How grief shaped my relationship with money


Cherry blossoms in the rain (South Korea, 2016)

Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, trying to decide if I should write this post or not. I was torn between it being either too personal or coming across as unfeeling and callous. But the truth is that while this blog is primarily focused on the money, money and particularly The Brat Experiment are inherently about much more than just money. They are about life, and more specifically my life. Our financial decisions are so intertwined in personal choice, personal values and personal experience that only a crazy person would try to pretend that they are not. And so this blog post is a recognition of that: a recognition of the messy, overlapping, wonderful highs and unthinkable lows of life (whether it’s financial or personal) and how they shape us.

Today I am sad. I am sad because today marks 16 years since my Mom died. For those of my dear Readers who struggle with Maths or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of psychosocial development, this basically means that my Mom died at one of the worst possible times in my development that she could have. To say that her death has had a profound impact on my life is a mammoth understatement. Her death has impacted on me and my identity more deeply than most parent deaths do. Unsurprisingly then, her death has also had a profound impact on how I view money. And so, today, I thought that I would voice those lessons that impact on how I deal with money:

  1. People die. Rather obvious I know, dear Reader. But I state it because most of us ignore the next logical step from this statement. And this step, the real bugger, is that, dear Reader, you will die too. How kak is that?! And we have very little control over when or how this happens. The implication of all of this is that plans sometimes get cut short and so we shouldn’t leave our happiness and dreams for the end of our lives (traditional retirement) because the reality is that we just might not get there. This means that I am happy to take slightly longer to reach Early Retirement/Financial Independence because I want to have a good quality of life and tick things off my dream list while getting there.
  2. Always ensure you have an updated Will and Testament. My Mom didn’t. She updated it after she got married but never updated it after she had kids. Thank goodness this wasn’t too much of an issue financially as my Dad was the main breadwinner. But even my 13 year old brain could see the potential financial disaster at the time. Planning is key. Chatting about what you want to happen should something happen to you is key. And giving yourself the opportunity of being heard when you no longer have a voice is vital (especially if you have a lot of money that could make things complicated for those left behind!).
  3. Perspective. Your relationship with your loved ones and your relationship with yourself are without a doubt the two most important things in life. Spending time with and making time for your loved ones is important. Looking after yourself is important. Making memories is important. Going on holidays together should be a priority. Money is not. Money is simply and only a means to an end. If something goes wrong financially I know that in the scheme of things it’s ok, it’s only money. It can be replaced. But this perspective is also why I want to retire early: I want the freedom of being able to prioritise my life around my loved ones rather than around the need to make money.
  4. Bad things will happen. Horrific, unimaginable fuck-ups will occur from time to time (both financially and personally). But you will survive. Even when you have NO clue how and NOTHING more to give, that damn sun will keep coming up. And somehow things will start to shift, you will start to adapt to the new order of things and somehow, miraculously, you will find your way out. Even if our finances were in a complete disaster and miles from where we wanted them to be. Even if we have a horrible, miles-over-budget week in The Brat Experiment. Even if today is unredeemable. I know that tomorrow is another day. And I can try again. What a privilege.    

    Road tripping to see my brother (South Africa, 2016)



Our South African Financial Life

So now that I feel like I have a vague grasp of the numbers, I thought that I would try applying them to our lives in South Africa.

Step 1: (Brutally) Look at our expenses

This is where Husband’s teacher’s salary went on a typical month for the both us last year (because I really did keep Excel spreadsheets!):

 Salary: R18 817

Tax and other deductions: R2724       Unavoidable

Medical aid (entry level): R3211         Unavoidable bare minimum

Rent: R5300                                            A VERY cheap deal for a lovely two bedroom cottage

Lights and water: R500                         Could have reduced a bit…

Car payment: R2048                            Entry level car. Unavoidable.

Car insurance: R854                             Unavoidable

In terms of cars, the formal public transport in South Africa is almost non-existent, which means that you have to have a car. And given that we both worked, and at different jobs with different hours, we had to have two cars. We bought one second-hand car outright but couldn’t afford to do that with a second car (second-hand cars are VERY expensive in South Africa) and so we had to get one on credit.

Petrol: R1754                                                      Unavoidable.

The petrol is simply Husband’s petrol because my petrol was a business expense.

Total spent: R16 391 (87%)

“Surplus”: R2426 (13%)

The percentages of spending vs surplus are not awesome. But as you can see, dear Reader, there is almost no room to cut down. Knowing what I have learnt since starting the Brat Experiment I imagine that we probably could have shopped around for better deals initially. But my fellow South Africans will know that this takes significant resolve and patience as the inefficiency, personal time and high jumps required for seemingly simple tasks (e.g. change of address, renewing your passport, getting a landline for internet etc) is mind-boggling. I shudder to think of the emotional-sanity price of changing deals mid-swing…

I was self-employed in a new business, which meant that I never knew how much money would come in each month so Husband paid for all the routine expenses and my money was used for bonus “luxuries” (i.e. food, internet, cell phones and any anything else). On a typical month these were:

 Food: R3343

Internet: R427

Two cell phones: R627

Total spent: R4397  

 The real bugger with being self-employed was that if I didn’t work I didn’t earn. Which is fine until we want to have children and I need to take maternity leave. This means that the initial financial implications of having a child are:

  • the medical fees not paid for by our entry level medical aid
  • all the baby equipment (although I don’t think this would be much as we would do it South African style: hand-me-downs, second-hand things etc as much as possible)
  • the loss of my potential earnings (and so having to stop our internet and cell phone contracts and eating less or more cheaply)

Taken all together, we would be living on a financial cliff with NO buffer and NO room for anything to go wrong i.e. financial hell. You can see, dear Reader, why we felt we had to change things before we had kids.

But anyway, I digress. The point of this post is to apply early retirement numbers to our lives in South Africa. So: ultimately the minimum (I haven’t counted anything extra in spending like medication, haircuts, the occasional clothes shopping, presents, alcohol, holidays/travel etc) total spending of our household per month was: R20 788. Step 1 complete.

Step 2: Work out what we need to retire (A rough guesttimation)

Spending per month = R 20 788

Therefore spending per year = R 249 456

So applying the magic number (5%) for South Africa means that our minimum retirement amount is our spending per year X 20: R4 989 120. Step 2 complete.

Step 3: How long it will take us to get there

This is of course based on our savings rate… which you have already seen was not awesome… And for a long time we genuinely felt that it was impossible for us to save anything… Until we wanted to go on holiday to Italy.


Florence, Italy (July, 2015)


Week 2: Oh dear…

I am conflicted writing this… mainly in that I don’t want to. It’s going to force me engage with exactly how much over our budget we went and frankly, I’d prefer not to. I was perfectly happy assuming the elephant position thank you very much. Stupid Brat Experiment.

In terms of the week’s spending we were actually ok though:

11 720 won Groceries Necessary
5 050 won Milk and picnic snacks Avoidable. But I’m trying to fit in with my work colleagues and communal eating is an important part.
3 500 won School lunch Necessary
3 400 won Taxi Avoidable. But I had walked to yoga (saving money when I really otherwise would not have) and it was night time by the time yoga finished so a taxi was definitely the safer option.
10 000 won Bus/subway card recharge Necessary. Cheapest way of getting around (definitely too far to walk!)
9 000 won Kokis Better drawing equipment for my drawings for this blog – necessary?
10 000 won Bus/subway card recharge Necessary. As above.
32 740 won Groceries Necessary
3 700 won Beer An indulgence. But was from a convenience store so the cheapest way of doing it.

Grand total: 89 110 won

Given that our weekly spending budget is 200 000 won for the two of us this looks fantastic 🙂 Except that we were away from Wednesday night to Saturday and so three days’ worth of expenses came out of our travel budget. And this is the bit where we get bummed:


4 300 won Taxi Necessary to get to the bus in time after work.
29 200 won Bus to Seoul Necessary
9 800 won Dinner Necessary
7 500 won Dinner Avoidable (yes, we had two dinners)
8 700 won Taxi Necessary. We walked for over an hour first to try to find a motel on our own but had no luck and by then it was 10 o’clock at night.
70 000 won Motel Could have found a cheaper motel if we were less tired.
21 800 won Bus to Boryeong Necessary
4 400 won Taxi Necessary – bus was late so we were late to meet our friends.
22 000 won Lunch Necessary. Our favourite food in Boryeong and with our old friends.
80 000 won Motel (two nights) Necessary and wonderfully cheap
47 000 won Drinks Paid for everyone’s drinks. Technically avoidable but don’t think we want to change this part of ourselves…
9 600 won Beer Avoidable
19 800 won Train to Seoul Necessary
8 000 won Breakfast gimbap Avoidable
6 000 won Coffee Avoidable. Especially since the milk was off L
18 100 won Coffee To say thank you for lunch so necessary.
4 400 won Taxi Avoidable. But it was raining.
20 000 won Alcohol Avoidable
23 000 won Dinner & Beer Necessary. Even the beer.
5 000 won Strawberries Necessary. A present for where we were going for lunch.
27 000 won Presents Avoidable. But nice and relationship building (especially with our co-teachers)
24 000 won Breakfast Avoidable but SO good
43 000 won Bus home Necessary
6 000 won Dinner Necessary
4 300 won Taxi Necessary. It was after 10pm, the buses has stopped and we were exhausted.


Grand total: 522 900 won

Necessary: 299 400 won

Avoidable: 223 500 won


So to sum that up: we almost doubled the money we spent by spending on AVOIDABLE things. We were hoping to get the weekend for about 300 000 won and it hurts to see that it was actually possible. It really highlights though how much money can actually be saved by reducing spending on the little things.


However, the flip side is that I’m not sure we would have had such a good time if we had reduced our expenses…. I know my Experts claim to enjoy life more not eating out, not drinking alcohol and walking everywhere… But, I’ll be honest dear Reader, I’m just not sure that we are those kind of good, content, happy-to-give-up-meat-and-restaurants-cause-it’s-cheaper people. Or at least we aren’t yet.


Week 1 – Pleasantly surprised :)

You will remember, dear Reader, that the goal was 200 000 won (100 000 each) per week? This week was our first test and I have to say that we nailed it 🙂 This is how the week’s spending went (in chronological order because I think that offers more insight into the lifestyle-ness of our spending):

1200 won Chocolate milk An indulgence
27780 won Running shorts Necessary
7700 won Groceries Necessary
10800 won School juices An indulgence but socially awkward if I don’t. Living in a different culture here people – trying to fit in!
19680 won Groceries Necessary
5750 won Beer An indulgence
23000 won Restaurant dinner An indulgence. But we are living in Korea for a limited time, we LOVE the food and we cannot cook it at home. What’s the point of travelling and living overseas if you can’t eat the food?
6750 won Beer and ice cream Pudding after the restaurant dinner. But winning because it’s cheaper than buying it with dinner.
50000 won Wedding present Stoked to have been invited to a Korean wedding. And weddings need gifts J
13000 won Coffee out To thank the people who gave us a lift to the wedding.
8850 won Groceries Necessary
10100 won Coffee out To celebrate being completely debt free and having survived our first week of Early Retirement lifestyle J
9890 won Groceries Necessary
8400 won Groceries Necessary

Grand total: 202 900 won

There are absolutely things that we could have cut down on. But we still definitely spent less than we would have normally. Given that we would have come in 50 000 won under budget if it hadn’t been for the unusual expense of the wedding, I feel pretty stoked. Although, aren’t unusual expenses actually quite common (and so need to be allowed for in the budget)? Overall I feel that it’s a good start at trying to achieve the kind of balance that we want (saving but not feeling constantly denied). Here’s to Week 2! 🙂



The Beginning…

So, dear Reader, let’s be transparent from the very beginning. Some things to know about me:

  • I’m 29 years old.
  • I’m happily married to one of the grumpiest and loveliest humans on Earth.
  • I’m a trained professional in the Humanities (i.e. I get the Bell Curve but beyond that I tend to panic when it comes to numbers).
  • I LOVE my job.
  • I am obsessed with travelling.
  • And I recently realized that I want to retire early. Or to be more honest and specific: I recently realized “early retirement” is the name for how I want to live my life. Up until now I’ve tended to use my husband’s word for what I want: “Brat”.

To be fair, I think “Brat” sums it up quite nicely. My idea for my life is:

  1. To travel. Often. Regularly. Slowly. Leisurely. For weeks at a time.
  2. To have the privilege of being the Mom (the kids haven’t been born yet!) who can watch soccer practice, join in school trips and play hide and seek in the garden
  3. To work at my job which I love
    • BUT to do so with flexible hours and as much holiday time as I want (because of the kids and the travelling)
  4. To own my own house (debt free)
  5. To be financially secure and comfortable (for example: not be at risk of financial disaster if there is an unexpected expense; being able to celebrate special occasions with a fancy restaurant meal; being able to afford to go to people’s weddings or funerals etc)

According to traditional thinking the only way to have (4) and (5) is if I do (3) for a really long time without the flexibility, which means sacrificing (2). In order to do (1) I need (3) but as soon as I have (3) there is no time for (1). But I can easily have (2) if I am willing to give up (3), (5) and probably (4). In a nutshell? I’m a Brat.

But now I know that there are other Brats out there in the world JUST LIKE ME 😀 And instead of being idealistic morons with no grip on reality, it turns out they are normal humans who simply tend to approach money in an intelligent, disciplined manner. And they call it Early Retirement. A MUCH better name 🙂

You don’t know me well yet, dear Reader, but I am intelligent. And I am disciplined. Especially when it comes to Big Picture Stuff (like getting to live the kind of life I want to). So, that is what I am going to try and do. And I’m going to use this blog to document my journey for two reasons:

  • I think/figure out/understand things better when I have to write it down.
  • As some vague kind of accountability – even if you, dear Reader, only exist in my head 🙂 And so hopefully to keep the momentum and discipline going.



New Zealand Road Trip (May 2011)