Burning Desire For FIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What didn’t go to plan?

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

What ended up happening?

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

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

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

Here’s the deal about my geoarbitrage strategy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The suspense was killing me…


… and then he rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks like she made the right decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Putting infrastructure in place for retirement #4.

House plan for The Best House in Melbourne.

Some of the things that people put in place for retirement are big projects, such as the landscaping I’ve done around the house and the verandah roof I’m currently organising to have built. These things have cost many thousands of dollars, but will reap huge benefits once I leave work and have the time to enjoy them. But not everything has to be a massive project. Sometimes it’s as simple as rearranging a few paintings and pieces of furniture.

I’ve put the house plan of The Best House In Melbourne up on the blog before, when I wrote about how I geoarbitraged my family into it. When we moved in, I had 2 sons in their 20’s still living with me. Naturally, they chose bedrooms 3 and 4 to live in, as far away from their favourite mother as possible.

Evan22, who was at that stage Evan20, chose to keep living in the old house until it was demolished, a move that we thought would only be about 6 months but ended up being almost 18 months. When he came home there was only one bedroom left – bedroom 2.

It’s not a bad space. It has plenty of storage and an inbuilt desk, perfect for putting a huge tv screen on for playing games. It’s south-facing, so it’s bright enough without being too dazzling for a bedroom. It has ducted gas heating for winter and a fan for summer and the room opens up to my main living area, which in summer is cooled by a massive refrigerative air conditioner, so climate control is a breeze.

This was his room until he left to live in Ballarat, a regional town about 2 hours from here. He’s doing an acting degree at the university there. He uses this room as a base when he’s in Melbourne, but that’s only a few nights here and there.

He’s pretty much not coming home for 2 years and will probably move straight out again once his course is finished, so it’s time to RECLAIM THE ROOM.

This will be my guest room/sewing room, at least until Jordan26 moves out and bedroom 4 on the house plan becomes free for me to use as a study. But this room needs to be functional as a guest room.

In years to come, as Old Lady Frogdancer totters towards old age, she’ll have friends and relatives who’ll sometimes want to stay. There’s nothing better than having dinner and then sitting on the couch till the wee hours, telling stories, drinking wine and laughing. It’s even better if people can stay the night and not have to worry about driving or getting Ubers.

Evan22 had covered the walls with photos and the wardrobe doors with pages from a script he was writing. Imagine hundreds of blobs of Blutack everywhere. I used to walk in, take a look at the photos still up there and the blue spots left on the wall from the photos he took with him, silently scream and hurriedly shut the door behind me.

The photos are now gone. He did it without me even asking. There’s one small spot up near the cornice where the paint pulled away, but he says that the rest of the paintwork is fine. I was so relieved! I was certain that I’d have to paint the whole room.

I bought a double bed for him when he moved back in. He’s barely used it and he wanted to take it with him up to Ballarat. The thought of taking it apart, then transporting the bed and mattress up there, then putting it all back together again while still having to buy a bed to put in my guest room was all too much.

I suggested to Evan22 that I simply buy him a new bed, as I’d have to buy one anyway, and we’d get it delivered to Ballarat. He was rapt and he’s already got me to agree to a Queen-sized bed. (What can I say? He’s my baby… plus he’s over 6′ tall.)

This painting was bought in Bali back in 2006. Works beautifully in here.

When I moved all of that in, I looked at the space and thought… “Hang on! My bright ladies from Bali would look perfect in here!”

So the bed is taken care of. Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again for the doona. When we moved here, I bought a new wool doona for my bed and stupidly bought a Queen sized one. You’d think that would be perfect for a Queen-sized bed but as we all know, you really need a King-sized doona for a queen-sized bed. Idiot! But now, I just moved my doona to the guest room, complete with the beautiful yellow and white striped doona cover, and bought a proper-sized doona for my bed.

When the boys and I went to Bali, way back in 2006, we came back with lots of wood carvings, lots of jewellery and LOTS of art. It cost more to frame each piece than it did to actually buy them, but 13 years later, they’re still adorning the walls of our house. The yellow of the doona cover picks up the yellow in the painting and it looks great.

I’ll just need to look out for a mirror to put on the wall over the desk and then the room will pretty much be complete as a guest room. I know it’s only a little job, but it’s one step closer to having the house ready for retirement.

Having another pair of eyes look over my figures.

On Monday the school had people from VicSuper come out to talk with people about their retirement plans. VicSuper is the default retirement company for teachers, so the vast majority of staff are with them. I don’t have my superannuation with them anymore, but I booked a half-hour slot during my lunch hour to have a chat with someone anyway. I thought that they wouldn’t be able to talk in detail, but I could at least have someone more mathematically gifted than myself to have a look at what I’ve set up and tell me if I’m on the right track or not.

Let’s call her ‘Ms VS’. It has a certain ring to it.

  • For the non-Aussies: Superannuation is the name for our retirement funds. Every employer is required to pay in 9.5% of every employee’s wage into a super fund of the employee’s choice. It guarantees that by the time people reach retirement, they’ll have at least some money behind them, instead of solely relying on the Age Pension.

When we first starting talking, I said to her that although I’ve been working full-time, I’m dropping back to part-time next year as a sort of glide-path towards retirement. I said that retirement might be 3 years off (when I can access my super) or it could be as soon as 1 year off, if I find that I’m still hankering towards total freedom over my days even with the reduced hours.

Apparently, from what Ms VS said later, this is pretty standard. She said that she normally doesn’t have people book a time with her unless they’re very close to retirement, when they suddenly become aware that they’ll have to rely on what they’ve put away in their super. She clicked her pen, leaned forward and asked me if I knew what I have in my investments.

Did I know what I have in my investments?!? Little did she know that she was talking to Frogdancer Jones. I’ve been reading blogs about net worth, share portfolios, savings accounts, superannuation and the like for YEARS. Hell, with all the US blogs I’ve read, I know more about American retirement accounts than you could shake a stick at!

I was primed, ready and prepared.

I had period 1 off that day so I had time to make a full list for her. Well, to be honest, I just took all my numbers from the ‘Net Worth Table’ I have in the cloud, which I update at the end of every month. Took me less than 5 minutes. I flipped open my notebook at the correct page and passed it across.

I don’t think Ms VS meets a lot of FIRE-y people in her line of work.

She was pretty surprised, not so much at my figures, though she said they were unusual, but by how I’d thought about the share market ups and downs and where I’d pull money from when the market tanks. She didn’t need to explain how the share market ebbs and flows; how risk can affect people in different ways depending on how close they are to retirement; how, if I retired earlier than 59, how I’d have to find the money to fund my lifestyle and what a safe withdrawal rate was, etc, etc.

Thank you, blogs and books in the FIRE movement! I looked like I had a financial brain!!

The talk about my actual figures only took up about half the time, so we moved on to talk about other things, which is why I wanted to write this. Some of what she said was scary, particularly for women.

I guess when we’re interested in FI and we read all the blogs and books and start to absorb the knowledge, we assume that most people are more financially literate than they really are. According to Ms Vs, this is far from the truth.

She said that when I mentioned that I was looking to pull the pin in the next year or two, she thought I’d be like most of the people who come to see her. They give no thought to their retirement, assuming that the compulsory 9.5% of our wages that our employers are legally required to put into Super is enough. Then, a year or two out from retirement, they decide to look at their figures, they have a heart attack at what they see and they come running to see what they can do about it.

I guess that’s not so much of a surprise – we hear this a lot about huge swathes of the population not getting ready for retirement in time. At the risk of sounding like a Nelly Know-it-all though: I just don’t understand that mentality. When I was in my 30’s and 40’s I deliberately ignored putting extra money into my retirement account because I made a conscious choice to pay off my house first. Security for the boys and I was my paramount objective. But 3 weeks after I’d made that last mortgage repayment, I was stressing over what I had to do to get my Superannuation account looking more lively. Maybe that’s the blessing/curse of being a long-term thinker??

“I see a lot of women in their 50’s and 60’s who come in after a divorce,” Ms VS said. “They’ve only got around 70K in their Super and they still have a mortgage. They’ve never dealt with finances in their lives before and it’s a scary time for them.”

I smiled. “I went through the divorce thing twenty-two years ago,” I said.

“You’ve had time to recover,” Ms VS said. “It’s really good to see a woman as well-prepared as you. Though I suppose you’ve had to be organised, being on your own.”

“I wasn’t on my own!” I said. “I also had 4 kids under 5 with me.”

Photo of my mini wire-haired dachshund, Scout.
Miss Scout – anyone who’s owned Dachshunds, like Ms VS and I, are part of a special club. 🙂

We talked a bit about where the boys and I started from, veered off into talking about dachshunds, (because why wouldn’t we?) then back onto finances.

“Have you ever taken what you’d consider being a financial risk to get into the position you’re now in?” she asked.

“OMG, yes,” I said. “Years ago, back when the boys were still in school, I decided to take a 15K pay cut from teaching by dropping a day and using that time to run a group of Thermomix consultants as a team leader. 15K was a lot of money to me back then… well, it still is!… but I was assured that if I worked hard I could pull in 30K. Turned out to be true, so I kept doing that for 3 or 4 years.

“Then, when I decided to go into partnership with a developer and draw up plans to put a couple of massive townhouses on my property, I took on a 750K bridging loan when I bought The Best House In Melbourne and still owned the original place. The interest payments took up over 70% of my take-home pay. I thought it’d be for 6 months or so but the council took so long to approve things that it was 18 months before I was able to sell the property with approved plans and pay off my new place. I was terrified the property bubble would burst, but it turned out that I sold at the peak of the market so, in the end, it worked out. It was a calculated risk – but it paid off.”

We talked about whether I’d seen a financial planner. I said I hadn’t and she said, “You’ve managed very well so far, so why would you hand it all over to someone else and pay them a fee to look after it for you? “

I said that before I leave work, I want to see someone to stress-test my plans in case there was something I’ve missed, and she thought that was a good idea.

As the bell for the end of lunchtime rang and I got up to go, she said, “It’s rare that I see someone who’s all over it like you are – and if I do, they’re usually Maths teachers.”

I’m glad that I was able to fly the flag for the Drama and English teachers for a change!

For those going to the shindig on Monday.

Right! I’ve just seen that the organiser on Monday’s screening of the “Playing With FIRE’ documentary has shared the link to this blog with all who are attending, which is fair enough, seeing as I’m speaking on a panel after the show.

This made me feel weird, seeing as the last couple of posts have been fairly introspective and therefore boring to anyone other than the 3.75 people who read my blog, so in the interest of giving background to everyone else, here are a few posts offering my credentials, so to speak.

How I earned my freedom. It was a Pantene thing, but that’s ok. When you leave your marriage with $60 cash, 4 kids under 5 and a 100K mortgage, it takes a while to get your feet back under you.

How I was able to recognise an opportunity to shave 10 years off my working life.

How financial independence allows you to take advantage of the weird opportunities life can throw at you. Like travelling to North Korea.

I’m not your stereotypical FIRE blogger. Some of them paved the way and for that I’m grateful. But there’s room for more stories. You don’t have to be in your twenties or thirties, married and in a 200K a year job to get this FIRE thing done.

I’m NOT a numbers person… I’m someone who had to survive with 4 boys depending on her – failure was not an option. I can talk about how Bon Jovi kept me going. (With a slight tweak in the lyrics of a particular song.)

I’m looking forward to Monday night and meeting up with like-minded people. Sadly, at the moment we’re a rare breed, but maybe with docos like ‘Playing With Fire’ the word will start spreading and igniting. (See what I did there?)

Looking forward to meeting everyone at the showing. Come up and introduce yourself… we’ll have a great time!!

Maybe we should keep our big mouths shut?

I don’t know if I’ve blogged about this goal here, but one of my dreams for years was to be able to afford to buy 2 sets of subscription tickets to the Melbourne Theatre Company, then take a different person with me each time to see a play. We’d meet in the city, have dinner and catch up, then see the play and talk about it afterwards. I thought it would be great!

For the last two years, ever since I did the whole Geoarbitrage thing, I’ve been able to do it. Those tickets don’t come cheap, at around $90/seat, but for years I was starved of seeing live theatre and now I can finally share it. My kids, my sister, my niece, my parents and various friends have all come with me and it’s been lovely having one-on-one time with the people I like and care about.

I have a friend who I’ve known for 20 years. His name is Leo and we met when I was newly out on the dating scene after leaving my marriage. We dated briefly, but that was over a decade ago and we agreed we’d be better off as friends. We see each other every few months for lunch or dinner and it’s good for both of us to be able to talk about what’s happening in our lives and get another perspective from someone not actively involved.

We talk about everything, including finances. Coincidentally, as I was embroiled with the property-developing and geoarbitrage thing, he was also investing in a property venture… but unfortunately his didn’t turn out as well as mine did. He’s now looking at retiring overseas in a few years in a low cost of living country like Thailand or Cambodia, or maybe Bali, where the Age Pension can go a lot further. Anyway, last week it was his turn to come and see a play with me.

He had to leave work later than I did, so I grabbed a table in the restaurant next to the theatre and sent a photo of the menu so he could decide what he wanted to have. He selected the lamb, then a few minutes later he sent another text: “U paying?? Add winter veggies.”

Woah!

I don’t mind admitting that I was rocked back on my heels a little. I don’t mind paying for my own meal if money’s tight for him, but considering I’d already paid for his theatre ticket… Wow.

As it turned out, he paid for both our dinners, which was nice of him, but by the time we reached this point in the evening, there was more.

Twice during dinner he made a remark about how much money I must have now, which was weird and made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t in a complimentary, “Look how far you’ve come, Frogdancer, that’s fantastic!” way. It was more of a ‘what would you know? You’re made of money’ sort of tone. I inwardly raised my eyebrows but let the comments slide.

The last remark he made, though… that one made me mad.

We were in the queue at the theatre to get in and I gave him his ticket. He said, “You must’ve seen a lot of plays lately. How many have you been to this year?”

I said, “I’ve been to a couple of plays with my Theatre kids, plus Harry Potter and I think this subscription is for 7 plays.”

He glanced at his ticket, which has the price ($91.00) on it, whistled and said in a sardonic tone, “Gee. What does it feel like to be rich?”

I was gobsmacked.

At the end of the night, after I dropped him home, he thanked me and said, “If you’ve got any more theatre tickets I’ll be happy to come with you. I love these things.”

As it happens, I have one play that I haven’t asked anyone to come with me yet, but he won’t be getting it. The main reason is that the whole idea of this is to share the love around and catch up with a range of people, but the other reason that I won’t be asking him is that I drove home feeling sad that my good fortune has changed the dynamic between us.

Well, I say ‘good fortune’ but the reality is that he could have been in a similar position to me, but his life has been all about the wine, women and song, whereas mine has been pretty different. Bringing up 4 kids on your own necessitates a more frugal, stay-at-home-more-often way of living.

I’m left wishing that we didn’t have those conversations when we were both making our moves in the property market.

I don’t want to be made to feel guilty or to apologise for my deal working out. It could so easily have gone the other way and, knowing this, I lived on a knife-edge of stress for over eighteen months while the whole thing played out. I took a calculated risk and it paid off. Leo knows all of this – after all, he was around during the days when I could barely keep food on the table and the bills paid, back when the kids were little. I guess the reason why I’m left with a nasty taste in my mouth is that this snide, envious attitude is coming out of left field when they are coming from my old friend.

Sometimes I see people in the FI world saying, “We should talk more about finances. We should make discussions about money more normal and open.” Well, maybe we should.

But on the other hand, maybe it’s better if we keep our big mouths shut?

Yikes! Yabba Dabba Dooo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait… what?!?

Yeeouch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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