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Monday, 23 April 2018

The PoundCounter guide to money...

So far, I don't think I've added a "getting started" post, or a concise guide on how to manage your money, so this will form the basis for it.

1) Pay off debt.

If you have any debts, like credit card balances, store cards, overdrafts or loans, pay them off first. Don't save anything into a savings or investment account until that's done.

Pay off the highest interest rate debt first.

The only exceptions are mortgage debt and student loans (in the UK anyway).

With mortgage debt, you want to make sure you get the lowest possible interest rate, or the lowest total cost over the period (sometimes the interest rate can be lower, but come with upfront fees).

With student loan debt, it's actually much more like an extra income tax. It's very difficult to work out whether you are better paying it off, or just putting up with it for the rest of your working life. This largely comes down to how much money you earn (or think you will earn) and how much you owe. The more you earn and the less you owe, the more likely it is to be better paying it off sooner. But my general advice would be not to worry about it.

2) Get a picture of your income and your outgoings.

Use my previous post as a starting point for gathering all your monthly / annual incoming and outgoing money.

It goes without saying that you want the outgoing to be smaller than the incoming. If it's not, you need to increase your earnings or decrease your spending.

Decreasing your spending is easier. Some things should be entirely within your control - eating out, takeaways, clothes, toys, gadgets.

Cars are one potential easy way to decrease your spending or free up money to be saved. I would strongly discourage using finance of any sort to pay for a car. Ideally, you should own the car outright, never buy it new and only spend as much as you are willing, ideally following the guidelines in a previous post. That's probably a little too extreme for most people, but the principle applies. Cars are incredibly useful, and I personally wouldn't go without one, but most people spend way too much money on their cars.

Think about living for today vs. saving for the future (see next point) and decide how much you want to value each.

Other things are still in your control, but more difficult - you may be paying a lot of rent or a big mortgage. You can still control those things, but it will take more effort and difficult decisions about how far you are willing to change your lifestyle. Granted, negative equity combined with a big mortgage is especially challenging, so it would be worth seeking finance advice on your options.

Ideally, you should be spending as little as possible on rent or mortgage costs. See the next point, but a good rule of thumb would be no more than 25% of your income. (For mortgages, this should include the additional costs such as rates / tax / insurance / maintenance).

3) Decide how much you value the here and now vs. how much you value the future.

Some people live for today. Others defer their happiness into the future. Most people value both to varying degrees.

A lot of the early retirement (FIRE - Financially Independent and Retired Early) blogs are inspiring because it's exciting to think about no longer needing to work and having a comfortable or adventurous retirement.

On the other hand, some of the FIRE blogs are extreme. Eating budget food; not owning a car; never spending any unnecessary money.

The mistake I think most people make is ignoring the future entirely, or assuming it will be fine and something will work out, or that the government will provide for them. Whilst the latter may be true, the current economic climate doesn't bode well for public pension provisions. It's very likely the state pension age will continue to increase, or become means-tested.

Therefore, my advice is to save more than the average person. My previous post on the topic went into some details, but as a reminder, here are the guidelines:

The more you earn, the more you should save.
If you value the future more than the present, save more.
If you prefer to live for the here and now, save less.
10% of your total (after-tax) earnings should be an absolute minimum. This is too low for me, but everyone is different.

Although now is all we have, it's also very likely that there will be a tomorrow. How much you choose to balance that is up to you.

4) Save into a variety of things.

Once you've arrived here, you are probably saving a proportion of your income into a savings account. We know that the interest rate on those savings sucks. Better to actually get that money working for you, and also minimise the risks of losing any of it.

Similar to the previous point, you need to decide how much risk you are willing to take. Generally, the higher the risk, the higher the reward.

You could choose to just continue to save into cash, which traditionally be thought of as safe. However, there are two major problems with this:

The first is explained in the link.

The second is generally covered by the country's financial authority. In the UK, this is the deposit and savings protection scheme. You do not want to have any more than that limit in a single savings account (or number of accounts covered by a single scheme). In fairness, this also applies to other forms of savings, such as investment accounts.

The investment options generally consist of:

  • Cash - either physical notes/coins or in a savings account.
  • Stocks & Shares - owning a small portion of a company, which produces goods or services
  • Bonds - lending money to other people, such as companies or government
  • Commodities - generally precious metals like gold and silver, but also things like widely traded goods like oil, animals and crops (known as "soft" commodities because they are consumables).
  • Property - owning your own home, buy-to-let or a fund that invests in property

Cash is easy. Just have some notes, coins and savings accounts.

Stocks and Shares and Bonds are also pretty easy - follow Monevator's guides on passive investing  interactive broker tool and broker table. Opening an account with an online broker is just like opening a bank account. His guides to which low-cost index trackers to use is also unbeatable.

Commodities is a little more tricky, but not much. You could choose to use an online fund that invests in gold, silver or soft commodities. I'd advise buying gold and silver coins, and having them delivered and keeping them somewhere safe (pun intended). You can choose a variety of online places like

For most people, owning their own home (or at least a portion of it, whilst paying off the mortgage) should be more than enough property. Because owning a property comes with costs (taxes, insurance and maintenance), it should not be thought of as a method of saving for the future. A better way to think about it is a way of spending less money on rent in retirement. You'll still have "rent" to pay (the costs of owning a property), but these should be much less than the equivalent of renting.

For my own reasons, I will not be going into buy-to-let as a method of property ownership. In any case, in the UK, it's becoming less profitable as the tax benefits afforded to landlords are slowly reduced / removed.

The simplest way to allocate savings would be an equal split into the five assets, and this would not be a bad way to go. However, as with point #3, you should choose a split that you are comfortable with. The mistake most people make is saving too much into cash and their own home, and not enough into the other assets.

5) Pensions

The easiest guideline with pensions is this:

If your company offers a pension and they pay into it without you needing to, you should bite their hand off. (i.e. take their offer of "free" money).

If your company offers a pension that pays in as long as you pay in something (often matching your contributions up to a point), you should also bite their hand off. (i.e. take their offer to double your money).

Where I would differ on pensions is outlined in a previous post and point #3. Pension rules are likely to change, so having too much money tied up in a pension might be a problem for your retirement plans down the road.

Saving into an ISA is almost exactly the same (in the end) as a pension. The major difference is that (currently), you are free to do what you want, when you want, with an ISA.

6) Relax and have fun!

Once I had reached this point, I felt much happier knowing that my finances were under control. I enjoy spending money on some things, like good quality food; a car that's not too expensive but fun to drive; the occasional holiday, but I also enjoy saving money and watching my savings and investments grow slowly over time. I save as much as I'm comfortable with, balancing the here and now with planning for the future.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Finding YOUR path...

I've been struggling a little in the gym / with my diet lately.

I think it's because I ate way too much over Xmas, despite knowing I had a powerlifting competition coming up, which I would need to cut weight for.

I went from 133 lb before Xmas to 139 lb after and need to be 129 lb for my weight class.

January, February and March saw non-stop training and dieting, which took its toll on my energy levels.

The good news is that I set new (local / regional) records in the Squat, Deadlift and Total (140 kg, 170 kg and 400 kg), but sadly wasn't able to extend my benchpress record (92.5 kg) or beat the existing benchpress (all) record, which is 102.5 kg.

(For those of you unfamiliar with powerlifting, there are three lifts - Squat, Bench and Deadlift. These three lifts then produce six possible records - all three lifts (3), plus their total (4), when done on one day. The final two records are additional bench (5) and deadlift (6) records, which can be done on their own. Obviously doing only one lift is less taxing, so these tend to be a little heavier.) 

Since the competition, I've been concentrating on getting back to enjoying food and training, rather than aiming for goals.

In my search for a new routine, I came across a fellow lifter's blog.

His journey really resonated with mine: we're both 5' 4"; have followed similar training principles; fallen in love with strength training and achieved powerlifting records.

His blog, and his results, made me remember that, despite what cynics may say on the interweb, we are all special snowflakes.

He aspired to be like Bolo,  I aspired to be like Bruce Lee (although not initially - I wanted to be like Arnie, but see below).

He's about 100 kg. I'm about 60 kg. We're both only 5' 4".

We have totally different builds.

There is no way he is ever going to look like Bruce Lee. There is no way I am ever going to look like Bolo.

One of the mistakes I made, and sometimes continue to make, is trying to be like, or train like, other people.

Everyone's lives are different. Some people like to train every day. Others prefer to only go once a week.

You have to find what works for you, and maintain it for years - hopefully forever!

However, certain things don't change, so here are my most important lessons:

1) Base your weight-training routine around a few compound lifts - especially when starting. A routine like Starting Strength is ideal. 

2) Keep a note of your weights, sets, reps and anything else, like how you're feeling that day.

Here are my log books from the past 8 years of training:

I can look back and see how far I've progressed, as well as how my routine has changed, so I can continue to learn what works.

3) Don't worry about number of reps and number of sets. Pick a range that you like, or change it from time to time (although see point #7).

4) Concentrate on doing the exercise well - with good range of motion and with good form.

5) Progressive overload - When you've completed your chosen sets / reps with a certain weight and with good form, go for more weight next time. When starting out, this will probably be something like another 5 kg on the squat or deadlift. Now that I've been training for eight years, it's more like an additional 1% after a couple of weeks! 

6) Diet determines 90% of how you look - the fat you can lose or the muscle you can build. Keep making small changes to the diet week after week to gain / lose weight depending on your goal.

7) Choose exercises you enjoy and concentrate on getting better at them. Don't keep changing between exercises.

8) Choose a good balance of exercises - e.g. an equal amount of push and pull. A good guideline is 

  • hinge around the knees (e.g. squat)
  • hinge around the hips (e.g. deadlift)
  • horizontal push (e.g. benchpress)
  • horizontal pull (e.g. row)

Add in a vertical pull (e.g. pullups) and a vertical push (e.g. press) if you wish. Anything else is just adding complexity, which may not be necessary, especially when starting out.

With that in mind, I'm going to try a new routine, mostly inspired by John's blog (and Borge's Optimal Routine, which I linked above). Here's what mine will look like:

  • Squat
  • Bench
  • Deadlift
  • Pullups

That's it. 

I've been going to the gym every day for a while now and find I really enjoy making it part of my daily routine.

What I don't enjoy is staggering out, exhausted. I want to keep something in the tank.

Bear in mind that the squats will be almost double bodyweight for reps, the bench will be almost 1.5x bodyweight for reps, the deadlift will be almost 2.5x bodyweight for reps and the pullups will be with 50% bodyweight strapped on a dipping belt. 

I love going heavy, which is why I want to try this mega-abbreviated routine. I don't think my body recovers quickly from the heavy sessions that I love to do, so I need to dial down the volume and take it back to basics.

As John says on his blog:

Sunday, 12 November 2017

7 years on... Real world natural muscle gains

I've been training consistently for about 8 years now and have made tonnes of mistakes along the way. Mostly it was trying to gain too fast and just getting fat.

I have a naturally small frame and generally weighed about 9 stone my whole adult life - see my early post.

Once I got rid of the fat, I was down to 110 lb (7 stone 12!). Since then, I've gone to the gym more than 1000 times.

I just updated my bodyweight graph, which I've kept since ~2008:

As you can see, it's been a very mixed journey! I let myself get much too fat, hoping that I could build muscle faster that way. I got better as I went along and I think I've got it nailed these last couple of years.

If I take out all the "noise" of the fat periods, and just take my low (lean) points, I get this:

I've gained 20 lb (18%) of my starting (lean) weight in 7 years. 12 lb of that was in the first two years. The last 5 years has been much slower. 

If you're heavier / bigger than me, I expect a similar % would be expected - maybe more if you're larger framed / high testosterone.

e.g. a typical 11 stone lean guy might gain 17 lb in the first two years, putting him at about 12.5 stone, then another 10 lb over the next 5 years, ending up at about 13 stone.

Bear in mind also that, if you're like me, you have a typical 9-5 job to hold down, plus the usual stresses / interruptions that take their toll on diet / rest / sleep / training.

I think this represents a great example of what can be realistically achieved naturally. (I have been tempted with steroids, but decided never to take them as I want to see what I can achieve with the cards I've been dealt).

They say "TTIUWP", so I might get some progress pics up soon...

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Still haven't bought a house...

OK, so I'm still here busy squirrelling away more than 30% of my take-home pay and using a low-cost global index tracker (this is a change to previous posts, where I preferred separate regional indices, but the principle is the same) and a low-cost broker.

I've been looking at houses and calculating how much I would save by buying rather than renting. It turns out that it would roughly halve my costs (i.e. 100% of my rental payments are currently "wasted", whereas about 50% of the monthly costs of ownership would be "wasted" - i.e. interest repayment, property tax, property maintenance etc. using typical figures and current interest rates.)

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

The thing that makes me worried, a little like the picture of this blog post, is that last point.

Interest rates.

I know that we're not living in a "normal" interest rate environment right now, but I have ~25 years to pay off a mortgage. It's very likely (guaranteed?) that those repayments are going to go up, as pointed out in a recent article.

What to do?

For the moment, I'm happy to wait and see what happens. My overriding hunch is that the piper will need to be paid (i.e. we've been living beyond our means in the developed world since at least the 80s and those debts will have to paid back), which means that interest rates will go up (or, similarly, that inflation will go up, but wages won't) and that demographics will kick in (alluded to in an earlier post).

Only the benefit of hindsight will tell...

Monday, 25 April 2016

And now Japan...

Japan has just crossed up through the SSTO and 21/89 EMA, so I'm buying the Blackrock Japan Fund.

That's all stock markets except the US now, so I'm about 25% invested in equities now.

All previous purchases are in the green for now, but let's see what happens...

Knowing my luck, everyone will sell in May and I'll be left holding the bag...

My sell signal is if markets drop below their 89w EMA and the SSTO