Life lessons from 2018 and a brief glimpse forward

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2018 was a quite a mixed year for our little family. Like us, I expect you’ll have experienced the ups and downs of everyday life during the last 12 months.

Taking a look back at the year as a whole, I realise that a bit of perspective on what we experience makes all the difference in the world. Here’s how our year panned out, with some of the life lessons we learned along the way.

Warm conversations during a chilly winter

Once the holidays were well and truly over, the first part of 2018 saw me settling into a regular routine of visiting our local nursing home as a volunteer with Pets as Therapy. Our little dog, Ollie (a 5 year old cockapoo), brightens the day of the residents every time we visit and I enjoy the conversations with the lovely people I meet there. Although a small number of the residents have indeed died during the year, my overriding sense is what a privilege it has been to enjoy their company; blessings all round!

Life lesson #1:

Giving (time) to others brings as much reward to you as it does to them (especially when there’s a furry friend in tow!).

East meets West

In February, we welcomed our second pair of international ‘homestay’ students, who stayed with us for the whole month. From Ritsumeikan University in Japan, the latter part of the students’ visit coincided with the ‘Beast from the East’ – a bitterly cold spell of weather that resulted in the girls’ return journey being postponed for a few days.

It was enriching to spend time with these young undergraduates and we realised that, in spite of some interesting cultural differences, we had far more in common than we might originally have thought.

Life lesson #2:

Opening your home to others can enable you to develop some wonderful, unexpected friendships, whilst enjoying a unique and mutually beneficial intercultural experience.

Spring forward

Just as the students returned to Japan, I started a new job. Having had a very modest salary increase with my new role, as well as going car free, we were now able to make some serious inroads into paying off debt. During the previous autumn, we had discovered an unexpected personal tax liability of several thousand pounds. So, 2018 became the year when we became ‘gazelle intense’ over our finances. That made a real difference as the year progressed.

Here, I have to acknowledge the approach of Dave Ramsey about whom I’ve written often. During 2018, I also discovered Pete Matthew’s Meaningful Money podcast and have enjoyed his first book: The Meaningful Money Handbook. Pete’s just established a Facebook community, too, so check that out if getting on top of your finances is part of your 2019 goals.

Life lesson #3:

Actually, there’s more than one life lesson in this particular segment:

  1. You don’t need a car as much as you think you do.
  2. You do need an Emergency Fund for when life slaps you in the face. Save £1000 if you’re paying off debt, then build a fully-funded Emergency Fund of 3-6 months of expenses once you’re debt free.
  3. You can learn a lot from listening to podcasts that provide sensible, consistent and free advice. Find the ones that speak to your situation and become an avid listener.

Long, hot summer

Summer saw our daughter, Amy, join her school friends on a four week visit to Costa Rica with Camps International. After two years of fundraising, she had a truly amazing experience, which involved a huge variety of activities. These ranged from building a septic tank to scuba diving in the Pacific Ocean!

Life lesson #4:

Step out of your comfort zone once in a while; you will have the time of your life.

During Amy’s first week away, we spent a few days on the Norfolk coast. Remember, this was one of the hottest years on record, but we ended up in the only cool corner of England that week. It was so chilly, we had to invest in new jackets. My mother reminded me that we had holidayed on the East coast in the intense summer of 1976 when the temperatures at the seaside had also plunged. So, if you ever need a cool spell during a heatwave, just follow me!

Life lesson #5:

Expect the unexpected (particularly with English weather) and never leave the house without a coat!

Sunsets and farewells

Sadly, things back at home took a turn for the worse when my mother-in-law died during the second week of Amy’s trip. My father-in-law had died only 15 months before, so this was an especially sorrowful time for everyone. My mother-in-law had been a gregarious, larger-than-life character, so it was especially sad to see her becoming more and more frail towards the end of her life.

We postponed the funeral until Amy’s return, then began the long process of decluttering the family home to prepare it for sale. This was a lengthy job and pretty hard work. However, a lovely and unexpected benefit throughout this whole process was the growing bond I have enjoyed with my lovely sisters-in-law.

Life lesson #6:

Through every sad situation, there will always be a ray of sunshine (I promise).

After this experience, I asked my own mother to do something that I’d heard of during Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast: Make a Facts of Life document. This is where you set out some basic information about your life: details of accounts, policies and other information that your loved ones should need ‘in case something happens’. This is how we in the UK euphemistically describe illness or death. Happily, my mum had already done this, so it was much easier to have that conversation with her than I thought.

August also brought GCSE results for Amy. The big deal with these qualifications was whether or she’d passed her maths (she had!!).

Life lesson #7:

Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best (things can and do work out).

Transition into autumn

Autumn saw yet more changes, as Amy embarked upon A levels and enjoyed another school trip. This time, she visited Marle Hall in Wales where she took part in a number of outward bound activities including coasteering. As far as I can tell, this involved moving along a rockface, then jumping in the sea periodically. That is not for me (especially in October!).

As a couple, we completed the intense period of paying off our debt. It’s wonderful to be going into 2019 knowing that this is behind us.

And back to winter

Around 3 weeks ago, our little pup became unwell. On careful investigation, the vet found a ‘foreign object’ in Ollie’s stomach. This turned out to be a whole and perfectly intact peach stone in his small intestine. A good deal of worrying, one surgery and over £1500 later, Ollie is now on the mend but has what looks like a little zip in his tummy as a ‘souvenir.’ Thank goodness for Emergency Funds and pet insurance.

Life lesson #8:

Take advice as soon as something happens that worries you (and – again – get that Emergency Fund in place!).

Today, as I write, my own mother (she who had sensibly created her ‘Facts of Life Document’) has just had surgery to remove a tumour from her stomach! We await to hear if more treatment will be needed, although we are hopeful that this won’t be the case. It’s strange that there should be yet another bump in the road during a time when we are reflecting on the year gone by and looking forward to what lies ahead in 2019. No more foreign objects in tummies, please!

Word of the Year 2019

Rather than make New Year’s Resolutions, we have decided to set out some goals for 2019. We may even adopt a personal ‘word’ for the year.

If I look back at 2018, I realise that taking the long view – and having a bit of distance to give perspective on your experiences – is a very good thing.  The life lessons we learned along the way in the last 12 months will stand us in good stead, as we embark upon another year.

As Courtney Carver once said, “Don’t write about it when you’re in it.” So, I didn’t blog about all the twists and turns of 2018. There have been a great many ‘ups’, as well as a number of ‘downs,’ but we live and learn and move forward.

What has 2018 been like for you? What life lessons has 2018 taught you? What does 2019 hold? And will you make New Year’s Resolutions or even adopt a Word of the Year? Do let me know by replying below.

Wishing you very Happy New Year 2019.


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How do I look?

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Quiz question of the day:

What’s something we all have, which can inspire both joy and loathing in all of us, but which we can’t live without?

Of course, no prizes for guessing: clothes.

A hotch-potch wardrobe

I’ve been mithering a bit about clothes lately.

In the past year, I’ve bought relatively few things to wear. But, if I’m honest, I feel like I’ve ended up with a ‘hotch potch’ of items. Most I have bought second-hand (and very good purchases they were too). Others were bought in a sale or via a clothing discount store such as HighStreetOutlet. As a result, I’ve maintained my frugal ways, but I never feel particularly stylish. Plus, I’d love to be a little more consistent about what I choose to wear and how I look.

How do I look?

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, I was grateful to have been given a copy of Inger D Kenobi’s How Do I Look: The Year I Stopped Shopping.

This entertaining book is a curious mix of memoir and commentary on fast-fashion,  consumerism and the ridiculous stories we tell ourselves about the clothes we wear (or which call to us from the shop window).

Challenged by a friend to join her in a “shop-stop” year, Kenobi resolved to avoid buying any new clothes for a whole 12 months. The book charts her journey from unintentional clothes buyer to chastened, mindful consumer. Along the way, she provides a number of “Emergency Shopping Guidelines.” These provide a ‘set of rules that will prevent us from making the same stupid shopping mistakes again, and again, and again.’

Emergency Shopping Guidelines

I thought it would be interesting to bring Kenobi’s rules together and to consider them in the light of my not-particularly-well-curated but minimal ‘capsule wardrobe’.

Don’t buy anything you can’t wear tomorrow

Well, I’ve failed at the first hurdle here. We all buy stuff to wear for a special occasion, although I try and avoid this.

In my experience, clothes bought for a particular event don’t always translate into ‘real life’. For my friend, Zoe’s, 50th birthday party in September, I bought a lovely pair of black trousers and floaty shirt to wear over a black camisole. To go with said outfit (which cost all of £11 from the charity shop), I purchased some suedette kitten heels from John Lewis. I wore them for 2.5 hours.

I haven’t worn the clothes since and have already sold the shoes….

Don’t buy anything you don’t need

How often have you gone out to buy a particular item, only to come back with something entirely different?

Here’s where ‘heart’ purchases often trump ‘head’ purchases. I do have the loveliest, seldom-worn but beautifully soft faux-fur jacket. It is absolutely gorgeous. I acquired it a long time ago when looking for something else in my local (now defunct) dress agency. I rarely wear it, but I keep it as something really special, knowing that I won’t wear it tomorrow (see above!) but will enjoy it during the holiday season.

These days, I’m much more inclined to think really hard about anything I buy. I keep a ‘wish list’ in Evernote, which helps me consider – slowly – if a want is also a need.

I also do a lot of research online. It’s easy to forget that there are so many (too many) places where you can buy what you need. A clever search can help you find what you need at the best price, so shop around.

You have to be you. Figure out who you are and dress accordingly

Oh, gosh. Who am I when it comes to what I wear?

Style consultants categorise women into a number of ‘boxes’. Are you an Audrey Hepburn ‘ingénue’ or more ‘sporty’ or ‘natural’ when it comes to your signature style?

Well, I’d love to fall into the ‘glamorous’ category – and really admire others who pull of this look – but that’s really not me.

Over the years, I have – with some considerable enthusiasm – declared myself to be an advocate of a particular brand, in an attempt to simplify and narrow down the available choices.

There was my short-lived (but fun while it lasted) Gudren Sjoden phase. My family pointed out that if you’re going to make this work (it’s quite ‘out there’ when it comes to style and colour), you have to go the whole hog.

There has also been my ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ phase. I am, after all, another Catherine Elizabeth. This clothing personality has been, arguably, my most enduring. I once spent the most I have ever spent on clothes (even more than my wedding dress) when I purchased an LK Bennett suit for an interview. I didn’t get the job, but (at least) I got the suit. Many years later, it’s still my ‘high days and holidays’ outfit when I need something super smart. And I wore it for my current job whose interview took place around a year ago.

My latest obsession is Cos. I love the Scandinavian simplicity and clean lines. I have yet to purchase anything.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

Oh, this is so true. You already know that I previously performed ‘plastic surgery’ on my credit card, so there is no risk that I will ever splurge on something I can’t afford. Indeed, I have spent so little on clothes in the last year that this has not been an issue. But I know it is for some of you.

Recently, a work colleague was describing to my husband that she had lots of clothes on which she had spent so much money, she was embarrassed to admit that she cut off the labels of the unworn items before giving them away. Let’s not be like this.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

I’m all for this and it works really well. Project 333 makes sense on so many levels, especially if you mostly shop at thrift stores (another of Kenobi’s Emergency Shopping Guidelines).

Here’s something I have noticed, however (and Kenobi observed this, too). Clothes worn often do actually wear out. This is where it helps to buy quality over quantity. Less but better is the way forward.

Invest in experiences, not possessions

Yes, yes and yes!

This is where we have to put clothes in their rightful place. Clothes can play a part in our experiences. Love to ski? You’ll need some kit. But they shouldn’t be an end in their own right. Clothes as ‘stuff’ have a negative impact, both on the environment and on our finances. So, let’s see them as a part of our overall day-to-day lives but not to the detriment of other things, which are way more important.

Change your hair, not your clothes

For someone who has limited options when it comes to hair (short, blow-dryed, that’s it), I can’t espouse this guideline. However, lots of women (especially) enjoy experimenting with different hair colours or styles (in her book, Kenobi reveals her expertise in plaiting, braiding and in ‘up-dos’). A colleague of mine rocks a wonderful short wig and looks amazing in it. But that’s not for me.

One of my own

Beware the Diderot effect

Remember those black trousers I bought for Zoe’s party? To wear them again, I would need more tops. This is an example of a phenomenon known as the Diderot Effect. This is where the purchase of one beautiful item leads to dissatisfaction with the other things you already own. In my case, I don’t own anything suitable to go with the trousers, so do I invest or let them go? This is something that Juliet Schor mentions in her book, The Overspent American, about which I wrote a post here.

Stop mithering

Since reading Kenobi’s little book, I’m glad to say that I’ve stopped mithering about clothes. But I think I need to be a bit more intentional – as in other areas of my life – when it comes to what I buy to wear.

And whilst Shakespeare wrote that ‘clothes maketh the man (woman)’, there is another truth that’s worth remembering. There are only some occasions in life when this really matters. How do I look? No-one really cares.


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Make your stuff work for you

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I’ve just finished reading Jojo Moyes’ novel, Still Me. I was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, putting aside the other two books I am also reading to immerse myself in this wonderfully-crafted story.

The third in the Me Before You trilogy, this novel takes Moyes’ heroine, Louisa Clark, on a New York adventure (I can see another movie emanating from this one!).

As both minimalist and avid reader, I’m always on the alert for references to clutter in fiction. How do people handle it? What does it symbolise to them? Can they let go of stuff to live a life of more but with less? Is the stuff they’re holding onto serving a particular purpose?

Margot De Witt

One of Moyes’ fabulous American characters, introduced to the reader in this book, is Margot De Witt. The former editor of a fashion magazine, De Witt’s Manhattan apartment is a veritable treasure trove of immaculately preserved and cared-for clothing.

With an incredible, vast collection of vintage fashion including haute couture items, this “style queen, fashion editor extraordinaire” has held onto everything she has ever owned. As a result, her home has become a rainbow-filled walk-in wardrobe, housing a collection including even the smallest of items such as elaborate brooches, pill-box hats and boxes of buttons and braids (in case anything needs repairing).

For vintage-loving Louisa Clark – the novel’s main character – the Fifth Avenue apartment is a little bit of retro-fashion heaven.

Holding on

But why do we hold onto things that no longer fit or which seemingly have no practical purpose?

In her case, De Witt’s quasi-hoarding of decades’ worth of clothes is a way of blocking out the pain of having been separated from her son – her only child – over many years. Moyes addresses this very directly as she reveals that the character “…had built a wall, a lovely, gaudy, multi-coloured wall, to tell herself that it had all been for something.”

Making sure your stuff works for you

Your stuff really needs to work for you. That is, it needs to work on a number of levels: aesthetically, practically or even monetarily.

Remember, everything you see around you right now used to be money. When you look at it that way, you’re going to want to get the most bang for your buck. So, if your belongings are literally stuffed into a drawer and not serving any useful purpose, why hold onto them?

Letting go

In spite of having decluttered so much of my own stuff, there are still some items in my house for me to let go. My ice-cream maker, seldom used, even in summer, now needs to find a new home.

Of course, a kitchen gadget is a small item, but if you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know that I decided to let go of my car back in the winter. Going without a car has been incredibly liberating, has saved me money each month and has set me free from the burden of vehicle ownership. This reminds me of the adage that is well-rehearsed in minimalist circles: “What you own owns you.”

Investment items

Of course, there are some items you’ll keep because you may genuinely only use them once in a while. They might be investment items, such as a lovely winter coat that you’d wear over many years. Still, much of what we retain in our homes may be stuff for which we no longer have any useful purpose.

Putting your stuff to work

In Louisa Clark’s case, she is able to make Margot De Witt’s collection work for her in a professional sense. At the suggestion of the old lady, Clark is encouraged to start an enterprise hiring out her amazing outfits.

What’s interesting is that, as soon as her son reappears, De Witt walks away from her collection without so much as a backward glance. When it no longer serves a meaningful purpose, it’s so much easier to walk away.

Ask the right questions

So, take a long hard look at your stuff and ask, “Does this work for me? Could I let go of it or even monetise what I currently own?”

These questions are especially useful if you’re working to get out of debt and building your emergency fund.

You may love what you own, in which case simply enjoy it. Even minimalists have to have some belongings. So, take the advice of Margot De Witt and see your stuff for what it is: “Do with [them] what you want – keep some, sell some, whatever. But….. take pleasure in them.”

Note

Still Me is Jojo Moyes’ latest novel, published in 2018 by Penguin Random House UK. Find out more here.


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Things I would tell my 18 year old self about money

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Earlier this week, GirlGuiding UK announced that the organisation would be introducing a new Guides’ badge, aimed at improving the financial literacy of teenagers. You can read about the badge (and other new ones) here.

Since I am not aware of any aspect of the Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum* in school that covers personal finance, I applaud the Guides for taking the initiative.

What would I tell my 18 year old self about money?

The Guides’ news got me thinking about what I’d tell my teenage self about money. I am actually 48 years old now. So, I’m 18+30, not ‘Club 18-30’. Ha!

30 years on from my coming of age, here are a few things I would tell my 18 year old self about money. I only wish I had taught myself these lessons earlier.

Always live on less than you own (and save the rest)

The 80:20 rule probably applies here. If you paid yourself 20% of your income as soon as your salary hit your bank account (and did this consistently from age 18), compound interest would do the rest.

When I spent a year in Switzerland, a fellow au-pair (Michelle) always sent cash back home for her pension. Her fantastic example was definitely one to follow. Michelle, I know you were destined to spend the rest of your life in Canada. If you’re reading this, I’d love to hear from you!

Get a rainy day fund

Grandma wasn’t wrong on this one. We all need an emergency fund and I’ve previously written about this to explain why. If you have debt and you haven’t got a ‘starter emergency fund’ then £1k is what you need while you’re paying down your debt.

If you’re debt free, then 3-6 months of expenses, stashed away in a rainy day fund, should cover most unexpected emergencies. Dear 18 year old self, if you don’t have an emergency fund, then Murphy’s Law will apply: what can go wrong will go wrong.

Yesterday, my mum told me that the source of a mysterious water leak in the parental home has finally been found. You can imagine how mum and dad felt when the kitchen floor had to come up. They’d have felt even worse if they didn’t have an Emergency Fund.

Know the power of compound interest

Interest rates move up and down over time. In my teens, interest rates were incredibly high (trebling at one point to a rate that almost crippled my parents when it came to their mortgage). Having had historically low rates in the UK for many years, borrowers have benefited over savers. Nonetheless, money invested wisely will grow and you’ll benefit from compound interest if you stick with it.

When you get the urge to splurge, distract yourself

Wait to buy whatever it is you think you need. Lie down until the feeling goes away (which it probably will). Control your impulses.

If you shop when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, then HALT! Run a bath, take a nap, call someone on the phone. Go for a walk.

Know your triggers and if you need an accountability partner, find a friend who’ll help you stick to your goals.

In case of emergency, break glass

Make it harder to buy whatever it is you want by making your money a little less accessible. I don’t mean putting your money behind glass (although I have read that some people do this with their starter emergency fund!). I just mean putting it a little more ‘out of reach’.

If cash burns a hole in your pocket, don’t carry cash. Also beware of “wave and pay” – it’s all too easy to flourish that card and up to £30 is gone in an instant.

Be intentional with your purchases

These days, if I do need to buy something, I usually agonise over it (especially when it’s something new and not second-hand). I have to say, I bore my family as I pore over the various options before deciding on whatever it is I need.

My husband has a trick for when you do need to choose something: 1) Find something suitable. 2) Find something equally suitable. 3) Buy the second item you found. Job done!

Oh, and never pay full price. Especially for things like clothes.

Be prepared to walk away

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation here, but I’d suggest that we Brits don’t care for negotiation when it comes to making significant purchases. We find the idea of haggling terribly awkward, even embarrassing. So, we avoid it.

That said, there have been a few times in my life when I have haggled successfully. One such time was the purchase of a new bed. I had a fixed amount to spend and I could not (and would not) go over this.

We found exactly what we wanted; an oak bed frame and memory foam mattress. The price of the two items together exceeded my budget by just under £50. So, I offered the salesman what I had. He wasn’t prepared accept my offer, so with my (then) little girl at my knee, we thanked him and headed for the exit. Just as I was pulling the door open to leave, the salesman was at my side. And we had a deal.

Second-hand is infinitely preferable

Some things must be bought new. Mattresses (see above); car seats (unless you know where they’ve come from); bicycle helmets; and riding hats (to give you a few examples) should really be bought new. However, so much of what we need can be bought second-hand. I’ve written about this extensively, so I won’t labour the point, but I really mean it.

Let go of your sense of entitlement

Just because X has Y doesn’t mean that Y is right for you. You may not be able to afford Y and that’s 100% OK.

In her book, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, Juliet Schor exhorts us to “Beware prosperous referents.”

It may be that your girlfriends are remodelling their kitchens, having extensions built or are driving round in fabulous cars. Good for them. Chances are, they’ve put the home improvements on the mortgage and are paying over the odds for their vehicles through expensive car loans. Suddenly, being like them doesn’t seem such a good idea after all.

Get on a written budget

If you want to manage anything effectively, you can’t just wing it. Imagine you’re managing a project involving myriad stakeholders and various work streams. Chances are you’ll use a Gantt chart or project management tool to help you. So, why wouldn’t you do the same for your money?

My preferred ‘modus operandii’ is my dual account budget spreadsheet. I have tried apps (see My First Month with EveryDollar), but time and time again, I revert to my trusty spreadsheet. I like to see everything in one place and my Excel sheet does this just fine. Let me know if you want a copy of it!

Credit is like sex

Replying to my question on Twitter, “What would you tell your 18 year old self about money?” Tarra Jackson replied: Credit is Like Sex. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And if you do, use protection (a budget).

Great answer, Tarra!

Better still, perform plastic surgery on your credit card. Cheaper than botox, you’ll look a whole lot healthier (financially) if you do this. This way, you can also tell your cash, “You can stay money.”

Don’t move up in house before you’ve decluttered the one you already own

One of the reasons excuses we all give when talking about moving house is that ‘we’ve outgrown our current house.’

Is it that our actual family has grown (so, we really do need more bedrooms)? Or is it that we’ve accumulated so much stuff that we need to take stock, purge and reset for the life we now live?

Only recently did we finally donate a collection of children’s books that might not otherwise have seen the light of day for some considerable time. Apply this logic to a whole house and you might save yourself a significant amount of money by not moving.

A minimalist mindset can help you win with money

Recently, I’ve been working on a short eBook on this theme: I do believe that adopting a minimalist mindset can help you with personal finance. When you stop going after things you don’t need (and let go of anything that no longer adds value), you’ll change your spending habits. And that’s something I’d love to have told my 18 year old self.

One final thing I’d definitely tell my 18 year old self is this: If you didn’t get your Girl Guide Savers badge, join as a helper and help someone else achieve hers.

*Teachers, if I’m wrong, then please do tell me. I really don’t think our 16 year old has had any such education at school, but I’m open to learning that I am mistaken.


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