Burning Desire For FIRE

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

Category: Geoarbitrage

‘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!

Yikes! Yabba Dabba Dooo.

Normally, you don’t get a window into how other people may see you, but last week I did. It was pretty confronting, to be honest. It actually stopped me blogging, while I mulled over it.

I’ve known Fred and Wilma pretty much all my life. They’re old friends of the family and, now that I’ve changed the way I drive home each night, I drop in on them occasionally.

Anyway, I was visiting Fred and Wilma after work one night last week and having a cuppa and a chat. We were talking about their family and mine and just generally catching up on what’s been going on.

We’d been talking about money matters a few minutes before. Fred and I share a similar interest, so I told them about a financial goal I’d achieved. Then the conversation moved on, as it does. Coincidentally, Wilma had talked with my sister a day before and she shared a story about a win that my sister had. Kate’s a Thermomix consultant and she did a demo at a gorgeous Bed And Breakfast place in the country – and ended up being able to stay there that night for nothing. She had a lovely time.

“Looks like being a good week for the Jones girls,” I said. “We’ve both had wins.”

“Yes, but yours are only ever about money,” replied Wilma.

Wait… what?!?

Yeeouch!

This has been reverberating around my head ever since she sad it. At the time I made some sort of verbal come-back, but it was pretty feeble, as she’d well and truly caught me on the back foot.

I’m still not sure exactly what she meant by it, though I have a sneaking suspicion that me still being single, 22 years after I left my husband, might have a bit to do with it. I don’t think it can be the boys – no one’s in jail, on drugs or living on the street. All of them have either finished University or are well on the way to.

I’ve held down a full-time job for the last 15/16 years – I’m never quite sure how long I’ve been at the school – and I’m pretty sure I’m good at what I do. After all, I’m changing lives… one English or Theatre Studies lesson at a time.

It’s a weird thought to think that just when I’m closer than ever to reaching my goal of early(ish) retirement and I’m stepping back from a six-figure wage, I’m being called on for being too mercenary.

The thing is… I don’t think I measure my life’s success simply by how big my net worth is. Sure, it’s a part of it, because I’ve worked too hard and planned too much for it not to be. But I’m investing and planning so that all the intangibles in my life will be easier – things like the freedom to spend my time how I choose; the ability to help anyone I feel like; the choice to share things like theatre tickets and other fun things with the people I care about and the ability to go traveling any time I want.

Ok, so maybe that first and last ones on the list might appear a bit selfish, but so be it! I bought a beautiful house three years ago when I did the whole geoarbitrage gamble, but part of the decision to buy this place was that the layout of the space meant that when the boys want to move back for any reason, we won’t be living cheek to jowl with each other. Part of my job as a parent is to provide a roof over their heads and I feel glad that I can provide it if they need it, even though they’re all adults now.

Doesn’t mean I still don’t love my house. Doesn’t mean I still don’t think it’s beautiful. But it’s an example of the way I make decisions – there’s often a long-term plan behind the spending/life decisions I make.

It’s an interesting question though – money is behind a lot of the decisions, obligations and freedoms we have in life. It’s obviously important. We in the Personal Finance and FI/RE blogging communities write about it all the time.

But Wilma’s perception of me rocked me back on my heels a bit. It makes me wonder. Is she alone in her view of how I view success, or do others feel the same?

Of course, short of asking everyone I know, I’ll never get the answer to that curly question! But it was interesting to have that little window into how someone else perceives me.

I guess it does you good to get the wind knocked out of your sails every once in a while, to stop you getting complacent.

I’ll still drop in every now and then to see Fred and Wilma, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fred and I have our little financial chats in private from now on…

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.

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #4.

Late last year I wrote a post on how I sold my house, with fully-approved plans to build 2 massive townhouses on it, to a developer. I was going to do the build myself, but when I was offered a crazy sum of money to sell the house ‘as is’, I decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, so I sold it.

Last November it was passed in at auction. In the time between me selling and them building, the wildly expensive property market in Melbourne had begun to soften. They had a reserve of 1.6M for the right-hand townhouse, but at the auction they didn’t even get one bid. Standing with my old neighbours watching this unfold, I felt bad for the developers. They’ve done a beautiful job on the build. I was also incredibly thankful that I’d made the decision to sell when I did.

Since then they’ve reduced the price twice and last Saturday it went up for auction again. I was planning to drive down to see it, hoping that this time the developers would get lucky. It’s all too easy to put myself in the situation and imagine how I’d be feeling.

I was paying bridging finance for The Best House in Melbourne at 72% of my take-home pay for 8 months, then when I dropped my gig as a thermomix consultant and went back to full-time teaching it was “only” 55% for a further 8 months or so. Imagine if I was still paying that today? I would be beside myself with worry if it didn’t sell.

The reserve price at the last auction was 1.6M. On the actual ‘For Sale’ on the website, it now suggests a range of between 1.4M – 1.480M. I was interested to see where the sellers’ heads were really at. The lowest suggested price on a real estate board is rarely what the sellers will accept!

But, just as I was planning to get ready to leave, I thought I’d check the website to make sure I had the auction time correct. This is what I saw:

There was no sticker on the board at the front of the property yesterday morning, but when I rang Tom27 he said that he drove past in the late afternoon and saw them putting the ‘Sold’ sticker on it then. You’d think he’d tell his mother straight away, but I guess not…

I sent a text to the real estate agent, asking what they got for it…

… then I waited. Saturdays are a busy time for real estate agents.

The suspense was killing me…


… and then he rang.

The townhouse went for 1.45Million, with the buyer paying an extra 47K for modifications to be done to the house by the builder. Imagine having the money to pay an EXTRA 47K to pay for ‘improvements’ after you just spent just under one and a half million dollars…?

I’m so glad for the builder that he finally managed to sell this property, but the scary thing is that he had a reserve amount of 1.6M back in November and had to drop 155K off his projected profit to be free of it. That’s a substantial amount of money.

Still, no doubt he still made a profit. I’m also VERY glad I took the money and ran when I did. Part of financial success is hard work, attention to detail, making a plan and sticking to it for a long time. And part of it is timing.

Clearly, I’ve benefitted from both. May we all be as fortunate!

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #3.

Long-term readers of my blog, all three of you, will no doubt remember the posts I wrote about the concept of Geoarbitrage, the first one explaining the concept, while the second one talks about how the Frogdancer family tweaked that concept to suit our situation. Well, when I say ‘family’, I really mean me. I’ve run this house as a benevolent dictatorship for the last 21 years, so once I made the decision the boys had to go along with me. Part of the perks of being single.

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #1. Talks about what ‘geoarbitrage’ is and how it’s slightly different in the southern hemisphere.

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #2. How I took the information in #1 and acted on it to find The Best House In Melbourne.

Time’s gone by and yesterday was the auction of the right-hand-side townhouse. These were the ones that the property developer and I had designed, so I was incredibly keen to see what this one, (the larger one), went for.

(Behind the wall containing the ovens is a butler’s pantry. I suggested that the architect put one in. I’d love one, but this is the closest I’ll ever get to owning one!)

Here’s the web page for the property, for those unfamiliar with the Australian/Melbourne housing market. It runs through the stats and shows photos and the plan. I know I always like to have a look through and I thought you might like it too.

A bit of background – I sold this property with my original house on it + the fully approved plans for these townhouses, in mid-2017 for 1.7 million dollars. It seemed like a hugely inflated price to me, but seeing as I wasn’t the one paying for it, I took it and ran.

Turns out that I sold at the peak of the market. ‘Fortunate Frogdancer’ strikes again! Since then the property market in Melbourne and Sydney has softened by around 8%, particularly after the government brought in laws restricting overseas buyers from purchasing property. Apparently, too many off-shore Chinese buyers were ‘land banking’ here, pushing prices up and making it harder for first home buyers to get into the market.

These townhouses were designed for multi-generational family living with the Chinese market in mind, as many families bring the grandparents over for 6 months at a time. Hence each house has 2 main bedroom areas. Heck, we even had the plans feng shuied!

So I went to the auction with intense interest. Did I make the right decision to sell before the build, or would I have been better off to suffer through the process of building, (and the extra 15 months of bridging finance at 3K/month) to sell at auction?

It’s not often you get to have a ‘sliding doors’ moment, where you get to see what would have happened had you made a different decision. How lucky am I?

I got there just as the auction was starting. I thought I’d have to park a couple of streets away, but no. I got a park right around the corner. When I walked onto my old street, there were very few people there. Not even many neighbours, which surprised me.

The auction started. No one raised their hand. The auctioneer kept talking, then after a minute or two, he put in a vendor bid of 1.525 million. (A vendor bid is when the owners of the property put in a bid to get an auction started. It has to be declared openly by the auctioneer.)

No one put up their hand. The auctioneer went in to confer with the owners. I was standing with my previous next-door neighbour and he said, “The trouble is, in a market like this anyone who’s selling HAS to sell, because why would you put something on the market now when prices are falling? The buyers know this and they’re looking for bargains.”

The townhouse was passed in at 1.525 million dollars. No doubt over the next week or two it’ll sell in private negotiations, but by gum! I’m so thankful I sold when I did. Imagine the stress?

I hope that the builders end up making a decent profit. They’ve done a great job – the house looks amazing. But I can’t help feeling relieved. Frogdancer Jones read up about finances, investing and FIRE for 4 years before making an educated, yet still risky, move to secure the finances of her family.

Looks like she made the right decision.

(The backyard is as deep as my chicken run used to be. I feel sorry for any little kids who’ll move in. The entire building is literally 5 times the size of my little weatherboard house that used to stand here. The whole suburb is morphing into properties like this one.)

I’ll keep you posted when I find out what it eventually sells for.

Geoarbitrage – All the cool kids are doing it. #2

Back in January 2018, when this blog was just beginning, I wrote a post about Geoarbitrage, where I talked about what it is and how Australians are starting to take advantage of it. We hear a lot about Mexico and South America in the FI community, but people down in our part of the globe have different options available to us.

You might notice that at the end, I said I’d talk about how the Frogdancer family took this concept and tweaked it to our advantage. It’s been 8 months since I made that promise. Instead of saying that I’ve never really been in the ‘zone’ to write about it until now, let’s just go with the tale that I was practising delayed gratification with you.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how I paid off my mortgage on a single wage and became debt-free. When that happened, I thought that the story had finished. I was going to stay in that house until I was carried out of there in a pine box at the age of 120. I’d established an urban Food Forest with chickens, a huge worm farm made out of a freezer, over 30 fruit trees and 12 veggie beds, half of them wicking beds. I’d spent lots of money and countless hours putting all of this together, building up the soil, learning how to garden and look after chickens. All this was on a suburban block 16kms from the Melbourne CBD and life was good.

Late in 2015, I’d just come back from a mammoth 9 week trip to Europe and I’d hired someone to paint the outside of my house. Then I went to an auction of a house 2 streets away.

It was a similar house on a similarly-sized block. Nothing special – a 3 bedroom house with one living area and one bathroom. Nice, neat garden, a kitchen that had been updated maybe a decade ago – nothing out of the ordinary. It went for 1.3 million dollars, which stunned all of the neighbours. Most of us had been there for years – I’d moved in 19 years before and paid $136,500 for my place. We all marvelled at the price and patted ourselves on the back for being intelligent enough to buy just before the housing bubble hit.

As I walked home, I was marvelling at how much equity I had in my paid-off little house and how all of the scrimping and scraping to keep it in the early years had paid off. I remembered when we were looking for a house to buy, (I was still married then), how we’d stopped outside the house to look at it, then driven away without going inside because the cladding was so ugly. When, a couple of weeks later, I viewed the house after it was passed in at auction and the real estate agent mentioned the owners’ reserve price and I realised that with our 40K deposit we could afford it – that’s when we decided to buy. The ugliest house in the best neighbourhood – what a cliché! But I guess clichés are clichés for a reason: they tend to come true.

Nothing had changed in the plan for my life. I was still going to live a long and fruitful life and die in that house… until just before I got home I walked past the ‘For Sale’ sign on my next-door neighbour’s house. I stopped dead in my tracks. I clearly remember thinking, “Is this opportunity knocking?”

You see, when we bought the house one of the main drivers for me was that it was in the school zone of one of the best public secondary schools in Melbourne. My oldest son was just starting primary school that year and the youngest was only 6 weeks old, but I’ve always taken the long-term view. Over the years, the school’s reputation has only grown better and better. As the Melbourne/Sydney property bubble grew, property prices in this school zone began to grow even faster, with a 15% “School Zone” bonus being placed on the already inflated value of each property.

Up until then, this had all been totally irrelevant to me. I was living my life, being vaguely grateful that at least my house wasn’t a total money pit – but really, who cared about rising property values? The boys and I needed to live somewhere and this place was it.

But now… I looked at the two properties side-by-side. Developers LOVE deals like this, as it means they can squeeze another unit onto the block. Units and townhouses were beginning to pop up all over the zone, as individual houses were being priced out of the average family’s reach. I knew it was a viable prospect. My youngest child had finished year 12 the year before, so there was no real reason why we had to live within walking distance of the school anymore. Maybe I could sell my house in partnership with the neighbours for a bit more money than if we both sold them alone, buy a house in a cheaper neighbourhood and bump up my superannuation. I’d spent 10 years out of the workforce bringing up my boys when they were little and my super was woeful.

But could I bear to leave my little house? I loved that house. It took the weekend for me to weigh it all up, walk around and say goodbye. It hurt, but again, I had to keep my eyes on the long term.

It turned out that the neighbours had already bought another house, so come what may at the auction, they had to sell. I had my place unofficially on the market, ie no sign out the front, but letting the Real Estate agents know that I was interested to sell. The house next door had a disappointing result – only 1.24 million. They had to accept it. I was offered the same amount for mine by the person who bought it, but I laughed and turned it down. I loved my house. I wasn’t going to just GIVE it away!

Then a friend of mine contacted me. Her husband was a property developer. We sat down and agreed that we’d go into partnership together. We’d build a couple of massive luxury townhouses on the block and sell them. Assuming the bottom didn’t suddenly fall out of the property market in the meantime, he’d make a tidy sum and I’d make more than I would have if I sold the house as it was. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I took a leap of faith and we agreed to do it.

The obvious downside to this is that we’d need somewhere to live while the townhouses were being built. Most people would just rent something, but we had 2 dogs and 2 cats. No rental would touch us. I had to buy something straight away and use expensive bridging finance to pay off the new house while waiting for the build to be completed on the old. Yikes! But I started looking.

It’s funny, but at the start, I had a definite range of suburbs in mind. “I’m going no further than Oakleigh!” But the prices there were crazy. I fell in love with a house, but it was looking to go at the million dollar mark, which would defeat the purpose of doing the deal in the first place. I needed a few hundred thousand to throw into my retirement account.

I needed to be near a railway line because my younger two boys didn’t drive, so I was pretty well locked into Bayside suburbs, which were pricier. I gritted my teeth and kept looking further down the bay.

“I’m going no further than Parkdale!” Prices there had risen too far.

“Mordialloc!” I actually bid on an Edwardian house that was in need of work and was on half a block of land, but I pulled out when the bidding got beyond 700K. It was only on half a block of land, for Pete’s sake! It went for just under a million.

As I was driving home with my best friend, Blogless Sandy,  who’d come to the auction with me, she said, “You know, it’s the week before Christmas. Take a break, there’ll be nothing new coming up until late January. Get Christmas out of the way, enjoy your holidays, then get back into it when you get back to work. ”

I nodded sagely. Wise advice. As soon as I set foot in the door I fired up my laptop and went straight to the real estate sites.

And then I saw it. The Best House In Melbourne. It was FAR further out than I’d been looking. Mordialloc was over the bridge, and this one was over the NEXT bridge – ‘ a bridge too far’, as one of my friends calls it. But…

…the price range looked do-able. The house plan was absolutely perfect for our needs. The block of land was smaller, which would mean that it’d be easier to keep under control. I couldn’t wait till Monday to ring the Real Estate agent and go and see it.

In my search for the new house, I had a list of 24 things that were either “must-haves’ or “would be nice to have”. Turned out that this place had 22 out of the 24. What were the two that didn’t make it? A short commute to work and enough space for the chooks. So the chickens had to go and I had to listen to more podcasts. Oh well.

The next day (Tuesday), I put in an offer and agreed to take Blogless Sandy down that evening to have a look. While we were there the Real Estate agent got the call that the offer was accepted. I was ecstatic. And I little scared. 750K is a lot of money – but coming from the suburb that I did, it still seemed ultra-cheap for a house way bigger than the one we were living in, 30 years younger and literally 5 minutes walk from the beach.

I paid the deposit the next day, thanks to Blogless Sandy who lent me the money until I got the bridging finance organised. I’d just spent all my ready cash on my trip of a lifetime, not expecting to be buying a house 5 minutes after I got back. Incidentally, this is another reason to get your financial act together – you’re in a position to be able to help people when they need it. I wouldn’t have been able to swing this deal without her and I’ll be forever grateful to her.

The next day was Christmas Day, and I was able to loudly announce to my family after dinner, “I just bought a HOUSE!” We organised a 90-day settlement and we moved in at the next school holidays, in April.

What didn’t go to plan?

  • The process to get planning permits/an arborist reports/water board permission/architect plans etc took way more time than we estimated. Instead of taking 6 months, it took 15 months for final plans to be stamped by the council. That’s a lot of extra months paying bridging finance at 3K per month on a teacher’s wage.
  • The distance away from where I used to live took too much strain on my side-hustle as a Thermomix Team Leader, so I had to drop it. The upside of this was that I was able to go back to full-time work as a teacher, instead of having to take a day off a week to accommodate Thermomix.
  • The bridging finance took 72% of my takehome pay for the first 9 months. Then I went back to full-time work and it dropped to approximately 55% or something. It was very stressful having to see so much of my wage going out the door while at any moment the boom times in the Melbourne property market could end. If that happened, the gamble would’ve all been for nothing. I wouldn’t go broke, but the sacrifices would have been wasted.
  • It was more stressful than I bargained for. Security is very important to me and the thought that I might have tried to be a bit too clever and ended up sabotaging all the work I’d done over the last 20 years was horrible. I didn’t sleep very well for 18 months, and I’d look at my house and think how much I loved it, then think, “If only I owned it!”

What ended up happening?

When the planning permits were all in place, the property developer friend and I went to see a local Real Estate agent to see if we were on track with what we were planning. During the course of the meeting, he casually mentioned that a property in the Zone with fully-approved plans could sell for as much as 1.7 Million dollars because developers are always looking for plans that are ready to go. I thought that he was talking through his hat. That’s a ridiculous sum of money.

Turns out that he knew his market precisely. After paying out the real estate agent and the property developer for his costs and 100K for his trouble, I was able to walk away with exactly the amount of money that I probably would have received had we gone through all the trouble of the build. OMG. As it happens, over a year later the builders are still working on the development. That would have been over a year more of the bridging finance that I would have been paying. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t have been biting by now.

An added bonus, that I could never have planned for, was that over the last 2 years my new suburb has become more popular. My house is now worth 1.1 million, which more than covers the cost of the bridging finance. This was pure luck, but I’ll take it!

Here’s the deal about my geoarbitrage strategy:

By moving 20km further out from the CBD, I was able to capitalise on the equity in my home and put it to work. I was able to max out my superannuation account, which I was happy to do, given my age. You can’t access super until you’re 59, which is about when I’ll be looking to retire, so I’m happy to lock the money away until then. If I was younger, I might have deployed it differently. But a healthy super fund? That gives security. Old Lady Frogdancer will be fine. She won’t have to worry about sponging off her kids in her old age.

I also, as an added bonus, walked away with roughly 350K extra. Before I thought of doing this deal, this is around the amount of money that I thought I’d end up with in my retirement account when I retire at the age of 69.  Now I have it as ‘extra’ padding!

Given this, I estimate that I can retire at least 10 years earlier than I otherwise would have been able to do. This deal has bought back 10 years of my life. That’s huge. Imagine the travel I can do while I’m still nimble enough to enjoy it…

I decided to reserve 50K of the ‘padding’ money to set up the backyard to bring back the food forest idea on a more limited scale than we used to have. I’m in the process of getting this done now. I’m spending money on what I value, which is a rare and precious thing to be able to do.

The house we now live in suits my family going into the future. As you can see, it has 2 zones – which means that at present, the two sons I have living with me have their own part of the house at the back, while I live in the front with my ensuite and walk-in-robe – such LUXURY!. But, with an eye to the future – when they want to come back with wives/partners to live cheaply while saving for a house deposit, we won’t be getting into each others’ way. I’m a big believer in privacy and this house definitely offers that. Ever since I left my husband back in 1997,  providing a secure base for my boys has always been huge for me. This place enables me to keep that option open for them in the future.

It also suits the way of life I want to lead going forward. I’m within walking distance of the Aldi, the train station and (joy of joys!) the dog beach. The design of the house is by far more practical than the old house and it looks beautiful as well. I’m still within easy reach of my family and friends, and although my commute to and from work is now 2 hours out of my day instead of 6 minutes, my years at work are limited so it won’t last forever. I’m just down the road from the Freeway systems, so it’s a straight drive to the airport.

Ok, so Frogdancer is happy with the outcome. Good for me! But what’s the take away for you?

The beautiful thing is that unless I’d started educating myself about personal finance, Financial Independence and the FI/RE movement, with all that it entails, I don’t know that I would have recognised the opportunity when it knocked, or been brave enough to take the leap if I had. I’d read about geoarbitrage on other blogs, but they all talked about moving to a cheaper state or country. That didn’t suit me at all – but moving to a cheaper SUBURB was the way I tweaked the concept to suit us.

That’s the point of the whole thing. By reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, going to conferences and opening up to others’ ideas and points of view, you’re adding options to the smorgasbord of possibilities. You hear this saying a lot – “The point about personal finance is that it’s PERSONAL.” There’s no one way to work the system to get where you want to go.

It’s exciting. There’s so much information out there that people are generously sharing. Much of it won’t be applicable to you, but gee whiz! Every now and then someone will write or say a nugget that could change your life. Knowledge is power. Opening your mind to other people’s strategies and ideas enables new connections to be made in your mind when you look at your own situation. You have the chance to optimise your current situation and tweak things to make your life even better. Yes, it’s very exciting.

For example, I gained security by doing this real estate deal. However, going forward, I’m not revisiting this strategy. Australia’s urban property market is, I believe, vastly over-heated, so I’m turning to the share market instead. I’m looking at all the information available to me and I’m tweaking it to suit my situation. I’m not following just one way to financial freedom. I’m learning about the options and selecting the ones that suit me best going forward.

I strongly believe that anyone else can, and should, do the same. There are opportunities stretching to the horizon for those who listen, learn and strategically act. Why shouldn’t one of those people be you?

 

 

 

 

The story of how Frogdancer Jones won her freedom.

In 1996, my then- husband and I bought an ugly little 1950s weatherboard in a quiet suburb near the bay. We had 4 sons: a nearly 5-year-old about to start school the next year; a 3 and a 2-year-old and the baby of 3 weeks.

This house had one lounge, one bathroom, one toilet but 4 bedrooms. We figured that as time went on we could extend. We had a deposit of 40K. The mortgage was 96K.

A year later we divorced and I had to buy him out. The court set the figure at 18K so I went to the Commonwealth Bank to refinance. The bank knocked me back, saying that they’d refinance me LESS than my current mortgage, (which I was making the payments on every month like clockwork.) I couldn’t believe it. I’d lose the house. Where would the boys and I go? I went home and cried for three days.

Then I got angry.

I rang Dad and asked him to come over and look after the kids. Then I dressed in what little ‘office’ attire I had left after 7 years at home with the boys and I marched back into the offices of the bank. I was very clear about my future prospects, my unblemished banking record and the fact that although I was a single mother with 4 children, that didn’t automatically mean that I was a no-hoper loser.

The mortgage rose to 115K. I paid out my husband and the boys and I settled into our new life as a single-parent household. I decided to stay at home with them, primarily to give them the stability that a divorce had taken away from them, but also because the childcare fees for 4 children would eat up any wage I brought home. I cleaned houses to get a little extra cash when Mum could look after the boys, but basically, we lived on the smell of an oily rag.

The next few years were very hand to mouth. There were child-support dramas that saw some very tough times, but I knew that as long as I could make it through until Evan began school, then I could make the whole thing work.

When Evan started prep, I began teaching again, first as a CRT/Emergency teacher and then I got a 9-month full-time teaching contract at my local high school, the same year that my oldest, Tom, started there in year 7. This school was the reason I’d chosen the area way back when we bought, as it had an excellent reputation as one of the top 4 non-selective government schools in Melbourne. Nothing but the best for my boys!

I had security for 9 months with this contract. Our car was falling to bits so I bought a three-year-old Ford Station Wagon, which made the mortgage rise by another 15k. I vowed to have the mortgage down below pre-car levels by the time the contract ran out. I did.

I kept getting contract after contract at the school. Meanwhile, I cleverly fixed the mortgage rate for 5 years, only then to see interest rates plummet. D’OH! Not what the plan was supposed to be! Still, I consoled myself with the fact that at least I knew how much my payments were, and if it wasn’t for the Commonwealth, I wouldn’t even HAVE a mortgage. I kept on.

When the school offered me a permanent position, I knew that now we were safe. I took the boys on a holiday to Bali, ( then Thailand the next year because we had so much fun), and I started renovating. My plan at first was to pay off the house and then save for a new bathroom and kitchen- but then I thought it’d be better to get it done while they were all still living with me and we could all get the benefit.

Ironically, this time when I went back to the bank to talk refinancing, they offered to lend me 260K. I laughed, remembering how just a few short years before I was deemed to be a Bad Risk. I didn’t want to spend that much money, because I still had my over-arching dream to be debt-free.

So the mortgage rose to $199,995.
There was no way I was going over the 200K level!!
DSCN0231

I got rid of the ugly asbestos cladding that looked like bricks made of chocolate icing. We had ducted heating and evaporative cooling put in, along with a new kitchen, bathroom and a continuous gas hot water service so we could have our showers the exact temperatures that we liked – and we weren’t constantly heating up a tank of hot water and paying for it. And a fence:
DSCN0252
Since then, I chipped away at the mortgage, enjoying each time it fell another 10K’s worth. At first, it was slow, but then momentum started to build up. It became like a game, seeing what else I could shave off our expenses to get the total down more and more, month after month. I chose not to do a lot of things on my way towards freedom, but one choice that I decided to do made a huge difference.

In 2012 I went to a Thermomix demonstration held by a blogging friend from my personal blog and I bought one. I loved the machine and it started me thinking…

Three weeks later I became a consultant. Nowadays we’d call this a ‘side hustle’ but this was way before anyone was coining that phrase. I knew that I needed to make more money and my Etsy shop selling knitted hats just wasn’t cutting it.

From memory, my mortgage was hovering around the 100- 90K Mark.

In 2012 I worked full-time as a teacher and did thermomix on the side. I earned a free trip to Hong Kong for a week, which I was rapt about. Being able to travel was one of the sacrifices I’d chosen to make to get rid of the mortgage.

In 2013 I swapped my mortgage to UBank. At the time it was 77K. The lower interest rate made a HUGE difference. The principal started melting away before my eyes. I redoubled my efforts and started hurling every dollar I could at it.
My house had a leaky spot in the guttering. It needed painting. My curtains were so dated it was embarrassing. It needed awnings out the front. But I kept patting her, saying, “Don’t worry, hold it together. Let me pay you off, save for Europe in 2015 and then I’ll look after you.”

In 2013 I invested more time in Thermomix, going part-time with teaching by dropping a day and 17K in wages to take on a Group Leader position where I was managing a team of consultants. I was scared to drop my wage, but if I wanted the job in Thermomix I had to attend fortnightly meetings on Friday mornings. I gave it a go, thinking that if I was able to double what I was losing, then I’d be happy.

I did that. I also earned another free trip, this time to Sun City in South Africa. Who would have ever dreamed that an ordinary single mother of 4 would be able to see African wildlife IN AFRICA, let alone walk through the bush behind real adult lions and cuddle lion cubs? Life was beginning to brim over with possibilities…

December 19th 2013, I was lying in bed first thing in the morning. It was the last day of the school year. I pulled up my UBank statement on my iPad and couldn’t help but notice that my savings were $10 more than my mortgage.

The mortgage was $12, 330.

It was more than flesh and blood could stand. I paid it all across. I had no emergency fund, no holiday savings, no nothing.
But I had my freedom. It only took 17 years.
DSCN0664_2

Frugal Friday: Early Bird train travel.

It seems like travel hacking is splashing itself all over the internet lately – Americans flying first class all over the world for about $11.50, all due to the amazing reward points they can get on their credit cards.

This isn’t going to be a post about that.

This is about how I’ve tweaked my morning routine to take advantage of the scheme called Early Bird train travel that operates here in Melbourne. 

Two years ago I was living a kilometre away from work in the house I’d owned for 20 years. Classes start at 8:50am, so I’d leave home at 8:36, drive through the back streets, park in Hall street, walk briskly to my desk, scoop up the books I’d left in a pile the day before for my first two classes, grab my keys and I’d be walking in the classroom door at 8:50 every day without fail. I did this for 12 years and I had it down to a fine art. People in my staffroom knew it was time to grab their books and go to class when they heard me say, “Good morning!” as I came through the door.

Then I moved 21kms away from work. I experimented with driving into work and taking the train. The train is a 5-minute walk from my house, with a 10-minute walk at the other end to school. Both modes of transport took just under an hour each way, so the only real benefit was the comfort of the car vs the extra steps on my fitbit with the train. So I started driving in. Call me lazy – I don’t care.

Then late last year, this happened.

ARGH!!! Why?!? Of course, there was no note on the windscreen. It cost me just over $300 to get fixed.

Suddenly train travel was looking far more affordable.

So in the September school holidays, I got the car fixed, charged up my Myki for the train and discovered an interesting titbit of information about something called the Early Bird. If you begin and end your train journey before 7:15am on a weekday, you don’t get charged for the trip. They’ve obviously brought it in to try and reduce congestion on the morning peak travel times. Hmmmm……….. Maybe I could be a civic-minded citizen AND slash my transport bill in half at the same time?

This meant that I had to do some Maths. I steeled myself to the task. If I got up an hour earlier each morning I could travel to and from work for only $2.80/day, instead of $5.60. On the face of it, it wasn’t much of a saving. But if you multiply that over a week… $14 instead of $28… or over a 10-week term… $140 instead of $280…. the numbers become more interesting.

I decided to give it a go. I also decided to track it on a chart, so that I wouldn’t lose sight of the money I was saving. I knew that if I was staying late for some reason, or I needed to go somewhere after school, I could always drive in. But why not take advantage of an offer for free transport?

So on day 1, term 4 I got up very early and made my way to the station.

Here are the downsides to doing this:

  1. In order to catch the train that guarantees me to get to my destination a full 10 minutes before the 7:15 deadline, (because of possible train delays) I have to leave the house by 6:20am to walk to the station. This means getting up at 5:30am. OMG.
  2. It tends to be a little nippy first thing in the morning.
  3. I have to be organised with my lunches and breakfasts. It defeats the purpose if I score a free train trip but have to buy my lunch from the canteen because I was too sleepy to get my act together in time to make lunch.
  4. If I’m running late, I have to run for the train. I’m not a fan of rapid movement.
  5. It was a massive adjustment for the people in Staffroom 2. For a couple of weeks, people were getting to their classes late because I was no longer saying, “Good morning!” at 8.45. The habits of 12 years or so are pretty hard to break.
  6. They raised the price of the trip by a massive 14c on Jan 1. This makes the Maths more difficult. Thank goodness there’s a calculator on my laptop.

Here are the pros:

  1. It’s really nice to start each day with a few wins. Getting up as soon as the alarm goes off in what seems like the dead of night? Win. (I cheat a bit here… the dogs sleep in my room so as soon as the alarm goes off Poppy jumps onto my bed with joy, giving massive head butts and cuddles, so it’s impossible to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.) Leaving the house at 6:20am so I don’t have to run? Win. Touching off with my Myki and seeing ‘Fare deducted: $0.00? Win. Walking to school and seeing nearly 4,000 steps already on my fitbit? Win.
  2. Usually, I’m the only one in the staffroom when I get there, so it’s nice and quiet. I put the kettle on for a cup of coffee, I go to the ladies to put my makeup on, I come back, fire up the laptop and eat breakfast at my desk, browsing on blogs or Facebook. As people drift into work, the place slowly gets louder and livelier. I’ve had my quiet start to the day and I’m now ready for the rest of it.
  3. If I need any photocopying done, there’s no queue. Correction? It’s nice and quiet.
  4. I have to be organised with my lunches and breakfasts. (Yes, I know this was in the cons list, but it’s also a pro.) I’m not hungry at 5 in the morning, so I tend to take a couple of hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and I eat them at breaky time… about 7:30. It’s awful when I don’t have an easy breakfast to grab – the default position is a ‘fast’ morning or day, which is good when I’m slightly pudgy but not so good if I’m starving. My lunches tend to be leftovers from the night before or a Mystery Meal from the freezer.
  5. My car will hold its value for far longer. In a normal week, I’ll only take it out once or twice, as I can pick things up from the Aldi around the corner on the way home; if I need to go to a shopping centre I can get off the train at Southland and then hop back on the train to come home; and I hate wasting time on the weekends so I group shopping visits together… all leading up to low kilometres on the clock and no wear and tear on tyres etc.
  6. My overall transportation costs have plummeted. I was buying a tank of petrol every 2 weeks at $50-$60 a tank. Now, it’s around 6 weeks between refills. (It’d possibly be more, but I’m teaching Evan21 to drive so we’re using fuel on that.) 
  7. The table of running savings. Admittedly, I don’t much like doing the Maths for it, but it’s getting to the stage when it’s really starting to add up. Sometimes a friend from work will offer to drive me home, especially if we’re here working late, so I get double dipping on that day. It’s lovely when they offer, but I certainly don’t go chasing it… that’d be rude.

I know that if I saw $183.26 on the footpath I’d bend down to pick it up! It’s nice to know that it’s still in my bank account, but also kind of creepy when you think that it’s a sizeable chunk of money that I would have had to have spent if this offer from Metro trains wasn’t in place.

This is such a little thing, but I like the idea of seeing little opportunities and taking advantage of those that are do-able in your life. Transportation is a big expense for many families, so being able to get to and from work for under $15 a week is insanely cheap. After all, I geoarbitraged to save money and to get ahead, not to spend it all on train rides and petrol!

Of course, I’ve been doing this as the mornings are light and the weather is fine. Spring and summer are ideal for early morning starts. It’ll be interesting to see if my resolve crumbles as the winter kicks in. I don’t run the heating overnight and my beautiful hardwood floors are chilly the first thing in the morning…

I’ll keep you posted.

#winning

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #1.

When Tim Ferriss coined the term ‘geoarbitrage’  about 10 years ago it meant outsourcing work to a cheaper region or country, usually over the internet. Nowadays it’s clear, after listening to podcasts and reading FI blogs, the term has morphed in the FIRE world into a descriptor of when a person geographically moves to an area that has a much lower cost of living.

Traditional retirees have been doing this for years… both sets of my grandparents did this in different ways after the breadwinners retired. One set moved up to the Gold Coast in the late 1960’s when the cost of living was far cheaper than Melbourne and the weather was far better. The other set stayed in Victoria, but sold their house in Murrumbeena and moved to a 1/4 acre lot in Inverloch, in Gippsland. They bought a caravan and spent 6 months of the year up in Cairns, during their beautiful winters, and then they’d drive down to Inverloch to spend time with us during Melbourne’s beautiful summers. Both sets of grandparents chased the sun but did it in ways that were gentle on the finances and offered them all a great quality of life.

Nowadays it’s becoming more common for traditional retirees to look at moving to a country that offers far more bang for the buck than simply living in Australia does. A couple of months ago I was walking the dogs and I started up a conversation with a guy who lives a couple of streets away. He spends 8 months of the year in Malaysia with his new wife and tiny child and rents out his house in Melbourne while he’s away. He loves the lifestyle, the climate and how cheaply he can live there and he only comes ‘home’ to see his adult children.

Also, a very good friend of mine is looking at giving up work in the next couple of years and has almost fully decided to up stakes and live in Thailand when he finally pulls the pin on working. He’s travelled there a fair bit, even having extensive dental work done there that was prohibitively expensive for him in Australia, and he knows he could buy a near-new apartment with a pool and aircon within a stone’s throw of the beach for what we would consider peanuts. He knows that with his investments and the pension, he would be able to enjoy a lifestyle that would be out of reach for him here. 

People in Australia also look towards Bali, but the disadvantage with beautiful Bali is that Indonesia doesn’t let foreigners buy land. You either have to buy something as a silent partner and hope like hell that they don’t walk away with your money, (which happened 2 years ago to someone I know…yikes!), or you go over there and sign a long lease on a property. I saw this ad on Facebook yesterday and thought that it was a perfect example of Geoarbitrage in action.

In today’s exchange rate, $100,000USD equals $125,140AUD. Considering that the prices of residential real estate in Australia are some of the most expensive in the world, a person could free up a lot of equity in their house by selling their million dollar property, tucking the surplus into investments and living the high life in that Balinese villa for the next 30 years. Who knows? Considering the age s/he retires and their state of health, that 30-year lease might just see them out. Bali has the schmicko hospital that was built there after the Bali bombings, the cost of living there is minuscule and family and friends are a short plane ride away. (Well, to be fair, Australia is so big and so isolated that very few places are a short plane ride away, but you get my drift.) It’s a viable strategy for those who love the tropical climate and the relaxed lifestyle that places like Bali and Thailand offer.

But what if you don’t want to move to another country to live, but at the same time you don’t want to work till you’re 70? What if you want to get your toe into the property market but price tags of 1.5 million dollars for a 3 bedroom fixer-upper in McKinnon are seriously out of your reach?

Geoarbitrage isn’t just a tool to use to inch closer to early retirement. It’s possible to utilise it for other reasons as well. I have a friend in his 30’s who really wanted to own his own home but knew that the million dollar+ price tags of Melbourne houses were always going to be beyond his reach. He decided to think outside the box and bought a lovely little house in Ballarat for less than a third of the price that he would have paid where he was originally living. For those who don’t know, Ballarat is a regional town about 120kms west of Melbourne. It’s a large city of around 110,000 people, so it has pretty much all of the amenities that you’d need … including a university that my youngest son, Evan21, will be going to for the next 3 years. My friend J is really happy with the move, with the only practical downside being his commute. He travels into the city by train, but because it’s a country-line train there are fewer services, so he really doesn’t want to miss his train! He’s already negotiated a couple of “work from home” days a week, but of course, if the commute gets too arduous, there’d be nothing stopping him from looking for a job closer to home. Flexibility is the key.

With a concept like geoarbitrage, you have to seriously weigh up what you are gaining vs what you are giving up. There’s always going to be a downside, but the thing you have to measure is whether the advantages massively outweigh the disadvantages. The decisions that people are going to make about whether or not to do it are as individual as they are. Some people are deeply rooted to a place for dearly-held emotional reasons and they wouldn’t DREAM of relocating, whereas others could quite easily sell up and move on without a backwards glance at the place they’ve left behind.  Then there are all the people who fall into the middle ground, which is probably most of us.

When I next write about this, it’ll be a post entitled, “Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #2”, where I’ll share how I tweaked the concept to come up with a move that suited the Frogdancer family’s situation.  It was something I never expected I would ever do, but in life there’s something I’ve learned: never say never!