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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Adaptation

Freedom!

Celebrating the end of lockdown, my younger son took me for a walk to the toy shop. It proved to be an inspired choice, the happiest place in town. Excited children wearing huge grins ran between the displays, suffering sensory overload as they marvelled at all the brightly coloured wonders which had been locked away throughout the long months since Christmas.

Overnight, random stay-at-home order checkpoints had been replaced by roadworks and traffic jams.

All along the high street, smiling shop keepers were opening their stores. A palpable sense of hope and optimism hung in the air. Today the greetings to customers were genuine and heartfelt, no sign of the everyday painted-on smiles and empty “have a nice day” platitudes delivered by rote.

The sounds of drills and hammers echoed throughout the neighbourhood as café owners, publicans, and restauranteurs frantically assembled outdoor tables and chairs, so they too could resume trading.

Epic queues snaked out the door of every barbershop, brow bar, hairdresser, and nail salon. A production line of bad dye jobs, monobrows, and pandemic cavemen filed in. Re-emerging looking well-kempt and occasionally stylish, in a retro tribute to happier days of socialising without fear.

An hour later, we headed back into the morning sunlight. My son beaming as he clutched a new toy.

As we strolled home, I was conscious of just how many storefronts remained shuttered or empty. Two of the shopping centre anchor stores were gone. Their chains joining the ranks of the retail graveyard.

Plans to convert one site into a co-working space had been submitted to the local council. Choosing to rent individual desks by the hour, rather than entire floors by the year, is an apt metaphor for the modern professional working environment. Successful department stores are as quaint a historical notion as secure employment and defined benefit pension schemes. Rare and endangered.

Adaptation

Just three days later, the new toy had been forgotten and normalcy had returned.

Our school holiday expedition to the adventure playground commenced with smiles and enthusiasm.

It concluded with a hangry boy and tired feet. We perched on a bench at the bus stop, watching in frustration as big red bus after big red bus drove by without even slowing. Social distancing capacity restrictions meant a long wait for those hoping to catch a bus mid-route during busy times.

On Monday we had been so happy that we could venture out of our local neighbourhood.

Mere days later, we grumbled about delays. How quickly we adapt and take things for granted!

Opposite the bus stop was a large “help wanted” sign, hanging in the window of an upmarket fast-food outlet. The sign boasted that upon completing a two-week traineeship, new staff would receive £9.00 an hour. Work a few more weeks, get promoted to Team Leader, and an additional £0.60 per hour would be theirs.

As we waited for another bus, my idle mind quickly ran some numbers.

Working full-time, that was about £300 per week after tax. £1,300 a month. A bit over £15,500 a year.

Commuting to work by bus would set workers back about £800 a year. By tube, more than £2,750.

In practice, a commuting full-time worker may take home just £49 per day after tax and expenses.

More than minimum wage. The state pension. Universal credit.

More than the Deliveroo riders earned, as they filed through the store to collect home delivery orders

But it wasn’t much. Less than teenage me had received from my retail and hospitality jobs long ago, after adjusting for inflation.

Less than half what those big red bus drivers were getting paid to leave us stranded at the bus stop.

Eventually, we gave up. After bribing the boy with some hot chips and ketchup, we dawdled the last few miles home. Along the way, we were regularly overtaken by half-empty big red buses, each displaying “Bus Full” signs in front of the driver.

The simple life

Later that evening, I reflected on my rapid adaptation. If I had adjusted so quickly to my recently restored freedoms of assembly and movement, had my perspective on income similarly adapted?

Or were those wages on offer really as limiting as they initially appeared?

While earning similar amounts, teenage me had managed to buy a dilapidated student car. Backpack around the world for months at a time. Yet somehow still graduate university with some savings intact.

Of course, this was only possible due to the free room and board on offer at my parents’ house. That covered my “needs”. Leaving my menial wages available to save. Invest. Spend on discretionary “wants”. Allowing me to survive at a lower earnings level than might otherwise have been the case.

Like many decisions, this had been a trade-off. Pros and cons. Enjoy subsidised living costs, access to a washing machine, and company when I wanted it. At the price of living by my parents’ rules and occasionally playing Russian roulette with my mother’s “you can cook it faster if you cook it hotter” approach to cooking. Burnt on the outside. Frozen raw in the middle. Just like mama used to make!

It has been decades since my benevolent parents subsidised my lifestyle. However, it occurred to me that over time my investment income streams had gradually assumed a similar role.

Covering my recurring bills one by one.

Until eventually, I reached the point where my needs were met without my lifting a finger.

That thought gave me pause.

Teenage me had worked three student jobs while studying, but my combined hours totalled less than that of a full-time job. Despite those low earning jobs, I had led an enjoyable life of adventure. Chasing pretty girls. Carousing. Going to gigs. Learning. Playing. Socialising. Sports. Travelling.

My income increased once I graduated out of full-time education and low-paying student jobs, joining the ranks of the cubicle dwellers. My living costs increased considerably more so, as the free ride at my parents’ house came to an abrupt end. Inflows exceeded outflows, but by much less than before.

From my vantage point today, it appeared that younger me had performed an impressive magic trick. Somehow squeezing a whole lot of living out of a very modest income. How had this been possible?

Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet. What was the science behind this particular feat?

As I thought about it, I realised the answer lay in managing expectations.

The expectations part was simple. I didn’t have much, but I didn’t know any different. Modest aspirations pairing well with modest means.

Over the first few years of my professional working life, I continued living like a student. Happiness was drinking with my friends. Going to gigs. Travelling wherever I could get a cheap last-minute fare.

My income steadily grew, but my expectations remained largely unchanged.

Keen personal finance minds would observe that such an outcome yields a steadily increasing savings rate. “It’s not what you earn, but what you keep”.

However, nobody ever saved their way to riches!

The path to wealth is simple, even for those who don’t inherit, marry, or steal it.

First, maximise the value of your marketable skills.

Second, trade those marketable skills for income used to purchase investments.

Third, generate capital growth from those investments. Capital growth is the source of real wealth.

A trap for young players is forgetting that time is a finite commodity. Scarce. Precious. Their focus lured by the instant gratification of small wins. Coupon clipping. Frugality. Low-yielding side hustles. Investing time on activities that focus on the £1 problems, while ignoring their £100,000 problems.

The illusion of control is a powerful attraction. It drives more of our decisions than we care to admit.

Eventually, something changed. I started to want “more”. More things. Nicer things. Shinier things.

I had outgrown my earlier life, and in this I wasn’t alone. The aspiring artists, boofhead footballers, stoners, and surfers whom I had once happily hung out with were starting to get real jobs. Couple off. Breed. Become homeowners. One even joined a Rotary club!

Those who hadn’t adapted now seemed like a sad parody of our younger selves. Failure to launch cautionary tales. Evoking the cliché “if you can’t spot the creepy old guy at the bar/concert/youth hostel, then you are the creepy old guy!

They hadn’t changed. But I had.

Part growing up.

Part hedonic treadmill.

Part adaptation of my perspective.

My childish hopes were discarded, like a chrysalis after the butterfly emerges. My dreams of captaining the Australian cricket team and dating Julia Roberts were set aside. Simplistic tastes gave way to the siren song of more/better/different. Homogenising with the more refined tastes of my lady wife.

Around this time that feeling of never having much but always having “enough” began to fade.

Concerns about money became a constant, and decidedly unwelcome, companion.

The next decade passed by in a blur of long hours and parenting young children. Grafting away on the daily grind. Spread too thin. Always time poor. Never seeming to have enough.

Net worth gradually increasing, as the compounding snowball slowly gathered momentum. Asset rich but cashflow poor. A feature, not a bug. Helping to keep lifestyle inflation from running away.

Until one day I realised that on any given day my portfolio value fluctuated by more than a year’s average earnings.

The income generated by that portfolio had brought me full circle. A return to a simpler time where I worked only to pay for my wants.

Affording low wages

As I thought about that fast-food job, a curious irony jumped out at me.

After years of hard work and wealth accumulation, I had finally returned to a financial position where I could afford to work in a low paying job. My expectations were no longer modest, but a new equilibrium point had emerged further along the income curve.

I was now in a position where I could afford to compete in a competitive global marketplace.

Compete with migrants and students for a low paying retail job.

Compete with Filipino pens-for-hire, writing at a content farm for a couple of cents a word.

Compete with highly skilled Bangladeshi freelance developers, producing websites for £10 a page.

Yet pursuing such an option feels somehow unseemly.

A bit like the middle-class vultures and poverty tourists who shop at charity shops, scooping up bargains to the detriment of those who can’t afford to shop anywhere else.

Or those who (briefly) volunteer at food banks, so they can skip the COVID vaccine queue, and attempt to avoid mandatory quarantine upon their return from summer vacations abroad.

My inner saboteur chortled, reciting an old saying from those simpler student days of long-ago: “just because we can doesn’t mean we should”.

Which, when I thought about it, cut to the heart of the matter.

Learned and forgotten more times than I care to admit.

Managing expectations.

Being conscious of the adaptations that we make.

Understanding that more is not necessarily better, and in many cases requires vast amounts of cumulative effort to maintain.


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16 Comments

  1. Mr. Fate 17 April 2021

    Hedonic adaptation can absolutely be a financial and life ruiner. We have a similar life experience and I steadfastly followed the 3-step plan you share here. And while I did, ultimately, buy a house, progressively nicer vehicles and more expensive guitars, my material expectations have neither ran amok nor profligate.

    On balance, my fundamental wants and desires have remained rather static, largely as a result of not relinquishing my “punk ethos.” So far, this has seemingly served me well (and also kept me from joining a Rotary Club). Keeping life simple, spartan, while focused on accumulating experiences and memories has made it a very enjoyable ride

    Very glad to hear you’ve been out and about. I’ve several friends in London who’ve effectively gone MIA since early last week. Presumably they’re enjoying a pint(s) or tending to their monobrows!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 18 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Mr Fate. Glad to hear you successfully managed to combine the best of both words, growing your tastes within your means, but still ending up with those nice toys that were important to you. Sounds like winning to me!

      Thanks also for the mental image you’ve just painted, it made me smile. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, in full costume, lining up at a local Rotary meeting alongside all the suited grey men. You could almost sell tickets to that one!

      If you don’t hear from your London based friends in another week or so, best send a search party.

  2. steveark 18 April 2021

    Being able to afford to work at a low income job is hardly an advantage. The worst thing about low income jobs is not the pay, its the quality of the work. You have no autonomy, are under appreciated and have little potential to advance. The idea that one of the benefits of financial independence is working a less demanding, low paying job is a fiction. You can afford to work at zero paying jobs, volunteering, but that is totally different. Nobody places any demands on volunteers, but the life of a minimum wage earner is a life facing constant demands because when anyone can do your no talent job, you are easily replaced.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 18 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Steveark.

      When you think about it, volunteering is the ultimate low income job. Only those of sufficient means and possessing surplus time on their hands can afford to donate it as a volunteer.

      Nobody places any demands on volunteers” because there are very limited options in terms of carrot and stick that the organisation can use to incentivise or penalise a volunteer. That is one of the greatest challenge faced by those non-profits dependent on volunteer labour, yet seeking to provide a high quality and reliable service: the unreliability of the volunteers. When the penalty for failure is negligible, otherwise diligent people think little of prioritising other activities at the expense of their volunteer duties.

      Highly paid or otherwise, there are very few workers who can’t easily replaced. Despite how special our mother’s and egos might tell us we are, we’re all interchangeable cogs in the machine.

  3. David Andrews 19 April 2021

    “Understanding that more is not necessarily better, and in many cases requires vast amounts of cumulative effort to maintain.”

    Definitely agree with that. Fancy new cars can require regular main dealer maintenance. Bigger houses can mean more rooms to be filled with unnecessary stuff, bigger mortgages or funds tied up in less liquid assets potential missing out on higher returns elsewhere.

    More houses can mean more rental income but they need to be maintained, and tenants can be demanding ( or stop paying ) – definitely not passive income.

    Presently I’m facing a bit of a challenge as my investments are also meeting my day to day needs. Employment income is funnelled into the pension ( which I’ll need to reduce soon due to the LTA) or ISA.

    When you don’t feel you need anything it gets pretty hard to retain motivation to keep working …. especially when the sun is shining.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks David.

      You’ve nailed it. It is always important to consider the total cost of ownership. Ongoing financing charges, maintenance, management fees, storage costs, taxes, utilities, and the list goes on.

      That said, less isn’t necessarily better. A minimalist free camping in a cardboard box under a bridge potentially incurs costs to their health, safety, and well-being!

      I hear you on the motivation front. Now that school has gone back I’ve half heartedly been looking into short term gigs to keep my brain busy. It has gotten comical how easily my inner saboteur manages to distract me from the idea, like opposing magnets or the way we always find something else to do rather than updating our legal wills.

  4. John Smith 19 April 2021

    Simple life does not necessary mean minimalism. Adaptation is relative equilibrium in time point (money versus wellbeing). Someone must adapt to survive to hostile environment/country, to losses of job/money, but will not be happy.
    For FI, the key is the stoicism; willing adaptation/compromise, rejecting hedonistic habits, until a safety net is in place. Perfectionism (the number obsession) will not help, better is Pareto principle (achieve 80% of enough) and quicky move to another adaptation field (Maslow’s pyramid) before the monkey brain become bored (or middle age crisis, etc.).
    Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans 🙂

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks John Smith.

      I’m a big fan of the simple life. The older I get, the more I observe that if something is complicated then it is probably being done wrong!

  5. dearieme 23 April 2021

    In our fifties we were accused of still living like a couple of postgraduates.

    “Don’t be silly”, said I, “we have a colour TV.”

  6. greencat66 24 April 2021

    Lots of stuff also takes time and mental bandwidth. Time to maintain, move around/store, time to figure out how to get rid off. I enjoyed accumulating stuff into my forties, now in my late forties, I’m getting pleasure out of getting rid of it. A dozen computers gone or going from the spare room in the last week to happy smiling new owners for free – it feels like a minor but significant weight has been lifted. Now that’s worth real money.

  7. ScottB (USA) 28 April 2021

    Managing expectations (learning to differentiate between want and need)

    Being conscious of the adaptations that we make (and need to make)

    Understanding that more is not necessarily better (which often takes time to learn)

    Good article and good points. It reminds me of the arc of most lives: Growing and striving, achieving & enjoying and the inevitable winding down stage where we de-access not only things, but time consuming friends and unrewarding activities.

    More money will not necessarily increase happiness, but enough money (as each of us may define) certainly will. As I move further into old age, few things make me happier than when I am alone, building something in my work shop. Of course, the tools I use were often expensive and have taken a lifetime to accumulate.

    If we are fortunate to have earned and saved enough to afford a comfortable lifestyle, then small luxuries, like a pair of shoes you want, but don’t need, or a nice meal out can provide real pleasure. However, what I have trouble understanding are people for whom the display of what they are able (or unable) to afford is more important than the thing itself.

  8. Q-FI 29 April 2021

    You had a few gems hidden in here along with your usual cutting insight. You phrase things in a way that I never could.

    “Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet.”

    “The illusion of control is a powerful attraction.”

    This was a cool perspective in this post coming full circle back to the low paying job. It’s always fascinating looking back on our own personal adaptations over the years, slicing and dicing on the great cutting board of life what complex creatures we have become.

    BTW… loved the picture. If I haven’t said it before, you have one of the most aesthetically pleasing blogs I have ever seen. Just curious, how do you tend to come up with your pictures?

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 April 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Q-FI.

      Where I landed on the low paying job front was that I could finally afford to do something for other than money, without compromising my family’s lifestyle. Effectively I had earned the ability to pursue that ubiquitous bad career advice and “follow my dreams”. Much more preferable than surviving as a starving artist!

      The pictures generally come from stock image websites, then I just fix the framing and composition to make them more pleasing to the eye. Something I learned working all those years in the photo lab, the difference between an ok picture of something and a great one is composition.

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