6 Feb 2014, 5:01pm
living intentionally reflections


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  • how much work can you withstand?

    I’ve already had the rant about how The Man is gamifying the office and turning it all into a Kafka-esque numbers game. But you can eventually buy your way out of The Man’s filthy paws.

    However, it appears that The Man is not the only bad guy in getting the balance between Work and Life right. The enemy is embedded within us, according to this NYT article on mindless accumulation. (hat tip to Monevator)

    “[earning more than you can use]It’s a waste of effort,” he added, “But once people are in action, they can’t stop.” [...] Dr. Hsee said strongly suggested that both groups were driven by the same thing: not by how much they need, but by how much work they could withstand.

    I’d have berated the good prof in an earlier life, goddamn it, I need to work to earn all the money to…

    buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress people I don’t like?

    Damn. I was that guy, and heck, I didn’t even have the need/want for the yachts of the Wolf of Wall Street 1

    Till one day, in Tesco as the picture in front of my eyes shimmered and dissolved into a jumble of meaningless lines as for a second the thin line that keeps the delicate fire of reason alight failed. Slowly I gathered my wits and drove back. Really slowly. And then asked myself WTF just happened – and the short form of the answer was basically ‘wrong way, do not enter, turn back now‘. I was lucky, some colleagues discovered they had taken more than they could withstand when they wake up in hospital from a stroke or heart attack. I had to form an exit plan. I was happy as an engineer and with what I was doing, but the micromanagement, targets and bullshit I grew to really hate.

    The prof is right. I haven’t earned any notable amount of money for over a year and a a half. And yet I could still go into any Ipswich car dealership and buy a car, new, with cash 2. Because of the paradox he hinted at – I needed the extra cash when I was working to compensate me for the bad experience and the way it stopped me following my own interests, hopes and dreams. Now I can do that, I don’t need the cash – I’m already six months into extra time from when I thought I would run short.

    Nobody will listen to the good prof though. Michael Norton put his finger on the problem at the end of the article.

    Still, he said, choosing happiness or leisure over earning is challenging, in part because accumulation of money — or candy — is easier to measure than, say, happiness. “You can count Hershey’s Kisses,” Dr. Norton said. Being an involved parent or partner is not so quantifiable. “Most of the things that truly make us happy in life are harder to count,” he said.

    Well that’s a bastard then. We are losing our complex values to the simplicity of one-dimensional numbers. We are becoming number-savvy and value-blind.

    I walked away from working before the strokes and heart attacks. But I haven’t recovered all intellectual facility. I still occasionally look at things and feel shit-for-brains as I think to myself when faced with a task that once I would have been able to do this easily. I find concentration and focus hard to hold for more than a few hours, though it is slowly getting better – but the recovery time is measured in months and years, not days and weeks. It isn’t all bad- I find it easier to see the big picture and not dive down ratholes of detail. It’s one of the things that helps with not spending badly – I don’t mind spending more for something that I use every day. Or means something to me, but a lot of advertising and a lot of overspending is because the customer doesn’t stand back, ask themselves whether they need this class of thing or service in their life, and if so, do they really need the best or will cheap do. Often the best and dearest is the cheapest – if you use it often, this is the Vimes Boots theory why the poor pay more for many things.

    Vimes Boots happens in other areas too – Adnams had an offer on beer, it wasn’t a huge saving, but since everybody seemed to be both skint and on the Carol Vorderman misery diet 3 and beer keeps, I’ll save the tenner. We buy coffee from Garraways in London by mail order as beans and grind these, rather than getting itty-bitty bags from Tesco. I take higher insurance excesses to keep premiums down.

    So back to The Man – now that’s a problem you can do something about. But the enemy within, who blinds us so our values compass spins and knows no north as we focus on the countable at the expense of the valuable, against this there is little defence. You find out how much work you can withstand by discovering how you can’t withstand and easing off from there. If you’re lucky…

    Compared to the enemy without, the enemy within is a trickster. Reining that one in comes down the the old Gnostic maxim, ‘Know thyself’. Getting to do that usually takes two qualities that are in very short supply in the modern world – reflective introspection and time.

    Know Thyself in Greek in a stained glass window

    ‘Know Thyself’ in Greek in a stained glass window




    1. What’s up with this yachts thing on Wall Street – and where are the customers’ yachts anyway
    2. we don’t have any Lamborghini or Ferrari dealerships in Ipswich, it’s not that kind of place
    3. Why the hell do people do stupid things like that – you’reb etter off drinking 10% less all year than nothing for a month and then going on a bender in February, which seems to be the way people deal with the end of the 28-day detox, from observation
    27 Nov 2013, 11:00pm
    frugality living intentionally

    leave a comment

  • April 2014
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  • A Genius way of qualifying Needs and Wants

    Sadly it’s probably one of those rear-view mirror tools, something that seems to be a recurrent theme in investing, but Lam Thuy Vo – Quantified Breakup has a great way of summing up the continuum between the wants and needs axis and the associated costs.


    Love the title – buying shit ;)

    Lam Thuy Vo did pretty well, really, in fact she did better than I did some years ago under similar circumstances. I bought a fine pair of Leica binoculars for about £700, a secondhand Naim CD player for £1500 and other baubles . I’m still a crap birdwatcher and should have spent the money on getting places to see odd birds with my existing gear, and I bought the CD player just as I was about to switch to streaming ;) But it helped get it out of my system a bit, so it was probably a good investment of the non-financial kind. What I like about her approach is the graduated scale of useless to useful – there is a continuum between Wants and Needs. When I first had to tackle excess spending to tackle saving massively into a pension, I went digital about this – the aim was to shoot all Wants and tighten up on the Needs, to get where I wanted to be – free of The Man.

    I use a copy of Quicken to track my spending and income, such as it is, and it would be great if it had a ‘how useful is this to me’ axis and could summarise spending in this sort of way. Quicken is a decade-old program and people now entrust this sort of thing to Mint but even on Mint I still don’t think there’s a feature to enter – ‘how well did this spending serve me’.

    It’s a funny old game really – as Martin Lewis said, time is a fossil resource, they ain’t making any more of it in your lifetime. Every day that passes your lifetime  shortens by exactly 24 hours, so a fleeting selling some of those hours for a cup of coffee should deliver some utility. Ideally more utility than you surrendered to earn the money to buy it…

    This is now a hard calculus for me – after all, I am now a rentier. The fires that burned to raise my career have how faded, I am running on the accumulated capital. How do I qualify this? I spend more than I earn, though the trajectory will not fall to earth before I draw my pension. When I was working I could qualify it easily – it would take me a year and a half to earn this car, 20 years of paying a mortgage to buy this house 1

    Nevertheless, everyone should have a chart like Lam Thuy Vo’s. I salute her – she will do well. She reined it in, acknowledged what’s up, and got on with life. If I look back over the last year or so, I don’t have too much in the Useless Shit category, but by no way is everything a Need. On the useless side is perhaps the Raspberry Pi, and a load of electronic components – but then I use them to turn over the brain a bit, learn about new things. Possibly break out into a different piece of engineering, though I must be careful not to call it work ;) I still maintain my C.Eng, though it is an ultimate piece of frivolity. I haven’t used it and probably won’t ever use it, unless Britain’s retiring engineers cause a surge in demand matched by a cull of management stupidity ;)

    A quick scull through her purchases show that Lam Thuy Vo was probably still more disciplined through her breakup and faced with the world’s #1 consumer society 2 than I was. I shares some of her excesses – I also have a fine Waterman fountain pen, though I would shift it well past the halfway mark on the usefulness scale, My writing is still revolting with it, but I can actually read it, and that was worth paying £50 a few years ago for the capability.

    I didn’t go into musical instruments, but I bought a Kindle, though I need to illuminate the bastard with the light of a thousand suns, whereas I can read a real book in the half-light perfectly well – the e-ink display has low contrast and poor sharpness, with a laggy fuzz to lines.However, I have probably recouped the capital cost in freebie books, and it is a great way to hold PDFs of datasheets, though the Kindle’s library management functions are disgracefully crap. Amortisation of the capital costs through utility drifts a purchase from the useless into the useful over time as you win utility from them, as long as you don’t churn your gadgets!

    Some useful things come for free – even if they aren’t practically useful.

    I bummed a lift ot get to see this - I got top utility out of it :)

    I bummed a lift to get to see this – I got top utility out of it for £0 :)

    Maybe this kind of charting is the ultimate nemesis of capitalism – the Avenging Angel that rocks up at the end of the month, taps on your shoulder regarding spending, and asks you, on a scale of 1-10, how much did that purchase enhance your quality of life? And then serves you a nice infographic that shows you are trending towards the Useless Shit axis.  It’s the ultimate neutron bomb to capitalism – it will destroy the activity while leaving the superstructure standing, when consumers start to live intentionally and ask themselves these questions about how much their spending actually delivers enhanced quality of life for them. Mint.com – your users need you. But how would you get paid – it would reduce your advertising revenue to dust in a month.



    1. it never looks that way at the start, always far worse. I thought I would still be paying off the mortgage on the first house for another 10 years. The power of inflation to save debtors’ asses should never be misunderstood – it’s why governments love it and why savers in cash assets are being ruined now. However, what you must never do while you have that mortgage is take on any other debt, particularly consumer debt! Paying interest on that kills you faster than inflation helps you.
    2. she’s a reporter with Al-Jazeera in the States

    create more, consume less – it’s cheaper and more fun

    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.

    North Norfolk

    North Norfolk

    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 -

    Help to Buy

    Help to Buy – don’t do it

    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…

    Aye, it could get you moving. Could get you repossessed later on, too...

    Aye, it could get you moving. Could get you repossessed later on, too…

    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.


    An Ermine's net worth

    An Ermine’s free cash net worth


    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:

    1. Are confident that they can be successful.
    2. Tend to be leaders (leading those with an external locus of control).
    3. Exhibit greater control over their behaviour.
    4. Seek to learn as much as they can.
    5. Take personal responsibility for their actions.
    6. Deal with challenge and stress better.
    7. Use challenges to come out stronger than before.
    8. Thrive in the midst of change.
    9. Are less likely to submit to authority.

    Those with an external locus of control:

    1. Feel like they’re a victim.
    2. Are quick to blame everyone but themselves.
    3. Want to be led by others.
    4. Avoid responsibility.
    5. 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.

    From 40 onwards though I made some progress outside of work intellectual creativity began to fade, part of this was rising up the greasy pole, and part of it was shifts in work from electronics design to software design, then networking, all coinciding with increasing managerial role while The Firm was getting less hierarchical but more command and control 5. Once upon a time I probably had the potential to be outstanding with electronics design, just as The Firm moved away from that. It obviously wasn’t such a burning ambition as else I would have switched job, maybe moved to Cambridge which has numerous little companies in need of designers. I learned to be mostly competent at software but code is probably something where you should have started in your teens if you want to be brilliant at it. I was too broadly based whereas what IT wants nowadays  is depth – I’d programmed in Pascal, Modula-2, C, c#, c++, Visual Basic, Z80, assembler, Perl, PHP, Python, Javascript, Java, ASP – a motley mishmash of technologies depending on what I was doing at the time.

    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.

    The Pleasure of Walking Tall (cringe)

    A Man with Savings…doesn’t have to kiss The Man’s ass…

    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

    they had a wonderful plum and ice cream dessert

    they had a wonderful plum and ice cream dessert

    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


    1. I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did’
    2. DxGF was the main consumer, I didn’t miss it after we parted
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. on the original spending assumptions – in hindsight I could have probably done it earlier
    9. 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
    10. I see absolutely no reason why this should be particularly applied to men specifically
    26 Sep 2013, 12:48pm
    frugality housing living intentionally personal finance:


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  • When we are lender of last resort, we take your soul

    Paul Tucker, outgoing deputy Bank of England governor, summed up an essential truth about debt 1

    “When we are a lender of last resort to a bank … we take the institution’s soul. And we say we will give you back your soul when you’re healthy and I get my money back,”

    It’s not just banks. It’s any borrower – they swap a little bit of their financial soul for the use of the money now. It’s why I paid off my mortgage, despite knowing the most rational way to maximise my financial position would be to pay it all down bar £1000 and invest the residual amount. Wherever I hear someone who is financially aware and getting ready to pay that mortgage down, I’ll often try and highlight that alternative for consideration. The analytical case for keeping it is best made here, so I won’t bother trying to state it, but it is compelling, particularly for anyone under 45 IMO.

    For me, my soul was worth the opportunity cost. The dead hand of the lender of last resort is symbolically powerful. The lender plays the part of Mephistopheles to your Faust – they have access to resources you don’t have, and will lend them to you. On one condition – they take a charge over part of your soul ;) Where Faust screwed up was accepting a charge on his immortal soul, but if you borrow more money than you can realistically pay back from your future income streams, you’re surrendering yourself to a life of debt-slavery.

    Personal finance is not all about the numbers. It is about your values. Mine were honed over the past few years, as the scales fell from my eyes and I realised at work I was doing something I was ok with most days but in a way that really pissed me off, and I was doing it because I was fearful of the claim of that lender of last resort. It was time to give Mephistopheles the order of the boot.

    Buying a house is all about hope and belief in the future when you're young. You ignore the swish of the arrowed tail departing with a piece of your financial soul...

    Buying a house is all about hope and belief in the future when you’re young. You ignore the swish of the arrowed tail departing with a piece of your financial soul… The demon is forgotten for decades, but he’s still there, and He’ll Be Back when there are grey hairs on these two (photo: xaviernau/iStock)


    Because I’ve had it for well over a decade, my mortgage wasn’t that much towards the end. It was a nice tracker, and capped to boot, but it had to go, though I did take the time to mull over whether ownership of my soul was worth the opportunity cost. Had I ramped it back up to 100% 2 and bought the FTSE all-share in April 2009 I’d have been about £20,000 better off if I sold up now. I can live with that.

    2007 mortgage statement.

    2007 mortgage statement. BM didn’t get fat off my back that year :)

    So my soul is worth about 20k, It’s a good deal, that’s the price of peace of mind. I am a lot more risk-tolerant with money that I have made, but less so with money I have borrowed.  That’s because in the 1990s I saw what happens when you buy assets on leverage and they go down. You get to pay months worth of overpayments into a black hole called negative equity. Although an offset mortgage is designed to offset money you have borrowed against money on deposit, in the end it is still a mortgage – the company has a primary charge on your property.

    Mortgages are a young person’s game IMO

    Although a mortgage is nominally charged against the value of a house, what actually pays it off is the future value of your income stream. The future value of a burned out Ermine’s income stream is lower than of the 30-year old in the 1990s 3. It’s why for most people 4  you should have paid off your mortgage by the time you’re 60, because the value of your future income stream starts to tail off for the simple reason you have fewer earning years left. If I were investing in buying shares of people 5 give me an able 30 year old who is honing their craft over a talented 50-year old any time, because the income may be lower but the value of the human capital transforming into a future income stream is higher – because there’s more future!

    It’s why I have little sympathy for over 50s who are still running interest only and grouse that they will have to sell their homes to discharge the mortgage. Let’s take a look at how they got here -

    Underperforming endowments have left many people aged over 50 with interest-only mortgages facing an average shortfall of £49,000, according to [a special interest group pushing their equity release 'solution'].

    Er – no. Let’s try this again, shall we?

    An ostrich-like mentality of ignoring warnings of endowment shortfalls in numerous letters sent to them from the mid-1990s onwards, ie a wilful refusal to act for over twenty years has meant these people failed to address their financial situation despite numerous warnings over decades.

    That’s better. I was one of these people who got those letters in the 1990s. I fired off stinking letters to the endowment company. I opened a PEP (ISA in today’s speak). I pressed my claim and got reset to where I would have been with a repayment mortgage. Guess what I did with the settlement money?

    I paid it right away to the mortgage company as a capital repayment, because that’s what it was – compensation to set me back to where my mortgage should have been.

    Many people considered these a windfall and spent in on a nice new car or that holiday they’d always wanted. It was part of their mortgage, so effectively they were saying ‘let’s have a blowout, and hell, let’s add it to the mortgage’.

    When endowment firms tell you ‘we lied, and you won’t be able to pay your mortgage off’ then the first thing to do is DO SOMETHING, FFS… Hell, that average shortfall of £49,000 would probably only have been an extra annual payment of £1000 (because paying down the capital reduces the interest). The Daily Fail tells us that wisdom comes with age, particularly in temporal discounting which is important in personal finance 6 While at least with temporal discounting this probably does apply to me, it seems unevenly spread in the older population ;)

    The trouble with the demon Mephistopheles is that he plays a long game. It’s easy to forget the long shadow of the repo-man over the typical mortgage term of a quarter of a century. The starry-eyed young Ermine that casually signed way five years of annual income with a flourish of his pen is a different creature from the gimlet-eyed mustelid that signed the cheque discharging the final amount that transferred ownership. But Mephistopheles doesn’t forget, you gotta sign that cheque at some time, or deal with the consequences of the Devil owning your financial soul. I saw that shadow in the 1990s, and learned. My personal finance policy is simple

    Owe nobody any money for more than half a year

    I don’t take it all the way to Shakespeare’s advice to Laertes

    Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

    This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    I do lend money, both as a Zopa-ist, and as a stock-market investor ;) The key is never lending money to any entity or grouping that you can’t afford to lose. I do think the Bard has a point when it comes to consumer debt, though, when he says

    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

    presumably meaning you don’t take as much care of something you bought on credit as if you saved up your hard-earned beforehand.
    Kate Moss. And no, she wasn't talking about personal finance in 'The Waif that roared"

    Kate Moss. And no, she wasn’t talking about personal finance in ‘The Waif that roared

    It is this casualisation of the value of Stuff that makes the consumer economy go round, fuelled by debt. Mindful of the value of my soul, however, I don’t have to take part in it, because, to paraphrase Kate Moss
    No rush of consumer baubles tastes as good as financial independence feels…
    It’s the low level of needless consumer spending that I found didn’t give me lasting value, and this is particularly injurious to financial independence because it’s unthinking and it adds up. I came to the conclusion that in many ways with decadence it’s better to ‘go large or go home’. If something’s really of value to me, I will, after suitable deliberation, go for it,  if I can imagine looking back and thinking ‘that was a good purchase, given what I knew at the time’ – or even that it was a qualified risk and I accepted the range of possible outcomes. It’s the unthinking drip, drip, drip a little bit here, a little bit there that I have no truck with. I am mindful of the fact that the lender of last resort takes my soul; I would not be financially independent if I owed anyone any money for any length of time.
    Nutty thing to do from a personal finance point of view, paying off your mortgage. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I know the value of my financial Soul, not just the price of it ;)


    1. It’s a shame I can’t second-source the original quote. If Philip Aldrick made it up, he’s wasted at the Telegraph
    2. I don’t think this would have been permissible, I could reclaim overpayments but it wasn’t an offset
    3. It’s probably not zero as I suppose a pension is a future income stream, and in some ways more secure than income from employment, you don’t get made redundant from a pension.
    4. I’m talking about wage-slaves working for The Man here, not people whose risk-tolerance is higher than normal, and or people who have unconventional assets like a business or BTL
    5. I know, it’s called slavery, this is a hypothetical thought experiment ;)
    6. Yeah, I know it’s the Daily Mail. It’s peculiarly tough, because young people actually have more future so the cost of getting temporal discounting wrong is higher for them. But it does follow my life experience.
    13 Aug 2013, 8:35pm
    living intentionally personal finance:


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  • Why your spending may not be lower in retirement in future

    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

    go on. Take a guess when the switch to criterion referencing happened

    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.

    Switzerland - clever marketing makes you think it's more about this

    Switzerland – clever marketing makes you think it’s more about this

    than about this - Swiss quality: over twenty years old and still going strong

    than about this – Swiss quality: over twenty years old and still going strong


    You don't have to be a connoisseur of jigsaw baldes to see the Swiss quality even in the basic range compared to Wilko no-name

    You don’t have to be a connoisseur of jigsaw blades to see the Swiss quality even in the basic range compared to Wilko no-name

    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:

    1. mortgage was paid off
    2. the worker was 65 or older – people had children earlier in life so it was more likely that
    3. 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.

    However, I’ll leave the last word to Jane - and Monkeynut

    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 ;)


    1. 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
    2. 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
    3. 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
    4. 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, Penguin, 2010, “Thing 17, pp 186/7
    5. 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
    6. 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
    7. 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.
    1 Aug 2013, 9:07am
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  • The festival of Lammas, and tales from the dark side

    Lammas (Anglo-Saxon “loaf-mass”) is the first harvest festival of the year, that of the grain which ripens first. It’s probably jumping the gun a little this year and I don’t know what they’d have made of winter wheat back in the day ;)

    ripe grain

    picture taken in July 2009, it’s a bit on the drag this year

    Lammas was also the time of odd intevals likethe ritual of hand-fasting, a trial marriage which only became a commitment after a year and a day, presumably Aug 2 the next year ;)

    In the tradition of odd intervals, it’s been a year and a month since I stopped working, and it’s been good.  In a long thread on MSE on planning for retirement, the thought came to me that there are many assumptions people make about when they expect to retire. One of them is they project their future self and their job into the future. I was reminded of that when I came across a quote from MSE’s dlorde

    I found that too – three years in and spending far less than I’d imagined. This is because, once I broke free of the work ethic, I discovered I no longer needed to drink away the stress, or buy stuff just to feel the work was worth it, or to get away whenever possible and splash cash on relaxing, etc.

    Because I’m relaxed now, I’m a nicer person; I smile a lot and say ‘hello’ to people in the street, I chat with shop assistants. I cook more for myself than I go out to eat, I walk a lot, and I savour the coffee and the roses because I’ve got the time. These things cost very little, but hugely affect quality of life.

    Many of the things I dreamed I’d do when retired, I don’t really feel like doing anymore; they were the escapist dreams of a 9-5 commuter…

    It reminded me of the dark side. I see people planning to switch to part-time, gradual retirement, and lots of best-laid plans. The problem is that if you are going to retire early, you need to either be lucky, or you need to start early, or suck it up and live less large today to live larger tomorrow. Living large isn’t all about money. As dlorde summed up so well, a lot of spending is substituting for the rotten experience of the workplace. Out the rotten experience, and much of that compensatory spending is unneccessary.

    Many people get this right, they plan carefully, and implement the plan. I envy them in some ways, but I’d say that planning to work to 67 or 70 or whatever is getting more hazardous now.

    Where is the world of work going? There’s a power shift, and it doesn’t favour you in general.

    The world of work is changing, and power is shifting from labour to capital, as globalisation allows firms to arbitrage production to the lowest-cost. What this means for people in rich countries is they will have to move up the value chain – that means working smarter or harder, or both. The trouble with this, is that we aren’t making people any cleverer, and the result is rising unemployment – and advanced economy just can’t really use people of less than stellar talent in a global workforce. Lest I become charged with being one of those old gits that loves the existence of crap jobs, let me expand, at the risk of being hated by some people.

    An advanced economy just can’t employ an increasingly large segment of the population, who just aren’t bright enough, or driven enough.

    the distribution of intelligence in humans as measured by IQ

    the distribution of intelligence in humans as measured by IQ. IQ is proxy for many human characteristics. Top footballers aren’t noted for brains, but football talent follows a similar distribution – there are very few outstanding compared to the acceptably competent. The Premier League wants the outstanding, not the competent, just as Google does in the area of computing smarts.

    Basically, if you’re in a job that requires a particular human skill and you are in the lower 74% of the distribution then the world of work will slowly grind you out of the workforce over the coming 40 years, unless some political changes are made. This particular chart is from these guys 1 Imagine the work needle starting from the left-hand side in pre-industrial time. Historically, there was space in the workplace for the genuinely dumb, as long as they were strong, and indeed limited capacity in the workplace to use hyperintelligence. As time goes by the needle moves to the right – in the 1950s there was still plenty of work for those of average ability. Nowadays, however, firms like Google are probably looking towards the rightmost quarter. There is less space for hod-carriers in the modern workforce, even on building sites. I saw them all the time as a kid on building sites – when I worked on the Olympics I didn’t see one.

    People start to call you all sorts of names when you dredge out images like that so I’ll stop there, FWIW an ermine is not bright enough to enter MENSA to I haven’t got a huge axe to grind. The distribution applies to a lot of human skills, not just general problem-solving. The distribution of good salesmen probably follows a similar distribution and you don’t have to be clever to be a salesman, though being a great showman doesn’t hurt. I’m in the 2% or worse on the wrong side of the bell curve as far as that skill is concerned. Although it’s become politically incorrect to say human talents vary, the beating heart of capitalism doesn’t give a damn. What it wants is the 0.1% on the right-hand side of the bell, and it’s prepared to pay them all the money that it would have had to pay the remaining 99.9% of workers in days of yore, when it wasn’t able to draw upon a global workforce and shift stuff and information across the world at low cost. Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism is illuminating. I have it on order at the library but from Amazon’s preview you can get a good inkling of the principles.

    It’s one of those HR bullshit platitudes that people are a firm’s greatest asset, but it starts to become true as long as the firm can get rid of the 99.9% of also-rans which, with a global workforce, includes me, and, dare I suggest it, dear First World reader, possibly you too…

    The power shift t0 capital is seen in various places. For instance,  the rise of zero-hour contracts. These wouldn’t be so bad if the zero-hours commitment went both ways – if the company had a job going and rang you up, but you could just tell them to piss off, you were busy working for someone else who would give you work, but it doesn’t seem to be that way. Zero-hours contracts seem to give the employers the right to bond your potential labour by forbidding you to work for someone else, while not guaranteeing you any pay. Why the second word of people’s response isn’t ‘off’ beats me. Years ago a young ermine worked in the City as a kitchen porter and table-clearer, where you’d rock up to the agency early in the morning as see if there was work. If there was and you could get into line, then you had work for the day, if not you at least could do something else with it.

    UK labour productivity - falling according to the ONS

    UK labour productivity – falling according to the ONS

    Zero-hours contracts aren’t the only symptom – apart from the increased unemployment 2- that is an obvious symptom, workers are accepting lower pay settlements, and productivity is falling in the UK because labour is becoming cheaper. The good side of that is that unemployment isn’t as high as it would otherwise be, because employers don’t have to sweat the asset so much. The bad side is Britain is turning into a low-wage economy for more people as wages fall in real terms.

    UK underemployemtn and unemployment

    UK underemployment and unemployment

    The horrendously twisted wreckage that Britain’s private old age pension provision has become is another sign of the shifting balance to capital. When I started at The Firm, they had to offer a decent pension scheme as part of the overall package to attract enough starry-eyed young pups out into the sticks. They were busy degrading the quality of it by the time I left, indeed if they could have clawed back accrued benefits I’m sure they would.

    The good news part of this story is that if you are part of the 1% particularly skilled in any employable skillset you will make hay and be far better off that you would have been historically, because improved communications let you take your skills to the marketplace better, and probably if you’re in the upper 5% you will do okay for a while though I wouldn’t bet on 40 years. The winner-takes all effect is not as bad as the 99%  Occupy grouched about because there are a range of non-overlapping skills that you can be the 1% of. Neverthess, it’s not good news for an awful lot of people.

    Now there are political solutions to some of this. The 21 hour work week advocated by the NEF might be a much better solution to the question ‘what does a human-friendly economy look like’. We would have half as much stuff and goods and services like experience days balloon flights and city breaks to the Med to get ratarsed (because we would all be working half time, natch), but to be honest we have far too much plastic shit and pseudy wastes of time in the country as it is IMO. One of the things I discovered in retiring is that a lot of the stuff I looked forward to doing didn’t mean anything to me, it was the fevered dreams of a cube drone. So I didn’t do it, and dropped some of the cash I didn’t spend onto the mad, bad desparation that is a European ETF because at least the ride will be interesting ;) I still didn’t find myself short of entertainment over the last year…

    For all the people about to go red in the face and spit bricks about the idea of a shorter working week, one of the things that an awful lot of people in the UK still want to do is have children. It’s something that really matters to them. Way back in the 1970s and 80s, when women entered the workforce, we as a society made a Faustian pact with capitalism. There were two ways things could have gone. One would be that men could have stepped back from the workforce a bit, resulting in that NEF 21 hour week across the board. People would get to see their children growing up, and drop them off at school, but they wouldn’t have had so many toys, DVDs and all the other surprisingly high-tech junk that you see in skips some times.

    What we actually seem to have done is pat ourselves on the back, high-five it and tell ourselves ‘we’re rich’ because twice as much money was entering our households. And immediately went on a bender, outbidding each other on houses resulting in high house prices, because God forbid that we’d use that extra money to go on holiday to do something fun with it, at least if we increase the price tag on our houses we can say we have a higher net worth 3. Now that we’ve stowed the extra money into bricks and mortar, and buying more consumer Stuff, we now have to go out to work to pay other people to look after the children, particularly in the school holidays when the schools aren’t doing that job for us. Given that having chidren is something that an awful lot of people want to do, this seems to be a rum old way to run an economy. But that’s what we did. We have boarding kennels and catteries for our pets when we go on holiday, and summer camps for the kids while we’re stuck at work, earning the extra money to pay for the summer camps and the kids’  iPads.

    If somebody had sat down and designed this system we’d have collectively run them out of town for taking the piss but it just sort of happened that way, as a result of us all realising “Hey, we can now buy Twice as much consumer gear, so lets go out and do that”.  We do have a lot more Stuff and Services – capitalism delivered the goods on the deal, just like Faust’s counterparty. When I had my house rewired ten years ago, I had to double the number of power sockets, despite the fact there were only two of us in a three-bed home. The families that occupied it in the decades before just didn’t have as much stuff as we did – and I’m nowhere near the high end of that spectrum!

    Our working lives have also become far more complex. Although it lacks drama, the old fashioned model that Obama called out of being able to join a company and stay with it for most of your working life made it easier to plan one’s finances. On the debt front, fewer people had mortgages in the 1960s and 1970s, and consumer debt didn’t exist in the UK. People bought consumer durables on hire-purchase. Default on that and you lost your TV, and that was the end of it, the debt wasn’t endlessly sold on, and Wonga just didn’t exist 4.

    One of the early steps on the road to perdition

    One of the early steps on the road to perdition. Doesn’t hindsight make this ad copy look positively criminal in the incitement to live beyond our means? Were the regulators sleeping at the switch?

    In 1966 Barclaycard was issued, followed in 1972 by Access, which took the waiting out of wanting, and we were done for.  It seems now that more than half of all Britons are seriously up shit street with their finances, from a combination of the power shift towards capital, the increasing complexity of finacial life, the fact that for over two decades in a child-centric world people don’t seem to learn that to have more later sometimes you must have less now. I look around Britain and what I see is a rich country, immeasurably richer than the Britain I grew up in. There’s no good reason why we have to have so much trouble, but we need to learn to have less Stuff in our lives, or at least if we want to have Stuff then save up for it first!

    Work has always changed, and you will see a lot of change over a working life. Making a retirement plan assuming work and you won’t change isn’t a recipe for success. I was caught by the tail end of work changing. I’d like to think that a young ermine starting, say at 23 in 2013 would be able to make a success of it. But I’m not sure – although I am to the right half of that bell curve I’m not sure I’m smart enough to compete with the rest of the world. Being hypothetically thirty years younger means hopefully I would have a more entrepreneurial attitude to work. But would it be as entrepreneurial as Ha-Joon Chang’s developing world entrepreneurs? I’d have the rule of law, and property rights on my side, and let’s not underestimate that. But arrayed against me I’d have the winner-takes-all effect, a much wider base of competing labour, very high running costs and those housing costs. Plus an education system that seems to value my self-esteem at the expense of honest assessment. I wouldn’t have gone to university – I just wouldn’t have taken the risk. And whaddya expect if you charge people to go to university – they aren’t going to fail too many people are they, otherwise they have fewer applicants, which hits the bottom line ;)

    Where are you going?

    It’s not just the world that changes as you get older. You do too, and if you’re going to make retirement plans you have to make some allowances for the change in you. You become a little bit better with people, less of an arrogant twat hopefully as some of the rough corners get knocked off, but also less tolerant of crap as you get older. I see this in many areas of life – in my 20s I was prepared to live in a London bedsit with a shower and toilet shared with the rest bedsitters occupying that house, it isn’t something I really want to do now.

    Beware getting more ornery and cantankerous, and work in a firm for more than ten years and you will have seen every permutation of management Next Great Thing that there is going, and you remember how the Thing That was Going To Sort It All Out the Last Time didn’t work, so when it’s served up again reheated you just don’t believe it. For an engineering facility there seems to be a tidal duality of

    • Increased expertise and focus and tech-specific SWAT teams  (typically in boom times) which leads to  Silos, which then have to be broken down into
    • Horizontal delayering and Flattening the Pyramid , empowering Information. Usually happens in recessions, as reducing the levels of the pyramid stops promotion and persuades people to clear off.

    This is a cyclical process that roughly tracks the business cycle. However, as you get older centrifugal force slowly flings you outwards from the core as new blood must be sucked in to feed the Beast by believing the cyclic Next Big Thing. You gain some compensation by rising up the greasy pole as long as you don’t offend too many people. This seems easier for extroverts

    So it is with the best laid plans, as Harold Macmillan perhaps didn’t observe when asked what could steer a government off course onto the rocks -

    Events, dear boy, events

    Or perhaps as Cameron more pithily put it, shit happens.

    You may plan to retire at 67 and get all your ducks in a row. But don’t count on it. I don’t know if The Firm had a particular problem with stress, but once something snaps inside it stays broken until enough distance is had from the cause. I am less than halfway through the recovery period, at a guess. I was lucky in that I had unique skills, and was cantankerous enough to tell the oik that tired to off me with a quarter’s pay that he wasn’t offering me enough, and to curse him and the horse he rode in on. Then the people who needed my skills for the Olympics work got his division out of the way. But every time, which was once a quarter, I had to suck it up to the performance management system and justify my existence it needed a major visit to the bottle bank the next week to toss the empties. And then one day in Tesco the image before me broke up into a random array of unrecognisable lines. It’s at times like that that one thinks ‘Self, you have gotten yourself on the wrong track here’

    And I only planned to retire at 60, in about seven years’ time. The best laid plans of mice and men, eh ;) At my leaving do the last line manager I had, who was a decent sort, commended me on leaving on a high – the Olympics work was a great project to go out on. Professionally, yes. Psychologically, I was a husk.

    Build some flexibility into your retirement plan. You may one day come to feel that flushing your life away in service to The Man in return for overpriced houses and consumer baubles and special unique one-of-a-kind made up experiences isn’t all that. It’s good to have options at that point.

    Everything is set up for a full-time working pattern, from the price of rent and housing to the whole way work is set up. I never understood the attraction of working part-time – it sems to have all the things that are wrong with working combined with less of the money, I’d rather work full-time or not at all. Perhaps those Seventies visionaries were right, but rather than the NEF 21-hour week we end up with the shorter working life. One of the ways of working less is, paradoxically, to retire early. The NEF solution would be much more compatible with the whole having kids scenario, but the trouble is this isn’t a universal desire. The DINKs would work 40 hours, drive up the price of housing and we’d be back where we are now. This either needs a political movement for change, placing an upper limit on working hours, or that needle will scan across the bell curve so only 1% of people end up employed, in which case there may be a revolution.



    1. Their software sounds like arrant snake-oil. While you can coach for IQ tests – people do this for school tests and  and I did for the eleven plus (though it wasn’t allowed to be called the 11+ at the time)  I’ve never seen people become smarter at problem-solving in new situations in my entire career, though experience obviously makes you more skilled in action in specific areas. Some types of drug addictions can turn the clever into shit-for-brains sadly, but the other ways doesn’t happen IMO.
    2. You must add increased economic inactivity of those of working age to unemployment, and unemployment doesn’t reflect underemployment though the latter is devilishly hard to track – I am economically inactive though not underemployed
    3. I am of the opinion that my house isn’t part of my net worth but I’m in the minority. Unlike every other Briton, high house prices don’t make me feel richer
    4. I believe loan sharks did exist, but they plied their trade in person, along with the threats of breaking your legs if you failed to pay up
    27 Jul 2013, 9:25pm
    living intentionally reflections


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  • Work isn’t Fun – Scientific Study reports

    There’s a love/hate relationship with work in the personal finance culture. Working usually improves your finances, but there are an awful lot of people who like the idea of financial independence. There’s the whole ‘find the work you love’ meme, and a smidgen of Calvinist thinking which I’ve railed on at before.

    So it pleases me to bring you the results of a couple of researchers at the LSE, who were using the results of an app called Mappiness to see how people’s happiness correlated with various factors. One of which was working.

    Guess what I can reveal about the results? By all means go and read it, but basically it says

    Work pisses you off, and you are less happy while you’re doing it

    Well, I’ll be damned. Who’d have thunk it? What happened to the increased leisure time they promised me at school? Why are we building a society where we keep doing this to ourselves -

    Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

    Tyler Durden, Fight Club

    Now that science has shown us that work pisses people off, we will re-engineer society so we have a 20-hour week but earn half the money? I guess not, there’s only so far you can go with evidence-based policy making, and that’s where the hard edge of evidence rubs up against the soft gloopy squidginess of values and judgement calls and who gets to call the shots ;)

    2 Jul 2013, 6:40pm
    economy living intentionally reflections:

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  • Lost in France, a homage to some old European notes dearly departed – will Lazarus have his day?

    It’s coming up to the silly season now, and we even seem to be having some hot weather. Hopefully it won’t lead to an actual hot summer of rage on the streets, but the markets have got that sort of lazy, hazy indolence that gave rise to such opportunity a couple of years ago, and I have a shitload of wedge looking for a home even if I don’t have any ISA allowance left.

    It was time to shoot some pictures in sunny France in return for accommodation, fine wine and cheese, then later on meeting up with an expat pal of old. We fought the Calvados, and the Calvados won.

    no slag-heaps round here, just fertile countryside

    no slag-heaps round here, just fertile countryside

    Whimsical church, in Rue I seem to recall

    Whimsical church, in Rue I seem to recall


    I was pleasantly surprised by the French region of Picardy, I had anticipated it all to be slag-heaps and post-industrial devastation of the sort that happens if you turn left on arriving at Calais, but in fact it was very pleasant indeed. If this is really what Suffolk is going to be like after climate change then it’s not too bad at all… There is the usual whimsical Gallic architecture, and the French retain a more local form of government. The County council is probably our smallest effective district authority, but in France it seems to go down to the village mairie, who take on some quite localised duties. In some ways there’s something comforting-ish that the Mairie has the capacity to rouse the town from its post-prandial verre du vin with a universal signal that some Really Bad Shit is going down. Yeah, I know everybody’s meant to have a smartphone always on these days, but the performance of the mobile network has a lot of dependencies, and I like the gonzo analogue simplicity and low-cost always with you always on receiving equipment.

    A universal signalling device. Receiving equipment is stuck to either side of everybody's head

    A universal signalling device. Receiving equipment is stuck to either side of everybody’s head. That sparrow might crap itself though…

    the strawberries were divine

    the strawberries were divine

    You can’t go to France without sampling some of the local produce, particularly since Mrs Ermine was researching what we could learn from their approach if we experience an increase in average temperature. Florent’s strawberries were fabulous, an opinion shared by the local merles (blackbirds) hence the netting. I was surprised the problem wasn’t starlings!

    The Ermine, as befits a creature of cold climates, really, really hates the classic British summer holiday destination of sun, sea and sand. I’ve only ever been to Spain for work, Madrid in November was quite agreeable ;)

    So I’ve had a bias to Northern European destinations, though I haven’t been averse to the the US and one day fancy a long trip to see some small part of Canada. You always end up with some foreign currency when you come back. There’s no point at all in keeping coins but you do end up with some notes, and every so often you forget where the heck you put them. These ones I inherited, but they probably date back twenty years or so

    Wonder how many of these old friends will return to grace our wallets in years to come

    Wonder how many of these old friends will return to grace our wallets in years to come

    It’s disturbing to think that at the start of my career one of the greenies would be a perfectly serviceable beer token – in London! Some Germans must be feeling a fond memory of those stable Deutschemarks that slowly and steadily dragged Germany’s post-war economy out the shit through Konrad Adenauer’s Wirtschaftswunder and the French may feel a twinge for the old FFr. It feels like the Euro crisis is limbering up for another rumble – it seems to be a summer thing, a bit like the screaming of swifts in the hot city nights.

    It was also a time to lay to rest the question of just how much horse I had been eating. I really don’t have any problem eating horse, as long as the supplier tells me that it is. Which you can’t really accuse the Richelieu Corporation of avoiding. The price probably tells me it isn’t the idyllic pastoral scene on the top of the packet, but it was all horse. Maybe the copywriter was feeling the bad rap of horsegate when he put 100% musclemeat on the packet,

    Horse. As it says on the packet. Tesco, take note.

    Cheval (Horse). As it says on the packet. Tesco, Findus et al take note.

    but I couldn’t argue with the result, a decent horseburger with the classic large-herbivore-but-not-beef-though-there-is-significant-similarity sort of taste. Horse is distinctive and good. I can see how you might be able to pass it off as beef in something that’s only 30% meat as it is, but I’m of the view that less is more as long as it’s of a decent quality.

    Horse cooked expertly by Mrs Ermine

    Horse cooked expertly by Mrs Ermine

    I’d be happy to see more horse on the menu. Just cut the crap and tell us what it is ;)


    11 May 2013, 11:15pm
    living intentionally:


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  • The joy of observing the quotidian…

    The philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff was of the opinion that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep” 1 ; one of the aims of a life well lived was to snap out of it and wake up. One of the simple joys of being retired is to be a little more aware of the world, to take the time to wonder a little more.

    Perhaps work did that hypnotic sleep thing for me, the routine dulled the senses, it’s still a little bit sad to think of the wasted years of consciousness. Now, even in observing the quotidian, I wonder if I just missed stuff in the real world. Some of the greater awareness almost throws back to childhood times ;)

    I try and do is get out and wander around the immediate area every day, I’m lucky in having a few quiet streets with a rec and a cemetery nearby, places where I can observe Nature going about it’s everyday business. At the moment the walk is livened by the lovely sound of blackbirds in full song.

    Is there always such a profusion of dandelions at this time? Is that just something that happens at this time of year and I never noticed, because I was too busy looking at screens than at the Real World™? How did I miss that for 20 years…

    This is what happens if you don't dig 'em out of the lawn

    This is what happens if you don’t dig ‘em out of the lawn

    I thought of the fellow above whose ‘lawn’ I pass every day, as I dug my own Löwenzähne out of the grass. The German word for dandelion is ‘Lion’s teeth‘ translated literally, a more poetic term. If they didn’t spread like crazy (see above) they’d be attractive flowers in their own right.

    Not so much pushing us daisies as pushing up dandelions

    Not so much pushing us daisies as pushing up dandelions

    They look quite pretty...

    They look quite pretty…

    Gurdjieff was right. How did I miss this minor spectacle for 20 years? If this kind of living on automatic pilot only made me miss this sort of thing then it’s not the end of the world. But drifitng through life means we live by other people’s values, standards and agendas. That isn’t a way to lasting inner peace. Thoreau put it well

    If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

    Thoreau, Walden

    Some of those values and agendas are buying stuff because it makes other people richer, not because it delivers inherent value for you. It’s a bittersweet tragedy that working, which enables you to earn more money to buy more Stuff, steals away our consciousness at the same time unless we are unusually vigilant and alert to the distant drummer, and so we spend more of what we earn on Stuff that doesn’t always deliver value for us.



    1. I’ve somewhat brutalised his philosophy for the sake of pithiness, more at the Gurdjieff society, Wikipedia,
    18 Apr 2013, 9:37pm
    living intentionally simple living:


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  • Retirement isn’t like a long weekend, or a long vacation

    Something I’ve discovered is that many people who have been working for some time find it hard to imagine what life is without work, and occasionally fear the void. I’m not talking about someone who has found their vocation and genuinely enjoyed most of it. I observe that most often in the self-employed at the entrepreneurial end of things, be that in DW at The Oak Tree Farm, or the driven creative entrepreneur, or hell, even Diamond Geezer Bob ex of Barclays ;). That’s fine – but some of the rest of us wage slaves occasionally look at our lives, look at the bits that aren’t work (weekends, vacations) and subtract work to think ‘is that all there is’? with a little shiver down the spine at an imagine life of long weekends and extended vacations. For some, it seems to lack meaning and purpose.

    It isn’t how it will be, but it’s an understandable mistake. When you have retired, life is not like one long weekend, or even a long vacation. Yes, the weekends are less different to the working week, obviously, but therein lies the clue. For people working 5 days a week, the two-day weekend is a brief respite, a chance to recharge the batteries, to take a break. You don’t need to do that when you have control of your own time, so your weekends are different! it still staggers me how I became almost zombified as energy drained, whole swathes of weeks merged into grey blocks of time compared to the kaleidoscope of variety. Don’t get me wrong, there was much more busyness then, but the ancient Greeks identified the problem with their concepts of Kairos and Chronos. You must live time, not just watch the hands sweep over the face of the clock. That means paying attention and doing things with respect.

    Retirees still have to take some regard of the weekends, of course, because meeting up with others who are working is usually easier. Just as steam gives way to sail you need to respect other people’s time pressures. Nevertheless, life retired isn’t one long weekend, because there’s no need to decompress from the stress of work or to pack all the stuff into the two days that you couldn’t do in the other five days. It’s hard to say exactly how that is different, but it is – it is much more relaxed and more fun. Your weekends are no longer the bassline to the strident demands of work, they are part of a greater harmony.

    It’s not one long vacation, either. Unless you’re very rich ;) Even if you are, ask yourself whether an endless vacation isn’t perhaps the grown-up version of the kid who only wants to eat ice cream all the time. A life well lived has dynamic contrast, moving between different poles. A lot of your vacations while working are expensive because you are packing in a lot of stuff to make it as different from work as you can. You are usually time-constrained, too. I can’t really put this much better than GOP from this comment:

    One change since I retired relates to travel. I used to go on far-flung holidays ranging from Bolivia to Bhutan which I thoroughly enjoyed but which also satisfied a need to get as far away from work as possible in every sense. Since retiring, although I can still afford to do it and my partner would be happy to let me, the need has somehow gone and I’m content with more local travel which, preferably, does not involve flying.

    Now I am somewhat constrained at the moment in that I have no income, so I’m not going to spend large amounts on travel right now, but that won’t last forever. I still feel similarly to GOP – I travelled reasonably well with work when I was a single man and had a penchant for trying to take longer but travelling overland. Most of the time I love my fellow humans but that doesn’t extend to seeing them milling around in airports, or pretty much anywhere where a whole load of people have to line up all in one place. MMM may have put his finger on the problem with a Peak life is lived Off-Peak.

    One of the key Principles of Mustachianism is that any and all lineups, queues, and other sardine-like collections of humans must be viewed with the squinty eyes of skepticism. Because if so many people simultaneously decide to do something that they are forced to stand or drive in a queue to do it, there’s a good chance it is something that is not worth doing.

    He’s got a point. Don’t travel at the same times as the rest of humanity if you can. Sometimes that means don’t travel at all ;) Often it’s as simple as travelling midweek, sometimes it means travelling at night. Similarly if you have to queue to buy something, it’s probably a carefully orchestrated shortage (think anything made by Apple, Christmas toys where the supply, marketing and demand are carefully managed to engineer a shortage and pester power that keeps sales up well after Christmas).

    Food. Overpriced and aspiration next to overpriced and junky. I'll pass on that, thanks all the same

    Food. Aspirational but dearer than if you made it at home and brought it to work

    Your life will change post-retirement. When you’re working more than half your time is owned by someone else, and in a hard twist that means you often have to pay other people to do things for you because you don’t have the time, be that Starbucks to get you coffee, some deli in London because you didn’t make sandwiches or calling in a plumber because you don’t have the time to fix the problem yourself or understand and learn what needs doing.

    The other thing, for which I have to thank GOP for introducing me to, is Herbert Marcuse, and his critique of capitalism, which is even more true now than when he wrote it :

    The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment,” meaning that under capitalism (in consumer society) humans become extensions of the commodities that they buy, thus making commodities extensions of people’s minds and bodies.

    You are not what you buy or use. Your soul is to be found in the space between your ears, in the web of life with other sentient beings, in your love of life, and of others. It has no barcode; there is none other like it. Never lose sight of that in the mesmerising maelstrom of marketing messages. Thoreau had some point when he said

    “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

    For a more direct dissection Jacob ERE gives it to us straight between the eyes with both barrels.

    In general, if you ask the average consumer what enjoying life is all about, it distills to the following trifecta: buying tickets, going to restaurants, and shopping.

    That’s it. Those three things are all there is to enjoying life. The uninformed opinion is that if you don’t have these these three things in your life, your life sucks. I know, because that’s what I used to think. And it’s also what consumers keep bringing up.

    Gulp. The Ermine has been known to darken the door of a restaurant occasionally ;)

    It is a little over three years since I started this blog. The first real transmission was this one. It’s hard to picture your life retired when working – I found even the financial issues hard to envisage and they are among the more tractable and quantifiable changes. Nobody bangs the drum for things after the change – because nobody has the experience of being retired before they are retired ;) Looking at that post, it was quite prescient. Illich had a point when he said choose a life of action. I spend more on tools and things to investigate stuff and make things happen. I don’t spend money on DVDs and video games. I’m fiddling about with finding out how to post a graph of the temperature of some chickens, and a polytunnel on Cosm. Because it’s a challenge. The secret to retirement is to be curious. Become like a child, always ask the question why.


    I took a rotten shot of some flowers I passed because I’ve seen them before, and I figure it’s time I knew enough about my world to know what they are called. It’s one of the things that the gift of time gives you – you don’t have to live life on autopilot any more. Take joy in the quotidian as well as the unusual. I hear the song of the blackbirds slowly becoming more accomplished as time goes on. I learned about how to use json for data interchange.

    It was easier for me to not fear the void, because my work experience had deteriorated, and I was seriously stressed, not by what I was doing but by the stupidity of the system. In life you should generally try to run towards the light rather than away from the darkness. But sometimes it simplifies things. For someone who doesn’t have serious issues at work, there is much to be said for taking some time. I can’t recommend highly enough scaling down your expenditure to match what you expect to retire on, and do that for a year at least. The decision to retire, and if so to retire early, is one that is important, though not urgent. You have to make time to consider it. I was seriously motivated to retire early, but it still took me three years to get to the right point for me. The delay wasn’t for the want of trying to convince myself I could do it earlier.  And you have to be prepared to take some leap of faith, because you have no clear idea of what it will be like. Sometimes in life it is good enough to do the best you can with what you have to hand ;)

    It won’t be an endless weekend, or even an extra long vacation. Like sculpting anything, crafting a good life free of ‘work’ is a matter of having a general idea in your mind’s eye, and then taking the first steps. It won’t turn out exactly like the mental picture, and that’s fine. It won’t solve all your problems either, because remember that every place you go, still yourself you see in the mirror, and it is still your shadow that the lamp throws on the wall. Issues that lie within will retire with you. You may have more time to ruminate on how to work on them, but you won’t leave them behind as you hand in your mobile phone, computer and access card. Possibly for the first time you will be in charge of most of your time. Carpe diem – and may it serve you well.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about the money aspects of retirement. I overshot somewhat – I don’t spend now as much as I’d get if I drew my pension early right now. Getting the money straight is a prerequisite, and I would urge anybody thinking of retiring early to inform themselves about the financial aspects of retirement as much as they could. But money isn’t the whole story.

    Finance is necessary to crafting a decent retirement. But it isn’t sufficient. Your setting is just as important – who you will spend your time with, where you are, who is in your life, what your connections with the wider community is. Early retirees have some extra challenges in this area (most of their current social circle will probably be still at work) but they have other advantages unique to them too. They are younger, and probably more adaptable too. In the end I only retired eight years early, so I am not that unusual, compared to, say, Retirement Investing Today or Mr Money Mustache. There is a big difference in retiring in your early forties compared to early fifties. While the principles are the same – basically spend less than you earn, the scale is very different.