House buying – luck, privilege, and focus

I wrote last week about buying a $1 milion home: over the last few days we got the keys and have been cleaning, painting and generally getting ready for the furniture move on Monday. Oh, and sort of freaking out about the whole thing but that’s pretty normal.

Some of the discussions I’ve had since then got me thinking – given how hard it is to buy a house as a single parent, how did I get here?

I want to say upfront that I never had a divorce settlement. I didn’t “get half the house” or much less “take him to the cleaners”. For all sorts of reasons that probably require some kind of therapy to understand, my marriage didn’t involve the mingling of finances, or equal financial engagement, at all. The good thing is that we took that attitude to the divorce meaning that I took out what I put in. Given that it was my money anyway, and I also did all the childcare, I can live with that. Note: many other ways of being married, or divorced, or thinking about money and marriage are available, and I wish you joy of them.

My first home purchase was in a tower block (not this one) Photo by Ben Allan on Unsplash

So how DID I get here?

A combination of luck, privilege and focus. It’s important to recognise that the focus itself might not have been enough – luck (mostly around timing) and privilege definitely helped. That’s not to say that this is not an option for others, but I see a lot of people talking about how they bought a house all by themselves whilst the back story shows how much they relied on their parents. So let’s be honest. I found it hard – other people will find it much much harder. But it’s not impossible.

House 1: bought for £55,000 sold for £110,000

My partner and I decided to try and buy twenty years ago, when I was 22. We had been living together for five years and rents in our home town were rising all the time. Even at that point the average property price for a two-bedroom home (a flat in the fancy part of town, a house in the non-fancy) was £170,000, and amount that would have required me to be earning £45,000. I was fortunate to get a great job out of university on £18,000, but that was still a world awya, and my partner’s self-employed income was limited as he established his business.

So we found the only thing we could afford, in a tower block on a housing estate, and bought it. We were always really frugal, and had been saving since we got together, saving £10,000. The flat was on the eighth floor though, meaning it wasn’t possible to get a mortgage. Here’s the privilege: my partner’s parents lent us the rest of the money. We set up a repayment plan in line with current mortgage rates, and continued to be frugal, doing a lot of work ourselves and taking in a lodger in the second bedroom though we didn’t pay off much extra on the loan.

When we split up four years later, we had the flat valued at £110,000. Based on splitting the equity 50:50, I got £30,000. I put this in a savings account and went off to pursue my humanitarian career overseas.

House 2: bought for £170,000, sold for £270,000

So by this point I am 30, and have a baby. I have a confused marriage where he is overseas (and not contributing anything financially or emotionally) and things are rocky. I am back in my hometown and the cost of living seems to be crazy. For the first time, I am fully responsible for another human being and realise I have no idea what I’m doing.

So I decide to buy a house and settle down. I still have an income that counts for a mortgage, even though it’s from a charity based overseas. And since I was living in South Sudan / Uganda / Rwanda for the past four years I have also added to my savings pot so with the equity from my first home I have a £70,000 deposit.

The glorious kitchen of my second home

The luck here is that it is 2009. House prices dropped by 16% in 2008 and I looked at a lot of repossessions which seemed heart-breaking. I wanted to stay on the same housing estate, but also realised pretty quickly that I couldn’t afford to live in another part of town. So I was looking at the lower end of the price range for a house. And my goodness I saw some unloved, filthy heaps.

Eventually I found a four bed house in a quiet cul-de-sac (important on a house estate with a reputation for joy riders) and put in an offer. Then I found that the flipside to 2008 was that banks were not keen to lend money to single people with precarious incomes. Around the same time my lovely granny passed away and left my family an inheritance (likely the only one we will ever get since we are not that kind of family). The bank will still not lend me the money. So again with the privilege – my mum and siblings club together their inheritances and lend me the other £100,000.

It’s hard to overestimate how much work needed doing: it had no heating at all, asbestos in the roof, single glazing, an extension which hadn’t been approved and had to be formalised by building standards, a kitchen where there were actual human turds in the cupboards. Safe to say I called in a lot of favours over the years, and did a lot on credit.

I had another two years overseas with my work, and rented the place out. Since I wasn’t entitled to a pension in that job (long story – I keep planning a series of posts entitled ‘mistakes I made with pensions, and why it’s a massive headache’ so do come back for more) I focused on the house as my main asset and worked on paying off my family. In 2014 I came back, thinking I would stay in the UK, and realised that now my son was older I didn’t want to stay on our housing estate. So I sold the house for £270,000, repayed my family loans, and had £140,000 to use as a deposit.

Phew. I think I would have made it without the family help as banks unclenched and my income settled, but it might have taken a lot longer. And living in a city where house prices have gone up 300% in 20 years, every year counts.

Sensible countryside! Photo by Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

House 3: Bought for £352,000. Currently worth £400,000

This is my sensible house, and ironically we have only ever lived in it for six months. I bought really planning to stay in the UK, but then with work and other issues (not least pension obsession which kicked in at 35) I took another overseas job with the kids and we moved to west Africa. I rented the house out, and, given that accommodation was provided in my new job, I put a lot of extra money toward the mortgage. I took out a mortgage of £152,000 and currently owe just £50,000 – that means I have paid off £100,000 in five years. I aim to have it completely paid off by the time we leave Denmark.

So there we go. A rollercoaster ride which would not have been possible without the support of family, an early start, a high savings rate and a risk-taking approach. I wanted to just put some honesty out there about how this all happened for me – however hard I work and save (and I do work and save very hard) without that additional help, things would at the very least have taken a lot longer.

So – whats your housing story? And how can we think about collectively helping one another for those people in our situation who don’t have family support? I’d love to hear from you!

Hope!

Hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson said. After a few weeks of ‘coping’, this week I am back to full on hope.

Hope is the foundation of all my decision making – and the thing which keeps me tenacious and working in spite of appearances when it feels like things aren’t moving. Believing that you can change things, whether it’s your bank balance or how the world views you, means believing in the possibilities enough to carry on.

Yes indeed. Photo by Ron Smith on Unsplash

There have been so many things which make me feel blessed and hopeful recently. The summer weather and breeze, spending hours at the beach getting some energy back (and some vitamin D). The end of another school year and brilliant school reports for both my kids talking about how they are doing well but how they are kind and thoughtful: reminding me that however I feel I am doing as a parent, it’s good enough. Small things, but small things is what we have.

FIRE is all about hope to me. Hoping that I can give my kids a better future – including being there for them in person at different times in their lives, really loving them, and giving them the conditions to thrive. Hoping that I can live my values. Hoping that I can support my family by myself but doing so in a way which aligns to my values and my contribution to the world.

But hope isn’t enough by itself.

Feathers of hope: Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Showing up day after day, doing the work, making the tweaks. One thing I’ve learnt is the need to be patient with myself. Keeping the faith is half the battle – the other half is doing the next right thing, however tiny it feels.

What is making you hopeful this week? I’d love to hear from you!

1% Better: micro-improvements

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

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

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

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

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

Make one health change

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

But the following are permanent changes which make a difference:

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

Make one financial change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Basics part 1: what is FIRE?

Following a chat with a friend this weekend, I realised that I don’t have a single post on here which actually talks about the basics of FIRE. To be fair I’m quite like this in real life as well – just starting sentences wherever I had reached in my own head and assuming everyone else was there with me. As my mum once said, “it’s like your train of thought is half way out of the station and off down the track before I realised you were speaking to me”. But as with saving (see what I did there?!) it’s never too late to start a new habit, so in these next two posts I am going to outline some of the basics.

So, what is FIRE?

There is a whole movement out there, so I start with the caveat that this is my personal take. Financial Independence, Retire Early (or FIRE) is all about becoming financially free from the need to do things you don’t want to. This includes spending money on things you don’t really want or need; and for most people, means being free to give up paid employment. There are different kinds of FIRE to aim for, which relate to the extent of your freedom and whether you need an income at all, and a few main steps.

FIRE!!! And/or the kind of delightful beach-side evening you could enjoy if you didn’t have to go to work tomorrow. Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

Where do I sign up?!

The brilliant thing about FIRE is you can start from wherever you are. All the steps are simple to work out (or there are simple versions at least).

Step One: Start with your ‘why’. This is so important, but it could be anything. You hate your job; you want to spend more time with your kids; you have an amazing idea for a world changing small business but you can’t get started with the debts and commitments you have; your dad died before he could retire and you don’t want that to be you. FIRE is simple but it’s not always easy – having a ‘why’ to come back to really matters. And it might change which is totally fine. My why is about being able to live my dream life, with my kids, and a balance of the work, environment, community and service that means to me.

Step Two: Focus first on financial stability. I don’t talk much about this here because it’s not where I am at on my journey, but getting out of debt, and making the lifestyle changes needed to ensure that you are self-funding, is the first building block. Dave Ramsey is a good place to start, with a plan designed around simple steps.

Step Three: Work out what you need. There are some basic tips on how to do this which centre around two rules: the 25% rule for calculating how much you will need, and the 4% rule for calculating how much you can take out in retirement. You only need to do one sum, though the first part takes a bit of work. You need to work out how much you will need to live off in retirement (whether that’s at 65 or ASAP). This will be different for everyone, with two big factors being whether you have children or family members to support: and your accommodation costs.

Do a rough calculation of your monthly fixed essentials – utilities, transport, accommodation and so on, remembering to factor in giving up work so whilst your commuting costs might go down, your energy bill might go up. To be fair, you could probably use your in-COVID costs for this.

Estimate what are essential but not fixed, so groceries, charitable giving, entertainment. People have these in different categories, but I work to a ‘basics’ budget which includes e.g. good internet and some money for books, movies and whatnot but not much.

Get real about what you want out of your retirement. If you want to spend it all on cruises around the Caribbean, your costs will be very different to someone who wants to potter about at home and spend some time each year visiting family in the same country. There are also lots of different kinds of FIRE, some of which aim to cover all the basic costs but assume some additional income stream to cover luxuries – for now though, just start somewhere.

An easy way to just get going is to take an estimate. WHICH did some great research into what people in the UK actually spend in retirement, and found it was less then most people imagined. They have calculations for a basic, comfortable and luxury retirement, finding that a luxurious retirement for individuals (not couples who are calculated differently) costs £30,000 per year, but this is dependent on having a paid-for house.

There are lots of different ways you could go: you get to choose. Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Once you have these total costs, multiply them by 25. I worked out that I will need £30,000 – so I should need £750,000 invested.

Step Four: calculate your net worth. Whilst it can be disheartening to feel like you need to save an unfeasibly large amount of money, hopefully, you won’t be starting from zero. Working out your net worth can take a little while the first time you do it, but recalculating it annually is easy peasy. You essentially need to work out your assets: capital on your home, cash in the bank, money invested in pensions or non-retirement funds, premium bonds, money down the back of the sofa – all of it. This might take some digging, but make those calls to find out where your old pension fund went, it’s your money after all! Then work out your debts (mortgage, student loans, other debt) and minus this from your assets. Voila! Net worth. I share my net worth annually.

Once you know your net worth you can also revisit the figure that you are aiming for since there might be other things to take into account. For example, since I have two small defined benefit pensions which will are already projected to bring in £9,000 per year in retirement that means I actually need £21,000 more, or £525,000 saved and invested. If I add in the state pension (which frankly feels like magical thinking the way things are going, so I don’t count it – if I was closer to retirement then I would do) then I would have an additional £8,970 per year and only need to save £300,000. My calculations are also based on owning a home outright though, which is a massive additional aspect in terms of either saving enough to pay it off between now and retirement, or needing a lot more invested to cover your costs.

So simple you can have a little happy jump. Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

And that’s steps one through four! Realistically if you are in a lot of debt, then these steps will take a while. But if you are an average person with a reasonable income, puttering along and thinking about how to get more out of life, you might have just moved into a whole new frame of mind. A quick moment to recognise that these are really hard times, and with the average British person being more in debt since COVID than ever before, this might all feel impossible. But I really believe that the tenets of the FIRE movement, some of the thinking and the simple actions to make a difference, are valuable wherever you are in your journey. More on all of these, and steps five through seven next week.

PS: If you want to find out about FIRE and get all fired up yourself, Mr Money Moustache’s ‘start here’ post is a great one. MMM is the hipster uncle of the movement (which also has grandparents, coming to that another day) and is all kinds of inspiring, though one of the reasons I started this blog was that, whilst I love his writing, he doesn’t resonate with me much.

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 ❤

The Red Briefcase: 2020 spending review

‘It’s the most… wonderful tiiiime… of the yeeeeaaaar’ <sings>. Hannukah is just finished and we are heading into Christmas, both of which we love. And we’re up to the end of year spending review, which we are *hoping* to love.

2020 has been quite the year, hasn’t it? I am writing this whilst we are in self-isolation (again) and trying to enjoy ourselves without all the usual festive celebrations of friends, family, and going out. It is particularly hard this year since we can’t travel and it’s just the kids and I far from home. In spite of that I know we are in a much, much luckier place than others with a stable income; living in a fantastic country; and in a house big enough to play, work and study in for weeks at a time. At this time of gratitude and miracles, I am definitely counting our blessings. But this post is also about counting our income, outgoings and savings.

It hurts me to share any space with Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak but that red briefcase is the traditional home for the spending review going into the UK parliament. No comments here on that budget. (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

So what was the plan?

I set my plan for spending and saving back on January 21st, the first blog post here. Below is the actuals and percentages. Overall I spent around £65,000 this year, £15,000, or about one-third more than planned.

Item Monthly Annual Actual % spent
Charity  £              30  £              360  £          830.00 230%
Insurance  £            277  £           3,324  £       3,324.00 100%
Rent and utilities  £         1,500  £         18,000  £     20,098.77 112%
Childcare  £         1,000  £        12,000  £     21,939.86 183%
Groceries  £            300  £           3,600  £       6,160.68 171%
Holidays  £            300  £           3,600  £       1,910.71 53%
Transport   £            300  £           3,600  £       2,723.52 76%
Entertainment  £            200  £           2,400  £          917.20 38%
Eating out  £            175  £           2,100  £       2,006.95 96%
Family       £       2,986.73  
Shopping      £       2,090.63  
TOTAL  £         4,082  £         48,984  £     64,989.04 133%

What the reckoning showed me, once I got over feeling queasy, was as follows:

  • I radically underestimated some areas – I had no budget for shopping (clothes, gifts, personal care), for example. I also hadn’t understood some of the bills needed to be paid in Denmark (hello surprise £ 1,000 utility charge that I thought was part of the water bill!). I also spend 180% of the grocery bill, and whilst some of this is just poor planning and shopping, it is also clear that costs here are much much more than the UK given that I still shop at LIDL.
  • Whilst COVID didn’t impact my income, it meant that there were significant spends on unplanned areas such as holiday childcare when plans to have my parents come and stay (or the kids go to them in the UK) had to be put on ice – I spent 170% of childcare and holiday budgets due to these changes. Some of the grocery spend was also COVID related: at least now I have long-life milk and a lot of pasta and rice in the hold!
  • The uncomfortable truth is that I budgeted without working on a frugal plan meaning that I consistently didn’t hit targets because I have been using the budget as a guide and not as a plan. I added a budget line of ‘family’ then just added in everything which might upset the budget lines elsewhere, but of course the overall overspend is the same.

This budget also doesn’t include – money to savings, pre-tax contributions to health insurance and pensions, or the income and expenditure on my UK property. So what did I save?

Mortgage overpayments £         11,576
 Triodos  £         11,000
Stocks and Shares ISA  £         11,673
Kids savings £           2,976
Pension (SIPP) £           2,900
 TOTAL SAVED / INVESTED £    40,126
Feel better about this bit!

So I spent 61% of my income, and saved 39%. Given the unexpected (or poorly planned) expenditures, I am really happy with that.

Celebrating with our amazing Christmas tree 🙂

Net Worth Snapshot

Confession time – previously I was calculating my net worth at the end of March, since the UK tax year ends April 5th. This means that I have the 6 month change, and the 18 month changes, which is useful but not quite the ‘end of year review’ I had in mind. In any case, here they are. The big additions from the budgets above is the employer contribution to pension.

 Value Dec 2020Value April 2020Value April 2019
 Pensions  £         163,540 £         134,240 £       105,675
 Savings  £           83,287 £           68,500 £         26,000
 House Equity £         343,000 £         323,223 £       304,000
 Emergency Fund  £           10,000 £           15,000 £           3,500
  £         599,827 £         540,963 £        439,175
Changes in net worth

Three of my four pensions are ‘defined benefit’ meaning that increases here come from money paid in to my current work pension (also defined benefit); and money paid in plus changes to investments on my SIPP. Over this time, my house hasn’t increased in value, so any change is mortgage capital paid off. There were a ton of challenges or mistakes this year which I tried hard to put right – I pulled money out of the S&S ISA when I panicked back in March, and put £5,000 back in which has grown again with the shift in the stock market at the end of the year.

Either way this shows an increase in net worth of £68,000 over six months – an average of £10,600 per month, or £154,000 over 18 months, a monthly average increase of £8,500. That is incredible – and I know based partly on having a great salary and a lot of other privileges and benefits like having bought a home at a good time etc. But it’s something to be proud of, and to spur me on to a much tighter-budget in 2021!

How was your 2020?? And how is it making you feel as we head into planning and dreaming for the year ahead? I would love to hear from you!

Photo Credit/ Matthew Hoffman

Getting back in the budget saddle

I missed posting last week, mostly because I was nestled in a shame spiral about my spending – fun! Self reflection is always challenging, for me especially when it’s something I think I am doing well at. I started this blog from the perspective of ‘I am largely sticking to my budget’: ‘I am in a good place and want to get better’: ‘I’ve a five year plan and few doubts.’

O. M. G.

So it’s partly been the habit-trashing of COVID and the change to being without additional help from my family, contact with friends, or regular travel with work. But it’s also been just taking my eye off the ball. I realised last week that I don’t really track my budget any more as I am spending, something which happened when I started using my Danish account instead of my Monzo card which tracks all spend for you against a pre-set budget. Instead I review spending a few weeks after month end, and it becomes an inventory of my stupid.

After some initial reflection last week I concentrated on getting the two gnarly issues sorted from my budget. The first was getting a realistic view of the utilities budgets. In Denmark, there are no price comparison websites and few options when it comes to utilities providers. A proper review of these costs show I spend £405 per month on utilities – almost £5,000 per year, and significantly under what was in my original monthly budget. I also looked at kids clubs and holidays – action there is TBD since the options range from cutting it altogether to reducing it significantly, and this can only be done through more of a lifestyle prioritisation exercise. It will also depend if my parents can help out with holiday childcare again post-COVID – whatever post-COVID looks like…

It was also useful to give myself a break and think about self-talk on these issues. I love Brené Brown and she has some great advice on money and shame. It’s important to note that as a single mum, whilst I can have conversations with others, I am responsible for all the decision making – and praise or blame. And personally I find that the FIRE community can be quite light on failure, sending you back to Dave Ramsay if you get stuck in early stages. However, since shame spirals are characterized by feeling like everything compounds the original feeling, I can also believe this is my perception. With that said, I’m sharing the tips I found most relevant:

  1. Show yourself compassion. Interestingly Harvard Medical School’s paper on self compassion covers a lot of the micro-habits I have been trying to put in place recently – from journaling to meditation. The tips about ‘comforting your body’ also opened up other ideas. As Jen Sincero says, we can treat our bodies like a windsock flailing behind our brains, doing ourselves harm but also missing opportunities to improve and support ourselves in simple ways.
  2. Be courageous. For me undertaking the calculations and spending reviews – then sharing them on this blog, are courageous. To be even more so, I need to start tracking spend during the month to look it in the eye on a regular basis, and be brave enough to stop spending, say no, or course correct.
  3. Celebrate the small wins. This I really struggle with. Some of the small wins are really small, and when they turn into habit I don’t appreciate them anymore. Examples like packing lunches for work, cycling to the office, choosing free weekend activities and so on don’t get noticed. Here I need to create small goals such as no-spend days – or indeed just sticking to the damn budget for things like eating out – and celebrating those.

So – aluta continua! How do you keep going when things aren’t going well?

Image credit: https://alchetron.com/A-luta-continua