DB pension options – an object lesson in the power of inflation

The Ermine is advancing of years. It comes to us all, hopefully. I am not yet of the age when I would have quit The Firm after thirty years of service and gone to the pub to celebrate my forthcoming freedom. But it’s not that far off.

Seven years after retiring, I have now burned through half my DC pension AVC savings and invested the other half into the ISA. In cash-flow terms the Ermine is almost skint, and I am on the final approach to taking my main pension, a little early. So I asked them for the information pack.

Every pension is different, and with mine there is the usual  option to take some as a tax-free lump-sum. After that there are two options. One is to take a pension that is index-linked up to a cap, and the other option is to take a higher pension that is part non-increasing, and part index-linked up to the same cap.

Why on earth would you do that? Well, the logic is that you get a higher start, since they are paying you to take your claim of index linking off their hands. The higher start makes some sense – one is in best health at the start of retirement than at the end when you’re eyeing up a pine box. They also made something of the fact that the State Pension will turn up later, which should fight some of the later attrition.

Inflation can easily kill the higher start

It looked reasonable at first sight. There’s a common argument that people spend more in the early years of retirement, and less as they get older. Unless they are unlucky enough to end up in a care home, but fewer than 20% of us end up in a care home1. The difference between the higher start and regular isn’t huge, however, it is about three grand p.a. after tax. But it doesn’t take much inflation to erode that, it falls behind in my early seventies and typical inflation rates of ~3%. Some people take the argument that it is the cumulative shortfall that matters,and it is true that this falls below zero later on, a few years past the age that my Dad died. But I am in much better health than either of my parents were at my age. So I might be leery of assuming I cark it at the same age, though of course I could be flattened by a bus tomorrow. Risk is tough to qualify, eh? Continue reading “DB pension options – an object lesson in the power of inflation”

Advertisements

Work is not a job, and the web of life

Over at Retirement Investing Today there’s an intriguing differentiation between work and jobs. I confess that I never thought about either until mid-teens, and conflated the two. Let’s hear it from RIT

Soon after joining it became very obvious that while there were some pieces of meaningful work (where I define work as something you do for purpose) the vast majority of what I was going to be doing was just a job (which I define as something you do because you need the money) and right now I don’t need a job.

You know how listening to someone speak, somewhere in the back of your mind there is a guy with a tape recorder taping the incoming soundstream1. Every so often you have a hey I didn’t quite get moment and yell down to the guy in the depths of your brain “Hey, roll tape and gimme that again”

Well, there must be a similar process in reading, I had gotten past that section on to

Living it again enabled me to see that the role, my industry and my own needs had changed beyond recognition and at some point, much like the boiled frog, my meaningful work / career had actually predominantly become just a job with me just not noticing.

before it occurred to me that this was a way of looking at work that was seriously new to me and something I had missed through a lifetime of work 😉

RIT approach to work and investing is in some ways the yin to my yang, or perhaps the other way round. Anyway, he is a steady and rational investor of the passive kind. He had sufficient overview of his industry to lay out the distant early warning system that picked up the sound of incoming thunder early enough for him to plan an exit strategy

I originally pursued FIRE as back in 2007 I saw some changes starting to occur that made me think my job at the time would eventually be outsourced to a low cost country.

Whereas I discovered I was in trouble after The Firm took a stake in an outsource and my work turned into a job (in RIT’s parlance) and then started to become seriously shit.

When a Job is not Work

I confess I never sought meaning from work, this is still something I don’t get. What I wanted was for it to be interesting and above all to be enough to live on. I saw leisure time as the time to chase meaning. It has not escaped me that this seems to be an atypical approach to work nowadays. Perhaps it comes from a working-class background, people don’t carry bricks or fix cars as a source of meaning in their lives. These were jobs, though people still think of it in terms of going to work.

So I am intrigued by RIT’s taxonomy, and perhaps what I called a requirement for work to be ‘interesting’ was what many people call ‘meaning’.

Certainly as time went by micromanagement became more and more a feature of the workplace although I rose a few levels up the greasy pole. When I started at The Firm I could sign off up to £500 of spend, when I left two decades later and some layers up the tree I had to get return train tickets authorised in advance to London (where the project was). There was much more job in my work.

A company doing white-collar work used to be a group of people working together to a common goal, there was more leeway and co-operation. Nowadays it’s a bunch of work units performance managed to an inch of their lives, measured individually against following processes. No surprise that there’s less esprit de corps then 😉

RIT’s experience and description of retiring and returning to work and then leaving it again confirms my prejudice that once you walk away  from a professional job you become pretty much unemployable in that sort of thing.

The work is all right, it is the job part that sucks. Filling in timesheets, getting authorisation for spend, all hands events where lying bastards lie blatantly to you and it’s not the done thing to call them out on it or ask “why is this going to work this time when it failed the last three times it was tried here?”

Those locked into the hamster wheel make the best of a bad thing I guess and say they get meaning from this and good luck to them. An Ermine in The Firm would be a very dangerous thing indeed, because a company runs on a shared belief system that does not necessarily correspond with reality, and it doesn’t need troublemakers highlighting the dissonances.

There seems to be an increasing trend to corporate belief in the principles of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret2 – the current UK government seems to also be a fan of the modus operandi of wishing for what you want really really hard and it will happen. Perhaps there is truth in “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad“.

Companies avoid dissent in the ranks against the obvious stupidity of the latest management fad with the simple threat of economic sanction – do it our way and don’t rock the boat else you’ll lose you job. The financially independent think to themselves ‘so what’ and also ask themselves how they could better use their time.

Others say contracting is the way and many people make a success of that. You don’t have to buy into the corporate ethos. I could never see that as a reliable source of income of the sort I’d have the balls to raise a mortgage against. I wasn’t even aware of it as a possibility for the first decade or so of my working life, BPO wasn’t a big part of the companies I worked for at the time. Mrs Ermine, who comes from a different background, has no trouble with the notion. It ain’t me.

When Work is not a Job

… it’s called volunteering. Presumably nobody volunteers for things they think are without worth, and the great advantage volunteers have over employees is they can walk off the job at any time with no downside. As an aside, that can make managing volunteers really tough. When the task in hand is obvious – like clear this brushwood, then one volunteer is better than ten pressed men. And employees are pressed – they show up because they need the money 😉

But when the job is obscure, or controversial, like shooting deer3 in woodland, or will have a result in the long run, or just lacks feelgood factor, well, give me paid staff any time.

There’s a feelgood story about these deer in Captain’s Wood, but I have been sworn to secrecy about deer in other wildlife places… If it’s a dirty job, then use staff, not volunteers.

By RIT’s definition, though not by mine4, a while ago an Ermine did about a week of work. I can’t say the process agrees with me, getting up regularly for a particular time malarkey isn’t to my taste these days. It was a long video job shooting unpredictable stuff under awkward light. You have to make a lot of decisions quickly as an event starts5, because professionals can get away with zooming the camera in vision but I am not talented enough to do that, though I can track action serviceably enough with a sort of fluid head.

Much has improved in this biz since I worked as a studio engineer at TV Centre in the 1980s, the cameras are sharper, better, smaller, lighter. The combination of optical stabilisation and software post-stabilisation makes handholding without a Steadicam feasible6, indeed I was amazed I could raise the camera on a monopod four feet above my head and still get a usable result. So I learned a combination of practical stuff and people stuff, and hopefully the result will make people happy.

The web of life

I am far too conservative to make RIT’s sort of move. The place you worked is not necessarily a good place to retire – London is the classic case in point. It’s easy to feel poor there as the joint fills up with the super-rich. Simple economics also points that way – people congregate where there is a higher density of well-paid work. This tends to push the price of accommodation and some services up. We had someone from New York stay with us and they were amazed at the low cost of wine. Even American wine, which is illogical, it’s come a long way and we have significant alcohol taxes.  Her perception was that the discount was a lot more than the 20% due to the fall in the pound. Presumably stores in NYC can charge higher prices because the market will bear them.

I stayed where I had worked for several years before moving westwards. Although the move was logical for someone interested in ancient stones and occasional hillwalking, we had commitments and a retiree should take a lot of time to ponder their web of life before moving. Before we moved we had made contacts in this area and taken on some common projects, expanding who we know. I personally think with contacts that matter you need to have physical connections with – see them, walk with them, do things together, eat and drink together, celebrate significant events. In the flesh.

During your working life these connections are easier to make7. You usually are in the same place as the people you work with, and share breaks with them. People who have young children also connect with other people with similar age children, and coincidentally this tends to be in your working life due to the vagaries of human biology. As an (early) retiree you are probably past those opportunities, so you need to take a lot more care about moving. The aspect of who is as important as where.

The ‘nearer to the grandchildren’ trap

Beware one trap regarding the who and where, though it seems to be particularly for those around 60. The first time I saw this I though that was just tough luck, but I’ve seen it several times now. Some people move away from an existing web of friends and acquaintances and somewhere they know to be closer to their children and new grandchildren. It all sounds idyllic, and they can help greatly with childcare in those pre-school years etc. But while those ties are strong, it seems to start unravelling roughly when the grandchildren start going to secondary school and being more independent.

You don’t want to be stuck in a place where you have no other friends and are too far away to see your previous friends who have drifted away as you start entering the hazard of having lower mobility or not being able to drive, that seems a very lonely row to hoe. Particularly if you are unlucky enough for your children to have to move for work, as can happen. So if you are going to do that, make non-family connections in the area a priority too. Do things with other people, seek shared interests.

Non-family connections matter too

Modern work is inimical to non-family connections in many ways. For starters, you move away from your home town, often for university, very likely for work. So far so good, as you are still in the early phases of life where making connections is easier. You may make connections through work or children, but compared to previous generations jobs are less stable, and people move for work more often. Childcare seems to take up more energy that it used to do. Work oozes past the 9 to 5, seeping through smartphones and computers into a low-level background load.

This is a hit for very early retirees, because their peer group is largely still at work. I don’t know what the answer is. Moving to an area where there is less employment because it’s cheaper may not be wise, because this tends to skew the age distribution too. Philip Greenspun tackles this in where to live for early retirees.

You can, of course, take the digital nomad route – you can reduce your costs and see a lot of the world that way. Great if it is for you. I did a reasonable amount of travelling for work for a few years. About once a month was great. I was single, and could extend the journeys with some extra vacation allowance and have many fond memories.

More than that and it became wearing. Being ill on the road is particularly tough – and this was only things like the flu and gutrot.

I can’t imagine a more alienating and lonely experience than travelling all the time, but it seems to have a great following, particularly with Millennials. A chacun son goût…  I would suggest at least say try it for six months before building it into your future permanently. It seems to work for some.

All this is tougher to get right for the very early retiree. You have to live with the results for longer, you are making some connections many people make in the workplace, and you are an atypical retiree. That is not a reason not to do it, but it’s a task that needs more getting right that simply for an early retiree. People look at me as an early retiree and assume I was lucky. Whereas if I were 40 they would file me under the category ‘alien being’.

Even as an introvert with less need for human connection than average, this much I know. Early retirement is not all about the money. Humans are social creatures. Make connections, and do things with your fellow people. Having more time to do that is one of the gifts of not working.


  1. apparently this tape recorder guy in the depths of your head is a real thing, a bit like the job VT did for TV studios when I worked there – they were banished to the basement of TV Centre. So says the Guardian:  “Audiobooks, by contrast, exploit our “echoic memory”, which is the process by which sound information is stored for up to four seconds while we wait for the next sounds to make sense of the whole.” 
  2. I have never read The Secret but it seems a take on the earlier fad of  cosmic ordering. Humans are storytellers and to some extent you do make your own world, but there are limitations to how far that will take you. If you want to step beyond those limitations then you probably have to dedicate time and effort to improving your art of changing consciousness through acts of will. Even with that there are going to be hard limits somewhere ;) 
  3. I have never seen Bambi and don’t see anything wrong with shooting deer, but it’s a real tough one for conservation organisations who really don’t want the public to know they shoot deer to stop them browsing new growth and generally buggering up forest management. 
  4. I wasn’t paid, so it’s not work in my book. But it was interesting, so it sort of falls under RIT’s definition. Certainly wasn’t a job… 
  5. Too many people tried this previously on automatic settings, which looks ghastly in tough light. But on manual, you get to rack levels yourself, in real time. In my TV days there was someone solely dedicated to racking and colour balance 
  6. There are now gizmos you can buy that use motors and gimbals to do the chicken-head thing and I may get me one of these. Paradoxically I had an easier time holding the monopod at the bottom with the camera raised over my head than with the damn thing on the ground and holding the head. Either I improved my art over time or there is something weird going on. Bird necks are amazing, I once videoed a hunting kestrel through a telescope, and the bird’s eyes were held steady it seemed the rest of the bird body moved around in the wind. 
  7. This article posits a counterfactual for millenials, I don’t know if this is a peculiar pathology of London where most journalists seem to be, because the millenials I see don’t seem to suffer such a shocking dearth of friends. I do agree that when your cohort start having children is a massive nuke for school/college friends if you are child-free. You do start seeing some of these again in their  mid-fifties for some of the reasons this article takes the piss out of Fern Britton

FIRE is for the Few, not the Many

It’s a hot summer and the Ermine is in a grump. We have a man-child in charge of the country, and I’ve just come across a brand-new flag-waver of the It Could Be You FIRE myth. Sure, it could be you, but the prerequisites are not evenly spread throughout the community. In many ways the National Lottery’s It Could Be You is more honest.

Maybe FIRE is the the new modern myth for these times, where so much work is plain god-awful piecework where all the power is with The Man. It’s the new century’s replacement for the American Dream. Sure, in theory anybody could rise to become President. It just sort of helps if you’re from particular families. And male. And have a load of money.

I always seem to get into hot water when I critique the extrovert wing of the FIRE community, and I am sure I’m going to piss some people off with this. However, the Ermine spat into his coffee on reading this fine Grauniad article describing the life and times of a couple of successful Millennials. Here’s the puff piece

First things first – I am not denigrating this specific couple’s individual achievement. Absolute props to them for shifting themselves and taking effective action to better themselves. As a measure of their greater effectiveness than mine, if they retired at 31 then at the same time in my life I was growling into my beer about having been so goddamned stupid as to buy a house in the Lawson boom that I was eventually going to sell for half of the real value I bought it for. They are more successful that I was, I was to go on to work for another 20 years after they retired. Total hat tip. I am Tortoise to their Hare. Continue reading “FIRE is for the Few, not the Many”

Playing With FIRE

This post is partly about the eponymous movie, featuring outgoing FIRE exponents like MMM. It will be shown in Birmingham on the 5th of July, well done Cashflow Cop for getting this shown outside the Great Wen. But I couldn’t help thinking about the other meaning, too…

The Ermine is an introvert1, so I fought the FI battle as a loner. For sure, I learned from other people – Monevator for how and sort of why2, Early Retirement Extreme for why though not so much how, I was too old and too wedded to some creature comforts to live the ERE life.

At that time the FIRE blogosphere was ruled by introverts too, unlike now, where I’d say extroverts rule the roost. I’m glad I started when I did, because I could relate to people’s narrative. We were crawling from the twisted wreckage of the credit crunch. The credit crunch had squeezed The Firm I worked for, and what had been a decent job for 20 years started to go bad, fast.

I read this post shortly after what I interpreted as a manager trying to run me out of the company. I was more than a decade away from retirement and needed a fast track out. I had been living the usual life of hedonism, though I didn’t carry consumer debt.

The world looked very different then – as Monevator described people’s emotional state was in the pits, the financial world was ending. I read that, and yes, I was one of the people that thought he was barking mad. Rather that yell abuse, however, I asked myself “what if this nutter is right, there is some logical coherence in what he says”. If he were right, this was a remote chance to stick a rocket on my exit plans. So I bought. That committed money to a remote chance, but that money wasn’t anywhere near enough to buy me out of 10 years of working. Looked at in that way, it was a rational choice, though a long shot.

I chose individual shares and a HYP approach, because I thought I was smarter than perhaps I was. I still have most of those HYP shares. It didn’t matter what you bought then, everything was down the toilet. It mattered that you bought.

Swimming in troubled waters – if I will fall, may I fall slowly, all is lost

I recall coming across the song Désenchantée from a colleague, and even with schoolboy French I got the feeling and it matched my mood playing on my work PC as I put half or the 2008/9 allowance into a Cash ISA and half into an III S&S ISA.

I had been slaughtered in the dot-com bust a decade before. Intellectually I saw the logic of Monevator’s words, but I did not feel that there was any hope, after all, it hadn’t worked out that well last time. I invested that money because I saw I was going to fall, though not when the end would come3. I did not have 10 years of working life left ahead of me. Your late 40s is often a troubled time of life,  you cannot live the afternoon of life by the principles of the morning.

The next month I did the same again, in the new tax year, but I also signed up to the company salary sacrifice AVCs and pushed my pay down to virtually the minimum wage, investing in a 50:50 UK:Global index fund. The other options were cash or 100% UK. I did not do this because I was an optimist, I was of the view that this was most likely a lost cause, but that there was a worthwhile chance.

The modern FIRE landscape is a very different place from that lonely and desperate world

We stand on the ramp of a long bull run from those troubled times. Extroverts are optimistic guys, they need to feel things can only get better. Let’s hear it from MMM on the practical benefits of outrageous optimism. Pete isn’t the sort of fellow to play Désenchantée on loop as he throws overboard the trappings of a comfortable middle class lifestyle into the bottomless stock-market pit for a low chance of a big win. He knows he is going to clean up and face-punch the bad guys. Every last one of them. Self-doubt is for pussies.

His story is better, and it’s been turned into a movie. Well, there’s more to it than that. Apparently it was shown in London earlier this month. I totally agree with Cashflow Cop that it shouldn’t just be the Londoners that should get the benefit. CfC has been instrumental in getting this sorted so it will be shown in Birmingham on the 5th of July. Take a look at Cashflow Cop’s site more generally – he is a UK FIRE aspirant who doesn’t live in London or work in finance. As for the movie,

It’s all rather American, but the principles of financial independence are the same. Go and see it for inspiration, particularly if you are an extrovert.

But leaven the feelgood story with the knowledge that…

Continue reading “Playing With FIRE”

In praise of the Flexible ISA

Flexibility is a good thing in an ISA. For most of their existence, ISAs and their forerunners PEPs were both use it or lose it tax-free allowances, and one way tickets. You could contribute money to an ISA, but draw it out and you lose the tax-efficiency of that contribution. Put 20k into your ISA in one tax year but draw 10k out, your allowance for that year is 20k-10k

Flexible ISAs make this work right. In the above example your allwoance for that year is still £20k, as long as the net contribution is made within one tax year. Here’s the Building Societies’ Association on flexible ISAs.

Most of the running about flexibility in ISAs is made about Cash ISAs, and the advantages are most obvious in cash ISAs. For most people, however, Cash ISAs are a waste of time, because you can usually get a better return on your cash/lose less of it to inflation with non-ISA accounts, because most people have a £1000 tax-free personal savings allowance on interest. Typical interest rates in the UK are up to 2%, so if you are using this allowance to the full you have about £50k as cash savings. That’s quite a lot – if you have that amount held as cash then you should ask yourself if you are allocating capital in your best long-term interest1, although of course if you are buying a house or have a highly variable income then maybe that is OK. Continue reading “In praise of the Flexible ISA”

Red and White dragons fight under the edifice of Brexit as the end of the ISA year approaches

March is still a time to get one’s affairs sorted and use the ISA and SIPP allowances by the end of the tax year. It’s been hard to get excited about that this year. The rough Beast of Brexit slouches towards whatever it’s denouement will be. We seem hell-bent on turning a sackful of Great British Pounds into a sack of Lesser British (for the moment) farthings. Life goes on despite all this noise and hum, and the end of the tax year needs dealing with, lest opportunities pass by.

Sharp investors do their lump sum investment into their ISAs as soon as the new tax year starts. That’s because it makes sense, logically. Time in the market, dear boy – it is a corollary of the fact that integrated over decades markets march skywards. The reason most of us don’t do that is because we fear taking a market crash the day after we invest. If you invest over 20 years the 19 years it doesn’t happen will cancel out the effect of the one year it does, but, well, loss aversion and all that. We are irrational that way, slimy meatsacks that humans are.

Many have the good excuse that they have to earn the money that goes into the ISA over the year,  but that doesn’t apply to me. I ran the other way, and extracted £20k from my Charles Stanley ISA earlier this year. I figured there was a chance of a lot of shit doing down sometime this year. It didn’t happen, so I didn’t run out of money, and I have shifted that 20k into iWeb. So I am fully invested this tax year. Wait, but surely there’s the possibility of opportunities in the Brexit bunfight? I have more potential capacity even though I have completely used this year’s ISA allowance.

That is because I have more than one ISA. Charles Stanley’s recent price hike meant they are no longer that good for the long term. Their flexibility is useful for a fellow soon to use up cash reserves ahead of drawing my pension. So I am happy to pay their usurous charges for a couple of years in return for flexibility.

People with multiple ISAs need to check they can contribute to an old ISA before the tax year end

If you didn’t put any money into an ISA last year, providers have a nasty habit of stopping you topping up unless you jump through extra hoops. Once upon a time I had aims of keeping the amount with any one ISA provider below the £50k FCA protection limit. That gets unworkable fast, I would have to balkanise holdings across several providers. Although I am cynical about the value of compound interest in getting you to FI, once you are there and provided you don’t draw down1 on a stash, the total does get out of hand fast – all the win with CI is at the end. There’s a diversification case for having two unrelated ISA platforms, but after that it’s diminishing returns. With more providers, your risk of getting timed out for inactivity increases.  I found even after two years of inactivity I had to go through the reactivation process again.

At worst they may need you to go through all the anti money laundering hoops again. It takes time to go through that check, so give yourself  a couple of weeks. Make a test deposit roundabout now, at the latest, if you have left this well alone. Sensible souls who have been pound cost averaging into the market since last April can stop reading and go do something more useful with your time. It’s the first deposit in any tax year where you will run into that sort of grief. Continue reading “Red and White dragons fight under the edifice of Brexit as the end of the ISA year approaches”

Will the last UK finance blogger please switch off the lights on their way to Twitter

In a recent post Monevator started off decrying the slow fade-to-black of the UK finance blogs, did nobody tell him that

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

but more seriously, I wonder if it isn’t in the nature of the beast. The blaze of frenzied writing is to be had in the initial stages as you are working out what is what, and if this FIRE malarkey is possible at all, and what  stage of the process you are at. Then come years of grind, when not much interesting happens at all, particularly is your investment strategy is basically buy a tracker every month for 20 years, then quit on the proceeds.

The end of the world features tumbleweed

Before I join in bemoaning the passing of the old guard we really ought to have a rundown of some great new UK FI blogs I have come across:

There are also some interesting EU FI blogs, achieving FI is different in most of Europe because tax-sheltered accounts seem to be less generous and tax thresholds lower. It reminds me of the situation in the UK when I started work, when although we were all poorer the social safety net seemed to have a bit more humanity1. The Anglosphere has gone more towards a winner-takes-all model, diverging both from mainland Europe and from its former self when jobs were more stable, addressed a wider range of the intellectual ability range and particularly in the UK, housing was less vile. Firehub.eu is a good place to start. I wonder if the Brits will be kicked out in April for their renegade ways 😉

Steady investing and a lack of market drama isn’t good for narrative

I would say that RIT has done well with the steady investing narrative, turning it into a book. But there are only so many ways you can slice the lemon. Maynard Paton has an interesting FIRE journey – note that it also features some fantastic luck. In his case, calling the housing market well, but selling out of stocks before the GFC to realise liquidity to buy the house. Luck on its own is not enough, you must also carpe diem. MP gets to stop work nine years earlier in life than me.

It was much easier to write about investing ten years ago. We had just gone through a humdinger of a crash. Not only did you stick out in a big way saying the stock market was something to run towards, rather than away from as fast as you could, but starting from such a low base meant the market was tolerant of mistakes other than churning. The expected return is inversely proportional to valuation, you could buy pretty much anything left standing in early 2009 and do reasonably OK. Building a high-yield portfolio (HYP) with a useful yield looked like a reasonable possibility then. Nowadays you’d have to indulge in risky behaviour to get a high yield because valuations are higher. Sure, there’s Sturm und Drang in the papers about recent retrenchments, but the FTSE100 is back to two years ago, not 10! Continue reading “Will the last UK finance blogger please switch off the lights on their way to Twitter”