Lockdown Easing

It feels that we’re starting to shift towards a slightly different mentality when it comes to lockdown. Things are beginning to open up a little bit, but more than that, people’s thinking seems to be changing. It’s noticeable in the supermarket where you see people huddled together chatting rather than getting in and out as quickly as possible to avoid infection. Whether that’s right or not is a can of worms that I think I’ll leave well and truly alone. It seems a bit quick to me, but I can just follow my own rules and leave other people to behave as they see fit. I’ve absolutely no interest in becoming the lockdown police.

I’ve got the added complication that I live in Scotland but all my family are down in England. So I’ve had the joy of trying to decipher two lots of rules. For my day to day life it’s Nicola Sturgeon that I’ve been listening to. Whatever you think about her politics I think most people would agree that she’s handled this situation well. She’s been a voice of reason and not scared to say the unpopular things that keep us safe. She’s not been afraid to say that although Boris is saying it’s now about staying safe not staying home, I’m telling you to stay home. And if you haven’t yet seen the voice overs that Janey Godley does of her speeches then check them out, as they are brilliant.

I’ve been trying to keep up with things south of the border as well so that I can figure out what’s going on with my family, make sure they’re safe and crucially trying to figure out when I can get down to see them. I have to say I’ve found a lot of Boris’s advice pretty much incomprehensible. Safe to say I’m very glad I’m in Scotland and following Nicola. She’s come across as very statesman like through all this. Or should that be stateswoman like? Either way she’s been reassuring, confident and told it like it is.

We’re not out of lockdown yet, but we are starting to see some easing. We still can’t get haircuts yet, but that should be coming in soon. I’ve become a dab hand at cutting my fringe, but that’s about as much as I’ve dared. My kids are looking slightly like shaggy dogs, but they’re not bothered and I quite like their somewhat hippy looks. The most exciting thing for me is that we can now meet up with two other households outside. And of course we all know what that means. I get to run with friends again. I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed that. I totally lost any motivation to run at the start of all this, but I’ve gradually got back into it. I’m totally unfit still, but at least I’m consistently running again. I’ve had two runs now with other people and it was just the nicest thing ever.

I’ve really been missing parkrun. That’s usually such an important part of my weekend. I’d done lots of touristing to various parkruns, but when it was clear that we were about to have the final parkrun for the foreseeable future then I headed back to my local park for the final Saturday and volunteered as a marshal to cheer everybody on. This gave me a chance to catch up with everyone and get more or less caught up on my volunteering debt before everything stopped. That was a perfect morning, made all the more poignant for knowing that we wouldn’t be seeing each other for some time.

This morning I was out for a run with a friend. We were doing a 10km route that used to be a race a few years ago, and was being put on as a virtual lockdown challenge by our running club. You do it whenever you want during the allocated week and post your results. I’ve been studiously ignoring these challenges as I didn’t want to be reminded how unfit I was. This one looked fun though, so the two of us plodded around and put the world to rights. It’s amazing how much I’d lost the ability to talk and run at the same time. Not if I wanted to be able to breathe too anyway. I used to be quite good at that, so that’s definitely a skill I need to relearn.

The route was three laps starting and finishing in the park where parkrun is normally held. We met at 9 and were chatting before we got started. Then we saw a runner we knew so had a lovely talk with him. As we were running through the park on each lap we kept seeing people we knew from parkrun and more general running circles. Then it twigged that it was the anniversary of that particular parkrun, so lots of people were doing a pretend parkrun to celebrate. At the end we were talking to loads of runners we knew. It was at that point I realised just how much I’d missed the social aspect of running. Going out for a run is a lot of fun, but add friends into the mix and it becomes this amazing experience.

I really can’t wait for parkrun to get going again, but I fear that’s a long way off. Parkrun HQ have said the a whole country needs to be in a position to put on the event for any to be able to start. We’re classed as part of the UK, so although we might be able to cope locally with the numbers involved, some of the bigger ones down south would be swamped and unable to do any kind of social distancing. Bushy, where it all started routinely gets massive numbers, so there’s no way it would be feasible for them. I’m doubtful that we’ll be back this year, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

At the start, like everyone,I was feeling pretty stressed about the pandemic. I was still going into the office, in a cubicle crammed in with people everywhere. I work in a call centre environment, which is hardly ideal for social distancing. They were paying lip service to keeping people apart. We had a one way system in place in the office, which was ridiculous and did absolutely no good. Teams were having meetings in the stairwells to say they were socially distancing, but all that meant was you had to walk past them to get to your part of the office.

Eventually they realised that there wasn’t enough space to have everyone in at the same time, so I came back after lunch one Monday to be told to go home for the rest of the week so that everyone could be spaced out in the office. That lasted until the Wednesday when they realised that they needed everyone working, so just come back the next day and it would be fine. Then we had a confirmed case in the building so were closed for two days for a deep clean. I had a few day’s holiday after that and I was dreading going back into the building.

There are fifty five of us working in my particular area. We are crammed into cubicles with a walkway between the middle of our part. There was no way to be two metres apart. They were claiming it was fine and that we could still use the walkway without there being any problems. How ridiculous this assertion was has now been demonstrated by the fact that they have now decided that out of the fifty five of us that work in that part, we can safely accommodate six of us in the office.

When I was due to go back on the Monday I decided that I wasn’t prepared to work there any more. They were trying to get laptops for everybody so that we could work from home, but it was taking some time to organise. I sat down with my good old spreadsheets and worked out how long I could live on my stash if I had to. I’d recently done some extra borrowing on my mortgage as I knew at some point I was going to need to replace my car and the boiler. I’ve also not been able to use my en suite since it leaked through the kitchen ceiling last year, so at some point I’ll want to get that sorted. I decided to borrow an extra £20k on my mortgage.

I’m very fortunate to have a base rate mortgage through work, so at 0.1% I’m not too worried about increasing my borrowing. I’ve just stuck it in a cash ISA for the meantime and it’s making me more than it’s costing me. As they’re due to withdraw the staff mortgage for any new borrowing at some point this year I figured it would be good to take advantage of that whilst it’s still available. I’m actually wondering if I shouldn’t maybe take some more and just tuck it away. It goes against the grain for me as I have spent a long time overpaying my mortgage and love to see it coming down, but the numbers don’t lie. Since I’ve done the extra borrowing I’ve reduced the amount that I’m overpaying and put that extra money into index trackers again. I would love to be mortgage free, but for now I think it’s probably more important to build my investments.

So my cash figure is almost certainly higher than it should be at the moment. As I’m barely using my car just now it will hopefully not need replacing quite so quickly. I’m going to wait till the boiler completely gives up the ghost. The last time it got serviced the said that they can’t get parts for it any more, and a couple of times a year it stops working for a couple of days and we have no heating or hot water. Cold showers are far from ideal, but most of the time it works, so I’ll just hang fire until there’s no option but to replace it. The en suite I’m hoping I can mostly pay for out of the cash that’s built up in my current account, but I’m in no rush to get that done either.

So the bottom line is that I have a good amount of cash if I needed it to live off. When I worked my figures out on the Sunday night when I was due to go back in to the office the next day I reckoned that on a bare bones survival budget I could probably last for about three years. Clearly that’s a sign that I have too much cash, but it definitely worked in my favour. I wasn’t going to quit the next day, but having that money gave me the confidence to say I’m happy to work from home if you have a laptop for me, but otherwise I’m away home and let me know when my laptop’s here. I’m not sure how comfortable I would have felt saying that if I didn’t have a back up plan of cash in the bank. So even without being financially independent working towards FIRE gave me options that I might not otherwise have had.

When I went in on the Monday though there was a laptop for me, so I was able to head straight home and get set up in the spare room. It took a while to get all the technology working, but it’s gone pretty well. I was initially a little sceptical about how I would find working from home. We already had some people home working before all this kicked off. They had to come in to the office one day a week at least, but the rest of the time they worked at home. I had thought about it when it was offered and I was very tempted. I thought it would be a really good opportunity to see how I found being at home and not having the interaction at the office. This is something I worry about a little bit for that mythical point in the future when I reach FIRE and can quit the rat race. As I don’t have a partner and just have two teenage boys for company in the house I worried that I might find it quite isolating.

Turns out I didn’t need to worry. I love working from home. Admittedly it’s only been a few months, but I’m pretty sure I’d be fine doing this long term. I’m just doing my normal job, taking calls through the laptop, speaking to customers and keying applications for them. I was concerned that I’d find it hard to switch off without having the separation of home and office. Of course I sometimes think about work when I’m off, but then that was the same when I was working from the office too. I love being able to pop down on my break and put the washing out or just sit in the garden. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, but it hasn’t been sunny the whole time and I’ve still loved being at home.

I thought I would miss my colleagues, but no, not so much. I’d like to say there’s no office politics now, but that would be pushing it a bit. We’re operating business as usual. We’re incredibly busy, so there’s a lot of pressure to get on and take calls. Balancing that with dealing with cases for customers you’ve already dealt with is always tricky. So that’s no different. My boss is still on my back about my stats, but it’s a lot easier to deal with that when I’m in my lovely spare room rather than in a soulless cubicle. I’m enjoying the video meetings with my team, but I’m finding that twenty minutes a day is enough contact with my colleagues.

I’m definitely more focussed on my customers. I feel like I’m having better conversations with them because I’m not in such a distracting environment. It feels like I’m doing a better job and my confidence in my abilities has definitely grown. The job I do has a lot of grey areas. We’ve policies we have to follow, but because I’m advising people on their finances there aren’t always definite answers. I used to rely a lot more on discussing cases with colleagues. Now I tend to just read the policy, follow my gut and stick to my guns. So homeworking is a big tick in the box. I enjoy it, I’m managing without the office gossip and I feel like I’m developing new skills.

Like everyone else I’m now finding that I’m getting about three weeks to the gallon with my car. I’ve actually not had to fill up once since lockdown, which is amazing. I didn’t feel like I did an awful lot of driving before, and only used to have to fill up about once a month. These last few months have really made me start to think about my car usage. I had already been trying not to use the car so much for short journeys. As I only work about three miles from home I really shouldn’t be using by car for commuting, but I was. My current thinking is that even once everything starts to ease I’ll just keep home working. Even if I have to go to the office once a week eventually, then that will still cut down my car use considerably. I have even been thinking about cycling to work. It’s definitely doable.

My old bike has been on it’s last legs for a long time now. The tyres and brakes were completely shot and it was a heavy old beast at the best of times. I’d got rid of it just before lockdown hit and the plan was always to get a new one. The start of lockdown seemed as good a time as any to do this, so I got myself a new bike delivered. Just under £200 got me a decent hybrid bike, suitable for road and a bit of off roading too. I was very excited about this and the first day it arrived I got myself out after work to the cycle path that’s only half a mile from my house. It was a lot of fun and over the next few weeks I managed to build up to about an hour’s riding without feeling like I was going to die.

I’m ashamed to admit though that I’ve only been out on it a grand total of five times. I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve gone out, but I just don’t seem to have got in the habit of getting myself out there. It’s partly because I’m really enjoying my running again, and I never feel the need to exercise more than once a day. I’ve realised that rather than going out on the bike for exercise, I would rather that it was a means of transport to avoid me going in the car. I haven’t actually done anything about this, but I have started thinking about ways to get places I would want to go on the bike without needing to be on main roads. Where I live I’m really central for getting to the local town, so there’s no excuse for me using my car all that much. Definitely something for me to ponder a bit more and think about implementing some changes to the way I get about.

It will be interesting to see what changes come about once we do come out of lockdown fully. No doubt some things will go back to normal, but hopefully some of the more beneficial changes will be here to stay. I need to gather my thoughts on that and see what changes I want to bring about in my life from what I’ve learned from lockdown. Once I’ve come to some conclusions I’ll no doubt share my thoughts.

I May Be Worth Less Than I Was Last Month

So this is the first month since I started properly recording my figures that I’m worse off than I was the month before. I might as well get used to this, as I don’t imagine market volatility is going to disappear any time soon. I’ve used a higher Zoopla based house value for the first time this month. I’m not quite sure how good I feel about that, but I guess just keep using my purchase price from two years ago isn’t much better. The higher house value figure has bumped up my total assets figure from the month before.  For the net worth excluding the house equity, which is the one that really matters to me, I’m down. I need to learn to deal with that though, and see it as an opportunity to buy shares at a lower price.  I’m working on that state of mind, but I wouldn’t say I’m quite there yet.

Debts

Mortgage £87,050.51

Assets

Cash £16,728.33

Money in sharesave £11,304

AVC’s £3,987.82

Shares £32,759.19

House £245,000

Total Assets £309,779.34

Net Worth including house equity

£309,779.34 – £87,050.51 = £222,728.83

Net Worth excluding house equity

£64,779.34 – £87,050.51 = -£22,271.17

So despite things not going in the right direction, I still have almost £65K in my Happy Path fund. I’m actually pretty happy with that. I’ve decided to start trying to appreciate what I’ve already achieved, rather than looking mournfully at my spreadsheets thinking about how long I’ve still got to go till I achieve my freedom. In terms of other people’s figures mine look pretty pitiful. But I’ve never really been one for comparing myself to other people. This is my journey that I’m on. It’s never going to look exactly (or even much at all) like other peoples.

I started late and with not all that much income coming in, so it was always going to be a bit of a struggle for me. When I think back to fourteen years ago when I was newly divorced and moving in to a new house with a two and a four year old, I think I’d be pretty happy with the point that I’ve now reached. I was working part time, only earning about £17K a year and had just taken out a £100K mortgage. I had childcare to pay for, and quite frankly I don’t know how I balanced the books and made it all work. I did though.

I’ve come a long way since then. I’m now working full time and bringing in a bigger salary. I’ve been able to buy a bigger house thanks to overpaying my last mortgage and maxing out my work sharesave schemes. Quite frankly there was never a lot of cash to splash around, and I just kept that same money philosophy when I got a better job. We have our Alton Towers trips away now and the odd meal out, but apart from that our spending hasn’t changed all that much.

At work I’m in the same office as the old department that I used to work in. When I start early in the morning it’s really quiet in there and I can hear the phone calls that I used to have to take. Short servicing calls that suck the life out of your soul. I moan about my job from time to time, but when I hear those colleagues taking those calls and having to deal with those mundane enquiries I count my blessings. I used to be counting down until it was time for my next break. Sometimes I would have to put a post it over the clock to stop me checking it every few minutes. Now don’t get me wrong, I needed that job and the hours that I was able to work to allow me to fit in with my childcare. But honestly it nearly finished me off. I could not go back to that. Luckily, unless something goes badly wrong, I won’t have to.

Now saying that, there are a few people in that department that really seem to love their job. They mostly seem to be slightly older people, probably in their sixties I would think. They seem to get a real kick out of talking to customers. They’ve all been there a long time, but they don’t seem to have got jaded at all. I sometimes try and figure out what their secret is. It’s funny how two people can do the exact same job but experience it completely differently. I guess that’s down to your attitude. I know when I come in to work feeling stressed and not wanting to be there then I have a totally different day to when I come in with my positive head on. It really is all about your mental attitude.

The people I’m thinking about who love their job seem to work part time, so maybe that’s the secret. I know one of them is a carer for his disabled wife, so it may be that work is a change for him and a chance to get out of the house. For the most part I get the impression that work is something they enjoy doing, rather than something they have to do. I might be wrong, but maybe they have FU money.

In my department we’ve had a couple of departures recently. They’re doing shift reviews at the moment to try and standardise our working hours. We’re open till 8.00pm – but quite a few of us are on fixed day time shifts. They’ve now said that everybody will have to do at least 1 week out of 8 with an 8.00 finish. I can live with that, so I’ve agreed to the change. Apparently not everyone felt so accommodating. Within about a week of news coming out about these changes then two people had put their notice in. One of them had managed to find another job to go to, but the other just quit with no back up plan. I know he has plenty of investments stashed away. He’s a pretty private guy, but from what I know about his past I’m pretty sure he’s financially independent or at the very least well on the way. It was great to see FIRE in action.

They’re recruiting for new staff as we’re expanding. We’re bursting at the seams already, so there really is nowhere for any new people to sit. We already hot desk, but they literally have no room for any more bodies. So they are offering home working. We would need to work from home 4 days out of 5. I initially thought this would be great, but on reflection I don’t think it would be good for me. I think I would miss the social interaction. I think I would get a lot more done, but I would miss the banter. I only have a 15 minute each way commute, so that’s not a big deal for me. All the benefits that people talk about for working from home don’t really seem to apply to my job. As I take inbound calls I need to be logged on and all the stats are monitored, so there’s no just popping to the shops to get milk. I’m struggling to think of any big benefits to me in the job that I do.

I’m not sure if I’m just being naïve, but I thought that there would be some expenses covered for home working. The business needs people to work from home as they would have to get another building if we didn’t take them up on this. Now I get that some people would be delighted to work from home, and if you have a long commute then you’re quids in, but at the same time it’s definitely a plus for the company too. So they’re going to provide a laptop, keyboard and mouse. They’ll also put a privacy screen in so that customers can’t tell that you’re at home when you’re doing a video interview with them. Apart from that though we’ve to cover everything else. So we just use our own broadband and pay for electricity and heating. We even have to provide our own desk and chair. Now I don’t imagine I’d be using that much extra electricity, but working at home in Scotland in the winter I would definitely need my heating on all day, and that’s going to get expensive. Is this normal? Or would companies normally compensate you for your increased expenses?

Anyway, either way I don’t think I’m going to put in for it. Especially as I don’t have a partner I think the social part of work is particularly important to me. Which is now making me worry about FIRE. If I don’t think I am going to be able to cope with the social isolation of working for home then how the hell am I going to cope with no work at all? I suppose I won’t be tethered to the house in the same way that I would be if I was working.

I think the key when I do finally pull the plug on working is to make sure I get out of the house enough. I have hermit like tendencies, and have to be dragged kicking and screaming out in to the real world sometimes. I enjoy it when I’m out, and I most definitely need the social interaction, but I don’t always have the inclination to go out and be social. At least I have my running clubs now, which give me a much needed social structure. I just have to hope I don’t get injured, as so much of my socialising revolves around running.

One of the managers was saying that she thought home working would suit me down the ground, and she also said that she thought I’d never retire as I would never want to stop working. My immediate thought was that she’d got me all wrong, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made from her perspective. I can’t be bothered with all the office politics and just want to get on with the job in hand. From that point of view home working would be perfect.

As far as never retiring is concerned, that’s definitely not right, but I know where she’s coming from. Although I want to stop working, I don’t want to sit about the house watching telly and painting my nails. I need to have a purpose to my life and feel that I’m achieving my goals. But those goals don’t need to be provided through the structure of work. I already set myself goals that have absolutely nothing to do with my working life, and that won’t change come FIRE. In fact it just means that I’ll have all the more time to work towards ever more stretching goals.

I’ve already started looking at Open University courses that look really interesting. I always fancied doing a modern languages degree, and FIRE would give me the time and mental energy to work on something like that. I’m already working on improving my Spanish skills, and think I might add German in to the mix at some point. I’m not sure languages are necessarily a natural fit for me, as I find them quite difficult, but I do enjoy the learning process and I enjoy the fact that they have such practical applications. That’s definitely something for me to think about.

So I think now is the time for me to start designing what I want my ideal post FIRE life to look like. My son was saying to me the other day that I shouldn’t wait for FIRE to do all the things that I want to with my life. “You might never reach FIRE mum”. He’s absolutely right. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and finding what you’re passionate about now means that come FIRE time you’ve got those interests in place and the time to spend on them.