Hard Graft

I was reading an article over the weekend that highlighted the fact that the new ISA  limit has been increased to £20,000 a year and that this amount, if invested over 25 years at 5% growth, would make you a millionaire. That’s a nice soundbite, but the article then dug itself into a hole by pointing out just how much saving that twenty grand a year would require – £1,666 a month, every month, for twenty years. And £1,666 is the total monthly average take home pay of a full-time worker earning £27,000 a year.

In other words, for the average Briton, a shitload of cash. In fact, it’s all of their cash, so it’s just too tall an order – most Britons won’t save themselves into millionaire status. Look on the bright side though, the article went on, if you could save just £100 a month into an ISA and return 5% over twenty years then at the end of that period you’d have at your disposal a total pot of……£41,000.

Excuse me, but does anyone else find that calculation somewhat uninspiring? Saving £100 a month for twenty years – that’s seems to me a pretty big commitment and somehow I was expecting it to be rewarded better than that. But then maybe I have swallowed the blue pill when it comes to compound interest, the miracle ingredient of investing. I barely question its efficacy, I just “know” it leverages wealth in a phenomenal way. I think, however, that the examples I read of how compound interest works were somewhat more inspiring than the “£100 a month” example above.

This leads me into an area that I find tricky when discussing FIRE with myself – just how much of a middle class, relatively high-earning ambition is it? It seems that the problem here is that £100 a month is just too small an amount to invest to promote sexy, head-turning results. Maybe the sum of £500 a month should have been used – that would deliver a sum of over two hundred thousand in savings. Unfortunately, I heard someone on the radio recently state that the majority of Britons couldn’t put their hands on a hundred quid cash if you gave them the morning to do it. They just don’t have a spare hundred quid lying around, never mind five hundred. The sad and brutal reality for many people is that even saving £100 a month is a stretch and, if the “prize pot” at the end of it is forty grand, then honestly, why bother?

The FIRE ambition is stoked by “disposable income” and a lot of the blogs I read focus on the first half of that statement i.e. what are you doing with the disposable element? How are you spending your cash? Are you squandering it on daily Starbucks frappuccinos? Is spending £100 on a decent Saturday night out second nature for you? Must you have a new, or relatively new, car when a trusty ten year old Honda, or even better, a Raleigh bike, would free up oodles of cash for you?

It seems to me, however, that it’s the income side that drives and realises the FIRE ambition, and that many of the bloggers are less inclined to discuss that, myself included. Our biggest icon, Mr Money Moustache, makes no secret of the fact that both he and his wife were high earners before they “retired” from the workplace. Yes, that’s a fact, and he’s open about it, as are many of his fellow flag-wavers. The point, however, is how much of that income was saved and invested, that’s the important thing.

Well, I beg to differ. I think that it’s the income that’s the important thing and that’s a more difficult thing to address than whether or not to buy a Starbucks frappuccino tomorrow morning. I’m not saying that the FIRE blogs ignore this aspect – there’s a lot of focus on side hustles and increasing earnings – but putting your shoulder to the wheel at the workplace deserves more attention than it is given. The fastest way to increase your savings is to ask for a rise at work, or work out a way to get it, and then bank the lot of it. Or work in a pub over the weekend and bank all of that ongoing. Yes, it’s hard, it’s graft, and it will cause pressure and stress that you might rather not have, but it will work faster for you in terms of increasing your savings than just about anything else.


45 thoughts on “Hard Graft

  1. Hard graft ….or luck

    When you actually dig into it most UK Fire bloggers who don’t work in finance seem to have inherited or lucked into substantial unearned gains which aren’t available to most people

    Houses given to them by relatives, defined benefit pensions, houses in London that quintripled in value


      • In my case I’ll go with hard graft and nothing to do with luck. I am nowhere near finance from a career perspective and I’ve never been given a penny. I just decided what was important to me, figured out what was required to get it and then went for it. I work with many people who are far smarter than me and could do the same but they either have decided it’s not important to them (which is admirable) or just haven’t been awakened to what’s possible if you put your mind to it (which is a bit unfortunate).


  2. Very true. RIT’s FIRE at 44 is based as much on his high earning than his investment nous.

    I was a plodding civil servant, but what boosted me was using those skills as a contractor, for 2 years tax free in the US, and for 4 1/2 years back at my old organisation, playing the contractor/salary sacrifice game to the full.

    Its much easier to be a pension millionaire than an ISA one too. A £44k salary with 5% employer/employee pension contribution gives £32k in pocket/pension after tax. With salary sacrifice, minimum wage and the employer giving you all the NI savings, you can get £46k. Once you can get seed capital to get ahead of the taxation game, you can pull away.


  3. I recently dared to suggest that working towards a £10,000+ salary increase might not be a bad idea as it requires little extra effort once you’ve got your promotion and you can put “manager” on your CV and apply for managerial rather than assistant positions for the rest of your career, whatever your field of work may be. There’s a prevailing limiting belief that it’s hard to get promoted or that more senior jobs are far more stressful and require longer working hours. Well guess what, somebody has to do the senior jobs, and it’s usually the hardworking and proactive people, not the ones using all their mental capacity and spare moments on matched betting, switching bank accounts, online competitions or whatnot. And as someone who has managed to get into a more senior position myself (partly down to luck/timing as Neverland would point out) I can honestly say I’ve seen no correlation between seniority in an organisation and stress levels. Looking back at some of the terrible jobs I had when I was a teenager, a student, or at the start of my career I know what I’d rather be doing now. The fact I’m earning a lot more than the £2.00 to £3.50 an hour I was paid for many years at the start is a massive bonus, and one that takes away a lot of stress in itself.


    • I tend to agree, I was more stressed when I was lower on the management hierarchy than when I climbed the ladder. I doubt I would have admitted it as I gained the seniority though. It goes without saying that seniority meant stress and so you said it all the time.


  4. And for the second part of my rant, how exactly is a normal earner, even an above average earner like me, meant to fill the £40,000 of ISA allowances available to us as a couple? Particularly if you have children and decide not to cart them off to childcare all day every day as soon as they’re born, which means you’ll never have two massive incomes. The reality is that the most tax efficient way of saving is salary sacrifice and/or maximising pension contributions for the higher earner, ideally keeping their income below £45,000 per year, and that doesn’t leave much disposable cash for contributing to ISAs.

    I would imagine the vast majority of ISA contribution cash comes from inheritances, property sales/income, maybe success in self-employment, but mainly just luck and family wealth. The situation we have today whereby “rentiers” can earn a tax free income into retirement by using the ISA “loophole” is surely going to come under attack at some point. We’ve gone from eye watering rates of tax on “unearned income” in the 1970s to a zero rate today, which is just crazy when an ever smaller number of PAYE earners are paying at least 32% then 40% then 45% on income that they’ve actually had to work quite hard to receive.


      • @ Rob – not if it’s inherited as a relative’s family home (up to £1m in value) or if it’s a sale of a property which qualifies for principal private residence relief because it was nominated as the main residence for a period (no upper limit). And the rate of capital gains tax is a maximum of 28% anyway, unlike PAYE income which is taxed at 47% on anything over £150,000.

        The general point I am trying to make is that families who are rich in capital can pass it down to their adult children, who can start building funds inside an ISA wrapper to the tune of £400,000 every decade for a couple. As long as the oldies survive for 7 years there will be no inheritance tax to pay. Plus the gains which then accrue in the names of the younger family members are entirely free of income tax or capital gains tax because they are inside the ISA shelter.

        Meanwhile the young people who start with nothing and are “grafting” as SHMD puts it – they are the ones who are paying all the tax! The ISA shelters aren’t for them because they will never manage to save £40,000 per year if they contribute to a pension as well. It doesn’t seem a “fair” way to target tax collection, even if it’s an easier way as John B points out below.


  5. @David much of many people’s wealth is from inheritances now. And with a couple likely to get 3-4 inheritances in their working lives (divorced parents, maiden aunts etc), I think they need some opportunity to shelter it. I expect the government’s generosity is because they want to move to a tax-on-the-way-in ISA model for both savings and pensions, and are softening up the public.

    I suspect the focus on taxing earned income rather than wealth is that its much harder to hide the former from the state.


  6. I think a decent pension is possible, provided you start early. Someone born in 1954 who started working in 1975 at age 21 and earning an average wage until he was 59 in 2013 would have accumulated some £365,000 (assuming contributions of 12% and growth of 7%) which would be enough to live on and more if he carried on until 65. His or her contribution figure would be less if there was an employer matched portion, obviously.


  7. I agree with SHMD’s view that taking steps to boost income can do more to contribute to FIRE than cutting spending. Think of this as a business, with salary as the revenue line, day-to-day living expenses as the direct costs, housing as the overhead and what’s left as the profit. Assuming there’s a surplus at the end of the month, increasing the revenue line faster than the direct costs and overheads results in a larger surplus.

    Sometimes, it can be worth taking a hit to the cost line to boost the income one. For instance, you might invest in acquiring skills or qualifications or move home with the intention of earning more. There were times when I did both of these things, and it paid off.


  8. I agree. While watching your spending and saving is noble and necessary, increasing your income will make the bigger difference. Easier said than done, of course.

    With respect to the notion of asking the boss for a raise, if it comes, there will be, of course, greater demands and greater pressure. I avoided those “opportunities” because, sometimes, you don’t want to deal with the added bullshit.

    An alternative may be to slide into a related field where the pay is much better. If you are in a position to take a chance in sales or a technical sales support position, you may have a few years where the pay is quite good.


  9. Well the ‘inconvenient truth’ of FI has popped up in the discussion many times over the years, i.e. the fact that you have to earn a massive salary to make it happen – assuming you don’t get lucky in the other ways mentioned above..
    But to temper that is the parable of the Mexican fisherman, which will bring you full circle back to the concept of being frugal as being of the utmost importance.
    They’re both right to a certain extent. Main thing is, whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re happy doing it..


      • @NL – thats a dangerous game to play in my book. I wouldn’t advocate it. But perception is everything, you can get (non-economic) value out of something that onlookers may collectively perceive to be horrendous..
        RIT is a prime example. I reckon he actually got a kick out of grafting his knackers off for a decade. I don’t believe he was miserable (well not all the time).
        Taking this to the extreme, I’ve just read Frankl’s ‘Mans search for Meaning’ which blew my mind to a certain degree..


  10. Interesting to see all the naysayers on this topic.
    If you don’t believe that it is possible to achieve FI without a big dose of luck, then you obviously won’t achieve it.
    As demonstrated on the MMM site, it’s straightforward maths. If you save & invest 50% of your net income over about 15 years, then you will accumulate enough moohla to replace your income.
    Obviously this requires strategic thinking, application and persistence, as well as choices that most people won’t want to make (eg – I can’t see it being compatible with having kids).
    However, it is possible. I maintained a savings rate of 50-60% between 1991 and 2004 (on below average earnings). Since then I have had an enjoyable time backpacking around the world.
    Strangely enough, I have yet to meet anybody who wishes to emulate my experience.
    But my point is that there are only a dedicated few who will be prepared to make the necessary effort to achieve FIRE. You have to want it enough.


    • @Socio

      “You have to want it enough”

      Err, no. More like “You have to want little enough”. If you are willing to dumpster dive and sleep rough obviously you need an FI fund of £0…

      Its quite possible to do the same mathametical mechanics and calculate you need £500,000 or £5,000,000 in wealth to retire aged 40 depending on where you want to live, how much you need to spend and how much risk you want to take with your withdrawal rate


      • @NL – wasn’t it you that made the (fair) point that if you’re capable of getting your costs down low enough then your effectively FI immediately on the UK welfare state? I.e. you’re there well before you drive costs down to £0

        I’m not sure many could convince themselves they were having fun though down at those numbers unless you were a genuine Diogenes living in a barrel kind of guy?

        I’m not saying impossible but certainly pushing the boundaries of how far your philosophy/perception can take you in the face of a pragmatic reality


    • @S(t?)oicCowboy
      ‘Strangely enough, I have yet to meet anybody who wishes to emulate my experience.’
      well apart from pretty much the entire FI community?

      ‘(eg – I can’t see it being compatible with having kids).’
      MMM has a child, I’ve got 2 and I hit FI in my mid 30s.

      As Scott mentions below, pragmatically speaking there is a floor to how low you can drive expenses, if you still want to meet the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (accomodation, food etc.). So, bearing that in mind, it is true to say that saving 50% of £10k is harder than saving 50% of £100k (to pluck to numbers out of thin air). I think thats all anyone is talking about when they talk about the inconvenient truth of FI. Team MMM raked in huge IT salaries prior to hitting FI.

      But for sure, expenses can and do rise to meet income, so in that respect you do have to ‘want it’ to make it happen, i.e. you have to demonstrate a certain amount of self-discipline.

      ‘But my point is that there are only a dedicated few who will be prepared to make the necessary effort to achieve FIRE. ‘
      for sure the FI community is a niche one. The concept is not one that is accepted by the mainstream as being desirable.


      • Part of the team of people with kids here. Then again, I have a big salary, and a side gig. Some of it was luck, most of it was conscious choices:
        – the side gig started when I was 26 (although, thinking about it, it really started at age 19 when I got interested in running websites at school, it just took 7 years of evolution to turn this passion into something that made money), while other friends were having fun going to night clubs, I was having fun driving my website
        – I now make 4.5 times my first job’s salary. To achieve that I made the choices to move to different countries. I’ve lived on 3 continents. It was fun AND increased my salary.

        This + reasonable frugality (for a family with 3 kids) allows us to save 66% of our income, after tax. Technically we’re FI (wife has been a stay at home mom for 5 years, only income has been mine for years, and we’ve reached our target in November). Wife is 41, I’m 36. Actual “RE” will happen later for many reasons.


  11. There has to be a floor in the level of income needed to cover the basics (roof, bills, food). I reckon for a couple without children, outside the South/South East, this could be around £8k-£10k each (higher for singles, or those with kids – they can do their own calculations!) Holidays and the odd nice thing will take this up a bit, so I’d say £12k each for a semi-frugal, but still enjoyable, lifestyle.
    Average UK household income is, I believe, £27k, so scope to save no more than a couple of £k – realistically at this level there’s no hope of FIRE.
    However, a middle-income couple on £30k ish each, living frugally, should be able to more or less fill their ISA allowance. At this income level, FIRE becomes a viable option.


  12. A very high income is needed for FIRE and this, quite frankly, is the dirty little secret of personal finance blogs.
    Whilst MMM has never lied about his earnings he is reticent in pointing out that this was the driver to FIRE for him and he would rather talk about frugality/enviromental concerns and he never includes what he books as business costs in his spending reviews.
    In addition, whilst the mean average wage is 27,000 the median is only 18,000. For most people a middle income is nothing more than a pipe dream.


    • I think the £27,000 is average UK household income after tax and the £18,000 is the average UK wage per person if memory serves me correctly. The former will include maybe 25% of households where at least one member is over state pension age now. But I would agree with you that for people on that sort of money retiring before state pension age isn’t happening without a substantial inheritance

      However, many people in their 50s living in the SE will shortly be receiving big six figure inheritances from their parents’ houses as they die off

      People in the FI community tend to ignore inheritance


      • Your memory is wrong. 27K is the mean average before tax and 18K is the median average, again before tax.
        You are correct in saying that MANY people will get a significant inheritance, however it is worth pointing out that MOST, i.e., the majority won’t for whatever reason.


      • From the ONS:

        The provisional estimate of median household disposable income for 2015/16 is £26,400, an estimated increase of £700 from 2014/15, after accounting for inflation and household composition, and £400 higher than its pre-downturn value of £26,000 in 2007/08.

        Median income for retired households continued to increase following the economic downturn and provisional estimates for 2015/16 suggest it is now £21,500, £1,700 higher in real terms than in 2007/08 (£19,800).

        By contrast, the provisional 2015/16 results indicate that the value of median income for non-retired households is £29,200, which remains £400 below its level of £29,600 in 2007/08.

        Source: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/nowcastinghouseholdincomeintheuk/2015to2016


  13. @AH1 – you’re right about the high income, apart from the fact its not really a secret, its a recurring theme across FI blogs which is discussed regularly and pretty openly I would say..


    • I disagree. I’m not saying its a secret, I’m saying that not enough prominence is made of it.
      Take for example our host here or RIT, they blog about what retirement means to them, changes it makes , size of their investments etc. There is not much mention of how they got the very well paid job that enables such saving, is there.

      There is a strong correlation between IQ and earning power. It is simply impossible to pump out posts month after month about having an IQ one or two standard deviations from the mean.

      But in essence thats what it boils down to.


  14. @David, you need to look at EARN01, Average Weekly Earnings which for Jan 17 is shown as £507 per week, which is very roughly 27K.

    The majority earn less than this, I’ll leave you to find the figures.

    (Remember I’m talking about earnings not unearned income).

    As for footballers, there are 43 clubs in the top two divisions of English football, assuming each club has 22 players comes to 946 footballers.

    But over 400,000 people earn more than 100K, again I’ll leave you to find the figures.

    Earnings are highly correlated to IQ.


  15. Funny you should mention RIT, as I would say he is the key proponent of the ‘earn-large’ aspect of FI. He’s posted tonnes about how he sprinted up the old career ladder and as he openly shares his absolute no.s (not pussy footing around with %s) it is very clear he is raking in a small fortune, several 100k per year.

    Granted, our host SHMD, has not been quite so candid, at least as far as I can recall from his posts that I’ve read?

    ‘A very high income is needed for FIRE and this, quite frankly, is the dirty little secret of personal finance blogs.’

    ‘I disagree. I’m not saying its a secret, I’m saying that not enough prominence is made of it.’

    Who are you disagreeing with, yourself?


    • If only several 100k per year but also most definitely not an insignificant amount… Certainly now into 6 figures annually but importantly it wasn’t always that way. It was a conscious decision to go for the earnings part (as well as spending and investing) as part of my overall FIRE strategy and in my case also wasn’t a ‘dirty little secret’. I’ve blogged about the why and how numerous times.

      Importantly, it’s also taken the pressure off the investment piece where returns are not guaranteed ever.


      • I did try and reverse engineer your salary from the rate of change of your net worth and other numerical crumbs in your various posts, when you factor in the bonus its got to be closer to 200k rather than 100k right?


  16. Great post!

    “But then maybe I have swallowed the blue pill when it comes to compound interest, the miracle ingredient of investing.” That’s certainly my experience as well. To get to FI in less than 10 years only 41% has come from investment returns. It’s also important to note that the majority of that time has been a strong bull market and I can still only muster that amount.

    Which brings me to “I think that it’s the income that’s the important thing…” The income is critical and it’s something I’ve mentioned many times as well but it’s more than that. The spending piece of this is also critical as it’s all about savings which is earnings minus spending. Saving has contributed the remaining 59% in my case. This piece is so critical I’ve devoted an entire chapter of my book to it.

    It’s why my mantra has always been – Save Hard, Invest Wisely, Retire Early.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. New reader here with an off topic FI dilemma…..

    Am of course trying to minimise my costs, but I work from home. Would you advocate moving from a small terraced 2.5 bed property to a bigger 3 to 4 bed detached property. Rent would Increase from £1375 to £1675 per month (edge of London prices!)

    As I work form home I essentially work from my front room, Wife and Kids have to settle for the kitchen when not at Work / Nursery.

    It goes against my FI instinct to spend less, but think the 50% to 75% more house it would give us, might reduce the space arguments. Plus have been known to yell at them while my toddler shouts/plays in background during my Sales calls!

    Any advice would be appreciated.


    • I’d hesitate to recommend this wholeheartedly, but there are a number of angles to this:

      1. Do you think the move will improve your work environment such that you can quickly make up the £300 shortfall via promotion or increasing earnings?

      2. Would having a dedicated office help you start up or invest more time in a ‘side hustle’ for you and/or your wife (and kids, once they can use a mouse!) or take on more work where you are currently?

      3. Can you use the move as a factor to your manager (‘I’ve been doing well in this role but am thinking of my career as I’ve recently moved to a newer house…’) in asking for more money?

      I’ve been partly working from home and with kids a dedicated office does make life a heck of a lot easier!

      Although I didn’t actually use it in the end, I had (3) above prepared when I approached my manager early in my career and it gave me more confidence in case she challenged me. As it was, having drummed up the courage her surprising reply was ‘I’m afraid I can only offer you 10%, if that’s OK?’ Nothing ventured…


      • Absolutely, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s such a big lesson in life, I know it to be so true, but I still find myself often holding back in being bold enough to ask, “How about I move to a four day week for the same salary, instead of arguing over a pay rise?” or something similar!


    • Hmm, I don’t know to be honest! I used to hate working from home for some of the reasons you outline. Most of us who’ve done so have experienced something like that hilarious BBC clip of the guy on Skype being upstaged by his toddlers entering the room while he was on air. Generally speaking, I think I would put marital and family harmony slightly ahead of finance, although the two things are a bit linked!


      • Thanks Guys, good to hear everyone’s opinions.

        The decision was made easier, the bigger rental property when we saw it was a terrible state, surprising that someone can cashbuy a close to £700k home but not spend a grand or two cleaning the place up.

        However another question I have, I have always held cash ISA’s but wonder if it is worth switching to a S&S ISA and put it all into a Vanguard lifestrategy tracker, could this be too risky? Our current family wealth is split as follows:£170k total, of which £80K is pension (lowcost trackers approx 6% growth) £60K in Cash ISAs (<1.5%), £30K circulating in 'high' 2%-5% interest current/savings accounts.

        Is now a good time to jump further into the stock market via my ISA (was thinking about £30k to put into S&S)?

        Or should I keep more liquid cash?

        all opinions welcome 🙂



      • Hi, thanks for the post. I can’t really (or shouldn’t) give advice as I’m not qualified to do so and all I can talk about is my own experience. I, personally, wouldn’t have as much in cash, but I wouldn’t sink such a big sum into a tracker either. I’d maybe put 2k a month in over 15 months and choose two index trackers I liked the look of. Right now, the majority of my investments are in Global Dividend funds and simple UK index trackers, built up over a number of years with a monthly direct debit. I do hold a bit of cash which is along the lines of an emergency fund i.e. equivalent to about 3 months salary.

        Liked by 1 person

  18. I’ve just interviewed a friend who recently reached FI via property on my blog. In line with this thread, yes, he was on a high salary originally which no doubt helped.
    Also, there are specific advantages in being a contractor in his case, even on a low daily rate. I admit that this may be unpalatable to many people in permanent positions, but it does open up a lot of options to get to FI, via property or other means…


  19. I earn an IT salary not a finance one. I am not in the realm of the mega salary earners but I do sit in the 40% tax bracket.
    To reach FI, I need to stick at my IT job for a while longer even though the stress is killing me (its a low/middle manager level – I don’t want to climb the greasy career pole – I wouldn’t cope with the increased stress).
    I do think a high income helps and gives a kick start to the FI journey. I have been ‘lucky’ to have worked in the past for a good company that paid bonuses and issued share schemes and for a short while a final salary pension. I saved my bonuses and shares and tried to keep my spending down.

    I now work somewhere with just a basic salary (its a pay-cut from what I used to earn) with an MP pension and no bonuses or share saves. Reaching FI now is really hard, I am having to be as frugal as I can and move my existing savings around to get the best return rates as my income stream is flat and dropping. I have a good foundation block but reaching that FI target is just constantly out of reach.

    Inheritance is not on the radar for me as my parents live in a rented house with a small state pension and no savings. I have had to budget and just try and do the best with the jobs I could get.

    When I look at the job market all the jobs I could do are offered at less money than I am currently on. My past 2 jobs have resulted in me taking pay-cuts not pay-rises! The job market is tough and it is an employers market…there is someone out there who will take the job at the salary offered so no need to pay more.

    To me a pay-rise is a unicorn! I haven’t seen a pay-rise in about 10 years if not longer. As I stated above, my last two jobs have resulted in me taking pay cuts as I cannot find a job offering more money. My employers will not give me a pay-rise either.

    I am disillusioned j with the job I now do but I hang on for the money. Once this income stream dries up I will be needing my FI funds to live as I really doubt my ability to ever see a high salary job again.


    • I know so many people who would echo your comments. Pay rise? What’s that? Even when you’re promoted these days the rise is often laughable while the workload is heaped upon you. Sometimes I think that the employer schemes that benefited workers in the past – share saves, flexi time, DB pensions etc – are all being quietly eroded while hardly anyone seems to care about it. It’ll take decades to reverse the trend. I’m generally glad I’m heading out the workplace because I think it’s become a much tougher, impersonal and greedy environment.


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