Burning Desire For FIRE

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

Category: Frugality (page 1 of 3)

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!

Growing a portfolio is just like having a veggie garden.

(Self-sown tomato plants, growing from compost materials I brought back from the school canteen. Hopefully, I’ll get free tomatoes!)

Like investing or working towards financial independence, gardening is a process of doing little jobs, one after the other. These jobs are nothing momentous when viewed on their own, but over time the cumulative effect can be huge.

The good thing about a little project is that it doesn’t take much to gain success. I just finished one on Sunday, out in the garden, and it made my day.

(Here’s another lot, just springing up. You can see they’re all from the same tomato. I’ll have to thin them out this weekend.)

Last year I was wandering around Bunnings in the gardening section and I saw a plastic frame to grow beans/cucumbers or whatever. It came with a thin plastic bird netting to throw over it. I thought it’d be perfect to use for the Purple King beans that Bev gave me in 2012.

I set it up and yes, it worked pretty well. This was the first year that my veggie garden was operational and I had yet to realise how poor the soil that the landscaper had used was. Pretty much the only things that grew last year were beans and zucchini.

(Last year’s Purple King beans, just starting out. The actual beans are purple as the name suggests, but they turn green when you cook them.)

At the end of the season the netting was full of holes. Actually, that’s a stupid sentence to write because, by definition, netting is already full of holes! But this netting was so delicate that it was ripped to shreds. I packed away the frame, thinking vaguely that next year I’d cut down some more bird netting or something to use with it. Maybe even position it in a couple of the wicking beds so it’d form an arch???

So exciting!

Fast forward to this year. I was wasting time online, looking at the Diggers site when I saw brown string being used as netting. OMG!!! It was marketed as being compostable, so you just tear it down at the end of the growing season and whack it in the compost, but you and I both know that’s not going to happen in the Frogdancer Jones household! I’ll get at least 2 growing seasons out of it at least. You mark my words.

I didn’t know whether I’d need one or two of them to fit the frame, but they were only $9 each, so I ordered 4. I figured that I’d be able to use them somehow. While I was waiting for them to come in the mail, I dragged the frame out of the shed and set it up over the middle path between the two wicking beds, then planted some Lazy Housewife beans I’d saved from my crop last year. I figured they’d get a week or so to grow before they’d reach the netting.

I had a vision in my head of a green arch over the path, with beans hanging down ripe for the picking. The shade of the arch would shelter at least 2 worm farms in the wicking beds and the path itself would be a shady spot. In the middle of summer those brick paths can get hot. The bean archway would be functional as well as pretty.

I didn’t think to take a photo of the frame before I threw the jute netting over it. So here’s an ‘after’ shot.

Sometimes in gardening, along with investing, you find that you can do things by yourself that you didn’t think you could. Learn about shares? Compound interest – what’s that? How do I invest? There are numbers involved and numbers are scary; surely I’ll have to hire someone???

Can I put this netting over this very tall frame? Surely I’ll need help from a tallish son?

We have a problem with birds here, so I’ll have to manoeuvre the growing bean and cucumber plants out from under the bird net and onto the jute netting.

But no! I was able to do it all by myself. Some of the beans had grown tall enough for me to thread them through the lower parts of the netting, so the project is already underway. I stepped back after setting it all up and felt proud.

I was reading on Rhonda’s blog about how nice the white cucumbers are, so when I saw a punnet of them I brought one home. Ryan24 loves cucumbers and the twine netting is certainly strong enough to support them, so if they take off they’ll be a handy addition to the garden. The mixture of beans and cucumbers would also make for a more interesting view, too.

When I look at the little steps it took to see this little project through from start to finish, I feel pleased that I took those steps. It’s the same feeling I get when I log into my Superannuation account to see how it’s going, or into my Commsec account to cast a quick look over my shares. I feel glad that I started the journey to financial independence all those years ago.

Sometimes things in both gardening and investing don’t go to plan. The sharemarket may fall or a landscaper may put in awful soil that kills the plants you put in. But if you quietly keep putting in the little steps… slowly and steadily making compost to nourish the soil/saving a certain amount each pay/salary sacrificing towards Super/ buying an ETF every time your savings reach a coupla grand…

Imagine how this will look in a few weeks? It’s going to be lush and green and shady.

… you’ll be able to look back over time and marvel at just how far you’ve come.

Why an Emergency Fund is a very good thing to have.

I guess I’ve always been a bit of a saver. When I was in my teens and twenties I’d willingly save whenever I had a goal in mind, but if I didn’t, I’d tend to drift along the path of life, buying what made me happy in the moment. Heck, in my 20’s I had a VERY expensive dog breeding and showing hobby, which sucked up thousands of dollars over the time I did it. Poppy and Jeff are the descendants of that breeding program, so I’m very glad I did it!

Back in those days, I had no thought for an emergency fund, as I was living with my boyfriend/fiance who had his own small business. In those early days, money wasn’t a problem. It was predominately a cash business. When his accountant asked if he wanted to pay tax on his earnings and A said no, the accountant told him to “Piss it all up against the wall then!”

Dimly, this worried me. It seemed like such a waste. But I told myself it wasn’t my business and it was A’s money, not mine. However, things change. By the time we were married some stiff competition had moved into the town we were living in and the financial good times began to slip away.

Ten years later, by the time I walked out, our finances were dire. By that stage, we had 4 boys under 5, a house with a mortgage just under 100K, two very old and worthless cars and $60 cash each.

Obviously it was easier for my ex to move out of the family home and for the boys and me to stay put while we tried to work out what was going to come next. I allowed him to stay for 6 weeks to get some money together while I slept on the couch. I’m short, but even so, it wasn’t the comfiest of beds! After 6 weeks I asked him when he was moving out and he said, “I haven’t arranged anything. I thought you’d change your mind by now. ” After being informed in a fairly direct way that no, I needed time apart to see if there was anything left of the marriage to save, he borrowed some money from his sister and moved out a couple of days later.

My ex had no money and very little cash-flow from his business, so in lieu of any child support, he agreed to keep paying the mortgage. Meanwhile, I went on what was then called the “Sole Parents’ Pension’, which gave me around $300/week to support the boys.

I felt extremely vulnerable. Every time I looked at the boys I grew more and more determined that they wouldn’t suffer for the mistakes that I’d made in some of my life choices.

I knew I needed some cash to stand between us and a cruel, hard world. I hadn’t heard of an ‘Emergency Fund’ then, so in my head I called it a “Buffer Zone” I decided a thousand dollars would make me feel safer. It seemed like an insurmountable sum to find, but I knew I had to try.

So I started saving. The next 3 months were TIGHT. Every bill was paid as soon as it entered the house and I scrimped and scraped on everything else. If we had a meat meal, the boys had all the meat and I lived on eggs and veggies. Sometimes, if I was really desperate, I’d cut the end off a sausage and devour it. I felt guilty, but sometimes smelling those snags cooking was more than flesh and blood could stand!

The boys’ protein came from mince, sausages, tins of tuna and eggs. We didn’t waste an ounce of food. Funny thing is, some of the meals I made over this time have morphed into our family’s comfort foods. Scotch oatcakes, tuna mornay, cauliflower + macaroni cheese… funny how desperation can turn into fond dinner requests!

At around the 3 month mark I’d saved the one thousand dollars. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt a glimmer of pride. I’d done it! We were safe! But then a little niggle of something made me decide to call the bank to check on how the mortgage was going…

“I’m sorry Mrs ******, but your mortgage is $968 in arrears,” said the nice bank man on the end of the phone. I nearly dropped the receiver. How could this be possible? A said he’d pay the mortgage. It was supposed to be his way of supporting his own children, for God’s sake!!!

My first reaction was disbelief. Then it was blinding anger. How could he recklessly put the boys’ security at stake like that?

My third reaction was a mix of resignation and relief when I thought of the Buffer Zone money. It’d cover the arrears. I loaded the boys up into the double stroller and took a walk down to the bank. Within half an hour of that phone call, our account was back where it should be and I now had around $30 to my name. Half what I walked away with 3 months ago when I left my husband. But the house was safe, which meant so were the boys.

If that doesn’t bring home to a person how important it is to have an emergency fund, then I guess nothing will. If I didn’t have that money put aside and the bill for the mortgage got worse and worse, the trajectory of how our lives turned out would have been vastly different.

That little house was the place we lived in for the next 20-odd years, after I bought my ex out in the property settlement a year later. It was in one of the best public school zones in Melbourne and so my boys got a great education. As an unexpected bonus, I’ve been working at the same school for the last 16 years and so my little family ended up having a stable income, no matter what A decided to do with child support. And in 2018, the sale of that little house enabled me to utilise Geoarbitrage in the same city and release a tonne of equity which has probably saved me from a decade of having to work.

As soon as the boys and I walked back from the bank all those years ago, I started building up that Emergency Fund again. When I was at home with them, before Evan, my youngest, started school, my Buffer Zone was 1K. We had to use it a lot as things cropped up, sometimes the Emergency Fund would be depleted and I’d be reminded yet again about how essential it was to have money put away. You just have to read my ‘About‘ page to see that!

However as the years rolled on and I was in a secure job, as the level of cash in the Emergency Find rose, so did the likelihood of me having to tap it. It’s strange how that works.

A few months ago I had to tap it for the first time in years. Our hot water service blew up and I wanted to replace it with a gas continuous hot water service. What could have been a financial drama was just a minor inconvenience, because I had the money on hand to pay for it. I’m in the process of building it back up now.

Sometimes I see posts stating that the need for an emergency fund is overstated and that people would be better off putting that money into the share market and letting it ride. That’s pure stupidity in my opinion. Having a few grand put aside in an online high-interest account that you don’t touch unless something totally unexpected comes up – this won’t slow you down towards your march towards financial independence! Think about it. We’re looking to amass hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ten grand or so in a savings account is a drop in the bucket compared with that.

But by gum! It’ll help you sleep at night.

All it takes is a little bit of foresight.

Is it weird to love a spice rack so much?

Three years ago, when we moved from our little 1950’s weatherboard house to The Best House in Melbourne, I spent up big. I’m a naturally frugal person and I knew that if I waited until we’d developed the block that the old house stood on and sold the units, I’d probably be used to things in The Best House in Melbourne and I wouldn’t change them.

I decided that while I was excited about the new house, I should Get Things Done while I was still in “new house mode”.

I moved things around in the kitchen, massively remodelled the laundry and did a few things in the garden. One of the best things I did though, was spend nearly $300 on a spice rack. You can see it above, hanging from the back of the pantry door, next to the automatic light that my brother-in-law put in for me. (Incidentally, that light is also one of the best things I’ve ever spent money on.)

Ever since I bought the Skinnymixer’s recipe book ‘A Little Taste of India’, I’ve used a lot of spices in my cooking. Having them all together, alphabetised and ready for action, has been fantastic. The jars are clear plastic, so I can see at a glance when a herb or spice is getting low.

One of my rosemary plants in a wicking box.

I grow quite a few herbs in my garden, but sometimes it’s handy to have the dried version on hand. The easy way would be to simply throw a packet of dried rosemary or oregano into my shopping trolley the next time I was at the supermarket. Or, with a little bit of foresight, I could harvest some cuttings and make it myself.

It’s not hard. It’s literally a 5-minute job, but you need to do it a few weeks in advance.

I looked at the rosemary container and saw that it was getting low. I grabbed the scissors, went out to the side deck and hacked away at one of the rosemary plants. I lay the cuttings down on a couple of cake coolers, making sure that the cuttings weren’t too close together so air could circulate around them, then I walked away and left them for a couple of weeks.

Yesterday I came home from work, looked at the rosemary cuttings and saw that they were dried. I stripped the leaves from the stems, put them into the thermomix and speed 10’d them for a few seconds.

Done! By doing this I saved myself a couple of dollars, but that wasn’t why I decided to put this post together.

If you look at the bottom you’ll see where the old rosemary was and where the new rosemary begins.

By looking at the jar, I could see that we’d soon be needing to top up on dried rosemary. It was obviously going to happen. If I ignored it and let the jar run out, I’d more than likely be forced into buying a packet the next time I was out shopping.

But by using foresight and giving myself the time to pick the rosemary and spend two weeks drying it, I was able to use the materials I have to their best ability. I was able to allocate time and resources in the best way possible to utilise their benefit to me.

In a small way, this mirrors working towards Financial Independence.

Let’s face it, it takes foresight to begin preparing for financial security, let along retirement. Most people bury their heads in the sand for decades before starting to get their finances together.

Let me put my hand up for that one. When I first started this blog, I wrote a post on my second-biggest financial mistake. That post describes the way I showed my kids about the power of compounding, (and it won the first Rockstar Rumble, which makes me feel slightly better!), but the fact remains that I cashed in my superannuation of 30K back in 1991. If I’d left it alone and never added another thing to it, it’d be worth over 200K today and I’d more than likely be retired now.

I didn’t think far enough ahead. I was an idiot. All I needed was a little bit of foresight.

If I could say anything to people younger than me, people in my children’s generation, I’d say to them that they all know that old age is coming. Yes, it’s in some dark, misty future but, like Christmas, it IS coming. Future You will be so grateful if you make it a habit – starting from now – to throw a little bit of money their way.

Take it from me – if I had an extra 200K from Past Frogdancer Jones, I’d be very happy. It would almost certainly change the choices that I’ve made about going part-time next year. If I feel that way, I can bet my bottom dollar that Future You would feel the same way too.

The best thing about the power of compounding is that if you start young, you don’t need to throw enormous gobs of money towards Future You. Little amounts squirrelled away regularly will mount up over the decades to become substantial. Life-changing.

It only takes a little bit of foresight to give Future You the enormous gift of being able to have choices. By utilising your resources and time in this way, your life, decades in the future, will be so much easier.

I can guarantee that Future You will be so totally grateful to Present You. Start harvesting those financial cuttings – the future has a habit of arriving much more quickly than we dream of!

Poppy in the herb garden. This is Past Frogdancer Jones’ future.

My chilly ankles Winter Challenge.

Why I don’t buy many things online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I jumped online and checked their returns policy.

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

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

But hang on – were they so unusable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it necessary to spend up big on a Staycation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes poverty breeds ingenuity.

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

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

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

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

I think he nailed it.

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

Truly the gift that keeps on giving!

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

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

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

It’s a mystery…

‘Playing With Fire’ documentary is coming to Melbourne!

I woke up this morning to the news that the ‘Playing With Fire’ doco is coming to Melbourne. Naturally I booked a ticket right away.

The link is HERE. Camberwell’s a fair hike from where I live, but I figure I can always take the next day off – I’m trying to use up my sick days before I pull the pin on the job anyway!

I hope to see some of you there!

It’s so easy to entertain yourself without spending any money!

Backyard beach.

Now that I’ve made the move to go part-time next year, I don’t mind admitting that I’m torn between looking forward to it and feeling slight feelings of unease about the drop in income. It’s illogical – I know I’ll be ok with less money coming in. But after this weekend, I’m feeling much better. It’s so easy to entertain yourself without spending any money!

We’ve just finished week 8 of term 2, which leaves us 2 weeks to go before our 2 week winter holidays. This is the pointy end of the semester, when we have to mark all learning tasks and exams and then write the reports. English marking is the worst. It’s an interesting subject to teach, but we pay for it with the hours of extra time it takes us to mark the kids’ work.

So it’s safe to say that we teachers are getting tired. I brought my year 9 exams home with me on Friday to mark and I made sure that I got them done before Friday was through. The last thing I want to do is give up my weekend if I can avoid it!

So Saturday dawned. The dogs let me sleep in until 8 AM, so I got up in the sunlight, which always makes me happy. I fed them their chicken necks, then I sat down on the couch with a coffee and my laptop and spent the next 2 hours gently surfing the web, reading twitter, facebook and blogs. The dogs were curled up next to me, I had my warm bathrobe on and I was as happy as a pig in mud.

The rest of the day flowed gently on by. I got dressed, made cauliflower cheese for lunch because Ryan24 loves it. He even requests it for his birthday dinner every year when he could have anything that he wants. After lunch I had a long nanna nap, then took the dogs out for a quick gallop. I fed the worms in the garden beds, wrote a post for the personal blog, read a book for while and then, exhausted with all this activity, I made Ryan24 cook fried rice for dinner.

Entertainment for the evening was Netflix. I’m up-to-date with so many shows I’m following, like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, ‘Last Week Tonight’, ‘The Blacklist’, ‘Black Mirror’… so I started ‘Star Trek – Discovery.’ It’s weird to see Klingons running around all fighty, but I daresay I’ll get used to it.

Sunday was another sleep-in until David25 woke us all when he was making coffee before starting his shift at the café. It was a nice day, but I didn’t set foot outside until I took the dogs for a long walk in the afternoon. I was on the computer for a lot of that morning, while doing some reading, dog grooming and light housework as well. Coming back from the walk, I went out into the back yard and picked up some autumn leaves to use as mulch around the apple trees.

I should’ve put another garden bed to sleep for the winter, but meh. I wasn’t in the zone. I washed some tops that I bought at an op shop on Friday and put them over the air duct to dry by tomorrow morning. Then I went into the kitchen to see what we’ll have for dinner.

I decided that today was going to be a No-Spend Day, which will give me 2 days straight at the beginning of the week where I can colour in my chart. It always feels good when I can give the week a head-start! So dinner has to be something that we have all the ingredients for.

Lemon and Coconut Dahl it is! I have plenty of meat in the freezer but it doesn’t hurt to throw in a vegetarian meal every now and then to make the meat supplies last that little bit longer. Besides, there’ll be enough for lunch for me tomorrow. While I was there I decided that I’ll throw a crock-pot meal together for Monday night. I have a staff meeting after school so I won’t be back till nearly 6 PM. So I was flicking through cookbooks for a while to choose something that would fit the bill.

At 3PM I decided that I’d sit down and write this post. Dobby, my robot vacuum cleaner, is racing around and the dogs are keen to nap after their walk. After I finish this, I’ll put the crockpot meal together and put it in the fridge, ready for tomorrow. Then I’ll go out and sweep up a few more leaves to put in the compost tumbler.

After that, it’ll be wine o’clock. I’ll give Mum or Blogless Sandy a call to see how their weekend went while I savour a nice Shiraz. Then dinner and probably more Star Trek Discovery afterwards.

Clearly, none of this is very earth-shattering. It’s just normal, everyday tasks being done in an unhurried fashion. I wore comfy clothes, no make-up and did WHAT I felt like doing, WHEN I felt like doing it.

If I have books, the internet, my dogs and my garden, I’ll always have something to do. Getting my books from libraries makes it even better from a financial point of view. Add in my knitting and quilting, neither of which I’ve done for ages but I have lots of WIPs (works in progress) just waiting for me to pick them up again when I have the time. Then think of the boys, my friends and family…

I’ll be able to entertain myself without putting my hand into my wallet every five minutes, that’s for sure. This eases my mind considerably!

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