Burning Desire For FIRE

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

Category: second-generation FIRE

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.

How much financial help should we give our kids?

Kids.

A lot of us have them and in general, we tend to be reasonably fond of them. We take pains over what we name them, we feed and clothe them at regular intervals and we ensure that they come out of school being literate and (at least a little) numerate. We tell them Dad jokes, we pay for music lessons and we cuddle them when life gets hard.

In short – we look up after a few years and realise that we’ve actually made our most favourite humans. At least, that’s what’s happened in my case and I’m guessing I’m not alone.

A huge proportion of FIRE bloggers are young parents. They have babies or primary-aged kids, with a lot of bloggers’ children still being ‘a twinkle in their father’s eye’ as the old saying goes. I’ve gone through that stage and I’m now out at the other side with my boys aged in their twenties. We all made it through alive, but when the boys reached secondary school I had to make up my mind about how much I’d help the boys financially once they were older.

When children are small, as in pre-puberty, they cost as much or as little as their parents decide. The parents have full control. It’s a beautiful thing.

In my case, I said to the boys when they were in primary, (and secondary school, come to think of it), that they could have ONE after school activity each. Swimming lessons were non-negotiable – in Australia everyone needs to know how to swim so I took care of that when they were toddlers, before ‘after school’ activities were a thing. In other words, I staggered the outgoings. It wasn’t their fault that we were a one-income family and I didn’t want them to miss out completely on things that their friends were doing, but I wasn’t going to pour thousands of dollars into classes just to keep them busy. Our financial survival was at stake.

David was easy. When he was David3, he asked if he could learn how to play the piano. I couldn’t afford lessons at the time, but when he asked me 2 years later I took notice. For David, two requests two years apart is tantamount to nagging. He started learning piano when he was around 6 years old and is now in his last year of his Music degree.

Tom tried football, cricket and then decided on guitar. He writes songs now and plays for a football team on the weekends. Ryan started with piano, then after a year switched to guitar and continued with it right up to year 12. Evan follows the beat of his own drum and didn’t end up taking any formal classes. He decided to teach himself musical instruments, write scripts and make videos and is currently doing an Acting degree.

Limiting their after-school activities hasn’t seemed to hurt them at all.

Keeping the costs to a reasonable level when they were at school meant that when opportunities for things like travel came up, I was able to take them to places like Bali, Thailand and Singapore – or send them to places on school excursions like Central Australia, Tasmania and the USA. I’ll never forget the elation in Tom16’s voice when I picked up my phone to hear him say, “Mum… I’m on the top of Ayres Rock!!”

(Nowadays everyone calls it Uluru and we don’t climb it anymore as it’s a sacred site, but things were different a decade ago.)

But what was the tough decision I was talking about?

It was about whether or not to help the boys pay for University.

As my boys were heading into secondary school and going through the ranks, I started to think. Tertiary fees aren’t as expensive as in America, but they’re still pretty exxy, especially for the more creative-type courses I could see most of my boys ending up in.

My dilemma was a simple one. I only have one wage coming in and I have no-one to provide for my old age except for me. Do I help them pay for Uni or not? There’s a finite amount of money that will be coming in. Where would it be best deployed?

When I was wrestling with this decision the older kids were in high school, with the younger two hot on their heels. I’d paid off the house a year or so before, back in 2013, and I was staring down the barrel of what looked like it might be an indigent old age. I’d neglected my retirement savings to pour all of my money into paying off the house, which was a deliberate move. Mathematically, it wasn’t the best thing to do, but I valued our security over my retirement. Once the house was paid for and our security was assured, Old Lady Frogdancer suddenly became a lot more real to me…

So I had to think: Which would be the best long-term prospect for the boys?

  1. For me to pay for their degrees, but then later down the track, just when they’ve presumably got young families to provide for, to possibly have to ask them for financial help?
  2. Or for them to pay for their own education, while I save like crazy so as not to be a burden on them?

When you lay it out like this, there’s really only one way I could go. My situation, with no one else able to prepare for my retirement other than me, meant that the money could only go so far.

So, the financial help I decided to give my kids is as follows:

  • I raised you and supported you all the way through secondary school. My job here is done.
  • I want you to go on to further education, so if you’re a student, you can live with me for free and pay no board. However, you’re responsible for paying for any books and other materials. You’re an adult now.
  • If you live with me and you aren’t a student – you pay board. Even though I love you more than vegemite on toast, I’m not cut out in the shape of a doormat.
  • If you choose to move out, then you’re on your own. You’re definitely an adult!
  • The ‘Bank of Mum’ is there if you need to buy a car/fix a car/ pay some tuition not available with HELP loans from the government. It’s interest-free BUT MUST BE PAID BACK PROMPTLY. Any defaults – the Bank of Mum is closed to you forevermore.

I’m hoping that these rules allow enough of a cushion to fall back on, without weakening them and keeping them as ‘kidults’ indefinitely. Currently, I have the middle two sons living at home with me as students. Tom 27 has been out of home and fully independent for around 3 years now and works full-time as an accountant, while Evan22 is studying at a country campus.

I’d love it if the boys could come out of Uni with no debt dragging behind them. That was the way university worked when I was young, when courses were fully paid for by the government. But sadly, life in the real world isn’t like this any more. In order to do the best for us all, I have to take the long-term view.

My worst fear is to be a financial burden on my boys when I’m old. By putting a priority on my retirement, rather than their university courses, I hope that I’ll be giving them the gift of never having to worry about their mother’s financial stability.

I think that’s probably one of the greatest gifts I can give them. I already gave them LIFE. This will be the next best thing…

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

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

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

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

 

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

I’m very proud.

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

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

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

Every time I make pancakes I remember my trip. 🙂

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

 

In the personal finance world, there’s a lot of blog posts written about teaching children about money. I’ve done it myself – the post I wrote that ended up winning the first Rockstar Rumble was about teaching my kids about compound interest. However, a huge proportion of these posts are written by parents with very young children. I’m at the other end of the journey, with adult kids moving out into the world.

I discovered the FIRE path about 5 years ago, so a lot of my boys’ money training has been observing the day-to-day decisions that I’ve made in the previous years, as well as observing the decisions of other family and friends around them.  I didn’t have the information about investing and compounding that I do now, so for most of their lives I wasn’t actively talking to them about this. Their father has been a small business owner for most of their lives, so they’d work in his shop on their access weekends with him and see life from that angle.

A year ago, on the other blog, I wrote about Evan22 moving out of home into Res at Uni in a post entitled: Reduce Your Bills By Evicting One of your Kids!

As anyone who has ever lived on campus knows, choosing to live there is hellishly expensive. Back when my boy was Evan21, he decided to live on campus for a year to get to know everyone and then work out who he wanted to share a house with for the next 2 years of his course. He paid for this himself. His decision to live in Res worked out really well. As he said on the way up to Ballarat, “All the people who moved into houses at the start of the year are now all moving away from the people they started with and moving into different places with their friends!”

Here’s The Playboy Mansion. Evan22 will be living here with 3 girls. They have the bedrooms in the house, while he has the sleepout out the back. He pays the most for his space, at $150/week.

He’s a full-time student over the age of 22, plus he’s living away from home. This means that he can pull in a Centrelink payment of around $580/fortnight. He’s taking out a HELP loan to pay for his course, which is around $6,800/year. I know that many people, particularly in the US, consider it almost mandatory to pay for some or all of their kids’ college/university fees, but I don’t.

I told them all that I was responsible for seeing them through high school. If they choose to go to tertiary education, (the word ‘choose’ should have been in quotation marks because they were left in no doubt that the only choice about that was which course they should do!)… anyway, they could live with me without paying board. They pay for their own books and fees, but their living expenses are nil.

My reasoning is this – I think a better financial gift to my children is the gift of their mother being financially independent throughout her whole life. I don’t want to be in my 80’s and having to go to the boys for a handout every time the electricity bill comes in. They’ll have their own families to support and their own lives to live. I can’t finance their educations and adequately provide for my own retirement – I am but one woman. So they have to take responsibility for their own decisions from here on out.

So how has Evan22, being the youngest of my children, handled his finances after a lifetime of living with Frogdancer Jones? I haven’t directly asked him about this – maybe an interview post in the future might be interesting to get his perspective? – but here’s what I’ve observed.

But first, a little background to put things in context:

 

He was only 11 months old when I left my ex-husband, so he, as one of the younger 3 boys, grew up without any memory of when there were 2 parents in the house. For the next 4 years of his life, I was a stay-at-home Mum, waiting for him to grow up and get to school so that I could go out and work. We existed on what was called back then the ‘Sole Parents’ Pension’ of around 18K/year, plus intermittent child support when the Child Support agency would catch up with my ex.

With 4 children, going back to work wasn’t a financial option. The daycare fees would have wiped out my wage. So the boys lived in an ultra-frugal house for years. My priority was security for the boys, so the mortgage, food and bills were always paid. Then any extras would come out of what was left.

So what has Evan22 done with all of this?

He’s actually done pretty darned well so far. When he finished secondary school he was adamant that he didn’t want to go on to further education. He took a gap year, where he worked part-time in a fruit shop around the corner and dabbled on various writing and film projects. He couldn’t get any Centrelink allowances because at his age, they take his parents’ income into consideration and I earn too much.

Then the gap year turned into 2… then 3. About 18 months after he finished school, I moved out of the house we were living in and went to live in The Best House in Melbourne, while Evan20 stayed behind in the old place. He got some roommates in and they all paid rent.

He was never late in the rent. He worked and paid his own way. Sure, the garden looked like the place was haunted and they weren’t the cleanest tenants a landlord ever had, but he was supporting himself and hey- the house was going to be knocked down anyway!

In his third gap year, he left the fruit shop and took an office job with a couple of his high school friends. Unbeknownst to me, he’d already decided that he wanted to do an acting course. Unfortunately, that realisation hit him AFTER auditions for the following year were over. So he decided to get a job that actually paid fairly decent money and start to save.

Most acting courses worth their salt are either interstate or in the country. There was one – at the Vic College of the Arts – that if he got in, he could live at home and take the train in each morning. But he knew he’d better not bank on that one. He saved up around 15K over that year he worked in the office job, quietly salting it away for what may come in the next year.

Meanwhile, the house was sold and he moved back in with us. He still kept going to work, saving and still having fun. Towards the end of that year, (2017), he casually said, “Hey Mum, can you help me with some audition pieces? I’m going to try for Acting for next year.”

When he was accepted into a really terrific course in rural Victoria, I was worried about the expense of housing him. But, as you already know, he already had that covered. He was determined not to ask me for money for it, so he paid for his first year of accommodation. Towards the end of that year, he had a birthday and he knew the mature-aged student allowance from Centrelink would kick in, enabling him to pay rent for the next 2 years. He’d quietly worked it all out and then took the steps to make sure it would all come together.

All of my children have grown up to be very debt-averse. None of them have credit cards and the only person they borrow money from is The Bank of Mum if their car blows up or something. (They appreciate the interest-free component. And they always pay me back.) But Evan22 wasn’t comfortable borrowing 5 figures from me, so he worked out a way to cover it himself. I’m incredibly proud of him for that. I think it shows maturity beyond his years.

But what about the rest of his expences? Is he incredibly frugal, spending money only on essentials?

Well, if you consider buying 5 copies of the same vinyl album of his favourite band because it came in 5 different colours frugal… then yes! He seems to go out to breakfast a lot, so I’d say there’s plenty of smashed avocado in his life. When he drinks it’s not beer or wine, but vodka and whiskey. He’s a vegetarian, so his groceries are probably less than if he was a meat eater, though having said that, have you seen the cost of chia seeds lately???

He spends very little on clothes. They’re just not that important to him. I think he’s learned by living with me that it’s smarter to spend on the things that HE values, not what society/his peers/his mother tell him to spend his money on. He follows his own heart.

When we finished moving in I took him out to lunch. He’s an independent guy – I asked if he wanted to swing by the supermarket on the way back to The Playboy Mansion to stock up his new kitchen. I was paying, of course.

“No thanks, Mum, ” he said. “I’ve got plenty of food left over from Res.”

In the whole year he’s been living up there, he hasn’t put a hand out for money once. Not once. I haven’t offered, because I was curious to see how it would pan out. I’m very proud of how he’s learned to organise his money and pay his way.

On the way up to Ballarat, we went via IKEA, where I bought him a Queen-sized bed with all the trimmings, plus a few other odds and ends that he needed. He thinks that the extra things are coming out of his Christmas money. (I give every boy up to the age of 25 a $300 voucher for Christmas. They use it for clothes, usually.) He’ll be expecting a voucher for about $50.

But he’ll be getting the full $300. I think he’s earned it.

I’ve said it before, but I’m very proud and impressed by how well Evan22 has stepped out into the world and has started to navigate himself with his finances. He’s clearly observed and internalised the “stay out of debt’ and ‘make sure there’s more money than month’ rules that I’ve lived my life by.

The next step is to teach him about compounding and investing. Considering that he’s moving into a notoriously unstable field of work, he’ll need his money to be working hard for him. However, judging by how he’s travelled so far, I think he’ll be able to listen and learn.

So far anyway, he’s behaving with money pretty much as you’d want a second-generation FIRE kid to be. Ok, so he’s not doing an engineering degree or living at home and biking to the local university to save money, but all in all, his attitude towards his finances seems to have a solid bedrock upon which to build.

Anyway, this is how a second-gen FIRE kid is behaving in his early 20’s. He learned frugality and delayed gratification at my feet, but I didn’t start learning about investing, compounding and FIRE until he was in his late teens. Imagine what the children of younger FIRE parents will be absorbing as they grow?

The sky’s the limit…