Growing food sustainably

Food is one of those fixed costs that you can only reduce to a certain level, and one of the classic ways to reduce the cost is to grow it yourself. As well as being a damn sight cheaper, it also tastes one heck of a lot better, if you are any good.

In the UK we have a thriving allotment system, which will probably only get more popular as people tighten their belts financially. Supermarket fruit and veg is so deracinated that it is quite remarkable how it took over. My mother would never buy veg from a supermarket, but bought it from the thriving market stalls in Lewisham when I grew up. She considered supermarket produce as second-rate and beyond the pale. In fairness they have upped their game in the intervening decades. As a student and then single man working odd hours in London the supermarket was my friend, and I forgot what decent produce tasted like.

I have to admit that this isn’t my area of expertise at all. I used to grow tomatoes in my small garden, until I got hit with tomato blight two years running, and gave up. However, I’m lucky here as my partner Joanne has been doing this for years, and she has taken it to the next level with the purchase of the Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm, which will grow produce in a sustainable way. This doesn’t just mean energy sustainability.

Part of the reason much of our produce is relatively taste-free is that growing it  with artificial fertilisers is almost using the soil as a hydroponic growing medium, so trace minerals are reduced. There are other reasons – supermarket shoppers shop with their eyes, so varieties are selected for appearance and long keeping times instead of taste, and supermarkets truck the produce long distances, from the fields to hubs, and then often back along the same roads to the local stores, so what taste the produce had to start with begins to fade. In the past people relied on the soil, enriching it with organic material in a sustainable closed loop system, but after the Second World War we started to add nutrients derived in industrial processes from fossil fuels, largely natural gas nowadays.

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The Importance of Setting Goals


Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Every so often I’d come across a book like Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and they would go on about setting direction. I hated to-do lists, and here was someone advocating creating the mother of all to-do lists. So I’d skip on to the next chapter, move along, nothing interesting to see here.

It hit me, when I started looking at how I could retire early, that these self-help guys were right. I had a goal, though I hadn’t set it in a formal way. Now that I had a map, I could start to make things happen in a coherent way.

Continue reading “The Importance of Setting Goals”

How I plan to retire early

Firstly, retirement means an end to steady paid employment to me. It doesn’t necessary mean an end to earning money. Early retirees need to make this call. If retirement means your pension arrangements will be your only means of support you will need a much larger pension pot.

It’s wage slavery I want shot of. I also want my time back; my current job is reasonably well paid so if I’m going to be working for the Man I may as well stay put. But I am looking at retiring about 10 years early relative to the normal retirement age for my job.

The keys to successful early retirement are

  • clear debts
  • reduce outgoings
  • save more
  • develop alternative income streams

I owe nobody  – Debt Free and Mortgage-Free

I didn’t achieve this by winning the lottery. It’s taken me two thirds of my working life and it was done the boring way; I spent less than I earned and I paid my mortgage in 18 years, by overpaying for a few years. There are no short cuts; I had fewer holidays than most and stayed closer to home – while colleagues were jetting off to Egypt or Australia I stayed in the UK or Europe with the odd foray to the States.

Unlike many personal finance bloggers who became inspired to master their finances after building up frightful debts, I never ran up traumatic debt and juggled credit cards. I credit my parents for that, they’d even put sixpences into a tin towards the bill when they used the phone when I was a kid.

Clearing mortgage debt is liberating – it means I can focus my efforts on saving over 70% of my take-home pay. By saving half of it in my company pension additional voluntary contributions (AVCs) I keep Gordon Brown’s grubby mitts off it.

Reduce outgoings

I live on considerably less than the take-home of someone on Britain’s minimum wage last year (full-time UK NMW is about 12k gross or 10k net). That’s not as hard as it sounds for me since I have no mortgage or rent outgoings. It does mean no foreign holidays and low-cost staycations, which is hard when working the 9-5 life. It was particularly hard last year, what with some of the nutty practices at work after some dreadful business results meant HR are trying to stress people to leave by abusing the performance management process to avoid paying redundancy money.

There’s no way round it, not getting a decent break is the grimmest part of living frugally but working in a stressful environment. It brings it home just how much holidays were as much a respite from work as a positive acquisition of new experiences. However, I figure a year or two of that is worth it to win a permanent holiday for the rest of my life!

Reducing my outgoings also gives me a dry run on what it would be like on a lower income – the fact that I can do it gives me good confidence in my retirement calulations. I’d recommend it to anybody thinking of retiring early – live on what you plan to retire on and save the rest. That way you test the theory while you can still back off and work for a bit longer if you got the estimates wrong.

Save hard

If you can save 50% of your take-home then for every year you work you can take a year off. It’s obvious when you think about it, the half you don’t use this year pays for your next year.  I thank Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme for bringing it to my attention in his blog post.

Find alternative income streams

I have to admit that I am not really doing that well at this. Most of these need creativity, such as writing, recording, photography, and this is at a low ebb while living frugally while tolerating a poor work environment. I’ve got some ideas and am improving my writing.

And of course I am investing, both in shares ISAs and in pension AVCs, and my ISA and company sharesave holdings are paying dividend incomes. But the stock of capital is pretty low so that is not a large alternative income. And realistically, these alternative income streams are dwarfed by my employment income. At times I am in danger of getting sucked into the one more year before comfort trap that ERE highlights.