Exchange Freedom for Money?

The lovely city of Freiburg im Breisgau. A worthy short trip from Munich two weeks ago, and only 30 EUR return by the new "Deutsche Bahn Bus".

The lovely city of Freiburg im Breisgau. A worthy short trip from Munich two weeks ago, and only 30 EUR return by the new “Deutsche Bahn Bus”.

Hi Guys, it’s been quite a time since the last post, but what can I say:

Spring hit Germany very early this year and with this is coming the wonderful season of outdoor activities, travels, short trips and general idling in the sun. And this is what Woodpecker & family are quite busy with these days.

Today I’d like to share a few more thoughts on the work world, a topic where you can never spend too much thinking on how to (down)optimize this unfortunate time-consuming necessity.

Because besides enjoying the sun I was somewhat busy with an issue at my workplace:

A potential move within my company

… a move to an even more bright spot from a monetary and “power” point of view, but of likely negative effect on freedom and work load.

The thing is that the new position would increase salary quite substantial (+12% or so and a better outlook for future growth) and it would come along with one of these stupidly important titles in the company and thus more “prestige” and “power”. But it would most likely mean that I’d have to sacrifice my holy days in home office, have much fewer relaxed coffee breaks with colleagues, work under a quite work-focused and demanding boss and have a slightly increased commuting time. And it would be a much more challenging job than today, meaning that any 80/20 effort scheme would not work anymore but quite likely frequent stressful times would be part of the package.

As often I seem to think in quite different ways about these things than most of my co-workers or other rat-racy people, most of whom would lick their fingers for this “opportunity to get ahead” or to gain that “warm feeling of power”.

But getting ahead where to? To having the most lengthy title on your business card at the end of the career?

And what warm glow of power? For some reason the fun of having power is a feeling that my cerebral system is missing entirely. I know all sorts of warm glow, but they come from having a good authentic and relaxed time with friends, see a foreign city, collect new impressions and experiences, wrestle with my kids on the sofa on a rainy evening, sailing through a thunderstorm at the edge of your abilities to steer a sailing vessel.

But getting warm feelings because you are able to command others?

Sorry, but this always struck me as quite pathetic and to be honest as a very pitiable way of having a good time.

So no, power drops out as a motivator for Woodpecker.

And same holds for prestige.
If people want to talk to me and spend time with me I enjoy this as every other human does. But the reason should be that this very people like me, find talking to me or spending time with me interesting, and not because they fear me or somehow are attracted by my potential prestige, title, money or whatever.

Good, that’s done then, so we are left with the last motivator:

More Money

Yes, the warm glow of more money pouring in is more understandable to me. Or, to be more precise, the warm glow of the things, experience and freedoms I can buy with this money. Because getting warm feelings from the money per se is as poor as the power thing. Money itself is only numbers in your bank account, not more. Nothing against enjoying these numbers, but if your life is reduced to feeling proud or happy more or less only about the size of this number, then you certainly life a failed life. And many, many people with money do exactly that. They are called Scrooge or niggard.
Not my goal obviously.But buying more freedom, working even less, yes, this are worthy goals.

So, slowly we come closer to the solution:

Sacrifice freedom for more money?

Hm, after the bullets above you might have figured out where this is leading.

Should I sacrifice a fairly large degree of freedom I have in order to earn more money which I primarily are planning to spent to buy myself more freedom?

Sounds like a stupid trade, doesn’t it?

And in my case, indeed it is.
Because +12% is nice but not a world of more money. This 12% can be tucked away for saving, yes, and earn interest, yes, but it is not likely to make a tremendous change in Woodpeckers wealth position, while the costs of freedom outlined above are substantial plus they are difficult to predict. Could be that in the end the new position is less stressful than anticipated, but could also be (and my inofficial research indicates this) that the potential new boss would give me a really hard-working time (something that is priority one to be avoided! ;) )for a mere 12% more of solatium.

So chances are that I will decide to not go for this position and leave it to someone else eager for career.
And probably I will just wait until fate washes a better chance to my shores – more money without giving up freedom… ;)

All my life experience so far shows that typically all sorts of great chances simply appear sooner or later if you only wait and stay open and prepared. As a undestroyable optimist I do not see any reason why this should not be the case in future again.

OK, this was my special situation.

What is my general advise?

Obviously it is not to decline any opportunity that shows up, but the following:

  • Strip the benefit of the new opportunity from all valueless benefits, which are: Power, pride, prestige etc.
  • Remaining benefits are: More money, shorter hours to work, more freedom, a nice and relaxed boss (very important! maybe the most important of all), a nicer office, less stress, more satisfying work, shorter commuting, nicer colleagues, better lunch meals etc.
  • Check honestly for all disadvantages, which are basically the opposites of the items listed under the bullet above.
  • Do a lot of informal research to find out about all these “soft” factors. Use your informal network of co-workers that you hopefully have to find out the “truth” about the position in question.
  • Actively test readiness of the potential boss for your needs. E.g. I openly (but diplomatically) raised the home-office question and got a quite clear (negative) answer. Better for both sides to know before than later what they are up to.
  • Deduct for uncertainty. In case you can not get accurate information, assume a more negative scenario.
  • At the beginning of your career you will most likely be able to improve on many of the items above. So change a lot while you are young, eager and flexible.
  • The longer you are in a current position (especially if the boss is nice) the more difficult it will be to improve. You will already have a satisfying salary, you will have found your niches and made it comfortable, you will have a set of informal rules and tacit agreements with co-workers and bosses at hand that avoid stress and conflict. Thus later in the career, a step only makes sense if it offers a lot.
  • If in doubt, decline, stay open and prepared and wait. Your day will come.

And, most importantly if in doubt of sacrificing freedom:

  • Check for opportunity costs!

As with spending the question freedom vs. money boils down to the concept of opportunity cost, i.e. “what else could I do with the time / freedom I have to sacrifice for the job?”

It might be different if you have no family, less hobbies and inclination towards outdoor activities, but in the Woodpecker case the opportunity costs are simply huge.
I have just too many ideas how to spend my time outside of work in a very satisfying way, and the Woodpecker family not only needs a lot of vacations, days off, parental leaves etc to do so, but also a very relaxed working week to get household things done Monday to Friday evenings, such that the weekends are completely free from Friday early afternoon on.
Social life at Woodpecker’s is booming, the network of downshifting and outdoor focussed people is ever-growing and requests / ideas for frugal weekends and weekday evening activities are piling up higher than ever before! :)

So, sorry, dear employer, but no way that I am sitting in the office until 6 o’clock each day or on Fridays after 3!

Cheers,

Woodpecker

ps. There was a second project related to the work place that I chased the last weeks but this post is too long already. More of this later.

Beer gardens – the Best Invention ever Made in Bavaria!

The Isar close to Pullach. Quite a nature feeling and only a jump away from the city center.

The Isar close to Pullach with Großhesseloher Bridge. Quite a nature feeling and only a jump away from the city center of Munich.

After a bit of moody time the last weeks, probably caused by thinking too much about such boring things as a career, this day was a great one.

Today, the Woodpecker family decided to have an excursion to one of the loveliest sides of Munich (if you are a nature lover):

The river Isar.

We took public transport up to the Zoo, but instead of joining the queue there to cram in with thousands that visit the Zoo on a weekend (instead of doing this on a weekday when it is relaxed and easy), we saved 20 EUR entrance and strolled slowly south on the banks of the river.

It was the first trip with the kids riding on their own bikes (while we old chaps were walking), thus speed was fortunately significantly above the typical 1 km/h.

We had a couple of picnics on our way and build a deluxe channel and a great dam in one of the pebble banks of the river. Boy, the water still is cold. But ah! Father and Son fun at its best! Nothing that money can ever buy you.

You can bring all your food (or even a grill), put your beer in the crystal clear water for cooling and enjoy a surprisingly nature feeling, only a few kilometers away from the city center. You can also go mountain biking in the slopes next to the river and some people even do kayaking or drive on large rafts made from wood and with a beer barrel and a band on board (no joke!).

The final of the tour was very obvious, if you are living in Bavaria:

A Bavarian Beergarden.

For those less familiar with Bavaria:

The best invention here is the Bavarian Beergarden.

Because a law from centuries ago states that in any beer garden in Bavaria you are allowed to bring your own food and only have to pay for the beer (and other drinks). Plus, they are often in marvelous settings under century old trees, as was our goal: the “Waldwirtschaft” in Pullach, in a fantastic location high on the bank of the Isar valley.

View to the left: Kids are happy.

View to the left: Kids are happy…

As most beer gardens, this one offers a kids playground, parents sit with their food and beer right next to that and can enjoy the sun.

And in this particular beer garden, a special feature is added: They have renowned jazz bands playing for free and live almost all over the years!
A very special atmosphere, and highly recommended, should you be in town (Link to Beergarden Waldwirtschaft).
Way back we took the suburban train that stops close by.

View to the right: Jazz music for free!

…View to the right: Jazz music for free!

We felt like eating out today and enjoyed the fantastic spare ribs they offer next to our beers, but if you bring your own food, this whole day trip would have costed you only 20 EUR for a family of four (2 x 5 EUR return trip sub & train, kids are free + 2 x 4 EUR beers + 2 x 1 EUR ice cream for the kids – no chance to be more frugal on the latter one ;-) ).

Cheers,

Woodpecker

 

Is there a price to pay for Downshifting / Early Retirement?

Can you have it both: A nice excursion on a week-day plus a (employed) career? Even if you are the most efficient of workers, sadly the answer seems to be No. (pic: Kloster Andechs, close to Munich)

Can you have it both: A nice excursion on a week-day plus a (employed) career? Even if you are the most efficient of workers, sadly the answer seems to be No. (pic: Kloster Andechs, close to Munich)

After a stretch of outstanding good weather over Germany, today it is raining cats and dogs, so Woodpecker took the time to think a bit about our business world:

The actual question is:

Combining a family- and/or freetime-focused live with career, in other words, having both, is that possible?

My honest observation unfortunately so far is: No.

Obviously I don’t expect a “bonus” for the family/downshifting person in the company, i.e. if a person produces less output because he prefers to spend time with the family, it is “fair”, that he/she will earn less in absolute terms (This holds for the company salary. Whether the state decides to put something on top to reward the contribution to society by e.g. having kids is a different story).

The actual question for me is: Is there a MALUS attached to the family guy / the downshifter?

E.g. are his career chances reduced in an overly way, i.e. will he/she be more likely to be excluded from certain career levels that provide an even higher relative salary (i.e. salary per actual hour worked)?

For Germany, after making my own observations for some years and collecting the experience of many others, both men and women, the answer sadly is:

Yes, the average German company IS discouraging people from having a family or – if they have one – caring for it. Same holds true for downshifting with or without kids.

The average German company does only promote real work-life-balance on the shiny external self-advertisment flyers.

In reality – quite contrary on what the companies might say – you still in 2014 have to make a decision as soon as a kid is there (the same holds without kids, and if you simply want to shift focus away from the job a bit):

Is it your family, or is it your company you are in love with?

Are you in with the pack or are you out?

This is still hard to accept for Woodpecker, as you should think todays society is quite a step further. In the end, especially in western economies, we are living in an abundance of wealth and over-production. The economy is so efficient that actually we all could work 30% less and still be quite well off I guess. We as a society could (and should) afford to work much less, to become less focussed on money and consumption, to put away some of the daily stress that is caused by the shortness of the ultimate important resource: Time.

It seems so bloody obvious to me, that it is hard to understand why the hell this is not happening.

Why we as a society are still slaving away day by day as if our lifes would depend on it?
Because, surprise, they don’t: The time you need working for given basic needs like food, clothing, housing etc. have decreased dramatically since the past, so we could still all thrive AND work less. Much less.
Then, everybody is calling out that work-life is changing, the business world is getting more flexible etc.

In fact it is not.
(Or I am just in the wrong company. Let me know if you know a place where this is different!)

I mean, yes, you can make some choices a bit more easy today and do paternal leave or part-time, but as soon as you practically start doing so, you will see that companies very often do not give away this voluntarily, but allow very often exactly what they are forced to by law anyway.

And they do it very reluctantly.

Let’s say you start to downshift, put a bit more priority on your non-office life, do parental leaves, home office and the like, but still do an excellent and dedicated job with very good results in your work time and thus would still like to get rewarded for that, at least a bit.

In reality (women probably knew this all along) you will face very often bosses who will not take you fully serious anymore. Bosses who – despite they officially say otherwise – do not look on your efficiency (which might be even higher than that of your rat racing co-workers) but on the time you are available, the number of eMails sent at the weekends or after 7 p.m.
A rather ancient and non-economic way to look at things, but still very, very, very common, at least in Germany to my observation (as said, let me know there are places more shiny, I will apply the other day!).

And don’t get me wrong:
There are positions where availability is important, and I have no problem when always-available people have an advantage at these jobs. But there are jobs where this is not the case (and these are many), where in fact all that counts is that some output is produced until a given deadline. In this jobs it just should not matter if you are there until 5 or until 8, if you type enough superfluous mails on weekends or not. It should matter if the job is done, and nothing else.

For some reasons this is not the case. At least in many cases I observed.

OK, but enough of the ranting.

The world is like it is, in the end it is of no personal worth to complain about things you can’t change.

So what do you do with that fact when planning to put your life above your job and considering downshifting in any form?

Basically you can go two reasonable ways:

1) Drill into your career. Collect the fruits later.

Run heavily in the tread-mill, invest a lot of your time into the job. Play the perfect company soldier. Be always on, go to every evening drinking session with your boring bosses. But still live a frugal life and save a lot. Your earnings will increase quickly and as you still life frugally, your savings will skyrocket. Invest wisely, and financial independence (FI) will come to you rather sooner than later.

Having said that, “sooner” might not mean too soon.

I’d say FI (if you start out with nothing) is unlikely before mid 40s even without family/kids and at very good investment skills, or as “late” as mid 50s, if you are not too much into investing and have to rely on average returns plus you have a family to support (I know there are these hard core early retirement plans, but no, I think most of them are not realistic for normal earners or people that don’t want to live on the most minimal standards).

So one day you will make it, but until then you have to tread quite a bit.

The reward then is early retirement, probably a sweet thing where you still can enjoy decades of healthy life afterwards.

But here comes the risks:

  • If you do this consequently, you’d better do it alone. E.g. a family and kids are very costly, and VERY time-consuming things. Both will get into your way if your sole goal is FI as early as possible.
  • As you naturally will get focussed on your finances, thus this is what might happen: You postpone getting a family further and further, knowing the slowdown this will cause to your career / savings stream. And then finally, sorry, nature decides now it is too late, and you might end up missing the great fun and shelter of having a family (OK, family is not only fun, but still a lot. Anyway if you want family and want to go for early retirement at the same time, be careful!).
  • If you still have a family while pursuing FI as quick as possible, you will not have a lot of time for them. You will outsource family care and still concentrate on the job (this is the post war patriarchal model. Even women can go for it today by making use of todays large – but costly – childcare industry. However strange thing to have a family and then never see them in Woodpeckers view)…
  • …thus you might miss out a lot of opportunities to have fun with your family when you can have it best: When your kids are still young, admire you truly ;-) and want to be with you.
  • Even worse, concentrating on their careers, not few people even miss out finding a partner, simply because they spend too much time at work or are getting a bit boring because they have nothing to talk about besides their job. And finding a partner later gets more difficult. Especially for women, but also for men (especially if they life frugally and don’t want to invest in huge presents ;-) ). Or, as a friend of Woodpecker recently said: At some point of time, extremely career focused people lose their competence in initiating and running non-business social contacts. Very wise observation.
  • Sorry for talking about it (never mention “death” or “sickness” in today’s world?), but there is a chance you will not make it to FI: You might die, get ill, injured, or in a less drastic scenario, a market crash or financial turmoil wipes out all your savings. Not nice to think about this, but as in finance, any honest calculation has to discount future returns for this kind of risks.

For me, despite the great advantage of being FI earlier on, this were always to many “cons”.
So there is option 2.

2) Start doing your career, maximize income, and then downshift from a certain point on.

You start out very diligent like everyone else. You play the game and pocket a few promotions. But you steer your career differently: You are not aiming at the “very top” but try to develop into a direction where you will find a relatively save haven when you start to downshift. That means you try to move into a position where availability is relatively unimportant, where you are e.g. in an expert position that makes you more invulnerable, and possibly work in a company that is large enough to allow for downshifting and working more flexible and less.

However, there are challenges and risks as well:

  • FI is postponed. Until time x, you will more or less move in line with others (maybe a bit slower already, as your nature will probably call for a fair amount of idle time already). But from time x on, you unfortunately will fall behind in most cases (only in career terms of course), as discussed in the beginning of the post. At least in Germany, this is likely to happen, better face it now.
  • Thus, the longer you wait with starting downshifting, the more you move to option (1), the earlier you start the more you will postpone FI.
  • The question now is, what time x is optimal?
  • This is a very individual question. Woodpecker started downshifting when the first boy was there (age 35 that was). I think this was a good point of time. I am barely “loosing” 5-8 years of career making as in our company most careers are made until early 40s anyway. I started having abundant time when there was something really good to invest in: The family founding.
    There was and is a good return, as kids provide ample fun especially if you have time and years fly by once kids are there. And: Downshifters are quite a rare group still in Munich/Germany and most 30s aged people without family work like hell. So the family business adds the benefit of providing a peer group around you to do things with in all your new spare-time. Chances of getting bored are thus low.
  • Plus: While it will not benefit your career at all, at least shifting down is much more accepted when you have kids. For what it’s worth, colleagues and even bosses normally understand your desire to spend time with your family more than just to idle out.
  • There is a price I paid and continue to pay career-wise I guess, and it is sometimes painful seeing people passing by that produce next to nothing for the company but get ahead mainly because they life for the job 24/7 and play the availability game to a perfect extend.
    But then, sitting here at the wood oven with my two funny boys and looking forward to a good season of early knocking-off times, late evening workday baking tours and extended weekend trips, I think I can live with that.

Cheers,

Woodpecker

A Frugal Short-Trip to Verona, Italy

The main plazza of Verona. Good place to eat your ice cream!

The main plazza of Verona. Good place to eat your ice cream!

Right after returning from the little old boys city tour to Eastern Bavaria, the Woodpecker family decided to boost the best spring Germany has seen since years a bit more by a jump over the Alps.

Woodpeckers over-hours piled up quite a bit over the winter time, and as my career is not really proceeding too much anyway, I can take easily take advantage of short-term holiday request.

I don’t know how it works in other companies, but with my boss it is: “You sacrifice you life for the company (like he does) and then you get ahead career-wise, or – if you are fine not getting ahead quickly – you can do your job on your own way as long as output is fine”.

As you might have noticed, I de facto decided for the second. I would obviously love all the freedom PLUS a career, simply to max out Woodpecker family income and savings, but this seems to be asked a bit too much.

Anyway, off we went, and as the beautiful city of Merano was covered already last year (one month later and with MUCH worse weather), we only had to choose among Verona, Padua, Milano, Vicenza, Venice, Bassano and about 1.000 other beautiful Italian destinations all less than 6 hours drive from Munich.

Obviously we went for the most frugal choice (least driving time) and picked Verona, the partner-city of beloved Munich, a mere 4 1/2 hours drive south of home.

At this time of the year this otherwise quite crowded city has a unique and very relaxed flair, you will always find a seat even in the most beautiful spots, prices are low and the beauty of the city all the same.

The frugal choice is of course the local youth hostel, where a family of four can stay for a bargain of 40 EUR per night, including something that these guys call breakfast.
Actually the place was ok, situated in a fantastic old but somehow spooky worn-down villa with private parking in the yard for free (not unimportant in this crowded Italian cities). On the other side, this one really is VERY basic, so you better go there only for sleeping, or spend a couple of bucks more for an AirBnB apartment.

The good thing about the cheap accommodation is that your budget automatically stays so low (sleeping and transport are typically the most expensive parts of travelling) that you can easily go for some nice extras.

Overall, a frugal way to travel Italian cities is:

  • Stay in the youth hostel. But only sleep there, as their quality is way below e.g. German youth hostels. However, they are often central, often have free parking and you will meet loads of funny people.
  • Use public transport which is very cheap and well-developed
  • Always eat PIZZA ! Pizza ist mostly of very high quality and very reasonable price, even in the most touristic spots. That’s great, because sometimes you should indeed sit in a restaurant in one of this marvelous plazzas and enjoy a meal there. A pizza in the most touristic Roman Arena area in Verona is still only 8 EUR. Add a glass of house wine and you can hang out in one of the worlds nicest places for 12 EUR (2 EUR cover charge, a “special” Italian add-on.
  • Other food is often overpriced and varies too much in quality (and quantity). Not recommended, unless you have local insider information.
  • Another great thing is Italian coffee. In most cafes or even restaurants, it is ok to sit down and only have a “cafe” (i.e. a tiny tiny Italian Espresso). They almost always taste great and seldom cost more than 1 EUR. So you can have your food in the local park as well and then enjoy a cafe in a beautiful plaza if you wish.
  • If the place you stay is too crappy, eating out for breakfast is a good choice. Even in places crowded by tourist during the day, in the morning it is often surprisingly relaxed. And even in tourist traps you will typically get a cappuchino plus two lovely Italian croissants at prices below 5 EUR. Good value this is.
  • Ice creme is mostly great if it is hand-made (“artigianale“). This is often the case, in Italy it is fortunately hard to find overpriced and boring tasting ice cream from a chain shop. No chance for Häagen-Dazs.
  • Most of the beauty of Italy lies in the little alleys, the plazas, the flair, the countryside (always use small side-streets not the highway to see the nice parts), the churches. All of this is for free!

Find below some impressions from the trip. Hover for subtitels, click to enlarge.

Cheers,

Woodpecker

The fun of travelling Germany

Life ist great - but this guy even seems to enjoy death!

Life ist great – but this guy even seems to enjoy death!

Beginning of March – the annual boys Ski-Hiking tour to the mountains was due again.

However, as this year winter was skipped in Germany, snow is a very rare thing to find, and actually spring is all here already, we decided to cancel the stay at the hut and go for a small city trip instead.

Looking at the map for interesting cities within 2 hours drive that we didn’t know yet, we came across Passau, the “Three-River-City” at the very eastern edge of Bavaria. And off we went!

As most time with the old boys, it was a fantastic trip. Plus weather was very much on our side, as was frugality:

It is a definitive tip to go for an anticyclical city tour in Feb/March.

Typically crowded places are all empty, prices are low and people are relaxed and friendly.

So we started at Munich very relaxed in the late morning and when hunger and need for a good local beer came up (after merely one hours drive), we did our usual approach:

As we always travel without a guidebook, we just looked at the brown signs next to the autobahn that indicate natural or historical sights in the area. These are VERY frequent in Germany, in fact you find a sight each 10 km or so and we decided to pull out at a abbey (typically good beer and good food!) called “Kloster Niederaltaich” (never heard the name before).

And this is really the big fun when travelling Germany: Wherever you pull out from the Autobahn, you WILL find something interesting close by.

This time we found a church full of this homey guys lined up eight of them next to the walls:

Isn’t this great? These guys always enjoy a deluxe VIP box right in the impressive church hall.

After celebrating life with a good meal and some local brewn dark beer, we proceeded to Passau.

In off-season this is a particularly budget place, you can get a decent hotel room in a historical building right in the center for 40 EUR per night and person or less.

We went to the local youth hostel which is around 30 EUR per night and person, and then you live here:

The youth hoste is in the old castle overlooking the city.

The youth hostel is in the old castle overlooking the city.

Another view of the castle.

Another view of the castle.

Morning dust rising. Boy, the air was good there and it is amazingly quiet.

Morning mist rising. Boy, the air was good there and it is amazingly quiet.

Passau itself is a very lovely city, situated at the junction of the major rivers Donau (Danube) and Inn plus a smaller river called … I forgot.

I was bit lazy taking pictures, so the only photos I can provide is a view from our castle in the morning and the interior of the cathedral:

Passau in the morning mist.

Passau in the morning mist.

The cathedral. You cannot see it, but it also hosts the indoor largest organ in Europe (or the world?).

The cathedral. You cannot see it, but it also hosts the largest indoor organ in Europe (or the whole world?).

You will find a lot more photos in the internet. The city has a lovely old part, a magnificent cathedral, nice winded alleys, good and cheap food and a fully relaxed atmosphere.

Our trip continued with a day excursion to the National Park Bayrischer Wald. Nice, but not really my cup of tea. Maybe I’ll try again in 20 years as it seems to attract a more “senior” type of people. ;)

On our way back we also stopped in Altötting, a place of pilgrimage in Bavaria, with an amazingly catholic atmosphere. There definitly must be more churches than houses and more priests than bakers.

See pictures here (click for large version and caption):

All in all a great short trip at low expenses.

Recommended and a great start to the 2014 travelling season!

Cheers,

Woodpecker