Some anxiety

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The past three weeks have been rather difficult for me. Despite my genuine excitement at being able to ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’ for my debts, some external forces have upset this happy FIRE ship.

On Tuesday shortly before Easter, when I arrived at my company’s office, there was a bouncer on the door and a notice saying we could not go in. Rather perturbed, myself, the Chairman and other employees didn’t really know what was going on.

I work for a small consultancy business with big ambitions, and one that has taken some big risks. Apparently, historic projects had lost some money and the company had not paid the rent in a misguided attempt to juggle cash flow. Big mistake; the landlord had kicked us out.

After several days of working from home, we were allowed back in at greatly unfavourable terms and I believe the company had to pay rent in advance.

Clearly, this caused a great deal of anxiety and stress for myself and everyone else. The kind of thoughts running through everyone’s head were did the company have enough money to pay bills? Would we be paid? Was the company going bust? They assured us it would be fine. I wasn’t convinced.

I am delighted to say that I got paid on the 30 April and I am feeling a bit better about it all. I may still look elsewhere for a job, but as I have just won my first new client, I am reluctant to pack in all that hard work. I left the security of big corporates to experience risk and reward and while I never expected to hit these lows, it is not always going to be plain sailing.

This remains an ongoing saga.

The fall out

What does this mean for my journey to financial independence? The answer to that question is threefold.

Firstly, It has somewhat knocked my confidence in what I am doing. The aggressive approach to paying off my debts effectively is pushing me to my limit. By the end of the month, I had £5 left in my account. I am refusing to spend on a credit card or take an overdraft. I made it to the end without breaking or missing any bills, but it didn’t feel great. I desperately needed the paycheck to stay afloat.

Secondly, I knew that using all my savings to pay off my debts was risky as it left no room for manoeuvre. I only have £200 in my savings which is not very much at all. I was feeling good as I was making such fine progress in paying off my debts, but it is a stark reminder to leave enough for emergencies. I had thought about this and reasoned that if something bad happened, I could use my credit card. However, my mentality has changed so much since starting FIRE that the thought of adding to my credit card and undoing the good work so far almost made me feel ill.  Perhaps leaving a months salary in the bank may have been smarter and letting the process take a couple months longer might have been a better move.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the whole episode has made me more determined to succeed at FIRE. The timing of this event was particularly bad as I have taken a big risk to clear debt leaving me with no reserves, but if this happened in 12 months time, I would have a large cushion of savings and investments on which to fall back. That thought alone is motivation for me to keep going. It is the quintessential reason that I am doing this so that I don’t need to rely on my job and other people who may be inept at running a business, for my livelihood.

To conclude, it seems that in taking a risk to clear my debts, I’ve accidentally put myself in the exact position that FIRE aims to get me out of. I always viewed this phase as the most painful part of gaining FI and it has been more painful than expected for reasons both within and outside of my control. I will persevere, but perhaps with more caution until I have a significant buffer behind me.

Housing in London

London, Londra, Londres. What a city. Home of The City, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Hub of culture with galleries, museums and stunning architecture. Home to culinary delights and thriving nightlife. It is indeed a great place to live, but I’m not alone in that view.

The result of this popularity is many, many, people arrive from around the UK, Europe and the wider World come to experience what the exciting cultural melting pot has to offer.

My girlfriend came from Melbourne, the world’s most livable city for seven years running, to live in this city. I have many friends here from Spain, Hong Kong, Sweden, and the USA who love this city. I love this city and have lived here for 10 years in total (I myself came from Scotland to live here).

The downside to all this is of course that it is expensive to live in London. No shocks there I hear you say. However, what does this mean for my ambitions for financial independence?

High costs

I have been reading Mr Money Moustache’s (MMM) blog this weekend and I note that he lives in a rather dreary small town in the middle of nowhere in America. Although I love his blog, I am in no way ready to move to a place without the benefits of a world-class city.

To live in the UK in a similar place, I believe one would have live in a small suburb of Leeds or Norwich.

It led me to question, is my love of London hindering my development towards financial freedom?

MMM’s article points out, and rightly so, that your house is a place to live and not an investment. I have taken that view for many years now, but at the same time have benefitted from London’s surging property prices. I now have around a 60/40 ratio of debt to equity ratio.

MMM extolls the benefits of reducing costs to a minimum. Again, I completely agree and I am still on that journey and have made good progress. I was doing this before I’d heard of FIRE as I was simply broke for some time. I will continue to seek savings.

My elephant in the room is the cost of my mortgage and service charges on my flat.

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What can I do?

I could move out and sell my flat. The main issue here is I will have to rent or buy somewhere else. I believe renting a similar place would now be more expensive than paying my mortgage. I could go back to share housing, but I’m going to reference MMM’s article that a house is meant to make you happy and I’m not sure that this would achieve that! I’m 35 and while I loved sharing a house in my twenties, there is value in having my own place.

Having said that, I rent out my spare room for a few nights during the week to a friend. That nets me £500/month which helps me pay my £838 mortgage. The income is tax-free on the ‘rent a room scheme’ the UK government runs. Apparently, this is called ‘house hacking’. I did not realise this until recently either so well done me as I’ve been doing it for 5 years.

I have £350 service charges per month this year so still, suffer massive expense. I hope this will reduce back to something more reasonable next year.

I remortgaged last year to the lowest possible level at the time so I think that I am getting good value (but one I would highly recommend you do yourself).

My girlfriend moved into my flat in November 2018. and that too has been great, but it has the plus side of saving us both money. It’s allowed me to seriously pay off some debt, and also to allow her to fulfil her ambition of being a yoga teacher by paying for the expensive training.

However, today, I am wondering what more I can do. At some point, I may want to have a family and we may need to move to a bigger place. I can’t stomach the idea of getting an even larger mortgage to make that move to a bigger flat or a house (We could manage up to £650,000 which would mean a large 2 bed flat in the area we live in or a shitty house out in the sticks). I won’t even mention the Stamp Duty tax I would pay on that… Too soon for that.

I think I will stay put for now and find ways to reduce and reach the % savings I want. MMM’s article on the percentage you need to save is mind-blowing in its simplicity and is what is leading me to improve my ‘ratio’. If I stuck to my budget I could get about 46% presently, so much room for improvement. Once I sell my car I could get up to 55% (ok I admit I’m dragging my feet on that one!).

The biggest expense I currently have is my home and therefore reducing this will increase my percentage by the largest margin. Perhaps the exercise of exploring options has been useful to see that I actually have an OK deal. Perhaps it is more the exercise of patience on my part that is the real thing I need to do. Either way, I would probably have to do something drastic to make a significant difference. The dramatic thing may be a step too far (for me).

I would really appreciate any ideas from the FIRE community to help me with this conundrum.

 

 

Calculations and calibrations

Last weekend shortly after making my blog post, buoyed by the confidence that I am approaching debt freedom, I spent several hours calculating whether it would be better for me to save money or to pay off my mortgage.

Firstly, there are several viewpoints on whether mortgage debt counts as ‘debt’. Of course it is different to a credit card or a car loan as you have purchased an asset that will appreciate in value and give you ‘equity’, and you pay off a chunk each month which also contributes. However, as that equity is tied up in the home, and when it comes to selling that house, all other houses will have increased a similar amount, is it really an asset?  It’s not like you can shave off a piece of the wall and spend that money right? And it doesn’t generate you an income, so many argue it is a liability.

I am on the side of thinking that a mortgage is a debt, but as you must live somewhere, you might as well be paying your own mortgage, rather than a landlord’s. Eventually, you will own the property.

I have been lucky as I bought my flat for £237,500 in 2012, and now would be able to achieve £450,000 for today.  I would not have achieved this gain had I rented for the same period.

Pay off mortgage or invest?

I couldn’t find a comparison online to see whether investing spare money in an ETF or making increased payments on the mortgage was better. I decided to have a go.

I made a couple of assumptions. Firstly, I will not start investing until June 2019, as, until that point, I will be paying off my actual debts. Secondly, I will be able to find £2000 per month to do this. Thirdly, that I assumed an annual rate of return on ETF investing of 10%. I based this on reading around blogs to see what other people thought and based on past performance of the stock market.

The assumptions I made about my mortgage were that my interest rate would remain the same as it is now at 1.69% (unlikely I know, but it is the current situation and I am unable to predict the future).

The method

I built the spreadsheet with three different options:

  1. Put £2000 into my mortgage every month, on top of my normal payment and save nothing;
  2. Put £1000 into my mortgage, and £1000 into an ETF; and
  3. Put £2000 into an ETF.

I calculated the monthly interest in each case and then added up so I would see the effects of compound interest accurately.

I don’t claim that this is a pinpoint accurate way to calculate it, but it gives me a picture of where I might end up in the future and the best way to start my FIRE journey.

The results

I was very surprised by the results of this exercise as the overwhelming long term best way to go was to put the maximum amount of money into an ETF. I believe this is for several reasons; firstly, the rate of return assumed of 10% is much higher than on my mortgage. For each £2000 I would make £200 annually compared to the £34 cost to borrow at 1.69% rate I pay. That’s a £166 annual difference for each payment without taking into account compound interest.

When it is shown like this, it is an absolute no brainer, but I still find it shocking. I had always believed that paying down a mortgage was the best way to go. In some ways, if you are in your forever home then it may be a good idea, but really I can’t see any way it makes sense to do it.

Should interest rates increase and the rates of return for the ETFs drop then it may make sense to switch over to repaying the mortgage faster.

The other exciting thing I realised was I will have £1,000,000 in savings by age 50. After that, thanks to compound interest, it really takes off.

The graph below is my total net-worth which includes house value, pension, ETF, and mortgage liability.

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