Baby Steps

I’m back listening to the Dave Ramsey podcast at the moment, paying attention to his words of wisdom – and I’m not being totally sarcastic when I say that. This morning, he rang a bell by saying “When it comes to running your own business, there are three rules. Everything will cost twice as much as you expect, everything will take twice as long as you think and the third rule is that you aren’t the exception to the rules.”

Dave would kick my ass all around the room about my current budget and planning, I think. Mind you, I once heard him advise a bloke to save and invest in a way that meant he’d have $8m in the bank by the time he was 85 – for what?! Cocaine and hookers, you’d hope, but Dave, being a bit weirdly religious, isn’t going to advise that.

So why would he kick my ass? Because, at the moment, I seem to spending way more than my income generates on a monthly basis. In fact, I’m gobsmacked myself at the way money seems to be hemorrhaging out of my account in the last few months. This is mostly to do with the house, where unforeseen expenses have recently been slapping me around the head. Firstly, our ceiling fell in due to mice nibbling through the plastic elbows that connect our copper water pipes which run through the floor space between our ground floor and upstairs. “Insurance job”, I thought, which is when I found out I’d taken a £600 excess on the policy and the repair cost was £700. Deep sigh. I had it repaired and, two weeks later, it happened again. Same thing, so not only had I the repair to fund again, I had to get a professional pest controller out to help me find where the little buggers were getting in.

Next thing was the mower. The first grass cut of the year and I just couldn’t get the fifteen year old brute to start. I’d serviced it myself twice last year (thanks to Youtube), but I couldn’t face another summer of fighting with it when £350 would buy me peace of mind in a new mower with a Honda engine. So I shelled out for that too.

Next thing, a real horror story when our pressurised water tank gave up the ghost. No, our insurance wouldn’t cover it and it was just out of its twenty year warranty. It had to go. I’m still waiting for the bill, but there will be no change out of three grand.

There’s a screed of other things that need done to the house too, some of which I can do myself but some which I need to get the professionals in for. For example, I could paint the outside of the house, the decking and the fence, but I might die of boredom if I try. And I don’t fancy risking really dying falling off a ladder trying to get to our top windows either. So I’m budgeting £1,000 for that lump of work.

Then there’s the garden which, given the work I need to do in it, will necessitate a fair amount of spending too. There’s brickwork, which I haven’t the first idea how to attempt, and I have to rebark all the garden flower beds (it’s quite a big area) adding to costs that I know I will incur. I could also do with replacing the garden shed, which is rotting away, but I’m drawing the line at that on the basis that it’s still currently standing. There’s always alternatives to spending money on the garden – it would be fine if I just tidied it up, really – but I’ve been following that strategy for about the last ten years. At some point you have to acknowledge that you need some help with it.

This is the sort of spending that you should plan and budget for, of course. Most of us in the FIRE community know the rules, and even although Dave Ramsey isn’t necessarily a fan of the RE bit, I can hear him demand, “You knew this would happen, Jim, so where in darnation is your emergency fund?”

“Ehrm, well, I kind of invested it, Dave”, would be my response, although that’s not entirely true. I do have cash sitting in the bank, but if you do a quick tally of the above then taking the best part of five grand out of it is not an action I relish one little bit. I was hoping to invest that little sum when the US market drops back under 20,000 points as I kind of think it eventually will. That’s now not to be.

I can’t be the only one, however, who secretly sees their “emergency fund” as an asset that might never have to spent and then has a bit of petted lip when it does. Worse, I’ll have to replenish it now, which is making my petted lip pout even more. I have to admit that I really liked the idea of an “emergency fund” until the day I had to face spending it. Ironically enough, it’s often a new boiler or heating system that’s quoted as being the emergency you might have to find money for in many of the books and articles I’ve read. Discovering that this shit actually does happen in real life hasn’t been any fun at all. As ever, Dave’s rules aren’t for lightweights. He’s serious about the steps you have to take to reach “financial peace” and starting an emergency fund is Step Number One (bolstering it is Number Three.) But I’d slot in a Step 3 (a) which would read, “And do not count your emergency fund as an asset”, as it’s only going to disappoint you later in life when you have to actually spend the damn thing.


Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps to Financial Peace

baby steps




Pulling the Plug

I tell you something, and I know it’s a cliche, but time zips past as you grow older. I’m moving from the stage of telling myself “I can access my pension this year”, to “I can access my pension in six months”, and it’s shocking how fast this year is going in.

For a long time I’ve been constructing plans about what I might or might not do with my company pensions when I reached 55. I have two significant pots – one a DC one, where I can see the lump sum available and one a DB, where I can’t. Nevertheless, it’s amazing how many options and plans you can build out of these two factors and I think I must have gone through most of them. I won’t bore you with any of that, however, but I also have a third variable that impacts on the other two – do I continue working, or not?

If I stop working, the planning becomes much starker and more serious. The comfort zone that my current salary buffers me with vanishes overnight and, as I have experienced before, when the income tap is shut off it is quite a shock to the system. I’ve previously blogged that if your income equals your expenditure, like Mr Micawber, you’re probably comfortable with that situation. Let’s say you bring home £2,500 a month and that covers all your bills. When you stop earning, not only do you miss that £2,500 coming in, you might still have £2,500 going out. Psychologically this feels like you’ve taken a £5,000 a month hit – or at least it did to me!

Of course, psychological issues aside, the reality of the situation is that you now need to generate that £2,500 (not £5,000!) from your savings and investments to cover your expenses. Hopefully, your investments will generate this income through growth and then you’ll not have to worry – too much – about your pot running out too quickly. Well, “yes and no”, in my experience. “Yes”, on spreadsheets, my calculations told me my investment growth would counterbalance and cover my annual costs. And “No”, I could absolutely not stop fretting about the fact that I may have got both my sums and assumptions wrong. I was, roughly, looking at the 4% withdrawal rate as a measuring stick for my calculations, but you don’t have to Google for very long to see this strategy being pulled to pieces as being far too risky. Many say 3% is a better rule, or 2% just to be safe. It’s not long before you start pining for the security of the days when you put 10% of your income into your pot instead of taking 4% of it out.

In my “retirement”, I set up Google calendar monthly reminder of when I needed to “pay myself” out of my investments – i.e. cash in another tranche of funds to cover my monthly outgoings. This was they way I’d chosen to withdraw the money – I suppose I could have done it quarterly or annually, but I felt that taking a monthly withdrawal was more like “pound cost averaging” in reverse. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have withdrawn a big amount of annual budget at a time when the market was on its knees. I grew to hate that reminder though, with the ironic “Pay Day” title I’d given it. And this was at a time that my investments were actually rocketing upward – not that I cared, because all I felt was that they’d be rocketing upward even faster if I wasn’t scooping a substantial sum out of them on a monthly basis just to live!

Perhaps one lesson to be learned was that I shouldn’t have “retired” with absolutely no intention of reducing my living expenses from the level I had when I was working. That was partly because I had been made redundant without much notice and therefore hadn’t “planned a retirement life” as opposed to a working one. But it was also partly because one of my Early Retirement ambitions was that my income and lifestyle shouldn’t “reduce” once I stopped working. That’s probably not at all realistic, but it was what I was aiming for. In my head, that would give me all the financial options in retirement that I had when I was working, and maybe a lot more.  I didn’t want retirement to seem like a step down from the life I had been living. Why should I have to sell my home to buy a smaller one because I needed to reduce the mortgage? Why holiday in the UK instead of the US? Why drive a smaller, older car? Why eat out once a month instead of once a week? And so on. That was a choice I made and one that I’d make again today – I’m basing my projected retirement income on the same income I generate today through employment. That’s quite a hurdle rate and, if I stick to it, will mean “raiding” my investments more than I would have to if I made some alternative choices on where I live, what I drive and how I enjoy myself. But each to his own. If nothing else retirement is hopefully going to be your plan, and not somebody else’s, and that’s what FIRE is about – you build the plan on your own terms. So good luck with yours.


Spring Cleaning

Last week I posted about how daft I was not paying attention to the fees I was being charged for the management of my pension fund (and I’m supposed to be interested in looking after the pennies!) What chance do the majority of pension holders have? According to the comments last week, there are people who have pensions running into the millions who don’t care what they’re being charged for them. One percent, two, three – why worry? A lot of people really don’t. But even more won’t have a clue what they’re being charged and will probably not even think about it.

I am interested, I think. I read Monevator, always browse the Sunday Times Money section, am a fan of Mr Money Moustache and buy Moneyweek, every week. I also listen to financial podcasts, including the Moneyweek one, hosted by Merryn Somerset Webb who – IMHO – dishes out sage financial advice on a variety of topics.

Imagine how I felt, then, after being rightly chided over not paying attention to the fees my pension fund was charging, to hear Merryn SW and her sidekick, John Stepick, laying into investors on their podcast who had put money into the Virgin UK Index Tracker. They expressed utter incredulity over the fact that this passive fund has over £2.8 billion in it and charges 1% for those daft enough to put their money there. They were literally aghast that this fund was not only surviving, but thriving, compared to some equivalents.

And, as you will have guessed by now, I am a holder of the Virgin UK Index Tracker fund.

So, as I have an alleged interest in financial matters, how did I end up investing in that dross? It’s a story not unconnected to being frugal and watching your spending because I bought into the Virgin Tracker when I was fixated on building my Quidco pot of money. (Quidco being one of these cashback sites). I think Virgin were offering £100 cashback if you signed up and invested £1,000 into their UK Index tracker. I took a short term gain for potential long term pain, invested that sum, and never put another penny in there. I should’ve moved my funds long ago, for sure, but my usual inertia just prevented me from doing so. I wasn’t losing a fortune, after all, and the fund was building quite nicely thanks to the market moving up.

Whatever, by the time you read this blog, it will have been sold. It’s clear to me that I’ve been a bit blase about my finances when I was telling myself I was pretty much on top of things. Or as “on top of things” as I was comfortable with being, because I don’t want to be obsessed with financial matters. I don’t think it’s healthy, but on the other hand that approach has possibly cost me quite a bit of money. The fact that I tend to think that discussions of things like TER and ETF’s are not really for me, are forcing me to consider a reassessment of practicing what I preach.

I tell myself I like to keep things simple when it comes to finances. Another of my rules is to “do nothing” when I consider switching funds, selling one investment to buy another or trade out into cash, or gold, or any other passing advice that might strike a chord with me. Over the years of reading the financial pages and blogs, I’ve felt that it is so easy to make things complicated that I would try and resist being lured out of some self-imposed guidelines, which are generally:

Invest regularly in Index Trackers

Spread the trackers across global regions – US, Europe, Asia, UK etc

Do not buy single shares for any reason and try to stick with the same funds

De-risk the pension from 100% in equities to a 75/25 equity/bond split as I approach pensionable age.

Avoid debt (apart from a mortgage)

Have an emergency fund in cash (of 3x net monthly salary)

If anyone had asked for my advice on saving and investing, I think that’s what I would have told them. Notice that I wouldn’t have said “Avoid high fees on your investments”, even although I am vaguely aware of how much that can cost in the long run. This is largely because I haven’t walked the talk when it’s come down to it, ignoring the first of my “rules” and buying some managed funds. I’ve justified this by taking what I’ve called “educated guesses”, on funds that I fancy might do well in the next five years. For example, I recently bought a Baillie Gifford Japanese fund due to aforementioned Moneyweek crowd continually pushing it (and, yes, I know Merryn Somerset Webb is a Director at that business.) I can justify this as many ways as I want but accept that, as ever, this is just a total punt on the future.

I’ve now tidied up and simplified my pension, although I still have a few managed funds in my other investments. I’m still unsure if it’s a good idea to have all my pension in the one fund though, and could split it up into some other providers outside of Vanguard. But really, if I am going to back my passive instincts, perhaps Vanguard is as good a bet as any? As ever, any thoughts or comments would be greatly appreciated.