11 Aug 2014, 2:52pm
reflections Suffolk:
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  • Supermoon reflections

    It’s not often that someone goes and moves a celestial body closer to us so we can see it clearer. The Grauniad has a far better series of supermoon pictures along with why it’s a supermoon, ‘cos decent photography is about the context and telling a story.

    However, although the tail of storm Bertha had been giving the region some stick it all cleared for the moon. I don’t know how your astronomer types get to see anything through a telescope, because when I stuck my birdwatching telescope at it it was far too bright to see much. However, it was easy to take a photo 1and I was surprised to see all the gnarly bits on the bottom. Taken a hell of a hammering, that has

    1408_moon_a_IMG_1410

    And I’d never noticed that in many decades of looking up at the moon. Obviously if you want a decent picture of the Moon you head over to NASA, cos they have better gear, my photo shows I’m not totally over the chimping of a tourist with their crappy smartphone photo – but hell, it’s my picture, I pressed the button. Kudos to NASA for a superior take, nevertheless :)

    NASA have better gear and get to spin it round a bit

    NASA have better gear and get to spin it round a bit

    While over at NASA I took a gander at their Apollo mission pages, I have fond memories of watching the July 1969 landing at school (we didn’t have a TV at home) at about lunchtime – they had dragged the great big set into the assembly hall. Either it’s me or we just don’t have big stuff like that with the widespread buzz of some Really Interesting Stuff Going Down now. Then I looked at the timeline, and thought of Jacob ERE

    How far are we?
    That depends on your perspective. If you take the view from 400000km, humans are no longer going to the moon and have not been doing so for 40 years. From an energy perspective, the available energy/capita ratio peaked 30 years ago. Real wages have been declining for a good 30 years as well (a connection?)

    and of course Tim Morgan on the same string in a different key. Basically the 1973 oil crisis pole-axed the world I’d read about in far too much crappy science-fiction where everything was going to get better and more exciting because people were going to boldly go into an ever-expanding space exploration.

    Carter and his solar panels

    Carter and his solar panels

    Then the price of oil went up, Jimmy Carter stuck solar panels on the roof of the White House, told people to ease off the gas 2 and the American people went bugger this for a game of tin soldiers. They considered that defeatist cheese-eating surrender-monkey cobblers and elected a B movie actor who told a much more cheerful story, which sort of stuck for the next 30 years, but I notice that humanity is still too skint to go to the moon. We last put boots on the ground in December 1972.

    Strange to think back at those fast and furious years of innovation and exciting stuff in my primary school years. It’s not like we haven’t made things a lot better and progress has arrested – if things had stayed like 1972 most of Britain wouldn’t have central heating, never mind a notable section being able to live like kings. Somewhere, however, I wonder whether that last footprint in 1972 wasn’t the day some of the vision died in the West, the first time we came up against insurmountable limits to growth… You can coast a long way from the peak with the engines out, and as ERE said, it took many years for Rome to fall. Maybe we are partying in the endgame…

    Notes:

    1. There was a surprisinglylarge amount of  light – ISO200, f/8, 1/250s
    2. the story of what happened to those panels is interesting, you can read it courtesy of the Scientific American
    7 Aug 2014, 1:08pm
    peak oil:
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  • Life After Growth

    Dr Tim Morgan, he of Tullet Prebon’s research department, has a new book out; well it’s new to me although it came out in 2013. Apparently he quit Tullett Prebon to get serious about scaring the shit out of the proletariat.

    Now our Tim isn’t known for his cheery outlook. You only have to take a butcher’s at what he wrote while at Tullett Prebon to see he isn’t chipper about the prognosis for the global economy and the Anglo-Saxon variant of it in particular. You get the drift with a title like “Thinking the unthinkable: might there be no way out for Britain? Project Armageddon – the final report”

    Tim is a bright fellow, and his book Life after Growth is a cogent summary of how he looks at the world. It’s interesting because some of his insights are well worth taking on board in their own right, and have direct application to the personal finance world.

    A Tale of Two Economies

    We often think about finance in the abstract, as if it is a law unto itself, you diversify to minimise risk, the long-run real return from equities is something between 3 and 5% etc etc. Tim Morgan is at pains to remind us that the money economy is a map, it isn’t the territory. There is a real economy underlying it – that is the economy that puts food on people’s plates, moves stuff around, makes iFads and takes away your sewage. As I observed in Today I shall live like a King, this economy is astronomically more productive than it was a century or more ago. On a pretty average day I can live a lifestyle a lot higher with much more capability than Queen Victoria – and that’s without indulging in any consumerism.

    The money economy overlays that – money is a claim on future work. Yours if you owe me money, mine if I owe you money. The abstractions helps us manage our work across time – when you take out a mortgage, you get to use the work of all the builders and the land right away. But the bank owns part of your soul – part of your wages is garnished and you work for the bank for the next twenty or thirty years.

    In a way the money economy is a model of the real economy, but we have set up the model with some implicit assumptions of how the real economy works. We have taken past performance as a guide to the future, exactly the same sort of thing that the FCA mandates nearly all investment details to tell you not to do.

    The assumption Tim Morgan fingers as the big one is that of assumed growth. Growth is how Western democracies have alleviated poverty – because the overall size of the pie is increasing the material wealth gradually increases over time. Much of that growth, Morgan postulates, is because we have had cheap energy for a long time, but gradually the amount of energy available after that used for extraction is falling, and this is strangling the global economy.

    The real economy is running out of energy

    energy returned on energy invested

    energy returned on energy invested

    So why does our Tim reckon growth is over? Largely because of this chart – the cost of getting hold of energy is rising, because not unreasonably oil companies focused on the low-hanging fruit of easy to get at stuff first  – in the early years of the 20th century you only had to drop a nail in Texas to end up with a gusher it seemed.

    Spindletop. Texas, 1901. We haven't seen one of these for a little while

    Spindletop. Texas, 1901. We haven’t seen one of these for a little while

    Where Tim Morgan  does very well is in making some of the fundamentals clear in unusual ways. Take the rise in oil prices – in his afterword he says

    It might interest you to know that, if you are an average earner – in Britain, in this instance, though this is true across the world – your salary would have bought you 1,076 barrels of oil ten years ago, but would only buy you 328 barrels now.

    That is a large change. Morgan hasn’t got any nice words to say about how Western governments encouraged their firms to outsource production to emerging markets either. I have never understood why there is a shift of power from labour to capital. I observed it – as a professional engineer I saw the deterioration in the workplace, I see it in the changing nature of jobs, it’s shown indirectly in the earlier peaking of the career arc for younger people. Tim Morgan outlines why this is so in a succinct way

    The globalisation process is pretty easy to describe (which makes the ignorance of policymakers and their advisors even less excusable). Suppose that an American company manufactured a television at a cost of $350, and sold it for $400, earning a margin of $50. The company then became able, courtesy of globalisation, to manufacture the same television in China for $50, boosting its profit margin dramatically.

    This outsourcing of manufacturing boosted corporate profitability enormously, and created big cash inflows that were placed in the banking system. At the same time, there was a haemorrhaging of skilled jobs from the United States and other Western economies, and countervailing increases in skilled employment in China and other emerging countries. In terms of the West, it is a simplification, but also a truism, that corporate profits expanded whilst wages deteriorated.

    He challenges the Ricardian advantage that underlies a lot of free-market thinking that underpinned globalisation. But essentially, what happened is the the West produced less and consumed more, and the difference was fuelled by debt, which was cheap because of the money coming in to Western banks from the new wealth in the producing nations. These banks had to lend this money out – and a lot of it has been shovelled into inflating property prices in the West, so that twits like Shona Sibary could take the money out again and spend it on middle class consumerism and school fees, not to mention having more children than she can afford at the lifestyle she wants to lead.

    And then it all went titsup in 2007-9. The chart from his book that should scare the shit out of anybody accumulating financial wealth is that the map is not staying in track with the territory.

    the map and the territory are out of whack

    the map and the territory are out of sync

    Now if he is true there’s no point in saving into a pension, because the value of what you will get back will be worth bugger all. Tim sums up the situation in Is Globalisation the Culprit, to be had from his old stamping ground at Tullet Prebon.

    In the West, a small minority prospers, principally the CEOs of companies whose profits have surged, and bankers who gain from the expansion of the lending sector. On the other hand, the majority suffers, both because of declining wages and because of rising indebtedness.

    [...]

    The next sequential stage – which probably lies in the very near future – is the realisation that the claimed reversibility of QE is nonsense. For example, do we really believe that the Bank of England can ever reverse £375bn of money creation? And that, logically, is where the tragedy ends – in money-printing, hyperinflation and collapse.

    What can you do?

    Not a lot.There’s not much that is actionable as this sort of thing requires a collective response on a fairly wide scale. It also depends on the time-scale – something that changes over 100 years is easier to adapt to than something that takes place over 10. The obvious responses fall into two opposing camps

    Spend – live for today

    One is to do all the energy-intensive stuff you want to do sooner rather than later, so if you want to see Australia or Macchu Picchu prioritise that. Hell, if money will drop in real value then borrow it like gangbusters. Maybe the consumerism addicts are right after all? The problem with that approach is that creditors may be getting increasingly keen on payback, and become increasingly creative about it, which implies a different tack

    Save – get out of debt

    However, the transition will take time. You don’t want to be carrying too much debt because as it becomes more apparent that debts may not be honoured, creditors will become keener to make sure they get their bit first. You see this endlessly on the debt boards in MoneysavingExpert – it tends to involve guys with thick necks and an intimidating attitude. FWIW this is the approach I have taken 1, though for different reasons.

    There aren’t many actionable takeaways because of the uncertainty

    That’s largely the trouble with that sort of doomsterism – the confidence interval of the predictions is huge, so it’s hard to come up with effective action. After getting out of debt you could do a lot worse than take a look at Mistersquirrel’s list of things you can do, particularly the personal skills from point 1, because these are independent of the financial system and inalienable.

    Unfortunately becoming more skilful and self-reliant is not the way that consumerism takes us – people are becoming less and less self-reliant even at some of the basic skills in life like cooking and basic construction. The increasing specialisation and antipathy to generalists in professional work is also running against that. You only have to look at back-issues of Popular Mechanics or Woodworking to see that previous generations were far more self-reliant. I am probably a fair way ahead of most people – I have built a fair number of odds and sods but I don’t have the solid grounding of my father’s and grandfather’s generations because I learned a lot of this from books, not from seeing people do it. I didn’t even know how to make a packing crate right.

    On the upside, there is much room for improvement. Many of the ways we use energy are terribly wasteful. Transportation, for instance, is bizarre. I once worked in Beckenham and lived further in London than that, and it was amazing that the trains I was using were empty whereas the platforms on the other side were chock-a-bloc with people travelling to the City. Now the Guardian is advocating long commutes as a way to save money – how long is that going to last in a world of rising energy costs and train fares?

    Things like the Internet and mobile networks are increasingly power-hungry. In principle we could have gone the decentralised resilient approach but we went for great big server farms instead. Humanity is a bit like the Americans Churchill groused about – we do like to eliminate the alternatives before doing the right thing. Even in Life After Growth there are surprisingly upbeat indications –

    1408_fig18_eroei_trendsI was very surprised to see two renewables and nuclear power clustered at the knee of the curve around current oil and gas finds, so still very useful. And the appalling return on shale gas shows that for the sugar rush that it is :) It should be noted, however, that renewables and nuclear provide electricity, which is not very useful for small-scale transport or for shipping, so it does imply changes will be afoot in the use of transport. With the cost of energy rising the world will become a larger world again – there aren’t any good alternatives to the convenience and compactness of liquid transport fuels and the concept of an electric passenger aircraft carrying 300 people at 500 mph is laughable at the moment, and indeed the thought of charging that aircraft isn’t a cheery thought at all.

    Right, capt'n, where do I plug this sucker in? Photo Dave Croker, Geograph

    Right, capt’n, where do I plug this sucker in? Photo Dave Croker, Geograph

    A 747 takes 184,000 litres of kerosene (43.15 MJ/kg, so  ~6400GJ, ~ 1.8GWh ) If we take the output of Sizewell B nuclear power station and plug all of it into our electrically powered 747 then it will be charged in about 1.5 hours. I don’t know how many aircraft Heathrow turns round in a day 2 but something tells me this won’t fly.

    The future will have less material wealth in it, for average Westerners

    and probably for others too. But let’s face it, when we look at some of what we do with our material Stuff, we have gone a bit nutty. And it only takes a bit of a push to jump the tracks from the nuttyness. Take this from Tim’s Afterword describing the effects of the changes on the average person

    This person is most of us, and his or her life is already being affected profoundly by the processes described in this book. Over the last decade, his pay has increased, and may even have risen by more than the official amount of inflation, but he does not feel better off. The prices of many things that he has to buy (such as electricity, gas, food and petrol) have gone up by a lot more than his wage packet. It is a fair bet, too, that the various departments of government, no less than utilities, are taking a far bigger bite out of his income than used to be the case.

    If his employer provides a pension scheme, its real value has probably fallen. If he has saved for retirement, the income that he can expect to enjoy is far less than seemed likely until a few years ago. If he expects to rely on a state pension, he wonders whether it will really keep pace with the soaring cost of essentials.

    Despite the squeeze on his disposable income, he is subjected to seemingly continuous commercial pressure to spend. If he has children, it is likely that peer pressure is fuelling ever greater demands for new gadgets. If he is a young person (between, say, 16 and 30), he faces the additional problems of scarce, costly accommodation and a lack of well-paid jobs. Whoever he is, he quite probably has far more debt (including mortgages and credit) than he had ten years ago.

    Although I see where he is coming from, some of it doesn’t ring true. I have fought some of these. I have reduced energy consumption and tried to switch space heating to more local sources. We have reduced food miles, along with a fair number of other people, by growing this ourselves (or rather Mrs Ermine does). I have iced most of the commercial pressure to spend, by decommissioning my TV, using ad-block plus on the Internet and realising that much of this spend simply didn’t contribute usefully to my quality of life.

    Some of the fight lies between your ears.

    Think differently. Most of our gadgets are fantastic value – as long as you don’t churn them every year following stupid peer pressure. Learn to fix some of the damn things – most of the problems lie with connectors and batteries, and there seems to be a huge aftermarket industry supplying spares. Buy fewer but better things.

    Don’t be a sucker for stupid fads that make other people money at your expense – the whole wedding industry seems to be a serious case of that, what with organised stag and hen parties that involve flying somewhere to get pissed. You’re being rooked, guys, WTF is the point of going somewhere fancy and spending shitloads of money if you’re going to be hammered all the time? According to MSE the average cost of a wedding is £18,000 3.

    Only a generation ago ordinary people used to get married on Saturday and be back at work on Monday and the cost of the proceedings were a few rounds down the pub. £18k is 10% of the cost of the average house the average happy couple aspires to. It’s barmy to spend all that on your ‘special day’ and then sweat the next five years moaning you can’t buy a house. What makes a wedding special is the interaction between the people, not the amount of money spent trying to feel like a Kardashian for a day. You aren’t a sleb. Get over it. And picture the saving for five years towards a house before you casually toss it into the maw of wedding consumerism. At least ask yourself the question of which is more valuable to you, and if it’s the wedding then STFU about not being able to get the house. You can’t bloody well Have It All™  – but you can choose the It you will have.

    I’ve picked on the wedding industry because it seems to be a particularly egregious example of “You’re Worth It” consumerism but there’s plenty more out there. I spent too much money on fast and furious holidays because it was a break from the crappiness of the working environment towards the end, until I realised that the more I spend on trying to forget about work the longer I would have to work, and that was the time I put a tin lid on it.

    you can win the fight with consumerism because you own the battleground

    Consumerism offers empty dreams that make other people richer and bind you deeper into wage slavery. It is illogical to indulge in consumerism or sponsor your kids’ consumerism if you moan about work. If you like your work or are neutral towards it, then no problem. But for every pound you spend on an iFad, you have to typically earn twice that much – you have to pay tax on the money, you have the parasitic overhead costs of commuting.

    You aren’t what you buy. And the advantage of the battle with consumerism is that it is entirely within your head. This is a space that you should control. Buying things isn’t bad – but buying things because other people tell you to is. Buying things because you’ve considered the value delivered and come to the conclusion it’s worth the opportunity cost of spending the money elsewhere or later is fair enough. Live intentionally. We don’t need so much damn Stuff to be happy. We live like kings already, and need to cure ourselves of Tiny Details Exaggeration Syndrome. The latest iPhone is nowhere near as much better to what went before as the first iPhone was to what went before it.

    Oh yeah. And don’t buy your Consumer Shit on credit, mkay? As the man said, your debt makes other people rich, That’s not cool and that’s not clever. If we could ice the Great British Consumer’s addiction to credit, we’d be in a much better position to tackle Tim’s Life After Growth. We’d probably then have to tackle the Great British Government’s addiction to debt, but one step at a time, eh?

    Notes:

    1. getting out of debt, that is. I’ve gone easy on the thick neck and intimidating attitude
    2. looking at this, a lot more than 18 long-haul
    3. I struggle to find any sympathy for the stupid bint cited by MSE who was gifted £12k by her dad only to find the bank used £6k of it to pay off her credit card debt. If you are in debt then don’t spend stupid money on your wedding. You are NOT worth it, by definition.
    23 Jul 2014, 11:20am
    economy frugality
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  • The real way to make money using old pallets is to be Blake Lively

    Wow. I was wasting my time recycling pallets into kindling or log-stores. Here’s the way to do it

     

    Upcycled pallets - way to go, Blake!

    Upcycled pallets – way to go, Blake!

    Not only do you get to touch the hemline of Blake Lively thus acquiring a sprinkling of her faeriedust that will make you younger, more beautiful and generally transform your otherwise pedestrian life of quiet desperation into celebrity heaven, but you also get to read cock like this

    The bones of old New York get a new lease on life in these Dutch-style bicycle crates. Built to last a lifetime from reclaimed local wood sealed with natural tung oil, each beautiful Brooklyn-made piece is imbued with its own unique character. Caboose it onto your bike to carry the day’s produce, impromptu flowers for your sweetheart, or whatever you need to transport in a stylish manner—emission-free!

    Ninety-Five flippin’ dollars – that’s fifty-six of your Earth Pounds. For something with massive great slats that will spew your designer shit out all over the highway if you actually did stick it on a bike, which is why people in Amsterdam use bike baskets made of mesh so all their crap doesn’t fall out, particularly when they ride over the cobbles. Not only that but bitter experience has taught me that you stick your flippin’ uprights on the inside of the slats so you can get enough screw into the damn things else you’ll have a kit of parts again in no time at all. Years ago I made some VHS tape holders along these lines inspired by the ones in Sex Lies and Videotape where I forgot this, or else got to learn it for the first time ;)

    1407_blake

    It’s time to throw in the towel on the you can become free through not spending all your wages buying shit meme. The opposition forces are too strong when people bankroll this sort of cobblers. Decadence has set in too deeply. The economy is shattered, fewer and fewer people will earn enough to fulfil their modest aims in life, and yet the froth rises  and spreads over the surface to cover the roiling darkness. The fight is futile, the bad guys won, the battle is lost. The centre cannot hold; the falcon can no longer hear the falconer. All hail to the God of Shopping, our new overlords.

    Won’t someone send out the search party to find and scoop up all the brains that have fallen out all over New York City  so at least they can be given a decent burial rather than feeding the dogs? And please, please, let Preserve go bust quickly to restore my erstwhile belief that I don’t share a planet with too many fools ready to be parted from their money…

    21 Jul 2014, 12:35pm
    frugality:
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  • Time for homage to the Holly King

    Summertime in the city finds the good people at Monevator dwelling on thoughts of refreshment, but out here is the sticks while sipping my iced coffee I sensed a stirring in the Force and the distant laughter of the nascent Holly King, with thoughts of Winter. The old boy Thomas Tusser has something to say about summer idleness

    Some of the Five hundred points of good husbandry, Thomas Tusser

    From “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry”, Thomas Tusser 1580 (link to Google books scan of reprint from 1848)

    Even though the Oak King holds sway, the Holly King‘s powers are now rising. Hard to believe on balmy lazy Summer days when school is out, but this too will pass, and the nights draw in.

    A depiction of the Oak King, on Lloyds Bank in Ipswich for some reason

    A depiction of the Oak King/Green Man, in this foliate head on Lloyds Bank in Ipswich for some reason

    Now, at the height of Summer, it is a good time to convert a pallet into the finest kindling known to Man – the wood is so dry the pieces are almost musical when they hit the ground, like the plates of a xylophone.

    an axe, some wooden tongs to hold the piece upright, and some iced coffee

    an axe, some wooden tongs to hold the piece upright, and some iced coffee are what’s needed to make a lot of kindling out of pallets

    Sound of kindling pieces being moved – each almost has its own note, the tonality sounds different to me from ordinary bits of dry wood being moved.

    Like so many things you can do yourself for modest cost, consumerism has a ready-made alternative – Wilkinson’s will sell you some in a plastic bag

    Wilko kinding

    Wilko kindling

    but what’s the fun in that? The cynical part of me did wonder if the plastic bag might not have more calorific value than the product if you could use it without the noxious byproducts. I knew one fellow in an old house with an open fire and a massive inglenook who would toss an entire bag of coal on the fire, plastic bag and all. There was enough draught up the chimney that it didn’t stink the place out, but I still felt it a teeny bit on the coarse side of living.

    Thomas Tusser would look askance at such effete consumerism, and I’m with him there. I now have a couple of great big garden bags full, probably about £200 worth of kindling at Wilko prices. And running it in July means it’s absolutely bone dry, I stow the bags in the garage so it stays that way. A fine alternative are pine cones which make good kindling, and they are to hand in the coming months.

    £50 worth of pine cones, at Wilkinson's rates

    pine cones – some people pour wax into them but if you collect them in summer they work just fine on their own

    It’s the open structure and large surface area that seems to be the win here, rather than any particularly resinous property like fatwood. I figured I’d see why my kindling is almost musical in its dryness with a fine Chinese gizmo

    what my cheap Ebay meter says for the kindling water content

    what my cheap Ebay meter says for the kindling water content

    Now you can’t rely on a cheap piece of Chinese junk traceable back to national standards of a finger in the air via an indirect measure (bulk resistance?) but comparing the kindling with

    arbitrary piece of recently acquired pallet

    arbitrary piece of recently acquired pallet

    a piece of a joist that's been in a neighbour's garage since 1969

    a piece of a joist that’s been in a neighbour’s garage since 1969

    Biomass willow harvested earlier this year

    Biomass willow harvested earlier this year

    Log dropped off with us earlier this year and drying since

    Log dropped off with us earlier this year and drying since

    the kindling does seem pretty good! The willow is deceptive – the end I stuck the meter in is good (you can burn anything with less than about 20% water content) but further in it is too high, over 30%. They do generally say you have to season willow for two years to get the best of it.

    The universal handy rustic construction resource – the wooden pallet

    Loads of these get thrown out, and indeed I’ve seen many people on building sites burning pallets in the open to get rid of them. In the US they seem to worry about termites and stuff so they chemically treat them. I’d probably draw the line at using them for construction inside the house 1, but for a log store extension they were neat

    we need to finis the roof trim but this was done running ahead of an incoming thuderstorm so it wanted to be fast rather than great

    we need to finish the roof trim but this was done running ahead of an incoming thunderstorm so it wanted to be fast rather than great

    Unlike in the States the majority of pallets round here are untreated so they will rot, or maybe that’s just the result of scroungeable pallets tending to be one-wayers 2. This was constructed so the pallet used for the base and the side can be dismantled and replaced if need be. You can’t have too much wood storage, though most of our core drying is on the farm on a bigger scale. The one thing I am hopeless at is stacking wood – Mrs Ermine converted my efforts into something a third the size

    I am just no good at this compared to Mrs Ermine

    I am just no good at this compared to Mrs Ermine

    That’s enough headspace allocated to the Holly King for now, time to consider the virtues of Pimms in the late afternoon like those decadent city folk ;)

     

    Notes:

    1. not only do you not know where they’ve been, but all the pieces are of slightly varying thickness and width. I’m not a competent enough woodworker to do cabinet making with decent regular sized wood, never mind all sorts like that!
    2. According to this in Europe we do not permit chemical treatment of pallets, which is why your pallet compost bin rots so fast. That’s good if you want to burn them, though avoid engineered wood bits like the compressed blocks of the side riser because the glue gives of bad stuff if it burns.
    18 Jul 2014, 3:38pm
    reflections simple living
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  • Today I shall live like a king

    and so will you, unless you’re reading this on your smartphone while sleeping rough… I’m currently reading Ian Morris’ Why The West Rules for now and it struck me that in terms of lifestyle we live the life of former royalty. Take Queen Victoria, which whom Morris opens his book – despite being the richest person in the country at the height of Empire, she couldn’t do many of the things I can. There’s a chair in the drive with which I could be off and at the Scottish border by midnight, there are machines to do the washing for me and I can see and talk to anywhere in the world for a modest cost. Unlike even thirty years ago when I was at university, the accumulated knowledge of the world is largely at my fingertips – right here in the garden, I don’t even have to get up.

    So despite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation telling me that I am an impoverished Ermine unable to take part in society

    Straight between the eyes, no? You do not have enough to live on

    Straight between the eyes, no? You do not have enough to live on

    I live better than Queen Victoria, sitting in the garden out in the summer heat with a glass of iced coffee watching the birds sunning themselves near the bird-bath. I can get anywhere quicker than she could, indeed I am less than twenty-four hours away from any of the pink bits on the maps on her walls. I have libraries immeasurably richer than hers, and the state of medicine and health in Britain is much better too.

    And sometimes it’s good to lift my eyes from what’s wrong about the world and tip a hat to what’s damn well right with it.

     

    Drinking iced coffee on a day that's too hot to do anything else with isn't all bad, JRF - I think Queen Vic would approve

    Drinking iced coffee on a day that’s too hot to do anything else with isn’t all bad, JRF – I think Queen Vic would approve

     

     

    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
    10 Jun 2014, 7:18pm
    economy:
    by

    9 comments

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  • Archives

  • families on the financial brink – this isn’t going to get easier

    The National debtline tells us that household bills are pushing people into debt. There’s a big picture here, and it’s ugly.

    source: Changing Household Budgets, National debtline https://www.nationaldebtline.org/EW/Documents/Changing%20household%20budgets.pdf

    source: Changing Household Budgets, National Debtline

    People are losing the fight with inflation

    “How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

    “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

    Hemingway, The Sun also Rises

    The reason for that is that people are short the cumulative difference between the yellow line and the dark one – they are losing the fight about 1% a year. That adds up.

    Up until 2007 it seems a lot of debt trouble was due to basically stupid spending on Stuff. It’s possible to fight that – buy less consumer shit and learn to say No to your kids in the way that these folk don’t.

    1406_shopaholic

    That sort of spending tends to show up in the form of revolving credit card debt and personal loans. While there are serious problems with that sort of spending, it is tractable, because nobody actually needs a new pair of heels, iPad or new mobile phone.

    The personal finance blogosphere has many sterling examples of people who have overcome the Beast of consumer spending. So much pre-2007 debt was basically a lack of self-control. That concept is terribly old-fashioned and of course it’s so unfair when you can’t afford the stuff that you’re entitled to, but even for one of these pampered princesses it’s not a matter of life and death. Because consumer spending is about wants, not needs.

    I haven’t seen the programme and I’m not sure I’d want to give it too much headspace. However, from the summary I have some sympathy for the children, who are growing up in a value-free desert without map or compass and being ill-prepared for the time when they will have to make their own money choices. By people who lack the self-awareness to know when to stop. It’s bad enough to do that to yourself, but to do that to a child’s plastic mind is a dreadful injustice.

    While I’m happy to say that I have managed to avoid stupid consumer spending with money I didn’t have, I managed enough stupid consumer spending with money I did have. That’s not so bad – I give the credit to competent parenting, introducing me to the Micawber doctrine.

    If you ain’t got it, don’t spend it, son

    Not that hard, eh? Unfortunately there were three exceptions to that rule 1, so I saved my stupid spending with money I didn’t have for the most toxic asset class Britain has to offer – housing. And got away with it – just.

    It’s always about families, 2 and the way the economy is going, an increasing number of people can’t afford to have children. Not because they won’t be able to afford to keep them in designer labels and smartphones. But because they can’t afford to keep them to a minimum standard of Maslow’s lower levels – warm enough and with enough to eat.

    The wants are a pain but it’s the needs that are a bastard, things like water and power. You can actually live in a bedsit without power – I’ve done so for the odd week as a student when I didn’t have any money for the meter or it wasn’t in 50ps and it’s no big deal. But there’s a story behind the trend

    More households are vulnerable to problem debt and are not benefiting from the economic upturn, research shows

    Debtline carries on

    “The gradual erosion of some families’ surplus income in the face of rising prices has led to a new generation of debt problems – one to which more people are vulnerable, one which is harder to resolve and one which has no definitive solution,”

    This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. We are designing an economy with

    A secular move towards winner-takes-all

    There are structural changes in the employment market that we never anticipated 3. The increasing mobility and virtual value-add of work is concentrating power towards smaller sectors of the workforce and towards capital. Because you can move information at a much lower cost than in the past, and a lot of added value to goods and services is in the form of Mind rather than Stuff, capital is responding. It makes sense where you need human input to pay rockstar wages to a smaller part of the workforce at the highest skill level, and try and automate everything else. Apple and Google take the #1 and #2 world slots by market capitalisation – and most of their product is Mind. Just how unusual this is can be seen by the fact that the massive oil firm ExxonMobil is beaten into third place – the first company that has Real People™ doing Real Stuff™.

    ExxonMobil - Real Men doing Real Stuff

    ExxonMobil – Real Men doing Real Stuff

    That money talks, and it’s paying more and more to a smaller part of the workforce. That’s because they can afford to chase up the high skill tail of the talent bell-curve, because the output of Mind is much more scalable than Stuff. If a skill is normally distributed then the really skilled 0.1% of individuals above the 3 sigma mark may well be worth paying 1000 times more than someone of average ability, if you end up selling more than 1000 times as many units because of the value they add. Real stuff doesn’t scale that well – if you’re mining coal then even a really, really skilled miner is probably not so Stakhanovite that they can get 1000 times the output of an average miner. Physical limitations on throughput often place extra bottlenecks with Real Stuff.

    If we look at pre-oil societies, each market town would have, say, their own blacksmith and carpenter, that meant even the moderately skilled could hold their own. Even if there were a 3σ artisan 100 miles away shifting all your horseshoes and wardrobes from him to you would jack up the cost. We have gradually eroded these transport and transmission costs. Even in real stuff Britain outsources a lot of ‘carpentry’ to Ikea – because we can shift goods cheaper, although I’m not sure that Ikea is a 3σ talent! We use robots to make our mechanically propelled horses these days so the blacksmith is neither here nor there. If we want tools we order ‘em up on the intertubes, the ‘smith is probably in China.

    London shows us where this is going – the south east is where the work is in the UK, particularly in the dematerialised area of finance and other industries requiring Mind like media. So pay goes up, and the price of accommodation goes up. It’s therefore not that surprising that poor families are being moved out of the city, because rents are being jacked up. A young Ermine saw the writing on the wall 25 years ago, came to the conclusion that despite the great lifestyle he was too poor to live in London where he grew up and went to university. So he moved out. Eventually London will become a city-state like Singapore. It will generate lots of GDP – even now in it’s non-city-state form it’s 22% of the UK GDP, with it’s 8.3 million people being only 13% of the UK population. I found it surprising that the South East including London generates 45% of the UK’s GDP. Those poor families can’t fight that. The edge the young Ermine had was I saw it coming and was prepared to take elective action to jump before I was pushed.

    that concentration is bad news for most people

    because there are more below the skills threshold than above it, and the line is drifting up. It’s great news if you’re on the talented side. Though beware the gradual shift to the right of that bell curve.

    Of work suitable for less stellar talents, much is being outsourced to lower-cost regions. This eroding of families income relative to the cost of essentials will continue, because they aren’t adding as much value as they were before. They may be able to afford the iPad, but not the roof containing it as the years go by. The Telegraph opined that London is becoming a workhouse for the young. Although they said it’s no place for old men, it’s no place for families either.

    They need to start consuming less. These problems were clear for the middle classes a couple of years ago. This seems to be a secular trend – Stuff is getting cheaper while services get dearer. Services that affect families are accommodation, power and childcare. Accommodation is already a dreadful mess in Britain, we seem to have a whole bunch of perverse incentives that started with Thatcher destroying social housing. Apologists for her policy say if a council tenant buys under Right to Buy they don’t take any accommodation out of service – they’re still living in the house they occupied as a council tenant. That is true, but, when you look at what has happened to housebuilding in the UK Thatcher pole-axed it because councils don’t build much any more and housing associations failed to take up the slack.

    post-war housebuilding

    post-war housebuilding

    So the price goes up. Energy is going up because there’s more competition for the finite resource, and in a peculiar twist of fate it is being loaded to pay for insulating the houses of the poor. Well, those that have houses, of course.

    Childcare is a service, so it is not very scalable, and regulation seems to be upping the cost. For many families there will come a point where the amount the lower-earning adult earns is going to be less than the amount paid out in childcare. On the upside the child gets to see more of its parents. On the downside I’ve it sets the adult back in their career. Life is full of choices I guess. If there is only one adult in the family then I guess they’re SOL unless they have a valuable skill and the gift of the gab. Every which way this is not easy, and it’s not going to get easier.

    For more ambitious families, child-related services include university, and private schooling. It’s all going up faster than inflation, because they need skilled labour, and there’s competition from  mobile aspirational third culture consumers. However, these guys are probably not the ones struggling to pay the ‘leccy bill.

    There’s serious incoming trouble on its way

    Interest rates are at historic lows, and may need to rise. Unless associated with remarkable house price falls, the only way to picture that is severe hurt. The British housing market is now a gun that fires on both ends. What is probably in the national interest is for massive falls in the real value of house prices, so that we don’t tie up so much of our national wealth in our homes. But that would shaft no end of people who have already massively overpaid for their homes – making my antics in ’89 look like driving a hard bargain.

    People are gonna get hurt, and all of this is against the background of those secular changes. It’s all very well for IDS to charge around saying work is the answer, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. At the moment all his designs, if he ever gets them to work, are either telling the unemployed how crap they are for not being up to getting one of the bountiful jobs that there are in the UK, or pushing them into poorly paying jobs. Maybe we need a change in the unemployment figures, from people in work to man-hours worked, and some way of tracking the median household takehome.

    I don’t think this is a moan for the good old days

    When I was at school I watched the punk Arthur Scargill tell us how hellish mining was, as he held the nation to ransom with his flying pickets and secondary action in the 1970s. They fought like hell to keep those jobs in the next decade, and yet Art was right. You only have to see the toll in China to see that this isn’t a safe place of work.

    That sort of revisionism is critiqued on the right by the likes of Tim Worstall and a little more gently in  in Why does Joe Public love sweatshops. I’ve tried to avoid that problem – if the New Economy produced work across the ability spectrum there wouldn’t be so much of a problem. My observation is more general, of the winner-takes-all and the trend towards capital and the exceptionally able. It is possible that we are going through a future shock – after all the 5 day work week wasn’t written in stone and previous generations had different patterns determined by the demands and structures of their economies – the trend has been downward. It’s possible the John Maynard Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren may come to pass. But at the moment work is polarising, and we are telling a lot of people of average ability that they are worthless, while the likes of Duncan-Smith pretends that if only they get off their asses there would be loads of work for them. Perhaps the resurgent economy will fix this, but if it is fixing it, Natonal Debtline seem to be pointing to a deeper malaise.

    We need more honesty in this debate. On the one hand we could stay as we are. Old money will become more important as will high ability – either will give you enough to handle the system and become part of the 1%, both will give you an express ticket. There’s a cost to that, which will eventually look like razor wire, armed guards and watchtowers to keep the disaffected and disenfrachised 99% from doing some DIY redistribution. There is the alternative of Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel and the citizen’s wage. There are no doubt other alternatives. But it isn’t the 1950s and 1960s any more. There may be plenty of unfilled jobs and plenty of unemployed. It’s not necessarily true that the shape of the pegs match the shape of the holes.

    How did you go bankrupt?

    Slowly at first, then all of a sudden

    How I first heard Hemingway quoted

    postscript

    Bloomin’ heck, apparently the Ermine has company in Oxfam, which is charged with pumping out agitprop :)

    the Oxfam version of this

    the Oxfam version of this

    Seems a bit hard to be charged with being a commie bastard for making the observation that shit’s going down. Okay so I’m not necessarily with Oxfam on the benefit cuts and I view zero-hour contracts as part of un(der)employment.

     

    Notes:

    1. housing, which most people can’t do without borrowing and is not normally a wasting asset, investing in productive assets in a business context and education if it would make me richer or happier. These are particularly hard risk assessments to do for a twenty-something
    2. I am using family in the way the press use it, which is to imply one or more adults and one or more dependent children
    3. These are secular in the economic sense, as opposed to being irreligious
    3 Jun 2014, 2:12pm
    rant
    by

    8 comments

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  • Dear Amazon. Want more than 40%? Quite frankly, stick it

    The Ermine occasionally flogged off some spare CDs. In a previous life I used to wholesale some and occasionally I’d come across yet another bunch of these. It was an easy win – I get to clear out some space and somebody gets a new CD. But I’m down to the last box now. I had an Amazon Marketplace account. And today, having sent one of these and mailed it off yesterday, I get this peremptory message from His Jeffness.

    1406_amzon

    Dear Seller,

    We are contacting you today regarding your Amazon.co.uk seller account. Please be advised that we have made some structural changes to our EU Marketplace. As before, Amazon Services Europe S.à r.l. operates the Marketplace platform and provides the Selling on Amazon service. However, from now on, Amazon Payments Europe S.C.A. will provide the new payment component of the service.

    [translation: we have opened up yet another tax-beneficial scam joint who will no doubt start raking off more fees just like Paypal with Ebay]

    In this regard, EU regulations require Amazon Payments Europe to collect certain business and personal information from you and take steps to confirm your identity. To fulfil those requirements, we need your support to make some changes to your existing seller account with Amazon Services Europe:

    In addition to your current seller account you now need to open a Selling on Amazon payment account with Amazon Payments Europe. The proceeds of your transactions on Amazon EU Marketplaces will be disbursed from this account to your bank account.

    [translation: we will be salami-slicing you for fees upon fees, because we can]

    The Business Solutions Agreement has been amended to reflect this change, and you will need to agree separately to the Amazon Payments Europe User Agreement. Because these are new agreements and formats, we ask that you accept the new and amended agreements and provide the requested information in Seller Central.

    *** It is essential that you accept the new agreements and provide the requested information within the next 60 calendar days in order to continue to sell on Amazon. If you do not provide the required information within 60 days, you will not be able to open your Selling on Amazon payment account and you will not be able to continue to sell on Amazon. ***

    [translation: we hold all the cards and have you by the balls. You will do what we say because you're a sharecropper on our estate and we're bigger than you are]

    Err, no. Piss off. All items removed. If you aren’t prepared to pay me the less than a tenner for that last CD then I am absolutely fine with that – my customer will get his goods, presumably Jeff gets a few quid to take over more of the world(edit: 5/6/2014 in the interest of observing Queensbury Rules  Amazon will pay for that last CD in the old way I have now heard) and I don’t have to agree with yet another non negotiable shrink-wrap you do what we say or you suck it up demand. I had enough of that sort of stupidity at work, but at least they paid properly. Working for Amazon is already low-rent enough as it is, Amazon makes about 40% on the deal – more than the postage. Royal Mail actual do the work shifting goods from A to B, Amazon just pay the ‘leccy bill for their website. Well, okay, and make it easy for people to find stuff ;)

    As a retiree it isn’t always totally possible to avoid the issue of making money, but it’s the power-play I always want to avoid. I have done too many things for too long because I didn’t have options, and now I have the option it’s sweet. I don’t have a religious opposition to making use of skills, though curiously enough most of what I have done that’s made people money since leaving work has had nothing to do with engineering. Maybe I was too narrow in my engineering career, and lifting the daily grind has shifted the balance.

    This much I know, however – selling or giving mind and know-how is far preferable to wrangling Stuff. Cash-flow and storage is always such a pain with buying and selling stuff, you have to store this clobber, you have to look after it, even after you’ve turned a profit on the deal it feels bad to just throw stuff out that has sold well even if you have a more profitable/timely product. Compared to that shooting sound and video, editing it, or hacking code doesn’t consume anything other than a bit of power, you get to see new situations  and problems, and junk doesn’t build up in your garage or loft. Selling knowhow or ways of doing something has other subtle business benefits – there are often indirect lock-ins or costs of changing, whereas with mass-market products you’re just a rat on a wheel, particularly selling made goods on the internet.

    Every so often I’m tempted to make products, and even got a bunch of boards made for one design, but after I’ve used half of them on my own sensor network I think about all the EU crap like CE marking that didn’t exist the last time I produced devices and figure I need to remember the lesson from my multimedia company on the side relative to the CD operation run by DxGF.

    Don’t. Do. Stuff.

    Yes, if you’re starting out and want to make your fortune it’s not a bad way to go if you have the skills, but it’s a full time job. If you want to turn a little bit on the side it’s a hard row to hoe, because the margin on Stuff and the added value seems lower than adding Mind. And you need to warehouse Stuff and it moulders quietly if you keep it too long. So I’m going to toss the remains, get it out of my way and declutter. Jeff can get on his bike, and thank you very much sir for highlighting the low rent of that sort of work by being such a greedy bastard as to prep for extracting another slice of the action. The rake on Amazon Marketplace makes people like Hargreaves Lansdown look like public-spirited philanthropists -only 1.5% fees at HL compared to 38% at Amazon. And I’m no longer prepared to be a sharecropper for them and their bunch of Luxembourg umbrella companies.

    I’m starting to warm to the concept of Bitcoin, just to get shot of all this bollocks. Seriously, Amazon, there’s less than a ton left worth of goods here. I’m not validating my bank account and giving you shitloads of personal details, which you will use a) to scam me brainless with advertising crap to me that I don’t want and b) no doubt fail to secure your corporate network at some stage like your mates over at Ebay, spewing this information all over the internet so some bunch of ne’rdowells can cause me grief. No. And of course you’ll probably do like the fine fellows at Selftrade and ask for all sorts of extra useful marketing cobblers because, hell, the EU made you do it.

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