living intentionally personal finance reflections: consumerism Help to Buy norfolk YOLO
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The Ermine household decamped to North Norfolk over the last week, to reflect upon the world, eat seafood and wonder on the meaning of life. The North Norfolk coast is an unspoiled part of the country noted for its birdlife and fine beer.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been up here, we rented a cottage for the week in Brancaster. Mrs Ermine delivered herself of the opinion that the coast was becoming “chi-chi” which I think means gentrified somewhat. . Burnham Market seems to have become a kind of culinary haven. There was lots of reasonably tasteful housebuilding going on on the south side of the coast road, though the usual 3,4,5 bedroom sizes, ‘cos house building is more profitable at the ‘executive homes’ end of the market, so all the people who are making things happen for the holidaymakers seem to have moved to the towns such as Hunstanton. On the personal finance angle this sort of thing gave me the willies -
Seriously, good people of Hunstanton, don’t do it to yourselves. I bought my first house with effectively an 80% mortgage in one of these pump-up-the-market fiascos in ’89 – I had 20% down and I bitterly regretted it. House prices don’t always go up. If you have only got 1/20th of the cash to buy a house and need a mortgage for the rest then you can’t afford to take out a mortgage when interest rates are at historic lows because you will be killed when they rise. I paid 14% at one time. But you won’t listen, so the best of British luck to you, you’re gonna need it…
However, my third holiday of the year seemed to be a good time to ponder on that numinous quantity known as ‘living life to the full’. I normally hear the latter in terms of ‘I want to spend loadsamoney on manufactured experiences and extreme sports on the few days that The Man lets me off the leash, which is why I need to spend more than I earn, and YOLO 1
My journey out of the rat-race wasn’t as measured as, say RIT, who carefully plans it and track progress. However, I did discover some odd things about my life as a consumer, and then as a consumer of less. I discovered some of these by sounding the extremes – by first consuming at a average middle class level (couple of foreign holidays, Sky TV 2, loads of driving etc) and then by slamming the brakes on – no foreign holidays for a few years. Like many things in life, the optimum is to be found not at the extremes, but somewhere in between. However, it is surprising how far towards the low-consumption end the optimum is, for me.
You see, the trouble is that we humans are creatures of difference – we observe things as dynamic contrast, rather than absolute levels. This is good, in a way, because it helps us adapt to the stupendous variation in the natural world. We can see a candlelit face, and recognise the same in full sun – we pick out the differences in shade, not the absolute levels. We do that at the macro level too – too many studies show that happiness is in our relative position to others in many things. We all want to be king of the hill, and consumerism increasingly plays towards this ‘lifestyle’ element.
I was able to break the hold because the experience of working was worse than the upside of consuming, but the aim of marketing is to keep us in the zone – where there are improvements to be had, but that each hit gives us the feel of a slightly improved lifestyle. It struck me when I inquired of Quicken 3 how things had turned out since I left work.
Although Mr Micawber wouldn’t approve 4, it isn’t a precipitous crash, and, indeed, since the original plan was predicated on a two or three year stretch before I draw my pension, and I am nearly a year and a half on, I actually have more options than at the start. Quicken seems to indicate I’d have about four more years of burn from now before I’d have to start liquidating non-ISA holdings.
This is a subset of what most PF folk count as net worth. It doesn’t include my house, because despite what some people say, it isn’t part of my financial net worth I list my non-ISA investment portfolio at the price it cost me to buy, underestimating it because a lot of this was stock options, and The Firm has been going strong since 2009. Some of the drift upwards early in 2013 wasn’t moonlighting, it was taking vesting stock options onto my books at option price. It shows nothing of my pension, either the AVCs that I poured money into for three years nor the capital equivalent value of the main pension. I don’t count what I can’t touch. It doesn’t show the value of my ISA, because I can’t make Quicken show it at purchase price – it always uprates the value from the last transaction. If I allowed Quicken to include the ISA it seem to indicate a gradual rise in free cash net worth, which is barmy – my total income is a long way below the personal tax threshold, and stock gains aren’t real till you either take the divi or sell up. It appears the Man from the Clapham Omnibus is back in town, which roughly translated means the figure for market value at the bottom of my ISA statement is overvalued compared with what it should be. I struggled to find value earlier in the year so I did a Bed and ISA capital gains defuse rather than buy.
Quicken is all about cold hard cash going in and out. It tracks the bills going out and non-ISA dividends and stuff coming in, because I take all my dividends as cash. It’s a shame that there’s no decent alternative to Quicken, which is ten years old and no longer downloads stock prices. I did look at alternatives to this over 10-year old program, but unlike MMM I just don’t do cloud.
What every wannabe early retiree is scared of, while working, is that they quit and find their expenses are a lot higher than they anticipated. I was scared of this too over three years ago. I was really scared of it when I retired as such, because once your rattle over the tracks past the point of no return there is no way back. It caused me to over-estimate spending, big-time.
It also caused me to underestimate income. Share dividends come in ratty little onesy-twosey bits, but they add up over time. I’ve only ever had one main source of income, and I find it hard to see small bits that rattle in from disparate holdings as income, it just doesn’t feel real. Although Quicken counts them in, I don’t know how to budget for that.
Why did I over-estimate spending so badly?
There are some things that are easier to see in the rear-view mirror. Working really screws up your life in some ways. It means you have to buy control over some things, and pack the rest of your life into evenings, weekends and four to six week’s annual holiday. It pays you handsomely, hopefully, so you can pay for that control, you can buy experiences that are as much unlike work as possible and try and recover in that time, it makes you pay for other people to do what you may be able to do yourself. And it’s really, really, amazing how much that adds up. It’s not just amazing, it’s actually quite scary. If I’d know that earlier I would have done quite a lot of things differently.
And yet, that doesn’t totally explain the dramatic over-estimation. I pinched the title from this great article which pointed to another reason – because the blog is the Art of Manliness it talks to the masculine but I don’t think it’s just a guy thing -
Men have an inherent desire to be creators, to change the landscape, to turn wood into furniture, to transform a blank canvas into a work of art-to alter the world and leave a legacy. It’s the denial of this aspect of manliness that is perhaps most plaguing modern men. Young men are taught to think of life past 30 as a certain death, a time when they have to stop being selfish and live for others. The paradox that’s never talked about is that consuming is the real dead end when it comes to happiness. Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.
I did some of this – all the way from teenage years to my 40s I was creative, outside work I would develop things and design stuff, poke around on how things worked. But slowly the wellspring of creativity dried and I became that consumer. I had plenty of hints of consumerism earlier in life with too much spent on hi-fi and photography, but as a form of anomie started to settle in as I found the workplace more alienating my creativity fell away and passive consumption rose.
It was a vicious circle, because it started to rob meaning – the process of originating, creating, directing and learning and becoming more aware is part of what I find gives meaning to life. I’m uncomfortable with some of the Calvinist terminology in the AoM post, but I admire its resonance with some degree of inner truth. I may not share their terminology or world-view, but I recognise the map and the territory described. As working life faded to grey after two or three decades, I became reactive. In build resiliency by taking control they have a summary of the characteristics of having an internal or external locus of control
Those with an internal locus of control:
- Are confident that they can be successful.
- Tend to be leaders (leading those with an external locus of control).
- Exhibit greater control over their behaviour.
- Seek to learn as much as they can.
- Take personal responsibility for their actions.
- Deal with challenge and stress better.
- Use challenges to come out stronger than before.
- Thrive in the midst of change.
- Are less likely to submit to authority.
Those with an external locus of control:
- Feel like they’re a victim.
- Are quick to blame everyone but themselves.
- Want to be led by others.
- Avoid responsibility.
- Are more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression
Here’s a test you can take to observe your own Locus of Control. To me its 1966 provenance shows in the unusual question bias, but I guess the principles still hold.
If I lose internal reference I drift towards the second list. As a younger Ermine (20-40) I had more characteristics from the first list, particularly 1,4 and 9, although I was weak on 5, tending to blame circumstances though fighting them nevertheless. And as far as the right royal shafting I took from the housing market I had 1 and 2 off the second list in spades – I could whinge like the best housepricecrash.co.uk-er, just 20 years early But at least I did do something about it.
IT networking bores me senseless, I could do it serviceably but all the daftness of Cisco accreditation 6 struck me as tedious. and by the time that became the Next Big Thing at The Firm I was burned out, and displayed too many characteristics of the second list. I never looked to work to give meaning to life the way many do, but I wanted to at least pass the time doing something vaguely interesting that offered challenge. Anomie is a warning sign that says ‘Self, thou art not true to thyself’ but like many such warning signs they only become apparent once you have passed the point of no return. By the time I got that way I was well into List 2 territory, and an external signal was necessary.
It came in a performance review in 2009 that I interpreted as a charge of incompetence. One project had collapsed, I hadn’t found another, and this manager was fitting a distribution that was squeezed down because of some ghastly Group financial results. 7
The narrative I told myself in the next three years until I retired was that this was a dreadful experience in which I lost – the wheels came off a a serviceable career as it exploded on me in the home straight. However, on reflection, it discounts an important part of the story, once again, one of those things that is clearer in the rear-view mirror than as you drive over it. In one way this tosspot did me a favour, because he made me angry. The signal reached the jammed creative centre, and a spark was struck across the fallen poles, and I remembered the values of the first list. I decided that I really was an awkward bastard and didn’t want anybody being able to push me around like that. It helped that I soon found out this manager had had a new baby (he was in his early 40s and on a second marriage) and was therefore particularly financially fearful himself in those troubled times of 2009 and needed the security. He was the antithesis of where I wanted to be – The Man owned his ass. As The Pleasure of Walking Tall narrates, the point of having savings is not to end up in that sort of hole. So I needed to get me some, and sharp.
Two days later I committed savings to filling a Cash ISA, and two weeks later I read this and opened an III S&S ISA all before the financial year end, to clear the way to repeat the exercise the next month, derisking the impact of getting ejected from the company. An internal application launched earlier paid off and The Firm discovered I had a unique skill they needed for the Olympics work.
Although I perpetrated a bit of old trading folly in the ISA at first before I straightened myself out and learned some of the art of sitting on my hands, the next year I read this and got myself onto the right track. One of the entries in my ISA, Merchant’s Trust is still one of my favourite portfolio lines because buying that marked my transition from a trader to an investor. I still look at it fondly, because MRCH has now repaid me 1/5th of my capital stake in dividends over the years and appreciated in value by about 50%, it’s the oldest holding I have. Other shares have appreciated by more, and I was far too slow to build on that by buying other investment trusts on a discount but it marked the turning point, and a shift from thinking like #1 on List 2 to #1 on List 1. I was repossessing my locus of control, and MRCH gave me hope when I needed it that this investing malarkey could work to help me gain control of my financial destiny. I built on that, although it is my non-ISA investments and other motley bits that have headed off the expected decline in cash networth sine 2012, the ISA is growing well.
It’s a gradual shift in perspective, to come to see this manager not just as someone who stiffed me to save themselves, but also as a wraith that woke the slumbering pilot at the controls drifting aimlessly in the foggy murk. The external signal highlighted what I needed to do and the choices before me. The low-risk option was to try and find a job elsewhere, and the long shot was to chance it and buy my way out of the rat-race. I favoured the latter, because it attacked the cause, another job would have been attacking the symptoms. I didn’t want to appease The Man, I wanted to eliminate the sonofabitch from my life. That needed three years – however I sliced the spreadsheets it was going to take that long 8.
Casual consumption showed up as something that was standing in my way, and by force of will I grounded as much of it as possible. An awful lot of people call casual consumption ‘living life to the full’ which is great if it works for them, but it doesn’t wash for me. Meaning doesn’t come for me with what I buy, it comes from what I do and what I am. It’s funny how easily The Man gets people to identify with an advertising slogan so they keep working for him. Inadvertently I discovered what the AoM said was true
Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.
You only get to see that in the rear-view mirror after you’ve won the battle, the sulphurous stench of the slayed dragon stinks up the place and you wonder how you missed it for so long. Maybe it’s swept away in the tailwind of all that consumption. Now I wasn’t exceptionally susceptible to consumerism – I didn’t do consumer debt f’rinstance, but it still called me off course. Consumerism is designed to do that, it’s how profits are made, by getting people to think they want things that they don’t need, and getting them to depend on stuff for their happiness. This is, indeed, being honed to a higher plane as I write – businesses are increasingly selling experiences rather than Stuff, and even experiences that ‘lead to personal transformation’. If you think about it, paying someone to transform you is a little bit bizarre, perhaps with the exception of medical intervention. Take Weight-Watchers for example. Customers are basically paying the company in the hope of avoiding using self-control. After all it’s fairly well-known how you get fat – you eat too much 9. Apparently doctors
should also explain to patients “how much motivation and commitment” is needed to complete weight management schemes and that enrolling on one will not be a “magic bullet”.
No shit Sherlock. If this comes as news to you then I’d say your weight is not necessarily your most pressing problem…
Consume Less – YOLO and life is too short to sell it for trinkets and baubles when you can create more
I shot the beast of Consumerism in the three years of saving, and that is long enough to break the chain, I don’t identify with what I buy any more. If I have a requirement, I will go on the Net and see if I can find something that will help me with that at a price I am prepared to pay. And it’s increasingly tools that I want to pay for, that help me transform my world, and create stuff.
Consumerism tries to make everything easy for a price, but it carries the corollary, that in making everything easy, the blade of directing your path through life loses its edge. It holds people in thrall to working for The Man and weakens their ability to take action to shift their destiny. And it did that to me. I’m not inviting this sucker back into my life any time real soon, though I shall make peace with it.
As a welcome side-effect of that my costs go down. I hear from other retirees that they were often pleasantly surprised by the lower spending rate. So much of consumer spending is compensating for flushing away one’s life 8 hours a day, five days a week. It doesn’t hold for everybody, there are many people who do enjoy what they do at work and the way in which they do it, though the latter seems to be dropping away with the way finance seems to drive human values out of managing people at work.
What do I spend less on -
- cars. I sold my car soon after retiring and the ermine household is a one-car household. If I wanted to enterprise rent-a-car is just up the road but I haven’t felt any need
- transport generally. I walk a lot more, and I’m ready to fit in with other people for rides – to lend a hand in return for seeing new places, I have a perfectly serviceable bicycle
- holidays (compared to my wage-slave self, not ultra-frugal Saving Madly self) – I go on holiday more often, but fit in with other opportunities. Like going to a campsite in the Cotswolds while Mrs Ermine was at a spa – I do the driving, get a free ride, and spas are not my thing at all so it would have been a sheer waste of money to join her
- casual eating out
- anything to do with work, natch – clothes, meals, commuting etc
What do I spend more on
- Wine. Given up using supermarkets and I use a local firm Wines of Interest because I’m prepared to pay for people to screen out ropey wine for me. We drink less than through some of the ghastly period but better, so overall cost has gone up
- Things to make things with – tools, components, materials. I don’t spend money on training or learning because I have time and Google is my friend
- decent eating out. The overall total is probably lower but when I do I want it good. Seems to be a theme on retirement spending – it has to be good or not at all. Better and fewer times beats often and crap
I am easy with slowly losing the fight to inflation as well as the slings and arrows of spending and monthly bills, because at the moment I have no pension income, which will more than fix that. I reinvest ISA divis back into the ISA, natch, so these don’t show. Too many people labouring away at the coalface believe that once you’d retired you end up eating roadkill by the flickering light of a paraffin lamp under the railway arches unless you have stupendous amounts of capital. Even without a pension and no access to a significant part of my savings there isn’t the precipitous fall that scenario would imply.
I can also now strike a better balance with consumption. One of the things I discovered by cutting as much as possible out is that you do miss some gratuitous consumption. Some consumption adds colour to life, but like herbs in cooking, a little goes a long way. My biggest loss was no holidays for three years. I haven’t continued with that policy, because holidays are a lot cheaper when you have control of your time. I discovered several shorter ones more local are the right balance for me at this time – so that’s what I’ve done – three out of my four holidays this year are in the UK.
Another thing I discovered was that you get a lot more bang for the buck if your consumption is infrequent. You just notice it more and get more from it – it’s that human sensitivity to differences again. For instance, in Norfolk a couple of times we walked about fifty yards to the pub round the corner, the White Horse, to have a meal and a couple of drinks, despite having a generous stock of fine beers with us. We had discovered Tesco had an offer on Adnams bottles beforehand, so we had taken some with us.
However, there’s that dynamic contrast thing again. We could have eaten out in the White Horse every night, and indeed the first night we dined well there. It’s apparently a Telegraph favourite though Guardinistas favour it in the summer. Presumably they divide up the year that way there aren’t any fights in the bar given the differing world-views
But eating out and drinking every night would have been too much, and would have doubled the cost of the holiday. A couple of times, however, was just right, and if you are going to do consumerism then savour it – infrequently but well scores over frequently and routine to me. Plus, let’s face it, you can’t do this too often
because otherwise you become a fat bastard I can vouch for the fish and chips which are a step apart from the usual pub fare, and Mrs Ermine can vouch for the mussels which are from about 100 yards away. It is a transformation when you reasise the truth of what Mr Money Mustache opined. Restaurants aren’t a place to get food. They are a place to get experience, preferably enjoying good company. At a single stroke that destroys the raison d’etre of all fast food and coffee experiences, and almost forces you to raise your game.
Consumerism isn’t inherently the devil in disguise, it is the degree to which you do it. Without thinking what is of value to you, it’s easy to end up doing way too much. RIT has a nice post on how to qualify what matters to you and spend accordingly. I have to admit that I don’t follow his step 1. I have never run a budget – I have always used Quicken to observe and analyse spending in the rear view mirror, and adjust accordingly. But this was probably born from not spending more than I earned (using the feedback from Quicken, or the balance in my bank account before I had Quicken). Whenever I’ve tried to do a monthly budget it made me annoyed because it forced things into monthly cycles, so you’d have to divide annual spends like insurance, TV licence and road tax by 12 and they’d still catch you out. Must be just me that has the problem though. I’m absolutely behind RIT from Stage 2 onwards.
I had no idea that I could ground spending enough while still consuming at a level that gives me 80% of the enhancement of quality of life consuming can do for be with less than 20% of the cost. I underestimated the yield from non-ISA investments, which appears as cash in Quicken, paying things like bills and general running costs. More importantly, however, I consumed less than I thought I would, and created more…
Hat tip to the Art of Manliness 10 for summarising how to control your costs and have some fun so well. It works particularly well in retirement because you control your time, but the principle is general.
Create more, consume less
- I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did’ ↩
- DxGF was the main consumer, I didn’t miss it after we parted ↩
- Intuit’s Quicken, and Microsoft Money, were programs on a PC that used to be the ways people tracked spending before we all decided to surrender control, lose resilience and invite all sorts of bad guys to observe our finances using web-based ‘services’ in The Cloud. I don’t do Cloud, unless broadcasting is the nature of the product, I think it’s mad, insecure and leaves you hostages to fortune as companies turn things off or hike fees. ↩
- This is the reason why early retirees are usually advised to retain their mortgage and not pay it down before they draw their pension. They can smooth out the suckout in income during the intercession between stopping work and getting hold of their pension commencement lump sum, which they then use to discharge the mortgage. I will have to invest mine. ↩
- When I started as a grunt in 1988 I could sign a purchase order for up to £500. When I was working on the Olympics in 2012 I had to get rail tickets authorised in advance from two levels up ↩
- the world of IT networking involves Cisco (or vendor of choice) accreditation exams, which, I’m sorry, but in my view are a combination of vendor lock-in, memory tests and low-level technician qualifications about how to use the specific unix-like command set and feature set of the specific boxes. And it’ll be outsourced to India by the time I manage to cram all that stuff, after all, connecting disparate locations together is what computer networking does to earn its rent, and it’s easy enough to remote the management network. ↩
- There was a financial silver lining in that a sharesave came out right at the low-water mark -I dropped every single previous scheme I had running to reallocate to that one, split across the three and five year terms, because I didn’t know how long I could stick it for. These, plus a lot of Share Incentive Programme shares are a large lump of my non-ISA shareholdings and The Firm is now working for me rather than the other way round. ↩
- on the original spending assumptions – in hindsight I could have probably done it earlier ↩
- For the likely customers of Weight Watchers it’s not about exercise. Although there are good health reasons to do exercise, for non-athletes the effort of the amount of exercise you need to do to burn off calories is unrealistic compared to the effort of not eating them in the first place – most of the win is in consuming less IMO ↩
- I see absolutely no reason why this should be particularly applied to men specifically ↩