So I haven’t written for the last two weeks, which is bad because part of my commitment to this blog was about learning to – well, learning to commit I guess, which might not be my natural talent – but also about engaging with the practice of writing rather than focusing on outputs.
I have been super busy with work and was assuming that was why I hadn’t written, but being super busy with work is a) normal and b) an unacceptable excuse. I loathe competitive busy-ness and everything that comes with it – the toxic showboating; the tedium of having someone spend time that could have been better spent doing the damn thing telling me why they can’t; the letting people down and excusing it away.
Anyway: safe to say that it wasn’t work. I’m not sure at this point what kind of internal transformation is going on but I feel like a snow globe that has been shaken up, and I’ve been busy in anstonishment that my soul is dancing in the glittering starlight.
I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how to get through challenging times: the small habits, the next right step, the power of faith and of looking back at where you have come from to really understand how high the mountain was that you just climbed. I know – from my trust in God but also from the data – that brighter days are coming. But I cannot tell you how astonishing it is to find that brighter days are actually here, and I am not sure quite how to react.
Everything I profess to believe, though, tells me to be grateful for it but maybe not be surprised. And not to freak out when something feels too big or good to be true any more than I should freak out when the bad stuff feels overwhelming.
What does it mean (and indeed you might ask, why is this relevant to a blog on FIRE? Though if you are asking that I cannot imagine it’s for the first time…)?
You don’t know what is coming to transform you, nor what you will look like after you’ve been through the fire. And transformation comes in all kinds of guises: from lightening bolts to erosion: from a life-changing medical diagnosis to unexpectedly and outrageously falling for someone.* You can plan for things but you can’t control it all. Yes there is data, both yours and that which comes from research or the world, your friends, the internet or whatever, but it won’t all be applicable. And even if you can know how things will work out, you can’t know what your own metamorphasis will look like. You just have to trust in the process.
So what it means is: I am not afraid. I’m not afraid or ashamed of the bad days, and I’m not afraid of being transfigured by the bright lights either. I can know that God created me and I will go back to Him: the circle never deviates from being a circle, things just look different depending on where you are. All you have to do is turn your face to the stars and marvel. That’s where you came from. Imagine who you might become.
This week we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It celebrates the day the world was created, but also the time of year when G-d writes our fate for next year in the Book of Life.
It’s basically a period of reflection – what did you do in the last year? How did you act and was it in alignment with your values and what you want to see in the world? What do you want for the new year, and how to you acknowledge and make amends for – or repent for – times you weren’t so great in the past?
The thing I love is that after this process, we all get given another chance. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonment) there is a time for reflection. Whilst the idea of repentence in a spiritual sense isn’t for everyone, the concept of recognising what we have done wrong, and trying to make amends, is very much part of human transformation. From religious practice to the 12-step programme, asking for forgiveness and making changes are a valuable process.
It got me reflecting on how transformational it can be to forgive yourself. In the FIRE space, as in life, so much of the focus is necessarily on changing behaviours. Whether it’s looking at what matters in your life and trying to live from that place, or finding small habits that you can integrate in to your life, it requires change that starts with you.
Forgiving yourself for whatever has gone on previously can also be a way of taking back your agency and a sense that you are actively participating in everything going on around you. I don’t mean a sense that you control everything, but being able to make changes requires a belief that you are not just being buffeted by the waves.
But forgiveness is more than that. Forgiveness for me means really accepting where I am, and working from that foundation. Or in the words of Lily Tomlin, it means ‘giving up all hope for a better past’.
We have all reached our financial, social and emotional state based on previous circumstances, and our own decisions. I have written a lot about structural inequalities so it’s not like indivduals are equally able to create their circumstances, but we are all players in this game.
For me, I have to keep working on a couple of areas. And it’s something that does require work, rather than being something which is a one off. As with everything there are complex emotions involved so sometimes a trigger sets me off. But the main things are:
Forgive myself for the choices which led to being a single parent. I know society blames single parents for pretty much all social evils, but I mean here being ok with the fact that this is where I am. Whilst some people, for whom I have huge respect, become single parents by choice, that wasn’t my hope. And a lot of our struggles are based on being a one-parent, one-income family. But forgiving myself means not hanging on to what might have been, and moving on in a way where I can appreciate the blessings of our set up intead.
Forgive my dad for the financial situation I grew up in. So this might be over personal but my parents divorced when I was young, and my father, who was financially abusive, managed it so we ended up with very little. We were made homeless after he sold the house out from under us, for example. Sometimes when I see well off friends being supported by their parents I get jealous: this might be equally true if we just grew up broke since generational wealth is such a key sructural factor, but the decisions my dad made definitely add a layer of bitterness. Forgiving him allows me to just move on from it all, and deal with the hand I was dealt – which is one with so many other privileges that are much easier to appreciate once I moved on from focusing on the past.
Forgive myself for other poor choices. Like, I wish I had started a pension as soon as it was an option. I could definitely have started saving earlier and more; I could have worked out how much work my first house needed doing and been better prepared. I could have consistently made healthier choices. But I didn’t, and so I have to work from here rather than ‘what could have been’.
So – what is holding you back, and can you get past it with a bit of reflection and forgiveness? Maybe not, but starting from where you are rather than where you wish you could be might be a much more comfortable journey and one where you can also celebrate what you do have, and all you have achieved. I bet you are amazing. How can you love that about yourself?
Ah September. Even though here in Denmark the kids went back to school in August, this still feels like the real back to school month to me. I always love this time of year anyway, the slight chill in the air but the chance of gorgeous late summer weather, and that brand-new-start feeling.
But it’s also a point where it’s easy to rack up costs, so I wanted to share a few ideas about how to save money.
1. Work out what you need
Sounds obvious, but check what you need before setting out to organise it. Look up your school lists of needs and supplies, and check if they are all needed at the start of the year. My kids’ school asks for some strange things like boxes of tissues (and I always think … really?) but they don’t need text books etc thankfully.
2. Shop at home first
A lot of the things you need you might already have, especially if you have more than one child. Especially stationery where I feel like I have drawers full of pens, crayons, rulers and whatnot. You probably don’t need to buy new lunchboxes or backpacks, especially if you had good quality to start with. I saw a post on a FIRE site about a woman whose 25 year old daughter still uses the backpack she bought her in eighth grade – now that’s getting your money’s worth.
3. Then shop second hand
I put posts up specifically on the school Classlist when I need items for the kids, on the grounds that if mine need it, probably someone else’s will have too. My big things in September are rain and winter gear, given that we are in Denmark, and I bought from Classlist last year and from eBay marketplace this year.
4. Organise a swap
My son finally has feet bigger than mine, but he seems to go up a size every few months. Since he plays a lot of sport this means new shoes, PE shoes, football boots and rain boots every. single. time. I refuse to buy any of these new but was struggling to find them second hand, so I worked with the school sports co-ordinator to organise a swap. It was really fun – we had all the boys (and it was mostly boys) bring in their old sports shoes and take pairs in their new sizes. It wasn’t great for the eldest boys with the biggest feet, but it was great for everyone else!
5. Use it as a teachable moment
The first part of this is for you to not get caught up in the hype yourself – it really doesn’t matter what ‘all the other kids’ are getting or doing. But then make sure your kids understand this as well: not just that spending wisely is a good idea, but that spending wisely also means caring less what other people think. My son came home last year and told me he was the only kid with a second-hand laptop, and it was a good time to talk through our values on things like consumerism, brands, tech waste, and how we treat our peers, as well as money issues.
6. Plan a budget for after school or clubs and stick to it
Extra curricular activities work differently in every school but dear lord they can add up to a huge expense. If you have to pay for extra-curricular activities, work out what you can afford and then be prepared to stick to it. I have various rules about clubs which the kids also clearly understand: if they sign up to something, you must do it for the period for which I have paid for it; they have to do at least one local club as well as those at school so they make local friends; and they have to do one thing which isn’t sports. But this is definitely the biggest expense for us in terms of new school year.
I’ve glibly borrowed the title for this post from the brilliant Wait But Why since I’ve been thinking a lot about how time passes. I spend a lot of energy thinking about what to fill that time with – how to make each moment a meaningful contribution of myself to the world.
In reality, I spend a lot more time making a meaningful contribution to emptying a packet of biscuits, or being Just A Little Bit Annoyed.
But this week a few things have aligned to make me remember that our time really is short. Not just short, but not guaranteed. I’ve lost a number of friends in my life and I am reminded that their time was cut short whilst I am frittering mine away.
Paula Pant had a great episode recently with Oliver Burkeman who has written a book called Four Thousand Weeks. Burkeman, who is ostensibly writing abour time management, has recognised that a lot of works about optimising our time – whether that means living mindfully, or getting through your to-do list – don’t recognise the basic fact that time is limited.
My mum always says – you can have everything, but not at the same time. It’s similar to Paula Pant’s ‘you can have anything, but not everything’ mantra. Some things are a finite resource, and time is one of those. Energy is another one: so it’s the number of shits I have to give (as it were).
Burkeman’s point is exactly that. Our average life span is 4,000 weeks which suddenly seems like it just won’t be enough. And he has some great advice about how to live with that in mind, knowing that we will have to miss out on some things, and how not to get crushed by FOMO.
There is something about having children which also makes you notice the passing of time, sometimes wishing for certain phases to be over, sometimes desperately clutching on to others which seem to have passed all too soon. It reminds me of Jonathan Fanning‘s poem about parenting: about all the last times we have of doing things, and how oftern we don’t even know it’s signalling the end of something:
The thing is, you won’t even know it’s the last time Until there are no more times. And even then, it will take you a while to realize.
So while you are living in these times, remember there are only so many of them and when they are gone, you will yearn for just one more day of them. For one last time.
So – this week I have been trying to live from that place. I stopped work at lunch time and made a bowl of steaming, spicy noodles, sparkling with chillis. I texted a boy I like who made me laugh. I quit the French classes I have taken for five years with the aim of getting a quaification I don’t need for a job I don’t want. I swam in the sea and felt the air turning to autumn. I lay in bed with my kids and listened to the rain. I lived. And I loved it.
Ah, here we are – that time of year again. I always have mixed feelings about birthdays – gratitude for the sheer privelige of each passing year, with the nostalgic sense of time moving ahead in a very finite way. And these days I get wrinkles, saggy bits, and bad hangovers. But as my mother would say, the alternative is death, so yom huledet sameach!
But this year, something feels different – like everything has changed. I feel centred for maybe the first ever time and it’s causing tiny miracles.
For me the idea of being centred is that my whole self is in alignment. It’s about thinking and acting from a place which is calibrated with who I am. It sounds really obvious, but the magic is the extent to which this reduces tension and stress, because I’m not constantly pushing against myself.
Let’s be clear, I can still absolutlely be a twat, get things wrong, get antsy. But for whatever reason, at the moment that no longer equates to spiralling down a sink hole of guilt or shame. It’s like my mental company has shifted so that my inner voice is full of friendly compassion and not the negative drama queens who played a loop of what I was doing wrong and why it made me unloveable. And when I fail I try ad own it and learn from it, then move on, rather than seeing it as another foundation stone in an exhausting life of failure.
I’m also not totally sure where this has all come from. I’ve written a lot about micro-habits and small steps, and living mindfully, so maybe it’s a combination of all those things. Recently I’ve also been asking myself some tough questions, and trying to act on the answers. Why are you going out for a drink with those people when you always come away from their company feeling bad? Why are you second-guessing something you really liked after someone else was negative? What audience are you playing to here – and what validation are you seeking?
A lot of these are also essential FIRE questions – what decisions are you making, and based on whose opinion? By doing that, what are you denying your essential self either now or in the future? Breaking habits can be really hard, both for you and those around you when you start changing. And it’s a life time practice rather than a destination so it’s not like everything is solved forever.
Right now when the world is burning, it feels like a miracle to have come home to myself. Happy birthday indeed!
Schools have gone back here in Denmark, and even though it’s August it’s clearly heading towards autumn. Maybe September will be beautiful, but there is a chill in the air.
We have settled into the new house, and done the first week of school with the new route and routine, and I am getting to understand all the costs associated with this home (clue – it’s more of a mystery than it should be). I’m getting ready to reset my financial goals and as part of this I wanted to review my net worth. Buying a home definitely made my savings take a hit – some of it went to equity but some also to lawyers, removal men, registration fees and so on.
Whilst I usually do this in either April with the end of the tax year, of December, right now I have that new-school-year feeling so thought I would have a look!
So here are the totals and the comparisons, showing that I have a current net worth of £628,532.
Value July 2021
Value Dec 2020
Value April 2020
Value April 2019
Three of my four pensions are ‘defined benefit’ meaning that increases here come from money paid in to my current work pension (also defined benefit); and money paid in plus changes to investments on my SIPP. The projections for all my existing pensions, those from previous employmet plus the SIPP, comes to an income of around £11,881 per year. In my current job, if I leave before 2024 then I just get my contributions refunded so I won’t include a projection from that until I’ve worked out my time.
Over this time, my house in the UK hasn’t increased in value, and I slowed down additional mortgage payments to prepare for the new house purchase. I also put a solid deposit down on the Danish house, meaning my overall equity in property has increased to £400,000. This feels like a lot in terms of the balance, but as one of the houses is rented out and brings in a net income of around £10,000 a year, I am ok with it for now. The main part of that deposit was pulled out of savings, which is why that went down.
Either way this shows an increase in net worth of £28,705 over sevenmonths – an average of £4,100 per month. I am pretty pleased with that, especially with the significant amount of money spent on the house purchase, and it also shows me the need to bolster my savings and keep up the ‘set it and forget it’ aspects of my pensions. It also shows an increase of more than £200,000 in a little more than two years, which I am really proud of!
How is your net worth looking these days? I’d love to hear from you!
Trigger warning – this post talks about mental health issues including suicide. If you are having a hard time, please reach out to the Samaritans or someone else you can talk to.
I’m glad to be back after the holidays. Other than the great few days spent isolating at my brother’s I ended up mostly working, it was so important to reconnet with friends and family (and fish ‘n’ chips), and just be somewhere else.
I’ve also been focusing on supporting my son who had his first anxiety attack, on his twelfth birthday.
But he had an anxiety attack so strong and terrifyint that he was rushed to hospital for tests, and spent his birthday evening in a children’s ward. I was very glad for the support and calm care of the Danish health system, and for my boy’s tenacity and confidence in dealing with the episode. It was scary, but there was no shame around it.
My fear now, for both of us, is where this is coming from and what it means for his life. And that made me think about the relationships between fear and action. I should say upfront that I am not a doctor, psychologist or expert in anything other than my family and my opinions – which is what this blog is about. So if anything here triggers issues for you then please do get in touch with the professionals.
Money and mental health have been closely linked for a long time. UK charity MIND found that there is a cyclical relationship – having issues with money can negatively impact your mental health, making you feel anxious, unable to sleep at night or concentrate, and uncertain about the future. On the other hand having pre-existing mental health issues can make you struggle with money, whether through also finding it difficult to find or hold down a job, or to engage with things like communicating or negotiating with companies if you get into debt.
I don’t know what the answers are. From a FIRE perspective, the impact of the pandemic has made me beyond grateful that I have a steady job, no debt and an emergency fund. But with all the uncertainty it’s a terrifying time for people who are just getting started.
So the advice I leave you with is the same as the advice I am giving myself as a mum who is struggling, and that I have given to my son: be kind to yourself. Do the tiny steps which are open to you now, and don’t worry about those coming up in the future. You will deal with them when they come: you will have built the foundation you need through your small actions and you will be ready when they arrive. You don’t need to be ready now, you just need to be you. Breathe as deep as you can. Know that you are loved. You got this.
A very quick post this week, since I am on holiday in the UK. I am VERY excited to be here, since we haven’t been home for 18 months due to COVID.
We are in quarantine though, and since Denmark put the UK on the red list as of this week, we will have to do the same when we get back. I’m not making political points here about how any country manages COVID but I will say that it has cost us (for one adult and two kids) £800 on COVID tests – and none of that needed to be spent in Denmark.
I am lucky enough to quarantine with family, so we are also enjoying a lot of quality time. After the last few months of preparing the house move, this is a much needed break. I love our lives as expats, but I am also really glad to be home for a while. Plus we already had fish and chips (with chip shop gravy mmmmmmm), so the world is a happy place.
More finance thoughts in August after two weeks off, but wishing you some lovely time in the sun until then!
Ah June. Long (it’s Denmark, so very, very long) days; al fresco dinners in the garden; the start of the summer holidays; *all* the football at the Euros; and the last month in our rental home. I knew June and July were going to be pretty brutal, and that has been the case so far. Trying to juggle work which is super busy, the kids and school or clubs (or ‘I’m boooooooored muuuuuums’) and moving house has been a huge pain. My ability to handle pain is probably evident in my overspending this month.
A note on my budget check ins: I was reading through the other check ins from this year and it felt a bit like watching a learner driver repeatedly start off doing pretty well, then start skidding around, and crash toward the end of the test, every. single. time. I know I’ve overspent every month, to a greater or lesser extent, and whilst I do a lot of hand-wringing at the start of the month I have always got good reasons (ahem) to go ahead with the spend anyway. Recognising this, I plan to do a budget and spend overhaul from September, giving me the summer to get settled in the new house and really work out what I am doing, my medium term goals, and – more importantly – a plan.
So how did it go? It wasn’t that bad, but I can see a couple of interesting choices glaring out from the grid below.
% of monthly budget
Car (insurance, tax, petrol)
Entertainment – subscription
Kids – extra curricular
Shopping – general
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays
Shopping – clothes
Rent and Bills
So, once again I overspent my budget by A LOT, spending £6,913against a budget of £4,645:
My mum finally managed to come and visit which was amazing but meant covering her flights, tests and so on. This was well worth it for the support it povided us during a challenging time, and since she is on a small pension there is no way I would let her cover this.
I paid out for my daughter’s three after school clubs for the 2021-22 school year since they opened the registration for current students and the spots fill up quickly. This cost £1,275, or about £127 a month for the duration of the clubs. Since all her friends (four of them!) have left school this summer and moved away (downside to the expat life) and things might feel a bit lonely for her, I figure that having some clubs where she also has friends will be comforting.
I had three big splurges, one of which was an accident:
Since it was the Euros football was on, and I LOVE football, I went to see most of the matches at the pub with friends. The atmosphere was amazing, and supporting both Denmark and England meant a lot ot good times. It also meant a £300 bar tab over the month.
We had a few colleagues in my team leave this month as well, some people who have been in the team for five years. We had a huge team dinner and I covered the bill of £350 with an understanding that we would work out how to share this – that hasn’t happened yet, but it will.
I, um, might have had a moment during a LEGO sale. It was half price and I have two LEGO-loving kids, so a £400 moment occurred. This will cover my son’t upcoming birthday and major Christmas gifts for them both, so I tell myself it was a good idea!
So what did I save? Again I focused on getting the last of the money together for our house move including £3,000 for the removal men/house preparation etc , so I have just been putting extra into my current account to make sure the money is there for whatever comes up. No great savings news then, but at least I carried on with the usual basics which is still savings (or paying toward capital) of £ 2,348.
Monthly saving plan
% of plan
Mortgage (UK house)
So this month, again, an unimpressive savings rate of 20% compared to spending 80%. July will also likely be odd again due to the move but I am glad that at least I kept to the regular savings. I need to do a mid year review of our net worth, since I have moved a lot into the new house.
So how was your June? And your summer budget planning? I’d love to hear from you!
I wrote last week about buying a $1 milion home: over the last few days we got the keys and have been cleaning, painting and generally getting ready for the furniture move on Monday. Oh, and sort of freaking out about the whole thing but that’s pretty normal.
I want to say upfront that I never had a divorce settlement. I didn’t “get half the house” or much less “take him to the cleaners”. For all sorts of reasons that probably require some kind of therapy to understand, my marriage didn’t involve the mingling of finances, or equal financial engagement, at all. The good thing is that we took that attitude to the divorce meaning that I took out what I put in. Given that it was my money anyway, and I also did all the childcare, I can live with that. Note: many other ways of being married, or divorced, or thinking about money and marriage are available, and I wish you joy of them.
So how DID I get here?
A combination of luck, privilege and focus. It’s important to recognise that the focus itself might not have been enough – luck (mostly around timing) and privilege definitely helped. That’s not to say that this is not an option for others, but I see a lot of people talking about how they bought a house all by themselves whilst the back story shows how much they relied on their parents. So let’s be honest. I found it hard – other people will find it much much harder. But it’s not impossible.
House 1: bought for £55,000 sold for £110,000
My partner and I decided to try and buy twenty years ago, when I was 22. We had been living together for five years and rents in our home town were rising all the time. Even at that point the average property price for a two-bedroom home (a flat in the fancy part of town, a house in the non-fancy) was £170,000, and amount that would have required me to be earning £45,000. I was fortunate to get a great job out of university on £18,000, but that was still a world awya, and my partner’s self-employed income was limited as he established his business.
So we found the only thing we could afford, in a tower block on a housing estate, and bought it. We were always really frugal, and had been saving since we got together, saving £10,000. The flat was on the eighth floor though, meaning it wasn’t possible to get a mortgage. Here’s the privilege: my partner’s parents lent us the rest of the money. We set up a repayment plan in line with current mortgage rates, and continued to be frugal, doing a lot of work ourselves and taking in a lodger in the second bedroom though we didn’t pay off much extra on the loan.
When we split up four years later, we had the flat valued at £110,000. Based on splitting the equity 50:50, I got £30,000. I put this in a savings account and went off to pursue my humanitarian career overseas.
House 2: bought for£170,000, sold for £270,000
So by this point I am 30, and have a baby. I have a confused marriage where he is overseas (and not contributing anything financially or emotionally) and things are rocky. I am back in my hometown and the cost of living seems to be crazy. For the first time, I am fully responsible for another human being and realise I have no idea what I’m doing.
So I decide to buy a house and settle down. I still have an income that counts for a mortgage, even though it’s from a charity based overseas. And since I was living in South Sudan / Uganda / Rwanda for the past four years I have also added to my savings pot so with the equity from my first home I have a £70,000 deposit.
The luck here is that it is 2009. House prices dropped by 16% in 2008 and I looked at a lot of repossessions which seemed heart-breaking. I wanted to stay on the same housing estate, but also realised pretty quickly that I couldn’t afford to live in another part of town. So I was looking at the lower end of the price range for a house. And my goodness I saw some unloved, filthy heaps.
Eventually I found a four bed house in a quiet cul-de-sac (important on a house estate with a reputation for joy riders) and put in an offer. Then I found that the flipside to 2008 was that banks were not keen to lend money to single people with precarious incomes. Around the same time my lovely granny passed away and left my family an inheritance (likely the only one we will ever get since we are not that kind of family).The bank will still not lend me the money. So again with the privilege – my mum and siblings club together their inheritances and lend me the other £100,000.
It’s hard to overestimate how much work needed doing: it had no heating at all, asbestos in the roof, single glazing, an extension which hadn’t been approved and had to be formalised by building standards, a kitchen where there were actual human turds in the cupboards. Safe to say I called in a lot of favours over the years, and did a lot on credit.
I had another two years overseas with my work, and rented the place out. Since I wasn’t entitled to a pension in that job (long story – I keep planning a series of posts entitled ‘mistakes I made with pensions, and why it’s a massive headache’ so do come back for more) I focused on the house as my main asset and worked on paying off my family. In 2014 I came back, thinking I would stay in the UK, and realised that now my son was older I didn’t want to stay on our housing estate. So I sold the house for £270,000, repayed my family loans, and had £140,000 to use as a deposit.
Phew. I think I would have made it without the family help as banks unclenched and my income settled, but it might have taken a lot longer. And living in a city where house prices have gone up 300% in 20 years, every year counts.
House 3: Bought for £352,000. Currently worth £400,000
This is my sensible house, and ironically we have only ever lived in it for six months. I bought really planning to stay in the UK, but then with work and other issues (not least pension obsession which kicked in at 35) I took another overseas job with the kids and we moved to west Africa. I rented the house out, and, given that accommodation was provided in my new job, I put a lot of extra money toward the mortgage. I took out a mortgage of £152,000 and currently owe just £50,000 – that means I have paid off £100,000 in five years. I aim to have it completely paid off by the time we leave Denmark.
So there we go. A rollercoaster ride which would not have been possible without the support of family, an early start, a high savings rate and a risk-taking approach. I wanted to just put some honesty out there about how this all happened for me – however hard I work and save (and I do work and save very hard) without that additional help, things would at the very least have taken a lot longer.
So – whats your housing story? And how can we think about collectively helping one another for those people in our situation who don’t have family support? I’d love to hear from you!