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.


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.