So Near, and Yet…..

I was watching Eddie Izzard trying to run his 27 marathons in 27 days for Sports Relief and felt the tension growing as he neared his goal. As he came into the last mile, I wondered if he was going to suddenly have a heart attack, an asthma attack or a major panic attack that would drop him to the ground and prevent him from finishing. I was almost becoming as tense as he was. I knew the psychological torment and panic that would be going through his head as he neared his goal because, increasingly, I find myself experiencing the same nerves over my pensions. The closer I get to being able to draw on them, the more worried I become that some disaster will happen to prevent me taking them. After all, although I haven’t run 27 marathons, I have been saving for almost 27 years into pensions and, as the finishing line approaches, I find myself wondering if I’ll make it?

Let’s be honest, there’s so much that could go wrong. Will Brexit wreck equity markets across the Western world? Will there be a repeat (or when will there be a repeat) of the 2008 crash? Will ISIS dirty bombs in New York and London paralyse the financial industry? Outside of finance, will some exotic disease appear from nowhere to strike me down? Will I cash in my first pension cheque on one day and cash out with dementia on the next?

I found a new worry at the weekend when reading about the collapse of BHS and the Port Talbot steel industry, where the pensions debts of both are a massive part of the problem. It seems to me that the “entrepreneurs” who might be interested in buying the assets will only step forward if someone else – i.e the Government – takes on the pension liabilities. But surely the Government’s emergency Pension Protection Fund isn’t some bottomless money pit? As more and more liabilities are piled into it, my worry grows that if my private pensions ever need this life support system there might be a lot, lot less cash available in the fund than there is today. The BHS pensioners might have to take a 10% cut in their pensions, but that’s maybe 90% more than they would have got if it was left to people like Robert Maxwell. I wonder if the existence of the Government’s pension fund allows these so called entrepreneurs to be even more aggressive when driving for a deal? Let the taxpayer take the risk while the spoils can be creamed off to Monaco.

I just can’t see a government continually picking up the tab from the wreckage of businesses that have been mismanaged, trashed by global economic forces or that have simply just passed their sell by date. It’s more likely that a future government might stump up 10% of what you’re owed on the basis that this will still be more than the state pension is doling out. (And remember Robert Maxwell.)

My plan is that I will take one of my pensions at 55 and the other aged 60. Both are private pensions and therefore vulnerable to who knows what potential financial disasters and shenanigans. Perhaps we’ll never see the likes of Robert Maxwell again, but I wouldn’t bet on it and at least Maxwell was British. What if your pension fund is owned by some obscure American venture capital firm or some shady non-dom entrepreneur? How much protection do you have going forward? I think if I had the option today I’d be taking the cash out my pension funds and investing them myself, preferably in gold bars that I can stick under my bed. At least I’d have a sense of control. Right now, my funds really don’t feel like my money at all and, as such, I worry that someone else has their beady eye on them – the Chancellor, the pension fund manager, the owners of the businesses that built them up. “Possession is nine tenths of the law” is an old chestnut of a phrase, but only recently have I applied it to my pension fund. I don’t have possession of the money. I mean, I “know” the funds are “there”, but they’re not actually in my hands. They’re in someone else’s.

Perhaps you could say this about finance in general. You don’t have money in the bank any more, you have a set of digits on a screen. If everyone turns up at the bank tomorrow and demands to have their physical cash handed over out of the vault, then the game’s up. If I actually do manage to get my gold bars then it means that you have less chance of getting yours, because there’s a lot more “cash” out there than gold.  Thinking this way leads to madness of course, and the only solution to it is to go and have a nice cup of tea and a sit down, while telling yourself that somehow we’ll muddle through. After all, if that isn’t good practice for being a pensioner, then nothing is.

(P.S. I’ve just read that BHS bosses have taken £25m for themselves out of that business since buying it for £1.00. The best practice for being a pensioner, therefore, is to be a Chief Executive.)

It’s Later Than You Think

I see the BBC is running a documentary series about growing older. The first episode focused on the physical aspects of ageing and how you could take steps toward slowing the process. One of the major things you could do, it seemed, was to watch your diet and to cut down on your meat intake. In fact, it was almost suggested that post-fifty, a vegan diet was the one to follow for longevity. “Well”, I thought to myself, “even if you don’t then live until you’re a hundred, at least it will feel like it”.

The next focus was exercise. Of course it was. A simple test was demonstrated that seemingly gives a good indication of how long you might live, which involved crossing your legs, squatting to a seated position on your backside and then standing back up without using hands, knees or elbows to help you on your way. This tested your balance, flexibility and strength (and was much more difficult than it looks). It wouldn’t surprise me if some pensioners break their hips trying it. I almost did.

The next focus was the type of exercise that older people could do and what activity was most effective? For some reason they compared a dance class with one that concentrated solely on spinning upon exercise bikes. Not only did the dance class enjoy their sessions much more than those on the stationary bikes, dancing was the much better fitness activity. Wow! Hold the front page! And I don’t think. Anyone who has ever attended a spinning class knows what sheer, painful drudgery it is. Whereas dancing, once you get over the feeling of humiliation, might be fun. Even I could see that. But at my gym, the communal classes are predominantly aimed at (and are filled by) women. There are plenty of classes that are almost exclusively for the girls – sh’abam, pilates, body balance, Legs, Bums and Tums – while plenty of others are predominantly female, such as yoga, and stretch classes. Guess which class is predominantly male? Yes, it’s spinning. Classes with a good mix of both sexes are few and far between, so I think joint dance classes are still a bit far off. Which is a bit of a shame, really.

The second episode is to focus on brain health. It’s on iplayer but I haven’t got around to watching it yet. No doubt it will advise you to keep your mind as active as possibly, to read books, do crosswords, keep yourself up with what’s happening in the world, develop a hobby and keep learning. You should also remain socially active by attending the gym where, if you’re a bloke, you can be accused of being a pervert by joining the Legs, Bums and Tums class. It probably won’t advise you spend your later years sitting in front of the telly watching programmes about growing older. As with diet and exercise, however, don’t we know all this already? I’m certainly not unaware of many of the things that you need to do to keep yourself fit and healthy in retirement. I often reflect upon them as I eat my packet of pork scratchings down the pub, before heading home to fall asleep in front of the box.

I wonder what Episode Three will focus on? I doubt it will be finances, although this is probably one of the biggest factors affecting your quality of life as you grow older. I just cannot imagine that “Living Fantastically on the State Pension” is going to be the title of any of the episodes in the series. Episode One, and the trailer for Episode Two, seemed relentlessly upbeat and positive about growing older. Being relentlessly upbeat and positive about living on the state pension might be beyond the talents (and knowledge) of any media production team.

LIke much of the BBC’s content, this programme was achingly and unashamedly middle class. As Angela Ripon cheerfully contemplated her new diet of quinoa and kale in her seventy grand kitchen, and the young doctor-come-presenter flew to the U.S. to interview the Californian vegan community, I did wonder how the programme was being received in the NHS old people’s homes up and down the country? It probably wasn’t. But let’s be honest, the best thing the elderly poor can do to allow us middle classes to live longer is to die. The best thing the chancellor can do to preserve the health of the BBC nation is to slash the price of fags and booze for the over sixties while banning mobility scooters and free bus passes. Most of the UK welfare budget is spent on poorer pensioners. We have to find a way to cull them.

Coming to think of it, never mind the poorer ones, cut the price of fags and booze for all the over sixties. And ban us from gym membership too. Encourage us to eat, drink and be merry, smoke fags, do drugs and contract STD’s. Any hard minded and sober assessment of prospective life after seventy just isn’t pretty. If the Big C or a heart attack doesn’t get you, what other demented horror will? Better to go out with a bang than a whimper. And if this isn’t the content of the final episode of “How to Stay Young”,  it damn well should be.

Going All In

With all the shenanigans involved over tax affairs and investing this week (and I won’t get into the politics of it) it did occur to me that maybe David Cameron should consider Early Retirement. He certainly seems to have the means to be able to do it and, really, does he need the hassle? Tony Blair’s another one – not short of a bob or two. In fact, there are countless thousands of people (probably) who have the financial means to retire but continue to work.

The exciting thing about being Financially Independent is the choices that it gives you, of which Retiring Early is but one. When you’re working in a job you hate it may well seem like the only choice worth taking and I know it became an overriding ambition for me that blotted other options out as I considered how I might reach that goal. I spent a lot of time on the Usual Suspect websites that waved flags for Early Retirement (you know who they are) and all my financial calculations were geared toward funding that lifestyle. What kind of house would I need to live in? What kind of car should I drive? How much should my weekly shop come in at? Should I darken the door of a Starbucks ever in my life again?

This was all an amusing and diverting distraction while I was employed and the wages were coming in. In a way, work allowed me to indulge in the fantasies while building a bank toward realising them, and I sometimes felt a bit guilty about it. But, to quote the legendary Jack Bauer, “I had no choice”. It was work, or no work. There was no middle way, at least not for me in the job and position I was in.

Although I thought long and hard about the income side of my retirement equation, the option of working less, or at a lower level, with the same employer wasn’t one I was willing to spend much time on. It just wouldn’t have been an option, and despite my fantastic selling skills I wasn’t about to pitch for a three day week. Nor did I feel I could raise the subject of “downgrading” my career with my boss – taking a “lower level”  role with less pay, but hopefully less stress and more time at home. How could I broach these subjects without it sounding like, “Hey, I fancy an easier life with you lot, doing a bit less work for a bit less money but retaining most of the benefits – you know, the medical care, the car, the pension contributions and all that. I want a better work/life balance, more time with my family. How about it?” To me, no matter how I framed it, this is how the pitch sounded.

Then there was the ego side of the equation. If I was granted my request, would I be able to handle the loss of status in the workplace hierarchy? Could I see those less talented than myself (i.e. the whole company) promoted ahead of me?  Was I underselling myself? Was I frightened of change? Of growing old? Was asking for a less stressful job or a shorter working week just an admission of failure?

This is a possibly more a male problem because often women are forced into this discussion early on in their own careers if they decide to have a family. But eventually it becomes an age thing too for both sexes. Taking time out to have a family is almost completely accepted and encouraged. A young thruster taking a sabbatical is almost always admired. Old “pops”or “granny” in the corner wanting some time out? Feed them to the dogs.

So, for me, I felt I had to be “all in” or retire from the table. Perhaps things are changing though. Last week I spoke to a friend still in employment who was somewhat surprised to find himself working alongside an old boss who’d taken a voluntary demotion. My friend wasn’t quite sure how to handle it, but I was surprised that this was even a workplace option. It’s one that I now sometimes think I should have explored with my own employer, but I have to say my own prejudices and insecurities might have prevented it. Perhaps I was part of the problem and therefore I had to follow the traditional route of work versus retirement. To anyone thinking of going “all in” on the retirement plan, however, you might want to consider an “alternative options” discussion with your employer first. What do you have to lose?


The sun appeared Up North last week bringing a lovely day, the first in weeks and months, so with not much on my agenda I jumped in the car and headed for the coast. In my year off, I’ve become relatively fit so my plan was to do a five mile run (jog) along the shoreline at Scarborough, from the South Bay over to the North and back.


End of First Half

It was rather blustery when I parked up on the sea cliffs of South bay that overlook the town, but the sun was shining and I duly headed off down the steep slope toward the harbour, hoping that the seafront was relatively quiet. I still feel somewhat of a twat jogging, partly because I’m going pretty slowly (a child once shouted “Slow train to China!” at me as I passed) and partly because I’ve always thought that joggers are twats anyway. So I don’t like much to be seen puffing along by the general public although I can usually get over myself and get on with it. Why? Because I always – always – feel infinitely better and brighter when it’s finished.

I reached the seafront and paced along it, dodging several mobility scooters and hoping that they wouldn’t show me up by accelerating past me. It made me count my blessings, all the same, that I could move on my own two legs. The mobility scooter is one version of old age and retirement that nobody wants, surely, and motivates me to keep the fitness going. If you haven’t got your health…..this time last year I was suffering really badly from toothache and it was utter misery. You take good health so much for granted until it goes amiss.



The sun had brought plenty of people out into the fresh air, but they split into two distinct groups: pensioners and the unemployed. The former far outnumbered the latter and I amused myself by trying to segment them into further groupings. Firstly, you could do this by perceived social class: the pensioner middle classes were quite well represented, generally well dressed in their Barbour jackets, wearing proper walking shoes, sometimes sporting a walking pole or two (on the concrete seafront FFS) and with occasional expensive binoculars or cameras slung around their neck. They tended to barrel briskly along, looked you straight in the eye and carried themselves as if they owned the promenade and demanded the right of way. The pensioner working classes, well, I hesitate to write this, but I could spot them because they tended to be (1) pretty overweight and (2) often suffering from some sort of limp or shuffling gait. Their clothes weren’t really aimed at serious walking, but they often smiled at you as they passed and would generally get out of your way as they saw you approaching. The upper middle classes, well, let’s be honest, they wouldn’t be seen dead on Scarborough seafront buying a bag of whelks, would they?  The unemployed? There were a few out, generally young, wearing trackies, smoking and lethargically slouching along.


Whelks All You Can Eat

Or you could split by demeanour. There were the happy couples, the clearly-less-content couples (bloke about ten yards ahead of partner), the singletons, the glad to be alivers, the feeling like deathers, the nursing a hangovers and the downright confused.

Or you could do more traditional groupings: the single mums, the fathers for action, the families with kids, the immigrants and, of course, one or two twats like me out jogging.

Doing this classification reminded me of a passage Simon Armitage wrote in his book “Walking Home” about his hike across the Pennine Way, where he categorised the fellow ramblers he encountered into “prejudicial” groupings, noting the numbers that fell into each.

The Last Hurrah – 24
The Exuberance of Youth – 9
The Call of the Wild – 17
She’s Left Me/I’ll Show Him -16
Bear Grylls/Ray Mears Box Set -9
Julia Bradbury – 4
Mid Life Crisis – 11
Finding Myself – 2
Away with the Fairies – 1
Unclassifiable – 26

The thing is, neither Armitage on his hike nor me on my jog spotted many people who we thought were similar to us. Perhaps this is just a common psychological trait in which we all think that we’re quite unique beings, as encapsulated by an old Scottish toast, “Here’s to us. Wha’s like us? Damn few, an’ they’re aw deid”. But I often find myself looking out for people who might have retired early, even though I know it’s a pretty impossible task to spot them by sight alone. I’d like to know how they’re finding the lifestyle. It’s partly why I started this blog, because I felt that the majority of the FIRE sites I visited were relentlessly positive about the non-working life and it got my goat. It’s just not all that, and surely there were people like me out there who were finding early retirement and financial independence not any better or worse from working for a living?  It’s similar to the travel blogs that witter on about just how fantastic touring the world is, while failing to mention the sheer drudgery of travel, the boredom of a wet Tuesday afternoon in Ulaanbaatar and the peculiar melancholy of homesickness that sees you surfing the web for a cheap flight home as soon as possible.

I’m too embarrassed to admit how long this five mile jog took me, but by the time I finished it had passed from morning to after midday. By this time, there were quite a few more joggers out along the promenade who were at least my age or younger. I suspected that they were taking their lunch break to maybe come out and get some fresh air either from the office or from working at home. So I completed the jog having confirmed my prejudices. Everyone my age is working.


Reward – a  pint and some Matched Betting