27 Jan 2015, 5:34pm
living intentionally personal finance:
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  • George Osborne may help me to live intentionally and spend more

    By his pension changes, that is. Sadly the exact mechanics wont be of much use to young’uns but for for some modestly old gits (45 plus) who have accrued a defined-benefit (DB) pension where you can buy  additional voluntary contributions (AVCs). Since there are a number of readers who work(ed) for The Firm that employed me for many years I’m throwing it out there.

    The philosophy of how difficult it is to qualify living off savings may be of more general interest. It’s heavy on pensions, which seem to be the Cinderella of the PF world, because most PF bloggers are younger than me and Monevator’s Greybeard seems to be off on a cruise. However, hopefully you’ll all get old enough to be interested in pensions one day, and if you can learn from my mortgage screw-up then so be it 😉

    Some pension and early retirement orientation

    One of the big challenges facing early retirees is how to fund the pre 55 early part of their early retirement. The part before 55 has to be something other than pensions because you can’t get hold of pensions before getting to 55. The goto place for this is ISA income and cash savings, though not paying your mortgage off early is a great way to have more cash savings in the pre-55 period, because you can use the pension commencement lump sum to save to pay off your mortgage from pre-tax income.

    don't automatically pay off your mortgage early if you are retiring before 55

    don’t automatically pay off your mortgage early if you are retiring before 55

    I didn’t get the mortgage wheeze right. In threading your way through the myriad paths to early retirement you are always going to get something or other wrong, that was my big mistake. I don’t have housing costs other than council tax and the 1% or so house purchase price depreciation fund, but having the borrowed capital to run down now would be useful. I could then use my AVC fund to pay off the mortgage tax-free at 60. Pretty much any time I go anywhere near anything to do with housing I screw it up royally. Why break the habit, eh?

    Because I drove my spending down to be able to quit early I have been able to string out my savings for twice the amount of time I anticipated. But it’s probably fair to say I haven’t lived large like like mistersquirrel and theFIREstarter 😉 I don’t have any complaints – freedom from The Man and being able to pursue my own interests is more than adequate compensation. For much of the first couple of years it was a process of recovery from the experience – and it’s respite that matters, not consumer goods and services. But I am also mindful that time is also ticking away, so if I could smooth my income I could do more in the near future rather than back-loading it. I’ve noticed the birds are starting to sing and maybe they call to me, get out there, travel more.

    I have no income – one of the primary navigational aids of personal finance spins and knows no North

    Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.

    Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

    Wilkins Micawber

    I never understood how to manage finances without having a number I could allocate on the Annual Income side. Without a figure for income, I could never qualify the Micawber question. It has made me fearful and over-conservative in spending. This has worked out okay for me till now – it is how I got to this point and having the choice to take Osborne up on his alternative offer of getting my AVC out tax-free but earlier. If I had favoured spending I would have drawn my pension short by now.

    or, as da yoof sez, YOLO

    or, as da yoof sez, YOLO

    Some readers will wonder WTF? The income computation is easy. Take current age of Ermine, subtract from 60 which is how long it needs to last till a good alternative, then divide total amount of cash savings by years and you have the income level. Maybe knock off about a year’s savings to cover emergencies then run the calculation.

    Not so fast. If you have no income, you will find it the devil’s own job to borrow money which is a perfectly reasonable way of leveraging your emergency fund. A year’s worth of low-ish running costs as  savings is not enough to hedge some kinds of risks. Lucy Mangan charges us that If you don’t understand how people fall into poverty, you’re probably a sociopath  – probably correctly. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I have used a much smaller percentage of my non-pension cash savings than that cash÷(60+1-current age) calculation would give. At least half of them are with those NS&I people so they aren’t being killed by inflation, unlike my cash ISA and cash balances. I really, really hate cash as an asset class, and never expect a return on it. At least inflation is surprisingly low given all the QE money that has been  pumped out – it seems to have gone in inflating the stock market and the housing market.

    The logical thing to to with a cash ISA these days is to switch the damn thing into S&S ISA but I can’t bring myself to do that, because of the fears of some of Lucy Mangan’s demons catching up with me, or needing to pay for an operation 1, or something like that. And as a result, the fearful me jams my spending. I err in the opposite way to mistersquirrel and theFIREstarter but error it still is.

    TEA calls this out well in The Pyramid and the Oxygen Mask – to wit

    If you are one of those people and you carry on working in your all consuming City or Corporate job, then you are wasting your life.

    This is more frequent than you might think. The most common motivation for this behaviour is fear  – fear of change, (irrational) fear of poverty, fear of loss of status, fear of their spouse’s reaction etc.  Its not enough just to make a life-changing amount of money, you still have to change your life.  Don’t just load the gun, pull the trigger.

    Apply own mask first…
    We owe it to ourselves and our families and friends to start by getting our own shit together.  Think about the airline safety briefing : always apply your own oxygen mask before helping others.  This initially sounds a bit counter-intuitive and even selfish to some people. 

    I have overcome most of that. I changed my life, and I qualified what Enough looked like to me. But I am still on his Level 2.

    These people understand the power of money and have mastered some of their emotional weaknesses re money. Paradoxically, they are seeking to get to a point (see level 1 below) where they think much less about money.

    I am not sure I can do that until Mr Micawber’s compass begins to respond and the questing needle shows which way is North. After a certain level personal finance is much more about the personal than it is about the finance. My fears of Lucy Mangan’s demons are part of the emotional weaknesses re money. Possibly I have some of the elements of her sociopath. I just didn’t want to depend on other people’s grace for dealing with the demons and so I spent less so I could buy my way out of certain kinds of misfortune. But I take TEA’s point. This is a question of balance and I haven’t got that right. A clawed hand remains frozen on the controls set to dead slow because the broken compass shows no signal I feel I can trust. There is still work to do on that intentional living thing.

    It has been five, getting on for six years since that fateful day in February 2009 when a jumped up punk of a manager squeezed an Ermine, intimated TINA and I realised I was all out of options and didn’t want to kiss The Man’s ass, and I locked down spending and took a three-year holiday from the middle class in the name of Freedom. I would do the same again. I have become even more ornery, awkward and unemployable since then. Work is not the point of Life 2. This much I know.

    I would soon have access to a DC pension

    Now if I had a DC pension I would soon be able to draw it. As a brutal simplification that everyone should qualify for their own circumstances, it makes sense to draw a DC pension as soon as possible, all other things being equal. By drawing it early, you stretch out the time over which the money is extracted, and you get a personal allowance for each of the years over which you take it. If you don’t need all the money that year , reinvest it in an ISA in the same sort of thing the pension was invested, and you shift the pension capital from being taxable to being sheltered from tax. If you still have more than 15k left over each year I suggest you need to spend more, unless you are looking to mollycoddle your kids in which case leave it in the pension since they can inherit that at their marginal tax rate it seems. The converse is that if you are so bloody stupid as to take your DC pension out in one lump then you deserve to pay a shitload of tax because such arrant stupidity should be taxed out of existence.

    But I don’t have a DC pension. So I can’t do that. Don’t get me wrong – I am deeply grateful that I started work at a time when there was a better balance between labour and capital and The Firm actually wanted people to work for them so they offered good benefits, the original DB pension being one of them. However, a DB pension is less flexible than a DC about the retirement date – draw it earlier than normal retirement age (60 in my case) and it is reduced by roughly 5% per year drawn short. If you are in decent health you really don’t want to do that. The actuarial reductions usually favour those who follow the norm rather than the early retirees. In itself that’s not a big deal, because I saved a quarter of my DB pension capital 3 in AVCs.

    the original plan – invest the 25% tax-free PCLS in the market in a couple of years time

    The original plan was to run off the SIPP I took out earlier this year when Osborne changed things, after another two years worth of contributions which I can get in by May 2015 (this year and next tax year), and then to draw my main pension a bit early and eat the actuarial reduction. I would then get the AVC tax free, which I would then shovel into ISAs over a few years, getting more ISA income to top up the actuarially reduced pension.

    Note the correct way to have done this job would have been to keep my mortgage at the level of the PCLS and live off the money I paid my mortgage off with until at 60 I take the PCLS tax-free and pay off the mortgage. The general cocked up the tactics there, even before the battle plan made contact with the enemy.

    the new plan – invest the AVC in deferring my main pension

    It appears I can shift the AVC into a SIPP without taking the main pension, as it is considered a DC independent saving. All of a sudden I lose the whole point of the AVC, which is to get 25% of my DB pension capital free of tax. I now only get 25% of 25% or a sixteenth of the capital tax free. However, I have discharged my mortgage and don’t have a particular need for a shedload of cash, other than as investment capital to make up for the actuarial reduction.

    From some time after this April, I can draw down the SIPP tax-free, as long as I stay below the income tax threshold. There is also some hazard of work income over the coming years 4. Indeed, it seems I can contribute to a SIPP up to £10k p.a. while drawing from it, so I can lose any earned income into the SIPP, which is a good way of spreading out earnings to minimise tax – I don’t aim to give up much time to the filthy W word, so 10k will probably do 🙂

    Each year I live off the AVC fuelled SIPP and the dividend income of my ISA, my deferred DB pension increases by roughly 5%. Effectively I get a return on my AVC funds in terms of that permanently increased DB pension, and at current stock market valuations that looks a higher return and lower risk than I could win from adding to my ISA. Of course that is a return on capital, the return of capital is consumed as income. Normally if you want a return on capital you need to retain the capital and not spend it, this is one of the few exceptions 5. When I get to 60 I will probably stop drawing down the divi from my ISA unless I think of something to spend it on. Running down the AVC + ISA income is roughly equal to the value of the DB pension at NRA, so I smooth my income. I will get two smaller bump-ups, one at 60 when the ISA dividend income becomes superfluous to requirements, and one in the distant time at 67 when and if I get the State pension.

    I get the same general effect as if I hadn’t made a cod’s of the mortgage/PCLS thing, subject to the limitation of being limited to the tax threshold + the income from my ISA each year. I’m easy with that, big spenders may not be.

    An annual income, and an answer to the Micawber question

    Obviously there’s the benefit of getting this AVC cash into use rather than depreciating for another six years. More importantly, however, I get an income for the first time in about three years. So I could return to that middle-class sort of spending if I wanted to. They say that it takes a month to break a habit, so six years should be plenty. I can’t unsee the wanton waste I discovered in some of the empty dreams of the middle class cubicle slave I was. I am no longer a cubicle slave, but some of the dreams still seem empty. I found freedom in the open spaces, in the sound of birdsong, in places like this

    1501_wolves_P1000135rather than places like this

    Westfield, London

    Westfield, London

    I am in no hurry to spend more, but I do need to release the dead hand of the fearful non-spender who felt adrift in a pathless land without the compass of Wilkins Micawber to guide the way. Unusually among consumers, possibly I am consuming at too low a rate. I can easily live well on the personal allowance plus £5000 tax-free from my ISA, maybe I will have to consult with good people like mistersquirrel and theFIREstarter as to how to inflate my outgoings on fine living. On the other hand I don’t have to spend all of it every year. My ISA will thank me for continued reinvestment. I now have a high-water-mark for annual spending, which I can exchange for the dead-hand’s ‘as little as possible’. The tide is a long, long, way out.

    the tide is out there somewhere

    the Wash – the tide is out there somewhere

    There’s no rush – one of the arts of pension planning seems to be keep as many options open, and then opportunistically close them off at the eleventh hour in whatever way is most advantageous at the time.

    Ed Miliband could destroy this plan

    …in May. In which case it’s back to plan A. There’s nothing I can do about that, it’s the usual mantra – coffee for the things I can do something about, red wine for what I can’t change. It’s the problem with pension savings all round – government meddling can screw up the best laid plans. In fairness to governments, it is only government meddling that has made this alternative a possibility. It wasn’t a possibility when I left work in 2012.

    of market crashes, and excitement, and foolishness

    All this will take a few years, should there be a market crash I can rethink, draw my DB pension a little earlier, eat some actuarial reduction and seize the opportunity to invest the SIPP. Assuming, that is, I have the cojones to do that – such a market crash could be the trumpet at dawn of the great unwinding. Or maybe I lack the taste for the ride. Finding myself unable to to determine a reasonable spending rate without having an annual income shows that perhaps I am not the Wolf of Wall Street. I should heed the words of Warren Buffett…

    To make the money they didn’t have and they didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need–that’s foolish, that’s just plain foolish.

    …and at most half-split this if the denouement comes this year. At the moment an increase in DB pension looks lower risk than the known risk of the market 6. It’s taken me a long time to realise that I had this opportunity, because my original plan was built when Osborne’s changes hadn’t happened. However, the job of any chief executive is to adapt to changing circumstances

    no plan survives contact with the enemy

    von Moltke

    Pension planning is a bastard for complexity and counterintuitive wrinkles and changing rules. I’m generally of Monevator’s opinion when it comes to financial advisers, but I wonder if pension planning might not be an exception. Certainly for those working at The Firm, take up the offer of the Wealth at Work seminars, since you don’t pay for the advice and they have knowledge of your specific environment. Just don’t hire W@W to run your investment portfolio, which is what they’d like you to do afterwards 😉

    My pension will eventually be a combination of the DB pension with about 2/3 of the target time accrued, and my ISA to make up the difference, tax-free. But as an early retiree I could have 30 years ahead – possibly more. It would be unwise to ignore the tail risks that affect both types of pension, though differently. The world will change over that sort of timescale. Just to remind ourselves of the scale of those sorts of changes, we were listening to this on the radio 30 years ago

    Only one guy in Britain had a mobile phone, though the first had been demonstrated in 1973 in the US. Those 1970s analogue devices were not cellular like TACS was, so the number of channels was very low and prices were astronomical.

    Motorola's Martin Cooper, April 1973

    Motorola’s Martin Cooper, handset first used in April 1973

    Nobody much had the Internet. I was using a VAX with green-screen text terminal and 9600 baud serial connectors to do circuit simulation. 30 years is one hell of a long time for things to change. It’s plenty of time for tail risks to show up. But it’s also plenty of time for nimbler, younger minds to invent good stuff that people want to pay for. Assuming, of course, that the work of humans is not done here – in which case the spoils will accrue to patrimonial capital as Piketty told us it would.

    Notes:

    1. the NHS does fine with big stuff and with chronic stuff, but elective quality of life interventions it does poorly now the Tories have been at it.
    2. with the obvious rider ‘for me’. If Work is the point of Life for you then knock yourself out
    3. computed by taking the gross paid at NRA and multiplying by 20
    4. there is some research work I want to do. In the end even an ermine can’t outrun the W word forever…
    5. it isn’t a true exception, it is the interaction with life-expectancy figures that gives an appearance of a return on capital.
    6. I am casually interchanging risk and volatility of the short-term price levels which I really shouldn’t do
     
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