16 Sep 2014, 11:18am
living intentionally personal finance reflections:
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  • Financial Independence is about more than money

    In Blighty there’s a raging debate about the subject of independence going on – Scottish independence that is. I’m not going to add to the verbiage about Scottish independence because this is a matter for the Scottish people themselves on Thursday, but I am struck by the paucity of the thinking of the No/Better together campaign.

    Independence is about self-determination, not about money. When I chose to shoot for financial independence, the reason for doing it wasn’t financial. In purely financial terms it was a disaster – dropping my income to a prospected 20% of the high-water mark 1

    The No campaign seems to have taken Bill Clinton’s adage that it’s the economy, stupid to the extreme, and focus on the alleged economic Götterdämmerung that will come to pass as a result of independence. Now there are inconsistencies in Salmond’s campaign 2 exactly what the point of independence is if Scotland continues to use the pound and retain the queen as a figurehead is hard for me to understand, but the No campaign seems to have missed the point entirely.

    It’s about more than money. It’s about time, and about self-determination

    Independence is about freedom of action and of self-determination. I was prepared to eat a 80% fall in income to win my freedom – to choose how I use my days. We often get too hung up on the how of financial independence because it is a big, challenging ask. Don’t get me wrong – if you want to get there, you need to understand the how, and some of the UK bloggers are doing a great job in doing what ERE did for the US scene with his book. Mistersquirrel has written an excellent condensed summary of how to achieve financial independence with his ebook, Monevator will set you right on the hows and whys of investing.

    The reason financial independence(FI) is a hard sell is because of the No campaign thinking – the focus is all on what you can’t do.The focus is clear and sharp, because money is measurable. The hours and years of your life aren’t so quantifiable, because unlike the Cyclops you don’t have a clear measure of the end-date. But as Gretchen Rubin highlighted 3, the days are long but the years are short.

    The Escape Artist does a good job of summarising the issues

    The flipside of this is that once you have met your reasonable financial needs, you owe it to yourself and to others to raise your sights and stop just focussing on money. In my time in the City, I used to meet plenty of people that (I’m guessing) had a net worth of £2m+, who were good at their jobs but would have been happier being a writer, tree surgeon or a school teacher. Why behave as if this one life we get is just a dress rehearsal? 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.

    Now I didn’t work in his field, my networth is far less than £2m+, but I do have other advantages – not living in London, being a bit older for instance. So relatively I am in a similar position. And I didn’t get that wasting your life bit  – I assumed I’d carry on working to 60 (the normal retirement age at The Firm) because  er, well somewhere along the way between starting my first job and getting to my late 40s the clutch must have slipped in the why am I doing all this department. Now to be honest my job wasn’t all consuming for a long time and gave some intellectual challenge, it served me well up until the early 2000s, But then it started to go wrong, and demand too much for too little, in particular micromanagement and Digital Taylorism started to creep in and the erstwhile research facility was driven down the value chain into a jobbing shop.

    And although it took me far too long to jump to it, in the end I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to live like this, and I wanted out. That is the time when the how of financial independence matters, and I took the resources available to me and focused them with extreme prejudice on getting out. The Escape Artist was exactly right

    […and you carry on working…, 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.

    It’s easy to get lost in the money side and paralysed by fear. It’s where the No campaign is going wrong, IMO. Independence is about more than money. Yes, having enough money is necessary, but sufficient. There are cultural differences in Scotland that have not been answered, and there is more of a feeling for the collective good. Because I personally am somewhere to the right of the Scots 4 I think they will be sorely disappointed in the promises of milk and honey offered by Salmond, but I have enough faith in their savvy that they probably suspect this too. The nation of Scotland has achieved far too much for far too long to be made up of people universally daft enough to believe him.

    It’s a perfectly reasonable call to accept some degree of economic poverty for greater freedom of action. In the big picture, it isn’t all the economy, stupid. Money is crystallised power, it is a claim on future human work or resources that displace the same. It is an enabling component of a life well lived, in the same way as your car needs four wheels to run, three won’t do. But five, six or three hundred aren’t needed. When success starts to look to you like a yacht then it may be worth asking yourself if you haven’t strayed onto the motorway to consumerism hell. In general, if success starts to look to you like Things and Wants then you may want to consider that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has at its pinnacle

    “morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts”

    Not so much Stuff in there, eh? I don’t know about morality and lack of prejudice, but I would go along with that getting better at being myself, expressing myself, and individuation are the primary wins of early retirement, and the main enabler is that I own my own time. It really doesn’t matter how rich your are or how many of your yachts are in the harbour if you are still owned by The Man and have to be somewhere and do something for a lot of your day to keep things that way. Obviously if you are truly of independent means then more is better, but there is a long sliding scale between the amount of your life that you give to The Man and the amount of wealth that you accumulate.

    I am poorer, but I have far more self-determination than when I was working

    Let me take an example. The Ermine household was out in Wales this last week – Mrs Ermine was attending a community-supported agriculture shindig, and I went along for the ride to go look at things like this

    prehistoric site in Wales

    easy to get to prehistoric site in Wales

    as well as searching for less easy to find sites, going round in circles because Cadw are poor at signage and rights of way are also poorly maintained in Wales I am a  crap hiker because I only do it to get to interesting stuff, rather than the the whole personal challenge/because it’s there thing. Cadw are erratic at signage and I did find one place where some toe-rag had extended his front lawn over the erstwhile footpath and removed all signage to the stone stile, but it’s still no excuse for wandering aimlessly on a rocky outcrop, and I could learn to get that right, and have learned that blaming others for stuff I could fix isn’t a way to long-term success. I am a unreconstructed map and handheld GPS 5 when it comes to hiking, but it struck me that what I want is a GPS that shows a moving OS map. It’s been a long time coming because of the technical challenges and ridiculous Gollum-esque licensing restrictions of the Ordnance Survey, but I can go out and buy such a thing now.

    Oy vey – £350. Now when I was working I would have dropped the £350 on this just like that. Because this was going to change my life and make it easier to find things in the open.

    Err, no. For starters, all but five weeks of my time was sold to The Man, and much interesting stuff like this is left lying around in places far away from people. It takes time and effort to get to. I now take some time in places, to look and to listen, be it some urban nexus or a prehistoric site or something else.

    A colleague at work did me a great favour in highlighting the contradictions and lack of intentional living of those expensive, fast and furious holidays while working. It was when he told me that his wife got on the internet as soon as they came back from their summer holiday to book the next year’s one. And I thought to myself  “I do not want to live in the future like that, flushing away 50 weeks of my time like that for two weeks of respite”

    I stopped going on holidays then, for three years, so that I could maximise my savings rate. Yes, I was living in the future for those three years. But my future is now. And I have far more freedom of action. If I wanted to I could spend more time looking at prehistoric stones, indeed I considered a period as a peripatetic photographer. You can never travel with anybody else if you want to make money take decent pictures outdoors, because you need to be out at the times of day when most people are eating or sleeping because the light is better then, rather than the harsh light of the middle of the day. It’s just too antisocial. I can consider that – because I own my own time, so it wouldn’t be robbed from our collective couple of weeks of freedom. Three or four weeks a year just wouldn’t cut it. But then I wouldn’t want to try and be creative or make the money because The Man would be paying to own the remaining time, and time away from The Man is more about recovery than about creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving 6.

    Consumerism attacks you at the third and fourth levels particularly

    In particular the need for respect… It’s all the buy this to make yourself look better, set you above the Jones, etc. The Joneses don’t give a shit about what you have, they are bothered about what they don’t have. They don’t respect the people that have what they don’t, indeed they hardly think about the people, it’s the stuff – it is the feeling of the missing eyes from their own peacock tail that exercises them. I know because I’ve been there – consumerism gets you to project part of your self image on stuff and lifestyles – can you even remember much about the beautiful people who were the clothes-horses for the lifestyle in the ads?

    If you want out of this rat race then refuse to run with rats. Focus on what you think about your stuff, not what other people do. If your stuff displeases you, then change it. If it serves you okay but isn’t the latest smartphone/gizmo/whatever then so what?

    Another thing that helps you with consumerism is that when you own your own time you can work out what you want of your stuff and how to use it right. F’rinstance, I discovered  that I could use the existing iPod I have with a CoPilot bluetooth GPS I got from ebay ages ago for a project, and then make it work with Viewranger which can download individual tiles of OS maps for a price. Smartphone aficionados will of course say they can do all this but one thing the last week did teach me is that mobile data coverage is non-existent in the parts of the UK where interesting stuff is often to be found – I had thought it would be a useful fallback data network for researching but it’s useless – run and gun WiFi is far more reliable because at least you know where to find it  at centre of habitation. With a bit of experimentation I can find out if a GPS showing OS maps is useful to me for about £20 using gear I already have. If it is I may consider the Garmin product – but I will do so knowing what questions to ask and how I use this in the field, rather than having to sport the £350 up-front just to find out if it works for me and take the risk of there being some subtle gotcha or yet another gadget that promises much but fails to deliver on the essentials – let’s hear it for the smart watch with less than 24 hours of battery life and which doesn’t tell the time at a glance as a case in point of getting the 20% gimmickry right and losing the 80% essentials.

    The Scottish referendum highlights that it isn’t all about the money, and it’s the same with financial independence.

    To paraphrase Bill Clinton, It’s the freedom, stupid. Financial independence isn’t a notch on the bedpost, it has no meaning in and of itself. Even in the midst of trying to find a way out, I understood this, because I was driven by wanting options, to win a way out from having other people be able to tell me what to do with my time. It’s important to first answer the question why, before addressing the how.

    Savings. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for them. Most people save in order to buy something. That’s good, particularly is the alternative is to use credit. Though the most common reason for saving, it isn’t the only one.

    I save to buy power and freedom – the freedom to walk tall […] – modern ads for savings accounts emphasise saving up for something like a house, or the advantageous interest rate. I have never seen a modern ad advocating saving to buy yourself independence of thought and action. Wage slavery is too ingrained in our culture, and we have surrendered to Illich’s modernized poverty.

    What’s your reason for wanting to be financially independent? After all, many, many people in Britain live happy and fulfilling lives enjoying the fruits of consumerism and living paycheque to paycheque, and good for them. I have no quarrel either with the YOLO set who ram themselves up the eyeballs in debt, as long as they don’t then turn round and demand I pay to bail them out without getting a slice of the YOLO fun 😉 There are choices to be made in life, in general you can do anything you want 7 if you want it hard enough, but not everything you want.

    So it is for Scotland on Thursday. It is freedom to live in the way they want, albeit in probably straitened circumstances 8. It’s not about the money. It’s about freedom and self-determination. These are things that it’s sometime worth making sacrifices for.

    Notes:

    1. There are many, many distorting factors that make this a lowball estimate and it being less of a hit than the headline fall, but 80% was the drop I was prepared to eat
    2. Alex Salmond worked as an economist in MAFF in the late 1970s – I presume he is fully aware of the consequences of being in a currency area with a bunch of guys who are carrying on in a way so opposed to the way your area wants to live that you want to get shot of them, but if he has forgotten that, the Euro area is a good object lesson in why you don’t want to be the 60lb gorilla next to the 600lb one in a currency union
    3. warning – extremely cheesy child-centric crap, but says a truth all the same. You may or may not need a sick bucket and/or end up in hyperglycaemia shock due to the saccharine schmaltziness
    4. more from the point of view that “if you aren’t a socialist when you are young you have no heart and if you are when you are older you have no head” rather than a deep Ayn-Randian philosophy or being a dedicated follower of Hayek’s Austrian school
    5. with a mechanical compass to back it up, but I don’t normally use this
    6. Not everyone working for The Man needs the recovery time – I know a few people who choose to work some jobs that pay modestly but aren’t particularly consuming precisely to have a better lifestyle. They do enjoy their time off much better, and it’s a perfectly reasonable alternative the the financial independence/retire early approach, albeit with the inherent risks of depending on the availability of that type of job, which seems to be falling over time, or at least paying less well
    7. bearing in mind you are in a rich first-world economy, assuming you are of above average aptitude in something that can enhance the lives of your fellow men and that you are capable of understanding that your actions have consequences
    8. I don’t believe the milk and honey promises, though I don’t believe the hell on earth the No campaign are selling. And I find it more admirable when someone chooses freedom over the chimera of economic comfort through slavery anyway, it’s what this blog is about 🙂
    11 May 2014, 10:58am
    personal finance:
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  • The Scotland problem

    Something’s afoot later this year, and I can’t really get my head round the finance implications. Two things are afoot, indeed, and they are loosely related from an Ermine’s viewpoint.

    One is the increased ISA allowance to 15k, and so far I’ve chosen to ignore Under the Money Tree’s sage advice and get my capital in there ASAP. Unlike UTMT I have no income and need to be more cautious at this particular stage, but more to the point I am well over the FSCS limit in my existing ISA, because unlike my Cash ISA, which is busy going nowhere, and indeed backwards in real terms, S&S ISAs tend to grow a bit over the years, which whopping heart-rending retrenchments every few years. I was fortunate enough to start just after one of those.

    And there’s an event on the horizon that might make FSCS protection more important. It’s the threat (from my point of view) of Scottish independence.

    Tomnaverie stone circle in Aberdeenshire

    Tomnaverie stone circle in Aberdeenshire

    Fantastic place, Scotland – wide open spaces, loads and loads of marvellous megalithic sites, people with a great engineering tradition and wide open spaces. Okay, so it gets brass monkeys in winter and don’t even think about going near water in July ‘cos the midges will eat you alive.

    It’s all about to get a lot better, ‘cos that nice Mr Salmond has invited the Fairness Fairy to sprinkle a bit of magic pixie dust, and he’s written it all down in Scotland’s future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland. Here are some of the things he will bring to the good citizens of that fair country

    • Scotland will continue to use the pound,
    • guarantee that the minimum wage rises – at the very least – in line with inflation
    • a commitment to increase the personal tax allowance, benefits and tax credits in line with inflation
    • single-tier State pension at the rate of £160 per week in 2016

    More spending and less tax, what on earth is his secret? I’m not quite sure what sort of crack he’s smoking, but he clearly has a good dealer. Now I am all for the Scottish people having the right to self-determination, and there are some obvious cultural differences with England that stretch beyond football. The country is much more left-wing than the UK as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with that and indeed we might all live a little happier if we cared a little bit less about money and more about people. I can see that it sticks in the craw to have a largely Tory government when Scotland returns no Tory MPs. If people in Scotland are that pissed off with being part of the UK then they will vote accordingly.

    Now independence comes with rights but also responsibilities, and I’m buggered if I understand the sort of independence that uses another country’s currency, never mind your ex’s currency. Managing the money supply to broadly track the amount of goods and services in your economy , your appetite for national debt and foreign goods is all something you can do when you run your own currency. It’s possible that the Calvinist roots of Scotland will mean it powers ahead of the rest of the UK despite the tendency of the Fairness Fairy to run out of other people’s money, in which case with the Pound Scotland will be Germany to the rUK equivalent of  Club Med. But without the power of Germany. In that case the spendthrift English will borrow against the hardworking Scots and spend all their money until they a) access the EU and b) join the Euro in which case the Germans will save them. Until the Germany runs out of young people in about 20 years time.

    Alternatively the Fairness Fairy might start to run out of other people’s money and the Bank of England will seek to cut the supply off. That will cause plenty pain for rUK because it probably means higher interest rates, but given the relative numbers it will cause ten times more pain for Scotland. So have some self-respect, guys, and create a currency (Salmond?) ASAP and start managing your own financial affairs. What part of independence do you not understand, exactly? It’s not like we are still under Bretton Woods and Scotland can do like Australia did in ’65 and switch to the AU$ and £1=2AU$ until the 1970s. Yes, the pound is convertible and available on the open market. But like all those Hungarians and Cypriots who took mortgages denominated in the Swissie and found out how that can turn into a world of hurt the fact that you can do something doesn’t mean you should. The whole point of being independent means that you want to run things differently from the UK. Lockstepping the currency for any longer than you have to is a strange way of going about that.

    Scottish independence and the Ermine

    My problem with Scottish independence isn’t about independence as such, but the damage and turmoil that could do the the economy of the rest of the UK. What the bloody hell are we going to call the rUK then – the disunited kingdom? The Shattered State? At the moment the pound is relatively high (compared to the last few years) and that makes a case for buying foreign assets, given my ISA has a heavy home bias. It’s what I have been doing of late, to lean against that – a bit of emerging markets, a bit of Africa. I’m almost tempted by some Russia, but only a small amount. It’s hard to work out what the meaning of ‘ownership’ is there…

    However, I don’t want to open an ISA until I can open a NISA because I need to use a different company that TD. Obviously I will make sure it’s not one domiciled in Scotland, in the end if I want to open an offshore account 1 then I’d want to choose somewhere in a country that is far away from the UK and not going through birth pangs as well.

    The Ermine is not a funds sort of person, which is nice because an awful lot of funds are run by Aberdeen Asset management, and I will look at the policy of some of my investment trusts too. And I don’t really fancy having a lot of money tied up in a company in a new-born state trying to work out a monetary policy. Capital controls can go along with that. I don’t like Alex Salmond, I think he will say anything to get his own way, and I bloody well don’t want to have any money exposed to him or his world view. After the dust settles, Scotland may well be a good place to  invest – the Scottish people will be able to straighten themselves out and get to work building a country that expresses their world-view. At least with Russia you know that buying a small stake in Mr Putin and that the rule of law is tenuous; this is what the risk premium is all about. With Scotland because of the policy vacuum it’s all about unqualified risk for anybody in the rUK because we get to eat the downside with no exposure to the upside of all that Free Stuff from the Fairness Fairy.

    On the plus side, it is at points of turmoil that opportunities show themselves. So having an ISA open by August with the higher available is an exciting opportunity – sort of like the summer of 2011 but hopefully without the rioting. Scottish independence, should it happen, should be a happy event for Scotland.

    Of course it may all be a damp squib or other events like the clanking of Russian armour rolling into Kiev may cause more widespread issues. But I’m surprised the prospective breakup of the UK is met with such equanimity in the(r) UK PF scene.

     

     

     

    Notes:

    1. I know there aren’t any offshore ISAs 🙂
     
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