My father’s gift

Having written just a month ago about grief, I am devestated to say that my father passed away this week.

He has been ill for many months so it wasn’t a surprise. He went quietly as he would have wanted to: fell asleep holding my mum’s hand and slipped silently from this world during the night. We had a lot of time during his illness to share our love and our feelings with him, so he went having ensured that we weren’t left with ‘things unsaid’ – those things which can become toxic after someone’s passing.

A rainbow, picture taken by my daughter the day my father passed away. “Look,” she said “a little gift from pa.”

But it is still unimaginable to me that this world continnues to exist without him in it. I believe that he is with God, and that his spirit will live on – those that we have loved never truly leave us. So I thought I would use this post to celebrate that spirit and his life, and share some of the lessons he has given me over the years which I will take with me and keep sharing with my children.

  • There are some areas where you shouldn’t try to save money. Namely: books, wine, cheese. Books are something I try not to keep buying, partly so my home doesn’t end up with teetering stacks of books in every corner and partly so I can give up on a book I’m not enjoying rather than feeling the need to see it through ‘since I paid for it’. But I am prepared to rethink this one to pay respects to my dad.
  • Making people feel loved means seeing who they are and what they need. He came into my life at 14, becoming my step-dad. I call him my dad out of love and respect – and because that is who he really was for me. From the day we first met, he was someone who created a feeling of love and respect with such a simple grace, largely by really trying to understand who I was, how I felt and what I needed. And that effort and level of care was always the bedrock of our relationship, and meant that I could talk to him and rely on him for anything.
  • Then you show them that love. As a man born in 1939, my dad was maybe not an obvious candidate for showing emotions. But my kids and I have always felt supported on a kind of cloud of love and affection. When we were living overseas he sent a weekly package of cuttings from the newspaper (often with speech bubbles or other commentary so it was clear where he stood), letters, and little notes he had taken about things we’d be interested in. I find little cuttings, notes and letters, throughout my house: tucked into recipe books, or mixed in with the kids’ stuff. And I love to see them.
  • Poetry is not a luxury. He really loved poetry and is one person who consistently gave me books of poetry as gifts. It’s not something I do for myself, but every few weeks I pick up one of these books, let it fall open, and just enjoy the small, beautifully written treat within. I added this activity – poetry i-Ching if you will – into a list of ‘5 minute treats’ recently and I love it.
  • Love hard. It’s worth it. My parents got married after messy divorces on both sides. They learned to trust each other, and built a successful life and family. That’s a lesson worth learning.
  • Unconditional love is rarer than you think. My dad was the only person who cried with joy when I finished my PhD (apart from me but I cried with relief) and I gave them a bound version which referenced them in the acknowledgements. For my mum, it was too tied up in needing to compare my achievements with my siblings. But for my dad, it was much more simple: “You did a great thing. And I couldn’t be prouder.”
  • Cycling drunkenly into a hedge is a family thing. Don’t sweat it. (Just gonna leave that one there without an explanation!)

Grief is hard. Loss is hard. Relationships with our parents and family can be hard. Parenting and trying to get it right can be hard. But it’s not all hard, or not always. It’s a beautiful, tight hug from someone who really knows and loves you, whatever your flaws. A hug that you can still feel long after they have gone.

Thanks for being here with me at this difficult time. This blog is about all the things that make up a life, and grief and love are part of that. Now go and give someone a hug, or a call, and tell them you love them.

Pension planning

So I think a lot about pensions. Pensions are by far the biggest topic when I talk to women in the same sector as I am. Or single parents. Or anyone who has moved between jobs, or between traditional jobs and entrepreneurship. So, everyone really.

There are a few different schools of thought. Many younger people I speak to have such little faith in the pensions industry that they are not convinced of the need to invest in retirement vehicles. In fact one-third of savers don’t have faith in the industry – and this survey was done with savers, so imagine the additional people who don’t have faith to the point where they just don’t save. Almost 60% of people believe they will not have enough to retire on, with women being significantly less confident about their ability to retire at all, or comfortably.

Not totally relevant but much more interesting than pictures of currency notes and clocks. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I’ve written a couple of times about calculating what you need to retire on, and on working out across your own financial journeys, especially if you want to retire early, where you might have gaps in your income prior to being able to access pension funds.

One tricky area to work through is the difference between defined benefit and defined contribution pensions. Sometimes I imagine myself on the Dave Ramsey show explaining at length why I don’t have $1million in retirement, and why that doesn’t matter because I am largely in defined benefit pensions. I realise that we have now plumbed the depths of my boring internal monologue, but putting that aside, let’s continue.

The first point is that defined benefit pensions are largely in the public sector, and they are increasingly rare. The second is that you will very rarely be able to choose which one you get. You may, if you are joining public service, be offered this option. And – whislt I don’t normally give unequivocal advice – you should always choose defined benefits for the reasons outlined below:

Some of the differences across pension type

Defined benefit pensions are usually linked to the length of service in the company, so it can feel pretty small or silly, but it all adds up. The greatest benefit to defined contribution is that a) you can choose where to invest the funds yourself and b) you can usually roll pension contributions into a single fund as you move jobs.

I have three defined benefit pensions, and one SIPP which I invest into regardless of how good my company pension looks. The figures below assume I stay in my current job for another two years: many defined benefit pensions require a minimum stay with the organisation. So how do my pensions look?

  Transfer valueAnnual guaranteed
income retirement
Defined benefit pension 1 £          62,304 £            6,250
Defined benefit pension 2 £          39,462 £            1,400
Defined benefit pension 3 £        104,864 £          15,266
  £        206,630 £          22,916
Self Invested Personal Pension (SIPP) £          44,075 £               400
TOTAL ACROSS ALL £        250,705 £          23,316

Even a quick glance suggests that the benefit from the defined pension is better than the defined contribution on the SIPP. However – and it’s a significant caveat – the SIPP will grow with the market. Or hopefully grow, in these days, who knows.

This is where it gets interesting. Using the more traditional FIRE rule of 4% withdrawal, to achieve the  £30,000 per year in retirement I would need to save £750,000 overall. Side bar – Mustachian Calcs are great calculators for working this sort of thing out. As you can see, I am not far off from that £30,000, and indeed would reach it if I could add in the UK State Pension (caveats galore!) but my portfolio ‘value’ is only around one-third of that net worth calculation.

Definitely more on this in blogs to come. It’s both a tangled old web, and a cornerstone of what we’re trying to do here. So do come back and join me on Instagram for more.

Grief, and strength

Damn it’s been a bit of a year. After ‘the COVID years’ it seemed things might get easier, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’ve been offline for a week as I had to go back to the UK to support a family member whose wife passed away suddenly at 46, leaving him with two children. Suffice to say, it’s been a brutal week and I only hope I can support him during the long dark night of grieving and dealing with the practical and emotional challenges of becoming a widowed dad.

There are lots of relevant things I could write about (and might come back to): estate planning; making a will; or accessing benefits when your circumstances change. 1 in 20 children in the UK have experienced the loss of a parent before the age of 16 so whilst this is something none of us as parents want to think about, it’s common enough that we should be preparing for it, just in case. But all this stuff will have to wait whilst I ride out the sadness and be there for the family.

In addition to the loss of the individual, and the sadness around the loss her children in particular have suffered and what it means for their lives, I have a real sense of losing a shared history. Of course it’s not the most important thing, but when there are people whose lives have intertwined with yours since childhood, losing them is like a mini ending of an era. And for whatever reason, it feels like we have lost a lot of people so there is a sense of standing on a glacier which is slowly melting into the sea (awkward climate change image).

All our dreams and plans have foundations in where we come from and which families and communities we are part of. What I have learnt, as someone who moves and travels (phsyically and emotionally) a lot is that this is true whether we realise it or not. The comfort of being with people with whom you have not just a shared history but a shorthand or venacular is immense, and it matters so much to be able to just rest in that. No wonder losing it is hard.

The cost of having kids

This started off as two totally different posts but for whatever reason, I ended up wanting to talk about the cost of having kids. Clearly feeling grumpy about it!

Having kids is a huge fianancial commitment whether you are single or not: even a married mama will earn one-third less than male counterparts by the time her eldest is 12. Very often people focus on the cost of having kids in terms of the things we need to buy for them, which is honestly by far the smallest part of the equation. Lots of places list out the things you’ll need and how much they might cost but it’s not rocket science, and with the rise in great second hand equipement, doesn’t need to break the bank. I bought everything second hand (other than a car seat because you can’t guarantee it hasn’t been in an accident which migth render it useless, and cot or Moses basket mattresses since you there is a small chance that using a second hand mattress from outside the family increases the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS).

Clue: you need very little of this stuff. Photo by elliot verhaeren on Unsplash

I got many things for free, and did without a whole load of others which seemed unimportant. Then I made sure I passed on all my used stuff, from books and maternity wear to kids clothes, toys and books, to make sure someone else benefitted. Kids use things for such a short amount of time – though honestly they can also properly trash some things which are just unusable after a few months – that most things are good for another few years. So much of the things we purchase for our children end up as waste, with more than 2.2 billion pounds of clothing for children aged 0-11 ending up in American landfill each year: the equivalent of 45 pounds per child. 90% of toys are made at least partly of plastic, and 80% end up in landfill including things in good working order that kids have just grown out of.

Which is kind of ironic given that this wastefulness is bringing about the kind of climate change that means the lovely babies we are so proud to show off in a new outfit, or make smile with a new toy, are more likely than ever to end up living their adult lives at the sharp end of a fiery apocolyptic disaster. And even if you don’t believe in climate change (you probably shouldn’t be on this blog to be fair) or don’t care, the sheer wastefulness in terms of money and resources makes doing things differently surprisingly easy.

Not my child but what a cutie: Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

But these costs are nothing compared with the cost of childcare, and the impact on your career. And we haven’t even started talking about if you want to prepare them for college, or save up so they can have a deposit for a house. In 2020, 49% of first time buyers under 35 got help with their deposit from their parents, with the majority of them saying they wouldn’t have been able to buy a house without this support. So if you can’t help out your kids, they are going to get left further behind. Just in case you didn’t feel bad enough already.

Research (though I always think these things are a bit vague given the many different approaches you can take to parenting) suggests that the cost of raising a child in the UK is £193,801 for a single parent. Using that and the lack of financial support since their birth, I will have lost almost £400,000 by having children. According to some back-of the-envelope calculators, investing that in a low cost ETF or stocks and shares ISA would grow to around £700,000 in the 18 years. Add to that the reduced earning power, and having two kids has probably cost me £1 million.

Obviously, I didn’t have children to make money (child labour is illegal after all…) And this calculation doesn’t include the fact that they will look after me in my old age (which, thanks to our cultural background, they really really will). Having kids is awesome, and my two are both pretty much the best fun I ever have, as well as potentially being part of the solution to the problems my and my parents’ generation have created in this world.

Also not my kid, but a child quietly reading a book is something I fully support. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

But the cost of having children is real, and shouldering the burden alone can feel like a huge strain. Being part of the FIRE movement, where it feels like it’s predominantly white married couples who have nothing to do with my life (this was the other post I started writing) can make things feel even lonelier. But FIRE as an approach means that I feel in control or the spending and financial decisions I make, and more confident that I am creating the kind of future my kids, and I, deserve.

Frugal school holidays #1

Kids have gone back to school this week! Woo and quite literally Hoo! They really needed these 8.5 weeks (8.5! Seriously??) off as last year was crazy, including some health issues, all of us getting COVID, I was doing two jobs and permanently either out or stressed… So we all needed a bit of down time.

In 2020 I wrote a series of posts about the crazy expense of school holidays as well as sharing a ton of frugal ideas to enjoy them without breaking the bank. 2020 was admittedly different since lockdown had meant that the kids and I had basically spent months together trapped at home trying to work and homeschool, and I was pretty much out of good ideas for nice things to do together. Denmark had also just opened up, and we were desperate to get out of the house and into the big wide world in case it shut down again.

Spending a LOT of time on Denmark’s fabulous beaches (though wishing they were a bit warmer…)

But it meant that I spent £4,065 in addition to our regular spending during the 2020 summer holidays which feels ridiculous. Managing long school holidays is a challenge for all working families, but for single parents where household income is lower, and there isn’t an option to tag team between parents using their annual leave it is a huge problem. My father has long term worsening health issues which meant he had to shelter in place and now needs 24 hour care, and whilst in previous years I would usually either take my kids to stay with their grandparents for 2-3 weeks, or have my mum come and stay with us, this hasn’t been an option since COVID.

In the UK this year, thanks to the number of companies which went out of business during the pandemic, summer childcare has risen by as much as 25% in some places and with fewer spots available options are likely to be further away and cost more in petrol or travel. Overall research suggests that parents will pay an average additional £900 per child for the summer holidays if they cannot take time off work. Given that single parents already earn significantly less than others, and that 75% report that childcare costs are greater than their basic living costs and one-third of working mothers say that their childcare costs are the same as or higher than their salary

Easier to find things to do when the weather is like this!

From a personal point of view – and recognising that being on a relatively high income and with basic childcare options that continue in the summer – I knew that this year I really had to do things differently. Last week I wrote about commitment to paying off a bridging loan, and since I was horribly aware of the financial vortex of the summer holidays, I made a clear decision and plan to have a frugal holiday and put that money against the loan. (If you havn’t read the post, I paid off £25,000 plus interest in 19 months, and the final £5,000 came from summer holiday choices).

I tracked additional spend during the 2022 holidays. I didn’t count our regular childcare budget of £800 monthly – since I employ a nanny due to my work hours and travel needs, I need her all year round. I also didn’t count usual supermarket or travel spend on our train cards though I did include two supermarket shops which were clearly for treats. So I included holidays clubs, days out, money spent on books, subscriptions etc specifically for the holidays, the cost of a ‘self care day’ which I had as a day’s leave, and eating out since it’s something we don’t usually do. In total I spent an additional £1,377 over the school holiday period – or one-third of the cost of the 2020 holidays.

Books, website subscriptions etc £    100.00
Holiday club x 3 weeks £    886.50
Day out expenses £    192.10
Eating out expenses £    113.00
Self care day £      85.32
TOTAL £ 1,376.92
Additional costs for the holiday period
SO MUCH BEACH!

Next week I will share more on what we actually did – and on how I learnt to embrace boredom and unmanaged time as something critical for my kids’ ability to navigate this world.

I also tracked some of the frugal ideas for the holidays over on this blog’s Instagram page, come join me if you want a sneak peek!

Commitment #2

Last week I posted on my Insta about paying off £27,000 in 19 months and I wanted to talk about it in a bit more detail here and how it relates to my thinking on commitment.

Generally I don’t carry debt. I appreciate there are a number of schools of thought on this one, especially about ‘good debt‘, credit card benefits and so on but for me it always comes back to the kinds of risk I am willing to take (TL:DR – not many, usually based on complex zombie apolocalypse scenarios where I can’t look after my kids).

But when I was buying a house last year it turned out that I couldn’t bridge the gap between my deposit and the mortgage. I had 10% as a down payment but needed more to be able to access the financing. I had already scrimped hard to get the downpayment together and, with fees and costs associated with moving, just couldn’t make the rest in the right time frame without leaving myself with no emergency fund at all. So I took a bridging loan, just as a personal loan from my regular bank.

I figured that adding it as a risk to the overall house buying approach should work. Photo by Ingrid Martinussen on Unsplash

But in taking out that loan I made a commitment to pay it off as quickly as possible. The total to repay including interest over the original 60 months was £29,349 for a £25,000 loan. This felt like more interest than I was willing to pay, and was definitely a spur to get it out of the way. My original monthly payments were £500 per month, and with this rate I paid back £1,400 on average every month.

And now, aside from mortgages, I am debt free again. And it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders.

One dictionary definition of commitment is an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action. For me, having this loan restricted my actions in other areas, which was interesting since I already thought I was quite frugal:

  • This is the big one – no holidays. I value travel and connection with my kids and our worldwide family but I cut it out for this period other than going to visit my sick father. Everything else felt like it could wait. So one month in Kenya long planned for this summer got cancelled and that money paid off the last £5,000. Interestingly planning this trip also raised issues of commitment about how others were showing up (or not) for me, which made the decision to cancel a lot easier.
  • A ‘squeeze tax’ on most of my other spending. Basically this meant reducing groceries and other discretionary spend by about 10%. It also showed me what the space is in my budget, though I am aware I don’t live that close to the knife edge anyway. I added in two additional meals a week to be prepared on a Sunday meaning I could use up odds and ends, use the slow cooker, and generally remove the temptation to nip out and spend more money on food as the week headed to Friday. Ditto with packing lunches for the office. And clothes – I spent around £120 on clothes in this total period for all three of us.
  • Cancelled all subscriptions. All but one. I used to regularly check I wasn’t being charged for things I didn’t want, but here I cut out everything I didn’t actively value.
  • Got energy from freaking out. I have been writing about the cost of living crisis which we are all freaking out about, whether a little or a lot. I made the decision to take the loan when I could easily manage the monthly payment, and looking down the barrel of rising prices everywhere, made me really conscious that I needed to tighten down my commitments.

The take away for me was that through commitment all things are possible. This isn’t going to be true if you are already living close to the breadline, but for many of us on the FIRE journey, our ability to squeeze more out of our budgets depends on where we are trying to go. I have never quite managed to find the same drive for investing and saving as I found for paying off this debt which is showing me some interesting tactics and opportunities to get better (or clearer) at getting inspired in those other areas.

So I feel pretty proud of this. Being able to commit to something, and see it through with very minimal support, really keeps me confident of my ability to chart this path, however much it changes along the way. So stay committed. Stay focused. Sometimes restricting freedom of action can feel limiting, but remember that you have a bigger goal in mind.

Commitment #1

I just missed a week. A whole week over on my Insta and a week of posting here.

I thought about both, over and over. But I was too busy, too tired, too focused on a whole load of other issues in my life and in my head.

It was disappointing because I had a made a commitment to post – to write out my feelings and my journey, give myself time and space to think, and be there to support others. I made a commitment to just show up, and keep showing up.

These past few weeks and months have made me think a lot about commitment. As it’s such a critical part of our life journeys – financially, spiritually, at work, and in relationships – I want to write a few posts about it. They might feel a bit different to how I ususally post so I am grateful for your being with me whilst I think this stuff through.

Or should you? Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

My first question is – when do I need to choose between commitment and self care?

There is real value in committing to something, and even more in being consistent. But are there times when it is better to waver, and to just look after myself? Is it better to honour my word, or to give that time inwards to rest and recover? Does it matter how I approach that in terms of messaging, or preparation? I know plenty of people who just change their mind and their plans at the last minute, sometimes for good reasons. Am I ok to be one of them?

This is a forked stick I come to often. This post is absolutely not about this blog, but it’s a good personal example of things that I am committed to but I don’t have to do it. I tend to write my blog on Sunday mornings, when I could be doing a myriad of other meaningful things, many of which fall under the heading of ‘self care’. I mean, often it’s getting some extra sleep after a beer or two over the odds the night before (which raises entirely different questions about how I view self care issues against areas of life which are a challenge vs over the easy, but equally impactful, decisions on going out for a drink…). But it might be getting ready for the week, taking it easy, or going for a walk with the kids. So there are a whole load of ways I can talk myself out of sitting down to write, and can validate those feelings.

So – here comes a stinger, for me anyway – a blog is such a strange creature. I know it gets read, but not so much whether anyone cares if I show up week after week. I believe and hope it adds some value, but if I stopped writing, the waves of the internet would soon wash over any castle built on this sand. Nothing would really happen if I don’t show up.

The waves will wash it all away. But what remains? Photo by Sean Oulashin on Unsplash

Which means that the most important thing about the commitment I made to writing this blog, is the commitment I made to myself.

And keeping these promises, without external accountability, are the hardest ones.

Whether I tell you I will meet you for lunch, water your plants, call you on Wednesday, or love you forever – unless something completedly unexpected happens, which it rarely does – I will do it. There are many people not like this (again, a whole other post) but for me, if I say it, I mean it. If I have said the words, you can expect the action.

But I don’t give myself the same kind of respect. If I tell myself I will wake up at 5, stop smoking, get fitter, or love myself forever – these are all totally negotiable.

Which leads me back to the question on how to make decisions between commitment and self care. And over the past few weeks I have concluded this: making and keeping commitments to myself are an act of radical self care.

I am not sure why this feels like news. I mean – this is the basis of a financial independence journey, right? Committing to a vision for a future and regular acts which will create that, are exactly in this space. Nobody else cares if I do it or not. Nobody is impressed if I succeed. Nobody goes hungry (sorry, kids, you will have to get yourselves through college though) if I don’t. But I have such devotion to the belief that God made me to live and contribute through my best life on this earth, and faith in that plan, that I do it anyway.

What is confusing for me is why I struggle with this message in other parts of my life when the core remains absolutely the same. When I have made an agreement as well as a commitment – whether that is to go to work and do my best, or how I try and act as a mum – I can stay in the zone. When it comes to things which feel more optional, especially good habits and high expectations around health and relationships, I find it much harder to be so consistent. I don’t know if it’s a need for results, or a need for reciprocation (or, frankly, whether I need therapy) but everything else feels more fuzzy. More optional. Perhaps I have less faith in how things will turn out. And that is defining how, and if, I show up.

Foundation stones, and building up. Or give up and throw them in the waves? Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Cost of living crisis 2: Groceries

Food means a lot to me. At a basic level, it’s a key part of our every day life but it is also somewhere memories are made and locked in. From the soft comfort of my granny’s potato pie (literally mashed potato, onions and cheese baked in a pie dish with cheese on top aka best comfort food ever) to the smokey, social delights of nyama choma and the perfect mukimo accompanied by a cold beer, food is so evocative. A lot of the discussion on my Brilliant Ladies’ Insta are about frugal food and keeping costs low whilst keeping quality and enjoyment high.

Food is central to good times and bad in my culture – no difficult family conversation, lengthy future planning session, or celebration – of either life or death – would be possible without a central table of food to act as referee and peace keeper between the participants. In my own house, food is linked in my mind to love, to taking care of my children and creating a cosy, secure home with our own small traditions.

Oh yes please! Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

These days though there are also two less comforting sides to feeding the family. Firstly, and the focus of this post, is the soaring cost of groceries and how to manage your budget. The second is the ethical aspects of food – industrial farming methods and animal welfare issues, exploitative employment practices, and reliance on cheap imports which have a heavy environmental footprint, are all real concerns when making choices in the supermarket.

Food prices in the UK have traditionally been quite low compared to the rest of Europe, but this ‘golden era‘ came to an end during 2022. Rises in inflation and fuel prices, as well as global shortages and issues with supply chains means that food is getting more expensive. In January, poverty campaigner Jack Monroe highlighted how the way tracking rising prices are calculated glosses over the impact on lower income families. By last month, 92% of Britons claimed they were cutting back on grocery and food costs in order to reduce their outgoings: both in relation to the cost of food but also to save they money needed to respond to increases in fuel and household energy. Food price rises in the UK are shortly expected to have reached 15% within one year. Kenya has seen a similar rise, and is seeing the impact of rising fuel costs on transporting food into and around the country. So it looks like either granny’s potato pie, or that plate of nyama choma, is going to cost a lot more this year.

The modern day equivalent of heading into Tiffany. Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

So – what can you do to keep an eye on your grocery budget?

We already shop at discount supermarkets: in Denmark that means LIDL (and my mum and I talk on the phone about whether they have the same things on offer in the UK as here. Rock and roll): and Rema 1000. These are so much cheaper than the fancy supermarket, and I am also not tempted by the delicious bouji foods which are on offer there.

The building blocks of cutting food spending seem pretty easy, but, like any diet habit, it’s about how much you stick to them and whether you have emotional splurges:

  1. Meal plan. This is the most important thing, because the shopping and preparation all stems from here. Who is eating at home and when? (in 2021 this became a trick question since the answer is ‘all of you’ and ‘all the time’). What are the things you like to eat? How are you going to get your five-a-day? From then, the questions are around how you can stretch out both the food and the preparation – things like roasting a chicken then using the cold leftover meat the next day or two; or cooking a basic batch tomato sauce which can then be turned into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, or the base for a chilli. I have been meal planning for a while, but I am still terrible for thinking ‘ooh I don’t feel like that any more, let’s have something else’. It helps me to remember that this contributes to reducing food waste: UK households throw out the equivalent to a whole month’s worth of grocery budget every year whilst the amount of food wasted across the country could feed half the 7m Britons who are struggling to afford to eat. That’s something worth making our own small changes for in my view.
  2. Stock-take and write a shopping list: When you have meal planned, break it down into the ingredients you need for the week. Then check your cupboards/fridge/freezer and check you have what you need. Are there things you’ve not included but need to check, like coffee? I have a page up on the pinboard in the kitchen where I write staples like this, or flour, oil and so on. Write them all down in a list which is easy to use, organised by the shops if you’ll visit more than one, then by aisle if you can remember such things. The real trick though is a) remembering to take the damn list with you (which is why lots of people keep it on a phone app instead) and b) following it when confronted with other options.
  3. Batch cook, or batch prepare: Batch cooking is now so well known that there are whole books about it but it’s basically making things in big enough quantities to freeze additional portions and basically create your own ready meals. It’s just as much hassle and time to prepare five portions of something as it is one, and it usually works out much cheaper. Every week I make a basic roasted aubergine and tomato sauce every weekend (don’t tell my daughter it has aubergine in, fur would fly) and use this as a tomato sauce base. My top tip on batch cooking is to label everything properly, otherwise Freezer Surprise will be a regular on the menu: and freeze it in portion sizes so you don’t have to defrost and potentially waste a whole load of goodness.
  4. Batch prepare: In an effort to increase my vegetable intake, I make a dry coleslaw mix (basically just the vegetables) using the food processor, every week. This week I grated up carrot, beetroot, celeriac and spring cabbage and have used it in a standard salad, in a salmon poke bowl, and with mayo as an accompaniment to a sandwich. I also do things like prepare roasted chicken for use in lunches.
  5. Enjoy yourself. Yes we’re budgeting (and trying to save the world) but food should also be a pleasure. Make things you like to eat. Find a time when the planning and shopping works, involve the kids in talking about meals they look forward to, and involve them in prep. My son and I make a cake every week as our treat for the week, usually one for home and one with the same mixture made into cake bars for school. Then I batch cook/prep in a two-hour window at the weekend when the kids are playing or with friends, and I listen to an audio book. It genuinely feels like a pleasant time, much more so than trying to slam a meal together at 17.30 on a work night. Some people prefer an evening’s cooking with a glass of wine – it’s all about what works for you.
Last week’s food prep in our house – Sunday evening and all is ready…

How is the rising cost of food impacting you? I’d love to hear your tips!

Cost of living crisis 1: Energy

Quick reminder to come and get your flowers (or a random selection of inspiration, poor jokes from me and photos taken my by daughter) on my Insta.

The soaring cost of living crisis is real. You don’t need to understand inflation, changes in base interest rates or why the stock market is having a wobble to know that your supermarket shop is costing more. Indeed, there are so many cause-and-or-effect conversations about the macro-economics of it all that at the moment I don’t care. But I do know that I just got a water bill for the equivalent of £4,000. And that’s just one of my skyrocketing utility bills which are stacking up like an angry little bomb waiting to go off.

I wanted to write a few posts looking at different aspects of what is going on and why, and how we can navigate it and stay sane and solvent. Starting this week with energy as it’s top of mind, and one area where increases are making a terrifying dent in people’s pockets.

Even the moths have flown. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

So what can you do about your energy bills?

My focus here is for the UK though a lot of the household tips are universal. Whilst I live in Denmark, the utility market remains a total mystery. We don’t have many companies, especially since in urban areas a lot of energy is from the Kommune or local council. This means there are no switching or price comparison services. So whilst prices are going through the roof the options are a) turning everything off or b) saving money elsewhere.

In the UK, energy costs have already doubled for many households and will likely rise by October to almost £3,000. With the median income in the UK being £31,400, this means that energy only (not even all utilities) is costing households 10% of their income. Unfortunately switching deals is not likely to make any difference and is not even available to most unless you get an ‘existing customer’ deal. And watch out if you do switch since exit fees have gone up 10 times in the last year.

The idea of creating competition in the energy sector in order to benefit customers has only created a monster market where providers can do what they like. Issues in Ukraine are exacerbating fears around supply, but these price rises have been coming for a while and are only possible on the back of the ‘competitive’ set up.

Pulling money from your bank account all the way into the horizon. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

The main things you can do to save energy are things we should all be doing anyway for environmental purposes. Unfotunately some of them require an outlay at the start which might not be possible in these belt tightening days but some are pretty simple.

Big outlay changes

  • Look at your heating system. Is your boiler efficient? There are simple ways to check. Generally putting in a new boiler unless you absolutely have to isn’t going to save you anything, but when you do, shop around for the most efficient kind going.
  • Think about insulating your house more efficiently. When I was growing up my best friend had cling film across all the windows to reduce heating bills, so it doesn’t all mean huge outlays on triple glazing. There are some great tips on insulation from the Energy Trust – such as fitting a hot water tank with an insulating jacket at a cost of about £25 which will save you £35 a year in heating costs and 115kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Consider generating your own electricity. This can be very expensive, and most of the government grants have ended. But with the energy crisis likely to be long term, it’s worth exploring if you have any spare cash to invest here. Solar is the obvious one for homes, with a lot to think about before you take the leap.
  • Check if your appliances are energy efficient and consider replacing them, once they are dead, with a focus on efficiency. White goods especially – fridge, freezer, washing machine, oven – are massive energy leakers.
Turn off that tumble dryer! Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

Day to day changes

  • Use your timer and thermostat. This is the easiest way to save money and help the environment, just having the heating on when and where you actually need it. Go through the house and turn down radiators where you don’t need them on.
  • Turn down the thermostat already. Most money saving and environmental groups recommend 68 degrees (20 celsius) in the winter. Remember how cold your grandparents’ house was? You’re aiming for a bit warmer than that. Don’t expect to be walking around in a t-shirt, instead invest in a fluffy dressing gown and socks, and pretend it’s intentional hygge.
  • Decide what you will use less. Tumble driers are particularly energy heavy: dry outside in the summer, or get a couple of clothes racks and dry inside. When I lived in a badly ventilated flat, drying clothes inside contributed to mould and meant that I had to have the heating on and the window open so I used to go to the laundrette which takes time and money in a different way. So one to think about how best to manage depending on your circumstances.
  • Turn off all standby appliances, including turning off plugs which aren’t in use. My grandparents always turned everything off at the plug at night in case of lightening – this isn’t a bad idea just in order to stop energy leakage.
  • Make sure you have a full load every time you turn on the washing machine or dish washer. Wash your clothes at 30 degrees – it really does work. Use the eco setting if you have one. The one on my dishwasher lasts 3 hours and is really noisy so I load the dishwasher during the day then put it on after breakfast when I leave for work.
  • Check out your fridge and freezer. Fridges should be set between 3-5 degrees, and freezers need defrosting regularly (this is a job on my list. Note to self – do not do this with a knife or you will regret it). Fridges actually work more efficiently when they are nearly full so add that extra milk or whatever and you will save on the energy bill.
  • If you are really struggling, there might be help: Citizens’ Advice can help out.
Protest signs in London 2022. Flickr/Gary Knight

Finally, consider the politics. My blog is about personal finance, but this is so closely linked to politics that it’s hard to keep out. There might not be simple answers, but the people who are already the most vulnerable are going to be the hardest hit and the most hurt. And that’s something we can all care about.

Happy Father’s Day

Caveat: bit of a controversial post. Consider yourself warned.

Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads out there. To all those who miss their dads; all those who never knew them; all those for whom ill health, distance, or social norms have made relationships difficult. Basically all the same things I say on Mothering Sunday. All parents matter.

Today I have been thinking about the ‘bitter single mums’ trope which is particularly active on social media on Father’s Day (seriously – why do you have the time? Shouldn’t you actually be hanging out with your kids?) and about a series of conversations I’ve had on toxic masculinity and how men are so undervalued by society that their only possible reaction is violence and disrespect. I am not a psychologist or a social scientist so I am perhaps even less qualified than usual to write this blog, but these are things on my mind so I share them with you, with these caveats in place.

Add your own definition. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The FIRE movement has a lot of great parenting role models. On a personal level I find the amount of people who reach FIRE based on spending one partner’s income tedious and irrelevant, but I get that for many folk it’s a new way of thinking about family spending. Lots of FIRE people got on this path in order to spend more time with their kids, and to be better parents, and that is something to celebrate. Mr Money Mustache has a lot to say on parenting his son, including since he and his wife divorced. Brad and Jonathan in Choose FI are always talking about their kids and how their FIRE pathway has focused on being with their children, and on leaving a legacy.

In fact there are lots of brilliant dads out there, of course there are. My own father, and the father of my children, don’t fall into this category but I don’t hate them for it – my children have never heard a bad word from my mouth about their father. The issue is that I have to make up for it, financially, emotionally, in terms of time spent and choices made and so on. And that’s not ideal but it’s ok. I am very lucky though in that I have an amazing step-father, fathers of friends (two of whom I have been really close to and sadly passed away this year), uncles and all. And I have friends, family and colleagues where I have so much respect for the way the father shows up, that it really inspires me on a daily basis. So I salute all those fabulous men: we see you. You’re doing great.

A Palestinian father bathing his daughter and neice, giving them as much of a normal happy childhood as he can in spite of the chaos all around. Credit: Wissam Nasser

There is, though, an increase in the number of women having to parent alone. There is plenty of blame around this, and there are multiple sides to every story, but the truth is that men are now allowed to absent themselves in a way that society permits. In my personal experience, this lack of involvement doesn’t stop them loudly complaining about how their ex will not facilitate the kind of contact they want with their children. The kind of people who complain in this way are, again in my experience, the same who want contact on a whim, when it’s convenient for them, and will change those times at the drop of a bar bill.

In Kenya, the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta has even made the issue of single parents as one of his key concerns. Globally Kenya is one of the countries where women are most likely to become a single parent, with almost 60% of women likely to be single by the time they are 45, whether or not they have children. Kenyatta’s concern was with the rise in the percentage of single parent households from 25% in 2009 to 38% today. I am not Kenyan but I lived there for a long time and intend to return for the RE aspect of FIRE (watch this space for posts on that thought process, white privilege and colonialist mindset – I’m here for self critique and growth as well, of course). It is one of the places where I find being a single parent the hardest, since even though there are so many of us, it is seen through a lens of shame and ‘burdenhood’ which basically makes me a social pariah. This kind of nonsense article, which paints women as insatiably greedy and self-centred, character developing then abandoning poor, defenceless Kenyan guys, just fills me with rage.

It’s also ironic when – look, I’m just going to say this and take the flack – Kenyan men are seemingly happy to pay for a whole lot of whatever when it comes to relationships. And I mean prepared to pay rent/transport/salon for your side chick (girlfriend) for years, but you think that I, as someone who earns 10 times more than you, is going to be a financial burden? Kthxbye.

There is also a growing narrative around the issues of toxic masulinity, and how men feeling undervalued, undermined and unable to navigate the changes in society mean that they are struggling to find ways to act as men, husbands and fathers in this brave new world. Masculinity itself isn’t toxic, that much should be obvious. So challenges men are facing are absolutely something which we need as a society to deal with in order to create a world that works for everyone. But at the same time this cannot be an excuse for gender-based violence or refusing to look after your own children. And it will bleed into the next generation. If you as a man are struggling with masculinity and shifts in social expectations, it should be obvious that if you have children – and not just sons – they will need you are a role model to work through those challenges with.

The seed never falls far from the tree. Photo by Bibhash Banerjee on Unsplash

In short, we could all do better. This world is not binary: most parents are both good and bad depending on the day. I might be doing it alone but it doesn’t mean I am any good at it, just that I don’t have the luxury of deciding to step out for years at a time.

And I am all for putting in the work to create a world where men feel appreciated, valued and heard. Where they can grow into their power in a way which doesn’t involve crushing (either physically, emotionally or financially) the women and children in their lives. That’s something that we can all believe in. Happy Father’s Day.