year seems to have started off the same. From high hopes during the lockdown over the Christmas holidays, we have continued in, um, lockdown. Last week it was announced that the school closures and strict measures here in Denmark will last basically until February half term. Since I am not a politician I am happy to do what I’m told but … jeez, I wish we didn’t have to.

So far we have done two weeks of homeschool/work from home. As a single parent it really isn’t easy, but I have a job that I can move around more or less so I can start early and finish late, and – by far the most important thing at the moment – a boss who understands my needs and helps facilitate some flexibility. It’s still tricky: whilst bookending extra hours when the kids are in bed works for the family, it’s tough for me; and whilst I give as much attention to the children as I can, it still isn’t enough. And we are so priveliged with a garden, enough money to buy and store food, and a house full of books/craft supplies/gin – my heart goes out to other single mums doing this without those things.

The cosy fire I wish we were hanging out in front of, instead of in front of our screens all day. Photo by Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

I wanted to briefly reflect in this post about how to keep the wheels on – how to keep things on track when things are tough. It’s a phrase I used a lot last year, and sometime it’s all I can managed. However, as long as those wheels are on and and turning, there are small opportunities to thrive.

Some simple tips – some of which are easier than others:

Be kind to yourself: so obvious but so important. You are doing your best in really hard times. Talk to yourself as you would a cherished friend – you got this.

Nourish yourself. The more time I spend at home, the more slovenly I become. Whilst this lockdown might not be the barbecue and soda bread glory of the first one, making sure that I eat well (with vegetables / fruit / grains / enough water / blahdy adult things), don’t have too much alcohol or caffeine (or, let’s be honest about individual vices, Cheetos) and generally treat my body like it matters, really helps. Plus I love time in the kitchen, and sticking to having all meal times around the table eating together with no screens means that there is something of a routine and care.

Work out what self care means to you – then practice it. I have a whole post written in my head about how self care for women ≠ bubble baths, but for now I just want to say – it’s ok to work out what it means for you. Do you need time to read in silence? To have fresh air? To recognise what issues are nagging in your mind, and resolve them? I do believe that personal finance is a true area of self care: the most basic meaning of taking care of yourself is making sure you are ok, and finance is surely part of that. I have a list of nagging items – decalcify the taps (thanks to Denmark’s hard water, all our taps are only ever days away from total lime-scale-seizure), sort out a drawer full of random things, fix my son’s bike – and I try and do one a week. The list never gets any shorter, but my sense that I am managing stays strong.

A semi-ironic bubble bath. Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash

Do something offline. Not everyone might need this, but I just cannot spend all my time with a screen. Whilst we usually have an hour of TV in the evening after dinner, I try not to watch TV or go back on my computer unless I am working. Instead I am reading all the books that I insist I cannot get rid of, and also doing glamorous pursuits like jigsaws, and knitting – though I am totally crap at knitting, and just basically fiddle around with wool and sigh whilst listening to podcasts. My kids also desperately need this as they are not used to being on the computer as much as homeschool demands, and so we are also doing other things in the evening – playing board games, and doing a Su Doku or crossword together which I print off during the day, or my son has been teaching me chess and then beating me witless.

Go outside. Probably the most overused advice, but it makes such a difference. Even with the lockdown (and the weather) it’s possible to get out. Fresh air, daylight (if we’re lucky) and just Not Being In The House somehow restocks all my reserves of patience. Even Harvard research says it’s right.

Stay connected. As an expat I have always known that I don’t live surrounded by friends and family. The upside is that we make new communities every time we move. Having moved just before the pandemic hit though, we hadn’t quite got settled here before we had to lock down, and I don’t mind admitting that I have felt incredibly isolated over the last year. Some online communities, including FIRE, definitely help – others, such as Twitter, send me further into a dystopian panic. Knowing how you like to connect to others, and making the effort to do so even if you really don’t feel like it, can make such a difference. Kind of like going outdoors, but outdoors from your own mind.

Don’t lose sight of your goals. Sometimes recently my goals feel laughably pointless, in the face of so much uncertainty. But then I realised that the uncertainty makes having goals even more important, giving a sense of control when everything else has gone off piste. Having in mind a positive future makes me calmer about what’s going on now, and also more positive. I am also aware from previous sod-it episodes that it’s the small steps that really drive progress toward goals, and keeping myself accountable for achieving those small wins keeps me on track. Or at least it will do once I have finished off all the Christmas chocolates!

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

So – what is keeping you going right now? What are your ideas for thriving in spite of the challenges? Look forward to hearing from you!

Happy New Year #2. Budgets

In preparing for 2021 I spent some more time on my budgets. I’ve written about where I underestimated my 2020 budget before, and I have added in those changes – both the unknowns (utility bills) and the real underestimation (groceries). I also spent some time thinking about what matters to us as a family and where else we could make compromises.

This led me to some interesting conclusions. One of the things I love about the FIRE movement is that you tailor it exactly to you: your own wants and needs; what you find important now and in the future; and the options you see for your coming years. For me personally, I am always juggling compromises. If I want to work, I need to have childcare and the most likely thing is that I am going to pay for it. If I want to work in my chosen field then I have to travel, and have childcare which is available overnight and for days at a time. And so on and so forth. Setting budgets though helps me to think about those compromises and priorities, and how to get a balance that works for myself and my kids. I find it really empowering because it’s taking an intentional approach to money, and matching my actions to my aspirations.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

So for 2021 these are the things I am not prepared to compropmise on:

  • Childcare. We have a nanny who has been with us since my youngest was 3. With the pandemic and lockdown, I haven’t been travelling and haven’t needed overnight care etc in the way I usually do. But I still need childcare and value the care and engagement we get from our nanny, so this won’t change even though with all the additional costs (health care, insurance, travel) it’s not cheap.
  • Kids’ clubs. I was quite shocked about how much these are in Copenhagen, and I’ve gone back and forth about the right balance. Since my kids are only young once and working means I don’t have time to e.g. take them swimming every week, I have decided to keep this in but limit it two two per child. This means they get to see friends, do sports (and lots and lots of dance…) and keep broad interests whilst ensuring I am not going crazy on this budget line.
  • Holidays: I’ve kept in a decent line for this in 2021, though I hope it will be less since we have some vouchers from holidays we couldn’t take due to COVID which have rolled over to this year (well, fingers crossed that this happens and we don’t roll them over whilst staying at home FOREVER).

So what is the budget? It’s very similar to 2020’s actuals – a budget of £ 4,645 per month or  £ 65,618 over the year. The breakdown is planned as below – this is an average over the year where some costs are annual, and some come out in specific months etc:

 Annual PlanMonthly Budget
Childcare costs £              13,200 £            1,100.00
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £                1,500 £               125.00
Charity £                   800 £                 66.67
Eating out £                1,440 £               120.00
Entertainment – media £                   600 £                 50.00
Entertainment – going out £                1,200 £               100.00
Kids – extra curricular £                3,000 £               250.00
Family £                   600 £                 50.00
Groceries £                4,800 £               400.00
Holidays  £                3,600 £               300.00
Insurance £                2,400 £               200.00
Personal care £                   360 £                 30.00
Shopping – general £                   300 £                 25.00
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays £                   700 £                 58.33
Shopping – clothes £                   350 £                 29.17
Rent and Bills £              20,400 £            1,700.00
Transport £                   500 £                 41.67
TOTAL SPEND £         65,618 £       4,645.83

To be honest it still feels like a lot.

However, the planned savings (shown below) mean that it would be another year where I spend 60% and save 40%. Again, this doesn’t include anything pre-tax, so money paid for health insurance, or my employer pension to which I pay around £17,000 per year:

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash
 Annual PlanMonthly Budget
Mortgage £            10,310 £                    865
Mortgage Overpayment  £            15,200 £                1,250
 Emergency Fund  £               1,200 £                    100
ISA £            20,000 £                1,250
Kids’ savings £               2,976 £                    248
SIPP (private pension)  £               2,400 £                    300
 TOTAL SAVINGS £ 41,776 £    3,148

This would put me on track to finish paying off the mortgage on my UK home by the end of 2022, earlier than I had planned, and to max out my ISA as well as paying into kids’ savings and a personal pension. So even though the spending is quite high, I am definitely working toward my financial goals.

The one unknown is housing. We’ve been looking to buy a home here in Copenhagen which would suck in savings (though this would become equity) and reduce monthly outgoings. So far, we have put in an offer and lost out on one home and we have an offer under consideration this week (please cross your fingers for me!). If we can’t find something by about March I will look to rent, since we have to be out of this rented house by July.

Once the housing is exactly known I will tweak the budget. I do feel like we could save more, and will keep coming back to the budget throughout the year to see what else we can trim away. Either way, we’ll keep on enjoying the free pleasures in this life, and the knowledge that we are trying to live mindfully. What’s your plan for 2021 and how are you going to stick to it? Let me know!

A beautiful (free) day out walking in the snowy woods in what we hope will become our new neighbourhood ❤

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!