Burning Desire For FIRE

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

Step by step.

I’m sitting here in front of my year 8 class as they are writing their “Persuasive Letters.” They spent their last lesson before this one filling in a chart with dot points that they were allowed to take in with them – a roadmap, if you will, of what they want to achieve and where they want to end up.

Writing well is definitely not something that happens overnight. It’s the result of years of learning about different techniques; reading and gaining new words and phrases to add to your repertoire; talking through new (to you) ideas to broaden your horizons and finally, writing writing and more writing.

All the theory in the world won’t help you if you don’t actually put pen to paper and do it.

The task is pretty simple. They had to pick a topic, like “Smoking in all public places should be banned”, or “The school system is fundamentally flawed” and then write two letters on it. Each letter has to differ in tone and audience, so in effect, they’re learning how to pitch their arguments in two different ways to appeal to differing demographics.

As you can imagine, this is easier for some kids than others.

Some kids are more fluent than others, or have chosen a topic they feel passionately about, so the words and ideas flow easily. Others have struggled. But look at them now… everyone is silently writing and all of them will produce their finished letter by the end of the period in 12 minutes time.

Step by step, they will all make it, even the kid who has just migrated from China, who is sitting there looking through his Chinese/English dictionary to find the right word.

It’s just the same with personal finance.

Some people are naturally drawn to the world of spreadsheets, portfolios and numbers. They come across the lessons of how to succeed financially and they’re off and running. They draw out a plan in about 5 minutes flat and set off, dragging their hapless spouse behind them.

Other people may need to have the lessons presented to them a few more times before they start to take any real action. They ‘get it’ intellectually, but they’re not motivated to actually put the lessons in action until something in their life changes.

My writing students have the external motivation of Ms Jones marking their work to get them to produce a finished product, and this may be true in the financial realm too. A job loss, a baby, a divorce… all these can cause someone to re-evaluate how they handle their money. But sometimes it’s a more internal, personal motivation.

For me, when I decided to strike out on my own and leave my husband – if you can call being a single mother of 4 boys under 5 as ever being “on my own!” – with only $60 to our names, it was with sheer gritted teeth determination not to fail and drag the boys down with me. I was in pure survival mode. I’d look at those little faces that were totally dependent on me and I’d vow to myself that we’d succeed.

And we did.

I knew where I wanted us to be and over time, we reached and then surpassed it. But it wasn’t done overnight. It took twenty years of small choices, both personal and financial, to get us there. Did each little decision have a huge impact on where we ended up?

No. But the cumulative effect of all the little decisions and choices, along with a couple of really big ones, set the scene for our “overnight” success.

The thing that kept me going, even when things in the early years seemed darkest, is that if I made more “good” money choices than bad, I couldn’t help but move closer to where I wanted us to be. Achieving financial independence is definitely not a sprint, so I knew I had time to correct our course and recover from any mistakes I might make. I had time to learn frugality and to pay off the house so we’d be safe.

Once that was done, I had the mental bandwidth available to go onto the next big step – investing. This led to FIRE. I was just starting my 50’s when I started working on my retirement. The goal seemed insurmountable. But step by step, I’m turning it into a reality.

Step by step. No need to get stressed about how long it’s going to take. Just set things in motion and keep going. You’ll get there.

My chilly ankles Winter Challenge.

Why I don’t buy many things online.

Unlike most of the people I work with in The Danger Zone, (our section of the staffroom), I don’t buy clothes and shoes online as a rule. Sure, the convenience is good and you get the fun of unwrapping the parcel and showing what you bought to the rest of us, because of course, we use the school’s address for deliveries. But what do you do if you don’t like the thing you ordered, or it’s too big, too small or just slightly the wrong colour?

That’s what turns me off going clothes shopping online.

But even Frogdancer Jones can be seduced by the words of others. I was on BookFace 6 months ago and someone was raving about Scarletto shoes, saying that they look good but feel like she’s wearing her comfy old slippers. What could be more seductive than that??? Imagine going to work all day in your comfy old slippers? I leapt across to the website and began flicking through what was on offer.

As it happened, I needed some flat shoes for work. I was looking for Ballerina-style shoes that I could wear with anything – I’m low maintenance like that – and I was hoping there’d be some black ones.

The shoes on the site were more exxy than I was used to, but there was a “Sale” page. No black ballerinas, but there were these black and white ones half price – $60. Hmmm… Not want I wanted but maybe I could accept these as a compromise?

I ordered them. If they measured up and were as comfy as that unknown woman said, then I’d go back and buy the full-priced black ones.

When they arrived I was taken aback at first. They were a lot shinier than I’m used to. I’m a leather shoe person and these were… not. Still, I guess I could put up with shiny feet. They have leather insoles so it wasn’t as if my poor feet would be encased in plastic all day. I began wearing them.

After only two days at work with the black and whites, I came home and kicked them off. As I turned to leave my room, something caught my eye. A big white patch at the heel of the right shoe. I bent down, frowning. A couple of the black spots had peeled off.

I was totally unimpressed. I looked closer. There were a few other spots with the edges starting to peel upwards.

Well wasn’t that lovely? Clearly, they realised there was a problem with this particular design and so instead of pulling it from sale entirely, they flogged them off on the ‘Sale’ page.

I was furious. Both with them and with me. WHY had I broken my rule about shopping online for clothes? I’d only worn them twice, so that means I’d paid $30/wear. That’s outrageously expensive!

I jumped online and checked their returns policy.

Of course, this only applies to shoes that were full-price and unworn. How very convenient for them.

I knew I could contact them and get into a debate about faulty shoes, then have to find packaging to send them back and find time to get to the post office… but could I be bothered with it? But the alternative was to keep these now unusable shoes that started off so cheap and ended up so expensive.

But hang on – were they so unusable?

I looked at my ugg boots that I’d bought in China over 6 years ago. They were mid-calf length, black leather on the outside with proper soles and real sheepskin inside. They’d been my slippers all that time, but now the soles were starting to come loose and they were looking a bit shabby.

On an impulse, I binned them and swapped the black and white ballerinas into the “comfy slipper” category that the unknown woman on BookFace had claimed they were. (She was correct, by the way. They may look like they have a skin disease but they’re very comfortable.) This was going to be my Winter Challenge!

So how did my winter go with my frugal slipper choice?

I won’t lie; I missed the comfort of sheepskin on my feet on winter mornings. My ankles were cold. Nights after school, when I’ve walked the dogs and kicked off my shoes, I wanted the warmth and softness of my old ugg boots to encase my tired feet. But I’ve gritted my teeth and stuck to my guns. I live in a temperate climate where snow never comes. One winter wearing ballerina shoes won’t kill me.

But it did make me slightly uncomfortable. And you know? I think that’s not a bad thing.

I could have driven to the ugg boot warehouse near my home after work any day and bought a new pair of boots to wear as slippers. Lord knows, these days I can afford it. But something inside me feels that if I caved in and did that, I’d be negating all the lessons that were hard-won when I was utterly poverty-stricken, back when the boys were babies.

In those days I had to live with the consequences of my decisions, both in life and in spending. If I bought something on impulse (like I did with these shoes) I had to live with it, often for years. I had absolutely NO spare money to replace things if I made a mistake.

The shirt I bought in a sale from Target, for example. It was only $5. WHAT a bargain!!! Red and white… I didn’t love it. I barely liked it. “Meh,” I said to myself. “It’s only $5. It’ll do for a year.” Nearly 10 years later, I finally binned that thing. Yes, I wore it over that time and felt not-so-good about how I looked every time I pulled it on. But for most of that time, I seriously didn’t have enough money to comfortably replace it. Boys’ needs, the bills and the mortgage took precedence.

The year of the brakes and heating oil that I wrote about in my About page. That was a tough one. I was weighing literally every cent. Would I have even contemplated spending sixty whole dollars on a pair of shoes?? Never in a million years. So how could I casually throw that amount of money away now?

So. I lasted the winter. It was far easier living through this 2019 winter than the 1998 (I think) winter of the brakes and heating oil because, in the big scheme of things, slightly chilly ankles in a house with ducted heating isn’t a patch on living in a house all winter with no heating.

My full-time wage from teaching means that I take home roughly $1/minute of teaching time. My price/wear of these shoes has plummeted, which makes me happy. Why?

If I’m thinking of buying something that isn’t a necessity, I work out how much face-to-face teaching time that item will cost me… and then I think of my least favourite class for that year. (Hello 8K English.) If I’ve put in an hour of putting up with 8K’s shenanigans to only get $30 per wear out of a pair of shoes, that’s definitely not a good use of my time. Change that to an hour of putting up with 8K equaling less than a dollar per wear, then I’ve got a lot more value for my time.

Anyway, these are the games I play. I feel like I can now discard the shoes whenever I feel like it. Every now and then I find more black spots on the floor that the shoes have shed, which reminds me to stick to my guns about not trusting online shopping for clothing and also to not buy anything at all that I don’t totally love.

Sometime this summer I’ll drop into the ugg boot outlet and buy a new pair of mid-calf boots with proper soles and I’ll be so happy.

It’s good to have something to look forward to!

Putting infrastructure in place for retirement #4.

House plan for The Best House in Melbourne.

Some of the things that people put in place for retirement are big projects, such as the landscaping I’ve done around the house and the verandah roof I’m currently organising to have built. These things have cost many thousands of dollars, but will reap huge benefits once I leave work and have the time to enjoy them. But not everything has to be a massive project. Sometimes it’s as simple as rearranging a few paintings and pieces of furniture.

I’ve put the house plan of The Best House In Melbourne up on the blog before, when I wrote about how I geoarbitraged my family into it. When we moved in, I had 2 sons in their 20’s still living with me. Naturally, they chose bedrooms 3 and 4 to live in, as far away from their favourite mother as possible.

Evan22, who was at that stage Evan20, chose to keep living in the old house until it was demolished, a move that we thought would only be about 6 months but ended up being almost 18 months. When he came home there was only one bedroom left – bedroom 2.

It’s not a bad space. It has plenty of storage and an inbuilt desk, perfect for putting a huge tv screen on for playing games. It’s south-facing, so it’s bright enough without being too dazzling for a bedroom. It has ducted gas heating for winter and a fan for summer and the room opens up to my main living area, which in summer is cooled by a massive refrigerative air conditioner, so climate control is a breeze.

This was his room until he left to live in Ballarat, a regional town about 2 hours from here. He’s doing an acting degree at the university there. He uses this room as a base when he’s in Melbourne, but that’s only a few nights here and there.

He’s pretty much not coming home for 2 years and will probably move straight out again once his course is finished, so it’s time to RECLAIM THE ROOM.

This will be my guest room/sewing room, at least until Jordan26 moves out and bedroom 4 on the house plan becomes free for me to use as a study. But this room needs to be functional as a guest room.

In years to come, as Old Lady Frogdancer totters towards old age, she’ll have friends and relatives who’ll sometimes want to stay. There’s nothing better than having dinner and then sitting on the couch till the wee hours, telling stories, drinking wine and laughing. It’s even better if people can stay the night and not have to worry about driving or getting Ubers.

Evan22 had covered the walls with photos and the wardrobe doors with pages from a script he was writing. Imagine hundreds of blobs of Blutack everywhere. I used to walk in, take a look at the photos still up there and the blue spots left on the wall from the photos he took with him, silently scream and hurriedly shut the door behind me.

The photos are now gone. He did it without me even asking. There’s one small spot up near the cornice where the paint pulled away, but he says that the rest of the paintwork is fine. I was so relieved! I was certain that I’d have to paint the whole room.

I bought a double bed for him when he moved back in. He’s barely used it and he wanted to take it with him up to Ballarat. The thought of taking it apart, then transporting the bed and mattress up there, then putting it all back together again while still having to buy a bed to put in my guest room was all too much.

I suggested to Evan22 that I simply buy him a new bed, as I’d have to buy one anyway, and we’d get it delivered to Ballarat. He was rapt and he’s already got me to agree to a Queen-sized bed. (What can I say? He’s my baby… plus he’s over 6′ tall.)

This painting was bought in Bali back in 2006. Works beautifully in here.

When I moved all of that in, I looked at the space and thought… “Hang on! My bright ladies from Bali would look perfect in here!”

So the bed is taken care of. Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again for the doona. When we moved here, I bought a new wool doona for my bed and stupidly bought a Queen sized one. You’d think that would be perfect for a Queen-sized bed but as we all know, you really need a King-sized doona for a queen-sized bed. Idiot! But now, I just moved my doona to the guest room, complete with the beautiful yellow and white striped doona cover, and bought a proper-sized doona for my bed.

When the boys and I went to Bali, way back in 2006, we came back with lots of wood carvings, lots of jewellery and LOTS of art. It cost more to frame each piece than it did to actually buy them, but 13 years later, they’re still adorning the walls of our house. The yellow of the doona cover picks up the yellow in the painting and it looks great.

I’ll just need to look out for a mirror to put on the wall over the desk and then the room will pretty much be complete as a guest room. I know it’s only a little job, but it’s one step closer to having the house ready for retirement.

Reaching FI = resilience. Where do we learn this?

Of course, there’s no generic answer to this question. We all travel through life in our different ways and we learn whatever it is that we choose to learn along the way. But I believe that there’s one quality that people who reach Financial Independence share and that is resilience.

Resilience is the ability to get back up after we’ve been knocked down. It’s the ability to set a goal and go for it, even though the way grows tedious and dull. People show resilience when, if the original plan doesn’t work or if they fall off the wagon, they tweak the plan and keep on going, rather than throw their hands up in surrender.

As a teacher and parent, I want both sets of my kids, (biological and my students), to enter the grown-up world as kind and resilient people. But how do we do this? Unfortunately, despite what many parents appear to believe, simply telling kids, “You can do it!” isn’t enough – in fact, it often has the opposite effect.

I believe that people need opportunities to “grow” their resilience, preferably way before they actually need to face real-life situations where possessing this quality is crucial.

One of the classes I teach is a year 9 English class. This year, my year 9’s are almost robotically good – who would believe that a group of 16-year-olds, awash with hormones, would be this dedicated to their lessons?? However, as the year went along the admin introduced a couple of school refusers into the class. Let’s call them Betty and Chaz.

These kids both have home lives that are problematic. Both are sometimes reluctant to come to class and the school is doing its best to get them to feel comfortable about school again and to get into the groove of following a normal routine. It’s a delicate balancing act – too draconian and you’ll scare the kids off for life; too lax and they’ll walk in and out as if they own the place, which isn’t good either way.

In effect, this basically means that you never know when they’re going to be in front of you on any given day.

In the last 3 weeks of term we do Poetry. I start it off by selecting some poems and songs that I absolutely love, such as Dulce et Decorum Est, Introduction to Poetry, Ozymandias, My Last Duchess, Starry Night, and Eleanor Rigby. I begin by telling the kids about the poet and any background abut the poem they need to know, (they love hearing about things like Robert Browning’s elopement, the background about World War One and about Vincent Van Gogh’s life), then we dive in and look at how the poets use language to get their points across.

The end result is that the kids have to write a poem, then read it out to the class and give a short talk about which poetic techniques they’ve used in their poems and what emotional response they were trying to elicit from their audience by using them.

It’s a bit daunting for most kids, but every year we end up with some fabulous work, sometimes from the most surprising kids. But what do you do with kids like Betty and Chaz who shy away from anything confronting?

Do you force them to do it? Do you let them skate away from it? Neither one gives them the chance to develop resilience…

About two weeks in, someone in the welfare staff sent me an email telling me that Betty was suffering great anxiety over the public speaking aspect and she asked me if I’d let Betty off doing it.

This is a tough one. Over the years, I’ve seen how debilitating anxiety and depression can be and I certainly don’t want a little poetry speech to make the problem worse. I know that she has a lot on her plate in her day to day life.

But then again… it’s only a little poetry speech. How will she learn to push through difficult tasks if we keep taking them away from her? I replied that I’ll have a chat with her after class.

Betty’s a lovely kid. She sits up the back with a couple of friends, hiding under a long fringe that hangs over her eyes, taking every chance to dive into the current novel she’s reading. She seems to enjoy English. After the next class I asked her to stay behind. I told her I received the email, but I wanted her to at least write a poem. I said up front that my goal was to see her do the task in front of the whole class like everyone else, but we’d take it a step at a time.

“Do you think you can write a poem with enough poetic techniques in it to be able to write a speech about it?” I asked.

“Yes Miss, I think I can,” she said.

At 10 PM that night she sent me an email.

“Hi Ms Jones, I’ve finished the poem, however I haven’t started on the explanation and I’m not sure how to explain the writing techniques I used In the poem. 
I’m actually really scared to present in front of everyone. Oral presentations are seriously my nightmares, so im extremely nervous. 
I genuinely don’t think im ready, yet I still want to give you at least something. Thank you for understanding. 
Yours sincerely, Betty. “

My reply?

“Coolio. We’ll have a chat after lunch. I’m glad you wrote the poem… nice work!”

Ok, first step done. She wrote something. I honestly wasn’t sure she’d even do that. Most kids like this *cough cough Chaz* just disappear until the task is finished and they’ll get an N/A mark.

As anyone who’s ever tried to teach somebody a skill knows, you seriously can’t teach anyone anything unless they actively want to learn and make at least some kind of effort. I could talk to Betty and Chaz until I was blue in the face about the importance of learning how to speak in front of others. I could tell them about how in practically any job I can think of there’ll be a meeting to speak at, a task to report on, a lecture to give, etc etc.

But if they don’t produce even the bare bones of what the task requires, I can’t help them. It’s impossible to steer a stationary vehicle.

But Betty isn’t standing still. She’s started to move. I wanted to keep her momentum going.

As luck would have it, we were heading into a double period. We’d be knocking over the rest of the speeches that day. Betty’s friend Zelda had already done her speech and earned an ‘Outstanding’. Maybe, while the rest of the class were performing and watching the speeches, Zelda could help Betty build her confidence and get her speech down? After all, Betty likes and trusts Zelda and they’re both very good writers…

So I grabbed the girls and set them to the side at the back. Betty was hesitant at first, but Zelda was all over it. As the class went on and kid after kid stepped up to the front to perform their poem and the analysis, Betty and Zelda were whispering to each other and typing. Zelda’s a little… shall we say… exuberant at times and when she got excited about something I’d have to ask her to pipe down, but apart from that it all went well.

By the end of the lesson they came up to me, Zelda beaming and Betty shyly smiling.

“How did you go?” I asked. “Do you have the speech written?”

“Most of it,” said Betty. “I just have to finish it off at home tonight.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to knock it off in tomorrow’s lesson?” I asked. “Then we can start watching a movie.”

Betty nodded. Zelda turned to go, then looked back and said, “Wait till you see her poem, Miss. It’s really good!”

As I drove into work the next morning I wondered if Betty would be there. We had two classes left before the school holidays and it would be very easy for her to simply ghost the class for two days and turn up again next term, knowing that we’d be moving on to new work.

Period 2, I walked down the corridor and scanned the class waiting outside the room. I saw Zelda… and Betty. She was standing right beside the door. As I turned the key, I smiled at her and airily said, as if it was all totally routine and there was no drama involved at all, “Are you ready to go?”

She smiled. “Yes Miss. It’s all done.”

“Coolio. I’ll call the roll and put the Dad joke on the board. While I’m doing that, send me your poem so I can throw it up on the interactive whiteboard.”

After calling the roll, I said to the class, ‘Before we start the movie we have one more poem to hear. Betty, you’re up!”

As she walked to the front of the room, I found her poem in my emails and threw it up on the board so we could all see what she wrote. Betty walked past me, outwardly composed but very pale. Her hands were slightly shaking.

She stood and faced the room and read her poem. You could have heard a pin drop. Even my two talkative boys at the back were silent.

Then she stood straight up, glanced at her cue cards and began her analysis.

She spoke about how she was paralysed with fear about this task and that the only thing she could think to write about was how she was feeling, as it was so overwhelming.

She spoke about how the poem explores anxiety, and how she wrote the poem both to explore it in herself and to let anyone reading it who also suffers from anxiety know that they’re not alone… that everyone feels anxious at times and that it’s perfectly normal.

She spoke about how she used repetition to show how waves of anxiety can roll over and over, and how she used a simile of a bird with no wings to explore the feeling of the anxiety denying her the freedom to soar and express herself – how a bird with no wings is no longer able to do what a bird is meant to do. How she used rhyme to hold the poem together and give it a structure, just as someone with anxiety tries to do every day.

She spoke in a clear, confident voice, looking out at the class and rarely referring to her cue cards. I glanced back at Zelda and caught her eye. Her face was glowing with excitement and pride. I’m sure mine was too.

When Betty finished, the class spontaneously broke into applause. I jumped off my table and ran up to her and gave her a hug. “I’m so damned proud of you!” I whispered.

You should have seen her face. She was glowing. She did it!

Yeah, I gave her an “Outstanding.” Not just because she had the backbone to actually do the thing that she was so scared to do. I gave her the ‘Outstanding’ because she stood up there and earned it.

Now, this is only a little poetry speech. It’s not going to change the world. But Betty showed that she has resilience. She was petrified of doing this thing, but with some gentle prodding from me, a willingness FROM HERSELF to at least produce something to work from, some encouragement and support from Zelda to help her see how she had to structure her speech to get her message across, she was able to do it. And do it well.

Resilience doesn’t mean that you feel no fear. It doesn’t mean that when you start you know what to do and have all the answers. Showing resilience means that you have an idea about what you want to achieve and you’re open to finding ways to help you get there. Resilience means doing things step by step, even if they’re difficult or tedious, but sticking to it until the job is done. Exactly the kind of things that people who reach Financial Independence do.

Want to see Betty’s poem? Here it is:

I am Scared. 

“But of what?” they declare. 

As I stood there, I had to accept that I was unaware. 

Thinking about it made my head ache. 

Thinking about it made my voice quake. 

Thinking about it made my heart break. 

Does anyone else have that feeling? 

When your palms are sweaty,

Then you can’t stop shaking. 

And your mind is breaking.

Why are my thoughts forsaking?

Is it just me? 

I can’t escape this feeling.  

I feel like a bird with no wings.

Unable to fly

But ready to try 

and willing to die 

Everyone watches. What have I got?

Please! I beg you! Don’t put me on the spot. 

Why don’t they understand?

as I begin to wonder, I go up and stand. 

“Why can’t you just face your fears?’’

Must I? Oh, dear…

It’s really not my day,

I guess that must be the only way. 

“Just calm down,” they say.

I struggle to talk. I cannot think to ask 

the polite girl next to me to help with my task.

My thoughts help me see

I’m just being a bother, Believe me

I’ll just leave it be;

I am scared.

When you’re retired you can catch things!

Ok, so I’m not retired yet. But I AM on a two-week school holiday break. Today is Thursday and a little after 9 I was sitting on the couch with the dogs, reading blogs and twitter on my laptop, still in my pjs and bathrobe and luxuriating in the fact that I’d normally be in a classroom with my year 7s at this time on a Thursday.

Then I paused. Something wasn’t right. I cocked my head to the side and waited.

Why was the pump to the water tank turning itself on and off?

I could hear it. It only turns on when the timer to the automatic watering system switches on or if the tap in the backyard is turned on. Neither of those things was happening, yet there it was – turning itself on for about 30 seconds, then off… on then off.

I opened the front door, the delighted dogs running ahead of me and went to have a look.

The brick path around the tank was glistening wet. The fence was wet. The pump was still turning itself on and off. There was clearly a leak. But from where?

Just as I was turning to go, I saw it. A tiny pin-prick of a hole was in a plastic pipe on the pump. The thinnest spray of water was arcing high into the air and then onto the fence. It was so small you had to be in the right place to even see it. But given enough time, it would have drained the water tank, vanished from view and then it would have been impossible to see where the leak was coming from. Or worse – it might have gotten bigger over time and made a small job much more expensive to fix.

All I had was masking tape to try and stop it. Yes, I’m not exactly the DIY type…

Talk about Fortunate Frogdancer! If it had happened a week earlier I would’ve been none the wiser. As I said, I would’ve been teaching the year 7s about ‘Edward Scissorhands’, not being at home and able to pick up on the fact that something wasn’t right. And even more – imagine if it happened in the middle of summer when I really need that water? I’d be very unhappy to find a drained water tank on a 40C day… The more I think about it, the timing of this is impeccable!

Now, this is an advantage of retirement I’d never considered. Being around and having the time to notice small things that need attending to. This will definitely save time, money and drama.

I suppose it makes sense. An old Chinese proverb says that the best fertiliser is the shadow of the gardener. I’ve always loved that saying because it’s so true. A daily walk around the garden is so much more effective than a bi-weekly one. Small weeds get picked. A plant gets tied back onto a stake instead of being left to flap and break in the wind. A wilted plant gets watered.

After coming inside from the water tank, I jumped straight on the phone and booked a plumber. It’s a small job and by the end of the day it’ll be sorted. This makes me look forward even more to when I’ll have all the time in the word to let ‘the shadow of the gardener’ fall on the important things in my life.

Roll on next year to when I go part-time!

***EDITED TO ADD: It’s now 2:20. The plumber I used was from the same company who installed my hot water heater a couple of months ago. The pipe is now fixed and when I asked how much I owed he said, “Nothing. I just put it down as a repair to the HWS. If you don’t tell ’em I won’t!”

How nice is that?!?

Is it necessary to spend up big on a Staycation?

Jeffrey getting psyched up for all of the nanna naps we’re going to enjoy.

The last day of term 3! All of the essays are marked, all of the oral presentations are done and my classes are going to be finishing off the ‘Back To The Future’ movies today. Two glorious weeks of freedom await, (except for the two days I’m going in to open up the Theatre for my year 12s to rehearse their monologues for their exam next month.)

At the end of terms, when all of the work is done, I give my classes drama lessons or we watch classic movies. The ‘Back To The Future’ series is now so old that many of the kids haven’t seen them before. My Netflix subscription comes in handy sometimes!

My next big expense is to put a huge verandah roof on the back of the house so Old Lady Frogdancer will be able to actually enjoy going out there without the risk of burning to a crisp. The roof alone is costing around 25K, let alone the cost of a table and couches etc, so the next two weeks will be spent pretty close to home, enjoying things that don’t add too much to my outgoings.

Last weekend I redeemed the first of the 10 free massages that my son Ryan24 gave me for my birthday. He also did some cupping on my arms and back. He found sore muscles that I didn’t even know I had. I’ll use another couple of flowers over the break to keep the momentum going.

Funny thing though; he wouldn’t start the massage until I handed over a flower!

This next one isn’t necessarily frugal: I bought the sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ instead of getting the school library to buy it. It cost $20 for the kindle version. But I’m SO looking forward to diving in on this over the holidays. I still have about 10 books in a pile beside my bed, down from the 30 or so that I began the year with, so I’ll be making inroads into them as well.

Nothing better than getting lost in a great book, with snoozing dogs beside you. Hey, this time next year I’ll be able to sit out in the backyard under my new verandah and look out over my veggie gardens and read out there…

Corn husks I brought home from the Food Tech room at school – I shredded them by hand to use as mulch while listening to a podcast or three.

Speaking of veggie gardens, I’ll have the time to start seeds, plant seedlings and generally wake up the wicking beds again, after putting them to sleep over the winter by fertilising them and mulching them with pea straw. We’ve already had a few ‘free’ peas from the plants that sprang up from the straw – gotta love fresh peas straight from the plant.

I took out a Diggers membership last year and one day these holidays I’ll go up to Dromana with my friend Blogless Cathy and buy some seedlings. They only sell heritage plants, which means I’ll be able to save seeds from them and keep growing new plants every year from the original plants. I trialled mini capsicums last year but they were a bit too mini – I need some normal sized ones this year.

When I go and work with my year 12’s, I’ll take the dogs with me. It’s turned into a Theatre tradition with my classes, along with making timtam fudge when we have an exam and me emailing them 4 Dad jokes a day. This is the last Theatre class I’ll teach, as I’m dropping work down to 3 days a week next year, so I’m enjoying every moment with them. They’re a lovely group of kids.

The downside of teaching year 12s is that I’ll have to mark the practice exams they’ll be writing. They come in for 3 days over the break and write exams. The Theatre Studies one runs for 1.5 hours and has a HEAP of writing. I’ll be setting aside a day to Get This Done before we go back.

Still – at least I can say that it’ll be the last lot of Theatre exams I’ll ever have to mark!

Aside from this, I’ll have lunch with some neighbours I had back when I lived in Bentleigh over 20 years ago, I’ll have dinner with Evan23’s girlfriend’s parents, (better be on my best behaviour!) and I’ll push on with Tom27’s queen-sized quilt. With a bit of luck, given a few rainy days, I may even finish it.

It’s a nice thing to know that I can revel in two weeks of glorious freedom without having to spend a lot of money. Most of the things I enjoy doing are very much home-based and until I get a few big projects around here finished to get my home ready for retirement, I’m glad I can potter around and enjoy the small things.

Who knows – I may even write a few more blog posts…

Having another pair of eyes look over my figures.

On Monday the school had people from VicSuper come out to talk with people about their retirement plans. VicSuper is the default retirement company for teachers, so the vast majority of staff are with them. I don’t have my superannuation with them anymore, but I booked a half-hour slot during my lunch hour to have a chat with someone anyway. I thought that they wouldn’t be able to talk in detail, but I could at least have someone more mathematically gifted than myself to have a look at what I’ve set up and tell me if I’m on the right track or not.

Let’s call her ‘Ms VS’. It has a certain ring to it.

  • For the non-Aussies: Superannuation is the name for our retirement funds. Every employer is required to pay in 9.5% of every employee’s wage into a super fund of the employee’s choice. It guarantees that by the time people reach retirement, they’ll have at least some money behind them, instead of solely relying on the Age Pension.

When we first starting talking, I said to her that although I’ve been working full-time, I’m dropping back to part-time next year as a sort of glide-path towards retirement. I said that retirement might be 3 years off (when I can access my super) or it could be as soon as 1 year off, if I find that I’m still hankering towards total freedom over my days even with the reduced hours.

Apparently, from what Ms VS said later, this is pretty standard. She said that she normally doesn’t have people book a time with her unless they’re very close to retirement, when they suddenly become aware that they’ll have to rely on what they’ve put away in their super. She clicked her pen, leaned forward and asked me if I knew what I have in my investments.

Did I know what I have in my investments?!? Little did she know that she was talking to Frogdancer Jones. I’ve been reading blogs about net worth, share portfolios, savings accounts, superannuation and the like for YEARS. Hell, with all the US blogs I’ve read, I know more about American retirement accounts than you could shake a stick at!

I was primed, ready and prepared.

I had period 1 off that day so I had time to make a full list for her. Well, to be honest, I just took all my numbers from the ‘Net Worth Table’ I have in the cloud, which I update at the end of every month. Took me less than 5 minutes. I flipped open my notebook at the correct page and passed it across.

I don’t think Ms VS meets a lot of FIRE-y people in her line of work.

She was pretty surprised, not so much at my figures, though she said they were unusual, but by how I’d thought about the share market ups and downs and where I’d pull money from when the market tanks. She didn’t need to explain how the share market ebbs and flows; how risk can affect people in different ways depending on how close they are to retirement; how, if I retired earlier than 59, how I’d have to find the money to fund my lifestyle and what a safe withdrawal rate was, etc, etc.

Thank you, blogs and books in the FIRE movement! I looked like I had a financial brain!!

The talk about my actual figures only took up about half the time, so we moved on to talk about other things, which is why I wanted to write this. Some of what she said was scary, particularly for women.

I guess when we’re interested in FI and we read all the blogs and books and start to absorb the knowledge, we assume that most people are more financially literate than they really are. According to Ms Vs, this is far from the truth.

She said that when I mentioned that I was looking to pull the pin in the next year or two, she thought I’d be like most of the people who come to see her. They give no thought to their retirement, assuming that the compulsory 9.5% of our wages that our employers are legally required to put into Super is enough. Then, a year or two out from retirement, they decide to look at their figures, they have a heart attack at what they see and they come running to see what they can do about it.

I guess that’s not so much of a surprise – we hear this a lot about huge swathes of the population not getting ready for retirement in time. At the risk of sounding like a Nelly Know-it-all though: I just don’t understand that mentality. When I was in my 30’s and 40’s I deliberately ignored putting extra money into my retirement account because I made a conscious choice to pay off my house first. Security for the boys and I was my paramount objective. But 3 weeks after I’d made that last mortgage repayment, I was stressing over what I had to do to get my Superannuation account looking more lively. Maybe that’s the blessing/curse of being a long-term thinker??

“I see a lot of women in their 50’s and 60’s who come in after a divorce,” Ms VS said. “They’ve only got around 70K in their Super and they still have a mortgage. They’ve never dealt with finances in their lives before and it’s a scary time for them.”

I smiled. “I went through the divorce thing twenty-two years ago,” I said.

“You’ve had time to recover,” Ms VS said. “It’s really good to see a woman as well-prepared as you. Though I suppose you’ve had to be organised, being on your own.”

“I wasn’t on my own!” I said. “I also had 4 kids under 5 with me.”

Photo of my mini wire-haired dachshund, Scout.
Miss Scout – anyone who’s owned Dachshunds, like Ms VS and I, are part of a special club. 🙂

We talked a bit about where the boys and I started from, veered off into talking about dachshunds, (because why wouldn’t we?) then back onto finances.

“Have you ever taken what you’d consider being a financial risk to get into the position you’re now in?” she asked.

“OMG, yes,” I said. “Years ago, back when the boys were still in school, I decided to take a 15K pay cut from teaching by dropping a day and using that time to run a group of Thermomix consultants as a team leader. 15K was a lot of money to me back then… well, it still is!… but I was assured that if I worked hard I could pull in 30K. Turned out to be true, so I kept doing that for 3 or 4 years.

“Then, when I decided to go into partnership with a developer and draw up plans to put a couple of massive townhouses on my property, I took on a 750K bridging loan when I bought The Best House In Melbourne and still owned the original place. The interest payments took up over 70% of my take-home pay. I thought it’d be for 6 months or so but the council took so long to approve things that it was 18 months before I was able to sell the property with approved plans and pay off my new place. I was terrified the property bubble would burst, but it turned out that I sold at the peak of the market so, in the end, it worked out. It was a calculated risk – but it paid off.”

We talked about whether I’d seen a financial planner. I said I hadn’t and she said, “You’ve managed very well so far, so why would you hand it all over to someone else and pay them a fee to look after it for you? “

I said that before I leave work, I want to see someone to stress-test my plans in case there was something I’ve missed, and she thought that was a good idea.

As the bell for the end of lunchtime rang and I got up to go, she said, “It’s rare that I see someone who’s all over it like you are – and if I do, they’re usually Maths teachers.”

I’m glad that I was able to fly the flag for the Drama and English teachers for a change!

Sometimes poverty breeds ingenuity.

Last Friday was my birthday. Birthdays are always something we celebrate and Ryan24, my third son, is no exception. However, he’s a poverty-stricken uni student and he literally had no money to organise a gift. He had to dig deep to come up with something.

Fortunately, he has access to coloured paper and a particular set of skills. He put aside an hour or so on my birthday while I was at work to make 10 origami flowers and this card. (By the way, the word ‘Mum’ is spelled correctly, those of you from the US...)

So what does a remedial massage student give? Pretty nice, hey?

I was talking to him after he wrote the card and he said, “I think a gift should be beautiful, practical and from the heart.”

I think he nailed it.

Not to be outdone, David25 used his skills gained from working in kitchens to put together an amazing brunch for me yesterday. His girlfriend Izzy, Ryan24 and I sat down to smashed avo and feta and sourdough toast, with bacon, hummus, scrambled eggs and hash browns. (The hash browns were still cooking when I took this photo.) It was glorious – and there were enough leftovers that Ryan24 and I didn’t need to cook dinner OR breakfast the next day.

Truly the gift that keeps on giving!

After brunch was over, I went into the guest room where I’ve set up my sewing machine and kept plugging away at a queen-sized quilt that I’m making for Tom27 for Christmas. It has over 1500 squares that are 2.5 square inches – I really should have thought through the design more thoroughly before I started it. I’m using some new fabric and some fabric I had in my stash and at the close of sewing yesterday I’ve reached the stage of having the whole quilt top in 3 big pieces.

There’s still a lot of work to go before it’s a finished quilt, but hopefully I’ll get it done before Christmas. If there’s one thing my boys like, it’s a snuggly quilt.

… I don’t know WHERE the boys picked up the skill of producing gifts from what’s at their fingertips…

It’s a mystery…

Monkey see; monkey do… or do they?

This morning, a few minutes ago, a little thing happened that made me think about the effect we have on the people around us. We don’t realise it but in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways, the things we do and say often rubs off on those around us.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I always put at least one ‘Dad joke’ up on the board at the start of each lesson. I started doing this a year ago and the kids love it. If I start the lesson and forget to put them up, they always remind me. Admittedly, my year 9 class have asked me to stop doing this before the corniness kills them… but they never fail to ask for the Dad joke when I ‘forget’ to do it. They’ve already asked me to email them next year with a Dad joke a day when I’m not their teacher anymore.

After a few months of this, some kids have started emailing me with Dad jokes that they’ve found. A typical email might read, “Hi Ms Jones. I was away today and I was wondering what work I missed. To make up for it, here’s a Dad joke: ‘I saw a magician yesterday that turned audience members into wind turbines. I immediately became a big fan.’ See you tomorrow!”

I love it, especially when it happens in my own house.

Ryan24 called me into his room to read a Dad joke he stumbled across on a website. He said it was two Dad jokes in one. Seeing as it’s a joke on finance, I thought I’d share it with you. Are you ready for the glory of the Dad joke…?

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‘I’ve started buying heaps of stocks. Chicken, beef and vegetarian stock cubes. One day, I’m hoping to be a bouillonaire…’

I hope no one strained a muscle from laughing too hard.

It got me thinking though. People pick up on what you do. If they think it has value, they’ll copy it for themselves. Because Ryan24’s joke was a financial one, it got me thinking about how the boys are running their financial lives.

When they were growing up, we were living on a financial knife’s edge. You might not think it, but it takes a long time to claw your way out from the pit of starting a new life with 4 kids under 5, $60 in cash and a mortgage just under 100K. I wrote about it here.

Those boys grew up watching me living within the financial rules I set out for myself:

1. NEVER borrow anything. Always spend less than you earn. Actually, the only exception was when I landed the first teaching contract at my current school. It was for 9 months of full-time work and I knew we could afford to get a new(er) car. The Tarago we were driving was as aerodynamic as a loaf of bread and the skylight leaked every time it rained. Whenever I made a right-hand turn, a trickle of water would run down the back of my neck. When I traded it in for a 5-year-old Ford station wagon and took out a 20K loan, I said to them, “I don’t know if I’ll have a job next year, so I’ll be paying this off before my contract finishes, just to be safe.” The kids were Tom13 (now Tom27) down to Evan9 (now Evan22). They watched me do it.

2. You should have everything you NEED, but only some of what you WANT. This translates to their after school interests. I knew that with 4 kids and only my income, we’d never get ahead if I spent lavishly on everything that the boys might have wanted to do. So I got them to prioritise. They were allowed ONE after school class a week each. It could be anything they wanted – sports, music, art, dance, whatever. But only one thing at a time. David25 was David2 when he first asked for piano lessons. He stuck with those and is now putting the finishing touches on a Music degree in piano. Other kids tried a few different things before settling on what they liked. It was ok. They had to decide what they really wanted to explore and then focus on that. I think that’s a good thing.

3. Your money is a finite amount. Don’t spend on things you don’t value, but spend on the things you do. An example of this is overseas travel. I didn’t want my boys to miss out as I had. (I planned a big trip to Europe with my best friend when we were 15… but I didn’t get to go until I was 51; after the boys were old enough to be left alone.) When the boys were younger, I took them on holidays to Bali, Thailand and Singapore and also sent the 2 middle boys to the US with the school’s band. I had to forego a lot of coffees, new clothes and other fripperies to afford to do this, but to me, it was worth it. They watched me saving and planning for all of this.

4. ALWAYS have an emergency fund in place. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. When the boys were very small I had a few years when I literally had no money at our backs if a real emergency happened. I’ve touched on it a bit in my ‘About’ page. I don’t think they have any strong memories of those hand-to-mouth times, (I should ask them!) but what they DO know is that Mum always has some money put away for when we need it.

5. Christmas is important. Always make it a special day for everyone. I insisted that the boys always had Christmas Day with me. As Mum said to me, “You have all of the hard days – you deserve to have the fun one.” A. always used to pick them up at around 6PM that day, after we’d had Christmas lunch with my family. One day soon I’ll write about my strategies for Christmas Day when we were so poor. The boys didn’t miss out on a thing.

So given all this, what are the boys doing with their finances now they’re in their twenties?

At our “We’re out of debt (again!) celebratory dinner 2 years ago.

NEVER borrow anything. Always spend less than you earn. Interestingly, none of them uses credit cards, only debit cards, even though I’ve always used a credit card. I run all my expenses through a credit card, but I run it like a debit card so I rarely dip into the ‘credit’ part of it. They’ve seen how being free of debt has helped our family to become financially independent and I think they realise the importance of it. When we sold the old house to the developer and I was finally able to pay off the bridging loan of 750K that I was carrying on The Best House in Melbourne, I took them all out to dinner to celebrate.

Whenever they’ve needed to buy things like cars, they’ve either paid for them themselves out of savings or they’ve come to me for an interest-free loan. This month, Tom27 decided that he needed a new car. We talked about what he could afford, given his wage, so instead of buying a tinny but shiny new car, he bought himself a 5-year-old Prius. He was spending 18K, which is bigger than the Bank of Mum is prepared to lend. Initially, he applied for a loan from the car yard’s financing, but after getting home and doing some research and some Maths, he realised that getting a loan from someone else will save him over 2K in interest, so that’s what he did. Interestingly, the car yard tried to entice him by saying, “If you get the loan through us you can have the car tomorrow!!!” Tom27’s response? “I’d rather wait a week and have the two extra grand, thanks!”

You should have everything you NEED, but only some of what you WANT. I guess this follows on from not having access to credit, but they seem to be quite good at prioritising what they spend their money on. If they need cash for something, they’ll either sell something to free up some money (which is David25’s go-to), or they’ll tighten the belt and wait until they have the means to get what they want.

Your money is a finite amount. Don’t spend on things you don’t value, but spend on the things you do. Poverty and student life has forced Evan22, in particular, to take this on as a survival mechanism. If he spends all of his Austudy allowance on wine, women and song, then he doesn’t eat for the rest of the fortnight. He lives in Ballarat, so he can’t pop home very often for a free feed, so he’s had to learn to be very self-reliant and to balance his money.

Tom27 is an accountant, (yeah… I don’t know how that happened either…) and he plans out his expenses months ahead to ensure he has enough to do what he has to do, such as rent, petrol car payments etc, before he does what he wants to do, such as recording a new album, travelling overseas and going out.

David25 has a girlfriend and at first, a lot of his money went on eating out, flashy dates etc. Now, nearly 2 years on, he and Izzy spend a lot of time at each other’s houses, watching videos, composing songs and popping up to Coles to get a litre of gourmet icecream as a treat. Ryan24 is the king of slashing expenses to make his money go further.

Christmas is important. Always make it a special day for everyone. Well, everyone’s onboard for this one! David25 doesn’t spend as much on dates anymore, but when it’s their anniversary he pulls out all the stops to make the date a memorable one. He’s learned the art of prioritising in this regard.

We all put thought and effort into Christmas, probably even more so than birthdays. No one’s allowed to buy anything for themselves in December in case they muck up someone’s gift for them and we all sneak around buying and making things that we hope will really hit the spot. I love seeing the boys plotting and planning gifts for their brothers and grandparents – I feel like I’ve passed the baton onto the next generation.

So, given that they’re following all but one of the financial things I modelled for them as they were growing up, I guess you could say that the “Monkey See; Monkey Do” saying is pretty apt. Also, I’m putting it out there that when they get a bit older and start pulling in some real money, the Emergency Funds will come.

This wasn’t what I started off intending to write about – it began with Dad jokes – but I guess it’s a useful exercise to step back and observe the people around you and see what’s rubbing off on them. It seems my legacy will be a love of the Dad joke and a leaning towards the thrifty!

But sometimes – you get what you need.

Sometimes the nicest things happen, just when you need them to.

Yesterday I had the last two periods of the day free, almost certainly for the last time this term. It’s the mid-point of term 3 and after this is when all of the English assessments begin to pile in. Given this, I thought I might slip out and see Mum and Dad for a half an hour, come back to school and then I’d be able to go straight home at the end of the day.

As I was walking to my car, I passed by a garden on the corner that I’ve always admired. I’ve been parking in the same street for over 15 years and I’ve never seen anyone working in it. As I rounded the corner to get to my car, I saw a woman around my own age near the front door, cutting some jonquils.

I called out to her, “Excuse me! I just wanted to say that I’ve been looking at your garden for years and I really enjoy it.”

She smiled, said thank you and we started chatting. I said I was a teacher at the school across the road and when she asked if I was finished for the day, I made a show of looking over my shoulder and said, “Ssssh… I have some spare periods so I’m sneaking off to see my mother. She fell and broke her arm 3 months ago and it still hasn’t healed, poor thing.”

She immediately held out the jonquils she was holding and said “Take them. Tell her I hope she feels better soon.”

I demurred, but she said, “No, I love to share them. The houses up and down the street all get bunches when they come into flower.”

Well, after that it’d be rude NOT to accept. We kept talking. When she said she retired from work 3 years ago I asked about what retired life was like. She used to be a radiographer and she and her husband retired together. He’s heavily involved in the SES, but she’s chosen other ways to fill her time.

“I found that I missed the people I worked with the most”, she said. “The social aspect of work especially, because when I retired most of my friends were still working. I had to look out for things that I could do on my own. “

OMG!!! This sounds exactly like what I’m going to have to do when I pull the pin.

“I think that you should do something for the head, something for the heart and something for the soul,” she said. “So I do classes at U3A, I go to the gym and I take myself out to art galleries and the theatre. I have a lovely time!”

I could hardly believe my luck. Just when I’ve been all in the swithers about whether or not I’d enjoy retirement, along comes a woman who has designed the very same sort of retirement I’d thought about – and she loved it. It was so reassuring to hear. And to think, if I hadn’t have snuck out to see Mum and Dad, I wouldn’t have met her. After all, I’d been parking in that street for over 16 years and this was the first time I’d seen her.

Talk about Fortunate Frogdancer striking again!

We spoke for about 10 minutes, then I raced off to see how Mum and Dad were doing. It felt lovely to go in with the bunch of jonquils and tell them about our conversation.

Isn’t it funny how life sometimes delivers exactly what we need?

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