Who Moved My Cash?

When I was retired for a year, I was quite impressed by how little money I seemed to need to get by – enjoyably – on a week to week basis. My biggest expenditure seemed to be on coffees and cake, which I’d indulge in when I went to the gym, or when I met my DOH during her work break, or when I’d wandered into town to visit the library or on some sort of errand.

In many ways I now see my year out as “retired” was quite unusual and, I’m beginning to think, was certainly so when it came to money. I now think I was getting quite a kick out of actively avoiding unnecessary expenditure because, for me, it was quite a novel situation to be in. Why spend today what you can put off until tomorrow, or better still, put off indefinitely? I’d mentally scoff when many of my friends seemed to be continuing with their bad spending habits and congratulate myself that I had matured on from that childish “I want, I want” stage.  I mean, imagine spending sixty quid on a meal out for two! Imagine buying another set of new golf clubs when you’d bought one five years previously! Imagine buying a new winter coat when that one you’ve worn for the past two years is still in perfectly good nick! Imagine believing that you need to change your car every three years. And so on.

Before I found myself retired, I was never much of a spender and much more of a saver, but I enjoyed having the monthly salary dropping into the bank account giving me choice and relative flexibility when it came to money. Security too, as there wasn’t much I could imagine happening that I couldn’t take in my financial stride. Although I could still sometimes imagine money running through my hands like sand through an egg timer, I was topping up that top half of the egg timer every month with more sand. I didn’t take it for granted, but maybe I didn’t appreciate it as much as I might have either.

My year out, financially, didn’t do much to disillusion my notion that I didn’t need all that much to get by and that’s probably true, but ironically – or fortuitously – since I’ve returned to work I’ve begun to wonder if I was kidding myself? Because this year, so far, has turned out to be a bit of an “unplanned spend” nightmare. Last year, in retirement, I don’t remember spending too much on the house. So far this year alone I’ve needed a skylight window replaced; our garden furniture has literally fallen to bits; our central heating has broken down; our kitchen tap (a bloody expensive one, courtesy of the previous occupant) needs replaced; our shower leaked and needed a plumber to get to a leak behind the shower wall. This month our roof needs a major repair, our hoover has broken down and needs replaced (and no, Youtube couldn’t help for once).

Same can be said for cars – four tires so far this year, plus minor repairs.

Then there’s the social “special events” that, I reckon, have cost about a grand this year on presents, hotels, dinners and booze. Weddings, “21st’s”, fiftieths, Silver Weddings, Golden Weddings, this year has been the year for them.

And, coming to think of it, the year began with a round of dental treatment that I had to pay for because the NHS would have pulled the tooth instead of trying to save it. This cost the best part of a thousand pounds too which, as I write it, I can hardly believe. But the bank statements don’t lie.

The other day I had a go at calculating what I’ve spent over and above my monthly budget this year and took a sharp intake of breath when I realised that the figure was nearing ten grand! Unbelievable Jeff, but the devil is there in the detail on my financial spreadsheets. I began to wonder, however, if maybe this was a more normal situation than my retirement year when, it seemed, that I was able to stick pretty closely to my budget. Maybe I just had a lucky year out? Plus, prior to that point, I was fortunate enough to have a salary that took care of all eventualities without breaking sweat. Perhaps my “unplanned spend” in those days went by almost unnoticed?

When I was working, I was never much of a fan of having an “Emergency Fund” in cash that equated to about three month’s worth of salary, as many financial advisors would tell you that you should have. This year is teaching me that it’s not too bad an idea at all. Apart from anything else, it’s a psychological cushion because, in a way, you’ve planned to have that emergency cash available. My “Unplanned Spend” this year has had to come from my investments and I haven’t liked cashing them in to bridge the gap. It makes me feel like I’ve slipped up, miscalculated and got my sums wrong.

I’ve quite a few spreadsheets that try to calculate what income I’ll need when both my wife and I retire for good. None of them have previously included a line or amount for “Unplanned Spending”. They do now.

In Praise of Donald and Hillary

It’s the eve of the American election and never in history have two more disdained, disliked and dishonourable candidates been the choice that America has to make. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” is ironic in that really, when it comes to the Commander in Chief, in having to vote for either of these two you’re starting at Ground Zero. You can “Make America Great” by ensuring that it’s starting at the bottom in terms of Presidents. Whichever way it goes, it’s not going to be a happy outcome, with almost half the people in disgust at their fellow countrymen for voting for the alternative. It’s America’s own version of the Brexit referendum.

I like to tell myself I’m a passive investor, but I do keep half an eye on things that I believe might affect my portfolio. Back at the start of this year I decided it was time to sell up on both my American and European index funds on the basis that there was just too much uncertainty ahead in both markets. I’m of the firm belief these days that politics is an increasing sideshow to a rampant capitalism that just bullies its way on with things, ignoring political boundaries and exploiting the rule of (tax) law at every opportunity. To this end, I switched out of the index funds and into Global Dividend funds, telling myself that the vast majority of the big players in these investments were either American or European capitalist behemoths anyway. I’d still be heavily invested in both the European and American markets, just more biased into the bigger corporate players within them. Through these investments I have my money where my mouth is, except my mouth is usually mouthing off scornfully about how Google, Amazon, Starbucks and the rest are swerving their tax paying duty to society while governments seem powerless to stop them. Yes, I admit, even when it comes to me, money talks and bullshit walks (to quote the legendary Bobbi Fleckman), and it would be more accurate to state that I’m putting my money where my mouth isn’t.

One thing I will say about both Trump and Hillary is that they’re NOT really good adverts for retirement, but they’re both great adverts for pensioners. Both are nearing seventy and carry themselves as if they were forty years younger. They’re a fantastic poster boy and girl for the notion that an exciting and stimulating job keeps you energised, intellectually sharp (well….) and physically ahead of many, if not most of your peers. After my experience of “retirement” it was this stimulation that I missed most from work. The demand to perform to the best of your ability in order to meet challenges and opportunities that are externally imposed as opposed to internally invented are very different things. Both Donald and Hillary must be under tonnes of pressure and stress but it seems to me that, on the whole, they’re both loving the challenge. When people talk about the stress of the workplace there’s always a negative aspect to the debate, but there’s a positive side to it too. It was that side that I missed in my year out.

I watch both candidates performing and find myself divided between hoping that I’m still as engaged and switched on as I approach seventy, and hoping that I’ve actually settled myself better to the prospect of old age than these two! I heard that Hillary’s schedule yesterday was something like starting at seven in the morning campaigning in Florida before flying to a rally in Massachusetts, then onto another one in New Hampshire before heading down to Pennsylvania where she’d attend a Bruce Springsteen concert before heading to another midnight rally in some other state! I mean, really, wouldn’t she have preferred a night in with a cup of tea and a good book? Donald had a similar itinerary. It exhausted me just listening to it and hats off to both of them for keeping it up.

When we wake up tomorrow, one of these pensioners is going to be leader of the free world. I’ll be waking up and possibly reflecting on my little life and what choices I have ahead of me when I reach pensionable age. Both Hillary and Donald are demonstrating that retirement isn’t necessarily the best choice for your later years and I tip my hat to both of them for (if nothing else!) showing a positive side to pensionable age that isn’t often on display in our culture.

Just Giving

I was about to post this week on the subject of Mr Philip Green and pension fund deficits when my e-mail pinged that Mr Money Moustache had posted a new entry in his blog. I’ll admit I’ve not been reading MMM as much as I used to – and he doesn’t post as much as he used to either these days  – but I surfed over to see what he was on about.

I do assume that most people who read my blog have a familiarity with Mr Money Moustache as a guru of the FIRE movement, but this week he was focusing on giving money away as opposed to saving or investing it, and it’s quite a substantial amount of giveaway too. As part of his “abundance” philosophy, he’s giving 100k to various charities as a facet of trying to practice what he preaches. As a thinking “dude”, however, he has selected the most “effective” charities to receive a slice of his money (demonstrably, some charities are a LOT much more effective at spending the money than others).

Personally, I still think that I’d find giving this amount of money to charity as hard to do, even if my blog was coining in the $400k that MMM states that his is. I watched the Peter Singer video on TED that he’d posted and, I don’t know, I kind of thought I should have been more moved and motivated than I was at the end of it. I get the arguments, but somehow it leaves me a bit cold. I “understand” that the walking past a child dying in the street is no different, morally, from sitting here in the Costa Coffee shop where I’m writing this, knowing that 19,000 kids will die today around the world, albeit unseen and unheard of by me. I don’t like to think of myself as someone who couldn’t give a toss about this situation, but then again, what can I point to as evidence against it?

I’m a bit more affected by the Gates’ Foundation slogan that “All Lives Have Equal Value”, which pushes you to acknowledge that the fathers and mothers of those 19,000 kids will today feel the same grief over losing their child as those of us in the cushy West would if we lost ours. If I force myself to think about that, and the fact that I could do something to possibly alleviate some of that pain, shouldn’t I take some action?

I tell myself that I don’t give to Oxfam and the like because it’s hopeless or ineffective or because I suspect my cash will go to pay for their layers of white collar management. What’s the point of encouraging this, and what am I trying to prove anyway? I have my own financial commitments to my own family, surely that’s primary? I can’t “afford” to be charitable and anyway, I donate so much in tax I feel that my government should put their shoulder to the “international misery” wheel. I know this is a fairly ridiculous position that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, but generally I do believe that it’s the “root cause” of the misery that needs to be tackled, not the symptoms. The corrupt leaders, the squandering of the donations, the bandwagon of International Aid and so on. I might be right on this, but the same questions arise: if I think such things are an outrage and shouldn’t be going on, what am I doing to change any of it?

These are near philosophical questions, and they’re psychological questions too. I watch Peter Singer lecture us and wonder what he’s getting out of it? Is he just “holier than thou” on an epic scale? Why just he doesn’t get on with giving his money away, if that’s what he wants to do? Why broadcast it to the world? When he puts up the picture of a young, healthy man who has donated one of his kidneys so that he can save some lives, my first thought is that this young man just isn’t thinking straight. What point is this youth trying to make, and why? I find it difficult to take at face value as a selfless act of altruism. “My arse”, is my initial response to that, followed by, “He’s getting something out if it for himself”. I don’t know what that is, exactly (actually, I don’t even know if it’s true!) but I can’t help but ask the question. That’s the utter cynic in me, clearly, but I’m sorry, I can’t help that.

I posted a comment along these lines on the MMM site, where I concluded that perhaps the most important point of Mr Singer (and of MMM telling us about the cash he’s giving away) was that maybe it will inspire others to do likewise. I’m not about to immediately sit down and start writing cheques myself, but I’m going to read Singer’s book and try to give some thought as to what might “float my boat” in terms of helping others. It might come to nothing, but that’s okay, I’ll be no worse off than I am today if that’s the case. But maybe, if I find inspiration through putting some thought and action into the subject, some other less fortunate people might find themselves slightly better off as a result.

And what would be in it for me, I hear you ask? I’ve no idea, I suppose, unless and until I try it. Plus it may be more fulfilling than just ranting cynically into the blogosphere about “Sir” Philip Green.

ERNIE

I was talking last week in my blog about when to take cash from investments, or swap out of equities into cash. There’s something about having money in the bank that’s almost comforting compared to having it fully invested in equities, which sometimes feels like you’re chained to a madman. Okay, with money in the bank you know you’re probably losing out with the pathetic interest rates on offer, but inflation is low at the moment so perhaps now is the least-worst time to have some cash to hand.

Last year I was forced to cash in equities in order to live, and it wasn’t all that nice to do it. On the other hand, it forced me to think about where my money sat, and why. After all, I’d invested for years partly in anticipation of taking the money when I wanted it, or needed it, to fund life after work. It was just that this had come a bit earlier than I’d expected. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it, mentally or financially, but I found that cashing in your savings to fund the monthly expenses that your wages used to cover was quite a painful experience.

When I returned to the workplace I resolved that I’d try not to be such a tightwad with my investments going forward and would start to unwind them in order to enjoy some of the psychological freedom it might give me. I sold out of a few odds and ends investments that still sat in my portfolio and placed the cash released into a savings account, where it currently sits waiting patiently for me to dip into as and when I choose. And, as I say, I like the security of having it there. It’s a bit like the “emergency fund” that quite a few financial bloggers and gurus would recommend that everyone has to hand – you know, a fund of money that would cover your monthly expenses for maybe three to six months? The advice goes that only when you have that sum readily available in cash should you then think about serious investing.

I never used to bother with that concept as this “emergency fund” seemed like dead money to me. I wanted my cash to be working and was prepared to accept the risk that in the short term it might be working for me and sometimes against me. In the long run, however, I was betting heavily that it would pay dividends versus any standard savings account which, I felt, was akin to stuffing money into a mattress.

I have to admit that I haven’t completely shaken that notion and thus I haven’t sold any investments recently to place any more into cash. But that changed this weekend when I read one of my favourite financial columnists, Hunter Davies, going on about Premium Bonds in the Sunday Times Money section. “Now there’s a thing”, I thought as I read. “It’s like having money in the bank that’s not doing much day to day, but is having the odd flutter on your behalf once a month.” I liked the idea, it’s almost even better than Matched Betting.

Suddenly, although I’ve known about them for decades, the idea of Premium Bonds appealed to me and, pretty much within half an hour of reading about them, I’d bought a substantial amount with the cash that was sitting in my savings account. As yet, I haven’t decided if I’ll sell an equivalent amount of equities to replace that cash, but I’m thinking about it with the markets being where they currently are. As I said last week, I swore that when the FTSE hit 7,000 I’d cash in my UK Index funds. The trouble was, if I did, what would I do with the money released? Well, I think I’ve found part of the answer through ERNIE. I don’t know yet how much actual comfort he’ll give me, but he won’t rob me blind and he’s not a madman. In an uncertain world, he’s not too bad a bet.

Spend Spend Spend

Hasn’t Brexit been great? The FTSE is back above 7,000, the fabled point that I swore, if it ever reached it again, I’d flog my UK Index funds and buy…and buy….what? Dollars? Euros? A Ferrari? Maybe I’ll wait and see if it hits 7,500?

I have a bad habit of checking my funds on a daily basis when the markets are going up. “Wow! I’ve ‘earned’ another five grand this month!” is a nice reminder of how clever I am. Meanwhile I can ignore all the furore about Sterling falling through the floor as I have only a vague notion about the ramifications of that, including that it’s connected to the rise of the FTSE. I know that this “head in the sand” attitude on currency is probably not the best approach, but after years of investing I’ve become bored with so-called financial “catastrophes”. After all, I was riding out the storm of 2008 when my investments probably tanked if I’d bothered to look that closely at them, but I just kept saving away, telling myself that it was a good time to amass more units in my chosen funds. (Although I check the markets daily when they’re on the way up, I can ignore them for weeks when they’re going the other way). I remember one night in 2008 just after the collapse of Lehmans, standing in a London pub with my mate, a fund manager in the City who was looking much paler than his normal self, when he suggested to me that I should remortgage the house and buy as much of the American market as I possibly could. In his view, it couldn’t go any lower. Hmmm, maybe, but I had another pint of London Pride instead, and continued with my chosen investing strategy of steady as she goes. And, as far as I know, he didn’t remortgage his house either.

I tell myself that I “invest for the long term”, while avoiding the question of what duration the long term actually is. The need to try and answer that question becomes more pressing as you enter into your fifties, and you increasingly wonder when you’re going to choose your moment and cash in your chips? One of my pension funds is doing fantastically well right now in terms of growth, but it’s three years before I can take it. I wonder, if I was 55 today, if I’d be cashing it for the tax free gain? Or would I hold on, wondering if better things were coming? I was reflecting the other night that the state pension seems quite far off in the future to me at the moment, kicking in when I’ll be 67. On the other hand, when I reach that age I’ll be looking back at my current 52 year old self and thinking it was only yesterday. “I was young then”, I might reflect, “Why didn’t I spend some of the cash then when the markets were great, Brexit was still a dream and I was young enough to enjoy it?” Of course, I might be saying, “Thank God I didn’t sell at 52 when the FTSE was at 7,000, given it’s at 21,000 now.” But you can’t take it with you and at 67, really, how much cash do you need? I won’t even be able to get into a Ferrari at that age, even if I could buy one.

This is a question I’ve been vexing over recently, how much do I need for a comfortable retirement? And how much for each stage? Thanks to my recent year out, I think I can quite solidly budget for the years between 55 and 60. I can have a decent stab at 60 to 65 too, but 65 to 70? And beyond 70? My mum is 77 and, after covering the essentials to live, spends about a tenner a week – never mind a Ferrari, we took the car off her as she wasn’t safe to drive. She’d love to go loads of holidays too, but she’s just not fit enough for them.

You can’t see into the future and I suppose you have to stay positive and think that you’ll be one of the lucky ones still throwing cash at cars and holidays well into your eighties. That’s my plan anyway, but it’s not something I focus on too much because I think that doing so might hold me back from enjoying the moment today in preference of having plenty of cash for tomorrow. I’ve had about thirty years of that, and I increasingly want to break the habit of saving for the rainy day and start spending while the sun’s still out.

This is easier said than done and it’s a path I’ve walked before. I sometimes look back and think that I didn’t enjoy the fruits of my labour when I was a serious earner, forever on the “Save Save Save” track as opposed to the “Spend Spend Spend”. But now, in many ways, I think that tomorrow might have arrived, and it’s time to break that savings habit of a lifetime and start spending. My first attempt at “de-accumulation” wasn’t very comfortable, and was part of the reason I went back to work, but at some point I’m really going to have to take the plunge and take some cash.

 

Posted Missing

Three things I miss about the retired life – firstly, not being ruled by the clock (I’m writing this in a bit of a rush because I know I have to leave for work in half an hour). Secondly, the level of fitness I had last year, which I’ve blogged about before. Since returning to a desk, I’m shockingly less fit than I was last year. And finally – something which was the inspiration for this post – I really miss being able to read all the papers, articles, blogs and books that crowd in on a daily basis and attract my attention.

I feel bad about not reading blogs because it was these that helped inspire me to take early retirement in the first place. Not only did I used to read a lot of blog posts from Mr Money Moustache, Early Retirement Extreme and to discover and enjoy a slew of British FIRE bloggers, I had the time to read the comments too (sometimes even leaving my own, something that has also fallen by the wayside.) Through browsing the pages of Monevator and the always helpful weekend links to further reading, I felt I was becoming a more savvy investor too, even when I found it difficult to practice what others preached.

I like opinionated pieces and, although I’ve no chance these days of even getting through a third of The Times, I seldom miss a day of reading the columnists. I wish I had the time now to browse some of the other newspaper opinion pieces I used to look up, from The Guardian to The Spectator. I never buy men’s glossy magazines like GQ or Esquire, but there’s some great journalism I’m missing out on there too – I know because my gym has them lying around, free to read, if you have the time. Which I used to have in abundance. I really miss settling down with a coffee on a Tuesday morning in the gym’s cafe after an hour’s workout and finding a decent piece of editorial journalism to give my undivided attention to.

I could say the same for reading non-fiction too. One of my favourite reads of last year was “Sapiens”, one of those books you find yourself putting down so that it will last longer. It wasn’t exactly light reading but that was fine – intellectual stimulation was something that I sought out last year. I’m still into finding similar books to get into but last night, after returning from work, walking to the gym, swimming fifty lengths, walking back home, and finally settling down with a glass of wine at the back of nine, it seemed so much easier to just veg out in front of the box than to pick up a book. And then the evening was gone in a flash, the alarm was buzzing in my ear and the working day was about to start again.

I’m fortunate, however, to be able to acknowledge that going back to work was a choice I made. Nobody forced me, and neither did circumstances. Much as I enjoyed many aspects of the retired lifestyle, I missed the benefits of employment more. I tell myself that I still have a choice in my free time and that a natural prioritisation will happen when I mentally decide it is required. With the dark nights drawing in, for example, I’m already picking up the pace on the reading front.

It’s strange for me to think that when I had endless time available to me in retirement I feel actually became more disciplined with it and used it in a more personally effective and satisfying way. I’m not sure if this is now a sort of sentimental hindsight as the clock hollers at me to head out the door and hit the road to work, or just that I had the time to manage my time last year and I’ve lost a bit of that in going back to employment. It’s good to know, all the same, that if I increasingly need to get some of that back, then at least I can consider alternatives in a more knowledgeable way than I did before. If I know that I’m not yet ready for full time retirement, but work is back stealing too much of my life, then part time employment could be the next route to choose.

Financial Swing

I’ve been promising to write about what it’s like to start “de-accumulating” the funds you’ve invested and saved over the years as it’s a fairly massive part of everyone’s retirement plan. I’ve already drafted a few posts talking about the subject but, to be honest, they’re almost too depressing even for me to read! That’s how painful I found the process of cashing in investments on a monthly basis as opposed to salting them away.
Why though? It’s not as if I hadn’t knew this day was coming. It’s not as if I hadn’t planned for it and it’s not as if I didn’t have countless spreadsheets predicting what my future funds might look like under various financial scenarios. From that point of view, and depending on my mood, things did actually look quite comfortable. On a rational and logical level, my financial situation seemed to be relatively secure.
The trouble is that money is an emotional subject. You can have a rational and logical approach to it for sure, but we’re not Vulcans. We have “feelings” about money that aren’t necessarily connected to any rational or logical part of the brain.
One of the hardest things I had to handle about cashing in investments was something that I didn’t see as either rational or logical on one level but, on the other hand, really felt on an emotional level. I called it “financial swing”. Let’s say I had to pay myself an income of three grand a month to cover all my expenses. In order to do that, I had to sell a portion of my index funds every month, regardless of where the markers actually were. I needed to “cash them in” – just to live! This was hard enough, but let’s also say I used to earn the same amount and was used to having three grand a month coming in. When I put both these facts together, it felt like I was six grand a month worse off!
Now, I know that the reality was actually that my if my total monthly outgoings were three grand, then that’s the sum that I was “worse off” by. And that three grand was actually buying me freedom from work – from that perspective surely it was money well spent? Unfortunately that perspective was lot less intense than my “financial swing” one. (I’m not quoting the actual figures here of what my monthly budget was, and I know that monthly income is probably  top end for retirement, but it serves to illustrate a point. Whatever your working income now, it’s unlikely you’ll want to totally slash that when you step off the working life treadmill. I know I didn’t.)

So, this figure became stuck in my head and I couldn’t shake it: my retirement, my non-working, non-earning lifestyle, was actually costing me six grand a month. Net. What kind of salary would I have to be earning to compensate that?
I’m back to work now and I sometimes compare my current “pay day” to the same one I’d marked up in my Google Calendar with the same notation last year – at that point, “pay day” was the day on which I’d have to sell a portion of my investments to see them appear in my bank account the following week. I came to dread that day each month. I’d open up my Fidelity account and scan the various funds that I could sell to release some cash – should I shave a portion from the fund that was returning great growth, or just dump that underperforming one instead? Past performance is no indication of future, after all, and what if that Emerging Markets fund suddenly emerges? Should I continue to ride the wave of my best performing fund or take profits from it? Were the markets peaking, and should I take six months income before it crashes? Or are we at the start of a boom time that I need to benefit from? As ever, there was no answer to these questions. I had to make up my mind and take action.
“Had to”. That’s another key phrase when it comes to deaccumulation. When you can choose to sell, or not sell, your funds in a given period then these financial projections are quite a nice, comfortable piece of speculation. “Wow! If I sold that fund today it will have returned me over thirty percent on my investment! Fantastic. On the other hand, that dog that’s losing me ten percent, maybe I should just shoot it? Oh well, I’ll go and have a cup of tea instead and check again next month”. Not when you’re in deaccumulation you won’t. You have to choose, and if not today then definitely tomorrow. You still have bills to pay. You haven’t quite escaped that rat race yet.

Je Ne Regrette Rien – Yet

I’m a bit late with my blog post this week: pressure of work. I must admit, I now doff my hat in admiration to the regular posters who have held down a job while maintaining their blogs. When I was “retired” blogging was a task I looked forward to, with all the time in the world to write a post. I now find it’s quite a commitment to fit in with the working life, as it’s often very easy to find something easier to do at the end of the working day than sit down and write!

One of the things I “struggle” with, however, is that I’m a morning person. I’m generally up and about by the back of six and my routine is: shave (get that over with), make some breakfast, read The Times on my iPad, check the BBC, Facebook and maybe do any bank transactions that need doing. Following that, I write up my daily journal (or diary, as it seems increasingly unfashionable to call it.) And that’s if I don’t head to the gym: if I do, my routine is shave, head to gym, have post-workout coffee while writing up my diary.

You can see that my daily jotting in my journal is a fixture, and it often gets in the way of blogging. Sometimes I write a few paragraphs, sometimes I write the equivalent of a page of A4, but I very seldom miss it. I’d be surprised if I ever miss two days win any month. I’ve kept this routine going since March 1994 and I almost cannot imagine my life without including this aspect of it.

And what a tonic it is. Recently I’ve been reading back through my experiences of “early retirement” as I lived it day to day last year. From this it’s easy to confirm that my year out broke into four distinct phases:

Quarter One: sheer euphoria, loving every day of freedom and worrying not one whit about finances or anything else. Several headhunters call with prospective leads and possible interviews, but I’m not ready for that because I’m just not sure I’ll be going back to work. Ever.

Quarter Two: I begin to look for constructive ways to fill my day, joining some Voluntary groups, proactively picking up with my old work colleagues and friends and speaking to headhunters about what might be out there. I start to think about maybe doing something for myself, starting my own business and looking at franchising.

Quarter Three – increasingly I’m writing about boredom and a lack of fulfilment in the days and beginning to wonder why, with almost nine months unemployment, I haven’t had even one interview with any company for any work whatsoever. A possible franchise I was looking at falls through due to the required six figure investment and ten year tie-in, but I was seriously considering it by this time.

Quarter Four – I begin to look for work in earnest, calling headhunters, networking, searching Linkedin on a daily basis, making direct approaches to local firms and generally putting my shoulder to the wheel in an effort to return to work. Because, by this time, the endless days were beginning to drive me a bit nuts! As my diary tells me they were.

Then, across those four quarters, there was the financial situation. I’m going to write soon about the reality of financial de-accumulation after a lifetime of saving and investing. I’ve already had half a dozen attempts at this, but so far I haven’t quite captured what it felt like. Let’s just say it wasn’t easy.

I’m not yet regretting my decision to return to full time employment in what is turning out to be quite a demanding role. Perhaps my recent trawl through of last year’s entries reflects the growing pressure of work – did I make the right decision? If I only read the entries from those first three months I’d have to conclude that I was mad to rejoin the fray of employment and management, but when I read the turmoil of the final three months – when I wanted to get back to work and found it much more difficult than I expected – it puts my mind at rest. I wasn’t ready for retirement and, overall, the 365 entires I made last year build a convincing picture for me that I’ve made the right decision.

The American Way

If you’ve ever been to America and driven on the highways, it soon strikes you that there seems to be no lane discipline anywhere in evidence. There’s no fast lane, no slow lane. Everyone seems to do as they please, overtaking and undertaking and varying their speed accordingly. It feels like a rubbish and dangerous way to drive, and I used to tell myself that it was a reflection of the sloppy, carefree attitude to life that many American’s lazily adhere to.

I recently read of an alternate view that appealed to me though. Have you ever noticed on our motorways that the fast lane tends to be hogged by the Beamers, Mercs, Jags and Audi’s? The flash motors that tell you to know your place? Get out of the way and let the important people past. Working men, symbolised by trucks and white vans, are allowed in two lanes only, causing the vans to permanently sit on your arse in the middle lane at 80mph. Pensioners, as useless and annoying as children, and with the poorest level of status, toddle along in the slow lane and shouldn’t even be allowed on.

Our motorways reflect our obsession with hierarchy and status, devolving from our old class system where you play the game to the rules. Know your place and stay in it.  

On American roads, on the other hand, everyone is equal. Everyone has the chance of going as fast or slow as they choose. Everyone gets a bite at the apple, big or small, fast or slow. You’re in it together on the highway, and you have the same chance as everyone else of getting ahead. This reflects the ideals of the American Way.

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I sometimes ask myself why the FIRE blogs we tend to refer to and enjoy sprang up in America? I’m thinking of course of Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Moustache. Initially, they seem to be a rejection of the American Dream, don’t they? These guys have dropped out, albeit in a seemingly constructive way. They don’t want to strive for monetary success, they don’t measure themselves by bling and material gain, they reject the consumer society that America, more than any other country, has built.

True enough. But they’re very much still infused with the “anyone can do it” mentality. ERE and MMM often focus on how the little guy can make it to early retirement too. It’s not the sole preserve and right of the rich and richer still. In fact, they’re almost evangelical about this: you, yes you, lowly engineering cubicle guy working for The Man, you can get out of this rut in ten years if you apply yourself. Here’s how.

We (in the UK FIRE community) seem to like this refreshing, positive approach that stresses that you can do it too. Although we’re pretty interested in saving and investing, it often seems to be for its own sake – no doubt many of us have enough in the bank to go out and put the deposit on a new Porsche, but we’re not that type of people are we? We have a different goal in mind, which is more about having financial control over our lives. Buying a Porsche would just symbolise the complete reverse of that ethic.

In Britain though, I often feel that when it comes to things like savings, investments and pensions, taking control of our own lives is way down the agenda for most people. When it comes to pensions, I bet the majority of people are focused on one main element: what is the State going to provide? In a way, I feel we’re more conditioned to think this way for a variety of reasons, including the “knowing our place” one that means that places and concepts like The City, stockbroking and merchant banking are just not environments for “people like us”.

I’d love to turn all this on its head and see everyone in Britain help tip the old establishment model into the bin. I invested money in Zopa in the hope that it might upset the (financial) status quo in the long run more than any other reason. I suspect that many members of the FIRE community do likewise, but I’m afraid we’re just not “normal”, are we? Not in the financial sense anyway. How many of your friends take an interest in finance? One in ten? One in twenty? Are you frightened to ask? After all, it’s really not polite to discuss our financial circumstances in public, is it? We can leave that to those vulgar Americans, Chinese, Indians and the rest of the rabble.

Mind you, if that’s the case, how come London is classed with Wall Street as the financial centre of the Universe? When I think about it, I begin to suspect that we British are, in reality, obsessed with money more than any other nation, possibly because it’s tied in with our idea about class and social standing. But we can’t talk publicly about these subjects because to do so just wouldn’t be British, would it?

And you can say the same thing about Sex.

And Death.

Damn, I knew I didn’t have the title of my blog nailed down. It’s just struck me – “Sex, Class, Money, Death – the Four Unmentionables of the British Middle Class Apocalypse.” That’s what it should have been.

Gym and Tonics

“So what’s the biggest change since you’ve returned to work?”, I’m asked. That’s easy. It’s the physical one. The title of my blog was meant to reflect upon themes that should interest mostly middle aged men and women. Any read of the national daily newspapers would tend to back this up (although maybe I should have included “Celebrities” to be accurate). I didn’t rank them in importance, more by order of potential interest, and I felt my experience of early retirement might re-order them in my own mind.

But, now I’ve returned to work, the earliest indication of change is mostly related to the subject of Health. Being retired, I was aware that I was spending a lot more time in the gym compared to when I was working, usually at least an hour a day and at least five days a week.  I wasn’t committed to any particular programme or regime, but tried to focus on things that would improve my aerobic capacity – the treadmill or rowing machine – or physical strength – free weights – and flexibility – stretching or yoga routines (based on an excellent Ryan Giggs DVD, in case you’re interested). And I’d swim quite a bit as a good all rounder.

The gym was a major part of my daily routine, and I generally enjoyed going at about eight in the morning, walking or biking past the lines of cars transporting people to work which reminded me of how lucky I was not to be doing likewise. I actually snipped a quote from Mr Money Moustache that I’d read as an  inspiration and reminder that I was leading the good life:

As a retiree, I have a special place in my heart for Monday mornings, because that’s when I would have had to go back to work if it weren’t for the joy of early retirement.  Despite the option of complete leisure, I woke up at 5:30 this morning because the sky was starting to brighten and I was too excited about the new day to let any of it go to waste.

I’m writing to you right now, but later on I’ll be building stuff, riding bikes, meeting with people and teaching kids. Later on as bedtime approaches I might fiddle around in the music room, read a book or listen to a podcast. It’s my idea of the perfect life: self-directed activities in pursuit of knowledge, self-improvement and even getting a chance to help others if you’re lucky.

This was the great thing about it. Going to the gym really felt like a choice because I had the ultimate flexibility to change the routine – a late evening sauna and swim was every bit as enjoyable when I decided to do that, for example. Or, on a rainy afternoon, putting in some time on the treadmill while I listened to a podcast or watched something on iplayer felt like a constructive way to put in an hour or so.

It wasn’t just the gym though. With time on my hands, I’d walk and cycle way more than I ever had. Two or three times a week I’d meet up with my DOH for lunch or coffee and I’d either walk or bike the three miles into town to do so. Seriously, Monday to Friday in the working week, who can fit in a three mile walk? I certainly can’t any longer. My Fitbit already attests to this fact – last year, 10,000 steps a day was a breeze. Back to work, and already the 3,500 days are back on the dashboard.

WIth the bike sitting in the garage I’m now back in the car everyday for a half hour commute to and from work. I’m lucky, I have a lovely drive through splendid Yorkshire scenery to work, but that’s an hour a day in the motor that takes five hours out my week that it didn’t used to. That’s not the killer though, and it’s not the main thing that’s brought my body to moan and groan each morning as I get out of bed. No. The main culprit and contributor to my new sedentary lifestyle is the desk, the chair and the PC screen. I can hardly bare to acknowledge that I might now be sitting six hours a day at a computer! Thirty hours a week! My God, that’s an outrage. Is it any wonder that I’m physically struggling with it? In my retirement days, I never spent even two hours sitting on my backside, unless it was in the evening with a good book and a glass of red.

I’m now trying to compensate by making my gym visits almost compulsory and at least that makes me feel a bit more “worthy” when I’ve managed to complete a session! It is hard though. Do I really have to get out of bed at six in the morning to go for a swim before the office? Do I really have to swing the car into the Bannatyne’s carpark on an evening when I’d much rather be heading home to unwind after a hard day at the office? That’s the change in the question: “Do I have to go to the gym?” instead of “What time do I fancy going to the gym if I don’t go this morning”?

Still, there’s a lot to be said for “self discipline” and I find that structuring your interests around the working day can actually help you get things done. And, having done my run at the back of six this morning before heading into the office, I’m really looking forward to settling in with a good book and a glass of red tonight. I’m certain I will feel as if I deserve it.