Burning Desire For FIRE

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

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Does gaming help to develop grit?

Ryan24 with a bandaged foot.
Home for the weekend.

Around 3 days ago I wrote about my son, Ryan24, and a conversation we had in the ER with a nurse when we were in there tending to his burned foot. The foot was damaged more deeply than initially thought and although he’s home for the weekend, he’ll need a couple of skin grafts.

The pain he’s constantly in is strong. Even after 9 days after it happened, on a scale of 1 – 10 his level is a 6 on the strong pain killers and a 9 when they wear off. Yet he doesn’t complain. He hasn’t asked to go back to the ER for stronger stuff. He’s told off David26 and me when we offer to help him with things, saying, “Leave me my independence!”

He’s displaying grit. But where does it come from? Are you born with it or is it something that is learned over time? And how can this help us along the road to financial freedom?

The two of us have talked more about pain in the last few days than we have in his entire lifetime. He’s very articulate about it, which I guess is hardly surprising, given the situation. On Friday morning, a couple of hours after standing beside his bed watching him undergo the most pain I’ve ever seen a human being experience when his bandage was being replaced after a debridement procedure the night before, he explained what intense pain is like.

“Mostly pain is easy to deal with because you can do something to ease it, like moving in a different way or something. But this is like having my foot dipped in molten lava and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. You have a pain level you know is unbearable, but up till then, you can deal with it. But when it goes a level about that, and then a level above that… and then keeps on going, there are only two things that can help you. Tears and mental gymnastics.”

(The bold emphasis is mine.)

Ryan24 is a gamer from way back. He’s been playing on consoles and computers since he was a wee tacker. He’s undergone more quests and challenges than you’ve had hot dinners. He’s used to being confronted with a danger, a problem or a dilemma and then working his way through it logically. According to his friends, he’s a good man to have on the team because he stays level-headed in a crisis and keeps the bigger picture in mind. He also has amazing map-reading skills, but that’s beside the point for this post.

This is a financial independence blog, but like the post I linked to earlier, it strikes me that Rya24 is exhibiting many of the traits that lead to success with handling money.

Like so many people who are appalled when they realise how deeply they’ve dug themselves into debt, he’s in a crisis situation. Some people promptly put their heads back into the sand and refuse to deal with the problem they’ve created for themselves. Others choose to take a clear look at their situation and start taking steps to gain relief from it.

Ryan24 is choosing to take the long view of his problem. He knows that this won’t last forever and the best thing he can do now is to listen to the experts and do everything he can to move through this, no matter how painful it may be in the short-term. His foot hurts less when he elevates it, but he chooses to lower it, endure the pain and move around every hour or so, because it’ll help his recovery further down the track if there’s more blood flow to the area.

Similarly, someone enduring the pain of financial insecurity, (which I can personally attest to being a definite mental pain), can choose to also take the long-term view. When you keep the thought and belief that this will not last forever if I make some changes firmly in the forefront of your mind, it makes it easier to make the decisions and sacrifices you need to get out of the hole easier and more likely to be made.

The “mental gymnastics” that Ryan24 alluded to are very much a gamer thing, but anyone can harness them. He’s giving himself challenges to distract himself, such as single-handedly moving his desktop computer box from his room to the man cave, so he could use his computer with the tv as a screen and be able to elevate his foot on the ottoman, as pictured. He’s wrapped all his Christmas presents, sitting on the floor so his foot is on the same level as the rest of him. Yesterday he had the tv playing clip upon clip of some American painter teaching people how to paint landscapes. He wasn’t watching it, but when I asked why he had it on he replied, “Because his voice is so calming.”

Take a listen. His voice is so soothing it could put a raging toddler to sleep!

Just like Ryan24, someone working their way out of a financial problem can use distractions and challenges to help them along the way. When I was spending all those years raising 4 children on my own and doggedly digging my way out from under the mortgage, I used to do things like see how many days I could stay out of the supermarket, using things I already had in the pantry and fridge to feed us. If you stay out of the shops you can’t be tempted to buy extra things you don’t need, right?

When I got a 9 month contract at my school, I bought a new-to-us car and vowed I’d pay off the 20K loan by the end of the contract, just in case I was out of work after it ran out. It was a stretch, but I did it. I felt like I was super victorious every time I could scrape together an extra few dollars each fortnight to throw at the debt. Meeting challenges makes you feel good. If you feel good you’ll keep on until you hit that goal. I used this tactic a LOT to keep me on the track to providing security for my boys.

That Bob Ross ploy by Ryan24 to distract himself? Costs him nothing. Yet it provides a partial solution to his problem of being overwhelmed by strong emotions when the pain hits. No one wants a panic attack! For the rest of us, there are distractions all around that we can use to take our minds off what we’re being “deprived” of as we work our way out of financial insecurity towards financial independence.

Entertainment and fun doesn’t have to cost the earth. What I found useful was to rejig some activities to enable me to still have fun but not sabotage my over-arching financial goals. For instance, when I was undergoing my 18-month stint of paying for bridging finance on my current house at 74% of my take-home pay, I had to cut my expenses to nothing. I didn’t go out very often, but I took out an $18/month Netflix subscription as my entertainment. Worked a treat! When I wanted to see the girls, I invited them to a potluck at my place instead of us meeting at a restaurant. This has become a regular thing each holidays.

Another “mental gymnastic” that I’m pretty sure Ryan24 is doing is to see how long he can stretch out the time before he takes more pain killers. This is an easily do-able tactic for the financially challenged person. How long can you go before you buy that item you really want? Can you stretch out the use of whatever-it-is before replacing it? Can you keep going for another day/week/month at that side-hustle before you pack it in? How long can you go??

Any of these challenges to stretch things out is bound to keep more money in your pocket that you can throw at your situation to make progress. If your financial goal is to put together some savings in the bank, seeing that account total rise steadily and adding to it becomes a game. It becomes addictive, almost. Seeing that debt total fall, at first slowly, then faster and faster as the amount gets smaller and the principal being paid off gets bigger is exciting. You start to LOOK for ways to avoid spending so you can see that total fall even faster. It’s fun.

Now, I’m in no way advocating that the best way to develop grit is to spill boiling hot coffee on your foot. Ryan24 assures me very eloquently that it isn’t much fun. But there are traits that we all develop from areas far outside the financial sphere that we can harness and use to work towards our goals of financial security and freedom.

Maybe a slight gaming addiction is working out to be a good thing after all?

A sudsy sort of Christmas.

Home-made soap drying in the laundry.

Sshhh! Don’t tell my workmates, but they’re getting hand-made soap for Christmas. A couple of months ago I made up a couple of batches of this soap, mixed through some oats that I’d chopped up in the thermomix and let the rustic-shaped bars cure in the laundry, hardening up so they’ll be suitable to be used straight away.

Last week I asked the woman who runs the school canteen how many women work there. On Friday I dropped off 10 cakes of soap for them. It’s only fair. Twice a week I pick up all of the veggie scraps from them, so they deserve to get a little something for helping my garden out all year.

I probably spent a little under $20 to buy the materials, so that (and my time) was the only cost for nearly 40 presents. It’s something that’s a little bit different to the usual chocolates or candy-canes-sticky-taped-to-a-card and people seem to appreciate them.

You may have noticed that to the side of the soaps on the rack, are jars full of bean seeds. People who have been following along to the blog for a while may remember that when I put in the hideously expensive wicking beds last year, the landscaper put in horribly poor soil. Just about every plant I put into the beds died a slow and yellowy death, aside from my peas, beans and tromboncino zucchinis.

A little while ago I put together some seed packets of the Lazy Housewife and Purple King beans and gave them away to anyone at work who wanted some, particularly the people who’d given me compost materials. After all, they helped contribute! I told them to save a couple of beans, dry them out and then they’ll be able to plant next year’s bean crop. Essentially, I’ve just given them free beans for the rest of their lives.

And who doesn’t want to grow something called ‘Lazy Housewife’?

A conversation in the ER.

Ryan24’s foot on Tuesday. The pen mark to the right is where the line of infection was.

“The pain isn’t going to go away. You won’t be pain-free. But what you have to do is realise which level of pain you can deal with, and then only ask for pain relief when it gets worse than that.”

This was a nurse in the ER at Monash hospital, talking to Ryan24. Four days earlier Ryan24, fancying a morning cup of coffee, used the Aeropress incorrectly and ended up with boiling hot coffee and coffee grounds all over him. By the time he’d taken off his jeans and right sock, the damage was done. His left sock had soaked in all of the coffee that landed on it and when he pulled off the sock, he pulled off his skin with it.

Four days later, there we were in the ER after our doctor looked at how it was progressing. It wasn’t. It was infected, even with antibiotics, with red all around the foot and going up his leg in an 8cm streak. He needed to be on an IV antibiotic drip and, as it turns out, he also needs a couple of skin grafts. The burn covers nearly half the top of his foot.

Infection on the undamaged part of the foot. I have photos of the other side, but they’re not for the squeamish!

Now why am I telling you all this? Because life happens. And the things that we hold as true in the FI world also hold true in life.

Look at the advice the nurse in the ER told Ryan24. Afterwards, thinking over the day, I realised that what he was saying was pretty much what we advise all people who are starting to get their financial lives in order:

“The pain (of being in debt) isn’t going to go away. You won’t be pain-free ( when you give up buying whatever you want in the moment.) But what you have to do is realise which level of pain (spending) you can deal with, and then only ask for pain relief (to adjust the amount) when it gets worse than that (beyond a level where you’re happy.)

Today is Thursday. I’m expecting that Ryan24 will undergo the first operation for a skin graft today. He’s had 2 full days on the antibiotic IV and the infection has calmed down. Fortunately, he’s a uni student and holidays have already started for him. He has until March to recover and get back to work.

Being a burns patient is painful. So is being in debt. Recovering from both is also painful and requires a level of self-discipline and endurance.

I don’t have any great philosophical insight to end this post with. There are no great lessons here that you haven’t heard many times before. It simply struck me how inextricably finances and life are linked – how the lessons we learn in getting our financial lives in order aren’t wasted once we reach FI.

They’re the skills and traits that are available for us to use for the rest of our lives. Self-discipline and endurance. Delayed gratification. All useful things to be able to tap into when needed.

And please people – be careful around hot water!!!

The secret to success.

How a skier built up her herd of cows over time.

I saw this on Twitter a little while ago and it tickled my fancy. I loved how she took what the organisers of the skiing event obviously thought of as a novelty prize and used it as the basis of a thriving herd of cows today. Can you imagine the chagrin of the organisers as she blithely took them at their word and walked off with ‘their’ cow??

Obviously, one cow (even a pregnant cow) does not a herd make. But over time, it’s possible to build something from nothing if you keep quietly focussed and take strategic steps towards a goal, just putting one foot in front of the other.

There’s nothing stopping any of us from building our own equivalent of Ms Vonn’s herd of cattle. No matter who you are or where you’re starting from, there’s always room for a goal to be set and to be worked towards.

Picture me, back when I’d just left my husband. I had a starting position of $60 cash, with the added bonus of 4 boys under 5 to feed and water as well. I guess I started with my own little herd of humans! My overarching goal was always to keep a roof over those boys’ heads. But my first goal?

To scrape together 1K for what I called a “Buffer Zone” but which I now call an Emergency Fund. I wrote about how I learned very quickly that having cash between us and a hostile world was a very good thing, and when I was forced to cash it in, the first priority was to get it built back up again.

It’s easy to write about building up 1K in a cash stache nowadays, but back then it wasn’t easy to do. It took months of scrimping and scraping to get that 1K put away safely. It required many small decisions about what to buy and what not to buy; what had to be paid for now and what we could wait to get. It took me putting one foot in front of the other and slowly advancing towards that goal.

Poppy on my bed.

Even though this is a FIRE blog, I’d be stupid to suggest that every single goal worth aiming for has to be financial. We have to enjoy our lives along the path to being financially free, after all. Poppy is pictured above on my string quilt. This quilt is a totally unique creation that I initially started with the aim of using up tiny scraps of fabric instead of throwing them out. I wanted to turn them into something useable.

The concept itself was simple. I sewed strips of fabric together into 5″ square blocks. Some blocks have only 4 or 5 strips in them. Some have way more, which means that this was definitely not a quick job! The smallest strip is, I think, a quarter of an inch wide.

That quilt took me 9 months to complete. I put together square upon square upon square, sewing other quilts in the meantime and using scraps from those to keep putting this one together. It seemed as if it would never be finished, but finally, I got out a tape measure, worked out the dimensions of how big a Queen-sized quilt would be, then *shudder* did the Maths to see how many squares I’d need.

The answer was 396.

That quilt is on my bed to this day. It looks amazing and it’s hard to remember all of the many patient hours I spent at the sewing machine with tiny scraps of fabric, sewing together all of those 5″ squares. By themselves, each scrap of fabric is an inconsequential piece of nothing. But placed together, they represent a goal achieved.

Massed dancing in Pyongyang North Korea, April 2018.
So much fun!
Massed dancing in Pyongyang, North Korea in April 2018. It was so much fun to join in with them all and it was such an amazing spectacle!

On my way towards financial independence, I’ve set many goals and achieved them. Some were financial, though I’d argue that the underlying goal pushing me to achieve these ones was always a deep desire to provide security for my family. Others were more lifestyle goals, such as my Europe and North Korean trips.

For years, my Big Fat Hairy Audacious goal was to become mortgage-free. It took me 17 years, but I did it. But 17 years is a long time. Did I get bored and want to go nuts and spend my money on wine, men and song? You bet I sometimes did. But I kept making many small decisions about where I’d put my money. Every thousand that came off the mortgage made me smile, even though, especially in the early days, those days were very far apart.

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other and, seemingly overnight, that mortgage was gone and the boys and I had a secure base. After all, that 17 years would have passed whether or not I fulfilled that goal. May as well get things done while that time is passing, hey?

Today I’m focussing on getting The Best House in Melbourne ready for Future Frogdancer to live her best life in retirement. Instead of saving and investing money, as I did earlier on, I’m now looking deeply at what gives me the most pleasure and satisfaction in life, then I’m looking at spending my money in the ways that will continue to bring contentment and happiness to my life going forward.

I’m only buying things that have value to me. So upgrading my lovely little 2014 VW Golf is definitely off the table, while paying for self-watering veggie beds, a secure front fence to keep my dogs in and putting a huge verandah out the back to entertain my family on important birthdays and Christmases are things that are definitely happening.

Poppy, Jeff and Scout.
Next year I’m dropping back to part-time work so I can take these 3 to the dog beach more often. I never thought I’d reach the stage where time means more than money, but here we are…

Whether the goal has been a savings/investment goal such as reaching a specific number or getting an emergency fund topped up, or whether it’s a lifestyle goal such as the ones I’m organising right now, the way to reach those seemingly different goals has always been the same.

Figure out what you want.

Then find out how to get there. Break it down into smaller steps.

Then keep putting one foot in front of the other, step after step, until you reach it.

You can do this.

Poppy and Scout at the dog beach.
See? Here we are. So what do YOU want to achieve?

Sometimes it’s possible to talk to co-workers about finances!

Something really exciting happened at work yesterday.

I walked into the Danger Zone, (our little area in our staff room), and came slap bang in the middle of a conversation that Beth, Emily and Laura were having. Beth is well along the path to FI. We’ve had many a conversation about investing and she’s going great guns.

Laura is much younger than us. She’s already looking towards the future, having bought a couple of apartments as investments. I guess it helps to be a Maths teacher when it comes to understanding the whole ‘numeral’ thing.

Apparently they’d started talking about passive investments and Beth shared how much she earned over the last 12 months from the interest on her investments and her super. This blew Laura’s mind and got her attention. Then I walked in.

“Talk to Frogdancer,” said Beth. “I’d still be spinning my wheels if it wasn’t for her. She got me started with this whole thing.”

“Beth said that she made ($Xnumber)* last year, all from doing nothing!” said Laura. “How is that possible? It’s blowing my mind.”

I grabbed my laptop. “I have a net worth chart,” I said. “I check it at the end of every month.” I pulled it up and showed her.”See? Once your investments hit a certain mass, they take on a life of their own.”

Laura’s eyes popped. “OMG, why isn’t my net worth going up like that?”

Beth and I both said, “You’re young! You haven’t had time to build it up yet.”

Laura and Emily both jumped onto their banks’ websites and pulled up their own net worths. Both have mortgages and Melbourne is a really expensive place to buy real estate. Both of them are over half a million in the hole.

“That’s totally age-appropriate,” said Beth. I nodded. “You’re just starting out.”

Laura looked at me. “Beth and my parents say that I should be salary sacrificing into my super,” she said. “I don’t know – shouldn’t I be paying down my mortgages first, though?”

“It depends what you want,” I said, pulling up a chair. “Mathematically, it probably makes more sense to start making some outside investments while interest rates are so low. But if you have a paid-off mortgage then you have security. No one can kick you out or make you sell it if you can’t make the payments.”

She nodded.

“I made the deliberate decision to pay off the house first because I had the kids,” I continued, “and security was the most important thing for me. I was always terrified that if I messed up, I’d lose the house and the kids would have nowhere to go. Three weeks after I paid off that house, I was starting to learn about investments.”

“How old were you then?” Emily asked. She’s another young Maths teacher. “What was your net worth?”

I laughed. “I paid off the house when I logged onto my banking and saw that I had $10 more in my savings account than I had on the mortgage. I was 50. So I guess my net worth was $10 just after I turned 50!”

“How old are you now?” she asked.

“56,” I said.

Her eyes widened. “In six years you’re worth **($myFInumber)???? You should write a book!”

“She already writes a blog!” said Beth.

“When I was your age, I pulled my super out, all 30K of it, to put a deposit on a block of land,” I said. “When we sold the block a couple of years later, we sold it for 30K less than we paid for it, so effectively my super was lost to the wind. A couple of years ago I calculated what that 30K would have been worth today if I’d left it alone. It would have been 200K.”

Laura and Emily’s eyes widened. They gasped.

“Learn from my mistakes!” I said. “Money put in for retirement when you’re young is worth a hellava lot more than money put in when you’re my age. It’s the second-biggest mistake I’ve made.”

“So how much do you need to retire?” said Laura.

“Don’t you need a million?” asked Emily.

“Close enough,” I said. I wasn’t going to dive into the 4% Rule just then!

“Right!” said Laura, turning back to her laptop. “I’m going to salary sacrifice into Super. How much should I be putting in?”

“You can put in 25K a year,” I said. “That includes all of the super that the Education Department pays. But you’re paying those mortgages and you probably don’t want to tie up every dollar into an investment that you can’t touch till you’re 60. If I were you, I’d start off with $100/pay. You won’t miss it and you’ll get used to putting extra aside. You can always increase it if you want.”

While Laura was out of the Danger Zone, talking to HR I pulled up a compound interest calculator and put in her basic figures, starting with the $100 depososit and then kicking in $100 fortnightly.

When she came back into the room she said, “I’ve done it! I’m now salary sacrificing!!” We all cheered and then I gave her a hug.

When I showed her the calculator she loved it, changing it to plug in her current superannuation amount, then taking a screenshot to send to her Mum, saying, “She’s going to be rapt I’ve finally started this.”

Conversations like this are so rewarding.

It might sound a bit corny, but it makes me think that all my struggles have been worthwhile if someone else can benefit from my experience and avoid making similar mistakes. Laura and Emily are young women who are full of plans and are going places, but as I said to them, this one little tweak to their finances will give them so many more options later in life.

“When you’re as old as I am”, I said, “you’re going to be really glad that you started doing this. You’ll have a lot more choices available to you than if you didn’t have this money stashed away.”

Yep, yesterday was definitely a good day at work!

  • *and ** I’m not sharing anyone’s numbers on the blog. But we definitely shared them in the conversation we had.

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.

Locking in the profits.

I’m going to do something that I never thought I’d do. I’m going to pull some profits out of my investments and spend them on some projects around the house. In other words, I’ve decided to harvest some profits and lock them in.

Again, this was something that I never thought I’d do. I’m still working, so income is flowing in to pay for my day-to-day needs. That sweet sweet compounding is doing its thing with my investments and I was sure that I’d continue to let them ride. But then something happened.

I arrived home a week or two ago and it was raining. As I got out of the car and turned towards the house something caught my eye. A steady stream of water coming from the left front corner of the guttering. It fell in a straight line right onto the wooden supports of the verandah.

Crap.

I glanced across at the other corner and sure enough, the same thing was happening, but fortunately, this one was falling onto the brick paving. But the wooden balustrade near both corners was needing to be replaced. I was going to wait, but suddenly this looked like I might now have a rotting verandah on my hands.

It seems like it should be an easy fix – just replace the guttering. Done, right?

But look at this shot. The yuccas at the front of the house have grown up past the roof and are dangerous. The leaves are thick and very pointy and sharp at the ends and the previous owner intelligently planted them next to walkways. A couple of times when I was on the way to the recycling bin, I’ve narrowly missed being poked in the eye. So removing the yuccas has been on my list of Things To Get Done for a while now and the guttering can’t be replaced while the yuccas are there.

So it should be easy. Cut down the yuccas, then replace the guttering, right?

But…

If I cut the yuccas down, our big front windows would then be open to the street. Any stray marauder strolling by would be able to see straight through into my bedroom and our living room. Not exactly ideal. So do I put up some sheer curtains for day-time? Or do I put up a tall fence?

I already have a front fence, but it’s rusting. I’m very close to the beach. The dogs bark at every dog that walks past, so it’s been on my list of Things To Get Done, but in some dark, misty future, aeons from now. But that is going to change, it seems.

Our electric gate is broken, so we’ve been opening and closing it by hand for about a year now. If I get a new fence – a non-see-through one – I’d have to replace the gate as well.

It’s a cascading list of repairs and replacements. So! It all starts at the front fence.

Once I get the new fence, I’ll be able to call an arborist to cut down the yuccas and grind out the stumps. THEN I can replace the guttering and fix any wooden bits of the verandah and balustrading, without worrying that the carpenter will get his eyes poked out.

It’s so annoying. I had a really good plan in place to keep my investments in place and to keep a wage coming in to pay for retirement-proofing the house and so far the plan is working. But the good part about biting the bullet and getting all of these things done now is that once they’re done – they’re done. I can cross them off my list and keep moving forward.

My investments have done really well over the last couple of years, so in effect, I’ll be locking in the profits when I withdraw them and use them on the house. Of course, I’ll be losing any future compounding on those dollars, which is a shame, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that if I delay this water problem until I save up the money to deal with it, I’ll just be giving myself a bigger, more expensive problem down the track.

Ah well. At least Future Frogdancer will be able to walk out onto her front verandah without risking life and limb (or eyes, when I think of the yuccas.) It ruffles me that I’m changing my plans, but I think that the situation warrants it.

Any thoughts?

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.

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