Burning Desire For FIRE

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

Category: Consumerism (page 1 of 4)

Why owning your home trumps renting.

The front view of my house.
My house before I started working on the front garden.

Dave from Strong Money Australia wrote a post this morning about whether or not he and his wife should cash out their share portfolio and buy a house. I enjoyed reading it, as it’s the perpetual question with FIRE people who are good at Maths – is it better to invest in the share market and rent, or to buy a house and save on living costs down the road when it’s all paid off?

Me? I’m a home-owner through and through, not for any mathematical reasons (because Maths is hard) but purely because the security of having my own place that nobody can boss me around and kick me out of is too precious to give up. Also, having three dogs means that no landlord would rent to me anyway – and having the dogs is one thing that I will definitely not give up. So the freedom of home ownership is something that is integral to the Frogdancer Jones lifestyle.

When I bought my current house, I bought it with one eye to the view of the floorplan being perfect should any of the boys need to come back home after living away. Basically, the house is a rectangle divided into 2 main parts, so I can happily live in the front part while the boy/s have their privacy at the other end. The land was smaller than our original house, which was a plus because I was finding it hard to keep up with the upkeep at the old place. Also throw in that it’s just around the corner from an Aldi, 5 minutes walk to the dog beach and 4 minutes walk from the train station – the bones of this property are all great!

However, even though this house is pretty darned perfect, there have been things that I’ve decided to alter. Being in my mid-fifties, I know myself pretty week by now and there are some things that I know Future Frogdancer would love to have at her fingertips.

My plan is to get these things done while I still have a pay packet coming in so that I can cashflow some of the jobs, though in mid last year I took 40K in profits from my shares to kickstart the whole thing. I still have 20K left to spend.

I’ve spoken before about how 2020 was always going to be the year of getting The Best House in Melbourne retirement-ready for when Older Me/Future Frogdancer decides to stop teaching. The list of things I’ve done here since the money came through from the Domestic Geoarbitrage adventure is as follows:

Apple trees growing in the veggie garden.
Apple trees in the background. The back half of my yard is devoted to food growing.
  • Before we moved in I had the hardwood floors sanded and polished. Real timber floors were a ‘must-have’ and I enjoy looking at them every day.
  • Added a wall of cupboards to the laundry for my zombie apocalypse cupboard. It’s come in handy during lockdown! Also, put in some new cupboards in the kitchen, along with a fantastic wine glass storage feature. Easy access to wine is also a ‘must-have’!
  • Totally ripped out the backyard and landscaped it with old bricks – no more lawn mowing and no more weeds. I’m very lazy.
  • Installed 18m of wicking veggie gardens, plus a small ‘orchard’ of 5 apples, a pomegranate, an apricot and 2 limes.
The new big verandah roof.
Now I have to decide what to plant around my outdoor room so that it flowers in summer for Christmas.
  • Installed a whopping great verandah along the entire back of the house, creating an outdoor room for family get-togethers and parties. With 4 boys in their 20’s, I have a feeling that over the next decade or so the family is going to get larger!
  • Bought a teak table that extends to seat 12 for this new space.
  • Once our cats Daphne and Maris died, I bought brand new leather lounge suites to cut down on pet hair sticking to the furniture.
  • I also found a dining table and chairs, a tv cabinet, a couple of stools for the kitchen bench, an armchair for my room and a coffee table on Gumtree. These antique pieces are totally individual and will see me out. I love them and they were second hand, so they were far cheaper than new furniture of comparable quality.
Painted paling front fence. Beautiful!
My new front fence with my stellar painting. Now the dogs aren’t on guard duty all day.
  • We’ve put up a side fence between us and the new neighbours. They have a staffy who hates little dogs and both households definitely don’t want any bloodshed!
  • I wasn’t planning to replace the front fence as it was a metal picket fence and built to last, but the dogs kept barking every time they saw a dog go by. I figured if it was annoying me, it must be annoying the people around us. This new paling fence blocks the view and if it ever gets tagged by teenagers I can simply put another coat of paint over it.
  • If you look at the photo at the top of the page, you can see that there were two yucca trees on either side of the house. Whoever planted these next to walkways was clearly no brain surgeon. Every time I went to put something in the bin I’d nearly get my eyes poked out by the spiky leaves. These trees are now gone. I’ve bought a couple of avocado trees to take their place. I’ll be able to stand on the verandah to prune the trees and to pick the fruit. These trees have soft leaves so they’ll be a pleasure to brush past.
  • I live in a slightly dodgier neighbourhood than I used to. I put Crimsafe safety screens on all windows and doors.
Bosch oven.
I bought German-made appliances – I know they’ll be well built and will last far longer than cheaper ones.
  • When the people before us did up the place to sell, they installed the cheapest stainless steel appliances that they could. It was on my list to replace them ‘someday’… but during lockdown the oven and dishwasher both died, so it seems that my kitchen renovation is suddenly pretty much done!
  • When our hot water service died I replaced it with a continuous gas hot water service. Expensive to set up, but over time it saves on gas and as an added bonus, people can program their showers to be the exact temperature that they want. I like this little luxury!
  • When a friend at work told me that her husband worked at the Reece plumbing ‘samples and seconds’ shop, I ducked in and bought all the fixings for my new ensuite I’ll have installed one day. I saved at least 8K on what I bought because he gave me mates rates on top of the already cheap prices. At the moment it’s all in boxes and bubble wrap cluttering up the boys’ lounge room, but that’s ok in the short term.

Astute readers will have noticed that few of these renovations are what people would consider “essential.” We could have moved into this place and lived quite happily without the brick paving, the new cupboards and the polished floors etc. After all, the families who lived here before us did just that.

But owning this home means that I can tailor it to the way I want to live. For example, I enjoy growing some of our food. To me, having literally half the backyard set aside for this is a great use of the space. But I don’t want to have to mow a lawn or weed all the time, so spending money on paving makes me happy, as I know I’ve freed up Future Frogdancer’s time. I don’t want her to fall down and break a hip trying to pull up a weed in about 30 years time! I could have put concrete down at a fraction of the price of the bricks, but I like the natural look of the bricks, so again – money well spent.

Scout, my miniature wire-haired dachshund.
Scout. She’ll be 4 next month – where does the time go?

I value a calm, peaceful home without any troubles from the council and the neighbours. The fencing I’ve put up isn’t the most exciting way to spend money, but it’s worth it because it keeps Poppy, Jeff and Scout safe, secure and QUIET.

I’m basically thinking about the things I like to do and the values I want to live my life by and then seeing how I can design my home to include as many of these things as possible. I want to have Future Frogdancer fit into this house like a happy little pea in a pod.

So remember I said I still have 20K left? I feel like a bit of an idiot because I had one job that absolutely needed to be done, but I kept putting it off because I was scared about how much it would cost.

Rotting timber balustrading.
Yeah… this doesn’t look good…

My front verandah has timber balustrading that has seen better days. I had absolutely no idea how much it would cost and then with coronavirus coming along, I shoved it into the back of my mind and tried to stop thinking about it.

Except… this job was only going to get worse with time and turn into something that would just get more and more expensive the longer I ignored it. So, after a year of resolutely turning my face away from it, I called in a couple of tradies to quote.

ARGH! I’m such a fool! I thought it’d cost thousands! I got the first quote back last night – $1,040. I could have had this done AGES ago. I’ve been needing to get this done so I could then plant my avocado trees. They’re still in their little pots, instead of getting their feet in the ground and producing those smashed avos that my millennial boys dream about.

As part of this job, I’m also getting a piece of laserlight nailed to the underside of the verandah, where an access door is. This will be where I’ll put our lawnmower. It’ll be tucked away out of sight, safe from any rain and it’ll be right where the lawn is – no wrestling it down from the backyard. Again – I’ll be getting something done that suits me.

So what else is on my list?

  • The other side fence. It’s literally falling apart, so once I get this done I won’t have to worry about fencing for decades.
  • Beautifying the new back verandah. I’ve bought the dining table and chairs and we have an old couch there, but it needs plants around the perimeter and I want to get a couple of half wine barrels to put splashes of colour in. I also want some sort of artwork on the wall of the house to make it all look pretty.
  • A new ensuite. My old one is perfectly serviceable, but it has a shower over a bath. I HATE THIS – it’s so pov. Plus I think it’ll be unsafe when Future Frogdancer will be getting in and out of it – one slip and she’ll be in a world of trouble.
  • A Tesla power wall. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get one of these, but I’d love it if I could. I’m looking for ways to future-proof Future Frogdancer’s bills and seeing as I already have solar panels, this could dovetail in quite nicely. Plus, I like the idea of having a back-up when power cuts and brownouts happen during the summers. I have a niggling feeling that these will get worse as time goes on and peak oil starts to bite and I don’t want to suffer through hot temperatures or have my freezer lose all of its contents. I freeze A LOT of things, particularly from the garden and I’d be incandescent with rage if I had to throw it all out.
  • An office/crafting room. OMG. I’ve never had one of these in my life and I’d love one. When we looked at this place, one of the back bedrooms was set up as an office. It has a door through to the backyard and it has a wall of cupboard save lined with shelves. THIS is the space. Unfortunately, Ryan25 lives in here and he’s not going anyplace soon – he’s finishing his remedial massage course and going straight into a 12-month myotherapy course. So this one will have to wait. But when I have all of my paperwork, my sewing machine, my yarn and my fabric all organised in the one room, I’ll be a very happy woman.
  • Painting the inside of the house. This isn’t urgent, but like the kitchen fittings, the previous owners did a very quick spray job. I’d like enamel paint on the skirting and doors, instead of the matt paint I currently have. It’s impossible to wipe down properly.
  • Landscaping the front yard. I have a vision of people coming through the high front gate and being greeted with a beautiful oasis of flowers, fruit trees and lawn that is invisible from the street. Apart from my avocados, I have absolutely no clue what I’ll be planting here. None whatsoever. But it’ll come to me.

The beauty of having my own place is that once I set it up, I’ll be able to live here with minimal ongoing costs and I’ll be perfectly happy with everything I have around me. I plan to travel overseas every year (once this pesky pandemic sorts itself out) but when I’m at home, my dogs, my crafts, my books, my blogging and my gardening will occupy me very nicely.

Once you buy furniture, that expense goes away as you have it for YEARS. Given this, it’s worth it to hunt around for items that really suit you. I found this out the hard way. When I moved in with my boyfriend back in the day, we bought some ugly cheap pine furniture “just for now”. A marriage, divorce, 4 kids and twenty years later, I finally got rid of those eyesores. It’s better to buy things you love looking at (like my bedroom setting that I’ve had for 25 years and have no plans to replace), because furniture hangs around for decades. My rule now is to allow nothing through the door that I don’t love, no matter how “practical” that thing may be.

Propaganda poster from my trip to North Korea.
One of my propaganda posters from my trip to North Korea, along with a North Korean banknote that I smuggled out.

My plan, once the world opens up again, is to gradually fill my walls with paintings and drawings from places that I’ve visited. I’m in no hurry to fill the empty walls I have. I’ll see something on my travels and know that I’ll want to look at it for the rest of my life and it’ll find its way home.

I love the idea of slowly building a collection of art that will spark memories of my travels and will make my house look totally different to anyone else’s. My house will reflect ME. So far we have Balinese paintings, pieces from North Korea and Venice and France. I wonder what else will join them as time goes on?

I save vegetable seeds and grow from them year after year. I love the idea of feeding myself and my boys food that started from seeds I bought years ago, but which still feed and nourish us years into the future. There’s something about the continuity and the tradition that appeals to me.

Home ownership is something that is definitely a financial struggle in the beginning. Homes are not something that vendors just casually give away! But over time, as the mortgage is paid off and there’s extra money available, there’s a beautiful opportunity to craft your living space into the perfect space for YOU.

Being on the FI/RE path as we are, the vision of decades of freedom in a space we simply enjoy living in is something to be aimed for. At the moment I’m having the fun of planning and ticking tasks off the list one by one. In a couple of years, I’ll have the fun of actually spending huge gobs of time in this home I’ve created. A home that keeps costs to a minimum. A home that makes me happy and fulfils my needs.

A home that suits ME.

Accidentally frugal and slightly extravagant.

The last few months of lockdown have allowed me to be slightly extravagant because I’ve been accidentally frugal. By ‘accidentally frugal’ I mean that by staying at home for the last 3 months, I’ve brought my day to day expenses to nearly zero while pulling in a wage by working from home. Sadly, I’m now back at school, (wearing a face mask because there’s no way those kids will socially distance), teaching crowded classrooms and sitting in staffroom with lots of others, but the past 3 months have allowed me to (almost) finish a very expensive job on my ‘things to do’ list.

But today, one of those expenses I dropped from my shopping list is now back.

As I sit in the hairdressing salon, 15 weeks after having my last hair appointment, I feel a little uneasy. When I walked in there were 2 women sitting o the couches waiting, while 2 women were having their hair worked on. I went to sit down and my hairdresser raced over, waving her hands frantically. 

“NO, No, don’t sit down – there’ll be too many people in here!” she said. I waited on a bench outside while she finished blow-drying her client’s hair.

One hairdresser is wearing a helmet-y device with a clear plastic shield over her face. ‘My’ hairdresser is wearing a face mask. When I saw that, I pulled out one of the home-made face masks that I’ve been wearing to work and I put it on.

Now, I’m ensconced in a corner of one of the couches and I’m waiting my turn.

Honestly, I’d be happy to leave my hair looking like a haystack for a few more weeks, but it occurred to me that the best time to get a cut and colour would be between the two waves of the virus, assuming we get a second wave, which I feel in my waters that we will. Although I’m obviously still youthful and dewy,  I’m at the awkward age of having grey hair around my face but my hair is still darker at the back. I thought about going gracefully grey but in the end I’ve decided against it.

So here I am. I used to get a cut and colour every 6 weeks or so at a cost of $85. I know – it’s crazy cheap! Lockdown has saved me around $200 on this one recurring expense, which is nothing to be sneezed at. I’ve also goy a different look now – leaving my hair to grow has given me a bob, rather than a short hairdo. I’m going with it for the moment, just as a change.

Lockdown has been a strangely frugal, yet expensive time. Long-term readers of this blog would know that I’ve made a list of things to get done here in The Best House in Melbourne before I retire.  Updating my major kitchen appliances was on the list, but way down. Now, it appears that I’ve accidentally attacked this job without meaning to.

A few days after lockdown started – and just as I began a sourdough starter – my oven died. Given that I’m looking to retire-proof my house, I wasn’t going to buy a cheap and nasty replacement. I’m going to do that job right! So in went a $1400 made-in-Germany oven. Then, 2 weeks ago our dishwasher died. Again, I’m going to replace it with something that’ll last for Old Lady Frogdancer, so another $1600 went on the same made-in-Germany brand. (Both these prices include installation and removal of the old models.)

At the same time, I haven’t been spending money. Petrol? Nup. Been staying at home. Food? We stocked up before the lockdown, so apart from buying a few fresh ingredients, we haven’t been going to the shops. Entertainment has been taken care of by books, Netflix, Foxtel (my free 2 months runs out next week so I’ve been bingeing) and my latest awesome discovery – audiobooks from my local library. I had to replace my 8 year old iPad just before lockdown and I’ve scored a free 12 month subscription to Apple TV. When I cancel my Foxtel I’ll move across to this.

I’m not a big online shopper at the best of times. The only things I’ve bought have been the oven, dishwasher and a gorgeous earthenware water bowl for the dogs as a lockdown present to myself.

Poppy.
Poppy.

All in all, my biggest expense apart from the kitchen appliances has been three trips to the vet. Poppy has had a couple of eye ulcers, which sounds incredibly painful, so of course we have to get rid of them. No one said that having pets was a cheap thing to do, but of course in this household, the dogs are the heartbeat around which the house revolves. After all, I only bought this house when I did so that we could continue to keep them!

So, by being accidentally frugal, I’ve been able to cashflow the bigger expenses because my wage isn’t being frittered away, which has the huge bonus of allowing me to protect my savings. Just between you and me, I’d rather have the 3K that I’ve spent on an oven and dishwasher sitting in my savings account waiting to pay for a new ensuite or new front verandah, but hey – I’m a glass half-full kind of girl. At least I’ve just about finished my kitchen reno! A new cooktop and exhaust fan is all that I need

But they can wait…

… as I am. My hairdresser doesn’t accept appointments so I’ve been sitting here for an hour. I’m next up, though! In a couple of hours I’ll be ravishingly beautiful again. (Edited to add – it took 4 hours all up. But at $85 for a cut and colour, I’ve learned to take my laptop and a good book in with me. You never know how long you’ll have to wait.)

Now that I’ve finished this blog post, I’ll be firing up my kindle app and beginning Noel Whittacker’s ‘Superannuation Made Simple.’ If I’m heading towards retirement in the next little while, this is an area I’ll need to be very familiar with! 

How my Emergency Fund proved its worth against the virus. Twice.

Scout, feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that we have a sturdy emergency fund behind us. It means everything to a dog.

I’ve had an emergency fund for the last 2 decades. When I left my husband 22 years ago with $60 cash in my hand and with 4 boys under 5 to support, the first thing I set myself to achieving was building a $1,000 ‘buffer zone’ (as I called it then) to provide some security for the boys and me. I’ve written about how an emergency fund is a very good thing to have but is this still the case?

It’s been interesting to see how having that stash of cash has made life so much easier in this pandemic.

When, in December 2019 and January 2020, news started coming out from China, then Italy about this weirdo new virus, my spidey senses started tingling. I’m a bit of a germophobe at the best of times, so the thought of having to deal with a possible pandemic wasn’t a great feeling. Add to that my job as a teacher, being surrounded by germ-ridden teenagers all generously sharing their viruses with everyone around them – it meant that I was paying attention to what was going on.

Over January and February, I didn’t use my Emergency Fund at all. I quietly topped up on staples and non-perishables as part of my normal shops. By the beginning of March I was looking to be in good shape. I took a little holiday and enjoyed myself. Then, a week or so later was when the proverbial hit the fan. You remember – when people started panic buying toilet paper, flour and tissues.

The middle of March was the first time I deployed my Emergency Fund. The last time I tapped it was the beginning of 2019 when Tom28 needed a loan to repair his car. He paid it back within 2 months and then the emergency fund just sat there, biding its time.

Sourdough, baked with flour bought in The Great Costco Shop of March 17.

Remember when I wrote about going to Costco the day after our state Premier announced a state of emergency? As David26 and I rounded the corner after parking our car and saw the 1,000+ people ahead of us in the queue, I decided that if we were going to brave this, we were going to make it worth while.

In the back of my head were all my fears about the ‘just in time’ policy that our supermarkets have. For years I’ve been telling the boys that you don’t want to be out panic-buying supplies when everyone else is fighting for them too. Far safer to be at home while everyone else is wild-eyed and desperate. That trip to Costco was illuminating. Turns out I was correct.

We were only there in the first place because David25 wanted to bring some supplies to his girlfriend’s family. Ok, fair enough, but I was damned if I was going to race around behind one of those huge Costco trolleys, dodging hundreds of last-minute panic buyers just to buy things for other people! If I was going to be doing this crazy thing, I was going to top up our own supplies as well.

So we bought bulk bags of plain flour, bulk dry pasta, another big bag of grain-free dog food, oil, eggs, coffee, cleaning supplies… between what we bought for Izzy’s family and ours we loaded up the trolley.

On the way home we passed Dan Murphy’s. Seeing as we were already stocking up and it was definitely a ‘Spend Day,’ (more on that later), we turned in. There were only about 6 other people in the whole place. We were definitely ahead of the trend in buying alcohol! We bought heaps of wine, ( I don’t want to do without my shiraz in the evenings!) and I shouted David26 and Ryan25 some vodka, beer and spiced rum.

Earlier that day, at 8AM, I’d been to Bunnings, buying fence paint and potting mix. I’d thought ahead and realised that I’d need to occupy myself in the lockdown I was sure was going to come.

All up on that day we spent around 2K.

That’s when I deployed the Emergency Fund. I pulled 2K out from it and put it straight onto my credit card. I didn’t have to go into debt to shore up our defences – we had the cash. After all, if a pandemic isn’t classed as an emergency, I don’t know what is!!!

But then came something else…

A week after we went into iso, my oven broke down. Great timing, hey? It had come with the house, was cheap and nasty and was always something that I was going to get replaced, but I wasn’t planning on doing it any time soon.

Now this WAS an emergency. I’d just begun a sourdough starter – I needed an oven to cook in!

This was where the Emergency Fund proved its worth yet again. If I had no money set aside and had to buy something on my credit card, I know full well I would have probably bought another cheap and nasty oven – anything to get food hot and ready for dinner. I’d want to limit what I put on the card, so it would have been the cheapest I could buy. This would mean that a couple of years down the track I’d be in the exact same position that I was now – hating the oven and wanting to buy a new one.

But now? I knew that I wanted a German-built self-cleaning oven. Something sturdy and of good quality that would last for years. These ovens don’t come cheap.

I’m of the mindset that I’d rather do something right and only have to do it once, rather than trying to cheaply do things and end up having the same problem over and over. The Emergency Fund meant that I had the money there to get the job done right – first time. Sure, I was a bit annoyed at having to spend the money right now – this was a job that I would have been happy to palm off to some future time – but having the Emergency Fund meant that I could take care of it properly.

(On an aside – you should have seen the guys who came to deliver and install it a week later. They were gloved and masked – it almost looked like they were going to rob the place!!)

So the oven, plus installation, cost nearly $1,800. That’s nearly 4K to come out of that account in a couple of weeks. So how does running the Emergency Fund look like after this?

Easy.

As soon as you tap the Emergency Fund, the iron-clad rule is that you devote the next however-many-pay-packets-long to building it up again. You want to get it back to its original level as soon as you can, ready for the next unexpected event.

Sure, the timing’s been a little annoying. With that dip in the share market, I would have loved to be buying cheapish shares with my surplus money like a lot of FI/RE people have been saying that they’ve been doing, but in the Jones household financial security comes first. This means that a strong Emergency Fund is the top priority.

My next pay is on Wednesday. I have $500 to go to get my Emergency Fund back to its pre Covid-19 level. How have I done it so quickly?

Haha! My secret weapon – my ‘No Spend Days’ chart. It’s all about turning buying things and spending money from a mindless activity to an INTENTIONAL one.

I posted about how it works HERE. It’s worth reading if you think that this might be something that will help you have fun tracking your spending. It really works for me.

Basically, every day that I don’t spend anything, I get to colour in a square. if I have 3 or less days a week where I’ve spent money, I get to colour in a silver square at the end of the week.

The idea isn’t that I never spend any money at all – that’s obviously unsustainable. But what it does is to force me to consciously consider WHEN and WHAT I spend my money on. It turns spending from a constant dribble out of my wallet to a truly deliberate decision.

Now have a look at the screenshot I took from my chart. It’s showing March and April. April is orange – March is yellow.

It’s amazing how, if you don’t need anything, how your spending can go down!

From the 7th of March, I was away on my little holiday at Bowral. You can see there’s a spend of $260 on a helicopter ride – that’s not a usual item in my budget! I arrived home the following Tuesday, had a ‘no spend’ day after that where I just chilled at home… but then I swung into gear mopping up the last of the Covid-19 lockdown preparations.

On the 14th March you can see my ‘panic-buy’ at Spotlight, where I bought $174 worth of quilting supplies. A few days after that, on March 17, was the hideous Costco shop, along with the Bunnings and Dan Murphy buys. I deliberately grouped them all together, knowing that they’d be substantial. Geographically, they were close together too – saving on petrol. Why not? 🙂

The rest of March, the shopping was just for little incidentals to pick up tiny things I may have missed. An example is the $10 yeast on the 25th March.

But look at what happens once April starts:

Well ok, buying the oven on the first day of the month was annoying, as well as having to take a sick dog to the vet. But after that, the spending has plummeted. Why do I need to spend money once everything I need has been taken care of?

Some people I see on Twitter and Facebook are preening themselves on their cleverness in using online shopping to buy food and anything else they want, saying that they’re taking themselves out of the line of infection. But that doesn’t sit right with me – I think that by doing that, you’re putting other people INTO the line of infection by having to get your order to you. I know people need the work, but for me? I’d rather know that I’ve looked after ourselves and we’re not asking other people to risk their health just so we can bunker down and feel safe.

I’m lucky in that I still have a wage coming in. Most of that wage has so far been replenishing the Emergency Fund. But this is something that anyone can do whether they have a job or not – I know because I did it myself when I was absolutely broke and living on the Sole Parents Pension.

It doesn’t matter if you can afford to tip a thousand, a hundred or ten dollars a pay into building your emergency Fund back up – IF YOU KEEP ON DOING IT EVERY PAY, IT WILL GET THERE EVENTUALLY. You just have to keep the long view in mind and know that it will happen and you’ll be all the more secure for it.

As for our long streak of not spending any money, this will end tomorrow. With all of the delicious sourdough I’ve been making – (RECIPE HERE, thanks to latestarterfire’s recommendation), we’re down to our last stick of butter.

I’ll be whisking myself off to Aldi to buy butter, top up our fresh produce (though the garden has been a godsend in keeping us away from the shops – (another security measure I should maybe write about??) and to buy some chicken chips. I still have some chocolate, but nothing beats the salty crunch of potato chips/crisps when I’m watching ‘Survivor’.

In a few days my Emergency fund will be back to normal and I can relax, knowing that when – not if – the next unexpected thing hits us, the one thing we won’t have to worry about is money.

And that’s a precious thing.

Having a stockpile. Sin or sensible?

Panic buying fence paint and potting mix at Bunnings.

With all that’s been going on around the place with people panic-buying toilet paper and the like, I thought I’d share my views on having a stockpile of food and non-perishables around the house. I’ve had a stockpile for the last 2 decades and I find it a really useful and economical way to run my household.

Going back 20 or so years, (in the time before Aldi), I started building a supply of food and other things when things were on special. I was living on a single parents pension of around 18K/year with 4 small boys to feed, so money was incredibly tight. Over the course of a year or so, I gradually built up the supplies in my pantry so that in the end, I was pretty much buying as much as I could when something was on special.

In other words, we were eating most of our food at a discount. When baked beans, for example, were half price, I’d buy 10 or 20 of them, depending on how much leeway was in that week’s budget. Then we’d gradually eat them down until the next time when they were on sale, when I’d buy the same amount again.

Short-term, this was a more expensive way to run the household, but I’ve rarely been a short-term thinker. Over the course of a year, I’d easily save a few hundred dollars on meat, groceries, pet food and cleaning products. I was so poor that a few hundred dollars made a HUGE difference to our quality of life. The stockpile was worth doing.

When Aldi came to our neighbourhood, it was different. They had no ‘specials’ as such, but their prices were so much lower that I gladly started shopping with them.

And I still kept a stockpile. Why?

I realised that liked having reserves of food and other staples around. I liked not having to run to the shops every time I ran out of an ingredient, because I almost always had a replacement in the back cupboard. It gave me a sense of security and comfort in the fact that if something unexpected happened, I knew I could look after my boys and that we wouldn’t have to go shopping if people were out there acting crazy.

When ‘The Walking Dead’ came along, I christened my stockpile ‘The Zombie Apocalypse Cupboard’ and that’s its name today. Hearing the supermarkets run on a “just in time” policy of stocking their shelves cemented the idea that having a small stash of necessities wasn’t a bad idea.

So, seeing as I’m a bit of a prepper, how has the Jones household been acting in this time of Coronavirus?

I’ve so far been ahead of the wave. I’m a teacher and sooner or later it appears that Australia will have to close the schools down. The only question is when. I fully expect to have to self-isolate at some stage, given that I work in a school with nearly 2,500 kids and 200 teachers. That’s a lot of bodies that the virus would love to inhabit! Given all of that, it made sense to me to get ahead of the game and make sure that we had everything we’d need if we couldn’t leave our house for a while.

Years ago I read an article about the people of Sarajevo when they were caught in the middle of a war zone. It included a list of all the things they most prized. The number one item? Toilet paper, closely followed by matches and perfume. I’ve never forgotten that, so the Zombie Apocalypse cupboard has a dedicated shelf to the old bog rolls. Back in early February, when stories started to surface about this new virus but it was long before any panic-buying, I quietly stocked up on loo paper.

Then, in the next week or two, I bought a few extra tinned and packaged goods. Things like tuna, chickpeas, pineapple chunks (for pizza) and paracetamol. Grain-free dry dog food and the raw meat patties I feed Poppy, Jeff and Scout were also on the list. Dishwasher tablets, aluminium foil and baking paper came soon after that.

By the time I noticed toilet paper shelves were starting to empty pretty rapidly, I was feeling like our food situation was ok. But what would I do with my time if I had to self-isolate for at least 2 weeks? Remote -teaching my students would take up a bit of time. But there’d still be extra hours to fill…

Reading is my #1 passion. I have at least 15 books piled up beside my bed and a huge number waiting to be read on my kindle app. I have Netflix and Foxtel, so the tv viewing and book reading situations will be fine. But what about other things?

While everyone in the last week has been going crazy in the supermarkets, I’ve been at Spotlight quietly buying quilting supplies and at Bunnings buying fence paint for my new front fence, along with decking oil and potting mix.

Stockpiling doesn’t have to be just about the food. I’ve brought the paint buying forward a month or so, but now it’s done.

Though it hasn’t been all fun and games.

Two days ago, David26 and I went to Costco. It was a Tuesday morning, 10 minutes before opening time. David26 was worried about his girlfriend Izzy’s family and wanted to buy a few staples for them. Against my better judgement I agreed to take him.

The premier of Victoria had issued a state of emergency the day before. S**t was starting to get REAL.

It was incredible. When we arrived, there were easily 1,000 people ahead of us in the queue. It snaked around the carpark. David26 and I looked at each other.

“Well, we’re here now,” I said. “We probably won’t be able to get toilet paper for them, but we can get other things. And while we’re here, we need a 3L bottle of milk and I could always top up the dogs’ grain-free food. Then, if we’re isolating ourselves at home, the dogs’ll definitely be ok.”

It took us 25 minutes to even get to the front door. By the time we got there the signs were up saying ‘NO MORE TOILET PAPER.” By the time we reached the front of the queue, it was almost twice as long as when we got there.

Mini road-rage spats, with honking horns, were happening in the car park. Just as we reached the front, a police van quietly drove through and parked on the corner, clearly to keep an eye on things. Anyone trying to push into the queue was quickly told where to go… and by that I mean down to the end of the queue, not to go straight to hell!!!

Once we were inside, those massive Costco trolleys were racing around in all directions. People with a wild look in their eyes were grabbing everything they could lay their hands on. There was a limit rule of 2 cans of Glen-20 per membership, but at the cash registers I saw quite a few people who, like David26 and I, had come in a pair, trying to argue that they should be able to take 4 cans. No one got away with it though.

As we were waiting to pay, I whispered to David26, “If this is what it’s like on a Tuesday, imagine what the end of the week will be like if the news doesn’t get better? Not sure I’d want to be here then.”

So, what with my normal preparedness and yesterday’s Costco run, I guess I’ve seen both sides. So which is best?

If you’re an adrenaline junkie who likes to pit themselves against the odds, then yes! Leave everything till the last minute and go out and take your chances.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a sin to be prepared. You don’t want to be THAT guy who has 4,000 rolls of toilet paper lining his garage, but I think it makes sense to have a place set aside for things that you regularly eat/use as a back-up. When things are going wrong, the fewer people who are out on the streets competing for things, the better.

If any (or all of us) gets the virus and feels sick, it’s a comfort to know that we have everything we need to look after ourselves well within reach. By having the Zombie Apocalypse cupboard, we’ve eliminated that anxiety from our lives. If Tom28 has to come home if he has no work and can’t pay his rent, there’s food enough to cover him.

Having a stockpile of the basics eliminates that awful fear of not being able to provide for my family. Twenty-two years ago when I left my husband, I had $60 in cash, 4 small boys and no job. I did a Scarlet O’Hara and vowed that, as God is my witness, these boys will not suffer for what I’ve done. I would provide for them, no matter what.

Having a stockpile is, for me, an essential cushion against misfortune. Or a pandemic. So if you don’t have one at the moment, how do you build one up?

DON’T do what all the frenzied shoppers at Costco are doing. Going by the overloaded trolleys we saw, there are going to be lots of people with a massive credit card bill to pay in the next month. Obviously in this time of Coronavirus, buy what you need to get you through, but as for a stockpile for the future?

Do what I did when I was young and poor. Do it gradually.

Buy extra of the things that you’ll eat when they’re on special. If money is tight, buy an extra one. If you have a few more dollars free, buy multiples. Store them in a line in your pantry/zombie apocalypse cupboard. This is so you can keep track of use-by dates.

If you happen to buy more of a particular item before you’ve used up everything in that particular item in your stockpile, PUT THE NEW CANS/PACKETS AT THE BACK AND MOVE THE OLDER THINGS TO THE FRONT.

This is called rotating your stock. It may not be a sin to have a stockpile but it’s certainly a very bad thing to waste time, money and shelf space on food that you have to throw out because you didn’t use it in a timely fashion.

I’ve read that some people mark their stockpile items with a permanent marker of the date they bought them. Me? Nah. But if that idea floats your boat, go for it.

Over time, as various items come on sale or you have a few extra dollars and can buy a few extra things, your stockpile will build up. It’s a beautiful thing.

Only buy what you and your family like to eat and make sure you rotate your stock. This way, there’s no waste and you always have stores available in case something unexpected happens. It’s the most immediate way to provide a safety net for the ones you love. Having a paid-off house comes second.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on stockpiling. I’m proud to say that my two boys who are living on their own also saw which way the wind was blowing and stocked up on a few non-perishables before the supermarkets got crazy.

I normally don’t ask for comments, but I’m curious as to what you all think. I’ve laid out my history and why I’ve always had a store of food and such in the cupboards. Are you like me? Or do you have another way of navigating the world?

Buy practical souvenirs, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

Jeffrey while I was packing. Not sure if he was trying to prevent me or hoping to come too!

I have a rule when I go on holidays. Any souvenirs I buy tend to be useful. I bought an olive oil container in San Gimignano. A spatula in Pyongyang. Christmas tree decorations all over Europe.

So what did I buy on my getaway this week to Bowral?

My stylish yet affordable shopping trolley.

I’m so pleased with this one. I now have a shopping trolley, just like a nanna!!! Living around the corner from Aldi, as I do, I usually load myself up with a few bags and walk to get my groceries. Those bags can get heavy on the walk home.

So yesterday, I looked at my zombie apocalypse cupboard and realised I needed to panic-buy wine. A woman cannot live on toilet paper alone. So I took it out for a spin. It worked a treat. I’m very happy with this one.

But what else did I buy as a souvenir?

A helicopter ride.

I spent $250 on a helicopter ride.

And before you mention the rule about practical souvenirs – in my book this IS practical. I’ve never been in a helicopter before and now I know that I won’t die wondering what it’s like.

Just before lift-off.

When I’m walking the dogs on my Backyard Beach, we get quite a few small planes and helicopters above, following the line of the bay. I thought it’d be nice to create a memory that I’d think of every time I see a helicopter.

Lovely clear morning – Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again!

There’d been torrential rain two days before, so it all looks beautiful and green, but you can see that the dams in the paddocks are nowhere near full. The farmers could still do with a lot more rain.

I had the headphones on and we could hear the chatter from air traffic control, as well as the conversation from the people in the cabin. (Three of us.) You could hear the sound of the rotor blades but it wasn’t too loud.

The day was already quite warm. The only air-con was a little flap in the door next to me, which I could push open or shut. I left it open and the breeze was beautiful.

The border between Victoria and New South Wales.

I drove over this river the day before.

Two memories for the price of one.

Bowral has a way famous antique/junk market called Dirty Jane’s. I whiled away a couple of hours here and walked away with my rusty bird on a swing for a mere $25. I’m always on the look-out for quirky garden art. The reason I bought this was that the bird looked just like the fried baby pigeons that I saw at a food market in Beijing. Two holiday memories for the price of one!

And in case you’re wondering – no, I didn’t eat one. When I travel I rarely say no to experiences, but I couldn’t face crunching away on a baby bird. Or a skewer of scorpions, some of which were still moving. Fortunately, there was nothing like that on the menu in Bowral!

On the way up I stayed overnight in Albury. In both towns I walked through every art gallery I could find. The Milk Factory was the best one I found in Bowral, but I struck gold when I found the Albury library’s gallery. They had a huge exhibition of Lynley Dodd’s work. You know – ‘Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy‘?

When I walked in, a tour was just starting. Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! So I joined it and followed them around. By the way, did you know that in New Zealand a ‘dairy’ is like a corner shop or milk bar? Puts a whole different view on things.

Of course, being Scout’s mum, I had to take a photo of the dachshund!

In keeping with my new view on exercise, I kept the car driving to a minimum. Well, aside from the whole 753 kms/ 468 miles to get there in the first place.

I walked all around the town centre in Albury and discovered their lovely little botanical gardens. Galleries and gardens are free, people! While I was in Bowral for 3 nights, I didn’t get into my car at all. I walked everywhere, which would’ve been unheard of on previous holidays.

In fact, on my last full day there, I didn’t leave the room until 5 PM, when I walked into town to buy some sushi for dinner. I packed my sewing machine and the half-assembled quilt top that I’m making for my sister-in-law and I vowed that I wasn’t leaving town until I’d finished it.

Yes. I didn’t choose the thug life; the thug life chose me.

Success! I finished it 15 minutes before ‘Survivor’ started! Now all I have to do is assemble and quilt it.

When I planned this holiday, I decided I was going to go to galleries, eat out at restaurants and go for bushwalks. When I took the helicopter ride, I decided that I’d cut out the restaurants. The only meal I had in one was when I met up with a blog reader and her Other Half who took me to an American-style diner in a neighbouring town.

Blogmeets are always good. You all know each other from your writing and so there’s no initial awkwardness when meeting up for the first time.

I bought a delicious sourdough loaf from an artisanal bakery and some dips from Woolworths. They were my breakfasts and dinners for a couple of days. It was DELICIOUS! I’ve always wanted to go to a Turkish restaurant and just order dips and bread and now I feel I’ve finally done it.

That’s a huge advantage of travelling as a single. If I feel like eating sourdough and dip for 2 days, I can.

I also gave myself a treat to look forward to. I always have one bottle of perfume on the go at any one time and I totally use it up before opening another one. For the past year or so I’ve been using a perfume that Mum and Dad gave me after a Bali trip. It’s ok… but it doesn’t fill me with joy when I spray it on every morning. But it’s just a few squirts away from being used up, so I bought my FAVOURITE perfume.

This is what I took away with me. It was lovely to unwrap it the first morning I was away and use it.

Mmmmm Mmmmm!

Sometimes looking forward to something is a gift you can give to yourself.

The same height as the birds.

So, as I sit on the couch before I go back to work for the first time in a week, how do I feel?

The alarm at 6 was a rude awakening. I don’t really want to go in, even though I know I’ll have a good time when I get there. With all the talk of coronavirus, going to a school packed with 2,300 kids and 200 staff is starting to seem slightly reckless.

Still, it’s just the one day, then I’ll have the weekend. And I can always simply close my eyes and remember when I was flying with the birds…

Don’t put the cart before the horse!

Who wouldn’t want one of these to get free water with?

Being a bit of a greenie, one of the jobs I wanted to get done around the house before I retire was to put in another rainwater tank, this time in the front yard. Using rainwater to water my gardens would surely help to ‘retire-proof’ my future self by lowering my water bills and giving me more money to use gallivanting around Europe and the UK. It was a good plan. What could possibly go wrong?

I have a paved patch of ground about one and a half metres from the house which would fit a slimline water tank admirably. I surprised myself by being practical and grabbing a tape measure to accurately measure the dimensions at my disposal, then I spent DAYS looking at all the different websites of what was on offer. Finally, I ordered a 3,200L steel water tank for 2K.

Phew! Done. All that was left was for me to get a plumber to install it. What could possibly go wrong?

The sort of tank I was looking at.

Maybe I should’ve asked that question before I ordered the tank.

The plumber came out to give me a quote. Incidentally, working part-time has the unexpected benefit that I can actually be at home when tradies come. Anyway, he walked around, grabbed a camera on a long coil of cord to look down the stormwater drain, he sprayed paint on the grass to mark where the outflow would have to be dug to, then he went away to tot up the quote.

I went inside and spoke to Ryan25. “He’s talking about having to do a lot of digging,” I said. “It might cost as much to put the water tank in as it did to pay for the darned thing in the first place.”

Soon after came a knock at the door and I went out to hear how much this project was going to set me back.

That plumber when he’s at home.

Six Thousand One Hundred Dollars.

Yep. It was going to cost 3 times what the tank cost just to get it installed, plumbed and connected to the pump. Yikes!

I was pretty definite about how I wouldn’t be going ahead with this job. From memory, I think my initial reaction was, “WHAT?!? No. No no no!” I got another quote and it was pretty much the same.

So guess who now has to get a refund from the water tank company? How I wish that I’d sussed out whether it was easily and affordably do-able before I’d actually shelled out 2K to buy the tank in the first place. What an idiot!

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’?

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?

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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