Living Expenses, You've Been Doing It Wrong
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Don't you just hate this sudden trend in internet posts and YouTube videos telling you you've been doing it wrong?
It's like a logical evolution of telling you that their recipe/method/video (delete as appropriate) is the "Best" or the "Ultimate" one and that they single-handedly developed a choc-chip cookie so good, that Mr Kipling, Ouma and The Pilsbury Dough Boy just committed Hara Kiri and crackheads across the world have swapped crystal-meth to get a fix of that sweet sweet goodness.
Well that has absolutely zero to do with Living expenses and leaves me wondering if I ought to switch to decaf for a bit. What is relevant is that after a year of tracking my living expenses and knowing what I need to do now, I was definitely doing it wrong and had been for many, many years.
I wouldn't say I was a big spender and I we certainly don't live a lavish lifestyle but I am (was) an early adopter when it comes to tech, I do love to cook and have all the associated equipment and good quality ingredients, I do (did) like driving a nice car and I like to be generous and pick up a bit more than my share of the restaurant bills when we're out with friends (I did consider changing that to liked but I could never pay less than my own share, hate people who do that as a strategy). Mrs H is the same, she likes to look after herself at the beauticians and all that ladies stuff, she always looks good and if she likes to have a recent model iPhone and a decent laptop. We're definitely not excessive with travel and going out and we don't buy that many big things now we're all grown up. I guess you would say we're comfortably slap bang in the middle of what I would consider to be middle class. Not lavish but not in need of anything. We do save a decent bit into our pensions every month and we each get a personal allowance for spending on ourselves.
In the last year (bearing in mind we've been tightening things up for most of that time) we've gone from spending around 6,500 pounds per month ($8,650 / R120,000) on our total living costs excluding savings to being almost at our target of 3,250 pounds ( $4,330 / R60,000).
That's exactly half what we were spending 12 months ago and apart from some obvious downgrades to our lifestyle that I'll go into, we haven't really sacrificed much in terms of our standard of living. I'll break it down at a high level. To prevent this turning into a post of epic proportions, I'm going to go to the basics of before after and how, I'll go into detail of each area in later posts, so if they're of interest to you, you can go and math the shit out of it. I'll list them based on the size of the impact:
I was surprised to see this was where most of our money went as I do 90% of the cooking at home and use fresh ingredients rather than expensive processed stuff. I should point out that "Groceries" is a pretty broad term in our house and is basically everything you get at the supermarket, which for us includes food, alcohol, cigarettes and all personal and household cleaning products as well as all Winston's food, treats and toys (of which he gets many being our only live-in child). We were spending around 1,100GBP ($1,450 / R20,000) monthly in this category.
First task was I took over 95% of the shopping. Mrs H doesn't like shopping, is a marketing man's dream and doesn't look at the price of anything, it's a chore for her and she just wants in and out so ends up paying 20%-30% more than she should as a result. I take my time, look at the real costs and make value based choices I would say that's saved us 200 GBP ($260 / R3700) per month
Second was I stopped smoking the day I went into hospital with Pneumonia in May 2019. Smoked for 30 years and haven't smoked since. Mrs H has cut down by around 50% so that immediately saved us 100GBP ($130 / R1850) per month.
We do enjoy a drink and having moved to South Africa our preferred brands became the imported ones and as such were twice as expensive. I switched to a local rum (my tipple of choice) and Mrs H went through the horror of drinking boxed wine in the house as opposed to bottles (much to her initial protest) as it's half the cost and frankly, we don't know enough about wine to truly care if there's a difference. We do buy bottled wine for guests, we're not animals! That has saved us around 100GBP ($130 / R1850) per month. I did say we liked a drink, it's the national pastime in sunny South Africa.
Finally, I began to shop daily for our meals and try where possible to buy just enough to make the meal and any essentials that needed replacing. This was a hard habit to break as we both grew up in families that shopped weekly and monthly and meals were cooked for 4 hungry people so we shopped and cooked a bit like that despite the fact there's only two of us. The fridge was always full and at the end of the week a bunch of stuff went to waste. Now I've got that under control and sometimes you can see the back of the fridge, our spending easily went down by 150GBP ($200 / R2800) each month.
So by just a few relatively minor changes we've saved around 550GBP ($750 / R10,000) each month and halved our grocery bill. That's a chunk of change.
2. Vehicle Expenses
This was pretty simple. I had 4 big cars and now I have 2 small cars and a project. I swapped my 3 litre supercharged Audi A7 for a 1.6 Mini Clubman, Mrs H swapped her 5 litre Land Rover Discovery 4x4 for a 1.6 Mini Cooper S, The 3.2 litre "Spare" Land Rover got sold and my 1973 Ford F100 pick up is still sitting in the driveway, I'm just not ready. As you can imagine, the big win here is the petrol cost (I'll cover insurance separately). We used to spend around 550GBP ($750 / R10,000) per month on fuel and now we spend more like 160GBP ($215 / R3,000). Do I miss the luxury cars and 4x4's? On some days, but I love my little Mini and I love banking almost 390GBP ($535 / R7,000) extra per month. Long term, the plan is electric cars powered by solar for zero cost motoring.
I hate every part of insurance especially insurance companies, you pay, you never claim and if you have to, they do everything they can not to pay you and then bump up your premium to recover their payout. We were paying around 650 GBP ($860 / R12,000) ( for buildings, contents, medical and car insurance. By reducing the number of cars, changing provider and thoroughly reviewing the amount of cover we realistically need it's been cut to 430GBP ($580 / R8000) per month. Apart from medical which hasn't changed in this occasion, I plan to self insure at some point as it's not a legal requirement in South Africa to have car insurance. That basically means I'll take the 430GBP ($580 / R8000) per month and pay it into an "Insurance" savings account and pay the medical out of it. The rest can accumulate until it's ever needed if we have a bump or get burgled. Alternatively I'm going to take the insurance down to 3rd Party, fire and theft across the whole thing for peace of mind and bank the difference.
This one is pretty simple, cut the cable! Satellite / Cable TV here costs around 55GBP ($75 / R1000) per month and Netflix & YouTube Premium combined costs 14 GBP ($19 / R250), we already had the latter so bye bye cable and a couple of other streaming services and music services. We have great fibre internet here but did I really need a 300mb line? Hell no! Cut to 100mb which is still more than I need but I like streaming 4k like a boss. Total Savings of 200GBP ($270 /R3800) per month.
This was a bit of an investment. First the landline went (who uses that anyway), then I installed a bit of home automation to reduce the energy costs (lights switch off automatically etc.), all indoor lighting is LED and all outdoor lighting is solar. I've just arranged to have a solar system installed which will take electricity costs to zero and we use bottled gas (there is no mains gas in SA) but that is literally a few bucks per month. Total savings are 115GBP ($225 / R3000) per month
To prevent arguing about who spent what on what, Mrs H and I decided that we would give ourselves equal monthly allowances for personal spending and have our own personal bank accounts as well as our joint account when we moved to South Africa 6 years ago. This money is ours to do with as we please and anything of a personal nature e.g. clothes, nights out with friends, gadgets, beautician etc. should be paid for from that allowance. We had been paying ourselves 810GBP ($1,080 / R15,000) per month each and have cut that to 540GBP ($720 / R10,000) per month each which despite the odd protest of how badly done to she is from Mrs H, it's more than enough and I generally put at least half of mine back into our savings. Total saving 540GBP ($720 / R10,000) per month.
So on those 6 things alone which hopefully you will agree have not sent us to the poor house eating bowls of gruel, has saved us just over 2000GBP ($2700 / R37,000) every single month. We also got married in the last year which represented 500GBP ($650 / R9000) per month from extra bits beyond the actual cost of the wedding and we got over friendly with the ease of use of Uber and spent 160GBP ($215/ R3000) more than we do now and then take out food was a bit more easy than it should have been for a while which we've cut 110GBP ($150 / R2000) out of monthly expenses. I'll obviously lose the cost of my work commute, work food and drink and work clothing which is a good chunk and I intend to reduce our home maintenance costs by using my extra time and YouTube university to learn to fix stuff myself, so all told the end reduction in living cost is pretty much half and we can live very well on 3,250GBP ($4,300 / R60,000) per month.
It is worth pointing out that one of the big advantageous of emigrating to South Africa is that we were able to buy our house in totality due to the massive difference in house prices between the UK and SA so we have no mortgage costs which I guess for most people reading this will be a big portion of their expenses. if you are thinking of following a similar path as me, don't write off emigration in your plans, we love SA so much more than the UK and the cost of living is significantly less. this is called "Geographic Arbitrage" in the FIRE world. I still prefer "cheaper place to live" though.
This is turning into a bit of a mammoth so I'll leave it there for now but the moral of the story is that once you start actively looking at where your money goes, you'll naturally start to question the value you get from the things you spend it on. I did, and discovered that half of it wasn't making me any happier, so I ditched it, and now I save that money so I don't have to work. It's pretty simple when you think about it like that.
The other really relevant point here is that with 700 grand English in the bank (930k US / 13M South African), my previous savings would have lasted around 9 years if neither of us earned another cent and there was no such thing as interest or investing. Today, under the exact same rules, it will last 18 years. Given I need it to last 56 years until I'm 100, I've got about a third of what I need. But there is interest, there is investing and we do intend to earn some more before we put our feet up, just not in the "Normal" way. Stay tuned if you want to hear more about that. Needless to say, I've now got about 18 years to sort my shit out or get a job, feels doable. Next time we'll start to unpack how I'm getting that money working for us.