A short history of my personal FI success

My foray into personal finance started when I was 18 and dirt poor & living on my own. In the 90s buying clubs like Columbia House (hah! Remember them?) and Book of the Month Club were all the rage and like a fool, I was a member of both of them. But as fate would have it, one of the books that I received was The Tightwad Gazette (TWG) II. When I got it I read it cover-to-cover and then I read it again. Despite the fact that these mail order clubs were pretty awful, I probably have benefited more financially from stumbling across that book than from anything else that has happened. It lead me down a road of seeing that there was a different way of living and it gave me the power to understand that I had control over my money. Eventually I bought both TWG I & III as well as Your Money or Your Life (YMOYL), which is the book that had the most impact on me during my 20s and 30s.

Before the FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early) movement with its stoicism and side hustles by tech-based workers & other high-income adherents, there was Joe and Vicky. Their vision of the for financial independence (FI) movement was one of simple living and community. Their ideas were about resource management not just for the accumulation of cash but also concerned the environment & leaving the planet a better place. It was a vision for a better world and it spoke to me. Although I have enjoyed some of the FIRE blogs over the past 10 years, I have been embedded into the YMOYL vision of FI and have found that the bootstrapping, solitary goal of accumulating money of most FIRE bloggers has struck me as mostly empty. Of course, there are those who have a larger vision but they don’t seem to be the ones screaming the loudest.

Of course, you may be thinking, “Well Tucker, learning about all of this by 20 certainly didn’t help you to retire early! You worked until 3 years ago!” While that is true, it is also missing the larger picture, which is the one of independence, or having the freedom to make different choices. By learning to be good with my money it has given me the option to make decisions that I may not have been able to make had a lot of debt or lived a large lifestyle. Here are some things that FI knowledge has given me:

– After being laid off from my well-paying corporate job I was able to join a government-sponsored small business training program that lead me to owning an eco-friendly cleaning business in my early 30s.
– After listening to my mother, I bought a condo downtown for $115k when I was 24 years old with a $5000 inheritance I received (full disclosure she co-signed the mortgage). After a couple of years I was able to remortgage & used the money to pay off my student loans (the difference was 6.5% a year!).
– After I became a parent, being frugal allowed me to stay home with my kids until they were 2 & 4 years old.
– I went back to work when it looked like Mr. Tucker’s job situation looked tenuous. But we were still able to live off of one salary.
– When I went back to work I was able to take contracts from September – May and stay home with my kids over the summer (I would have worked but student programs generally filled those jobs during those months).
– Going back to work allowed us to spend a month in Puerto Rico in 2014 & not have debt long-term.
– Saving up a huge down payment for our house allowed us to take on a smaller mortgage than we would have. We are now looking to pay this off by 2023.
– When I was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis the waiting period for sickness benefits with Employment Insurance was a month & only lasted 12 weeks. The waiting period for my Disability Insurance to kick in was 13 weeks! Having savings & having an emergency budget for when money got tight helped us not use credit to see us through.
– Being disabled can be expensive: having a doctor fill out my forms just to apply for my benefits was $45 each time. I have great medical insurance but it only pays a portion of my mobility device costs.
– Because we wanted to travel when the kids could be pulled out of school and my mobility was still good, we are frugal in our daily lives but have visited many countries, were able to go to Disney (twice!) and Universal and are able to rent cottages with friends in the summer.

All in all, my FI knowledge, ability to switch into a tight budget, and our savings rate have all contributed to our lifestyle. Between graduating from university & my diagnosis I have worked full-time only about 10 years & the rest were part-time or were the years I was a stay-at-home-parent. We don’t have a basement full of stuff (but if you enjoy that kind of thing, more power to you), we only got a car when the eldest was around 1, we cloth diapered, we reused everything, ate a lot of beans, and didn’t buy a lot of things we didn’t need. But we did want to travel, our kid’s university savings accounts are well-funded and our retirement accounts are doing well. We also have a ton of friends in our community and the kids and the adults all have hobbies that they enjoy doing.

Overall, this is the definition of FI success to me. We don’t live life on autopilot but instead make concentrated decisions of how we want to spend our time & money to live the life we want. It’s part luck, part good choices but also making great friends, having the support of our families, and having fun hobbies to sustain us. We have even loftier goals for the next three years but more on that later!

Attention & focus

I just finished Ultralearning by Scott Young and if there is one thing I realized from reading that book, it’s that I completely lack the ability to focus. Over the past few months I have been weaning myself off of social media and other time-sucking apps in order to concentrate more fully on high-focus activities. While I am still not there 100% yet, I have managed to figure out what some of my triggers are and negate them.

Here are some of the things that have given me back more time:

I realized that by commenting and posting it kept me in the cycle of checking these sites more often than I like to. So I basically allow myself to keep up with people by checking social media in the mornings but I rarely comment and even more rarely post. I would say that my social media use has gone down exponentially by just getting me off the hamster wheel of discussions.

When I do comment, I then turn off all notifications. I found myself getting dragged into discussions I didn’t want to be in so I just turned off the notifications. Unless someone tags me by name, I won’t see it.

I have uninstalled all the apps that don’t need to be on my phone. No more defaulting to opening the facebook app (my true weakness) because I don’t have it on my phone anymore. It goes without saying that I also am not logged into the web browser.

I have push notifications completely turned off for all apps. The only notifications I get are for text messages and phone calls. Since I mostly use Signal with friends and for group chats, the only texts/calls I really get are from family.

If I am doing a high-concentration activity like reading, I put my phone out of reach. My instinct is to reach for my phone whenever I feel stuck/anxious/bored so this way I can’t do that on autopilot.

I keep a small moleskin notebook handy for when I want to look something up but have put my phone out of reach. I can write down what I want to look up and then do it later after I am done my session.

I have my phone on sleep mode from 9:30pm until 7am. My Signal group chats don’t notify me but they do show up on my lockscreen. During these night hours they don’t even show up there.

I give myself 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night to check social media. While I may not always hit this mark, I have lowered by usage by leaps and bounds compared to just last year where I was logging about 2 hours a day.

Having ADHD working in social media was a bit of a blessing and a curse: while my brain worked really well at those highly frantic frequencies & I was able to parse a lot of info from a lot of sources, the tradeoff was losing what ability I had to focus long-term. While I think ADHD is definitely a brain issue and that people really do have attention issues, I also think our society of pings, dings, and vibrations are causing attention issues in people who may not have manifested them a mere 15 years ago.

We’re constantly inundated by things vying for our attention whether it is social media & notifications or messaging systems and email at work. These constant hits of dopamine and distraction I think will have real long term affects on our ability to really hone in on issues to solve problems at work and in our personal lives. I think doing our best to turn off as many of these distractions as possible will be good for us long term, as people who are calmer and less anxious and as workers who can affectively solve problems by deep diving into them without distraction.

My RRSP, Mr. Tucker’s RRSP or house payoff?

This is my question of the day: which one of the above should I prioritize, in which order, over the next three years?

Basically we both have contribution room in our RRSPs, and Mr. Tucker is in a tax bracket that is higher than mine, so on the surface it makes sense to prioritize his RRSP for the tax savings. However, I don’t want to use all of his contribution room up in year one and year two and then have him left with not enough to go down a tax bracket in year three.

I think the sensical approach is to a> make the 20% prepayment on the mortgage; b> put enough money into Mr. Tucker’s RRSP to bring him down a tax bracket; and then c> siphon the rest into my RRSP. We can use the tax refund to add to the savings to pay off the house.

I need to make sure I use up all his contribution room over the next 3 years so that he maximizes tax savings. After year 3 he won’t have an income so any savings we can continue to put any savings in our TFSAs and/or my RRSP.

It also means that we will get a larger Canada Child Benefit (CCB) as our gross income will be reduced. I need to make sure that year three his income is really low so that we get a larger CCB in the following year as his income will be zero.

Of course, since we are already living off my income and putting his away, we will already be used to it so it won’t feel any differently (except we won’t be putting a ton of money into savings!).

Anyway – happy Friday! The kids have a PD day so they are off cramming in more device use as they have an extra day in which to do it!

Make your own veggie boullion (aka Souper Mix)


Mr. Tucker whipped up a bunch of this veggie bouillon for the freezer last weekend and it reminded me to share it here. It’s pretty versatile and while the original recipe is below, you could add any savoury vegetables or herbs and it’s pretty forgiving. I feel like dry mushrooms would be a fantastic addition.

Souper Mix

Makes about four cups:
9oz (250 g) leek
7oz (200 g) fennel
7oz (200g) carrot
9oz (250g) celery root
2oz (50g) sun-dried tomatoes
2 or 3 garlic cloves
3 ½ (50g) parsley
3 ½ (50g) cilantro
¾ c fine sea salt

Put all the ingredients into the food processor and blend until you have a fairly thick paste. To use: combine 1 tsp of souper mix to 1 cup of water.

This recipe is from the River Cottage: Preserves book. I highly recommend both the series & the cookbooks!

Financial zooms!

Today I totally spent the entire day watching Biden’s inauguration and getting nothing done but chatting with friends in group chats & commenting on facebook posts. It was a big day for my USian friends (and indeed for democracy) so I am giving myself a pass on writing a lot.

Still, my friend K and I have started an interesting project! Following two comment-laden conversations on our respective facebook feeds, K and I thought people may benefit from a casual personal finance (PF) chat amongst friends. It’s hard to figure out where to start with PF if you aren’t a nerd about it so we sent out an email asking for people to let us know if they are interested in a group like this. Here is what we wrote,

Hey friends,

If you are receiving this invitation it is because you have been a part of one of the conversations on Personal Finance on either K’s or T’s facebook posts. From those conversations people expressed an interest in having a personal finance chat over zoom. Our primary goal with this group is to de-mystify money for people & learn together. Personal Finance tends to be so wrapped up in our self-esteem and personal identities in a culture where discussing it is taboo. When something is taboo it creates shame and that shame controls us and prevents us from seeking out information that could possibly unstick us from where we are stuck. So we are offering a stress-free environment where we can lay our questions and concerns on the table and get some ideas from other people.

Our idea was to have a preliminary group discussion to figure out what topics people would like to tackle in subsequent zoom calls where we could get a feel for what people want to discuss and then tailor subsequent calls. This could range from the psychology of money down to the various investment products — the sky is the limit! We aren’t positioning anyone as an “expert” so much as we are crowdsourcing ideas, tips, and tricks from everyone. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you have much to contribute as with any group there will be people who know more than others and people who know less. Everyone who receives this email is invited to join us and don’t stress about where you are on your journey. Also, there is also no obligation to share the details of your personal situation with the group, so don’t feel like this will be looking at your life under the microscope. You are invited to share as much or as little as you want to.

Please note, that while we can discuss various types of investments, if you want detailed investing advice, this is not the place. Please seek out a fee-only, fiduciary (legally-obligated to act in your best interest) financial planner. If they aren’t fiduciary advisors, they are salespeople who get kickbacks from selling you high-fee products…but this is also something we can discuss!

If you don’t want to join us – that’s ok, too! No pressure at all. We would ask that you let us know as we have really had to scale down the invite list to make it manageable for online discussion so it would help us with planning.

NO OBLIGATION! NO MONEY DOWN! YOU CAN CANCEL AT ANYTIME!

I do hope you will join us,

K & T

It looks like we have quite a bit of interest but I hope to hear from a few other people before we settle on a time & date for our preliminary meeting. I am crossing my fingers that this turns into a positive, stress-free PF group that people find helpful.

The Three Year Plan

When I was diagnosed everything became about LIVING FOR THE MOMENT. We wanted to do as much as possible while I was still mobile. Since we had not traveled as much as we would have liked we started there. Two years in a row we took whirlwind trips with the kids making sure they had these memories to fall back on should my decline be rapid. I don’t regret the decisions we made & we had the money to cover it so it was a net positive for our family. Two years later and my mobility has only slightly decreased, we are less panicked, and in the midst of the pandemic the smoke has cleared on a lot of our previous behaviours.

Like a lot of people though, we’ve really been able to reflect on things during the pandemic. If there is one thing we’ve become good at seeing, it’s our own patterns of behaviour. Because things have slowed down so significantly we’ve been able to finally see what needs to be changed. One of the things that has really stood out is our feast-or-famine spending style.

When things are going really well at Mr. Tucker’s work his attitude is, “Jeez, I could work here forever!” We tend to let the good times roll & spend a lot more money on extras. Then when he goes through a particularly difficult time at work we remember that if we saved more, he wouldn’t have to work forever. It’s our pattern and it’s been like that for a long time. This feast-or-famine way of managing money has worked because we never overspend but it still has left us spinning our wheels with long-term goals.

So in November we decided to sit down and plan out what we’d like to do & then we came up with a 3-year plan to achieve our goals. Here is what our list looked like:

– Finally do a will and get our estate affairs in order
– Fully fund the kid’s RESPs (Registered Education Savings Program) & buy back the missing years in order to receive the $1000 grant
– Start & catch up with the RDSP (Registered Disability Savings Plan) so to get the full $1000 grant

…and the biggest one of all:

– Live off of my income for everything and put all of Mr. Tucker’s income into his RRSPs (Registered Retirement Savings Plan)

That really is the biggest goal of them all: living on one salary for everything is a huge undertaking for us. It means we are budgeted really tightly down to the dollar with very little wiggle room. It still covers all of our needs (food, shelter, bills), many of our wants (camps, music lessons, entertainment), and all the other savings I mentioned above (and some I didn’t, such as emergency savings). We will still go to the cottage every year on vacation and still keep our hobbies but we will actually have to stop and think of spending now instead of living on autopilot. Spending in one area means that it will have to come from another place so it forces us to make decisions as to what we really want.

So why would we choose to do this? Because if things go well we can pay off our house & Mr. Tucker can retire from paid work if he wants in 3-3.5 years. That’s huge. It doesn’t mean he will retire from paid work, it just gives him the option.

One of the things about being disabled that is always on the forefront of your mind is what your trajectory will be 1, 3, 5 etc…years from now. I don’t know the future but the reality is that every day I have will probably the best day I ever will have. The other reality is that our parents aren’t getting any younger and will probably need more assistance as the years go on. Sure, we have siblings who can help as well but we really didn’t want Mr. Tucker working a high-stress job with long hours, parenting two teenagers, caring for a disabled wife, AND having to go check in on our elderly parents. We wanted to set ourselves up so that if he had to take a leave of absence, he could without having to worry about our finances.

Of course, we don’t expect that our plan won’t be without its hiccoughs but these hiccoughs will happen whether or not we are saving towards our goal. We also fully suspect that we may need to make changes down the line, which is also fine. We are totally flexible and can review how things are going a few months down the road & adjust where necessary. Still, we are both happy to have sorted a lot of our financial life out and are looking forward to seeing how well we can do on our current plan. I will keep you updated!

Take-out

One of the things that’s been great about meal planning is that we haven’t purchased takeout since November 27th. I hadn’t even realized that it has been over a month since we had stopped. If you remember, one of our NY resolutions was to not eat out and we did well until the summer where we fell back into the habit of ordering take-out again.

We’ve made the “decision” to not eat out in the past but we’ve never had a plan to deal with what was making us eat out in the first place. For us, it was a lack of planning and tiredness. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t grocery shop on an empty stomach but I think you should also not plan a meal at the end of a long, tiring day. For us, it was this that made us just throw our hands up in the air and say, “let’s just order in!” Undone by our own lack of foresight, again.

I can even remember what we ordered last – KFC. The eldest loves KFC and so it was her turn to choose. So we ordered delivery without realizing that our meal was to go through a 3rd party food delivery app until after it was processed. I had already had issues with Skip the Dishes – in the Bay area of all places! Ground zero for delivery apps! – where it wouldn’t accept the address I put in and instead just assumed an address based on the postal code. No matter how many times you change it, it just reverts back to the address the computer serves up. I swore right there and then not to use delivery apps anymore. So here I was again at the mercy of two platforms that don’t speak to each other (both KFC nor STD knew how to fix an order from their end) and I had the exact same problem as before: the system served up an address and didn’t take the address I put in. In the end, we had to get our cold chicken order from our neighbour’s front step. The delivery driver didn’t even check to see if someone was home. Never again.

On top of all of this we never even finished the leftovers, wasting a bunch of food after a terrible customer service experience. It left me questioning why we even bother. It takes just as long as cooking something, it’s way more expensive, it’s super unhealthy, and then we wasted a bunch of it.

This wasn’t anything new to me, though. I had often lamented that we were wasting money/health/food in the fridge on eating out but knowledge isn’t power without action. We had never done anything about it.

It was around this time that we had become serious about our 3-year plan (more on this coming soon). I knew that one of the easiest ways to save money was on those last-minute decisions to get takeout (and not drinking alcohol). So in order to change our current paradigm I needed to tackle the issue from a few angles in order to come up with a plan.

1- We inventoried our food: Mr. Tucker wrote down all we had stored in our freezers so that we could work from what we had. Since we buy our meat from local farmers having a list helps us get through to the next ordering period.
2- I made a list of all the meals we enjoy: having a document to refer to when I can’t remember what we can make with X, or when I am feeling uninspired helps so that we cycle through meals and not get bored.
3- I meal plan two weeks at a time: like the post I linked above says, we only shop every two weeks for fresh produce and I base our meals around what will go bad first. Using the inventory of things we already have on-hand allows me to buy only the produce we need. We also have stopped running out for ingredients we forgot to pick up.
4- I build easy meals into the plan: I usually plan a day or two of junkier food: those pizza and chicken nugget nights that are just heat-and-serve. I find by keeping these things in the freezer, it helps us on nights we can’t quite get it together.

Of course, it took some trial-and-error to get to where we are right now and I still anticipate the odd snag when I will cave and get Thai food. Still, here are a few other tips:

Pizza is cheaper than steak: if you find yourself exhausted at the end of a crazy week, try and order the cheapest take-out you can. Save the fancy food for when you have time to cook it at home. The more expensive the food, the quicker it will go soggy in the bag or overcook.

Frozen foods are your friends: there is a plethora of different take-out style options available in the frozen section of most grocery stores. A $3 frozen pizza is cheaper than a $10 takeout one.

Embrace the taco kit: honestly, the easiest meal in the world is a pound of ground meat (or ground round) and a taco kit. If you are feeling fancy, buy guac.

There are a million uses for rotisserie chicken: every grocery store sells them for under $10 and you can usually get 2 meals + out of them. You can use leftovers in wraps, casseroles, soups, chicken salad, pasta, in Caesar salads…it’s hard to find a better deal at the supermarket.

Don’t get me wrong – I love eating out – and there is nothing I love more than dropping mad cash on a really great meal experience (with wine pairing, natch. Man, I am going to miss that…). What I don’t want to do though is just order mediocre takeout (because let’s face it, a lot of it is mediocre) because I am being lazy. It’s been easier during the pandemic when we are all stuck at home anyway. I won’t lie: a lot of the changes we’ve made in the past little while we have made because the pandemic has given us a little boost. So in the same way that not traveling is easier when you can’t actually travel, not eating out is also easy when restaurants aren’t open. Still, even when the pandemic is over I hope that these habits will stick.

It’s Friday – beige dinner night. Also: vacations

Well, not all beige. Some nights – like tonight – we’re doing pizza. My favourite recipe for pizza is this Ultimate Vegan Pizza recipe by The Buddhist Chef. Even if you don’t make the cheez (which you should try as it is delicious) it is an amazing recipe for the crust alone. If you oil a square baking sheet before spreading out the crust, it’s even crispier! We’re having it with salad – so again, not beige – but it’s a Caesar salad so the green is just for show.

It’s strange to think about now but we are setting up our plans for summer vacation. Typically we go somewhere in the winter but of course no one is going anywhere this year. As much as we love travel, it’s been nice to not have to have another rushed vacation with the kids. Mr. Tucker also really enjoyed his week at home doing nothing but a few house chores during the week at Christmas. So because of that, he is going to take two weeks off during the summer: one week for the cottage week with two other families, and one week to stay home, relax, and get a few odd jobs around the house.

While these plans chose us this year, it is also nice to be able to save money by not going anywhere this year. Mr. Tucker and I have some fairly intense financial goals over the next three years and so we have actually nixed international travel for the foreseeable future (unless one of us gets an astronomical windfall or raise).

If I am perfectly honest, we’ve also seen a lot with the kids: we’ve been to Disney World twice, Universal Studios once, and we’ve seen most of the Caribbean and many countries in Central America – including a cruise through the Panama Canal. They’ve been on boat cruise in NYC on New Year’s Eve watching the fireworks behind the Statue of Liberty, and stayed in Venice Beach & walked around Hollywood. It’s enough for kids who are only 10 & 12! Besides, the Bean is in jr. high now and taking time off in winter is just not as do-able as it was when they were in primary school.

At the end of our three years of tight budgeting and saving, we can make decisions then. But until we reach the end of those 30 months, it’s going to be very lean: we will have enough to live a really good life but not a little wiggle room for anything outside that. Right now we are leveraging the fact that we can’t go out in the pandemic to kickstart our new habit to reach our goals. Nothing makes staying home easier than an emergency stay-at-home order.

So our rowdy weekend plans include homemade pizza and a movie on the big screen (the projector in our basement rec room). In fact, this pretty much looks like our rowdy weekend plans for the next 3 years – and I am ok with that. Besides, this idiot has 136 more books to read before the end of the year!

In praise of tea

Despite being a “morning coffee” person today, when I was growing up all the adults around me drank tea. My earliest memories of my mom were of her sitting on the couch, reading books, smoking and drinking cup of tea after cup of tea. When my family got together I remember the adults sitting at the kitchen table in my grandmother’s home chain smoking cigarettes, drinking tea and talking. So my entire life tea (and quite frankly, cigarettes which is another story altogether) has been associated with my family, books, and hangouts. But even as an adult when I went home, my mom would make me a tea and it was automatically calming to me.

It wasn’t until high school that I started hanging out in cafés with friends as “going for a coffee” became the standard. Of course, this pre-dates Starbucks so we hit up a variety of local places that wouldn’t kick a bunch of teenagers out after they’ve nursed the same coffee for an hour. Some of my best memories are of sitting in Cafés, playing chess as my heart raced from all the caffeine I had consumed over the previous few hours. But as much as I love coffee, it doesn’t hold a special place in my heart like tea does.

Mr. Tucker has settled into an Earl-Grey-All-Day pattern whereby he drinks bucketloads of tea all afternoon and all evening. He used to switch to decaf in the evenings but has become so hardcore that he now drinks caffeinated and still falls asleep when his head hits the pillow. I definitely can’t do that. I am a much more varied tea drinker hitting up equal amounts of Yorkshire Gold & various herbal teas before switching to decaf Yorkshire* & Mint Green after dinner. The kids are also prolific tea drinkers with the Sprout enjoying Chocolate Chai, Pumpkin Chai and Faerie Blend (a fruity black from a local store). The Bean typically sticks to Earl Grey like her dad but drinks less tea overall than anyone else in the house. We like to make giant mugs of tea after dinner and play card or board games together.

Even though they both contain caffeine, coffee is about wakefulness and energy as tea is about soothing and calming. The two times I have needed tea – when I quit smoking and when I quit alcohol – it has been there for me, filling in the hole the previous thing left. Even now Mr. Tucker are astonished at how much tea we are drinking – but with no regrets. It’s the perfect pandemic beverage. We are getting a bargain: even a week’s worth of our fanciest favourite teas are still cheaper than one bottle of wine.

I’ll drink (tea) to that.

*The ONLY decaf worth drinking; it isn’t a watery mess.

Book goals

For some (stupid?) reason I vowed to read 150 books this year. Honestly, I am a prolific and fast reader so I thought it would be completely possible for someone who doesn’t work to read that many books. Afterall, it’s about a book every day and a half.

Now we are 12 days into 2021 and I am facing down a large pile o’ books with only 4 completed so far and another two on the go. I am trying not to stress out about it because freaking out about it only takes something that brings me joy and turns it into work. Despite the fact that I do love reading a lot of non-fiction and learning new things, I don’t want it to become something I slog through.

So I am trying to ease up on the pressure and just read things at my own pace and in my own time. I am also trying not to cheat and only read novellas. I want my list to be representative of what I would read normally

There is a silver lining though: over Christmas I tackled most of the library books I had out. I am now down to only having 5 books out – a typical pile was often 20+ – so I am calling that a win. Unfortunately, the library waiting lists are a bit of a crapshoot. One week no books come in, and then the next week I find myself with 20 ready for pickup. A smarter person would pause their holds on things when it looks like a tsunami of literature will come down but I have not quite reached that level of organization.

Still, I am grateful that the library remains open for pickups and drop-offs during the pandemic. Our province is going into full lockdown, we can still pick up and drop off books. It’s been a real lifesaver for me to be able to at least have something stay normal.