living intentionally personal finance: frugality retire early
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My experience of spending post work was of a massive fall, but two commenters (Jane, Monkeynut) on the post describing that make me wonder if that may not hold so much for future retirees. So in the interest of balance I thought I might as well take the other side, though I’d not speaking from personal experience.
For what it’s worth my biggest spending was on mortgage payments which then switched to pension contributions and simultaneous ISA investing in the last three years. I am not able to think up anything I’d want to spend that much on – Stuff, Experiences, whatever. I’m in agreement with Jane that spending on myself has gone up as a proportion, though not absolutely, because working made me spend quite a bit just to dull the pain. But as a proportion, sure it’s increased.
Taking my ex-colleagues as a benchmark, two things clearly stick out as different about my lifestyle choices. One is that I am child-free, and the other is that housing is a much lower part of my net-worth than for most of them 1. The reason for the lower percentage of net worth is I had a very bad experience of the housing market early on in my career, and never saw it as a financial investment that could only go up as everybody else seems to do. I have only as much house as I need, which is a three-bed semi for the two of us. The reason most of my colleagues had the dominant stake of their net worth in housing was because they have a lot more house than I do in general. It isn’t because not having children has made me particularly rich compared to them, though there’s an argument to be made that if you have kids you probably do need more house
Having more house than you need is a hit on your net worth if you live in it, because you take on more massive debt on something that provides you with a consumer good – living space, as well as accumulating an asset. Over the course of a 25-year mortgage you pay about twice nominal for the house, maybe 1.5 times real terms 2. You have to heat, furnish, maintain and service that space, and the more there is of it the higher your running costs will be. You do, of course, build up equity is a larger asset – when they have paid off their mortgages my ex-colleagues will have houses that are worth a lot more than mine. After which, by the looks of some who have got there, they will rattle around in them and keep spare rooms for the kids to visit, though those kids will not visit as often as they’d like. So they keep a lot of their net worth tied up in bricks and mortar, which doesn’t pay any financial return. Note this is totally different in the case of the buy to let owner – they may also have a lot of their net worth tied up in housing, but the return arrives in the form of the rent cheque every month.
Because I have the excess net-worth in financial investments I have less room to swing my cat in. Compensating me for this is the income from shares. The general return from the relative asset classes seems to be similar over the long run, accepting that the capital value of shares is hellaciously more volatile than that of houses. This is the evil twin brother of the higher liquidity, I guess.
I’m not telling people how to live their lives, each to their own. However, I do observe that there’s often a lot of emotional capital invested in a family home. In my own case, it was probably not a rational decision to pay down the mortgage in a time of low interest rates when I was planning to retire early. I mainly wanted rid of other people being able to tell me what to do by controlling money – I’d had enough of that at work and wanted shot of the threat at home from the mortgage company. It would have been much more sensible to keep the mortgage and use the cash to invest and bridge the gap rather than save the cash upfront and pay off them mortgage. But in the end, if you don’t want other people to be able to control you through money, then don’t borrow money from them and don’t depend upon them for an income. Paying the mortgage off was a dumb thing to do, financially, but sometimes claiming financial freedom isn’t financially clever. But it sure does feel good.
It’s usually a very bad thing to have a lot of emotional capital invested in something where you have a lot of financial capital too. You tend to end up with sub-optimal results, it’s hard enough getting a handle on personal finance as it is without adding a great layer of confounding emotional values.
The increasing opportunity cost of having children
Having children is something that the vast majority of people want to do, and while it leads to all kind of of rewards I don’t think that anybody claims improved personal finances is one of them. It’s frowned upon to send them out to work in the fields or down t’pit to do their bit for the family finances these days Something that strikes me comparing people having children now compared to the impact it had on my parents’ generation is that the opportunity cost of having children has dramatically increased. This is probably as a result of modern households being predicated on having both partners working. The baseline cost of living has shifted upwards, particularly in the area of housing, which has increased relative to individual incomes over the last 30 years.
That means the opportunity cost of one partner stopping work while the children are young has a lot more effect on the household finances, because housing costs remain at a level assuming two people earning. That’s a hit early on in one’s working life, because biology means that having children in the second half of your working life isn’t that easy. Inadvertently we have designed an economic system that disadvantages one of the most common things people want to do in life more than for the previous generation.
In return our households have twice as much coming in, so we have a more Stuff and experiences, as well as a larger proportion of our net-worth tied up in houses. An awful lot of people lay the increasing cost of housing at the door of immigration, but it started a long time ago, well before New Labour. I was twit enough to buy a house at over four times (single) income multiple, though I didn’t have to borrow that much from the mortgage company because I had a deposit. And an interest-free loan from a credit card I was already suffering competition from those dual-income households in the late 1980s, a decade before Things Could Only Get Better.
the 50% university target delaying financial independence
Something else that has changed is that children don’t become financially independent of their parents when they come of age these days, and this is often to do with the cost of university, though the dearth of jobs for young people right now doesn’t help either. When I went to university the deal was simple. You had a very high chance of failing the exams that were necessary for university admission 3, because your marks were allocated as a percentage of the performance of everyone who took the exams at A level. This is called norm referencing and strikes me as the obvious way to do exams, it tells you how good you are relative to others of your age. This is what universities and employers wanted exams to do for them.
Failing exams upsets people, and to avoid that we introduced criterion referencing – marking the exams against some supposedly absolute reference, and also raised the target for the number of children going to university. This all sounded very progressive and egalitarian, and of course an advanced knowledge economy needed more knowledge workers and fewer carpenters, machine operators and brickies.
Everybody believed Tony Blair’s story that more university – “education, education, education” was A Good Thing in itself, and yelled down the cynical who asked the obvious questions about grade inflation and cheapening the brand. I was therefore surprised to read in Ha-Joon Chang’s ’23 things they don’t tell you about Capitalism’ that the correlation between education and economic performance is very weak. One of his examples struck me as particularly remarkable.
That well-known backward and developing country otherwise known as Switzerland had a university enrolment rate of 16% in 1996 – only a shade over the 11% enrolment that Britain had when I started university nearly two decades before. And yet Switzerland is highly industrialised, though they do their best to make out that all they do is make cuckoo clocks, fabulous skiing, and, ahem, occasionally allow dodgy geezers to deposit money in their banks without asking too many questions about the provenance of the filthy lucre…
I must admit I thought “you’re having me on, Ha-Joon” when he said Switzerland is industrialised. I was thinking as a tourist, all cuckoo clocks, cheese, cowbells and mountains. And yet, to be honest, when you go there and you see all the stupendous rock-boring to straighten out the motorways you have to acknowledge these are not people who are afraid of big engineering works, and looking around I saw that indeed Swiss engineering had penetrated Ermine Towers; I didn’t need to step outside my door to find several examples of fine Swiss engineering, even though I have no desire to own a Rolex. The Swiss aren’t generally known for industrial output because they concentrate on business-to-business according to Ha-Joon Chang.
Now there are others who declare the modern UK university experience an increasingly unaffordable luxury, but Ha-Joon Chang, bless his South Korean and Cambridge lack of egalitarian political correctness, delivers himself of the true purpose of university:
the main explanation for the Swiss Paradox should be found, once again, in the low productivity content of education. However, in the case of higher education, the non-productivity component is not so much about [... (Ed: I paraphrase: all the self-actualisation and citizen-building benefits of education ...] as is the case of primary and secondary education. It is about what economists call the ‘sorting’ function.
Higher education, of course, imparts certain productivity-related knowledge to its recipients, but another important function of it is to establish each individual’s ranking in the hierarchy of employability. 4
In other words, university is there to help employers tell the bright bulbs from the dim ones. You can do that cheaply, using norm-referenced examination results to screen. Or you can do that expensively and poorly, by telling everyone they are special and should go to ‘uni’ and let the employers sort it out some other way. Because university adds little value to productivity 5, you unfortunately can’t sponsor it as a widespread experience as a government because the taxpayers will revolt, so if people want so much of the university experience they end up paying shedloads of money and incurring debt at the beginning of their working lives.
Parents, why on earth did you not have the guts to accept that some of your kids won’t be brilliant, and damned your children to this world of hurt by demanding politicians facilitate a 50% university enrolment? Why have we collectively as a society done this to our young people because we didn’t have the courage to tell them that people are of differing abilities? And use our extra wealth to create a vocational system that tried to address these differences?
I went on a satellite master antenna TV(SMATV) training course once, and wiped the floor with everyone on the written part of the training course, enough to win a prize of a installer’s meter worth about £1000 (Thank you Sky – I still occasionally use it!). It was unjust, because you don’t need theoretical and design understanding to install a SMATV system, but the marks were measurable and what the prize was determined on. Everybody else in the room, who was either working for an installation company or apprenticed to one, could rig a satellite dish better and faster than me. Faster as in less than half the time. There were people on the course who couldn’t add 3, 5 or nine to a channel number – I helped a couple of guys by showing them how to use squared paper to do that, but they’d have your dish up and running and be onto the next job in half the time at less than half the cost. I would have been the slowest installer on the block. Even in many technical jobs competent workmanship often trumps theoretical smarts. 6
Now if university didn’t come with a mahoosive price tag these days then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Our society has no coming-of-age rite of passage and it’s poorer for it. ‘uni’ provides some sort of safe environment for people to indulge in some of the boundary testing inherent in becoming a young adult. Not sure the rite of passage is worth the £40-50,000 price ticket, though. Even a Gap Yah seems like better value, and takes you out of the workforce for only one year rather than three 7
Going to university is bad for your wealth – parents and children alike
As well as setting up a society which makes one of the most basic and common lifestyle goals – having kids – more difficult, we’ve produced a university system that places a big financial millstone round the neck of the children just as they leave home, where earlier generations would have become financially independent. That gives a double whammy – many parents look at the situation and understandably don’t want their kids to start off with the equivalent of a small mortgage before they’re earned any money. If you look at the lifecycle of humans, if you have children in your mid-to-late-twenties you will eat this hit twenty years later, in your mid to late fifties. In previous generations this is where the children would have left home and become financially independent, meaning the parents could now accumulate wealth a lot quicker, clearing their mortgage and getting set for retirement. The children now have two calls on their finances – the costs of university and the cost of getting a deposit together for the house they can’t afford to buy unless they have two incomes. Parents who do want ot help their children out at this stage may want to familiarise themselves with Martin Lewis’ guide to student loans. If you have £x to help your child, it’s probably worth a lot more to them as a deposit for a house than as an upfront student fees payment. It’s at least worth convincing yourself that’s not the case before ignoring it
Previous generations needed less income after retirement
Let’s take a look at a bit of history. A final salary pension scheme targeted between 50% and 2/3 of the worker’s final salary; these were considered the gold-plated heyday of British pension provision. Blue collar ones seemed to accrue at 1/80th of final salary per year worked, a typical working life was 16-65 but sometimes the years up to 21 weren’t pensionable. Later white-collar ones accrued at 1/60th of final salary, graduates started at 21 and would work until 60. Both of these rough out about 60% of final salary. However, the experience of a professional career had more similarities then than the variety or career experiences now, and some of the assumptions were:
- mortgage was paid off
- the worker was 65 or older – people had children earlier in life so it was more likely that
- kids had left home and were financially independent
I fit the assumption that the mortgage is paid off and there are no child-related costs, so maybe this is why I share these earlier generations’ spending models.
These assumptions are less likely to hold with people coming up to retirement in future. In particular the interest-only mortgage nixes assumption 1, so perhaps people will have to shift their retirement dates to keep a constant spending rate.
When I analysed my own spending for why it fell, one of the biggest reductions in spending was the drop in pension contributions after retiring, it was larger than I had been spending on the mortgage before it. I gained a double win with the fact I stopped spending more money than I should have done trying to compensate for a worsening experience of work. In particular holidays were too fast and furious, and expensive. The first time I had an inkling I was not living my values with respect to work came in 2005 on a whistle-stop trip of Western Scotland – I had been searching for ptarmigan at the Applecross pass, which is a remarkable drive in it’s own right and not one you’ll ever forget.
In the evening I watched a fabulous sunset over the bay and heard a cuckoo in the distance. Somewhere over dinner in the bar I realised that I was running away from something, snatching glimpses of this natural beauty in what seemed a never ending greyness of work. This sort of thing shouldn’t happen – you shouldn’t find yourself in such a beautiful, quiet and isolated part of the world with clean air filling your lungs and experience a down. I did not listen up to the signal, but drowned it in whatever fine ale they had.
Your spending patterns may be more sensible than mine were, and less susceptible to reducing. If you carry a mortgage into retirement then your spending may not fall that much, unless you are investing the money you release by not paying it off. If you’re the Bank of Mum and Dad, then clearly your spending may in fact increase… If you have more house than you need then some of your costs won’t fall, and indeed if you need to heat it in the winter they may increase. There are all sorts of reasons why your spending may not fall.
If you want to retire early, however, reducing your spending punches way above its weight. Earning more doesn’t help nearly as much; reducing discretionary spending lets you save more while working and makes it last longer when you aren’t working. I’ve also banged the drum at length about the value of time – we don’t have an endless string of days on earth.
I suppose I’m just wanting to suggest that whilst frugality has it’s place and usefulness, it’s important to have an idea of what gives your life meaning (and that’s different for all of us) and that doesn’t always mean we’ll potentially spend less in retirement.
Overall, my strong advice would be to work all this out to your own preference before you ‘go’. You CAN go and then live within what your spreadsheet tells you, or (as I prefer) get your spreadsheet to inform you how much you NEED, and fix your retirement date to match.
I couldn’t agree more – it is more important to live intentionally and in accordance with your values than to live frugally
- at work people with children tended to discharge their mortgages in their late fifties, unless they’d upsized in the 2000s, in which case it was interest-only all the way, with an expectation of house price appreciation and probably downsizing to solve the missing equity problem ↩
- I used MSE’s mortgage calculator assuming repayment, 7%, which was probably an average over my mortgage-paying time, in real terms probably about 4% over inflation ↩
- I flunked the general knowledge entrance exams for Oxbridge most comprehensively – some of the questions on Classical philosophy I didn’t even understand, never mind have any intelligent answer to. I scored a Gamma, which is Oxbridge speak for ‘thanks for signing your name, but we had expected better’ on general knowledge, though I survived the subject-related papers with an alpha and beta. The competition clearly had a much better general knowledge than I did ↩
- 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, Penguin, 2010, “Thing 17, pp 186/7 ↩
- I studied Physics at university, and in working as an electronics engineer some of the maths, in particular Laplace and Fourier transforms were used at work. I’ve used more of my Physics knowledge since retiring, in developing and using environmental sensors. I’m with HJC on the low productivity value of education. It still amazes me, talking to people in their undergrad studies, how they both take it so seriously and often assume they will use it at work ↩
- I went on this course to learn the issues and practice of SMATV installation because I was designing systems to work with these systems, so I was never going to be an installer. Had I worked as such I’d hope I would have got a bit faster. I did well in the theory part because I knew it from designing some of these bits of gear and some large systems ↩
- doing a Gap Yah and going to university seems a rum do. It was extremely rare when I started at university, because people couldn’t afford it. That it’s common enough to satirize now despite those high fees shows just how much richer Britain has become in the intervening three and some decades. ↩