When the rug gets pulled out from under you.

When I’m working, I get up before the sun. I leave at around 7AM and drive for 50 minutes or so, walking into the staff room just as the place is starting to get that “buzz” as people arrive. There’s always banter between people, but when the locker bell rings we know that the countdown has begun. At 8:50 AM the bell for period 1 rings and the day ticks inexorably onwards until the final bell at 3:10 PM.

There’s always the sound of children. In class, of course, but during recess and lunchtime there’s no escaping that noise. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a happy noise of kids talking, laughing, calling out to each other – but it’s constant. Kids are right outside the staff room windows, so sometimes we put the blinds down if we see them peering in.

The school I teach at has around 2,300 kids. That’s a lot of noise, buzz and activity.

Whereas right now, the only thing I hear is the sound of the keys on my keyboard and the air conditioner softly going. Ryan24 has just walked down the hall to talk about something with me. My phone rang and Tom26 and I had a quick chat, because he was at work.

This morning we found out that David25’s girlfriend has leukaemia.

It’s funny how when bad news hits you just want to touch base with family. As soon as David25 left to be with Izzy, I rang my sister and my best friend. When Tom26 heard, he talked to his Mum.

Ryan24 came to tell me that apparently her style of the disease has an 80% success rate and they think they’ve caught it early.

She’s only 21.

I’m here, with the sound of the keys on the laptop, the gentle sound of the air conditioner and the warmth of Jeff snuggled up beside me even though the day is too hot for him to be doing it. With news like this, I’m glad I’m home. It’s pure chance that it wasn’t a normal Tuesday, where I’d be surrounded by thousands of people and their concerns. I don’t have to put my game-face on and pretend that the only thing on my mind is teaching the proper essay techniques they need to know to get a good mark.

I can take the time to sit and think of her and my son. They’ve been going out for around 18 months. They met at uni when they were doing the same music course. He absolutely adores her. Her family is one of the closest-knit families I’ve ever seen and there’s no doubt they’ll rally around her with all the love and support that you could wish for.

It’s such a shock.

This isn’t a ‘proper’ FI post.

I guess it’s just a reminder to cherish the people you’re going through life with. Expectations and all the plans in the world can be derailed without the slightest warning.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading.

Go and hug a friend.

 

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The scariest financial decision of all.

I was going to post about something else today, but last night I heard about a friend of mine whose marriage has hit a huge speed bump. They have 2 very young kids and one of the things that’s on her mind is how she’d manage financially on her own.

I remember that feeling so well.

The scariest thing I ever did was to end my marriage with 4 boys under 5. When I was making the decision, I remember sitting on my back step, watching my little boys happily playing in the backyard. I remember hugging myself and whispering, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard. What if I muck them up?”

And then the thought occurred to me. It wasn’t the clincher – A. provided that for me a week or so later when he leaned against the door jamb and said, “In marriage, you always get another chance” and I realised I was pushing s**t uphill – but this back-step thought was hugely important in making me face my situation.

I was watching these beautiful, loving, innocent boys running around and I thought, “What if they grow up thinking that this unhappy marriage is normal and then THEY end up getting divorces because you were too gutless to break the cycle?”

All my worries about finances and the mortgage and ‘how-will-I-support-so-many-kids-on-my-own’ fell away when I confronted their emotional futures. It was 1997. If, in 1997, I was desperately unhappy with how I was being treated, then women in 2020 (say) would DEFINITELY not be happy. My boys would be wrecking relationships left, right and centre and they’d be miserable without knowing what they were doing to cause it. And it would all come down to me being a coward or not.

Up until then, I had told no one how I was feeling about the marriage. I hadn’t mentioned a word of the dynamic that was going on and the things that were happening. I told myself that it was because I didn’t want to worry anyone.

But really, deep down, I knew that if I breathed a word about it, then I’d be forced to act. Once people know what’s going on, it forces you to confront your choices. It was easier to be an ostrich and try and let things go. To focus on being a mother and to ignore that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see the husband walking up the driveway – is it a ‘walking on eggshells’ type of day? Or is it not? To visit friends and smile and pretend that this man that I didn’t even respect anymore was truly my heart’s choice.

It was a week after the door jamb remark that I ended our marriage. I talked to A. first, then I rang my sister. We were talking about that phone call a couple of years ago and she said, “At first I thought you were just having a whinge, but then I realised that this was something serious.”

That phone call changed everything. Then, word spread around my family and friends. Finally, the cold hard light of publicity was shining into the dark little fog of that marriage.

It’s amazing how easy it is to rationalise things when you’re within a relationship. Especially when there are small children involved – the amount of white noise and mind-numbing activity when there are toddlers enables so much prioritising of ceaseless activity instead of thoughtful reflection. Things can drift along for years without people dealing with them. I know that’s what happened with us.

But once other people start to get an idea of what’s really going on, you can’t continue to ignore. Not if you want to have a shred of credibility again. Once the words are out, there’s no way to unsay them and it forces you to move forward.

And that’s a very good thing. This is what’s happening to my friend and I’m pretty sure she’s weighing things up very seriously right now.

I understand my friend’s concern about finances. Those children aren’t going to go out and get jobs and support themselves – they’re 3 and 1. Thinking about finances in this situation is the mark of a good, responsible parent. When you have those little lives depending on you, you have to make adult decisions.

I remember thinking about having to sell the house – where would we live? Who would rent to a single mother with 4 kids? Who would rent to this family AND 2 dogs? No one, that’s who. Given this, how could I buy A. out and keep the house? I had no money. How would I support them all adequately? I knew I couldn’t go back to work – the childcare fees for the boys would eat up my entire wage. I knew I’d get the Sole Parents’ payment, as it was called back then. But would it be enough? There were so many financial unknowns I was stepping into. It was truly frightening.

Our financial situation was parlous. We had a mortgage of a little under 100K and $120 in the bank. To say that I was worried about how we’d manage is an understatement. I remember, the morning after my talk with A, I went to the bank and closed down our joint savings account. I gave $60 to A and kept $60 for us.

That’s what the boys and I started our new life with.

And you know what? We made it work.

My first priority was to save 1K as soon as possible. I called it my ‘Buffer Zone’. I wanted that financial cushion between the big bad world and my children. I saved it in 3 months. Talk about extreme frugality! Our protein sources were tinned tuna, sausages and eggs, with the boys getting all the meat. (Well, sometimes I’d sneak the end of a sausage. I’m only human.) I filled them up on bread. We went to bed early to save electricity. I looked at every dollar 3 times before I spent it.

That first success in achieving that goal was hugely important for 2 reasons.

First, it showed me that I COULD DO THIS. I could cut my coat to fit my cloth and my boys were safer.

The second reason? This was a HUGE lesson in why having an emergency account is so very important. After I saved the 1K and mentally patted myself on the back, I decided to call the bank to check on the mortgage. A. and I had agreed that, in lieu of child support, he’d continue to pay it.

(People who’ve been through a divorce know what’s going to happen next… )

“I’m sorry, Ms Jones, but this account is in arrears.”

I wanted to throttle him. How dare he play with our kids’ security just to get back at me?

“How much is owed?” I asked. I spoke through visions of the bank reclaiming the house and selling it, the kids and dogs and I being forced onto the streets, apocalypse and flame and destruction raining down…

There was some clicking on a keyboard.

“963 dollars,” she said.

I paid it within the hour. I never trusted A. again with finances – which stood me in good stead in the future – and I learned the solid gold value of having some savings to fall back on. It’s a lesson that’s burned deep into my psyche. I gritted my teeth and built that ‘Buffer Zone’ back up again.

My advice to my friend, if she ever asks for it, would be to make decisions based on what’s best for the family’s future. Don’t let short-term fears derail reflection on what’s best for the long-term health and happiness of everyone concerned, particularly the kids. It’s funny how we parents won’t do things for ourselves, but once we view it through the lens of what’s best for our children, we’ll make the hard decisions.

I’d advise her to scrape together at least 1K as soon as possible. Keep it in an online bank that is a different one to the one she uses for her everyday banking, so she isn’t looking at that tempting pile of money slowly growing.

I’ve always been extremely debt-averse, so I didn’t have any debt owing on my credit card etc. If there’s debt in my friend’s situation, I’d be advising a scorched-earth policy – sell stuff, stop subscriptions, get rid of as much debt as possible asap. Be careful of joint accounts and joint loans – if he walks away from them, guess who is liable for the whole amount?

A week after I had The Talk with A, the bank rang. He’d applied for a 40K business loan and had put my name on it as well. The bank (thank God!) was calling to confirm that I was ok with that. When I said that no I was definitely NOT ok with that because we had recently separated, they denied him the loan. I knew he’d be angry. (For the record, he was.) But imagine if my name was on that? He’d walked away from the mortgage – he would’ve walked away from this too and I would’ve been on the hook for it. I never would have been able to carry that loan and be able to keep the house.

I would tell her not to be scared, even though this is the scariest decision she’ll make. She has a degree and a career path open to her in the future. I’d tell her that this is exactly what I had and it saved our financial bacon.

I’d tell her that being frugal is probably the biggest weapon she has at her disposal. Whether she stays or goes, her situation will always be better if she spends less than she makes.

I’d tell her to never let finances and the fears of “what if” lock her into an unhappy situation. She’s a smart woman. She knows the value of a dollar. She loves her kids and (probably) her husband. She’s more than capable of taking the time to look at the relationship clearly and with her priorities in place and to work out where to go from here.

Is this crunch time for this marriage? I have no idea. I know that it took me a long time to weigh up everything, battle my fears and then make my decision. You know, I think that because I took so long to clearly weigh up everything, this was a huge part of why, when I chose to take action and leave, I’ve never felt even a pang of regret. In my case, leaving was the correct thing to do.

I know that this is a very difficult time for my friend. The cold hard light of day is now shining in on her marriage. She’s not alone. Around 50% of marriages end in divorce.

My heart goes out to her. When I think of her, I go back to that scared young woman back in 1997, sitting on the back doorstep and hugging herself while watching her children play. Embarking on a new life as the sole provider for your children is taking a huge leap of faith. Whether she chooses to take that path is not my call to make.

But I know that whatever she decides to do, she has enough grit, brains and backbone to make it a success. Her children are very lucky to have her.

 

The house of bruised dreams.

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There’s a house being built next door to the Best House in Melbourne. We moved into the Best House in Melbourne 20 months ago when there was a derelict old cottage on the block next door. Within a couple of months, it was demolished and about 15 months ago building commenced. I met the young couple who owned it and the husband said that they’d be in by Christmas 2017. That seemed a long time to me, but he said that they’d factored in the delays that every building job seems to have and so that was the date they’d set themselves to.

At first, work went hammer and tongs. There were people there every day and the place grew quickly. Not the most attractive house, just between you and me, but at least it wasn’t an apartment block looming over us, which is the sort of thing that’s getting built in our old neighbourhood.

Then all work fell silent. At first, we thought that maybe the builder was juggling jobs and they’d soon be back. But month after month went by with any workmen on the property becoming a rarity, something the boys would tell me when I got home as a thing that made the day a little different.

Over winter, the house appeared to deteriorate a little. The black paint they’d used on the top storey started to look as though it needed to have another couple of coats. There were windows on the upper floor that flapped open and shut if the wind was in a certain direction and nobody ever came to fasten them. There was blue plastic that appeared between the bricks and the deck at the front and flapped in the wind and it was never tidied up. There was clearly a story there, but nobody knew what it was.

A couple of days before Christmas day, I opened my ensuite window and saw that the makeshift wooden front door was hanging off its hinges. ‘Oh no’, I thought, also thinking (because I have an enormous brain that can think many things at once) that maybe some local yokels had broken in for kicks the night before. If so, they were remarkably quiet, because my room is on that side and I hadn’t heard a thing. If I could’ve notified the owners I would have, but without any way to contact them I thought I’d just keep an eye on the place. Maybe now it was holidays the owners would come down to have a look at the place and fix the door.

Christmas came and went. The door looked as if someone maybe propped it shut but a day later it was wide open again. Yesterday my sister and her husband came to spend a couple of weeks at our place while they rented their house out to holidaymakers. My brother-in-law is a chippie (‘carpenter’ for Americans) and he suggested that we go in and see if we can secure the door, while having a little sticky-beak at the same time. I love looking at houses and house plans, so I was in.

We untied the wire at the front that was holding the mesh fence together and we walked up to the house.

“That’s odd,” said Francis. “Have a look at this. This deck’s been screwed together, but they’ve pulled up this patch of it.” Right beside the front door was a hole in the timber deck. He was right, you could see where the support beams had been screwed into, yet quite a big patch of the decking was now gone. We then turned our attention to the front door.

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All it was was 2 big bits of flat timber, with round door holes that were clearly meant to have a chain and padlock through them. A length of chain with a closed padlock lay on the deck. Francis wrestled with the left hand one and we stepped inside.

It was one long room. The strange thing about it, as we soon worked out by the gas and plumbing fixings sticking out of the walls, was that when you open the front door you step straight into the kitchen. The island bench separating the kitchen from the lounge room was right in front of the door. Not sure that’d be my cup of tea, but I suppose it’d make unloading the groceries from the car a bit quicker!

We started walking around the place. There was a ladder so we went up it to the second storey. It soon became very obvious that there were major things wrong. The shower recesses both had floor to ceiling windows with timber frames in them. How would you be able to waterproof them? The places where the shower heads would go were nowhere near the middle of the lowered floor for the shower recesses. You have to shower with your body glued up to the glass of the shower. There were airconditioning systems installed with the outlets smashed up against bulkheads, which would have to be cut through if any cool air would ever reach the bedrooms. There were notes scrawled on the walls from (presumably) the builder to his workers, telling them off for doing things wrong and telling them to fix things. Windows were put in crooked and then the outer walls have been bricked up, leaving them there permanently on an angle, sometimes with gaps beside them to the outside world.

The design was also a little different. The position of the kitchen was the first thing we noticed. The staircase would have to go directly in front of a massive floor to ceiling window. The 3 balconies on the top floor are too narrow to fit a chair on. Why bother having them? The side deck between my house and theirs is lovely, but the back deck has 4 brick pillars that hold up the back bedroom upstairs going right through the middle of the deck. There’s no room for a table and chairs. Apparently their fridge is going into the laundry at the back of the house. The master suite has a huge walk-in wardrobe, but the actual bedroom has hardly enough space to sidle around the end of a bed.

As we wandered through, Francis was focussed on the building job, whereas I started to get sorrier by the minute for the young couple who were the owners. Ok, so the design was definitely not something I would have picked, but that’s their decision and they obviously liked it. But the workmanship! David24 said to me that there were a lot of young boys working on it, so I guess the builder was trying to cut costs by using kids who really didn’t know what they were doing.

I pictured the owners, all excited about building their dream home, telling their little children that they’d be in their brand-new bedrooms in time for Christmas, planning the barbeques and beach walks they’d be having … and then slowly having their dream turn to ashes. Francis said as we were on our way out that it looked to him as if the owner maybe called in an independent building inspector who marked down all the things that were substandard and then work ground to a halt. Imagine how disappointing.

This morning, as I was typing this, I heard the fence rattle at the front of next door and the dogs started barking at the fence. I went out onto the verandah, fetchingly attired in my bathrobe and pyjamas, and the owner was there showing a friend around. He heard me talking to the dogs and called out to me.

I told him that Francis and I had gone in there only yesterday and secured the door as much as we were able and we swapped phone numbers just in case anything like that happened again. I then asked, “So what’s the story? Why haven’t you been able to move in yet?”

He shot a look at his friend and said, “That’s a story for another time.”

Damn! I thought.

“Ok,” I said. “We’ll have a glass of wine once you’re in and you can tell me then.”

“I’m a nurse,” he said. “So if your heart stops while I’m telling you what happened I’ll know how to keep you alive.”

That doesn’t sound good, I thought.

I laughed and said, “My brother-in-law’s a chippie and he had a quick look around.”

He nodded and said, “Yeah. When a job’s not done the way it was promised, then work stops.” He nodded back towards the house and said,” The plaster’s been delivered. Work’ll start in January sometime, but we won’t put anything valuable in until after school goes back, just in case. It’ll move quick once things get started. They’ve even smashed the front door.”

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They say that your home is probably the most expensive thing you’ll ever purchase. I really feel for them as they pay more rent than they would have budgeted for while their build drags on. With anyone even contemplating building their own house, it’s so important to keep your finger on the pulse and check all along the way if things are compliant with the appropriate building code for your area. This young couple will more than likely move into their house sometime next year. But I can’t help but feel that the shine has been taken off it a bit.

I suppose that the moral of the story is: Do your research… and then keep looking over their shoulders! Nobody cares more for your money and your time than you do.