Burning Desire For FIRE

Financial-Independence-Retire-Early(er). Achieved the first two letters of FIRE, now onto the rest!

Two years into early(ish) retirement – interview.

Yachts from the beach.
Beach views…

I’m always interested when retired people continue writing their blogs, or when people post interviews with people who have already reached early(ish) retirement. So many of us in this space are still working our way towards the time when we can strap on our socks and sandals and skip off towards the sunset, so it gives me great motivation to hear from people who have reached the goal and can let us know what it’s like to live the dream.

Today I have a post from my best friend Blogless Sandy. She and her husband retired a couple of years ago, long enough to settle into it, so I thought it’d be interesting to hear her perspective on this whole retirement thing. The photos she’s attached also means we can literally see her perspective as well!

Here she is:

Blogless Sandy at a vineyard.
After a lazy mid-week lunch at a winery.

I’m Blogless Sandy, aptly named by Frogdancer because my real name is Sandy and I don’t have a blog. Who would have thought an English teacher could be so imaginative!

Anyway, given that Frogdancer is working her way towards retirement and I’m already there, she has asked me to write about my experience of retirement so far, a whole 2½ years of it. This all started after her post quite while back titled “Retire? But what will you DO all day?” and a discussion we had at the time about retirement in general. Frogdancer and I met 24 years ago when our kids were still babies and we’ve remained best friends ever since, so we discuss stuff a lot.

A little bit about me. I’m married with 2 adult children and 2 grandchildren. My husband and I retired to the Mornington Peninsula (about an hour from Melbourne, Australia) 2½ years ago, after selling our large family home in a suburb of Melbourne. My husband, who is 11 years older than me, had just retired. Selling our home and buying a smaller house further from the city meant I could also retire immediately. I was 56, so although not an early retirement by FIRE standards, it was still a lot earlier than most Australians manage.

The beach at the end of her street.
Blogless Sandy, like me, has a dog beach at the end of her street. How handy!

I retired on a Thursday and we moved to our new home (the best house on the Mornington Peninsula) the following Monday. When I look back I contemplate that it could have been a complete disaster. I left our family home of 24 years, my job of 27 years, our friends and everything that was familiar, moved to a totally new location, and all within the space of 4 days. Was I concerned? Not at all… well, if I’m being totally honest, maybe just a little bit.

When I announced to friends and work colleagues that I was retiring and moving, the question asked most often was “But what are you going to do?” I’d never considered that filling my days was going to be a problem, but it seemed to be a concern for others. This is understandable, given we spend a good deal of our lives in the workforce with our schedule dictated by our job. Then when we are at home, for many, much of the time is taken up with raising a family and running a house. Our lives are interspersed with holidays where we get to choose what we want to do, but trying to imagine a life that is essentially one big extended holiday can be difficult.

For me, the biggest change when I retired, apart from the obvious one of not having to work anymore, was the lack of social interaction compared to working in an office environment 4 days a week. Even though we often work with people that we are not necessarily friends with outside work, we tend to socialise quite a bit at work. We usually talk with work colleagues about our weekends, events we go to, activities we participate in and just make comments about things in general. Suddenly all that was gone! It was just me and hubby! But don’t panic, it all worked out fine, without one of us doing serious harm to the other. Just saying though, it was a huge change that I hadn’t really thought about before it happened.

Fortunately for us, we’re both reasonably self-contained people who are quite happy with our own and each other’s company. For people who struggle a little with the whole being on your own thing though, it’s probably worth considering how this will impact you. You might surprise yourself and learn to love all that “aloneness”. You may discover that you’re actually damned good company and that a bit of alone time can be quite replenishing.

Biking near the bathing boxes at Portsea.
Just another afternoon at the office on the beach.

I liked Frogdancer’s post (mentioned above) as she was obviously considering that retirement is not just about travel and sleeping in. The day to day needs to be filled with something too and having a number of projects or interests in mind is a good start. When people asked me what I was going to do in retirement, my response was that for the first 6 months I would sleep, read, knit, take long walks along the beach, spend time with my grandchildren and explore our new location. Then once I got bored with that I would consider what else I wanted to do. Of course, I had projects and activities in mind, but my initial goal was to just unwind and treat the first stage of my retirement as an extended “staycation”. I picked 6 months as an arbitrary length of time, not really knowing if it would take more or less time before the boredom began to set in.

Grandchild running down a path.
Imagine retiring early enough so you can keep up with a toddler?

And there’s that word – boredom – that we all seem to be so afraid of. Now I agree that an extended period of boredom is not a good thing, but I don’t believe that short periods of boredom are all bad. After all, if you’re a bit bored, isn’t that when you start looking for something to do? I know in my life, many a good project or new activity has been kick-started by a little bit of boredom.

One by-product of retirement is that I’ve finally learned to slow down – most of the time anyway. It took quite a while to wind back to a gentler pace, but generally I no longer feel the urgency to get everything done today, not when I can see a whole bunch of ‘todays’ in front of me. Life is not lived at the same frantic pace as before and there is more time to enjoy the small moments. Interestingly too, having learned to slow down, I just don’t need as many things to fill the day. Compared to my pre-retirement life, I now feel like I do a lot of “nothing”. It’s not really that I’m doing nothing of course, but I’m going at a slower pace and enjoying more quiet moments.

Blogless Sandy's dogs snoozing together.
Being able to spend more time with the dogs – sounds good.

I know that before I retired, I generally thought of retirement as a fixed kind of thing. You retire, you do certain things, lead a certain kind of life and that’s it until you’re carried out in a box. I realise now, that for me at least, retirement is more of an evolving process. Initial retirement was the “relax and unwind” phase. After years of raising a family and being in the workforce that’s what I needed. There were lots of sleep-ins and idle mornings, lots of lazing around. There were lots of days with nothing planned and lots of spur of the moment outings. It was wonderful, but I reached a point where I needed more than that. I’m the kind of person who functions better when I have some kind of structure to my week and that’s what I have now.

I like the sameness of familiar activities and pastimes, but I also revel in the challenge of doing new things too. Now, 2½ years into retirement I find I’m busy, but a new kind of busy. I’m busy doing the things that I want to do. I always said that when I retired I wanted to volunteer at an animal shelter, so now I walk the dogs at a shelter one morning a week.

Walking group heading off into the bush.
Taking a hike on a mid-morning Thursday.

I also participate in a walking group one morning each week, always in a different, but nearby location. I get exercise and social interaction and get to explore the local area, all in one activity. We look after our grandchildren 1 or 2 days a week, but that has become fixed days rather than the casual arrangement it started out as. I prefer the fixed arrangement as it fills my need for structure.

Yoga studio overlooking the bush.
Imagine having yoga classes in a studio with this outlook?

I always used to speak about doing yoga or pilates but had never actually done more than talk about it. I no longer had the excuse of being time-poor, so I took up yoga about 15 months ago and currently attend 5 classes a week. Then there’s the small commitment of being a member of the local beach cleaning group and trying to combat the never-ending amount of rubbish that gets left behind or washed up on our local beach. In amongst these things are the outings, the dog walking, the bike rides, the walks along the beach, the catching up with friends, the gardening and the pottering around. Oh, and just a bit of bad news, even in retirement the housework still needs to be done!

It’s a lovely kind of life that I’ve created and I’m very content. That’s not to say things can’t or won’t continue to change though. I feel free to keep creating the kind of retirement I want and as time goes on circumstances are bound to keep changing. We were only recently contemplating that before we know it our caring commitment to our grandchildren will be reduced to just school drops-offs and pick-ups. Then we found out that grandchild number 3 is on the way!

Two grandchildren hand-in-hand.
Little do they know they’ll have company soon…

I spent 12 months volunteering at 2 animal shelters and recently decided to discontinue one of the roles. I was feeling overcommitted (overcommitted in retirement! haha!!) and my role at one of the shelters was very physical and rather thankless. I kept going for the sake of the animals, but ultimately decided to focus my energy on the shelter where I feel my contribution has the most impact and is more valued. If I want to increase my shelter volunteer work again in the future I can easily commit to additional shifts at that same shelter.

As mentioned, I took up yoga about 15 months ago. I was attending classes once or twice a week and decided about 5 months ago to make a bigger commitment. I didn’t feel I was doing my yoga practice justice and wanted to see how I’d feel about the whole yoga thing if I got a bit more serious about it. So now I attend 5 classes a week and yoga is my current obsession!

After another 2½ years of retirement, my weeks may be entirely different. I may decide in the future that I want more in my weeks, less in my weeks, different or new things in my weeks. The beauty of retirement is that it’s an evolving process full of endless possibilities, limited only by what I want it to be.

So don’t be concerned when people ask you what you’re going to do in retirement and you don’t have all the answers. If you have a vague idea of some things you want to do and some interests you might want to explore, you will be able to create the perfect retirement for you.

Spa time with bubbly.
Retirement looks awful, doesn’t it?

It’s me, Frogdancer Jones again!

I really like how Sandy and her husband utilised domestic geoarbitrage in much the same way I did to free up capital that was otherwise locked into real estate. Being able to use that money to downsize and invest has shaved YEARS off her working life (and mine too! It’s 2020 – hello part-time work!!)

Something that she didn’t touch upon is that retirement looks a bit different for her and her ‘hubby’. Blogless Sandy likes a structure to her week, whereas her husband is a more ‘go with the flow’ person who takes each day as it comes.

For me, looking at how they’ve settled into their new life down on the Peninsula, it’s made early(ish) retirement seem far less risky and scary. They live life in their own ways and they’re very happy. I could do with a piece of that…

Thanks, Blogless Sandy. Enjoy your beach and your spa!

A Very Redneck New Year.

Nearly all of the Redneck Christmas package. I ate the Chex Mix before I took the photo.

One of the best things about being a blogger is when you start to build a community. I first discovered this over a decade ago, back when I was writing about knitting and quilting with my personal blog Dancing With Frogs and I started attending blogmeets with other ‘crafty’ women.

One of the funniest times I bumped into a fellow blogger was when I was attending a two-day quilting workshop and I was talking to someone about knitting baby hats for my Etsy shop. One of the women on the other side of the table said hesitantly, “Excuse me… are you… Frogdancer?” Turns out we’d both been reading each others’ blogs for ages!

A similar thing happened when I was on a four-day course to learn how to run a team for Thermomix. Chatting away at dinner on the first night, Bee from Tick of Yum and I realised who each other way and we had a rapturous moment of recognition. Puzzled everyone else at the table but we were rapt. Here was a kindred spirit!

Last April the incredible Mr and Mrs Groovy visited Australia and came down my way. I was on school holidays and we decided to meet up for a day so I could show them around. Unlike most meetings when you have to establish all of the ‘getting to know you’ stuff, we’d read each others’ blogs so we pretty much just jumped straight into a conversation and went from there. Felt like we’d been good friends for ages.

We had such a great day. We walked along the Yarra for a while, then I took them to Doyles in Mordialloc to have lunch by the river, then we came back to The Best House in Melbourne. We went to the Backyard Beach and had fish n chips for dinner before we drove back to the city.

Mr Groovy is one of the most open-minded people I’ve ever met. We three had incredibly interesting conversations over the course of the day. I wish they lived closer.

From Mr Groovy’s post about my care package.

When they dropped an off-hand comment a while ago that they missed timtams and vegemite, I thought that a little care package wouldn’t go astray. They responded with a care package of their own – a redneck Christmas.

The parcel arrived on Christmas Eve. We have a tradition at Christmas that one person at a time opens a gift, so the whole family was watching as I began lifting these exotic American foodstuffs out of the box and reading the descriptions of them. We were enthralled.

At first, we were eating the desserts and chocolates that were left here after Christmas Day ended so abruptly. But now that Ryan25 is forcing me to watch Breaking Bad from the beginning, it was time to start sampling the goodies. Instead of a redneck Christmas, it’s a redneck new year!

This was the first one. Not bad.

The Chex Mix was good. I was frightened that it’d be really sweet, because the word on the streets is that Americans add sugar to everything. But this was a nice crunchy bag of bite-sized bits that I worked my way through over a couple of nights. I googled and apparently some of the things in it are a breakfast cereal.

Moon Pie.
Fatter than a Wagon Wheel and just marshmallow in the middle.
No jam.

Next up was the Moon Pies. David26 and I unwrapped one each, then bit in.

OMG!!!! The biscuits surrounding the marshmallow (so much marshmallow!) AREN’T CRUNCHY! It was like biting into a sponge cake. In itself, that’s not a bad thing but when you’re expecting a cookie-like consistency it takes you a couple of seconds to adjust.

Action shot… before and after.

Of course it was sweet but not overly so. After we finished laughing at ourselves for our reaction to the soft consistency, we finished them up and agreed they were ok. There was enough sweetness to make you feel that you’d had a treat and they didn’t leave you feeling full. Definitely handy to have around when you need a slight pick-me-up mid-afternoon.

We’ve yet to try the other delicacies on offer. We have panettone here as the boys are half-Italian, but I haven’t had it for years. (I call the boys Kangaroochee’s, a mix of Aussie and Italian.)

I don’t mind admitting that the dried pork crackling makes me slightly uneasy. David26 was reading the part on the package where it says that it’s ‘great for cooking and snacks.’ He looked at me and said, “HOW could you use this in cooking???”

Safe to say we’ll be eating those bad boys as snacks.

This has been so much fun. It reminds me of when I was in the supermarket in Pyongyang, North Korea, choosing snacks to eat on the train trip home. There was nothing familiar. All I had to go on was the pictures on the packaging. This is a similar experience. “Which one will we try now??”

Anyone who isn’t familiar with Mr and Mrs Groovy needs to jump across to their blog and have a read. Their story about coming later in life to FIRE is absolutely inspiring. The fact that they both have great senses of humour is an added bonus. It’s a fantastic blog written by lovely people. Well worth the time.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day with them and I hope one day to make it over to North Carolina to see Groovy Ranch in person. In the meantime, in case I feel like I’m missing out on being in the American South, I have some authentic pork crackling snacks to tide me over.

I’ll be travelling through my tastebuds!

Financial stability matters when the sh*t hits the fan.

On Christmas Eve my brother Paul rang me out of the blue. It was just after dinner and I’d stopped all of my “OMG I’m hosting Christmas!” running around, so I poured a glass of wine and sat out on the front verandah and talked with him.

We spoke for maybe 20 or 30 minutes about lots of things. His son, a young dad, is undergoing chemo, my son was still in hospital with a brand-new skin graft on his foot, our Mum is in hospital ‘enjoying’ physical rehab for her broken shoulder… but we also talked about more fun things as well! At the end of his call, I thanked him for taking the time to do it because I really enjoyed it. He replied that it was good to hear my voice.

I may never be able to have a conversation like that with him again.

You see, on Christmas morning my brother had a stroke. He’s 54.

We knew Christmas Day was going to be a bit different this year, what with Mum walking around with a walker and Ryan24 being in hospital waiting to be released. I got everything ready that could possibly be prepared in advance the day before, with David26 and Ryan23 cleaning the house like mad. The next morning, I got the text from Ryan24 saying. ‘Come now. Physio’s going to be here soon‘ so I jumped in the car and raced off to Dandenong hospital. The last thing I saw when I walked out the door was Evan23 – a vegetarian – slicing the Christmas ham.

When we arrived home a couple of hours later, Christmas festivities were in full swing. Ryan24 hobbled in on his crutches, with a bandaged foot and bandaged thigh from where they took the skin graft. He has to keep the foot totally elevated for at least a week, so we settled him down at the end of the table where no one would bump his foot. Ryan23 was holding sway in the kitchen, champagne in hand, while everyone else was gathered around the coffee table enjoying the pre-lunch nibbles and drinks. I smiled. It looked like the perfect Christmas.

We were 10 around the table. My nieces weren’t there because they had to work, but for the first time ever we had a girlfriend – David26’s Izzy. Her family celebrate Christmas at night so she was able to join us. Mum and Dad, my sister Kate and brother-in-law Francis, my boys and me. Paul and Jen were spending Christmas with their immediate family.

On Christmas we always eat the main meal, then break for presents, then finish up with desserts. We were halfway through the gift-giving, where one person opens a gift at a time so we can all see what everyone gets when my phone rang. I grabbed it and slipped into my room to answer it. It was my sister-in-law Jen, telling me that she and the kids were at Monash because Paul had had a stroke that morning.

He was very lucky. He was in the shower when it happened and Jen heard the thump as he went down. Within 10 minutes the ambos were there and he was being hooked up to everything he needed to be hooked up to. He was swept straight to the hospital.

It was a strange conversation. In one ear I was hearing Jen’s voice telling me this dreadful news, while in the other ear I could hear the family laughing and joking, completely unaware of what was going on. I told Jen that I’d wait until after the gifts were open and then I’d tell them. We hung up and I went back into the room.

Sometimes being a drama teacher comes in handy. No one had a clue anything was wrong until after the last present was opened. As you can imagine, Christmas fizzled straight after that, with people leaving for the hospital immediately after hearing the news. A lot of desserts were thrown out that night…

That was 6 days ago. Paul’s speech is totally slurred. It’s major progress that he can lift his hand to scratch his chin. He had to have 2 shunts put into his brain to drain fluid away from his brain when he lapsed into unconsciousness a few days ago. It’s going to be a long road.

One thing that keeps playing on my mind, being the financial independence blogger that I am, was our conversation on Christmas Eve. I mentioned that I was dropping down to part-time next year as a glide-path towards retirement and he replied, “I can’t even think about that. I can’t afford to retire.” He laughed.

Well, no one’s laughing now.

Financial Independence and its little cousin, being Debt-Free, isn’t an optional extra if you want to have freedom and security in life. If you have to turn up to work for the paycheque, even if something catastrophic has happened to you or a loved one, then you aren’t secure and you aren’t free.

We’re coming to the end of the break between Christmas and New Years. Paul will be in hospital for at least 2 months before he goes to rehab. Jen will have to make a lot of decisions going forward, particularly in how she’ll be juggling her full-time job and caring for her husband. The decision-making would be that little bit simpler if things like mortgage and car payments weren’t a consideration.

I’m not pointing the finger at Paul and Jen. No one ever sees this sort of thing coming. But then again, that’s the point, isn’t it?

When we think of FIRE, we think of people taking back years, sometimes decades, to do the things they really want to do. We think of travelling the world, throwing away the alarm clock, going for hikes mid-week and generally having the freedom to design the life that suits each of us. We think of all the enjoyable things we could be doing. We don’t think of being hooked up to machines, unable to make anyone understand you, possibly having brain damage and having to face the possibility of never being independent again.

But isn’t that when you’d really want the freedom to make decisions that aren’t based on finances? To choose to do (or not do) things purely based on what was best for YOU, rather than what was cheapest or what enables the breadwinner to keep bringing home the money needed to keep a roof over your heads? Imagine how much stress would be lifted from the situation if finances weren’t an issue.

Seeing my brother lying in that hospital bed brought home to me the utter importance of financial security. All of these steps are talked about in the FIRE world. But it bears repeating when viewed through the lens of what has happened to Paul and Jen.

  1. Put together an Emergency Fund of around 3 – 6 months of expenses. Then leave it alone. Don’t tap into it unless you have a real emergency. Then, if your hot water service dies or your car breaks down, top it up again as soon as possible. This pool of money is there for when the worst happens. It allows your family the time and space to gather your feet under yourselves and have a calm window of time in which to assess the situation. When something completely unexpected hits, it’s a huge shock to the system. Being able to have the time and space to regroup and begin to move forward is a huge gift to your loved ones.
  2. Get rid of debt. All of it. People talk about “good debt and bad debt” but really… all debt is bad debt. You’ve essentially taken money from your future self to buy things that your present self wants and you’re making your future self pay extra (because of the interest) for the privilege. That’s all fine and dandy when things are going to plan. But if something bad happens? You’ve locked your future self into a very stressful situation. Be kind to your future self. Don’t do that to them. Get out of debt as soon as you can. It may not be quick. It took me 17 years to pay off my house. But the feeling of security and freedom when I made that last payment was unforgettable.
  3. Invest. Make your money start working for you. I’ve been stony broke – hey, I wrote about it on my ‘About’ page. It took years to dig myself out of that hole, but it was worth it. Now, I’m earning more from my investments than I’m making at my full-time job. (It’s incredible. All those charts and tables about compound interest are actually true.) But the really precious thing about it is that by building up my investments, I’m giving Future Frogdancer the gift of security and CHOICES. Hopefully, the only type of choice I’ll be making is deciding which country I’ll be travelling to each year. But if things turn pear-shaped, I, or my children, will be financially able to make the best decisions for my care going forward.

Steadily working on these steps is the smart thing to do. They range from short to long-term goals but in the end, the time is going to pass anyway so I figure that you may as well give yourself some financial stability and freedom while the years go by. Speaking from the vantage point of my mid-fifties, I’m extremely grateful to Past Frogdancer that she didn’t lose sight of the overarching goal of providing a secure base for the family as the years went by.

Financial Independence is a wonderful thing to experience when you’re young and healthy. The world is your oyster and you can live it to the full. But I think that Financial Independence really comes into its own when things don’t exactly run to the plan and you’re backed into a corner by circumstances you can’t control.

When the sh*t hits the fan, the last thing you want to be concerned about is scraping together enough money to pay the bills. That’s the ultimate reason that working towards being financially independent is an essential thing to do.

Financial stability matters. It matters a lot. Please think of your future self and work to make things easier for them.

Future You will be so glad you did.

Does gaming help to develop grit?

Ryan24 with a bandaged foot.
Home for the weekend.

Around 3 days ago I wrote about my son, Ryan24, and a conversation we had in the ER with a nurse when we were in there tending to his burned foot. The foot was damaged more deeply than initially thought and although he’s home for the weekend, he’ll need a couple of skin grafts.

The pain he’s constantly in is strong. Even after 9 days after it happened, on a scale of 1 – 10 his level is a 6 on the strong pain killers and a 9 when they wear off. Yet he doesn’t complain. He hasn’t asked to go back to the ER for stronger stuff. He’s told off David26 and me when we offer to help him with things, saying, “Leave me my independence!”

He’s displaying grit. But where does it come from? Are you born with it or is it something that is learned over time? And how can this help us along the road to financial freedom?

The two of us have talked more about pain in the last few days than we have in his entire lifetime. He’s very articulate about it, which I guess is hardly surprising, given the situation. On Friday morning, a couple of hours after standing beside his bed watching him undergo the most pain I’ve ever seen a human being experience when his bandage was being replaced after a debridement procedure the night before, he explained what intense pain is like.

“Mostly pain is easy to deal with because you can do something to ease it, like moving in a different way or something. But this is like having my foot dipped in molten lava and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. You have a pain level you know is unbearable, but up till then, you can deal with it. But when it goes a level about that, and then a level above that… and then keeps on going, there are only two things that can help you. Tears and mental gymnastics.”

(The bold emphasis is mine.)

Ryan24 is a gamer from way back. He’s been playing on consoles and computers since he was a wee tacker. He’s undergone more quests and challenges than you’ve had hot dinners. He’s used to being confronted with a danger, a problem or a dilemma and then working his way through it logically. According to his friends, he’s a good man to have on the team because he stays level-headed in a crisis and keeps the bigger picture in mind. He also has amazing map-reading skills, but that’s beside the point for this post.

This is a financial independence blog, but like the post I linked to earlier, it strikes me that Rya24 is exhibiting many of the traits that lead to success with handling money.

Like so many people who are appalled when they realise how deeply they’ve dug themselves into debt, he’s in a crisis situation. Some people promptly put their heads back into the sand and refuse to deal with the problem they’ve created for themselves. Others choose to take a clear look at their situation and start taking steps to gain relief from it.

Ryan24 is choosing to take the long view of his problem. He knows that this won’t last forever and the best thing he can do now is to listen to the experts and do everything he can to move through this, no matter how painful it may be in the short-term. His foot hurts less when he elevates it, but he chooses to lower it, endure the pain and move around every hour or so, because it’ll help his recovery further down the track if there’s more blood flow to the area.

Similarly, someone enduring the pain of financial insecurity, (which I can personally attest to being a definite mental pain), can choose to also take the long-term view. When you keep the thought and belief that this will not last forever if I make some changes firmly in the forefront of your mind, it makes it easier to make the decisions and sacrifices you need to get out of the hole easier and more likely to be made.

The “mental gymnastics” that Ryan24 alluded to are very much a gamer thing, but anyone can harness them. He’s giving himself challenges to distract himself, such as single-handedly moving his desktop computer box from his room to the man cave, so he could use his computer with the tv as a screen and be able to elevate his foot on the ottoman, as pictured. He’s wrapped all his Christmas presents, sitting on the floor so his foot is on the same level as the rest of him. Yesterday he had the tv playing clip upon clip of some American painter teaching people how to paint landscapes. He wasn’t watching it, but when I asked why he had it on he replied, “Because his voice is so calming.”

Take a listen. His voice is so soothing it could put a raging toddler to sleep!

Just like Ryan24, someone working their way out of a financial problem can use distractions and challenges to help them along the way. When I was spending all those years raising 4 children on my own and doggedly digging my way out from under the mortgage, I used to do things like see how many days I could stay out of the supermarket, using things I already had in the pantry and fridge to feed us. If you stay out of the shops you can’t be tempted to buy extra things you don’t need, right?

When I got a 9 month contract at my school, I bought a new-to-us car and vowed I’d pay off the 20K loan by the end of the contract, just in case I was out of work after it ran out. It was a stretch, but I did it. I felt like I was super victorious every time I could scrape together an extra few dollars each fortnight to throw at the debt. Meeting challenges makes you feel good. If you feel good you’ll keep on until you hit that goal. I used this tactic a LOT to keep me on the track to providing security for my boys.

That Bob Ross ploy by Ryan24 to distract himself? Costs him nothing. Yet it provides a partial solution to his problem of being overwhelmed by strong emotions when the pain hits. No one wants a panic attack! For the rest of us, there are distractions all around that we can use to take our minds off what we’re being “deprived” of as we work our way out of financial insecurity towards financial independence.

Entertainment and fun doesn’t have to cost the earth. What I found useful was to rejig some activities to enable me to still have fun but not sabotage my over-arching financial goals. For instance, when I was undergoing my 18-month stint of paying for bridging finance on my current house at 74% of my take-home pay, I had to cut my expenses to nothing. I didn’t go out very often, but I took out an $18/month Netflix subscription as my entertainment. Worked a treat! When I wanted to see the girls, I invited them to a potluck at my place instead of us meeting at a restaurant. This has become a regular thing each holidays.

Another “mental gymnastic” that I’m pretty sure Ryan24 is doing is to see how long he can stretch out the time before he takes more pain killers. This is an easily do-able tactic for the financially challenged person. How long can you go before you buy that item you really want? Can you stretch out the use of whatever-it-is before replacing it? Can you keep going for another day/week/month at that side-hustle before you pack it in? How long can you go??

Any of these challenges to stretch things out is bound to keep more money in your pocket that you can throw at your situation to make progress. If your financial goal is to put together some savings in the bank, seeing that account total rise steadily and adding to it becomes a game. It becomes addictive, almost. Seeing that debt total fall, at first slowly, then faster and faster as the amount gets smaller and the principal being paid off gets bigger is exciting. You start to LOOK for ways to avoid spending so you can see that total fall even faster. It’s fun.

Now, I’m in no way advocating that the best way to develop grit is to spill boiling hot coffee on your foot. Ryan24 assures me very eloquently that it isn’t much fun. But there are traits that we all develop from areas far outside the financial sphere that we can harness and use to work towards our goals of financial security and freedom.

Maybe a slight gaming addiction is working out to be a good thing after all?

A sudsy sort of Christmas.

Home-made soap drying in the laundry.

Sshhh! Don’t tell my workmates, but they’re getting hand-made soap for Christmas. A couple of months ago I made up a couple of batches of this soap, mixed through some oats that I’d chopped up in the thermomix and let the rustic-shaped bars cure in the laundry, hardening up so they’ll be suitable to be used straight away.

Last week I asked the woman who runs the school canteen how many women work there. On Friday I dropped off 10 cakes of soap for them. It’s only fair. Twice a week I pick up all of the veggie scraps from them, so they deserve to get a little something for helping my garden out all year.

I probably spent a little under $20 to buy the materials, so that (and my time) was the only cost for nearly 40 presents. It’s something that’s a little bit different to the usual chocolates or candy-canes-sticky-taped-to-a-card and people seem to appreciate them.

You may have noticed that to the side of the soaps on the rack, are jars full of bean seeds. People who have been following along to the blog for a while may remember that when I put in the hideously expensive wicking beds last year, the landscaper put in horribly poor soil. Just about every plant I put into the beds died a slow and yellowy death, aside from my peas, beans and tromboncino zucchinis.

A little while ago I put together some seed packets of the Lazy Housewife and Purple King beans and gave them away to anyone at work who wanted some, particularly the people who’d given me compost materials. After all, they helped contribute! I told them to save a couple of beans, dry them out and then they’ll be able to plant next year’s bean crop. Essentially, I’ve just given them free beans for the rest of their lives.

And who doesn’t want to grow something called ‘Lazy Housewife’?

A conversation in the ER.

Ryan24’s foot on Tuesday. The pen mark to the right is where the line of infection was.

“The pain isn’t going to go away. You won’t be pain-free. But what you have to do is realise which level of pain you can deal with, and then only ask for pain relief when it gets worse than that.”

This was a nurse in the ER at Monash hospital, talking to Ryan24. Four days earlier Ryan24, fancying a morning cup of coffee, used the Aeropress incorrectly and ended up with boiling hot coffee and coffee grounds all over him. By the time he’d taken off his jeans and right sock, the damage was done. His left sock had soaked in all of the coffee that landed on it and when he pulled off the sock, he pulled off his skin with it.

Four days later, there we were in the ER after our doctor looked at how it was progressing. It wasn’t. It was infected, even with antibiotics, with red all around the foot and going up his leg in an 8cm streak. He needed to be on an IV antibiotic drip and, as it turns out, he also needs a couple of skin grafts. The burn covers nearly half the top of his foot.

Infection on the undamaged part of the foot. I have photos of the other side, but they’re not for the squeamish!

Now why am I telling you all this? Because life happens. And the things that we hold as true in the FI world also hold true in life.

Look at the advice the nurse in the ER told Ryan24. Afterwards, thinking over the day, I realised that what he was saying was pretty much what we advise all people who are starting to get their financial lives in order:

“The pain (of being in debt) isn’t going to go away. You won’t be pain-free ( when you give up buying whatever you want in the moment.) But what you have to do is realise which level of pain (spending) you can deal with, and then only ask for pain relief (to adjust the amount) when it gets worse than that (beyond a level where you’re happy.)

Today is Thursday. I’m expecting that Ryan24 will undergo the first operation for a skin graft today. He’s had 2 full days on the antibiotic IV and the infection has calmed down. Fortunately, he’s a uni student and holidays have already started for him. He has until March to recover and get back to work.

Being a burns patient is painful. So is being in debt. Recovering from both is also painful and requires a level of self-discipline and endurance.

I don’t have any great philosophical insight to end this post with. There are no great lessons here that you haven’t heard many times before. It simply struck me how inextricably finances and life are linked – how the lessons we learn in getting our financial lives in order aren’t wasted once we reach FI.

They’re the skills and traits that are available for us to use for the rest of our lives. Self-discipline and endurance. Delayed gratification. All useful things to be able to tap into when needed.

And please people – be careful around hot water!!!

The secret to success.

How a skier built up her herd of cows over time.

I saw this on Twitter a little while ago and it tickled my fancy. I loved how she took what the organisers of the skiing event obviously thought of as a novelty prize and used it as the basis of a thriving herd of cows today. Can you imagine the chagrin of the organisers as she blithely took them at their word and walked off with ‘their’ cow??

Obviously, one cow (even a pregnant cow) does not a herd make. But over time, it’s possible to build something from nothing if you keep quietly focussed and take strategic steps towards a goal, just putting one foot in front of the other.

There’s nothing stopping any of us from building our own equivalent of Ms Vonn’s herd of cattle. No matter who you are or where you’re starting from, there’s always room for a goal to be set and to be worked towards.

Picture me, back when I’d just left my husband. I had a starting position of $60 cash, with the added bonus of 4 boys under 5 to feed and water as well. I guess I started with my own little herd of humans! My overarching goal was always to keep a roof over those boys’ heads. But my first goal?

To scrape together 1K for what I called a “Buffer Zone” but which I now call an Emergency Fund. I wrote about how I learned very quickly that having cash between us and a hostile world was a very good thing, and when I was forced to cash it in, the first priority was to get it built back up again.

It’s easy to write about building up 1K in a cash stache nowadays, but back then it wasn’t easy to do. It took months of scrimping and scraping to get that 1K put away safely. It required many small decisions about what to buy and what not to buy; what had to be paid for now and what we could wait to get. It took me putting one foot in front of the other and slowly advancing towards that goal.

Poppy on my bed.

Even though this is a FIRE blog, I’d be stupid to suggest that every single goal worth aiming for has to be financial. We have to enjoy our lives along the path to being financially free, after all. Poppy is pictured above on my string quilt. This quilt is a totally unique creation that I initially started with the aim of using up tiny scraps of fabric instead of throwing them out. I wanted to turn them into something useable.

The concept itself was simple. I sewed strips of fabric together into 5″ square blocks. Some blocks have only 4 or 5 strips in them. Some have way more, which means that this was definitely not a quick job! The smallest strip is, I think, a quarter of an inch wide.

That quilt took me 9 months to complete. I put together square upon square upon square, sewing other quilts in the meantime and using scraps from those to keep putting this one together. It seemed as if it would never be finished, but finally, I got out a tape measure, worked out the dimensions of how big a Queen-sized quilt would be, then *shudder* did the Maths to see how many squares I’d need.

The answer was 396.

That quilt is on my bed to this day. It looks amazing and it’s hard to remember all of the many patient hours I spent at the sewing machine with tiny scraps of fabric, sewing together all of those 5″ squares. By themselves, each scrap of fabric is an inconsequential piece of nothing. But placed together, they represent a goal achieved.

Massed dancing in Pyongyang North Korea, April 2018.
So much fun!
Massed dancing in Pyongyang, North Korea in April 2018. It was so much fun to join in with them all and it was such an amazing spectacle!

On my way towards financial independence, I’ve set many goals and achieved them. Some were financial, though I’d argue that the underlying goal pushing me to achieve these ones was always a deep desire to provide security for my family. Others were more lifestyle goals, such as my Europe and North Korean trips.

For years, my Big Fat Hairy Audacious goal was to become mortgage-free. It took me 17 years, but I did it. But 17 years is a long time. Did I get bored and want to go nuts and spend my money on wine, men and song? You bet I sometimes did. But I kept making many small decisions about where I’d put my money. Every thousand that came off the mortgage made me smile, even though, especially in the early days, those days were very far apart.

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other and, seemingly overnight, that mortgage was gone and the boys and I had a secure base. After all, that 17 years would have passed whether or not I fulfilled that goal. May as well get things done while that time is passing, hey?

Today I’m focussing on getting The Best House in Melbourne ready for Future Frogdancer to live her best life in retirement. Instead of saving and investing money, as I did earlier on, I’m now looking deeply at what gives me the most pleasure and satisfaction in life, then I’m looking at spending my money in the ways that will continue to bring contentment and happiness to my life going forward.

I’m only buying things that have value to me. So upgrading my lovely little 2014 VW Golf is definitely off the table, while paying for self-watering veggie beds, a secure front fence to keep my dogs in and putting a huge verandah out the back to entertain my family on important birthdays and Christmases are things that are definitely happening.

Poppy, Jeff and Scout.
Next year I’m dropping back to part-time work so I can take these 3 to the dog beach more often. I never thought I’d reach the stage where time means more than money, but here we are…

Whether the goal has been a savings/investment goal such as reaching a specific number or getting an emergency fund topped up, or whether it’s a lifestyle goal such as the ones I’m organising right now, the way to reach those seemingly different goals has always been the same.

Figure out what you want.

Then find out how to get there. Break it down into smaller steps.

Then keep putting one foot in front of the other, step after step, until you reach it.

You can do this.

Poppy and Scout at the dog beach.
See? Here we are. So what do YOU want to achieve?

Sometimes it’s possible to talk to co-workers about finances!

Something really exciting happened at work yesterday.

I walked into the Danger Zone, (our little area in our staff room), and came slap bang in the middle of a conversation that Beth, Emily and Laura were having. Beth is well along the path to FI. We’ve had many a conversation about investing and she’s going great guns.

Laura is much younger than us. She’s already looking towards the future, having bought a couple of apartments as investments. I guess it helps to be a Maths teacher when it comes to understanding the whole ‘numeral’ thing.

Apparently they’d started talking about passive investments and Beth shared how much she earned over the last 12 months from the interest on her investments and her super. This blew Laura’s mind and got her attention. Then I walked in.

“Talk to Frogdancer,” said Beth. “I’d still be spinning my wheels if it wasn’t for her. She got me started with this whole thing.”

“Beth said that she made ($Xnumber)* last year, all from doing nothing!” said Laura. “How is that possible? It’s blowing my mind.”

I grabbed my laptop. “I have a net worth chart,” I said. “I check it at the end of every month.” I pulled it up and showed her.”See? Once your investments hit a certain mass, they take on a life of their own.”

Laura’s eyes popped. “OMG, why isn’t my net worth going up like that?”

Beth and I both said, “You’re young! You haven’t had time to build it up yet.”

Laura and Emily both jumped onto their banks’ websites and pulled up their own net worths. Both have mortgages and Melbourne is a really expensive place to buy real estate. Both of them are over half a million in the hole.

“That’s totally age-appropriate,” said Beth. I nodded. “You’re just starting out.”

Laura looked at me. “Beth and my parents say that I should be salary sacrificing into my super,” she said. “I don’t know – shouldn’t I be paying down my mortgages first, though?”

“It depends what you want,” I said, pulling up a chair. “Mathematically, it probably makes more sense to start making some outside investments while interest rates are so low. But if you have a paid-off mortgage then you have security. No one can kick you out or make you sell it if you can’t make the payments.”

She nodded.

“I made the deliberate decision to pay off the house first because I had the kids,” I continued, “and security was the most important thing for me. I was always terrified that if I messed up, I’d lose the house and the kids would have nowhere to go. Three weeks after I paid off that house, I was starting to learn about investments.”

“How old were you then?” Emily asked. She’s another young Maths teacher. “What was your net worth?”

I laughed. “I paid off the house when I logged onto my banking and saw that I had $10 more in my savings account than I had on the mortgage. I was 50. So I guess my net worth was $10 just after I turned 50!”

“How old are you now?” she asked.

“56,” I said.

Her eyes widened. “In six years you’re worth **($myFInumber)???? You should write a book!”

“She already writes a blog!” said Beth.

“When I was your age, I pulled my super out, all 30K of it, to put a deposit on a block of land,” I said. “When we sold the block a couple of years later, we sold it for 30K less than we paid for it, so effectively my super was lost to the wind. A couple of years ago I calculated what that 30K would have been worth today if I’d left it alone. It would have been 200K.”

Laura and Emily’s eyes widened. They gasped.

“Learn from my mistakes!” I said. “Money put in for retirement when you’re young is worth a hellava lot more than money put in when you’re my age. It’s the second-biggest mistake I’ve made.”

“So how much do you need to retire?” said Laura.

“Don’t you need a million?” asked Emily.

“Close enough,” I said. I wasn’t going to dive into the 4% Rule just then!

“Right!” said Laura, turning back to her laptop. “I’m going to salary sacrifice into Super. How much should I be putting in?”

“You can put in 25K a year,” I said. “That includes all of the super that the Education Department pays. But you’re paying those mortgages and you probably don’t want to tie up every dollar into an investment that you can’t touch till you’re 60. If I were you, I’d start off with $100/pay. You won’t miss it and you’ll get used to putting extra aside. You can always increase it if you want.”

While Laura was out of the Danger Zone, talking to HR I pulled up a compound interest calculator and put in her basic figures, starting with the $100 depososit and then kicking in $100 fortnightly.

When she came back into the room she said, “I’ve done it! I’m now salary sacrificing!!” We all cheered and then I gave her a hug.

When I showed her the calculator she loved it, changing it to plug in her current superannuation amount, then taking a screenshot to send to her Mum, saying, “She’s going to be rapt I’ve finally started this.”

Conversations like this are so rewarding.

It might sound a bit corny, but it makes me think that all my struggles have been worthwhile if someone else can benefit from my experience and avoid making similar mistakes. Laura and Emily are young women who are full of plans and are going places, but as I said to them, this one little tweak to their finances will give them so many more options later in life.

“When you’re as old as I am”, I said, “you’re going to be really glad that you started doing this. You’ll have a lot more choices available to you than if you didn’t have this money stashed away.”

Yep, yesterday was definitely a good day at work!

  • *and ** I’m not sharing anyone’s numbers on the blog. But we definitely shared them in the conversation we had.

Poverty leaves a mark.

Peas in a bowl.
A bowl of ‘free’ peas that grew from the pea straw mulch. We’ve been eating ‘free’ peas for over 2 months.

It’s no secret that financially nowadays, I’m doing ok. Working is a choice, not a necessity, which is why next year I’m dropping back to part-time. Two of the boys have moved out, which means I only have 2 on my hands, but they’re adults so apart from feeding and housing them, they run their own lives. Money isn’t tight anymore… and yet I still cling to my economies. Why is that?

Three years ago I moved into The Best House in Melbourne. After waiting 18 months for my geo-arbitrage plan to come to fruition, the money came through and I installed some gorgeous landscaping in the back yard, including some wicking veggie beds. When the soil the landscaper used turned out to be awful, I had a thought. Why not bring home the veggie scraps from work? The canteen services 2,400 kids and 200 teachers, while the Food Tech rooms throw out heaps of scraps. Compost galore – for free!

A year later, the system is still going strong. I have a little container on my desk that teachers put their scraps in, (you wouldn’t believe how many bananas they go through each day!); the Food Tech room leaves a bag of scraps for me most days, but the real bonanza is the canteen every Wednesday and Friday.

Yesterday I was chatting with the manager as I lifted out the garbage bag from the bin and popped in a fresh one for next week.

“I asked the timetabler if I could work Wednesdays and Fridays next year so I can keep picking up the scraps and it looks like I’ve got them,” I said.

“That’s great,” Tania replied. “Actually, I’m a bit surprised that you’re still doing this. Isn’t it a hassle?”

Wicking beds overflowing with plants.
Some of these plants are what has grown from last year’s plants – self-sown. Some are from the pea straw. Most have grown from the compost materials I brought home from school.

“Sometimes,” I said. Then I went on to say something about organic fertiliser or some such thing, to make me sound legit, like a real tree-hugger.

But really??

I want free fertiliser. Why would I pass up the chance to improve my garden’s soil for free, even if – yes – sometimes it IS a PIA to race down there and then drag it to the car during lunchtimes. Do you know how many bags of compost I would’ve had to buy over the past year to equal what the school scraps + the compost tumblers + time have produced???

Well, I don’t know either, but it would have been a lot of bags bought and a LOT of money spent.

As I was carrying that heavy garbage full of veggie scraps back along the street towards my car, I was thinking about that little conversation. She’s right. Doing this twice a week every week IS a hassle. As soon as I get home I have to deal with the compost, either putting it in the tumbling compost bins or bringing it inside and pulverising some of it in the thermomix for the worms. Sometimes, after school when I get back to the car, it smells a little… fruit cocktail-ish, especially in summer.

This would be more than enough to turn most people off, but not me. Now that I know this resource is here, it’d be such a waste not to use it.

I walked and thought. Maybe people who haven’t had to struggle very much are quicker to let inconvenient things go? I remembered back to the days when the kids were small. They’d go and stay with their father every two weeks, and at the end of the weekend sometimes they’d come home with a box of fruit and veggies from the fruit shop he owned.

Child support was erratic in those days. Money was tight. If those boys came through the door with a box of free food I made sure we used EVERY scrap of it. Anything that got thrown out was like me throwing away money. Child support money. I wasn’t in a position to do that.

Rosemary in a pot.
I grow herbs, like this Rosemary. I cut and dry it sometimes, so I have both fresh and dried whenever I need it. Herbs are ridiculously expensive – grow your own if you can.

Sometimes leftover food gets put into the staff common room. Unused loaves of bread from a fund-raising sausage sizzle, lemons from someone’s tree, a box of tomatoes… that sort of thing. If they’re placed on the tables, they’re free game for anyone who wants them.

It’s astonishing to me how those items can sit there for hours without being snapped up. People, even the young teachers with massive mortgages and/or young kids, won’t pick up a loaf of free bread or a handful of tomatoes to make a pasta sauce for dinner with. I don’t understand it. They’ll let perfectly good food sit there and potentially go to waste because… I don’t know… maybe they don’t want to be seen walking back to their desks with a loaf of yesterday’s bread?

Three days ago someone left a big box piled with potatoes on the table. I walked into the common room to fill up my water bottle and thought, “Great! Both boys are home for dinner tonight,’ so I took 3 potatoes. All good.

The next morning I walked in and there were still some potatoes in the box. Really?? They were the oddly shaped ones; the ones where you’d have to put a little bit of effort into peeling them to get all the skin off. But they were still fine. I waited until recess, then said loudly, “Well, if no one else wants them, I’ll take them!” and I scooped them up.

As I was on my way to my desk, someone said, “It’s great you’re using them for your compost.” I smiled and nodded, but inside I was thinking, ‘Are you crazy? This is another free serve of potatoes for dinner!’

Spice rack.
The dried herbs end up here.

Now, I’m no different from the rest of the staff in many ways. We are all middle-class, we all live within an hour’s drive of the school, we’re all tertiary educated, we’ve all travelled overseas. Of course, I’m astonishingly good-looking, but so are some of the others.

I think the real difference when it comes to things like this is that most of them haven’t been on the bare bones of their ar**s financially. Like I said at the beginning of this post, financially I’m doing ok now. But the years and years of being totally responsible for the well-being of the 4 boys when I was on the sole parents’ pension and with child support at (usually) $20/month have left their mark.

I had a ridiculously small amount of money to manage each fortnight. The mortgage had to be paid, then the bills and then what was leftover was spread among groceries, clothing – little boys grow fast! – and everything else. I owned one credit card, but I paid it off each month. I knew that if I strayed too far into debt I could lose the house and then the boys and I would be even more vulnerable than we were.

Every dollar was important.

When my aunt asked me if I’d like to pick up the unsold bread at a bakery in East Brighton every Tuesday night, I leapt at it. We kept going back to that bakery for the next 15 years. Every Tuesday we’d put 3 laundry baskets in the back of the station wagon and we’d pick up whatever hadn’t sold that day. That shop saved my family thousands of dollars over the time we went there.

Baskets of bread, pies, sausage rolls, bagels, hot cross buns, Boston buns – you name it, it was there. The best rye bread I’ve ever tasted, to this day. The boys and I would go in the back door of the shop and we’d load up the baskets. One basket was for us. I’d put in enough bread to last us a week ( I had a huge freezer) and enough pies and baked goods for dinner that night. One basket would be for friends, while the third one (once I was back at school) was filled with morning tea items to take to work the following day to put in the common room.

Later, when I had the chooks, I’d bring home bread and the unwanted pies and pasties to feed them for a day. It made the chicken feed last that little bit longer.

Feeding my family this unwanted bread definitely tipped the balance of my finances towards the black. It was an absolute life-line that I’ll always be so grateful for. Was it a hassle to drive 2 suburbs away every Tuesday night to do this. YES. It was NEVER convenient. But I did it every week because it was free food and it saved my family from some desperate times.

Me with some bread.
Me, back in 2014, with a laundry basketful of bread in the background.

Is it any wonder now that when I see a box of lemons on the table in the common room, I’ll take a couple? Or when the sausage sizzle bread is piled up, I’ll grab a loaf? Poverty leaves a mark on you, deep inside. On the outside, I’m the same as everyone else at work. But I think about money a little differently.

To me, there’s no shame in taking a loaf of free bread or a handful of potatoes in front of everyone in the room. Why would there be? Free food (or free compost) is a way of eking out my resources just a little bit longer.

Past Frogdancer had to do that as a way of ensuring the boys survived and thrived. Learning how to satisfy our all of our needs and some of our wants wasn’t easy and there were many tears shed and scary moments endured along the way.

As for Present Frogdancer? Because of Past Frogdancer’s efforts, I’m doing ok. But she and I are both agreed – if something is going for free and you can use it, it’s criminally wasteful not to take it and be grateful.

Even if it’s a hassle.

How to be a wonderful Santa with very little money.

Santa in front of a Christmas tree.
Actual photo of me late on Christmas Eve.

This post is very important to me. As a single Mum with 4 little boys and VERY little money, Christmas was always a time when I was on my toes. I wanted it to be a magical morning, with Santa presents that brought joy and delight, because the window of time for that Santa magic is small and very precious. Just because I chose to leave my husband with $60 cash in my hand and 4 boys under 5 under my arm, why should that mean that the boys should miss out?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had this problem. Fortunately, there are ways around this to deliver a magical Santa reveal every single year without ruining the family finances every December. The huge advantage that Christmas has over other, more mundane ’emergencies’ is that it happens at the same time every year. Grab any calendar… there it is on December 25. So it can be organised and planned for.

I’m a teacher by trade. English and DRAMA. The Drama teacher hat always comes to the fore at Christmas. What’s one of the best moments whenever people go to the theatre? It’s that moment of anticipation when the house lights go down and the curtain is about to open. The audience’s attention is at its peak, waiting for the magic of being transported to another time and space.

Kids are like this on Christmas morning. Why do you think they wake at 5 AM and race breathlessly down to wherever Santa leaves his gifts at your place? Yes, some of it is pure greed, but most of it is because something crazily wonderful has happened overnight – something has been magically produced out of nothing.

That first moment when they see their pile of gifts – that’s what I call ‘the REVEAL.’ It’s all-important. It’s pure theatre. And I always wanted that first reaction to be “WOW.”

I love Christmas! Always have. To me, Christmas is a time for family and, back when the boys were small, a time to spoil the kids. I love it so much that part of the custody arrangements when my marriage broke up was that I would have the boys every Christmas Day, while my ex-husband would have them every Easter Sunday.

When my oldest was 5, I left the marriage and stayed at home with the boys until my youngest started school. This meant that money was tight during those years. Child support was often only $20/month and the boys and I were dependent on Centrelink payments of around $350/week. I had to pay the mortgage, food, bills and everything else out of this. Fortunately, I was brought up by frugal parents so I had lots of training! But it meant that things like Christmas had to be planned with military precision.

At my place, Santa would leave the presents for each kid in the lounge room, on chairs or on the floor. Each pile of gifts was covered by a blanket, with a label on each pile with a name. The routine was that the kids had to come and wake me up first, then we’d all go into the lounge room together and they’d stand by their particular blanket. Then, on a “ready, set go!”, they’d lift off the blanket and the REVEAL would happen. This routine was a deliberate decision on my part to build the anticipation further and have the energy of the room at fever-pitch. It was always exciting.

Afterwards, I’d have the boys stand together and call out loud, “Thank you, Father Christmas!” When, one by one, the boys started to know the truth, they’d look at me while calling out this – a private way they’d thank me while still keeping the magic going for the younger ones.

Anyway, I’ve set the scene for how the Santa REVEAL was done at my place. Here are the ways that I worked to make that particular December morning a hit for my boys on very little money.

Kids are visual creatures. 

Little kids aren’t very bright. If they get a pile of gifts from Santa, they’re wildly excited. This doesn’t mean that every item has to be brand-new, designer and expensive. What you (as Santa’s helper) are aiming for is the thrill of the REVEAL – when the covering is lifted off their gifts and they see it all for the first time. This allows you, as the official shopper for Santa, to spend strategically. 

What I aimed for, particularly when the kids were small and still believed, was to have a lot of colour and lots of items for their eyes to take in as the blanket came off. A central ‘show-stopper” item that the kid was really hoping to get, but surrounding it – lots of other, more minor things that look impressive in colour and number, but cost very little.

No more than 2 “Show stopper” presents per child. Usually, just one, or none if the child is very young. Spend your money in a way to get more bang for your buck.

Sure, I wanted Christmas to be impressive, but I wasn’t made of money! Plus, with 4 kids, that money had to stretch as far as possible. The boys didn’t need a roomful of expensive gifts from Santa – they’d be getting presents from my family, their father and their father’s family. The REVEAL from Santa is the most important, of course, but their entire Christmas experience didn’t hinge on just this. 

So I’d listen. And I’d arrange to buy one or two brand-new things that the boys were desperate to own. When kids are young, you can buy these things at the July sales, because toys are toys. Kids are easy to plan for when they’re in pre-school to middle primary school. But later I learned to delay buying the “show-stopper” gifts until December. Teenagers are so unpredictable and there’s always a new game or album or something released just before Christmas that turns out suddenly to be the “must-have.”

When kids are very young, these “show stopper” gifts are most impressive when they’re physically large. A dolls house, a trike… things like that. Little kids equate size with value. Funnily enough, as the boys got older their “show stopper” presents started to shrink in size. A particularly coveted console game or CD/DVD used to be VERY successful at our place. Zelda and the Ocarina of Time for the N64, for example, was physically unimpressive but was greeted with hoots of joy.

And now I have that ocarina music in my head. The boys played that game for hundreds of hours. Safe to say that show-stopper gift was a success.

Shop around for “filler” gifts – the more of these, the better. Don’t pay retail prices for these if at all possible.

Garage sales are your friends. Here in Australia, we’re so lucky we have Christmas in summer, because spring cleaning happens and people get rid of the toys their kids are sick of. These toys are PRIME filler material. Their kids may be sick of them but they’re brand-new entertainment for your kids.

Every fortnight, when A had the kids for his access weekend, I’d go and hit the garage sales in my neighbourhood to look for filler gifts for Christmas. I’d start as soon as Spring began because you never know what you’ll find. Fortunately, most toys for little kids are pretty generic – if you buy cars, dolls and lego, you’re good to go, so these things can be bought months in advance and you know they’ll be successful.

I have boys, so anything round and designed to be thrown or kicked was always a hit. Tennis balls, usually second hand, along with bats or cricket stumps, also found at garage sales and op shops. Aussie rules footballs, especially for Tom, were also a good filler item. Sheet music for David, guitar strings for Ryan and quirky fun things for Evan were all things I’d keep my eyes open for and snap up if I came across them at a good price. You know your children – cater to their interests.

I also used to use filler space to buy things for Christmas that I would have been buying anyway. I like the boys to look nice for Christmas Day with my family, so Santa would always bring new clothes for them to wear. Some years the clothes would be brand new, other times they were gently worn clothes that still looked new, depending on my finances. The boys didn’t care either way.

Bathers were another frequent filler, seeing as how Christmas is in summer, along with artsy things like textas and pencils that they’d need for school the next year. Clearly, these weren’t as exciting for the boys as the toys, but they bulked up the piles of presents every year and helped them to look more impressive. Remember, it’s all in the REVEAL.

Start some Christmas traditions that cost next to nothing. 

You know those little bags of gold coins that appear at every supermarket and dollar store checkout in December? The chocolate inside is cheap, but kids love the glint of the gold and the feel of holding treasure. These bags only cost a dollar or two each. Every year they’d have a bag of coins in their pile of Santa gifts.

I’d buy a packet of those little Kellogs mini breakfast cereal packets and the kids would have a couple of mini cereals to have for breakfast on Christmas morning – along with the chocolate coins, of course. I never bought those mini cereals at any other time of the year – far too expensive – so the boys were convinced that this was a Santa thing and looked forward to seeing which breakfast they’d be getting this year.

When the kids grew older a tradition started where they’d be the ones to assemble the Christmas tree. We have a large fake one – being frugal I didn’t want the added expense of buying a real tree year after year – and the boys put it all together and place the decorations on it. Over time, the Christmas tree decorations become treasured memories for them. “Oh! Here’s the aeroplane! I like this one!” or “Has anyone seen the bird that sits on the top of the tree? I want to do it this year.”

One of the most enduring traditions – and by that I mean that we still do this – is something that I first bought as a filler present in poverty-stricken desperation. I bought some little jars of bubble mix as a bit of fun for them. That first Christmas, we went out into the backyard and started blowing bubbles. The dogs went nuts jumping and trying to catch them and we had so much fun. It was a much greater hit than I thought it would be, so the next year I tried it again. The dogs, and later, the cats would come out with us and they’d jump to try and catch the bubbles and we’d laugh and chill in the sun. The house next door to us was a rental and when there were kids living there, the boys would blow bubbles over the fence at them and the neighbour kids would race to pop them first.

Poppy, Jeff and Scout will be chasing bubbles for a while on Christmas morning – it’s fun and costs next to nothing. It’s a corny little throwback to when the kids were little and we enjoy it.

Finally, enlist the older kids into keeping the magic alive for the younger ones.

I had a pretty good run with Santa. Tom, my oldest, was 9 years old before he asked the question one day. Now, just between you and me, Tom9 was a blabbermouth, so I knew he’d be the weak link in the chain of silence, so I whisked him away down to the bottom of the garden under the old fig tree.

I said, “Do you really want to know?” He looked at me as if to say, ‘I’m not an idiot – just by saying that you’re confirming that Santa isn’t real.’

So I smiled and said, “Yes, you’re right. Father Christmas isn’t real.”

He nodded, then said, “So who does it?”

I looked him dead in the eye and said, “I do. Santa is me.”

His mouth dropped open. He looked stunned. He said, No WAY. You can’t afford it!!!”

I laughed and laughed. “Christmas is special. It’s magical. I make sure I can afford it.”

He gave me a huge hug, then looked stricken. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ve been telling the boys to ask Santa for all the expensive things they want, so you don’t have to buy them…”

OMG. How gorgeous is that?? What a beautiful little boy.

I thanked him for looking out for me like that, then we switched into the “you had many years of enjoying the magic, so now you join the grown-up world to preserve the magic for your brothers” talk. I was a bit nervous about it. Like I said, Tom9 was a bit of a blabbermouth, but he came through for the boys and Santa beautifully.

He loved the idea of being more grown-up than the others. He’d write Christmas lists with them and let me know what they were hankering for. he’d help hustle the kids off to bed on Christmas Eve so I’d have time to set up the presents. He’d stay up a little later than the others, so he’d get to bite the carrot we’d leave out for Rudolph and eat the snack for Santa, while I’d drink Santa’s glass of Shiraz.

One by one, the boys found out the truth, but never from their older brothers. Evan was the last one. From memory, he was Evan7 or Evan8 when a nasty little kid told him Santa wasn’t real on Christmas Eve!!!!! I was furious when he asked me about it as I was putting him to bed that night. What a time for him to have doubt put into his mind!

What was I to do? He had been all geared up for a visit from Santa and was so excited. I looked at his little eyes and saw hope there – hope that the kid had lied to him. He was so little… but my parenting style has always been that if a kid is old enough to ask a question, then they’re old enough for the answer.

I made a split decision and broke my rule, opening my eyes wide and saying, “Of course he’s real. How else could all of those presents get there?” He smiled, relieved, and snuggled down to sleep and I tip-toed away, feeling like a heel but wanting him to have just one more Christmas morning of magic.

Just after Easter he asked me again. This time I came clean and when he asked why I’d lied to him before, I told him why, saying that I wanted him to have one last magical Christmas. He thought about it for a second, then nodded and simply said, “Thanks.”

Then he looked up at me and said, “Don’t tell me the Easter Bunny isn’t real either?!?” And like that the magic was gone.

Christmas now has a different kind of magic for our family. The traditions and routines have evolved now that we are a family of adults. Christmas is still hugely important but now we all buy gifts for each other. My extended family has a Kris Kringle where we buy for only one person (price limit of $50) and the boys have the same price limit for each of our nuclear family. Three of them are still students so this is a big expense for them of $250 – 3 brothers, 1 mother and 1 Kris Kringle… but like I did back in the day, they save up for it throughout the year and enjoy the plotting and planning to get gifts that suit the recipients down to the ground.

Christmas is as important to them as it is for me and we put a lot of effort into the presents we organise. We look forward to getting together with Mum and Dad, my sister Kate and her family and of course, each other. The boys still come over every year to assemble my Christmas tree – now with added decorations from my travels in Europe, China and North Korea – and those still at home will blow some bubbles for the pets on Christmas morning.

For those going through a financially challenged Christmas, I hope that I’ve helped with some strategies. The funny thing is – some of the things that I introduced to make Christmas affordable are the very things that are now cherished family traditions! It’s very possible to have a wonderful Christmas with your kids on limited funds. It’s all about a little bit of forward thinking and – of course – the REVEAL!

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