Burning Desire For FIRE

Financial-Independence-Retire-Early(er) in Australia from the female perspective.

Category: Frugality (page 1 of 2)

Why am I going for FAT-FIRE?

Waves on our backyard beach

I’m going for FAT FIRE.

Why?

I’m working towards (what I consider to be) FAT-FIRE. I have a very important reason why I’m going for FAT-FIRE and it’s definitely rooted in my past and in my future. But what do I mean by FAT-FIRE?

I’ve seen many definitions for lean-FIRE and Fat-FIRE, and most of them put a dollar value on these terms. I think that’s pretty ridiculous, to tell you the truth. How does my lifestyle equate to anyone else’s? I’m going for FAT-FIRE, but the amount I’ll be pulling out is far less than the 100K/year which is “supposed” to be what the benchmark is for this.

The amount of money I’m aiming to amass in my portfolios and Superannuation is slated to provide me with around 20K – 25K/year more than I’ll need for my current lifestyle. That sounds like FAT-FIRE to me! I’ll be able to travel and indulge in going to the theatre, while still enjoying the frugal delights of growing my own food, walking the dogs on our “backyard beach” and reading, Netflixing and crafting. 

Aside from indulging myself with trips to Europe and the like, there’s another hugely important reason why I’m still working to scrape my FI number together. 

It’s my Grandfather.

We always called him George. Never Grandad, always George. He was my Mum’s father. He and Gran lived a couple of suburbs away when we were growing up, so we saw a fair bit of them when we were young. They were our go-to grandparents, because Dad’s parents moved to the Gold Coast, (aka ‘God’s Waiting Room), when we were little and so we only saw them every couple of years. 

George was old-school when it came to his career. He grew up in the Depression era and so had to leave school at the age of 13 and get a job as a packer in a clothing warehouse down on Flinders Lane. He worked as an unskilled labourer and brought his wages home to his mother every week. 

He was ambitious though. Every week he’d go upstairs and ask if there were any vacancies for salespeople. He was knocked back every week for 6 months or more, but he kept on climbing those stairs. Finally, probably just to shut him up, they offered him a place, but it had a pay cut of 6 shillings. When he ran home to proudly tell his mother that he was moving up the ladder, when she heard about the pay cut she burst into tears. In that era, they relied on every penny coming in to survive.

Over the years he rose through the ranks of salesman, travelling salesman, right up to being part of the management team. He stayed at the one company all of his working life in a career that was only interrupted by 5 years as an aircraft mechanic in Darwin during WWII. 

He bought their house in Murrumbeena only when his solicitor offered to lend him the money. He paid it off quickly, then in 1970, just a couple of years before he retired, he and Gran bought a little holiday house right on the beach at Inverloch for 10K. 

He retired when he was 59. I remember going over to their house to see the fat gold watch the company gave him as a farewell gift. Then he and Gran moved down to Inverloch, selling the house in Murrumbeena to pay off the mortgage. They settled into their retirement.

They were grey nomads, pulling their caravan up to Kurramine Beach, just past Cairns, for 6 months during our winter, then coming down again for 6 months during our summer. Even after Gran died, George kept up this routine until he grew too old. He then settled into Inverloch all year round, eventually dying when he was 94, after he took a fall and broke his hip.

The thing about this tale that impels me to aim for FAT-FIRE is what happened about 5 years before he died. 

George ran out of money.

I remember Mum telling me that George asked them if they’d buy the caravan from him for 5K. By that stage the van hadn’t been used for years and it was shabby and old. Mum and Dad definitely didn’t want it, but what could they do? They had to help him save his pride. So they “bought” it.

George had the Age Pension to live off, so the 5K was for extras. I can’t imagine that it would have lasted him the rest of his life, so I’m sure that Mum and Dad would have had to dip their hands into their pockets a few more times. Mum was his only child. He refused to sell Inverloch, telling Mum that “this block will be the family fortune.” (He was right about that – when Mum and Dad eventually sold it, they got nearly 700K for it. A buy and hold strategy for real estate certainly seems like the way to go!)

I can imagine the uncomfortable talk when George was asking for financial help. He was a proud man…

I NEVER want to have that talk with my boys. 

I truly believe that the best gift I can give them is the gift of my financial independence. 

When I’m George’s age… (well, he’s dead… I mean the age when the lack of money began to bite!) … my boys will presumably be raising young families, paying off mortgages, dealing with school fees and all of the expenses that come with being Dads of teenagers. They’ll be thinking of their own retirements and trying to put money away in investments, while still living their lives. 

The LAST thing they’ll want is for their Dear Old Mum to be holding out her hand for money.

The last thing I want is for their Dear Old Mum to have to ask them for money. 

If it ever happens, both they and I will know that something catastrophic must have happened, because nothing short of that would make it a reality. They’ll know that I worked my ar$e off to try and ensure that I’d be ok financially. It still wouldn’t make the conversation any less uncomfortable, though.

This is why I’m not paying for their Uni degrees. This is why I’m still at work, putting money into investments instead of setting up a glide path towards the Age Pension and leaving work now. Future Frogdancer, along with Present Frogdancer, wants to stand on her own two feet.

This is why I’m going for FAT-FIRE. 

Serene waves and blue sky.

Lessons from Literature: The Good Earth.

Many novels have basic money lessons woven through them, which is understandable really. After all, money is integral to the human condition, which is what literature is all about. Few novels, however, concern themselves with money lessons so much as Pearl S Buck’s ‘The Good Earth.’

For those who haven’t come across it, this is a cracking good read. It covers the story of Wang Lung, a poor Chinese peasant eking out a living on a farm in the days before Communist rule. Wang Lung is poor… dirt poor. But he has ambition and a fierce love of the land. This novel traces his life as he rises from poor peasant to rich landowner and what happens to his character and family along the way.

Wang Lung and O-Lan are married - The Good Earth.
All images are taken from the 1937 film of the same name.

Wang Lung’s wife is chosen for him by his father. A practical man, his father chooses a slave girl from the rich and powerful House of Hwang in the village, a girl who can work hard on the farm as she doesn’t have bound feet, much to Wang Lung’s disappointment. O-Lan is not a beautiful girl, but she is devoted to the farm and to her new family and there is much more to her than meets the eye.

Of necessity, the family is frugal. I first read ‘The Good Earth’ when I was a teen and to this day, I still have to get every grain of rice out of the cooking dish, exactly as O-Lan did. I think of her every time.

They waste nothing. At first, it’s from mere survival instinct, but as time goes on and O-Lan’s skills bring more prosperity to the family, they begin to buy land. In their society, land was the only thing that could buy security and prosperity. This was especially important to them as their family started to grow.

The Good Earth - Wang Lung and O-Lan on the farm.

O-Lan goes back to visit the House of Hwang with her first baby, dressed beautifully. The Hwang family clearly need to read ‘The Millionaire Next Door’. She says to Wang Lung:

  • “I had but a moment for private talk with the cook under whom I worked before, but she said, ‘This house cannot stand forever with all the young lords, five of them, spending money like waste water in foreign parts and sending home woman after woman as they weary of them, and the Old Lord living at home adding a concubine or two each year, and the Old Mistress eating enough opium every day to fill two shoes with gold.’ “

However, no bull run in the stock market lasts forever and it’s the same with life on the land. A few years later famine strikes. Despite having resources tucked away, hungry relatives descend upon them demanding to be fed and soon Wang Lung and O-Lan’s ’emergency fund’ of food and money is gone.

The neighbours didn’t know this and, fired up by Wang Lung’s evil uncle, they descend on the house and strip it bare, looking for food and other items of value to steal. There was nothing but a few handfuls of beans. After they leave, Wang Lung comforts himself with the thought that he’d put all of their spare money into investments, which in his case was land:

  • “They cannot take the land from me. The labour of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought [food] with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine.”

The lesson here is clear. If you store your net worth in things that cannot be seen, you have a better chance of preserving them when things go wrong. Anyone can run away with a bag of diamonds or a shiny new car, but a share portfolio or a fat superannuation account is easy to hide.

The Good Earth - O-Lan grinding grain

Back then in pre-communist China, of course, there were no unemployment benefits. You either starved when the food ran out, or you found a way to make some money. Or you practise geoarbitrage and move to where things are better.

The family sell every stick of furniture in the house, except for their farm implements, and they set off to a big city 100 miles to the south, where the famine hasn’t reached. Geoarbitrage! Wang Lung picks up work pulling a rickshaw, while O-Lan and the children turn to begging. O-Lan utilised skills she picked up as a child to show the others how to make money as a beggar. One should never forget skills that one picks up along the way!

An easy way to make money was to sell a child to a rich family. O-Lan revealed that this was how she herself had become a slave. The couple had two sons and an infant daughter by this time. No way would they part with the sons, but the daughter? Wang Lung decides not to sell her, but it was a close thing.

The Good Earth - O-Lan finds the jewels

Sometimes the road to financial independence relies on seeing an opportunity and taking action. While the family is stuck in the city, with no way to earn enough to get back home, there is some sort of revolution and the rich homes are looted. Wang Lung is borne along by the crowd and takes nothing, however O-Lan, who has lived in a Big House and knows what to look for, finds a cache of jewels.

The family is now set! They travel back home, with enough money to buy lots of land and set themselves up for life. O-Lan requests that she keep only 2 small pearls from the jewels.

  • ‘If I could have two,’ she went on humbly, ‘only two small ones—two small white pearls even… ‘Pearls!’ he repeated, agape. ‘I would keep them—I would not wear them,’ she said, ‘only keep them.’

The rest they use to buy land from the House of Hwang where O-Lan once lived. That family has now fallen into decline, due to opium addiction and general financial recklessness.

The Good Earth - Wang Lung and O-Lan

There is now money enough to employ others to work on the land, money enough to take the sons from the fields and educate them and money enough to support some leisure activities. Wang Lung eventually buys the House of Hwang’s residence and moves his family in. To think! What was once the pinnacle of wealth and power to him, is now his.

However, lifestyle creep starts to cause problems.

O-Lan continues on as usual, but Wang Lung falls prey to peer group pressure from other rich men and starts going to gambling dens and ‘tea houses’. This is where he meets Lotus, a lady of the night. She looks like a kitten, with the smallest bound feet Wang Lung has ever seen.

The Good Earth - Lotus.

She is incredibly beautiful, totally greedy and selfish and she bedazzles Wang Lung. He showers her with money and even asks O-Lan to give him the 2 pearls she had kept from the cache of jewels, so that he could give them to Lotus. After a while he couldn’t bear the thought of other men sleeping with her, so he buys her from the Tea House and brings her home.

He builds her an inner court where she lives with her own household, so she and O-Lan don’t have to see each other. O-Lan is now totally disregarded by Wang Lung as she quietly goes about doing her regular work for the family until her death.

As the family gets older, lifestyle creep continues to happen. But through it all, even as silver streams from their hands, Wang Lung will never sell any of the land he has accumulated. He knows that it’s the bedrock of their fortunes and everything else they’ve managed to build and to buy is based on that.

The Good Earth - Wang Lung

He’s the definition of first-generation FIRE. But unfortunately, he was so focused on his work, what the rich men of the town thought and on Lotus that he made a huge mistake. The next generation had been allowed to grow up without having much contact with the very thing that had given them their prosperity. They could remember nothing but ease and comfort.

At the end of his life, he is living back on the original farm with his daughter and a concubine. He overhears his two sons talking about how they will divide the estate once Wang Lung has died, which fields they will keep and which ones they will sell:

  • But the old man heard only these words, “sell the land”, and he cried out and he could not keep his voice from breaking and trembling with his anger, “Now, evil, idle sons – sell the land!” He choked and would have fallen, and they caught him and held him up and he began to weep.
  • Then they soothed him and they said, soothing him, ” No – no- we will never sell the land – “
  • “It is the end of a family when – they begin to sell the land,” he said brokenly. “Out of the land we came and into it we must go – and if you can hold your land you can live – no one can rob you of land -“
  • And the old man let his scanty tears dry upon his cheeks and they made salty stains there. And he stooped and took up a handful of the soil and he held it and he muttered, “If you sell the land, it is the end.”
  • And his two sons held him, one on either side, each holding his arm, and he held tight in his hand the warm, loose earth. And they soothed him and they said over and over again, the elder son and the second son, “Rest assured, our father, rest assured. The land is not to be sold.”
  • But over the old man’s head they looked at each other and smiled.

Cut your coat to fit your cloth.

“Cut your coat to fit your cloth.”

That saying used to run through my mind quite a bit when the boys were younger. It’s not a dressmaking tip – it’s about knowing how much money/’cloth’ you have and then not allowing your expenses/’coat’ to exceed your resources.

I did this ruthlessly in the early years when the boys and I were living off the sole parents’ pension and child support was intermittent at best. I had a credit card that I ran all my expenses through – still do, in fact – but I paid it off in full every month.

I know what it’s like to have to cut expenses down to the bone to get by. A quick look at my ‘About’ page will tell you that.

Back in those days, I figured that I got us into this mess by my poor choice of husband and then choosing to stay until we’d produced 4 children, so I didn’t want to hold out my hands for help.

I got the kids and I into this and I’d get us out of it!

So I got very good at making sure that the mortgage and bills were paid, then food, then (if there was) anything left over, I threw it in an emergency fund. Back then I called it a ‘Buffer Zone”. Once I had around a thousand dollars in it, then I could relax a little and give the boys a few little treats.

That credit card never had a cent of interest paid on it. Well… that’s a fib. Twice I paid it a day late and was charged interest. Boy, was I mad at myself!!

Some people say that frugality isn’t as important as raising your income. I can see the logic – there’s only so far you can cut costs until there’s no more room for any more cuts – but I’ve found that a person discounts frugality at their financial peril.

Raising income is good – when the kids grew older I did it myself and it definitely helped us to get ahead – but frugality is the bedrock on which everything rests. If you raise your income but keep merrily spending, you’re going to end up broke no matter what your income is.

I used to make it a game. Particularly with the grocery shopping, I’d see how many days I could stretch out between shopping trips. Everyone knows that you always buy more than you think you’re going to when you go food shopping, so my solution was to go as little as possible.

When I started putting this little ploy into action, I found that there was often a little more “cloth” for me to cut my coat from.


I love this saying. Even now, when I’ve been back at work for over 15 years and those lean, hard days are all in the past, I still practice many of the things I did to survive back then.

The most important one – the one that I will never ever break – is to never let my outgoings exceed my incomings. My coat will always be amply able to be cut from my cloth.





I travel – so why do I love Staycations?

I love Staycations, even though it’s no secret that I also love to travel. I’ve blogged extensively about my trips to the UK, Europe, North Korea and Thailand on my personal blog, while this blog has 4 posts summarising what I saw in North Korea. I wtote about how the regime holds on to political power by using the power of advertising with sculpture, art, education and making everything appear bigger and better than the rest of the world.

Even though I have a hankering for more freedom I’m choosing to continue working for another few years. It’s mostly because I have a number in mind that I’m working towards, but the number is based on my love of travel. When I eventually pull the pin on my job, I’m planning to travel overseas at least once a year. Australia is pretty isolated, so international travel is often very expensive. My FIRE number is higher to account for this.

So, even though I love to travel overseas, most of my holidays are Staycations. I’ve always been a delayed gratification type of girl, where I’ll put off what I want to do today to REALLY enjoy it tomorrow. But having said that, the truth is that I LOVE a Staycation.

Honestly, if you don’t like hanging around in the place that you live in, then you’re doing it wrong.

Your home is the place where you can be yourself – a place where you shut the door behind you and you can simply “be.” And after all, a holiday doesn’t have to be a time to run yourself ragged – it can also be a time to regroup and chill, enjoying what’s around you.

Home is the perfect place to recharge batteries and do -(or not do)- all those little things you’ve been meaning to get to but couldn’t when your time was taken up with a job. Little things like reading a book, lunching like ladies and sorting through that filing cabinet, one drawer at a time.

I had a 5 week Staycation at the end of the school year, right at Christmas time and then on into January. I was so tired when that holiday started, I’m pretty sure I looked like Moon-Moon here in the meme below:

Yes, that’s an accurate representation.

When the holidays start, I take the first few days slowly. I sleep in for as long as the dogs allow me to. There’s only so much ‘claws scratching against floorboards’ noise that I can take before I get up. They probably circle the bed like sharks around a shipwreck victim, waiting for me to wake.

I need downtime. Time to slowly move through the day, doing whatever seems like a good idea in the moment. That’s why I love a Staycaion.

I indulge myself with gobs of freedom.

I leisurely move through the first few days, reading, taking a nanna nap after lunch if I feel like it. Aw, who am I kidding? I usually do feel like it – those Spaniards are onto something with the siesta! If I have the energy and inclination to tackle a task that needs doing, I’ll do it. Otherwise, I’ll ignore it until later in the holiday. I have the time to either use or squander, depending on my mood.

Later on in the holidays, whether it’s the 5 week summer break or the regular 2 week breaks between terms, is when I tend to Get Things Done.

Bigger tasks that need some extra time or boring things that still have to be done whether I like them or not – they get knocked off my mental ‘To Do ‘ list.

Well, mostly. I made soap for Christmas presents in the September holidays and I was going to make more in the summer. We’re down to our last bar of home-made soap and I still haven’t made more. I’m not saying a Staycation makes you perfect – just more rested and chilled.

And probably better looking due to all the relaxation.

I remember when the kids were younger. Life got pretty frantic at times, particularly when you add a young family into the mix. I was working, the children had their own schedules of school and activities and socialising to be worked around; life was lived at fever-pitch and was scheduled out to the minute.

So if every holiday is lived at that frantic pace as well – how is that doing anyone any good?

Revel in a staycation. You’re definitely not depriving yourself. They’re wonderful.

“We both spend money – just on different things.”

I was talking with a friend a couple of years ago. I’ve known her all my life and we chat nearly every week. Our kids have grown up together and it’s safe to say we’re close.

Our lives have worked out very differently. She’s still on her first marriage of nearly 30 years, whereas I’ve been single for most of that time. I live in suburbia, while she lives in the country. Our spending habits are very different too.

She was over at my place, staying for a few days over the summer holidays and she mentioned that maybe we could go out and grab a coffee one day. This is something that she does every day of her life, always with friends or family.

I don’t. Not because I don’t have friends or family, but because I don’t like doing it as a part of my regular routine.

I have my 16c cup of coffee in the morning before I leave home and usually that’s about it. I spend recess and lunchtimes with my friends at work in the staffroom or common room. Going to cafés to spend heaps on a coffee and a cake just isn’t my thing. It’s probably because I’m lazy at heart, but I’d rather loll around at home than dress up to go out and drink the very same things that I have in my kitchen.

I can’t remember exactly what I said in reply to Sharon, but it was clearly unenthusiastic. She curled her lip at me and said, “What’s wrong? Don’t you like the taste of coffee?”

“Of course, I do,” I said. “But we have a coffee machine right here.”

She rolled her eyes. “My God Frogdancer, you never spend money on anything! Don’t you want to live a little? Get out and do things?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. I pointed to Scout.

“Sharon, you DO realise you’re talking to the person who paid two thousand dollars for a puppy last year? And spent around thirty thousand for the Europe trip? I’m going to be spending over 50 thousand on landscaping soon. How can you say I don’t spend anything?”

“Yeah ok, but you never buy new shoes or clothes and you’ve had your car for 5 years…”

I interrupted. “Sharon, I spend money on myself every single month.”

“On what?” she asked, looking around. I think she was hoping to see shopping bags piled up in a corner somewhere.

“The only difference between us is that you buy things people can see. You buy things – I buy time. I don’t give a (bleep) about fashion; what I care about is setting myself up so I don’t need to go to work if I don’t want to. I’m buying back years of my life. “

“What do you mean? How can you buy time?”

“Every month I put money in shares, I salary sacrifice to the max into super and I put any extra into my share portfolio. If everything goes as it should, in 5 years or so I’ll be able to choose whether I want to work or not.”

She sighed. “Yeah, that’s fine for you. I’ll be working until I die…”

I thought she was probably right, but it wasn’t the sort of conversation I wanted to have with her just then. I decided to say something that would make the point and end the topic without actually pointing the finger at her.

” We both spend money on ourselves; it’s just on different things.”

So we took our dogs for a walk instead.

When a survival strategy turns into a comfort zone treat.

I used to make a meal for the boys when we were REALLY short of money. It was the meal I went to when the pantry was bare and I needed to stretch the grocery money for another few days, so we’d have to eat whatever was at home.

Oatcakes.

Or as my youngest called them – Oakcakes.

It’s a gourmet mix of raw eggs, rolled oats, salt and some dried or fresh parsley that you form into patties and shallow fry. If I had some leftover meat, I’d chop that into small chunks and add that too, but often, particularly in the early days, that wasn’t an option.

Smother with lots of tomato sauce and serve with mashed potato and veggies.

Sounds appetising, doesn’t it?

Ok, I know some of you are feeling slightly ill at this point. But Oakcakes are surprisingly tasty, especially with the ‘fancy’ addition of the meat chunks. The tomato sauce is a must, though.

This was bare pantry desperation cooking. I needed something filling and nutritious for the boys, yet it had to be something that they’d all eat because I couldn’t afford to throw uneaten food away. If something worked with all 4 of them, (or even 3 of them), it was in high rotation.

Now that they’re all in their twenties and two of them don’t live at home any more, I’ve started ‘Sunday Roast’. Every Sunday lunchtime I make a roast for whoever wants to come. The added bonus is that there are often leftovers for Mondays and Tuesdays.

A couple of months ago I came home from work, looked in the fridge and thought about what I was going to make for dinner that night. The two boys were going to be in, so it was the three of us. The weather was a little cool, I didn’t feel like making a salad-y thing, hmmm what to do?

Then I remembered Oakcakes.

I suggested them to Ryan24. His eyes lit up.’That’s a GREAT idea! Oakcakes! I love them!”

David 25 was also enthusiastic.

So I mixed up the mixture… which is a strange sentence to type… put the potatoes in the thermomix to make mashed potatoes and prepped the veggies.

Now… this is confession time. The one thing I used to hate about Oakcakes is cooking them. So I got one of the boys to do that. As a responsible parent, it’s my job to prepare them for Real Life by making them do the household chores that I dislike.

But how funny life is sometimes.

The food that I made for them when we were so poor is now their comfort food. Since that meal, we’ve had Oakcakes every couple of weeks after a Sunday Roast when we’ve had lamb or beef. The boys, especially Ryan24, are the ones asking for it and it makes their night when the answer is, “Yes, we have some leftover roast. Let’s do it!”

I can’t help wondering if we are the only family where this has happened.  Are we weird or do you have a similar tale to tell about how something – doesn’t have to be food – morphed over time from “survival strategy” to ” delightful comfort zone?”

(Hmmm… now I think I’m hungry.)

Full Circle.

Something happened on the second-last week of the holidays and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I was walking the dogs around the block. It was mid-morning and for some reason we had left it too late to go to the dog beach. We rounded the corner near the primary school and there was a woman sitting at the bus stop, talking on her mobile.

“Yeah, I’m on my way home,” she said as we passed. “I was volunteering but it’s finished now.”

I glanced at my watch, thinking, ‘It’s only 10 o’clock. How could a job be finishing up now?’ I shrugged and then kept walking. The sun was shining and the dogs’ tails were wagging. It was all good.

As we walked further up the street, an elderly lady and her son were walking towards us, pushing a trolley loaded up with boxes of fruit and vegetables. I could see that they were commenting about the dogs, so as we got closer I smiled and we stopped to exchange a few words. Her son looked to be in his forties and he had Downs Syndrome. He was torn between being taken with the dogs and worried that they might bite. His mother, who was clearly his carer, reassured him and we talked briefly about the dogs, then we moved on again.

As we kept going, there were another couple of people walking towards us, also loaded up with bags of what looked like shopping. I thought nothing of it and kept going up to the corner, where the church is.

As we got closer I could see people coming in and out of the church hall. They were wheeling shopping trolleys in and carrying boxes full of food out. It was a hive of activity in there.

This was on a Thursday morning, when I’m usually at work.

A woman and her husband were coming along the path towards us, so I pulled the dogs in beside me to let them pass. The woman stopped and after the usual compliments about the dogs, said, “Do you know what’s going on in there?”

When I shook my head, she said, “They’re giving away free food!”

I glanced towards the church. “Really?”

“Yes. It’s so wonderful. My son is starting year 7 this year so we’ve been buying books and uniform and paying the school fees… it’s so expensive. I was worrying about how we were going to pay for everything, but look at all this!”

She gestured to the boxes of produce that her husband was carrying.

“This takes all the pressure off. And guess what’s in this?”

She patted the tartan shopping trolley that she was pushing.

“It’s FULL of lunch box snacks! Like LCMs and Uncle Toby’s. I won’t have to worry about school lunches for ages! You should go in and have a look.”

I laughed and looked at the dogs. “I don’t think they’d like it too much if I brought the dogs in with me!”

She urged me to go in again, then she found out I was a teacher and we talked about starting secondary school She was nice enough to thank me for being a teacher, which (to be frank) is a bit of a novelty. Most people whinge about the holidays we get, especially at this time of the year!

As we headed towards home, I could see quite a few people heading for the church, shopping trolleys and bags in hand. If I hadn’t have talked with the woman outside the church, I would never have noticed them.

I didn’t go into the church to grab some free food, because it wasn’t put there for people like me. I have a full-time job, my kids are grown and I’m financially secure. But my head was spinning.

Because you see, it wasn’t so long ago that it would have been for me.

Back when I was at home with my 4 small boys, money was tight. I was watching every penny like a hawk and it was definitely on the cards that if something went wrong financially, I could lose the house and the kids and they would lose that security. It was incredibly stressful.

Then, one day my Aunty Doris asked if I’d be interested in getting free bread every week. Her brother-in-law was a member of a church that sent people to pick up everything that wasn’t sold at a gourmet bakery in East Brighton and then deliver it to people who needed it. The Tuesday night woman couldn’t do it any more and he thought of the boys and me. I couldn’t believe my luck!

We went to that bakery every Tuesday night for the next 14 years. We’d drive into the laneway at the back of the shop, armed with 3 or 4 empty laundry baskets and lots of plastic bags. It wasn’t just bread – there were cakes and buns, pies and pasties… it was a lucky dip every week.

The boys ate a LOT of bread growing up. Every Tuesday night was pie night. We’d eat whatever hot food was there. We grew very tired of pies and pasties but I insisted we keep the tradition going. That was a night where feeding the 5 of us didn’t cost me a cent!

It was a crazy thought that we were so poor, yet we were eating the same bread as the “rich” people in East Brighton. Some of it was your ordinary white loaves, but mixed among that was the BEST rye bread and gourmet wholemeal seedy loaves that I’ve ever eaten. Nothing better than a chewy crust of rye bread with lashings of butter. Now that I’m writing about it, I really miss that rye bread…

After a few years we bought chickens. Every Wednesday was bread day for the chooks, which saved me a day’s worth of pellets. The neighbourhood birds soon got to know our backyard – it wasn’t an unusual sight to see a raven flying away with a Boston bun in its beak and sparrows snatching dinner rolls and squabbling over them.

Every week, I’d pack the leftovers from the bakery into different laundry baskets, depending on who was going to get the contents. At first, when I was home with the kids, there was our basket, Mum’s basket, and then various friends who’d put their hands up for free bread. Later on, the chook basket, for the food that wasn’t as pristine. Then, when I went back to work, there was the school basket. Every Wednesday morning I’d walk from the car to the common room, basket loaded up with loaves of bread and all the cakes and buns. People loved that they had a free morning tea every week and that they could take home some bread to use for toast.

When I bought The Best House in Melbourne and moved 50 minutes away, I knew the bread run had to come to an end. I tried it once and the trip home at peak hour along Nepean Highway was awful. I didn’t get home until 6:30. There was no way I was going to make my Tuesdays that long and I knew that times had changed. Although I was paying over 70% of my takehome pay in bridging finance, I knew that we’d be able to survive without it. It was time to pass the baton to someone else.

I walked away from my conversation with the couple outside the church and my eyes widened as I started to recognise how far the boys and I have come. She was once me, with all these bills to pay and barely enough money to keep things going. Once, there is no way I would have walked away from that free food! I would have tied the dogs up on the fence outside and dived in, desperate to save some money so I could put it towards uniforms, bills or servicing the car.

Instead, the dogs and I quietly walked home, seeing the other people clearly making their way towards the church hall. Some were young mothers pushing prams, some were older people and some looked like they’d clearly had a hard life.

I opened the gate to The Best House in Melbourne and brought the dogs inside and bent down to take off their leads. I stood up and looked at my beautiful, fully-paid-for house and I sighed a deep sigh of thankfulness that things have ended up as they have.

I kept my head together and didn’t waste anything while we were struggling, whether it be free bread, donated kids’ clothes or my teaching degree. We were very fortunate to have had help along the way, such as the bakery run and we didn’t squander it. I will be eternally grateful for the impulse that led that man to offer the Tuesday night run to the boys and me. It was a huge help when we were struggling and it also taught the boys about spreading our good fortune by sharing with others.

But the thing I’m now most grateful for? When I looked at that excited woman who urged me to go on and get some of this miraculous bounty for myself and I felt nothing but a calm certainty that this generosity was not for me. I can safely leave it on the table for others to use.

I’m not used to the feeling of financial security. It’s lovely.

What has my second-gen FIRE child learned about frugality?

Right from when they were very small, my children have watched me buy in bulk when non-perishables have been on sale, then helped me lug them home and store them in towering piles in the pantry or watched me decant into smaller, more user-friendly containers.

When I was in San Gimignano in Italy in 2015, one of the souvenirs I bought was this olive oil tin. I knew I’d use it and I love it still. I buy 4L tins of olive oil from Aldi and simply decant into my olive oil ‘watering can’ when it runs dry. It’s a similar idea to the non-stick spatula* I bought last year in North Korea. A useful souvenir is a good souvenir!

So what has my 24-year-old son done?

 

Ryan24 is half-way through his Remedial Massage course at RMIT. When massage oil was on the book list for this year, he bought in bulk. He’s bought smaller bottles to decant the oil into for when he goes to classes. Of course, as any second-gen FIRE frugal person would do, he made sure that the unit price for the bulk oil was far cheaper than for 1L bottles.

I’m very proud.

I just hope I don’t ever mistake it for a wine cask one dark night!

(This last photo has nothing to do with the post. I simply thought that some people might want to see the spatula of choice for people in North Korea.)

* I bought this spatula when we were allowed to wander around the supermarket in Pyongyang, North Korea, for 45 minutes on our own, surrounded by ordinary people doing their daily shopping. I saw these spatulas, thought, ‘Hey, I need one of these,’ and brought it home with me. 

Every time I make pancakes I remember my trip. 🙂

How did I go on the ‘No Spend’ days this year?

One of the first posts I wrote on this blog was one about how I make my spending more intentional by using a simple chart I keep in the cloud.

Simply put:

1. Detail every dollar spent – easy because I spend almost exclusively through my credit card. It’s the little cash things that I have to be careful to put down straight away!

2. Every week that has 3 or less ‘no spend’ days gets to be a Silver Week. This is my first full year of tracking my spending like this, so the 2018 total is the benchmark that I’ll measure future years from.

That’s it. Can’t get more simple than that.

This chart works on pretty basic psychology. If I want to earn a silver square, I have to be very intentional about which days I choose to spend money on. This means that on most weeks I bunch up my spending, instead of lazily spreading it out throughout the week. I might do a shopping trip on the way home from work, where I’ll stop in at Costco to buy fuel and then pop in for some dog food, a roast chook and some veggies; then I’ll swing by the chicken warehouse to buy chicken necks for the dogs and some other meat for us; and then if we need a top-up from the supermarket I’ll stop by Aldi. Everything’s done on the one day!

As you can see, in 2018 I had 28 weeks where I restricted my spending to fall into the category of a Silver Week. I don’t think that’s too bad… it’s a little more than half. December was a very spendy month. I was pretty well exhausted by the end of the year and I think I spent more on lunches this month than I did for the last 2 years combined!

The next job is to go through the chart and fill out my yearly spreadsheet of all my expenses. Considering I spent 50K on all of the garden renovations that I did this year, 2018 hasn’t exactly been cheap! (And there’ll be more to come in 2019… yikes!) But these are expenses which only have to be borne once and will reap dividends in the future.

I won’t lie – it’s tedious to run through the chart and add up all the figures. But it’s essential to know where my money is going as I head ever closer to retirement. I need to know precisely how much money I need before I give up work. The 4% Rule will only take me so far…

 

In defence of Santa – from a Value-ist.

I read a tweet from Angela an hour ago about how her family doesn’t “do” Santa at Christmas and as a Santa enthusiast, it got me thinking and remembering. Angela and her family have thought about this and haven’t made their decision lightly, but I have a differing point of view. Christmases here are very different now, but when the boys were kids and money was tight, it was a challenge to make Christmas morning magical. And, as I’ll tell you in a second, yesterday I discovered that it paid off big time.

As a single parent, when the boys were small, money was tight. I went back to full-time work when the boys were Tom10, David8, Ryan6 and Evan5. When I was on the sole parents’ pension as it was called then, I was paying a mortgage and the bills and we were living pretty much hand-to-mouth. We were on roughly 18K/year, of which nearly half was going to the mortgage, so there was little room for fripperies in the budget.

But… I’m a Value-ist. I was a Value-ist before the term was coined. I’ll scrimp and scrape to save money for my family to survive, but if there is something that I see adds huge value to our lives, I’ll spend the money to achieve it.

Santa was definitely one of those things.

When Tom26 was Tom9, he came home from school in the middle of the year and said to me, “Joe Lunchbucket said to me that Santa wasn’t real.” Now, Tom is a communicative boy, so I hastily got him away from his brothers by suggesting we go into the backyard for a chat.

We walked down to the fig tree, where I asked him whether he really wanted to know. He said yes. I looked him right in the eye, smiled and said, “That’s right. I’m Santa.”

Tom9 gasped and said, “NO WAY!” To be frank, I wasn’t expecting this reaction.

I laughed and said, “What do you mean?”

“YOU can’t be Santa! You couldn’t afford it!!!”

After convincing him that yes, I was indeed Santa, he became struck with guilt.

“Oh no. I’ve been telling all the boys to ask for the expensive things for Christmas so you wouldn’t have to get them.”

Oh, my baby. That’s real love right there. And fiscal responsibility. No wonder he became an accountant! That remark went straight to my heart. I laughed, hugged him and we had The Talk. The Talk about how knowing about Santa means that you’re now with the grown-ups and we NEVER spoil Santa for little kids by blabbing it out just to make ourselves feel important. We keep the secret so they get to enjoy it just as we did.

Having all of your children caught up in the magic of Santa is special. But it’s also special when your older ones start joining in with keeping the magic alive for the little ones.  When they help the little ones with the spelling on their Santa lists, when they distract them when we’re shopping so I can smuggle a present past them, and when they all yell out, “Thank you Santa Claus!!” and the older one/s turn and smile with you, or give you a secret hug and whisper, “Thanks Mum.”

To be honest, I had an advantage on my side, in that the boys were little when money was ultra-tight. This meant that I was able to get away with quantity over quality. I knew that little kids have no idea what things cost. They just get excited by piles of things. So every year each boy would get one “big” present. Something that they wanted that was ultra-fun or ultra-pricey that they needed AND wanted. Then there’d be a present or two that was medium exciting, like computer games (often bought second-hand) or smaller toys. The rest required ingenuity.

I created traditions.

  1. Every year Santa brought bubble mix. Part of Christmas morning was that we’d all go out into the backyard and blow bubbles and see who could blow the biggest ones. We’d laugh as the dogs tried to catch them. It was fun and cost about $1/child.
  2. Every year Santa brought those mini packets of Kellogs cereals. The kids LOVED these, as normally it was just home-brand wheat bix and cornflakes in the pantry.
  3. You know those packets of chocolate gold coins that you can get from $2 shops? My kids were in the money every Christmas.
  4. Santa was also a bit of a fashionista. If the kids needed new bathers, t-shirts or the like, they’d go into the pile. Usually, each child had their Christmas Day outfit given to them, so they’d be all dressed up in their best for the day. I was going to buy them anyway, so why not add it to the mix? It all looks impressive.

But the biggest savings hack was shopping at garage sales. The little presents, and to be honest, some of the really big ones too, were bought here. The boys were away with their father every second weekend, so from about September onwards I’d drive around and visit garage sales when the kids weren’t with me. People just want to get rid of things their kids have outgrown, so I’d pick up toys and other things for absolute pennies on the dollar that they would have been when new.  My kids never had any idea that a huge percentage of their Santa gifts were pre-loved.

All that mattered to them was the magic.

Yesterday I listened to a podcast that Tom26 was on. He and a friend were talking about all things Christmas – the carols, the commercialism, the memories and, of course, Santa. Tom26 brought up the Santa reveal story I’ve already shared with you, but he also said this:

“As a young kid, Christmas is everything. And the one thing I’ll say about my mother who, I think, will end up hearing this episode…”

“Tread carefully!!!” said his friend. (Made me laugh.)

“… My family did not grow up with any sort of money. We were really, like, dirt poor. But Christmas – Mum went above and beyond. At the time, you’re young, you don’t know, but you look back and you realise what she did. And that’s something that I cherish, looking back on.”

He went on:

“Then as you get older, as you get busier, it’s about taking a break, saying, “I’m going to put all my problems away for a second, put them in a box, and go and see friends and family. The people that matter most. And they don’t have to believe, either, (they’d touched on religion in the conversation earlier). We can just say thanks for one another on one day. The gifts really are a symbol of thanks, really, for just putting up with me (laughs), well, maybe not entirely! But also thanks for being YOU, through the thick and thin.”

The good thing about podcasts is that you can go through and get it down, word for word. I really wanted to be accurate in putting down what he said because I was so blown away with how perfectly he’s internalised the true meaning of Christmas. Family and friends – the people closest to you. The gifts you buy are only there as a symbol of how much you value those people in your life. Taking time out to be with them and acknowledging them and their importance to you.

I believe Santa lays the groundwork for this.

First, kids learn to receive.

Then they learn how to give.

Merry Christmas everyone! May your holiday season be happy and mirthful and your dinner plate always be full.  🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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