Courage!

Blimey, what a week. Not much to say other than O. M. G. It just keeps coming – too much work, issues going on with my parents’ health, ALL the world disasters. Things feel slippery and twisting and I can’t quite get a grip on any of them.

I’ve written before about overwhelm and whilst I still go there, mostly at the moment I’m just knackered. Trying to keep all the plates spinning seems increasingly unlikely. I am definitely making some crappy choices – staying up a bit too late, eating a bit too little, drinking a bit too much. None of this to the extent where it’s really damaging, but cumulatively it’s not really helping.

Slippery when wet/tired/gumpy. Photo by Itay Peer on Unsplash

In her amazing book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, reflects on the most common things that people realise toward the end of their lives. The one which struck me wasn’t ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ but ‘I wish I had let myself be happier‘. Ware says:

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Bonnie Ware on what holds us back from happiness

This week I also read Alexandra Fuller’s ‘Leaving Before the Rains Come‘ about the lengthy unravelling of her twenty year marriage which had some similar reflections. The comfort in habits and ruts, however destructive they are, can feel like the only thing holding us together. There are lots of other truths here – what it means to collapse a life that you have actively participated in creating and the impact that has on others – and realising that change means loss.

Without meaning to sound like a crappy instagram meme: change is terrifying. But refusing to grow, and regretting what you might have missed out on, is much, much scarier.

That light wants to shine on ME? Hell no! Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Sometimes I recognise that I am afraid to want things – afraid that wanting ‘too much’ or getting out of my lane will just end in ignominy and heartbreak. I get in the way of my own happiness. Which is ridiculous (and frustrating) but also feels like just an ass-hat way of being ungrateful. As well as all the slippery uncertainties in my life at the moment there are some amazing things: things I have prayed for and worked for and believed in. It’s taking daily work just to try and live in those moments, to not hold on too tightly and not so loosely that I drop them. Phew. No wonder I’m knackered.

So, on we go. Back out into the world and the new week with courage and gratitude. It will all work out.

Indeed. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The tail end

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.

Time to do…. what?. Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

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.

Even if you are immortalised on a building wall, your time is finite. Photo by Mark Neal on Unsplash

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.

You really are. Live from there. Photo by Bethany Stephens on Unsplash

Anxiety

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.

Not waving but drowning: Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

He has always felt things very deeply, and has thought a lot about what is going on in the world. Currently, the world can feel like a pretty scary place, so it’s not at all surprising that the British Psychological Society found recently that one-third of 11-18 year olds are struggling to cope with their mental wellbeing at this time, and would benefit from support.

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.

Photo credit

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.

Of course both issues impact people in different ways, but MIND found that people with debt and money issues are three times more likely to have mental health problems. A study from the US found that when these challenges impact people’s lives further into issues such as losing a job or a home, people become 20 times more likely to commit suicide.

The pandemic has massively exacerbated financial stress for so many people. A study in October 2020 found that 70% of UK respondents were stressed about being able to meet rent, bills and basic needs at the end of the month. Many of the temporary fixes of COVID, from furloughs to support grants for small businesses, is coming to an end and we are only just starting to see the new economic landscape and what is possible.

Photo Credit: anonymous at Post Secret

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.

Budget Check In: June

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.

Half way through the year! Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

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.

Item Monthly BudgetSpend June% of monthly budget
Childcare costs £       1,100.00 £          726.3066
Car (insurance, tax, petrol) £          125.00 £                   –  0
Charity £            66.67 £            67.95102
Eating out £          120.00 £          165.23138
Entertainment – subscription £            50.00 £            18.9538
Entertainment £          100.00 £          335.39335
Kids – extra curricular £          250.00 £       1,276.11510
Family £            50.00 £          292.01584
Groceries £          400.00 £          657.84164
Holidays  £          300.00 £                   –   
Insurance £          200.00 £          493.99247
Personal care £            30.00 £            57.39191
Shopping – general £            25.00 £          539.492158
Shopping – gifts incl birthdays £            58.33 £          434.32745
Shopping – clothes £            29.17 £            15.0051
Rent and Bills £       1,500.00 £       1,500.00100
Transport £            41.67 £          173.74417
Utilities £          200.00 £          112.5156
TOTALS £   4,645.83 £       6,913.21 

So, once again I overspent my budget by A LOT, spending £6,913 against 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!
It might be coming home… Photo by Robert Anderson on Unsplash

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 planMay% of plan
Mortgage (UK house)  £                500 £              500100
Mortgage Overpayment  £                500 £              500100
Emergency Fund  £                  100 £               100100
ISA £               1,250 £               50040
Kids savings £                   248 £               248100
SIPP £                   300 £               300100
  £   2,898.00 £ 2,348.0087

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!

Beautiful June! Photo by Ann on Unsplash

House buying and the single parent

I wrote in November that I was thinking about buying a house here in Denmark. My contract is, all things being equal, at least for another 3.5 years, which means an awful lot more horribly expensive rent. Plus since my landlord is coming back and we have to move anyway, incurring both the costs of spending an awful lot of time looking for somewhere and organising and paying for movers.

So we have bought a house!

I’ve been looking since September, and it has been absolutely brutal. As with many places, already high house prices have continued to rise during COVID and family properties (as we are looking for) have increased even more as people look to move out of apartments. In Denmark, the supply is also quite low, meaning that there just aren’t enough properties to go around. I almost wish we had bought the first thing we saw in September, since that will have gone up in price by about 8% since we saw it.

The ideal Copenhagen home (clue: our new house does not look like this). Photo Credit, Architectural Digest

It is even worse in the UK where house prices are soaring. People moving out of cities, or flats; a lack of housing stock; the temporary suspension of Stamp Duty; and realising what an incredible amount of house you can buy pretty much anywhere in the country if you sell a London home means that the average house price in the UK is now £256,000 – up a whopping £100,000 since 2012.

In the UK, you can usually borrow four-and-a-half times your income meaning you need to earn £56,888 in order to qualify for a mortgage. With the average income being just over £31,400 (and that already the median, so it will be skewed by very high and very low earners) this means that the majority of people – and any single person who is not a majorly high-earner – is priced out of the UK housing market. Since one-third of single parents were living in poverty before the pandemic, and have been one of the groups hardest hit in terms of income partly due to an inability to work and manage kids at home alone, buying a house can seem a million miles away from many single parents who are already working their hardest to create a secure future for their kids.

Denmark, like many countries, has other alternative options including Andelsbolig which is co-operative housing offering both affordable rental and houses to purchase. The conditions of being part of the co-op mean that it’s not possible to take advantage of the system and the apartments (not usually houses) stay in the relevant pricing market and can benefit others in the future should someone move on.

This is Iffley Lock in Oxford, near Iffley, where I would buy a house if I magically became a millionaire. Photo by Lia Tzanidaki on Unsplash

This month, the Australian government took the incredible step of recognising this issue for their citizens and actually doing something about it. The New Home Guarantee scheme will allow single parents to buy with just a 2% deposit, with the federal authorities guaranteeing the other 18%. It is only available to 10,000 women (about 10% of Australia’s 1 million single mums) and whilst that might be a drop in the ocean it has to be celebrated as an approach which both recognises that we have assets and incomes but struggle to get over specific hoops in many financial processes.

I wonder if the UK Government would back a similar scheme? Though with the income needed to buy a house, there will still be struggles for the majority of the almost 3 million single parents in the UK. Sometimes I think the best solution is housing co-ops where we can live with multiple families and share some of the burden.

Together for all! Photo Credit: Radical Routes (and check them out if you are interested in housing co-ops)

But until we get to radical social change, creating support structures so that all families can leverage their income-generating power to build assets and have somewhere secure for their children to grow, should be an area for policy makers to think about. Generational wealth has a significant impact on society, and single parenthood – and the intuitional fabric which keeps people in poverty stuck in that cycle – prevents people from building wealth to hand on. There is a direct relationship with this and continued income inequality which has wide-ranging social implications. And, if you are living it, absolutely sucks you dry.

What’s your story been with housing? I would love to hear from you!

Overwhelm

I feel like I’m getting down to brass tacks here. My last two posts felt like digging down: from looking to improve by 1%, to trying to do just one thing. This week I have been feeling overwhelmed, and not trying to improve anything.

I want to recognise here that I am writing as a single parent, and for many of us overwhelm is just moments away at any given time. It’s also a terrifying prospect – if I fall apart, who will step in? For some people, a nearby and responsible co-parent might be on hand, or grandparents and that is wonderful. But for many, there isn’t anyone. As an expat with long working hours I have always relied on paid help which is both a solution and a cause of guilt and, frankly, expense, administration and extra work on my part.

There are no photos of my family like this, since if someone was standing behind us taking pictures it would be a matter for the police. Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

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. 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 recently about fatherhood 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), though we are also 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. 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. I would be furious, if I wasn’t so tired.

And all the rest…. Credit Erica Djossa, https://www.instagram.com/happyasamother/

Following my last two posts, 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, 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. Am. Knackered.

So this week I just want to get off my chest what last week, a pretty average week (since the kids are back in school but I am still not travelling yet), looks like.

Up at 5am every day. Drink coffee, shower. Put on some cream which is supposed to stop my now 40-year-old face looking like a pterodactyl. One hour’s work before getting the kids up. Make breakfasts (remembering who doesn’t like what, this week, or today) include fruit and vitamins. Drink more coffee. Answer work WhatsApp messages whilst listening to kids. Have the news on the radio – answer questions from my eldest about Gaza. Clear up breakfast stuff, get everyone to brush teeth and hair, check bags and out the door. Cycle with kids to school then either cycle home or to the office to start work by 8.30 – cycled 24 miles in total last week.

Work. Just so much of it. Last week I had 43 meetings, many of them back-to-back (to the point where I have to turn off video and sneak out to pee). Meetings with offices in Bangladesh at 6am my time, or with Colombia at 10pm my time. Meetings which I have to prepare for, do slide decks for, present at wearing a proper jacket and with brushed hair. Meetings which I get invited to 30 minutes before hand. Then reviewing documents, checking budgets, writing things for other people to present in other meetings. Sometimes getting overwhelmed by the heartbreak of working in the humanitarian field, where the work we do is to prevent human tragedy, but the human tragedies continue on a horrifying scale.

Do all the other things which are about staying ‘professionally relevant’ and making up for the time I spent off work at home with the kids. This week it was co-chairing a conference, so review 64 papers (to be fair, I did this over two weeks but outside of office hours). Have calls with peers, including people who want advice, and people I want to advise me. Fiddle about on LinkedIn to feel engaged.

Every day is a fresh start, and a 17-hour marathon. Photo by Alysha Rosly on Unsplash

Organise kids’ after school stuff, though I don’t usually pick them up (which they hate – please mummy please pick us up from school all the other mums are there). One playdate at our house, one at another. Make sure bags are ready for football training, call another mum about sharing pickup after one session. Swimming club, ballet, blah. Encourage children to carry on when they want to give up, listen to enthusiastic replays when they are excited. Give pep talks when they are not picked for something, like my daughter this week after not getting a part in a ballet after auditioning. Organise birthday party – emails emails to a trampoline place, checking prices, feeling guilty about throwing money at the problem rather than having them all do something wholesome and free at my house where I pick playdoh out of the carpet for weeks afterwards. Invite others, navigate times, dietary requirements, passive-aggressive responses. Order balloons for the birthday itself, wrap presents (thanking Previous Self who bought them).

Make six dinners (four people since I do all the cooking and we have a nanny who eats with us) = so 24 dinners. One take away as it’s a birthday. Make packed lunches for the three of us for all five days = 15 lunches. Meal plan and shop based on this, calorie count everything for myself for six days (not Saturday, that’s free). Continually stay aware of what we have in the cupboards and fridge, who might want something different, what we ate last week so that I don’t get complaints of sameness. Two supermarket visits, the main Sunday one then another one for bread/milk/eggs/fruit on Thursday. Discuss and think endlessly about how to eat better food which has less impact on the planet; how to get my daughter to eat more fruit and veg; and how much I resent always being responsible for cooking.

Got to the gym twice (for a special physiotherapist work out where I get chased around by a shouting man who makes me do squats outside where People Can See). One massage – first for 18 months, definitely the highlight. One coaching session. Read two books – finished one from last week and finally read City of Girls. Plan, research and write this blog. Hoover (not weekly, let’s be clear) the car and filed it with petrol; applied for a new driving license; paid a bill for my house in the UK; argued a utility bill for the house in Denmark which insists I pay upfront for a full year even though we are moving in July. Called my mum four times, and other friends and family – including a friend who I WhatsApp with on a daily basis – as much as possible, usually whilst doing some of the other things. Weekly budget check in – review all back accounts including savings, check spend, work out what to move around if I have gone over.

Make sure kids are bathed, teeth brushed, ready for the next day and in bed. Read to them, referee usual argument (not sure what it is about 19.30 which turns my kids into savages but there you go). Tuck them in, sing songs, calm and soothe twice when one of them came downstairs upset about something (once, a kid at school who was mean; second time, climate change and when we are all going to die). Look at their beautiful sleeping faces and ache with love. Go to bed and prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

FIRE habits: a simple week’s routine

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a journey begins with a single step’, and it’s a helpful reminder that even the most ambitious of ventures starts with just taking action. The more I engage in the FIRE journey (which continues to be much less about FIRE and much more about conscious living), the more important it is to remember that the single steps are actually the whole journey, and the journey *is* the destination.

Before I mix too many metaphors, perhaps it’s simpler to say that these days I focus more on the steps than the goals. Through peer coaching over the last year or two it became clear to me that my goals are sharp and focused: and my One Next Thing is also clear. What I was lacking though, was the idea of the messy middle section, or, what my life needed to be and become to get from here to there. So this post is about the small habits I’ve crafted and a look at how they worked this week.

Take time to smell (or plant, or photograph) the roses. Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash
  1. Make time for gratitude: I’ve written before about my morning routine, which has been crafted to include mindfulness practice, gratitude journaling, and goal setting, all in about 30 minutes. Whilst I have to admit that I now do this probably three times a week instead of every day, I try and integrate gratitude practice throughout the day. This might sound very modern, but it’s also akin to what my granny would have called ‘prayer‘. Saying thank you before food, when receiving something, and before sleeping or travelling used to be much more ingrained into our daily lives than it is now, but it’s a habit that really makes a difference. If you really want to say thank you, be a British person asking for something in a shop – my son counted and the shopkeeper and I said ‘thanks’ three times each. Apart from generally making the world a nicer place, there is evidence that gratitude and appreciation contributes to our sense of optimism, and is one of the practices that can make you even more optimistic: something I can definitely appreciate in these challenging times.
  2. Meal plan, and stick to it: this is one of the major tools in my (seemingly never-ending) battle with my spend on groceries. I’ve always quite enjoyed the meal planning bit, but as with my early budgets, treated it as evidence that I was Doing The Right Things and promptly ignored it. So now I take a bit of time one weekend morning over coffee to look through the special offer flyers – these come through the door once a week in Denmark, and list all the different supermarket offers – and have a poke through the fridge, freezer and cupboards to see what we have. Then I talk to the kids and let them nominate two meals each (small salad-refusing daughter invariably says pizza and pasta, but we live in hope), and we sketch out the evening meals. I try to make it so they are logical: a roast chicken on a Sunday, then leftover chicken in a risotto on a Tuesday for example, or making sure that we don’t OD on over-regular infusions of tomato sauce and mozzarella. Then I check against the commitments for the week so that the things which take more time are planned for the evenings when I, well, have more time. The proof of the meal planning is in the eating, though, so the focused work is then sticking to the plan and not heading off to the supermarket.
  3. Check my finances: I tend to so this daily but I am also trying to trust the budget and wean myself off it. But checking in weekly means I can make sure I know what’s coming up; see if there are any sneaky tricks I have pulled on myself; and, hopefully, have a mental pat on the back for everything being in order. It has definitely taken a while to get here though, so if you are starting out then do check your bank daily (not your investments though, that way madness lies). Keeping a real eye on your spending is easily done through looking at your account regularly: whilst the odd £5 or even £15 here and there might not feel like a lot, seeing how it adds up will help keep you focused.  
  4. Do one big chore: well, they might not be that big, but it’s the kind of things where if they build up, they make me feel crazy. Recently I’ve been focusing on de-cluttering, going through the various bits of the house where crap piles up, and trying to feel like I only have things in the house which are beautiful or useful. I’ve also this week started with the Minimalists podcast which has lots of inspiration. We started the 30 day minimalism challenge as well this month – more on this soon. Other chores in this list include mowing the lawn, descaling the taps (thanks hard water in Denmark) or other thrills. But knowing I do one thing a week keeps me from waking up with randomized anxiety about the tasks undone.
  5. Get some fresh air: maybe not as obvious as the others, but I try and work out my exercise and fresh air intake over the week. Because we’re so busy with the usual minutiae, this often means a big walk at the weekend. I am always shocked by how much better I feel after a blowy walk. There is evidence (and not only just from talking to my mum for whom the answer to all problems is either a) a walk in the fresh air or b) a hot bath) that getting outside really does make you healthier, even compared to doing the same exercises inside.
It’s beautiful out there…

What do you do each week and how is it helping your journey? I’d love to hear from you!

So, how are we doing here? May budget and spends

Enough of the soul searching – what am I actually spending?

In my mind, lock-down has been a time of spending no money. Certainly you have to be both inventive and patient to hit the normal spending levels, since it has meant either queuing, or ordering things which take a long time to be delivered. I just received a fire bowl for the garden which we ordered in April and which arrived this week, but minus the actual bowl – a two month wait for a totally useless stand…

May was the month we went back to work and school here in Denmark. It was also my daughter’s 7th birthday party and since we weren’t able to have family or friends over, I definitely spoiled her a bit to try and make it more special.

It was also the month I started planning and paying for things to do in the long school holidays. Since we can’t travel back to the UK I had to cancel long made plans – thankfully being able to either move it all to next year or get refunds – but then think about what we are actually going to *do* for the next two months.

So here’s what we spent. And it reminds me why I think of myself as being ‘fake frugal’. There are no ridiculous purchases in here, nothing really out of the way or extravagant (or that felt like it, at least). And yet I still managed to overspend by almost £ 1,000.00.

 PlannedMay-20
Charity £       30.00£150.00
Insurance £    277.00£277.00
Rent and utilities £ 1,500.00£1,500.00
Childcare £ 1,000.00£1,000.00
Groceries £    300.00£793.36
Holidays £    300.00£858.84
Transport  £    300.00£36.00
Entertainment £    200.00£247.03
Eating out £    175.00£57.37
TOTAL £ 4,082.00£4,919.60
Planned vs actual spend: May 2020
Game over? Hell no!

So what went well? Bills, childcare, insurances all stayed the same. I upped our charity giving all throughout lock-down because things are so tough right now for so many people (to the Single Aid Mamas crowd fund, an amazing group of other single mums in the same line of work that I am in, a number of whom lost their income during this period: to Age UK given that older people are having a hard time: and to the Trussell Trust who are supporting food banks across the UK).

The bulk of the extra spend was on groceries. Whilst it does feel as though food is getting more expensive, this is also down to eating every meal at home (and the related decrease in eating out budget). It is also because like lots of people I have been really into cooking as something fun to do during the lockdown. As a wannabe frugaleer, I normally cook from scratch 5 nights a week, and make packed lunches. But we have really tried new things, got into baking, and also continued to keep a healthy level of food stocked up in the house in case the quarantine gets strict again.

But this was something of a wake up call. Just because I feel like we’re not doing much, or spending much, keeping track of the numbers is the only way to be sure. In May, I did manage to put  £ 800 into my savings,  £250 into the children’s accounts, and make a £ 2,000 mortgage over-payment. So whilst it wasn’t a great month, it still worked out.

Aluta continua!

Playing the long game

A lot of working on finances is about playing the long game. What do you want now, vs what you want later? What does choosing to spend that money – on a latte, a pair of shoes, more expensive rent – mean for the future?

For me it has also been about learning patience. Being able to create new habits, and do the same good things day in and out even when I feel like I really deserve a break. Making daily good choices: packing a lunch for work, checking bank balances (but NOT my savings – more on this later), looking up free events so I can take the kids out at the weekend without blowing the bank.

The monthly good choices are easier because they’re automated: bills, savings, mortgage over-payments, pension – they’re good habits because I don’t get a chance to overthink them. There’s lots of good information about automation in the FIRE movement: as the Mad Fientist says, “Figure out your investing plan… then take yourself out of the equation as much as possible so that you don’t get in your own way”.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

They are good habits that have taken a while to form, and I will talk about how in coming posts. This week I have been reflecting on them in the middle of the stock market freefall where my savings (that I have proudly scratched together in the years before my salary increased) lost 10% during about ten days. I know, I know – they’re only losses if you realise them by selling out too early. And you should only invest money if you plan to spend it in a long enough time frame to see it through ups and downs.

So I have tried to add some more good habits. Leaving the money alone, not even opening the lid to peek in and see what’s going on. Carrying on investing and saving, and planning for a brilliant future – even if this week it feels a little bit further away.

Perchance to dream…

Sometimes the daily grind of being a full-time working single mum can mean that I can feel that I don’t deserve to dream big – I can barely make it to bedtime without letting something drop. And when I read financial independence blogs about ‘living on one partner’s salary whilst saving the other’, it seems so unlikely that it’s a path for me. But this blog is born out of hope, and out of the belief that if I can have got this far, then frankly anything is possible.

So – what is the dream?

If my year of avid podcast listening to the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) crew (more on the background and where to find inspiration – and, let’s be honest, advice about how to do things properly, later) I found two key starting questions:

Why do you want this? What’s your goal?

Yesterday, the fact that my day in the office was rough enough to take the skin off my nose, was enough for me to want to have F-You money. As J L Collins notes in that article, “I may not have known what it was called, but I knew what it was and why it is important.  There are many things money can buy, but the most valuable of all is freedom.  Freedom to do what you want and work for whom you respect”. F-You money means the freedom to make choices; to take time out before burnout, to spend time with my kids when they need me, to pursue other projects. It means taking a job because I want to, not because I have to in order to get the bills paid.

Right now, I can’t see a way on one income to become totally FI. I don’t know if that’s just me being a weenie, or if there is some rational logic in there. But I know that working toward having enough financial security to make different work choices would transform my life, and in working toward that – taking control of my money and making it work for me – is a great place to start. And a place which makes me feel less like a rabbit-in-the-headlights who has to do all or nothing.

How do you think you’ll get there? The five year plan

My five year plan feels ludicrously ambitious (though when I look at FIRE extremers it looks more like someone saying ‘I’m saving up my 20 pence pieces in a jar!’ and blogging about it). A lot of these goals are based on a long back-story which will come in other posts, but for now I want to put these out there. By July 2024 I intend to:

Be mortgage free. I have been overpaying for a while and have £78,120 left. I will also be debating (at length, probably) the reasons to overpay a mortgage rather than invest given low interest rates – and how this relates to my risk tolerance as a single parent.

Have enough in pension funds to bring in £12,000 per year. I paid in two year’s pension contributions at 23-24, then nothings for 12 more years. Partly this was due to free-lancing/taking time off to have kids/being broke, but I could kick myself. More on the detail of this to come, but the figure is based on the small defined benefit pensions I have and pension calculations rather than a ‘sum in the bank’.

Have £120,000 in low cost index funds. This is the combination of my current savings nest-egg – £40,000 – plus maxing out the £20,000 tax free stocks and shares ISA contribution per year.

Achieving these goals means saving about 40% of my income.

So, there are the reasons, and the ambition. Next week, the plan of how to get there.