9 Jul 2014, 7:11am
frugality living intentionally:
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  • Fight consumerism – get time on your side

    mistersquirrel  has been watching TV, in particular an excellent three-part series about consumerism. The third programme was the one I found most insightful, which develops the theory that adults are being infantilised by systems that give micro-rewards to urge them into purchases, and the process of buying is being made as frictionless as possible.

    Tesco really loves football. Look at all the things Euro 2012 realted you can buy

    Stuff. Shopping. Special Offers. Buy it Now! Won’t it be easier when you simply pay for the item as you put it in your trolley with contactless payments?

    It goes along with the general gamification of the world – people being herded along desired paths of action using sophisticated micro-reward systems. This sort of thing started to really piss me off at work, stupid metrics on irrelevant areas being used to herd and control people, and it appears to be going on in the consumer space too. Unlike work, however, in theory as a consumer you are in control of the money so you are in charge. One of the key techniques, however, is easy to fight. Trying to get you to buy quickly. Don’t do that. Buy slowly.

    First, check out the enemy

    the credit problem

    It’s in Episode 3 at 45mins into the programme

    “Every other company on Earth is trying to get you to spend money, and they’re putting all their effort into getting you to spend your money on Stuff all the time. [...] Make no mistake, the house always wins. [...]Business had learnt from children how the adult market could be turned into a game.!”

    “The trouble with adult consumers is they think too much”

    Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

    I hear there’s a fellow who’s saved loads of money doing just that – thinking. Don’t give it up, adults. That’s why you’re adults – so you get a hold of the steering wheel of Life…

    “The last 30 years of selling has been about getting us to give in to this instant gratification”

    Now I have to admit, at first the Ermine thought to himself “bollocks”, but the programme developed its thesis well. In particular, the process of handing over your money has been transformed. There has been a progression -

    cash -> credit cards -> stored card details like Paypal, 1-click, mobile purchasing, contactless wristbands,

    The consumer merchandisers came up with a magic bullet, the credit card. The credit card becomes the facilitator of impetuous, narcissistic buy now consumerism, because you don’t have to wait a second.

    Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

    Now I got my first Access credit card in 1979, as a freshman student. And yet I never got into huge trouble with it, indeed I was in my mid-twenties when I came to the conclusion that my parents were right

    Don’t spend more than you earn, son

    So I have generally paid them off within the interest-free period. Yes, I cocked up a few times and had reason to be grateful for the minimum payment direct debit feature all suppliers offer. I have sometimes carried a rolling balance, if some card company is going to be so dim as to offer me interest-free credit. On occasion I’ve been prepared to pay interest – when the Nationwide building society was prepared to pay me more interest on the borrowed money. So I don’t viscerally understand this part of how Big Consumerism is suckering the proletariat. Despite what one woman in the programme claimed, credit cards can be used properly. Just always remember you’re not borrowing money from the bank, you are borrowing from your future self. Make that your one month future self and you’ll be fine, because you’re close to him and he’s real to you. And the card won’t charge you interest!

    the Buy It Now problem

    However, I am susceptible to the buy it now problem.It’s across the modern consumerism estate – they are trying to shorten the gap between want it and buy it. Credit cards help you buy it now if you don’t have the money, but things like Amazon 1-click and Paypal make the process of paying quicker and less onerous. There’s a simple way to fix this, however. Remember the good Prof Barber. The solution I use is simple

    Put the stuff in your virtual shopping cart. Then wait 24 hours before making the purchase

    You don’t have to do too much thinking. If you’ve been suckered by gamification you will come back to the purchase the next day and think ‘how dumb is that’ and move on. Though with Amazon remember to empty the cart – else you’ll end up buying it with the next thing you get there, although there’s enough of a grace period to cancel the order. I used to think that the cooling off period needed to be seven days, and indeed in my hardest saving period at work I used a month. But I’m not so frazzled now, I can recognise dumb consumerism within a few hours now. 1 That inserts a great big monkey-wrench into the ad-men’s ability to tap into your ‘I want it now’ state of mind. It’s future-proof too – even if in ten years time they have a thought-swipe method of instant purchase you can still split the ‘I want it’ from now. Live intentionally. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with consumerism – as long as it suits your wants and needs rather than theirs.

    Think like an adult. Think too much for marketers of consumerism. Ice the “I want it Now” mentality. And don’t spend money you haven’t got, which is a different take on the same problem

    But – but- what if it’s a unrepeatable sale, or a Black Friday or a Everything Must Go?

    Leave it be. Remember the fellow above. The house always wins. They’re trying to deny you the space to think. There’s only one way to beat the house, and that’s not to play their game. You don’t have to be nutty about it – for regular consumables it doesn’t really apply. If you always buy organic butter, know the price and it really is on offer at 10% less then knock yourself out and load up on it (you can freeze butter). It the purchase of something new to you, or being stampeded into an upgrade, where I’d say just ignore the special offers if they can’t match the 24 hour rule.

    increasingly things are being sold in a dishonest and gamified way

    Take the concept of apps – where you get something that appears to do a job for free, but to make it work you need to make an in-app purchase, for some individually small amount. Now I despise apps and the concept of paying for software in general. I wouldn’t mind paying if you had some comeback on the supplier, but licensing has generally been on a ‘sold as seen’ basis for the last 20 years or so. Open source has largely fixed that problem – by dealing with the ‘sold’ part of the deal :)

    The great thing about in-app purchases for the seller is that the app promises, fails to deliver but says you can make it work if you pay the ransom money. In other areas of life this is considered nefarious activity. It isn’t actually new – PC software used to be sold this way in the late 1980s – it was dearer to start with but often many layers of functionality that you’d pay more for. The piss-taking toerags at Novell Netware used to sell you per seat network connection licences 2, and the DOS version of MS Word had varying levels of functionality. Electronics schematic layout software would sometimes only let you lay out so many components before you’d have to pay. So this sort of incremental sales strategy isn’t new, but it was usually confined to the B2B sector back then. Businesses are usually much better at qualifying the ROI they will get on a piece of production equipment than consumers are at evaluating the enhancement of quality of life they will get for spending money on some consumer goods.

    case study:  buying an app to play a mixtape

    A mixtape is a long continuous gapless track – my application is for parties, where I use foobar and continuator to intelligently crossfade a sequence that I’ve manually scheduled and mixed in key. Some time a go I bought an iPod to develop some mobile web HTML. It did the job admirably and cost-effectively, and to be honest doesn’t owe me anything now. But I have never got it to work properly for playing music, because I despise iTunes,  which failed me dismally. Given I am playing this out on a field with no power or Internet access I had one primary CD player and two failover solutions – a second copy of the 7 hour mixtape CD on a cheap backup player and the iPod as third-line.

    As the weather deteriorated and the humidity rose 3 the main player started to skip, so I wanted to crossfade to the iPod, with no moving parts it should be best able to run through the dew point.

    iTunes lied to me when it said it uploaded the file

    You really don’t want to see this if you’re going to crossfade to it. iTunes lied to me when it said it uploaded the file

    So I had to crossfade to the crappy CD player and a regular album, and start to cue the backup CD four hours in. For technical reasons that sort of track fast forwards glacially slowly, I just got there by the time the regular album was about four tracks in, ready to crossfade back.

    Now I should have tested everything including the third-level failover, so it’s my bad. However, in seeking a solution to this, I find the music app on the iPod can’t play a mixtape and index the songs. Most people play pop songs on their iPods with a gap or an auto-crossfade, which sound poor to me 4, and is what I’m trying to improve on. Presumably nobody listens to classical music or live albums on an iPod which are also long gapless tracks. The correct solution to indexing a continuous track without gaps is to use a cuesheet and FLAC, because another thing I realised when playing the regular CD is although I can’t hear the difference between MP3 and CD audio at modest listening levels the difference is all too apparent at high levels .

    So what I need is an app. I now know what I need is an app that will play a cue-indexed single track file, but initially I thought I could mix the tracks automatically on the fly. I don’t want to manually DJ it because I don’t have the skill, I don’t get to  talk to anyone and the results will get worse as the evening goes on due to the power of drinking :)

    Enter the world of hurt that is apps – gamified consumerism in action

    I really hate apps. They’re vile, because they do so little, and the nickel-and-diming to coax even the slightest bit of usefulness out of them is hard to track. I got Algoriddms djay LE for free. but to load my own tracks would mean an in app purchase. So I did that, for £1.50, only to find that once I’d downloaded into itunes it wouldn’t let me load it on anything less than iOS7, which is Apple’s way of deliberately deprecating old gear – they just stop updating iOS for it, and 6 is as far as they will go for mine. Would it really be too much to ask that they check first before letting you buy an upgrade that won’t work on your kit, given they use such corrupt business practices? The ermine is down £1.50 with a fail on caveat emptor – I was unaware that an upgrade to a working program could be non-compatible. As I observed before, everything Apple is easy but hard at the same time.

    So I look for an app that does work. Ah DJ mixer 3 does work, but you need to pay £7 to be able to use your own tracks. Now I can’t say I didn’t have fun with that app scratch mixing and finding sixty seven ways to make things sound crap. But the automix sounds poor with pop and rock, though it’s okay with dance. I still don’t think most  of the adults at the Oak Tree farm parties are ready for EDM/dance, though I got some of the kids out in the middle dancing with the odd dance track.  I have no complaint about that app, it works for what it’s designed to do, but not well enough for me.

    So I still need an app to play a long wav or FLAC track with a cue sheet, so that’ll be Golden Ear then. I now have a bit of trepidation about dropping £6 on something that promises it’ll do the job after the frustrating experience with apps so far. You can’t trust apps to do what it says on the tin, it appears, even down to basic things like installing…

    I’ll be down £15 just to get this to play music in a way that fits my requirements. Now I can’t say that’s a huge outlay, but I only wrangle apps every six months or so, and I’ve had rotten value so far because I wasn’t allowed to test with my material before shelling out. Not only that, but there’s the incremental way these are sold. If you have a smartphone and are buying apps every other week your app costs could easily exceed your mobile subscription, but it’ll happen in random itty bitty pieces so you won’t clock it. Plus the way individual functions are chargeable means they can avoid sticker shock – you wouldn’t pay £20 for an app in one go but you might to get different levels of functionality enabled as the crippleware gets in your way.

    This experience has left me much less likely to get a smartphone in future. I hate working this way, I’d much rather pay for something that does the job upfront 5 than be nickel-and-dimed like that. I do want to be able to test things out properly, and this is something that is craftily prevented by crippling specific features.

    The other thing that is nasty about iOS is I can’t code for it without high up-front costs. Even if I had a Mac, I’d have to pay $99 a year for the privilege of getting my own programs onto my own machine, WTF is up with that?

    Low capital costs and high running or replacement/upgrade costs is the way things are going

    Unfortunately an increasing amount of things are sold this way, at a low upfront cost and you get sliced and diced on the consumables. You rent your music with Spotify, you rent your printer with shockingly expensive ink cartridges though the machine is virtually a freebie, any Apple hardware is on borrowed time because it will become orphaned as iOS leaves it behind in a few years. You as a good little consumer will simply funnel part of your paycheque into the consumerism machine to keep the world turning.

    It’s not how I want to buy Stuff, I don’t expect to keep on changing it. For instance, I have only ever had one scanner, an Epson Perfection 1200S SCSI scanner, it is now about 15 years old, and I recently got this working with my Windows 7 machine. It would have been easier to buy a new USB scanner, but I like this, it’s served me well and I want to keep it going. Back then I used it a lot, now I just want to scan the odd thing here or there. My computers are about seven years old. I can’t use a tablet because I am also a creator of content as well as a consumer. I’d punch the screen out if I had to tap tap tappity tap on a touch screen.There hasn’t been that much development in computers over the last few years that makes a difference for writing, browsing and running design software or editiong audio 6. Obviously if you play games to push the graphics then you’ll disagree, but I don’t have those sorts of requirements.

    I purchased my hi-fi preamplifier secondhand thirty years ago, and my power amplifier is a secondhand Naim 250 which has probably been in service for 20 years. I have had to service the preamp and had the power amplifier serviced a few years back. Decent gear lasts if you look after it. But more and more there just isn’t decent gear to be had, or it is made deliberately obsolescent. And I’m tired of it.

    This low service life and deliberate obsolescence is one of the reasons that I find Stuff much less rewarding now. I don’t want to have to  buy a new phone, or music player, or camera every year. I don’t give a toss about being with it, I’d just like to be able to do what I used to be able to do with it, and if apps are part of the way to make it do stuff then not get locked out of the app ecosystem after a couple of years.

    update 9 July 15:00 -

    Another great example of this came through my door

    1407-tesco-140709Loads of savings on offer from Tesco, What do I have to do to get my £45 off -

    you want me to trot along once a week like a good li'l consumer? On yer bike...

    you want me to trot along once a week like a good li’l consumer? On yer bike…

    I have to spend £375 with them, over six successive weeks. No Mr Tesco, I am not a lab rat in your maze, so I’ll pass on this. In the event that I really do want something worth £70+ from you I’ll consider it, but the existence or otherwise of your promotion will not change what I do.

    Fight impetuous, narcissistic buy now consumerism. 24 hours at a time. Time is on your side…

    Notes:

    1. This is probably the same sort of thing as your mother used to tell you to sleep on something before doing something crazy – I think most people’s emotional states vary across the diurnal cycle, it’s a way of getting a ‘different you’ to look at the purchase.
    2. it was sweet when MS, and then TCP/IP destroyed Novell’s business case and ate their lunch. I still detest this company for that egregious policy a quarter of a century after it got in my way at work
    3. everybody thinks dew is a thing of the morning, but it happens in the evening as soon as the sun goes down. Humidity rises and condensation often happens by twilight
    4. the crossfade is fixed in the iPod which works fine most of the time but sounds rotten when it doesn’t and the iTunes soundcheck level matching sucks compared to foobar’s replaygain
    5. although I don’t like paying for software I’m not religiously opposed to it. I try and find a free way of doing things but I do have a  folder of shareware registration details and I still use some of these programs
    6. I do feel the lack of performance when editing video, but I don’t do enough of that to be worth changing
    3 Jul 2014, 9:37am
    living intentionally personal finance:
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  • Ralph Borsodi, and a codicil to Two Years on

    One of the features of Mustela erminea is that they are curious. You only have to look at someone trying to walk a ferret (another mustelid M. putorius furo) in a straight line to see that. I think if you are going to retire early you really do want to be curious. I read a lot as a child, and the modern world gives a lot of opportunity to be curious about it. The tools are immeasurably better too, compared to those of 30 or 40 years ago. Starting with Google but extending to the fact that information is much easier to collect, store and marshal. People share ideas more widely, because they can, and humans are a social species.

    The world is full of fascinating stuff – it is good to heave the freedom to get a hold of interesting ideas, run with them for a while, then stick them into the armoury of things that might be applied to different areas. I find it a little bit disturbing how many people imagine that people who have retired get bored, unless they can spend loads of money on entertainments. Jacob’s trifecta of shopping, restaurants and tickets springs to mind here, in supporting evidence I cite this page on MoneySavingExpert. Key headings

    Clothes and Fashion, Food and Drink (generally fast) and Travel and Days Out

    looks much like shopping, restaurants and tickets to me. This is on the otherwise generally awesome Money Saving Expert site where many of the users have got themselves into deep financial doo-doo by buying too much of these items on tick? WTF? The hot tip here, guys, is take the fight to the enemy: do much less of these things. Not only will you enjoy each instance more by dynamic contrast between going for a decent meal set against the norm of not doing that, but then you don’t have to prostitute your personal details to try and get a lousy 5 or 10% off. Just. Do. Less. Do half and that’s a 50% discount – even if you pay full price ;) I don’t muck around with Quidco and the likes of that sort of thing because I don’t spend enough on the sorts of things that Quidco works with to make it worth it. I buy components and raw materials to make stuff, not finished goods, which seems the key to the boredom problem – create more,  consume less.

    from DJing to personal finance…

    That curiosity recently delivered me an insight, combined with some of your comments. The Oak Tree farm party is this weekend, and I largely solved the problem of how to rig a couple of hundred watts of power on an unpowered island site. That’s not rave or Glastonbury level, but enough for a party of about fifty people outdoors (and a few hundred metres away from neighbouring houses – sound fades quickly outside).

    In the past I’ve stuck the tracks on a mp3 CD player and set it to shuffle, which is okay as far as it goes, but I wanted to understand how to do better. Although for some reason I actually like some of the more mainstream EDM despite being one or two generations beyond clubbing and no aptitude for dance, I don’t think our members want too much of that, but I figured a look at how DJs 1 do this sort of thing. Now I don’t want to do all this live, so I want to create the CDs with the right running order (apparently called a mixtape) and then patch in people’s iPods with a DJ mixer I bought at a radio rally for £10. I learned about BPM and mixing in key and a whole load of stuff about music theory I didn’t know, and came across this article about bringing back flow, which introduced me to the difference between insight and analysis.

    a modern-day Mark of the Beast

    Investing by insight rather than analysis

    For the last five years I shifted greatly towards analysis, because insight isn’t easy to do under pressure. There are some classes of problems which are only amenable to analysis, and personal finance has a lot of these. For instance if most people use insight to qualify risk they end up doing the National Lottery and ‘investing’ their money in Cash ISAs (which is indeed what most people do) whereas analysis shows there may be better ways. And the National Lottery is always wrong – though if you want to have the it could be you buzz then do it. Once, and only once. That turns ‘it couldn’t be you’ into ‘it wasn’t you’ for a modest cost. There’s vanishingly little more to be gained by pursuing the ‘it wasn’t you’ any more – analysis is the way to know why.

    However, I have got that analysis/insight balance wrong for the future, and worse still, some of my insight is distorted by outdated forms that have become linked, particularly with the term work but also some wider principles. Unfortunately only insight can connect me with my values as far as I can see; analysis addresses the how I do something but insight is a large part of knowing why. Because it can’t be decomposed into steps it’s easy for insight to be distorted – by advertising, by rotten experiences, by general state of mind.

    Few things really a pair of totally isolated poles, I need to add insight to my analysis to direct things closer to my values, and analysis to my insight to clear out some of the distortions and old forms that bias the compass away from my values – try and use more insight and less instinct.

    The past is a different country. I did things differently there

    One of the things I learned has been that I have shadowboxed the experience of getting out of The Firm for too long. Two years is enough to integrate the experiences.

    I need to shift focus from trying to outrun the past to run towards the future. The shift to a more frugal way of living does seem to have absolved me of the requirement to work, as it was designed to do. In doing so, however, I have linked unhealthy subconscious forces to the concept of work. It is very unlikely that I will apply to work for a company as an employee in future. So I am done with all the Digital Taylorism that is screwing up work at the middle level I was working at. I need to let the toxic waste go – it served me well in bringing enough focus to escape the rat race. It’s as if I had read this by ERE and followed the instructions but retained the anger ;)

    curiosity is not the only way

    There’s a massive variation in what people want to do with their life. For many people the value to be had from shopping, restaurants and tickets is well worth the cost of working, particularly if they can’t imagine any other way.  If it weren’t presumably they’d do something else. As long as they find working agreeable there’s no problem, in which case why not take part in the cornucopia of goods and services a modern industrial economy makes available? Indeed, I need you to consume so some of the companies I own a share of can make money, but more to the point, if you enjoy it, knock yourself out.  Obviously if you design this into your life you may want to consider how stable your work is, because it would be tough to build in so much cost into life and then feel rotten if work dried up. A portfolio career is better in that way; you can lose some strands without it becoming catastrophic.

    Although there’s a hint of bread and circuses in it, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with hedonism. As long as it isn’t done on borrowed money that is, because you borrow it from your future self and your future self might feel differently about your current self’s inability to wait. There’s an inherent asymmetry between saving and borrowing – when saving you electively choose to live below your means now so that your future self can live above their means for a while. Your future self still has choice – they don’t have to live above their means – they could give it to their(your) kids, or the cats’ home, or burn it in the backyard. Whereas if you spend your future self’s money now they get no choice in the matter though you do – they have to live below their means, or go bankrupt.

    Another perfectly good reason is that you find the shopping, restaurants and tickets worth the aggravation of working. In that case, the game is worth the candle, but again, doing with borrowed money there’s still the issue of your future self not getting a say in the matter.

    For those who come it find working disagreeable in a way exceeding the buzz of shopping, restaurants and tickets, one good option is then to spend less. The sheer variety and range of stuff on offer can easily bamboozle us with its richness, the essential question to ask is how much is more doing for you? You first smartphone is presumably transformational 2 – it means you don’t have to arrange to meet up before hand but can do it on the fly, you can Google the price of alternatives when you are in a store thinking of a bit more retail therapy, and you can ignore the real world a bit more and walk into lamp-posts/other passers-by/the road while being virtually somewhere else, and play Candy Crush Saga to get rid of some of those empty hours. Each to their own. Your second smartphone, and indeed all the upgrades add much less to your life in terms of extra capability than the first one. When you get to this stage

    1407_apple-iphone-5s-queue

    queue of punters waiting to buy an Apple iPhone

    you’ve probably lost the plot and are out of touch with some part of yourself. Or trying to make a few bucks, but getting paid to queue is telling you something about the value of your time ;)

    I needed to get a mobile web browser a while back to test a piece of web work I had and what it looks like on a mobile. I got an iPod, and use WiFi, because it was the cheapest, didn”t come with a mobile contract and did the job. I’ve occasionally used it out and about with BT Wifi in towns and campsites. It works fine for what I want to do. For mobile telephony I have a bog-standard mobile phone with Giffgaff PAYG for when I want to do such things, and a really old hand-me down from Mrs Ermine with a Virgin SIM in it, because that’s free to call her.

    The Ermine mobile phone estate

    The Ermine mobile phone estate. Skanky, n’est’ce pas? All bought and paid for, no contracts, and cheap. But not ‘with it’ at all

    The most useful item is the USB dongle, of course now hacked to break the 3G lock so I can use it on Giffgaff to connect my laptop PC to the Internet if I am on the road. I can afford a smartphone and I’d buy one cash without a contract if I wanted/needed one. But I don’t need the continual contract cost, because I don’t prize the service enough. A typical mobile phone contract seems to be £30/pcm or £720 a year, so while not outrageous, it’s a fair yearly hit. Plus a £300 smartphone seems to be amortised to scrap over one or two years because of upgradeitis or the disgraceful habit of Apple IOS orphaning their older products after three years or so – deliberately.

    The key to early retirement is to look at how you are living and to ask yourself how much of this spending matters. And target your spending on what matters to you, rather than what matters to people you know, or to the companies getting rich off it. Mistersquirrel has a rant on consumerism sparked off by an OU programme that sounds interesting.

    Personal finance works

    Get out of debt and stay out of it 3 and live below your means.

    That’s it. easy to say but hard to do – like living like a celibate monk in a brothel. The ERE theory of living on a lot less than half your take-home really does work, and it works in spades with the 60% boost into pension savings (why 60% and not 40% is explained in the previous post) where the saving is applied to the tax-free lump sum. The pension changes have opened this whole area up. This is also easier for me because it builds upon 30 years of conventional work – the extra push to ice 8 years of work is nothing like the push to get rid of 20. Obviously the 20 year early retiree has 12 more years of freedom and life to enjoy.

    A decent amount of luck, seizing the day in Spring 2009 and maxed Sharesaves and ESIP helps. And of course there are the known and unknown unknowns. Much can happen over the next 20 or 30 years, though some of the bad stuff cannot be hedged with financial assets. Or at all… Nevertheless, it’s good to do something about the things you can control. Coffee is there to help with things I can change, red wine to help with those I can’t ;)

    It is more important to me to be of independent means than to be retired

    man-with-savingsUntil I integrated some of insights in some of the comments I had not realised a simple fact. It is the powerplay of not being financially independent that I came to detest. I don’t really give a hoot about being retired.  But I really do care about being of independent means – because it is the latter that fixes the powerplay, not the former. You often do retire once you are of independent means,  if you aren’t you have to keep working. To my chagrin, I failed to understand that difference. It doesn’t particularly change what I do, but it does change how I feel.

    MMM cited this cheesy ‘A Man with Savings’, and he can get away with it because he’s American 4. I even used it in 2011 and had got half the story right. A man with savings does not have to be always running.

    I missed the other half. It is the freedom to do things independently of needing to earn money. I liked this account of James Lovelock and the need for non-institutionalised engineers and scientists – I’m not in his league but I can recognise where he’s coming from.

    It’s been two years, and it’s obvious looking back, but I didn’t realise that, until seeing some of it reflected back in some of the comments. As an example I constructed a camera using a Raspberry Pi to see if our newly arrived cows are still there. It needed to happen quickly, because Mrs Ermine was worried the cows might scarper. As it is, although I am still scared of cows (particularly as these are bullocks/steers) and I really don’t like the way they follow you around, I will speak for these guys in that they are fairly placid. Look to pigs if you want to see troublemakers, and a pig is a lot sharper of mind than a cow or steer. I’d watch them rather than the cows, but what the hell do I know, this is not my area of expertise, so if Mrs Ermine thinks there’s a cunning interior to those steers then maybe they are the awkward squad in bovine form.

    Camera is the mess top left of the IBC

    Camera is the bodged mess top left of the IBC. And the plastic bags for the MiFi box to keep the water out…

    It’s a mess, indeed if the IEE get to see it they’d probably revoke my C Eng for unprofessional bodgery of the first order 5. But Mrs Ermine knows that she’s got cows.

    Got Cows.

    I may see if there’s and wider application – I know a guy who is into wildlife and Raspberry Pi, because he is into trailcams and had ideas for a time-lapse Raspberry Pi camera. I have the edge on the engineering, but I want to retain my freedom of action and don’t really want to be into selling or dealing with people I don’t know in connection with money. I might be able to add value to his panoply of devices and services, and if not – well, that is what is precious about being of independent means. There isn’t any of the desperation that bad shit will happen if not.

    now this looks like trouble...

    now this looks like trouble…

    Update – Mrs Ermine has now reallocated the camera to the pigs. You really can’t trust hogs…

    ...whereas though this is huge and a bit scary, it's basically gormless, the lights really aren't on much in that head

    …whereas though this is huge and a bit scary, it’s basically gormless, the lights really aren’t on much in that head

    If I can add value, then naturally I want to make something of it – otherwise my contribution isn’t valued. It becomes the symbolic talisman of the exchange of value, because the money itself wouldn’t change my life. I’m not Russian oligarch rich – I don’t have a million pounds if I liquidated everything I own. Over at RIT and Monevator, intelligent and wise people are generally making the case that a million pounds is not quite enough to retire on; I guess their lifestyles are more expansive and therefore expensive, and they sometimes have requirements like the desire to pay for university for their children which adds up. More money wouldn’t hugely change my life, it is still Time I am short of ;)

    The money is then much more along the lines of Ayn Rand’s exchange of value between free agents 6, who choose to do it (if they do) because of mutual added value. And I know all the theory behind the Ricardian advantage and all that, but it never felt that way as a wage slave, because I felt I had no choice. I should not be bound by old thinking.

    Work is a four-letter word…

    It’s something I did, and for long enough to make my fortune, as they used to say in the fairy tales of old. The last three to five years should not so dominate the first twenty-five, during which The Firm and other companies served me well. I should appreciate that a bit more. I used to read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project in my last three years at work, and I am sure that somewhere in there I read that it is good to recall some things that one is grateful for.

    In the round, The Firm served me well, particularly in the early days. And if it was going to go bad at least it stayed together until I was able to get enough together to purchase manumission.

    Despite work being a four-letter word it should become a neutral one. I need to stop running from the idea, because that is stupid. The ermine does not need to run from a concept. I like Mr Money Mustache’s take on the end of J.D.Roth’s guest article

     Mr. Money Mustache’s Afterword:

    Part of financial independence is that you don’t have to advertise yourself anymore. So while J.D. didn’t mention all of his other work, I don’t mind sharing it with you…[read more]

    I was always a supplicant in connection with work and finding work, and the concept has been linked to the yoke of wage-slavery. Something about writing that post,  the different perspectives and indeed MMMs angle there helped me shuck the outdated form. I have the FU money, so I am not a supplicant. And for two years after retiring, while I knew this in a theoretical and intellectual way, I hadn’t let go of the old forms so I didn’t feel it.

    I still have no great desire to get into the world of work however ;) It still consumes time, indeed this is the biggest charge I hold against it…

    Living intentionally

    Four years ago, in the About page on here I wrote

    I want to craft a richer life. and to do that I have to master the essentials of personal finance, rather than subsist in employment. My younger self chose his career well, but I now want to cut it short by about fifteen years. I have seen too many days from inside office windows, I want to hear the birds, live more simply and frugally and drink in the days, rather than sleepwalk my way through them.

    I’m not quite sure why I listed that under personal finance, maybe I was confusing the means with the end.

    by buying a camper van. WTF? What’s this outrageous consumerism then?

    So I did something highly unfrugal, and bought a mini camper van, Well, I bought half of one, from Mrs Ermine, I already owned the other  half of it. Because I want to travel slowly, and overland, and hear those birds. Since it was our only vehicle, Mrs Ermine was using it to move all sorts of stuff for the farm, like mash for the pigs and pallets. Although I can only really make great use of it once I am drawing my pension, because I have an income suckout until then, at least that will stop the wear from that, and Mrs Ermine now has a small car which is better suited to that sort of thing. The camper van back overhangs somewhat, which is bad for shifting heavy stuff. You want the wheels pretty much at the corners of the car so that when you sling the heavy stuff in the back it lies within the wheelbase. We already managed to break one spring, though I think the rough roads of northern Scotland had something to do with that, but it’s made me windy of bad loading.

    Great landscape, but hard on the suspension

    Great landscape, Scotland, but hard on the suspension

    I wouldn’t have gone out on the open market and bought this – but that way the proceeds stay in the family. And I can use it in Suffolk in the interim for modest cost – the great thing is I can put a bike in the back without taking the bike to bits. But I’m not badass enough to ride tens of miles on a bike. 7 The combination is great – you see a lot more on a bike, particularly nature but also photographic opportunities and stopping to investigate something is so much easier on a bike. Using both gives me range and local agility. So I’ll get some use of it and hone my craft. Long distance or long time period camping is very different from day tripping – you need decent prep and checklists, because otherwise you end up without something apparently trivial that greatly improves the experience. Like the kettle, or a can opener or the spanner to change the gas cylinder – been there done that on all counts.

    It’s not frugal. But I don’t have to be frugal everywhere – just in enough places. And of course I bought it cash ;) And secondhand, I’d hate to break the habit of a lifetime and buy a vehicle new. I left that kind of thing to Mrs Ermine. Even if I were rich as Croesus the way half the value of  a new vehicle drops off it as soon as you buy it would take the edge off my day.

    In the longer term I want to go on longer tours, maybe a pilgrimage to some ancient sites and places that may or do hold meaning to me, places with history, ancient stones, where people live slower but with more depth. One of the things Philip Greenspun picked out was

    Travel: No to the Beach; Yes to the Organized Tour

    No the the beach is easy for me. I hate heat and have never sunbathed, I have never been on a beach holiday and don’t get it, and this still holds. The second intrigues me, I have never been on an organised tour of anything – the regimented nature never appealed. There is some logic in his position. If it didn’t work out while working I’d be sore of being out half my annual holiday but this reservation doesn’t hold now. So I might try something in that line.

    a codicil on the last post on two years on

    The last post on Two Years on was cathartic, but not an easy one to write. Thank you for the great comments and thank you too to Monevator and mistersquirrel for featuring it   – I got an interesting angle from some of the c0mments there too.

    I am not the only one to exit the workplace earlier than anticipated. Over the years I have had a few people contact me offline about keeping the flame of hope alive in a difficult workplace, I hope that showed it’s possible to get to the other side.

    I don’t want to labour the point, but stress as a mental health issue is very different from what is normally called stress. Some stress is necessary to achieve anything, and if your life has dynamic balance between that and other parts of life then it is not a problem. The NHS has a good summary of what to look for and the typical triggers. It is a very different kettle of fish to having to pull a string of all-nighters and then get hammered at the topping out party when everybody high-fives the results of all that massive effort. I didn’t know that till my late 40s either.

    MMM has a great post on how to avoid falling into the trap. It won’t help many people, however, because he speaks from a position of strength. The drip-drip-drip of a slowly changing situation creeps up on you, and the tipping point is sharp – a few days IMO. Once you have passed the point of no return then the original problems must be alleviated in some way for healing to begin.

    Although different for everyone, recovery is protracted but usually does come – you shouldn’t  lose hope if you aren’t 100% in a few weeks. I spent three years flying into the storm, so two years isn’t unreasonable for the recovery, but in the end it takes as long as it takes. It isn’t a linear improvement day on day, sometimes its three steps forward and two back. I had to be prepared to fall back, and fall back and fall back long enough, and when I was not watching it the faint spark strikes in the darkness and one time it takes hold. Many aspects of self-development have this sort of thing in them where you have to let go to be able to go forward, and otherwise subconscious resistance is induced by the conscious effort to force things; it is in Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, in some of Carl Jung’s work and the mystical concept of the dweller on the threshold.  Camus put it well in a different context in Return to Tipasa

    In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.

    I learned a lot from writing the post, because to actually write things down clarifies things because they must be lifted into the light of consciousness, and I learned more from the comments, which are a different kind of light in this case. One of the things that is clear is that I addressed the first part of the tagline of this blog, breaking free of the rat race. That is good, it was the most urgent part. But on reflection I can take the living intentionally part further.

    But don’t you get bored now you have more time and less money?

    No. Really. The keys to nailing that aren’t shopping, restaurants and tickets. Be curious, learn something new however trivial each day and create, don’t consume unthinkingly. There is also a subtext in that while my income was much higher when working towards the end my spending was probably lower than now because of the savings rate. I needed to get my taxable pay down to roughly the minimum wage because the taxman’s blood-funnel in my retirement strategy was beginning to really piss me off. I learned something unique and unforgettable when you do that, which is that a lot of my spending didn’t really work for me, and was simply dulling the pain of working 8

    I’d really, really, like to be able to say that this insight is mine alone. But it isn’t. As long ago as 1929 Ralph Borsodi wrote in This Ugly Civilization

    They do not realize that the idea that mankind’s comfort is dependent upon an unending increase in production is a fallacy.

    It is more nearly true to say that happiness is dependent not on producing as much as possible but on producing as little as possible. Comfort and understanding are dependent upon producing only so much as is compatible with the enjoyment of the superior life. Producing more than this involves a waste of mankind’s most precious possessions. It involves a waste of the only two things which man should really conserve–the two things which be should use with real intelligence and only for what really conduces to his comfort. When he destroys these two things, he has destroyed what is for all practical purposes irreplaceable. These two things are the natural resources of the earth and the time which he has to spend in the enjoyment of them.

    When he produces more things than are necessary to good living, he wastes both of them; he wastes time and he wastes material, both of which should be used to make the world a more beautiful place in which to live, and life in it more beautiful than it is today.

    Lest you think Borsodi was some turn-of-last-century Luddite, he opened that chapter with

    ALL civilizations have been ugly. They could not well avoid it.

    But this civilization is unique. Machines make it possible for this one to be beautiful, and yet it is in many respects indescribably uglier than the civilizations that have preceded it.

    For this civilization, instead of using machines to free its finest spirits for the pursuit of beauty, uses machines mainly to produce factories–factories which only the more surely hinder quality-minded individuals in their warfare upon ugliness, discomfort, and misunderstanding.

    Why did nobody introduce me to his work earlier :)  The big problem with work is that it wastes time. Britain’s productivity has apparently fallen since the financial crash. What we need is to match the rest of society (in particular house prices) to that lower productivity. Then people might have the time to raise their children by spending time with them, and pursue outside interests while working, rather than having to stagger to the finish line and then look around.

    Mixer and 12V power supply, for about £20 all-in and a bit of Ermine design and build

    Mixer and 12V power supply, for about £20 all-in and a bit of Ermine design and build

    Today I finished off mastering a compilation CD for someone’s wedding, I was investigating how to make a raspberry PI camera take pictures of our cows every 15 minutes (see above – I started writing this before I made that and got it into service). Then I am looking for a way to make an isolated power supply for the DJ mixer I bought for a tenner at a radio rally on Sunday to be able to use it for our farm party run off a leisure battery 9

    I repaired two electric fence energisers. I determined the range of WiFi on the farm (not enough) and investigated approaches to improve this at low cost, using a directional antenna.

    Then I tried to work out what my policy is for the new ISA limits. They are greater than the capital gains tax limit so I need to contribute some as real cash rather than from gradual sales of my unwrapped holdings. And there’s also the new pension rules making it favourable to have a SIPP. I am getting to the point where I will be prepared to borrow money next year maybe to put into the SIPP, because all these changes mean I have to find about £20,000 extra before I draw my pension, and I don’t want to run down my NS&I cash fund or bend my cash ISA.

    Trust me – there’s too much interesting stuff out there to poke a snout in to get bored. The bits from roughly a week described there has involved very little shopping, no restaurants and no tickets. Borsodi was right. It isn’t that you need nothing, you need the right amount of Stuff, and the way it’s promoted it’s easy to end up with way too much. There really is not shortage of things to think and do, indeed unfortunately the box of half-done parked projects seems to be increasing of late, although the box of stuff made, in service or fixed is increasing too!

    Notes:

    1. DJ seems to mean something very different from the straight scheduler of songs it meant in analogue days, it is a performance in and of itself, particularly with clubs and EDM where the aim is to achieve a seamless sequence that works together. I was warmed up to this by the stupendous amount of DJ gear available in the local Cash Converters when I was in the market for a PA amp
    2. I don’ have one, so I don’t know
    3. mortgage in my case, I didn’t have any other debt
    4. I don’t mean this disrespectfully to Americans – they haven’t got to be the richest nation on earth by being cynical, not being open to new ideas and having a great awareness of irony :) There is notable truth in ‘The Pleasure of Walking Tall’ despite it being gagworthy reading to British eyes
    5. The bodgery is acceptable because this is a proof of concept. There is a waterproof case available for the Raspberry Pi so there wasn’t much point in putting a lot of effort into making a repeatable waterproof case. Electrical tape and a minimum of holes, mainly underneath is good enough. If the project has a longer service life then a rebuild is in order
    6. yeah, I know, dangerous territory and who the hell is John Galt anyway
    7. Even if I were, I am also not leaving many hundreds of pounds worth of photo or sound recording gear on a bike and not shaking the hell out of it on the road – the conversion of a cheap Chinese bike camera to a kit of loose parts after a few hundred miles on a bike was an education in itself as to how bad the vibration is on an unsprung bike frame – I only carry camera gear in a backpack, not in the panniers now.
    8. It’s much easier for me as part of a child-free couple and at the end of my career to live on an income of the minimum wage because I have capital assets (paid-for house, productive farm and firewood). I am not a heartless bastard saying it’s easy to live on the minimum wage – it depends on what stage of life you are and what commitments you have, though I am of the old-fashioned view that one’s financial resources should be considered before taking on some commitments.
    9. the mixer take 9Vac and uses a short Cockroft-Walton stepup in the power supply to make the ±12V split rails. So you can’t just stick 9Vdc into it.

    Two years in – how’s that early retirement working out

    It’s soon coming up to two years since I checked out of the rat race, a good time to take stock and look at what I’ve learned. This is particularly long. I did think about breaking it over several posts, but what the hell, it is a long story. I’ve collected a few pointers to some things I’ve heard people being interested in over the years as a table of contents

    1. become an opportunist
    2. A lot of early retirement is about reducing living costs
    3. Retirement is a different phase of life. Making it like work without the work is not the only choice you can make
    4. Not having a regular income is scary
    5. what it feels like to live off ‘drawdown’
    6. The extra win a 40% tax payer gets from pension saving is much higher than that for a basic rate taxpayer
    7. Work and all that
    8. The distinction between work and not work is peculiar to the non financially independent
    9. Grow within yourself – or else
    10. The tl;dr summary

    Overview

    First off, I am not using any of my retirement savings – my pension remains deferred along with my linked AVC savings.What I am using now to live off is saved cash, though I also have income from ISA savings but these are reinvested. If I were to draw it now, my pension is notably above my annual running costs.

    Three things contributed to this -

    getting the mortgage monkey off my back

    Paying off my mortgage eliminated much of the static drain of housing from my finances.It was a long job paying down the debt over twenty years. It’s not always a wise thing to do for an early retiree – anybody who is retiring before they can access their pension savings may want to consider keeping their mortgage and saving into pension savings with the aim of paying off their mortgage with the pension commencement lump sum. I didn’t do that because I was reactive and fearful. It’s a mistake that’s fail-safe – I live off less at the moment but will have more later on. It so happens that I was able to save the maximum worth saving into my pension savings and pay down the mortgage, after which I tossed what would have gone into the mortgage into ISA savings because I also saved money by

    shooting the consumerism monkey

    Breaking the cycle of mindless consumerism has helped me no end. Initially I did it because I was desperate to win freedom from The Man and needed to save every pound I could. I’m not going to bullshit, the first six months are hard. I never borrowed to buy consumer crap, but I wasn’t above buying Stuff because I thought it would make me happy. Only after about a year did I come to the awful realisation that

    Stuff very rarely makes me happy

    Now the validity of this varies across one’s life-cycle. When starting out, and you have very little, of course Stuff makes you happy, from you first iPad/kettle/car/bed/chair whatever. It’s later on, particularly in the upgrade cycle where the wheels come off the whole spending money on Stuff thing. People started to realise this, so there are some classes of Stuff that are deliberately engineered to become worthless or hard to use over time – the way Apple manages IOS to depreciate their historic gear is a classic example. Other examples are cloud services. I am using a 10-year old copy of Quicken because it does what I want it to – the rental versions introduced after 2004 have become worthless in the meantime.

    I say very rarely because some Stuff does make me happy. The key to achieving a decent balance with consumerism is to know why you are buying something, and to evaluate its likely impact on your life without the spurious trappings of advertising. One of the simple rules to help with that is to wait 7 days before buying it – the initial sugar rush of ‘this will change my life’ decays over a couple of days, leaving me with a clearer head.

    Mr Money Mustache has an entertaining read on this topic, titled recovering from the Pack Rat years. I came to a very similar conclusion to him independently – all the way down to no longer having a broadcast-TV capable viewing system. The only area I disagree is that I have no smartphone, because a smartphone is an absolutely shit digital camera and equally crap audio recorder 1, and it seems I am more demanding of these functions than usual. However, all my camera and recording gear was bought before 2007 – I am still the limitation there. In the event that my skills and creativity become honed to get better results out of better gear and I can turn that into profit I will consider it.

    savouring the moment

    It took a long time to realise this, and it wasn’t the result of any conscious decision. Perhaps it’s the result of having more time – when I was working I was always chasing after being somewhere else, in space or in time. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the ‘anywhere but here’ of a drone, I spent too much life energy wanting what I didn’t have rather than wanting what I did have. I need time to appreciate what I do have, and maybe it was time I didn’t have before I retired.

    There’s a corollary to this, which is

    become an opportunist as a retiree. It’s cheaper, and more fun

    Many of the costs associated with life are to do with controlling your world. As a wage-slave you must control your world to fit in with the strictures of your job. You have to make sure you are somewhere for specific times. Even if you are a freelancer you have to work a certain amount of the time unless you are financially independent. You have to arrange a lot of things to be just so, you have to take your holidays within so many days, often people have to match their availability with the requirements of other people’s jobs and childcare etc.

    All of this takes optionality out of your life so you need to control your non-work life to fit in, and control costs money. If you have to be at work you have to pay someone to look after your children in the day. You have to pay commuting costs. And so on.

    It takes a long time to realise that there are other ways of living, that are far less structured if you let go of the inner control freak that had to fit in with work. Roll with opportunities.

    A lot of early retirement is about reducing living costs

    As we go through the many decades of a working life, we tend to see some lifestyle creep. We are social animals, we spend money on things that other people do because no man is an island, entire of itself. Others may spend money on things that really matter to them, and often we end up apeing these or hankering after stuff because, well, if it’s valued by others it must be good.

    In the first couple of decades of working this social pressure is stronger – as time goes by there are more differences in the way people live their lives and this pressure is less. In my twenties most of my peers lived similar lives, often flatsharing or in digs. As time went on they paired up, then many had kids. The differences in living styles diverged more, and these divergences add up, reducing the social pressure. I should add that being childfree means I don’t know about child-related social pressure, though I suspect this is high. The way people work themselves up about schools indicates this child-related peer pressure is of a quite stupendous nature!

    The key to early retirement is to look at how you are living and to ask yourself how much of this spending matters to me or people dear to me, how much does it enhance my quality of life? Then stick with that, and start to eliminate the rest, and simplify things. Complexity begets cost and dependencies. And take a wider systems approach to your living – how far you are living from work, how big a house you have.

    For instance I took the shaft from housing early on, so I am in a lower grade of housing than most of my ex-colleagues. There is an indirect upside to that – my house is smaller than theirs, easier to heat, less to decorate and furnish, and less council tax to pay. Year on year on year, and that adds up over time. Some of this shows in the result – I discharged my mortgage in 20 years despite buying at a stupid time, taking a hit on a relationship breakup and buying with an endowment. My ex-colleagues often still had big mortgages on their big houses as they entered their 50s. Obviously I don’t get to spread myself out over such a wide area. Unlike them, housing is not the largest capital ‘asset’ I have.

    A lot of consumer complexity I seem to have avoided by a combination of luck and the fact there were fewer temptations in my formative years. ERE has a nice wiki article on this for people who want to design their lifestyle by intent rather than by happenstance. Like starting to save for retirement, ideally you try and design your life consciously by the end of your twenties, because a lot of big lifestyle costs start to get baked in to your life after that.

    You can reduce living costs further by ignoring differences that don’t really matter to you. MMM has a great rant on Cure Yourself of Tiny details Exaggeration Syndrome which saves me the bother of explaining that. It often staggers me, when talking to people who in theory would like to retire early how much they cling to things like being able to run new cars every three years and regular high-cost things like the fast and furious skiing holidays of the cubicle slave. As for golf – it seems designed to be the nemesis of economy, with high course fees, club fees and equipment costs plus the depredations of the 19th hole.

    Now if they have sat back and asked themselves does this really matter to them and the answer is yes, then of course that’s intentional living and to be saluted. But often if you scratch a little harder it is because they fear the loss of status. The obvious question is who are they living for, because the Joneses don’t really give a shit. But to ask it would be unkind – people can only shift their world-view at a certain speed, and it’s always better if that shift comes from within.

    Retirement is a different phase of life. Making it like work without the work is not the only choice you can make.

    Retirement is a different phase of life. The tradeoffs are dramatically different. If you want your retired life to look exactly like your working life but without the work, then fine, you gotta do what you gotta do, generally working to 65. You will be able to broadly maintain the same spending, provided you have paid down your house. But you owe it to yourself to at least challenge the assumption and examine alternatives. Many people at The Firm have this pathology – they’ve been there so long they struggle to imagine anything other than the same life they have, but without the work. Some indeed fear that subtracting work will subtract meaning from their lives. These types of people should never stop work – because Nature abhors a vacuum. It goes along with the general thread that flexibility and openness to new ways of doing things is important to retiring early successfully.

    Not having a regular income is scary

    Two years ago I went from being a wage-slave with a steady income to being some odd combination of drawdown retiree and investor, I’m not even an honest pensioner because I’m not drawing a pension. I am doing what any early (pre-55) retiree has to do for some of the time. It’s impossible to overstate how different that feels to having a regular income. People who have been self-employed or otherwise handle a variable income will find that transition easier, but I find it scary.

    The problem is that the job of squaring the financial circle is easy to define to a wage-slave. Keep at it, don’t do anything to lose your job without lining up another, and don’t spend more than you earn, with some notable exceptions (housing and education).  Summed up pithily by the distillation of my parents’ wisdom

    Don’t spend more than you earn, son

    The definition is easy, though the implementation isn’t. What you earn in a year is a number, written on your P60, and what you spend is a number too, in my case available from Quicken. Take one from the other, and Wilkins Micawber is your man

    Tools of a typical office-based trade

    checking in the tools of a typical office-based trade

    So the Ermine checks in his computer, phone and staff card and all of a sudden the inflow stops. Now I got a year’s salary as redundancy, so the intuitive answer to ‘how long to go before I have to draw my pension’ is one year, but all of a sudden everything gets more complex.

    For starters I had to toss a significant part of the redundancy into my pension AVCs to avoid paying tax on it. I also want to fill an ISA’s worth every year, so doing that for a couple of years means all of a sudden I am left with less than the minimum full-time wage for a couple of years. And at the moment I don’t use any of the income on my savings; the reason for that is that at the moment I cannot turn a useful return on cash savings so it makes sense to run my cash reserves down and reinvest the dividends from the ISA.

    Many aspects of finances are easier for a wage slave, with their steady flow of income. For instance I have to hold much higher cash reserves against the unexpected – fortunately this is held with NS&I so at least it doesn’t particularly depreciate over time. If you have a regular income you don’t need to do that, so simply need enough slack in the system to be able to cut back if something untoward happens like the roof leaking. You simply cut down your partying until you’ve paid the unexpected bills down. I have to hold the cash to address these hits up front.

    But the hardest part of having no annual income is that it’s hard to qualify what a sustainable annual spend would be. If  you ask Wilkins Micawber he’ll shoot back

    expenditure > income, result misery, wrong way, do not enter, turn back now, don’t go there bud

    I don’t have any of my retirement capital available to me, as I am deferring my pension to raise its annual value once paid. So my AVC savings are also quarantined by that. In one limiting case I am okay now – if I drew my pension now my spending is lower than the net amount, and that also excludes any value from my AVCs or existing share portfolio. The job of bridging this gap has also been made harder by some of the opportunities that the Chancellor has made – the greater flexibility of taking a DC pension pretty much mandates saving about a personal allowance-worth of DC pension because HMRC toss a fifth of it in the pot and the new increased ISA allowance needs filling up.

    Fortunately I have a shedload of The Firm’s shares purchased under Sharesave and Share Incentive Programme, all unwrapped. These can get sold over time and the proceeds bulk up the ISA. Once I get hold of the pension the I will have the AVC funds to shove into ISA savings over a few years. In the long run my ISA savings will be about half the capital value behind my pension which is RPI linked to a point. The ISAs  job is to fight inflation in the medium to long term.

    what it feels like to live off ‘drawdown’

    So I’m easy with the long term strategy. But obviously, I am running down the cash at the moment. And that’s not a good feeling. I fought against the depreciation of my net worth intially after I retired, before coming to the conclusion that wasn’t possible. At the moment it turns out that it was possible – this is a zero based networth chart, excluding the value of my house and any pension associated savings.

    Ermine instantaneous networth excl house and pension

    Ermine instantaneous networth excl house and pension

    It looks okay, but I’d also have to deflate this by inflation, two years of inflation roughly knocks 10% off the real value. I don’t have an excel version of this so I used the shear function in Photoshop to drop the right hand side by about 10% 2.

    inflation-adjusted version

    inflation-adjusted version – the original baseline is shown by the dates

    What is, however, happening is that the balance is shifting from cash to equities, which looks in Quicken like a madcap 20-something’s asset allocation. Although the equity allocation is getting on for three-quarters equities, this also explains the strange image of networth increasing while drawing down some of the capital. I need to remember the good men in white coats (hat tip to Monevator) who rock up just in the nick of time with their ‘this too will pass’ ring and remind me that this is illusory.

    Observe the increase, and increasing volatility with time. That, my friend, is what the stock market does to you. In exchange for a little bit of real return, it gives you a hellaciously rough ride with a massive noise signal to bamboozle any attempt at rational thought. Remember there isn’t any income in here 3, there is some spending, and the equity ratio is increasing. And stock markets have been on a tear for the last few years, only last year people were asking ‘I don’t know what the ‘king hell we’re doing up here mate‘. Twice

    Three-quarters of my current asset allocation is in equities, and in a bad year, equities can fall by 50%. In a different world it could look like this

    the retired in 2007-ish version

    the retired in 2007-ish version. Okay, falls happen more sharply than rises so it isn’t that realistic. There’s only so much you can do with Photoshop ;)

    This sort of roller-coaster ride is what awaits anyone with a DC pension who does not annuitise any part of their capital on retirement or shift to some safer asset class. In particular, the good people who the Pensions Minister exhorted to enter drawdown rather than go buy a Lamborghini are going to be facing this. Yes, they don’t end up getting a fixed crap income of 5% of their capital, non RPI linked. But they have to accept that bronco ride. And every time an IFA asks Joe Public about his risk profile the answer comes back that he hates risk. I am in the stratospheric nutcase end of the risk tolerance (because my risk tolerance is balanced by the bond-like nature of a final salary pension)

    An Ermine's risk profile

    An Ermine’s risk profile

    And I don’t like it. Am I drawing down at a sustainable rate? The 4% SWR is an article of faith, and that faith is easy to come by at the moment, as the good doc said. It was probably harder to find in 2009. If it mattered greatly, I’d have to ‘fess up that I have no idea to that sustainable question. However, since I have a pension that is greater than my rate of spend waiting, plus an AVC fund that is in cash and larger than my ISA I will probably get away with it.

    The takeaway is that living off a large equity based capital allocation feels like a very rough ride indeed, and let’s face it, I’ve only have the upside of that ride. For someone who has drawn a steady salary for 30 years, that is not a peaceful feeling. I have other options, and perhaps I am more fearful than others, but it would totally creep me out to rely on that 4. I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I am happy to say I don’t need to find out, because I will get some of that steady income back.

    I am probably underspending

    It’s not a common observation in the PF universe, but I am probably running below my financial capacity. I had expected to reach the zero cash line between a year and a year and a half out (that would have been end of 2013), and to be drawing my pension already or imminently. I am six months into extra time. The reason for the underspending is because I extrapolated from spending at work, and it was also cluttered a little bit by spending on establishing a business.

    Now if you’re going to err in retirement, err on the underspending side. However, da yoof is not totally wrong with YOLO and at some stage I need to review this. Even after two years, I am still in the recovery phase from a pretty rough experience of the last couple of years of work. So this spending pattern fits my needs at the moment.

    The extra win a 40% tax payer gets from pension saving is counterintuitively high, compared with the BRT win.

    We all know the pack drill. When you save £100, you put it somewhere and you can’t spend that £100. Easy – that’s pretty much how your ISA works, and almost all non-pension saving. The deal with pensions and taxation is different – you save some amount x and you don’t earn £100 net. The net effect is the same – you have £100 a month less to spend on beer/chocolate/paying off your mortgage.

    It’s very counterintuitive, but forego £100 of net income and you get to save £166 in a pension. That’s because the £100 has been taxed at 40%, ie your net £100 is 60% of the gross amount, so the taxman gives you back 40/60 ie 2/3 of the amount you have foregone. Everybody thinks oh it’s only 40%, but in truth of the amount you can forego it is 66% – for every £100 net you don’t earn, you save £166 in your pension, a 66% bump up compared to if you earn it and bung it in an ISA.

    Compare that with the basic rate taxpayer – they forego £100 and it’s made up to £125. Okay, it’s still a 25% boost but it’s nowhere near the boost the HR taxpayer gets. It was a little bit better at The Firm because they used salary sacrifice, so the BRT payer gets 32% (20% tax and 12% NI) so for every £100 he doesn’t earn he gets £47 added, which is nearly twice as much.

    I hit this hard, and I started investing in a Global:FTSE100 50:50 fund from March 2009 on, so I got a 20% uplift in my AVCs from the stock market and the depreciation of the pound. But even so, I look back at my AVC savings and wonder how the bloody hell did I manage to save a year and a half gross salary in pension AVCs in three years. And fill my ISA each year and save a third of a year’s gross from net savings into NS&I ILSCs. I still don’t really understand it, but that tax relief did a lot of the heavy lifting, and the stock market played its part too, in that lift from March 2009.

    This is why old gits at the end of their working lives can karate-chop the much vaunted magic of compound interest and bust its ass. They’re more likely to be higher rate taxpayers, they have more chance of having paid down their mortgage and they are a hell of a lot closer to getting the win so they are much more motivated because of the effect of hyperbolic discounting – loads of wedge in five years is a damn sight more interesting than loads of wedge in four decades. I saved a quarter of the total value of my work pension in the last three years, which is roughly an eighth of my time there.

    Work

    I retired early because I was stressed and became increasingly out of sync with the way work was being run. I am still recovering from that. It is only recently that I can reliably hear what is good in music, and there’s still a while to go before I will have recovered this to what I once had. In a myriad of small ways I am still reminded that I pushed my luck flying into the storm for three years, and indeed to carry on after I had been off sick. To a large extent the emotional centre shut down, and what was left was fearful; I retained most analytical capacity. Emotion gets a lot of flack in the PF world, and people draft long lists of ways it leads us astray. And yet it relates us to others of our kind, it gives us the hope to carry on against adversity.

    Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.

    Carl Jung Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype (1938)

    The old boy had a point, try living with that function shattered – you attempt to strike lights and they sputter and flare out, never overcoming the steely greyness of undifferentiated days. The analytical capacity did refine my investing behaviour and this was easier with a spanner jammed into the works of some of the biases. But it’s no fun, because I would see how to do things but not why. Motivating yourself when you know how but not why is sheer effort of will, not inspiration.

     

    It’s also interesting that ERE observed

    On an anecdotal note, I vastly prefer less stress to the low level stress that is present in most modern life. The stress I feel now is the “original” stress of a boat about to crash. Not the continuous stress of not being able to meet deadline after deadline.

    Because the world of work changed slowly, I did not realise the low-level stress increasing at work with the gamification of the workplace. That sort of continuous stress is bad because the response of increased heart rate and adrenaline has nowhere to go, it doesn’t help. Whereas when some stupid twat got pissed up at lunchtime last year and came round a corner fishtailing on my side of the road then yes, that is stressful when you see a dark Jag incoming at 12 o’clock. But it did some good, because it did the time-dilation thing and I was able to see what was happening, brake and pull way into the side, turning a head-on crash into a glancing blow. That is one of the correct uses of stress, because it did some good in improving clarity of thought and reactions for a short while where it matters.

    ERE is much younger and fitter than I am, so if he noticed that it took a while to adapt  then it isn’t surprising that the results of the work stress is still washing out of my system. I crossed the finish line exhausted and no reserve capacity. I didn’t expect to be still recovering two years on and to still have significantly impaired capabilities but it is better to roll with it than fight it. It’s also a warning call for all those ‘one more year to comfort‘ merchants. You will almost always be financially better off working for another year. But you may be running out of other resources that occasionally matter more. And everybody is running out of time, 24 hours in every day.

    The two years since retiring has given me some space to see where the working world and I drifted apart. The obvious reason is a combination of the 2008/9 financial crisis and changes in the way The Firm was being run. The obvious reason is not always the whole reason.

    I’ve avoided the vexatious issue of making money myself, largely because I don’t want to enter the world of wage-slavery and I have no desire to fill in an income tax return for lousy itty-bitty amounts. However I haven’t avoided directed action of the sort that sometimes goes under the title of work, I’ve taken these to add value to other people’s projects. And I look at them, and I realise that there was one big thing that I missed where I was diverging from the world of work at The Firm.

    I am a generalist, and worse than that the sort that Firestarter identifies as both Renaissance Man and dilettante :) This runs terribly against the way work is going, which is specialising, knowing more and more about less and less. This applies particularly to IT, which was the way The Firm was going.

    As they drove their way down the value chain they became much more prescriptive in structures and methodology. As a research facility it was a very wide-ranging operation for much of my career but as this was moved to become an outsourcing jobbing shop it narrowed. Specialisation is an aspect of the IT contract world too, it would be unfair to blame The Firm purely for this. For illustration, as a generalist since retiring I have programmed in assembler, JAL, Python, Perl, PHP, C and VB. I code in whatever suits the application and the platform. Raspberry Pi? That’ll be Python then. Arduino – C, Pic microcontrollers? MPASM or JAL. The Firm was trying to make everybody code in Java, and only Java. I am dilettante in seven languages and not master of one ;) In my last project for the London 2012 project I also didn’t focus in IT – CATV was from legacy electronics and system design. Indeed, at work the one thing I didn’t do much of was Java, that policy was instigated just before I got onto the 2012 Olympics project…

    When I retired I had thought that if I were to sell time or skills for money it would be in the field of engineering. But it isn’t likely, because I am running against the tide with that generalisation.

    After leaving work I built wooden shelters and fixed tractors, I’ve designed an irrigation system (the design part is being able to operate through winter, it’s not just going down to B&Q and buying up a load of hozelock connectors). I’ve produced and edited video. I have electronics design facilities, but this is at a fairly modest level. I have produced some IoT environmental sensors and the like. But only as part of a system design to do something else. This may point the way in future - don’t do stuff, do capabilities and services. I’m not going to be hidebound about it – a lot of the problem with Stuff is regulation; small fry can get away with a lot and if you get bigger you can afford the overhead. No small business became a big one by following all the rules…

    Where I’ve actually made money, is photography and sound recording.  I’ve managed to work a little bit harder than my ISA, though these guys will pay me in dollars so I have to wait until the exchange rate is better. Unfortunately this is impaired because the stress nearly wiped out any creativity I had.

    But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth (Carl Jung, the psychology of individuation)

    I actually see some of the recovery in the improved popularity and profitability of the photos I take…

    The fact that I can tell the agency to pay me when I’m good and ready means I am safe from the Internet Retirement Police – I haven’t done that for the money and it forms no part of my financial planning. But even as a cold-turkey retiree I haven’t totally avoided the four-letter w word. But I didn’t seek it out, indeed the problem I have with work is the whole bad power play of it. Perhaps I will have to reconsider this and view that I have achieved manumission through financial independence as opposed to retiring. It’s not really catchy though, is it?

    The thing that runs through these things is that there isn’t any single thread running through them, and if there is something running through them then it was only incidentally engineering, indeed much of it wasn’t even left-brain stuff.

    Google will save serious office space when they get to this stage

    Google will save serious office space when they get to this stage, though they’ll need to improve connectivity

    I am probably unemployable now because of this hopeless sprawling generalisation, it’s just not what the modern workplace wants. The reason for this is the concentration of power to capital and the improved communications. Companies can concentrate the work to hyper-specialists, the distribute the results to the proletariat virtually cost-free. Look at the setup at Google. These will eventually become brains in a jar with multiple redundant high capacity optical fibre data connections. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet with Google Glass. Google employees can’t cook for themselves or do their own washing, which is why Mama Google sees to it to fix their household requirements. Free food, free laundry, free haircuts. free cars. If you want to see where white collar work is going, look at the leading edge – it’ll be most places in 10-20 years. Hyper specialisation has a dark side. I am nowhere near bright enough to work for Google. Nor are many of my fellow Britons. Specialisation is where it’s at, but it will need fewer and fewer people and require more and more of those it does need.

    Generalists work well in a small scale – there are often opportunities to use knowledge across unrelated fields in small-company operations. They are more flexible, there isn’t a structure of existing practice to adapt, and they can get away with short-term fixes for temporary requirements as long as they trust their generalists of they have seen enough track record. But I have no desire to work full-time as a general fixer. The 21st century technical workplace is no place for a generalist Ermine, because of this culture shift towards specialisation and narrow but deep skillsets. But then that’s the whole point of becoming financially independent. I don’t have to give a damn.

    The distinction between work and not work is peculiar to the financially dependent

    because you’re financially dependent (usually on a job). So you have to do what The Man tells you, and that division is clear-cut and non-negotiable. Contractors and the self-employed soften this distinction a bit. It seems to easily end up with work taking over their life, however, because work is still not elective, it is when they work that is more elective than someone working for The Man. Not that they work.

    Philip Greenspun posted an interesting article on early retirement way back in 2006. I used to read his site as photo.net just before the the turn of the Millennium, the empty dreams of a cubicle slave dreaming of making shitloads of money on the stock market from the dotcom boom and then making pin money shooting picture and travelling, those heady days when Momentum was King.  And that’s when I really enjoyed work. Anyway, I came across his article, and the comments as he was seeking feedback on the article. Although I’m normally of the opinion comparisons are vexatious, part of the insight from the article does come from the differences and the similarities between two different journeys.

    I’m nowhere near as rich as Greenspun and I earned less. There’s at least one order of magnitude in it, probably two, possibly more. This is not something that particularly bothers me, I don’t have the desire for flying. However, I can see it gives you more options in the US, where distances are much greater and people disperse over a wider area; Greenspuns college pals are more important to him (Even for couples/people with kids they get a little more important to people after most have gone through the baby/children tunnel of 30s to early 50s)

    He is/was single and is about 10 years younger than me. He had to take special measures to address the social life issues that I just don’t have – he’s clearly given it some thought and does it well. He’s more outgoing that I am. In particular his angle on that being single has a very strong effect on where you choose to retire to have a decent chance of stimulating human interaction is quite an eye-opener. I didn’t appreciate there was this difference, but what he says makes sense. A single early retiree (~40) probably does need more money than someone who has a partner. However, since the single fellow probably doesn’t have kids he probably does have more money, so there’s some auto-compensation.

    Time management (pinched directly from Greenspun)

    How much work does the average college student get done? Almost none. Yet the same person, injected into a corporate bureaucracy, becomes a reasonably effective worker. Why? Most people have terrible time management skills. This limitation is of no consequence in public school. The school tells you where to sit and what to do and when, at least for six hours per day. This limitation is of no consequence at most jobs. The employer tells the workers where to sit and what to do and when, at least for eight hours per day.

    If you’re retired, however, nobody tells you how to organize your life. If you have goals that you’d like to accomplish and your time management skills are poor, you might end up disappointed in yourself.

    Now an ermine isn’t an enormous fan of the self-help industry, though I’m happy to accept it helps a lot of people and occasionally indulge. There’s a very heavy thread of self-discipline and virtual Calvinism in the personal-finance world, but it is nothing to the apotheosis achieved by some of the American writers – Steve Pavlina is over 1000 times more effective than I could ever be, and it’s not like I disagree with the efficacy of what he says. But to me seems me as a joyless way of living – life needs dynamic contrast and empty spaces for reflection and understanding. I didn’t stop work to reproduce the problem again in a different place. Each to their own.

    However, Greenspun has a point. I found it helpful to take the time out in the morning to centre and actually write down what I wanted to achieve that day. The idea is roughly pinched from a book The Artist’s Way at Work, which I bought way back as a cubicle slave looking for a way out. It didn’t work for me, I produced trash because I was trying to make money which shuts down the playful creative side. Presumably people who work in the creative arts don’t have this problem, or the fact they start off with a damn sight more talent makes up for it. It was in the box of to get rid of books until I read How to get Unstuck, and figured I should reread it from a point other than desperation.

    That rough orientation is generally enough for me. though I have used the basic tools of project management for longer projects, such as the open source Gantt Project, and of course Excel has its place in the finance area. It’s not mandatory to leave all the useful tools untouched when you stop work.

    Work, cold turkey, rentierism, aristocracy and the Ermine

    I went cold turkey, or so I thought, because the word work became associated with a traumatic experience. This made the transition easier. And unwittingly, I overlooked some of the positive aspects of making stuff happen in the world for pecuniary reward, because it was associated with having to suck up to stupid crap. The two aren’t inherently linked, provided you don’t need the money. The money has some value – it is an estimation and recognition of exchanged worth.

    And I’m left with a load of inconsistencies and conflicting attitudes because I have simply buried this subject and left it, so it is still linked with outdated psychological forms. To live intentionally I need to dig this out, untangle the knots and live my values.

    The trouble is I have spent 30 years being motivated to work for money because Bad Shit would happen if I didn’t. That’s a terrible way to motivate anybody – it’s the Bad Shit that puts the slave into cubicle slave 5.

    for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone

    Thoreau, Walden, delivering a message for the 1% that they will not hear

    And now, curiously, I have the edge on a significant part of the 1% – who all earn far more than I did. But they spend more, whereas I am within spitting distance of becoming a rentier. Much of the secret, as Thoreau observed above, is to reduce spending. If that works for you, of course!

    So the whole reason I worked for money has gone. The empty space still speaks – I cannot relate to some of the ways the retired ‘work’. I don’t volunteer. I don’t understand it, and at some level I find the concept demeaning, of working for nothing . Maybe I am just a bad person, maybe I will chill on that in time, though I doubt it. There’s still the echo of work being a four-letter word, and ending up in a situation where other people tell me what to do still reminds me of that fateful February day in 2009 in a one to one where I realised that the Ermine was out of luck, out of time and out of options but needed to suck it up for long enough to buy freedom.  I have added value to other people’s projects without being paid, because of this

    Still, it’s hard to suddenly turn off an educated brain.

    Gail Buckner, Fox Business

    What I really want to avoid is an ongoing commitment. It’s far more satisfying to start in the morning, get some tools together and wrangle something into a more useful form and then get out.

    irrigation system under construction

    irrigation system under construction

    That favours Stuff and kind of runs counter to the Don’t. Do. Stuff  argument, but most of the objections are lifted when other people have the problem of buying the Stuff and storing it, and all I have to do is show up sometime and turn it into a working system.

    So there are loads of inconsistencies and conundrums in my approach to work. None of them are urgent, though resolving and drawing the sting from the psychological hangups is probably worth the investment of time. I want to live intentionally, and not shadowboxing the psychic wreckage of past injuries is part of that goal.

    Grow – or begin to die within

    You have more opportunity for self-development and individuation when you own your time, but you have to engage and work at it. Many people really hate that – they feel they are adults and have it all sorted, that was the whole point of the first 20 or 30 years of their life. Individuation involves being more reflective, writing about what you feel or even things like the Artist’s way journaling. There’s often not enough time to fit that sort of thing into a busy working life, so it easily gets put on hold. It takes time to unstick that.

    Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart … Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.

    Carl Jung

    I’d really like to say I had done well there, but progress is slower than I had expected. I have started, and of course the process of individuation does not have an explicit end target. Journey, not a destination etc. There’s no point in wasting too much time trying to describe this because it’s very different for different people. Just remember that

    the day you stop growing is the day you start to die.

    William S Burroughs, Junky

    Observation shows that one of the big ways people go wrong when they retire is they stop growing, because most of their challenge was at work. Too much TV and too little curiosity kills the cat…

    Luck plays a big part in the story

    More than I had realised, and while it’s easy to point at the things that went wrong far more went right. I had rotten luck in two big areas at the beginning and at the end of my career – I bought a house at a terrible time, and I lost the last eight years of earnings by retiring early. I’ve had good luck in other areas – joining a final salary pension and getting nearly 24 years out of the design 30 in it is a large stroke of luck as is never losing a job since getting my first one 6. And if I was going to bail out 8 years early, then being a higher-rate taxpayer and recognising the open goal of the stock market next to me and taking the opportunity was another piece of luck – if I started now my ISA and my AVC savings would both be a lot lower after five years, assuming we aren’t about to enter the mother of all bull markets ;)

    The tl;dr version

    Looking back after two years I have spent about half of what I expected, and largely got away with retiring early. I am still not drawing on my retirement savings. I have a decent measure of what running costs are in retirement, I am probably underspending and have space to adjust upwards. Cutting costs helps greatly – it helped me save more when working and reduces the drawdown when retired.

    I have learned that being a generalist is also very bad for the way work is going, particularly in big firms. And the recovery from getting knocked out of the workplace by stress has progressed but by no means finished – even after two years.

    Retiring early is good  -I can allow the generalised interests that were becoming toxic in the workplace free rein, and they help me live cheaper than would otherwise be the case because of the various reasons skecthed out by ERE

    Flexibility and openness to new ways of doing things seems key to retiring early successfully.

    Notes:

    1. a smartphone has no optical zoom, and is preset for a good first-person shot of a human-sized object about 2-5m away. Which is what most people want and makes great Facebook posts. Audio recording seems to be stuck in mono and doesn’t take external microphones. Again, great for facebook video. To make a smartphone into a good camera or audio recorder, you end up with a great big smartphone which is stupid as a smartphone
    2. which is obviously a linear interpolation of an exponential function, but it’s okay with such a short period and relatively modest inflation
    3. this isn’t strictly true, as the HYP ISA pays a shade under 5% dividend and there is some unknown amount of capital appreciation too. But I don’t spend this
    4. This is a peculiarity of the short timescale of my DC savings of less than a business cycle. If my savings were the result of a typical DC pension this concern would be softened because I would have entered the market over many decades, the 4-5% SWR would have greater validity because I would have a better idea of what the true value of my savings really was after saving across many business cycles
    5. I use the Americanism cubicle slave because it is common shorthand in the personal finance world. However, the enslavement is just as much for anyone who has to sell their time or skills for money to keep Bad Shit from happening in their life – whether they’re a office worker, a CEO, a coal miner or a Big Issue seller
    6. there is a year’s hole when I took time out to do an MSc but I was sharp and did that in an economic boom so it was easy to get a job afterwards
    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

     

     

    Notes:

    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
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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.

    buying_shit_small

    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.

     

    Notes:

    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.

    1310_adnams_IMG_9873

    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

    Notes:

    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 ;)

    Notes:

    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.

    and

    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 ;)

    Notes:

    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
    living intentionally reflections
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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.

     

    Notes:

    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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  • Archives

  • 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 ;)