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.

Protecting your joy

I’ve been thinking a lot about comparison recently, and it really is the thief of joy.

This weekend it was Shavuot, the Jewish festival which celebrates the giving of the ten commandments. The tenth commandment is about not coveting what others have, be it their ass, or their wife’s ass (see what I did there??) Whilst this makes sense from the perspective of discouraging jealousy and conflict in a community, it also strikes me that there is something in there about not comparing yourself to others and finding yourself wanting.

Celebrating! Image credit.

Comparison is the thief of joy because it diminishes your own space, achievements and uniqueness. It also sets up a narrative in which whatever you have is not enough, and that leads to a lack of gratitude for the space you are living in.

I absolutely loved Paula Pant’s recent podcast episode with Molly West Duffy talking about how to keep your feelings, and particularly your envy and covetousness, in check. Whilst it might seem obvious that these emotions are not a good place to live from, the podcast talked specifically about ways of ensuring that – even if you are feeling those things, as we all do at times – they are not driving your decision making.

Their cup might be bigger, but maybe yours is just perfect for you? Photo by Vanesa Giaconi on Unsplash

To me, part of what mindful living means is remembering that it’s ok to have moments where you feel covetous, or envious, and forgiving yourself for it. But it also means moving on from it quickly, and not letting it cloud my judgement. I sometimes compare my life now to what it could have been if I had done things earlier, and that’s not a very helpful line of thinking. Being grateful and present for how things are, and planning for the future, feels like a much better way to approach things and reminds me to stay focused rather than comparing myself with others.

Take a break – and breathe

No blog post this week, apologies. If you have been over on my Insta then you will have seen that I’ve been busy both dealing with, and coming to terms with, some family stuff.

This week is also Pesach (and Easter and Ramadan) and the school holidays, plus I have a ton of work on so overall, it’s a lot. But it has been an important week for me thinking about all the things that really matter to me, to us as a family. Not just in terms of what the future holds, but what holds us.

Wishing you all a great and peaceful week. See you on the flipside.

Happy New (tax) year!

Ah here we are again. In the inexplicable British system (is it to do with an old byelaw about swords? No?) the tax year runs from 6th April, so this time of year always feels like a time for a fresh start. It might feel more like this if it would stop snowing and really get on with the business of Turning On Spring but let’s see. Oh, and it also means a bunch of work, but we’re here for that too.

So what are the things you need to be thinking about?

As with all new year’s exercises it boils down to wrapping up last year and preparing for the next one. There will be some major changes to be aware of for the 2022-23 year, thanks to Rishi Sunak’s budget but if you want fuller details of what those are I suggest you have a look at this fuller list of upcoming tax changes and what they might mean for you. Basically – he has likely done you no favours. In a post in 2020 I actually used a picture of Rishi but this year I can’t do it, even ironically. It feels like we are all being pushed too close to the financial brink to find any of this funny any more.

My main focus today is on the wrapping up at the end of the tax year. This means two things: preparing for my tax return and looking back on how I spent, saved or invested my money. This week I will focus on prepaing tax returns, in order to get the boring stuff out of the way first.

Prepare for your tax return

Caveat: Firstly, I am not a financial advisor (pretty obviously, I mean my personal finance Instagram is mostly pictures of Barbies or food). There are lots of people out there who can help you with all the details of your taxes, and I am not one of them. But I am sharing my own approach here because why not.

Secondly, not everyone needs to do a tax return. However if you are the following then you do:

  • You are working for yourself – either as someone who is self-employed or someone who makes income from additional sources to their regular job which is not taxed elsewhere, e.g. from rental income;
  • You are a partner in a partnership business;
  • You are a minister of religion – any faith or denomination;
  • You are a trustee or the executor of an estate.

If you are unclear, the best thing is to consult an Independent Financial Advisor since getting it wrong in either direction could cost you a lot of time and stress.

Spring is in the air, though taking its own sweet time to arrive…. Photo by Arno Smit on Unsplash

As with so many things in life, the best time to start preparing for your tax return is this time last year. No really. The easiest way to do your taxes is little by little, so if you can get cracking with a simple spreadsheet and way of monitoring income and expenses, your life will be so much easier next year.

Of course the complexity of your tax directly relates to the complexity of your income. I have income from employment, from a rental property, from savings interest (but not dividends which have separate rules), and some overseas stuff plus I also pay into a personal pension which has its own tax benefits. So I need to complete four forms. HMRC really are the best place to start since their factsheets and whatnot are actually quite helpful. Another great thing about getting started early is you can call HMRC and ask them questions before they get closer to the 31st October deadline for filing paper forms and start to have a collective breakdown.

HMRC – surprisingly helpful if you get in early. Photo credit.

So the first things to do are to make sure you know if you need to file a self assessment; and if so, what forms do you need to complete. Once you have that, you can pull together all of your paperwork and start ploughing through it. You will need to know what expenses you can claim, and make sure you keep copies of all relevant documents.

In terms of when and how you get organised, you can do what I do and have a personal date night once a month with all my financial paperwork and a beer and just get it done. I do feel a little bit squirmy and sad saying that, but I find it so much easier than getting in a panic once a year. I also have a friend who has a week long retreat with her tax return and uses it as a way of engaging with gratitude for the year that has past. Whilst I absolutely love that as an approach, it’s not for me. So – as with every element of personal finance – go ahead and find whatever works to make the process as simple and painless for you as possible.

Even in your tax return.

See – I managed to talk about tax returns without making a joke about Rishi Sunak’s family circumstances. So anything is possible!

What are you going to do today to further your personal or financial journey? Whatever it is, I hope it will be full of joy.

Mind the (early retirement) gap

Quick reminder to come and join me (and the FIRE community) on Instagram @brilliantladiesmoney. At least join once a week for the Friday Banger – music that inspires me on my journey – definitely my favourite moment of the week. From Sauti Sol to Sizzla (plus artists who don’t begin with S), it’s all the tunes that get me back on track.

Following my posts on working out what you need to retire on and looking at where my current portfolio will take me I wanted to talk about the early retirement gap.

Unsurprisingly, most non-FIRE retirement discussions focus on investing in pensions. Paying into pensions is a tax efficient way to save, and has the added benefit of hiding your money from yourself so you can’t change your mind about your future plans and spunk it all on a beach house. But the early retirement gap is the time between quitting traditional employment and being able to access your pensions.

Mmmm beach house though. Photo by Harshil Gudka on Unsplash

Looking at my portfolio really showed how critical this gap is. Since my assets are heavy on real estate and on pensions, there is a gaping hole in the middle where more flexible options should be. Add in the need to wait for pension income, and it might be time to rethink the plan a little.

So I went back to basics in terms of what I will need and when, and mapped out income against it. This resulted in a long and complex spreadsheet which I won’t share here but started from the premise of living until I am 80. I already wrote about being at the ‘tail end’ or probably half way through my allotted time on this earth – and I would caution that you think about this stuff when you are in strong existential form as I found it quite depressing. Anyway – it’s infinitely less depressing than not thinking about it and ending up broke, so here we go.

You will see I put in some assumptions and I wanted to unpack two of these a little. The net result though if I follow my plan to retire at 50 is three years where my expenses will still be super high, then 15 years of gap until pensions kick in.

The impact of having kids and the choices we make. I don’t know where I would be financially if I hadn’t had children, but without them I could already retire on my current portfolio. I wouldn’t change them for the world of course – this is purely a financial observation. If you want rantings about how the system is stacked against single mothers, then pretty much the rest of the blog awaits you.

One big question though for the next phase is about whether I support my children through higher education, assuming they want to go. I have already committed to putting them through private schools, most of which is based on the fact that we move country every three years and need some consistency. Part of me absolutely wants to make sure they get through university debt-free. Whilst debt levels in the UK is still nothing like the USA, it is heading in that direction. On the other hand, with the right money mentality and guidance, there is nothing to stop them getting scholarships, working and managing what debt they had to get through on their own. The FIRE community tends towards the latter, with Mr Money Mustache in particular being vocal about both reducing costs for college and letting your children use the tools you have given them and find their own way.

I looked at the most basic costs for a UK college education and it would add around £20,000 per year per child to my expenses. Because of the age gap between my kids, I would need to cover this for six years, three of which are after my planned early retirement date. So that’s likely £120,000 in total that I would need to earn in that period in order to cash flow it.

In some ways this is a conversation that will never end though – will I help my kids buy their first house, look after their kids for them, whatever else? Or just focus on not being a burden to them and help out when I can? It is one of the times I hate being the only parent giving financial support, because whilst I don’t want them to miss out, it’s a lot.

Will an Oxford education even still be relevant in the future? Photo by Ben Seymour on Unsplash

Pension dates and what the future looks like. This is another interesting question which I never really thought about until I hit 40 and my future as a creaking elder suddenly felt a whole lot closer. Most of the US podcasts on FIRE assume that pensions kick in from 59.5 but in the UK – at least with pensions in any way connected to the public sector – pension age is 67. This really does add a lot of years that have to be covered by investments or income. By the time I retire, this could easily be 70 years old. Public sector pensions may be great because they are defined benefit but they are also pegged to the national pensionable age so there is a chance these will all shift to be much later. And pensionable age continues to increase, as the overall population ages and there are more people drawing pensions than paying into them. Which I understand but it’s hard to plan when the goalposts keep moving.

I have also bravely added in the UK State Pension which I struggle to believe will exist as anything other than a means-tested benefit by the time I retire. And whilst at £716 per month or £8,592 per year, it’s not enough to live off it would make a significant difference to how much I need in my overall portfolio. However I hold it very lightly as a possibility in spite of paying tax and NI for my whole career, even the overseas year. We already have ample evidence that the UK Government will not hesitate to shaft women (and by shaft I mean change the age at which they can access their pension with almost not notice, then underpay women £1 billion and not even bother to try and clear it up) if they think they can get away with it.

Planning for the sunset years <cries in Young Person> Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

So that is how it looks. The gap is real but thankfully there are a number of ways to think about filling it without having to stay in full time employment – more on that in a future post. For now though, working out exactly what this looks like and what the options are makes me feel more confident about making movements.

What does your early retirement planning look like and how are you thinking about future support to your kids?

Mothering Sunday: the financial impact version

Aw, happy Mothering Sunday! This week I am full of exhausted rage, and wanted just to focus a little on what it feels like to be a single mum, and why generalised negativity from society, the media and government policy is harming this generation of children.

First though I want to recognise that Mothering Sunday is a day which can set off lots of different emotions depending on your own particular track and relationships, but either way, it’s getting warmer and hopefully you’ll have something nice on this weekend.

Being a mother is a privilege and a joy, let me say that first off.

But it is also bloody hard. It’s hard for everyone, even those who have a partner. As we have moved away from traditional societies (and in fairness all the rubbish things that they required), the safety nets of support have been removed.

The invisible workload of mothering (yes, mothering rather than parenting, unless you are a single dad – recognising it and owning it as gendered is a feminist position) is exhausting. There is a great post from 2018 called ‘the invisible workload of motherhood is killing me‘ which, of course, I only just found time to read because I am too damn busy. Its is an accurate and helpful portrayal of what parenting looks like – and it’s just the day to day of parenting, not what it looks like to be trying to reach FIRE, or date, or anything else at the same time.

Motherhood is in any case fraught with issues. There have been a host of articles about how fatherhood has changed during the pandemic and how dads are starting to appreciate the ‘whole’ of parenting. But this is against a background in which women are expected to take the domestic burden (unless someone chooses to step in), and in which those dads have been able to refuse to engage until they were locke at home as well. Women are expected to work as well, though by the time a woman’s oldest child is 12 she is likely to be paid one-third less than male counterparts. These days, with the cost of living crisis and lack of affordable childcare, so many low income families are struggling.

Triple chocolate brownies, the Mothering Sunday gift my 12 year old son made me ❤

The cost of living crisis disproportionately impacts women. Women consistently earn less than men across their career, which also impacts their pension and retirement years.

On my FIRE journey, earning less, and being responsible for each and every cost in the home, has a significant impact on the timeline, and likelihood of becoming financially independent. It’s not like there aren’t exceptions of course. But the system is stacked against single mothers, and in my experience, also has no sympathy for us. The impact of these collective issues on generational wealth cannot be ignored and it’s likely that our children will also struggle, however hard we try.

I was particularly triggered this month by an article about the failings of the Child Maintenance System which is a UK body aiming to ensure that children’s costs are fairly shared after divorce or seperation, and that any alimony is paid in a timely way. To quote the article – 90% of single parents are women… Half of single parents and their children are consigned to life below the poverty line, a penury that 60% of them would escape if fathers paid the maintenance due. The comments on the article went in to the predictable bun fight about access and custody arrangements, as well as not really understanding that maintenance is for the children, not the ex-spouse.

So in addition to the structural arrangements in which I earn less and have more responsibility, I am also supposed to do it alone since the legal system really doesn’t give a shit about holding both parents to account for the financial side.

I would be furious, if I wasn’t so tired.

I have been hyper-aware this week of why I am overwhelmed. And it’s two things – first, the sheer magnitude of All The Things. Work (so, so much work), kids, feeding everyone, administration of the home, family and friends, and anything I need. Secondly, it’s the constant mental engagement – the ‘invisible workload’. Planning, organizing, working around, being in communication, trying to soothe, calm, engage, nourish and play. I have been dating someone who does not have children, and whilst he very loving and caring, he cannot even begin to fathom what responsibility and busyness looks like in my world. That makes me just try to hide it all so he isn’t bored or put off: and that becomes something else I have to be responsible for.

But you know what – parenting absolutely remains a joy and a privelige. I would just enjoy it more if I wasn’t expected to run on empty all the time. Big up all my single mamas this Mothering Sunday. I see you.

My portfolio: what’s it made of?

I’ve been writing a series of posts about what it feels like to reach a net worth goal and also what it has made me reflect on in terms of what you actually need to retire on. This post is an exploration of my portfolio and what it means to me, both now and around next steps on planning. Do come and join me on Insta where I also look at my day to day actions and thoughts on all these things (and some more random stuff as well, let’s be honest).

So, what is my portfolio built up of?

It’s made up of three different areas, each of which has its own story and function.

Pensions £   234,973
Savings £      39,207
Property equity £    443,497
TOTAL £     717,677
Net worth as of February 2022
A lot of my net worth is property equity which is not really accessible but means I can dream about living in a fabulous house like this on in Nairobi…

Property

So 60% of my net worth is property equity. This is across two homes. I rented out my main residence in the UK when I got a job overseas and it is still tenanted. This means that the interest rate isn’t great (abot 4%) but I have focused on paying off this mortgage as a matter of priority. That’s based largely on my risk appetite (AKA terror of losing my job and making my kids homeless) and whilst I realise it might not be the most rationale approach to wealth building, it gives me a sense of comfort. I had a huge deposit from the sale of my previous home, so the mortgage was only £156,000 to start with and I have paid off £111,000 in the past six years.

This property is also my only passive income stream, bringing in £1,250 gross, or about £900 net of all costs since I have a letting agent manage it and of course have to ensure that everything is in good working order.

My second property is the home that we live in in Denmark. I wrote a lot about the decision to buy, and then about freaking out about the cost of property here but on balance I still think it was the right decision. Aside from the ridiculous cost of rent, the housing market is crazy at the moment and I have friends who cannot find places to rent. So again – it’s not just a financial decision but one about stability.

I don’t try and overpay the mortgage on this house. Partly because it’s so huge I just won’t make a dent, but also because we will sell this when we move country again. So since housing is a significant monthly cost, I just pay it and hope that I get a return on investment that is better than paying rent to someone else.

I am interested in having more of a property porfolio but it’s so hard in the UK. I listen to a lot of great FIRE podcasts from the US and everything – from the financing, to the market – just seems miles away. There are also ethical issues, in both directions, about being a private landlord but that’s a post for another day.

Savings

The result of buying a second home though was that my savings and investments took a massive hit. I went from almost £100,000 in savings to around £20,000 which I have built back up. That amount includes my emergency fund of £10,000 and the rest is in a stocks and shares ISA.

This is the area that I really want to focus on as there is so much room for growth. I also feel very property heavy in terms of the portfolio overall, and it’s money that just stays tied up.

Whether you’re saving for a rainy day or a cloud forest holiday, this is the most flexible part of your portfolio. Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Unsplash

Pensions

So this is the confusing area I think. Most of the FIRE community talks about total pension pots, and for me that is around

But the majority of my pensions are defined benefit which works totally differently. Have a look here for a simple explanation but basically, defined benefit means that the pot doesn’t really matter: what I will receive as a pension is guaranteed. This is a great place to be in lots of ways, though it is limited in terms of flexibility. I can’t, for example, decide where those pensions are invested. But in terms of security and planning they really work.

So what is interesting is not so much the overall pot as how much each one will pay out in retirement. The figures below show both the current pot value calculated as the transfer value (what I would get if I cashed out or wanted to move it) and also what it’s scheduled to pay out. All of the defined benefit schemes pay out when I am 67, so I also need to focus on what could be quite a long period to bridge if I want to retire at 50.

One thing to note is that the third pension pot will pay that out if I carry on contributing at this level for another two years – if I leave the job before then, they just pay me out the transfer value. So I need to stay here at least a bit longer!

PensionsTransfer valuePension on retirement
TOTALS £ 234,973£23,316
 SIPP £ 42,983£400
 Defined benefit pension 1 £ 39,462£1,400
 Defined benefit pension 2 £ 62,304£6,250
 Defined benefit pension 3 £ 90,224£15,266

You can see from this that they aren’t all equal. Each one has a totally different rate of return.

It does make me question the value of investing in the SIPP, as works out as a 1% rate of withdrawal which doesn’t seem that smart. Once I lock in my defined benefit pensions, I might stop this one and focus on saving and investing in other ways.

So that’s it. There are other very small pots in there like crypto but these are the real pillars of my financial plan. I do need to think about rebalancing them but for now I will end on a picture of the kitchen from that same house – because dreaming big is what it’s all about.

Kitchen goals

What do you actually need to retire on?

Last week I wrote about how my net worth is now $950,000, and how I was feeling about it. Do come and join me on Insta where I tell the same stories but with a lot fewer words, and with photos of Barbies. What’s not to like?!

This week I want to talk through what the limitations of my net worth are. Not because I’m ungrateful or want to scare off people who are much earlier on in the journey, but because there are impacts to how we organise a portfolio which means that net worth doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story in terms of what I need to retire on.

So let’s go back to basics. The FIRE approach to early retirement takes as standard the 4% rule: basically, you need to save 25 times your annual financial requirements, then you will be able to withdraw 4% each year in a way which will keep you going for at least 30 years.

Yes ma’am! Photo by Precondo CA on Unsplash

There has been a huge amount of discussion on this in the FIRE community and outside. The 4% rule comes from the fairly standardised view of return on investment in the stock market. The S&P500 for example has an annualised return rate of 7.5% over the past decades. So if you assume inflation gobbles up 3%, you’re left with 4% that you can withdraw before impacting on the capital.

Right now, there are commentators noting that the 4% rule might not work as well in future, as the stock market goes into a period of instability (or, you know, total global apocalyptic meltdown). Others point out that, on balance, the markets always right themselves eventually. At the point of drawdown though the issue is this – if you are retired and you need to spend out of your portfolio, you can’t wait for the market to resettle, and you can’t withdraw based on an average. So if you need to take money at a challenging time when the markets are down, you will either only be able to take out less, or it will diminish your capital.

As an aside, if you are new to this journey you really don’t need to know everything about the stock market but you might want to explore a little – I love Paula Pant’s recent basics guide.

Enjoy yourself! Either by talking about the stock market, or by planning your fantasy life when you retire. I know which I prefer… Photo by Jay-Pee Peña 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

(Side bar – I do my financial planning in GBP£ but calculate my net worth in US$ because it looks better. I know, I know, the games we play with ourselves…)

The reason this matters is because it has a significant impact on how much you need to save in the first place. I worked on the basis that I need £30,000 per year to live on – there are a lot of assumptions and years of budgeting behind this, but broadly, it works. Which? have a fascinating annual survey of how much retirees spend annually, and they calculate that £31,000 per year is enough for a single person to have a ‘luxury retirement’. But this assume the person is older, without the need to financially support children or their own elderly parents. It also says that spending on food and drink dramatically decrease and let’s face it – that’s not going to be me.

To withdraw 4% and have this be £30,000 per year in retirement, I would need to save 25 times that amount. So 25 x 30,000 = £750,000 ($975,000), which is very close to where I am. Using a more conservative approach would suggest using the 3% rule instead, or saving 33 x 30,000 = £990,000 ($1.23m).

There are lots of caveats to this in terms of how you do your planning and what it means, but it is also a stark reminder of where the mindful money aspect comes in to play. It sounds obvious, but the more you want to spend in the future, the more you have to save now. This also means looking at paying down debt, or paying off your home: basically balancing your expenditure with your planning.

Gather up your courage and do your calculations. Big Shaq is with you!

That means that the first and most important step is to know your numbers. Next week I will walk through my portfolio and some of the challenges in calculating an early retirement age, especially around accounting for defined benefit pensions, and deciding how to treat buying a house vs renting, as well as understanding what each of these options means in your planning.

Until then, I hope you enjoy working through some of your numbers. I’d love to hear from you, here or on Insta, about how it’s going and whether there are any more hacks and ideas I can help with.