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

Budget Review: August 2020

I already wrote about spending during the summer holidays (June and July) so this post covers August. My plan is to look at September in the coming two weeks, then that ties up quarter three.

It is completely obvious to me that I am behind in my budgeting – that’s one of the reasons why it’s taking me so long to prepare and post my monthly budgets. There is definitely something where the thinking about FIRE and feeling like I am On A Path means that I don’t actually need to do anything else. I wrote at the start of this blog about being Fake Frugal and I am sorry to say that I am definitely still in that place.

I *do* reuse teabags – but I also spend on my kids extra-curricular activities without thinking twice. Image credit: Ray Massey | Getty Images

Looking at my numbers for August, I was justifying all the overspends. Oh – it was my birthday! Oh – it was my best friend’s 40th and a rare peaceful moment during COVID so I flew to the UK. Oh – my daughter made the swimming team so I had to pay the fees. I spent HOW MUCH? Oh dear…

 Monthly Plan Actual
Charity £                   30.00 £                           83.15
Insurance & utilities £                277.00 £                         914.22
Childcare £             1,000.00 £                     1,000.00
Groceries £                300.00 £                         546.92
Holidays £                300.00 £                     1,960.52
Transport  £                300.00 £                         307.71
Entertainment £                200.00 £                           81.91
Eating out £                175.00 £                         328.98
Rent  £             1,500.00 £                  1,500.00
Family  £                         586.67
Personal care  £                         117.53
Shopping  £                           16.57
Clothes  £                           60.50
 TOTAL £                 4,082.00 £                     7,504.68
OH MY DAYS WHAT DID I DO? August spends.

What are the lessons here?

Stay courageous: I almost didn’t share this budget because I spent almost double my already healthy budget. But what’s the point in making it all look easy when it isn’t?

Stay grateful: I wrote last week about gratitude and first off, I am grateful that I have the income where I can do this and not be in debt. But I need to also stay grateful and focused about what else I have planned for my life – early retirement, more time with the kids, and not working a job to pay for things I am only barely aware of.

Work with what is real not what you wish is real: The old phrase ‘champagne tastes, beer budget applies to me, but Denmark costs, UK budget. An example is that I’ve worked really hard on grocery spends – shopping in budget supermarkets, meal planning, cooking from scratch, and going in with a list – but I can’t get it down to my original budget. Whilst I could probably tweak it some more, I don’t think it’s going to be at  £300. I make packed lunches for all of us five days per week, and this saves eating out money but eats into (see what I did there?!) grocery spends. Ditto on utilities – I thought this was based on the real costs but there have been a couple of things which were news to me during our first year. If I am not working to a realistic budget then there is no way I can even try to succeed. So it becomes an exercise in futility.     

Action has to follow intention – regular, conscious action: I have known for a while that I need to spend some time setting up all my spreadsheets so that they are meshed together. Where I have money budgeted monthly but to be spread out over the year (e.g. I pay my car insurance annually but budget monthly) including holidays, I can’t tell at this point if I have stuck to the budget (clue: probably not).

So – on we go. Better to be honest and look it in the eye than write nice posts about intentionality without tackling the basics! As we head into the last quarter of the year, I need to look at the budget again, particularly annual costs and things like putting ceilings on kids’ extracurricular activities. Aluta continua!

Getting intentional: maximise time, and other limited resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty and cosmetics spending, the personal assessment

Last week I wrote a post which has been on my mind for a while about spending on cosmetics and the beauty industry, and how this relates to my financial independence journey.

There are some great bloggers working on the intersection of FIRE and working toward zero waste: I particularly love Tread Lightly, Retire Early. For me, so much of FIRE is about living consciously and thinking always about what matters: and there are a lot of intersections there with low waste or environmental living, where ‘what matters’ includes a bright future for everyone on the planet.

So: having thought about this in general, I completed an inventory nothing that this is the slimmed down version – when we moved to Copenhagen last year I probably got rid of half the total stash. Then I thought about how it applies to me and came to the following conclusions:

  1. Beauty and cosmetics can constitute clutter – just because it’s potentially useful, doesn’t mean it needs to be taking up space. I did an inventory of everything we have in the house, and it’s A LOT. I’ve been on the MumsNet ‘beauty hoarders’ threads and whilst people encourage each other to use up products, there is a definite sense of ‘so we can go and buy more’ (and this isn’t me knocking the lovely people on it, it’s just I find the threads give me more ideas about things I could buy rather than really knuckling down to buy less). As an expat I got into a habit of buying things I might not be able to find, and schlepping them about with me. That’s a lot of extra effort, packing boxes, money spent on shipping and all the rest of it.
  2. I have a lot more than I think. After realising that it can be clutter, the inventory showed me that we have A LOT of stuff. Looking at blogs etc on this issue I realise it’s a lot less than other people might have, but that’s not the point – for my needs and wants, it’s too much (see the EIGHT pictures above – do I seem to have a worry that Dove deodorant will never be available again??)
  3. Telling yourself ‘ah I’ll use it all, no bother’ might be right – but only if you then stop buying stuff. I will use all those 11 deodorants, but in the meantime I surely don’t need any more. My weak spot is travelling and forgetting something, then buying it again (hello both the deodorants which were bought to come in under the 75ml limit for hand luggage). Which reminds me of:
  4. Stupid spending rules are stupid. In the same way that food eaten off someone else’s plate still has calories (sigh), cosmetics bought a) in the airport b) in a country where they are cheaper than where you live, or c) on a three-for-two offer , is STILL spending. And if you don’t need it, you don’t need it. When we lived in DR Congo where paracetamol were $20 a pack it made sense to buy a lot of packs for 40p when I was in the UK. But that approach has become a habit which needs breaking.
  5. There are other ways to treat yourself. I definitely link buying luxury cosmetics to treating myself in such a small way that the spend doesn’t matter. This is obviously nonsense – I would never apply the same logic to a diet and a doughnut. I love this post about the treat yourself culture, and am actively looking for alternatives that really do make me feel better.

Finally, I kept track of everything we used as a family for three months. All the plastic waste is below and it’s so much less than I thought. 1 each of shampoo, conditioner (and a 2in1 which has been on the go for about a year), shower gel plus my son’s shower gel, deodorant, face wash, moisturiser, toothpaste and (plastic free) cotton buds. There are also a couple of minis which have been lying around and got used up because I had in mind to finish them. My conclusion – this represents the stuff that I use. The other millions of things, aren’t really essentials, and are therefore things I could live without.

Not that much? This is about £20 worth of stuff. But the plastic will still live on for decades…

A final word here on beauty advent calendars. A huge box of my stuff is from these advent calendars, where you open a door onto a mini product for every day of advent. I loved the idea of them – a chance to try out new things, and see what else I might enjoy, plus that feeling of ‘treating myself’ every day for what can be a difficult month. But the number of things I have left is a testimony to how little I need this and the most basic analysis tells us that both financially and environmentally these can’t be a good idea. This year my kids are making me a picture advent calendar instead – and if I really miss it, I can just choose something from the existing box of unloved miniatures.

Ethical living and FIRE

I had a question from a reader about my ethical stance to investing and thought it was such a great question I would focus on it for this post. This will focus on my personal experience, with the next one focusing on the background to ethical investing and some things to think about.

What does it mean to be ethical and to be striving for financial independence? How can I get the best returns for my money whilst not investing in things that I don’t believe in? How can I be working toward a better life for my children if on the other hand my money is supporting companies who are destroying the planet our kids will inherit?

Money or green things??

In terms of my own experience, when I was growing up my mum always invested ethically as a family. Well, my family had such huge issues with supporting companies that didn’t align with our values that we didn’t invest at all. Instead our money went into Credit Unions, until Triodos Bank opened in the UK in 1995. With changes to a) my ability to make my own adult decisions and b) the massive increase in ethical investment options, I’ve certainly moved on from that approach.

The ethics of investing – and daily life – are very much part of the road to FIRE for me. Being intentional with money is the first step on the path. What do I want? How does that translate into the decision I am going to make about spending money on this?

Regular daily practice of FIRE, and of ethical living, is about buying less – not about ‘doing without’ but recognising how little most of us really need to add to the things we have to live comfortable, fulfilling lives. There is a link to the zero waste movement (which was again something we did as kids, but was more due to a ‘being broke’ movement). Buying things to use briefly then throw away should be inconceivable, but it’s shockingly common place. Planning meals means we create less waste, as does actively packing leftovers for lunches at work, keeping small vegetable leftovers in the freezer to make soup, and (trying at least) to grow our own. Hand-me-downs, buying second hand, and borrowing things like tools or occasional sports gear from mates or co-ops, all mean fewer things to buy.

Ethical decisions are in all aspects of our lives [Photo Credit]

In the ever-inspiring Your Money Or Your Life, the authors encourage you to question yourself before every purchase not just whether you need something but whether you can take care of it, get value from it, and lovingly pass it on once you have finished with it. These remain great questions, and are easy to ask. If I do need to buy something, how do I plan to dispose of it? What will the impact of that be on the environment, and on me and my time?

In terms of investing, I do invest in ETFs but the solutions here feel imperfect. I have the majority of the UK funds in my ISA in this fund which is available on Fidelity in the UK and is listed as an ethical fund though a quick glance at the top holdings reveals some of the challenges in ethical investing (come back for the next blog post for more on this). I hold my emergency fund in Triodos Bank, which doesn’t have a significant range of products but is best for me for savings (rather than investment).

As ever, I should think it’s abundantly clear but the caveat here is that I am not a financial advisor and share this personal information as food for thought only.

There are so many other aspects to living well whilst living ethically that it’s a topic I hope to come back to. How do you manage these concerns in your FIRE journey? Would love to hear from you!

Courage: beginning!

First up: I’m thrilled this week to share my first ever podcast. I was interviewed by the fabulous Financial Independence Europe podcast, who kindly offered to talk to me about my journey to FIRE as a single parent. In spite of spending a lot of time thinking ‘surely nobody will be interested in this?! Surely my story is too boring / unique / specific / shameful to be relevant?!’ Then I thought about taking the path of courage, one where I dare to be different, to stand out. And I’m really glad I did!

I very much enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my journey, and maybe encourage others in a similar predicament to get started. You can listen to the podcast episode here and do sign up to the FI Europe podcast, it’s one of my go-to listens.