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Escaping the golden cage

October 16, 2012

Escaping the golden cage

October 16, 2012

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Why a golden cage?
Well I was trapped in this cage, but it was a very nice cage, with lots of pretty things in it and the door was left open so I probably could have escaped at any time if I’d really tried!

By the time I left England to go travelling the world, I had felt trapped for a long time. I could see clearly that I had trapped myself. That’s what we tend to do in the generally aspirational, western society.

I had fallen into the work I did, had never chosen my path. It was good work – well paid, in the earlier days giving me lots of experiences and was pretty satisfying. I aspired for the things that young people do – nice clothes, nice car, nice home, nice holidays, nice everything. I moved away from home quite young for work and I bought a home pretty young too. Having a mortgage in my early 20s was something which has seen me good in recent years as I got on the property ladder in the middle of the property boom. In recent years we made good money from our property which was a lot of luck – had it been a few years later we would have been as messed up as many people are since the financial crisis. But in some ways buying into property ties you up into a never ending loop. Homes are, let’s face it, extortionately expensive, at least in South East of England where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, they are. They are also the biggest commitment you will make. It costs something crazy like an average of £10K in costs to buy and sell a home.
And it doesn’t end at moving in. Decorating is an enjoyable, but pricey obsession and again it’s a cycle. The room you decorated when you move in will be looking pretty tired in only a couple of years time. Even in the good old days of super high house-prices, I think if you actually looked at what the average person actually spent on their house they wouldn’t have ‘made’ as much as they think they have when they move onto their next, bigger and better abode.
You can’t just up and leave a house. You get trapped into mortgages where you have to pay fees to get out of. Selling is a stressful and costly exercise which you don’t tend to do unless you have to or you want to move on up.

So, you have your (as nice looking as possible) home, full of nice stuff and of course want to drive around in nice cars. I was lucky with cars in that I got an incredibly nice company car not that long after I’d gotten my first mortgage. I was in my early 20s, a homeowner of a modest but well loved flat and driving a brand new BMW. But of course I was tied into things at a time I should probably have been free and easy. I had the most horrendous mortgage rate which I was then locked into for 5 years. I certainly didn’t have a bad time, managed to go out and have fun and buy stuff, but not as much as all my responsibility free friends. I was a bit in debt and always tended to, as so many people do, spend a bit more each month than I made. I had credit card bills I didn’t open. Looking back it was a very tiny debt compared to what so many have gotten themselves into, less than £1K but at the time it was scary not being on top of things and that was where I think my chief goal became financial security. I gradually wised up and became very good with money. That’s not to say I’m not extravagant. If I want something, or I want to do something, I most certainly will, but I’ll know my limits and know I’ll have to balance that off with not having something else. My boring, budgeting prowess has seen me well and I undoubtedly wouldn’t be here now travelling if I hadn’t stuck by my main 2 rules:
1: Only spend what you have money in the bank to buy
I know that’s not always easy as their are often emergencies – broken boilers or broken teeth! But this brings me to the next rule
2: Save, save, save, save, save. It seems easier said than done but I believe it is ALWAYS possible. I also believe you are insane not to. No matter what you get, putting aside a percentage, no matter how tiny, will help you in the long run. Think of a Dickens novel – there’ll be a character, often a deprived child, who will be saving his pennies, simplemindedly, for some later good. Of course, chances are some nasty character, often their guardian, would then go and steal it off them, but my point is that it used to be something intrinsic to normal life. The credit craziness of the last couple of decades makes everyone think they can and should have everything they want. And NOW! I’m not judging anyone. I can still be terrible with money but I just think putting your money aside, not just for a rainy day, but for emergencies is just vital. And it is empowering.

So having moved from my 2nd flat and bought a house with my other half, I gradually got myself into a nice position. Money saved for emergencies and put aside to pay for future holidays and bits and pieces. Giving up smoking was a great money saver and I made sure that money didn’t go to waste and was put away. I was pretty much at my mecca of financial security until my other half kind of shattered the stability by starting a business and working only part time, while at the same time spending money like he was still earning his former wage, to make up for the stress of the business. I felt pretty insecure and I didn’t like it one bit. I particularly didn’t like it because someone else’s actions were the cause. As it turned out, something which could have broken us, which we fought in the law courts, turned out to save us and when Mark left the business, we were in a fairly even condition financially and pretty soon we were back to more than comfortable when he got a good full time job.
I wouldn’t regret that time for a second though because there was lots of stress but quite often through trying times you learn the most. Lots of lessons learned on money, business, life and most of all the concept that to some extent our lives are all built on sand foundations so they could collapse but you really can’t spend your time worrying about it.

So, I am still a big saving advocate and definitely an anti credit crusader, but I also don’t think you should spend all your time hoarding your money and setting yourself up to be ‘safe’. There is no such thing as safe.

So, embracing my new adventurous, ‘whatever life may bring me’ persona, we made a decision to the south coast of England, to Brighton, because we simply loved the place and wanted to. We had no work prospects, we knew no-one down there, but the suburban life we were living in Surrey wasn’t really doing it for us. Not only were we going to move to a new area, we were also going to downsize to a flat. Our house was lovely and big and comfy but it didn’t really suit us. We didn’t need all that unused space. So we did the opposite of the property trajectory of young couples and didn’t go for moving up and bigger in the property sense, we changed course and shook things up a bit. We have never regretted this decision. It is without doubt, one of the best things I have ever done. Living in Brighton certainly quelled some of the inner screaming frustration that I was having, living in suburbia. It is a vibrant, artsy, anything goes kind of place and you can never get bored of it – there’s always something going on to entertain you, challenge you and make you smile.
The bad part of this move meant many, many months of torturous commutes – 4-5 hours per day driving (or not driving as a big chunk was on the m25) left me exhausted and coming home to a dusty, musty shell, where we were having a load of necessary damp work done on the property was tough. If you’d ask me at the time I’d probably say it was a mistake, but time heals all wounds of course and we found jobs a bit closer to home and settled down to enjoy our new lives. The best part was that we sold just before the property slump so got a very good price on our house.
So we were based in that flat for a number of years, just getting on with life. Obviously life isn’t always exciting but we did have a fair amount of expendable cash, particularly as our mortgage was so much smaller, so we could go out a lot and do lots of things. Years before I had made travel a real priority in my life so whenever we got the chance I would be planning a trip somewhere.

Moving to Brighton had made me very happy, but it had distracted me somewhat from the question that had popped up in my old suburban life, over and over again. What on earth was I going to do with my life?
It has always bugged me that I did not have some vocation come to me in my teens that I felt I must, absolutely go for no matter what. Because I would have done. Instead, I’ve never really had the faintest notion what to do with myself and completely fell into the job I did for so many years, in IT. I’m not unhappy about falling into this job, it’s given me opportunities and paid well. I do sometimes think the paying well was a bit of a hindrance because it always felt difficult to contemplate leaving when it rewarded you so handsomely. Over the years I had thought and thought about what I could do. What might interest me? What might put my talents to good use? What could I study that might help me? How do I want to work? Where do I want to work. I could not decide what I wanted to be when I grew up and I still can’t and it drives me particularly potty!!
I did, however, have one goal that I had always been dead set on which seemed to possibly be passing me by. That was to go travelling. I didn’t really know in what form but I had wanted to from when I was younger, but having been Mrs Work & Mortgage, had never had the opportunity to go off for long periods of time. My other half had never shown much interest but as time went on, I became more sure that this had to happen soon or it would never happen. I was starting to think that I may need to make this journey on my own, but I was certain that it need to happen. I was also aware that I didn’t want to get into anything new career-wise that might take some commitment without first having ‘gone off’. After some time, the other half gave in and agreed we would do this. We were both having long, unpleasant commutes, the financial hoo-ha had meant everything was silly expensive, so we barely the time, energy or money to enjoy our lovely home town anymore. That was what clinched it for him, that’s for sure. Even so, I think until a couple of months before the off, he secretly thought it wouldn’t happen.

The organization of leaving to go travelling is another dull, painful and expensive experience. We are lucky to have been on the property ladder early but it really can be such a ball and chain. We had so many hassles with our flat, to do with leases, management companies and legal issues. If we’d have waited for things to be resolved we still wouldn’t have left now, so I’m glad we did. There’s never a perfect time to go. You just have to do it.
The last 6 months before we left was so hectic. We were working full time, finishing work on the relaxation/workout music albums we’d created to hopefully sell away from home, we had to fix and decorate the flat (we were to rent it out) and pack and then rent it out. We managed to fit in some fair wells but I do regret not having made some more visits to see people before I left and those I did, to have stayed longer, but it really was one of the most manic periods of my life.

My other half, very much had the notion of running away, leaving it all behind. Luckily, I was a bit more practical than that and of course there’s been hassles of all kinds while we were away. Stuff to do with the flat, insurance claims, banking, tax returns et al. That is life. It is impossible and unrealistic to be anywhere and life stress free. But it is nice to have minimized the amount of things you are tied to.

The first 6 months of travel were frenetic and with a fairly set route so I didn’t have much time to sit and think about anything. But in the last few months, we’ve slowed down our travel pace and I had an epiphany that for the first time in my life, I had what I’d wanted for so long. Freedom.
That’s not to say that life is skip through the tulips, wonderful. Travelling can be a lot of work. Missing friends and family is very, very hard. The world is not your oyster – there are many restrictions like visas that scupper many a plan. And definitely for me, it is unsettling to not have an income and know when and where I will next have one. Naturally I am quite risk adverse and do like security but I’ve pushed through it. That’s what you have to do in life. Be brave and push through things. So it’s a bit of a niggling concern but nowhere near as destructive as the oppressed voice, back home, that was constantly screaming at me ‘am I ever going to get out of here?’.