Friday, 27 December 2019

Annual Spending Review - 2019

Well, it's that time of year again.  Here's my regular review showing broadly where all the money was spent in 2019.   I'm posting this a few days earlier than usual, because we're off on our travels again very soon ...

car purchase costs included ....

click on the graphic for a larger image ...

Saturday, 21 December 2019

In the Bleak Midwinter ... Six on Saturday

Well, the winter solstice is with us tomorrow and so things will shortly be on the up again.  Roll on the lighter evenings ...

I've been outside this week tidying up the gardens a little, sweeping up leaves and pulling up all the old annuals etc to start filling one of our new composter bays.

Despite the time of year, the garden's not looking too bad at all - we've plenty of evergreens that provide year-round interest - so I took a few photos and thought I'd join in again with the Six-on-Saturday brigade hosted by The Propagator.

1.  The parallel hedges to the west

In winter, when the deciduous hedge has lost its leaves, you can better see the extent of the growth on the parallel evergreen Cotoneaster Lacteus hedge planted in June 2017.  

This is intended to be an eight-foot high privacy screen and windbreak.  It's never been trimmed but probably now needs a slight haircut in the very early spring.

The hornbeams in the mixed native hedge behind tend to hold onto their browned leaves well into the winter, and maybe even until we get strong winds in the early spring.

click on any of the photos for a larger image ...

In the foreground is the evergreen New Zealand Holly (Olearia macrodonta) which has now established itself very well.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Smaller Positions within the Portfolio ...

Not for the first time, I've been looking at some of the components that make up the very lowest weightings of my combined portfolio. 

I've mentioned the prospect of 'consolidation' in several quarterly reviews over the years.  However, apart from the absolute dog that is Dekel Agri-Vision (DKL.L, formerly DekelOil), and the well-documented freefall down the weightings by WPCT.L, I can't see any good reason to sell out of these other positions, however small they may now be in the grand scheme of things.

Based on the latest published September 2019 Review, there are eight holdings of less than 2% of the total portfolio valuation, including the two I've mentioned above.  These others were all bought some time ago, when the portfolio value was smaller and their relative weightings were therefore much higher.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Building a Garden Composter ...

This year, as is fairly typical, we've bought in excess of 700 litres of multi-purpose compost for the garden, usually when there were 3-for-2 or other special offers on large bags at the DIY chains or garden centres.  Even on offer, the costs add up over the year for such a large quantity. 

If 700 litres seems a lot, then to put it into perspective I've just started off next year's garlic crop, with each seed clove in its own 2-litre pot until the spring, and there's 25 of them so there's 50 litres for a start ...

So we use the compost for starting off seeds, filling tubs & planters for flowers, shrubs & trees (generally mixed with topsoil and or / grit and pearlite) and for the tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and aubergines etc which we grow in large pots in the greenhouses.  When the greenhouse crops are finished in the autumn, we empty the compost from these pots onto the beds and borders as a mulch and to improve the soil structure.  The bed at the front of the garden sits on particularly heavy clay, and so every year we try to add more organic material.

But every year, we also need to dispose of large quantities of green and brown garden waste in the form of grass cuttings, hedge clippings, prunings, deadheaded flowers, fallen leaves and other dead plant material from all the vegetables and annuals.   We already have a small, upright plastic compost bin which can contain a couple of hundred litres of material, but it's certainly not sufficient for a season's worth of waste.

So, we decided to build a new two-bay composter in front of the large shed.

After looking over the location and producing an outline drawing, the first job was to lift some of the paving stones in this area into which the composter could be placed.   These are 450 x 450 mm flags, and we removed eight of them and cut another four almost in half to create a sunken composter base area of around 1,800 x 1,100 mm.

paving slabs lifted ....

Friday, 1 November 2019

Garden Layout

This is an orientation plan showing the latest layout of our garden.   I originally drew this up shortly after we moved in here, and it's been updated every time we've added or relocated a garden building, or made significant changes to the landscaping. 

click on the image for an enlarged view ...

The combined footprint of the house and garden is around 650 square metres in total.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Cloning a Laptop Hard Disk Drive - Part 2

In the summer of 2016 I described how I cloned a failing HDD on my main laptop.

Three years later and I've repeated the process on the same machine, not because the HDD was failing again, but I wanted to increase the drive storage capacity.  Otherwise, the laptop is still fine, being a high-spec machine when it was bought more than six years ago now - checking current prices for a similar brand new laptop, I would still have needed to spend close to four figures to replace it.   

However, I was getting very close to the 1 TB capacity of the old hard disk, mainly because of the accumulation of an extra three years' worth of work projects.  Additionally, some of the engineering analysis software I use needs a lot of virtual memory space to write temporary files, literally many tens of gigabytes for larger models, so I couldn't allow the file storage to get too close to the disk capacity.

I suppose I could have archived some of the oldest projects to an external HDD to free up some space, but I find it very useful to have the data from these previous projects easily to hand.

I also decided to change the HDD to a solid-state storage device (SSD).  They've come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, with available capacities now up to 4 TB or so, and the prices have been falling.  My laptop system architecture also allows data transfer at the maximum speed of the SSD - many older laptops will still work with a new SSD, but the data transfer rate may be limited by the motherboard design.

WD solid-state drive - there were other brands available,
 e.g. Samsung, but this was the best deal at the time ...

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Investment Review - September 2019

Greetings from the warmth and sunshine - we're currently on holiday in the Mediterranean for three weeks, and we've already escaped from some prolonged heavy rain at home.  I can see via the IP video cameras that it's still pissing down there as I write this post - I'm pleased I cleaned out all the gutters before we left ...

And fortunately we didn't travel with Thomas Cook although there are quite a few people in this particular hotel who did.  The younger generations seem a bit stressed out by it all, but the older ones aren't bothered, they're hoping for a few extra days in the sun - the benefits of not having to rush back home simply to turn up for work !

Anyway, here's the usual portfolio update at the end of September 2019 :- 

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Tax Planning for Retirement Savings

I've still no plans to 'retire' as yet, because I'm very happy to keep taking on interesting new work projects and therefore the earned income should continue to roll in for as long as I want it to, or at least for as long as the clients still want me to do the work ... 

But there's a looming problem with future work possibilities, in that the majority of the people I deal with in my core group of clients are, like me, also getting older and at some stage they may decide to call it a day themselves. 

This has already happened with two former clients but not entirely due to retirements - people also simply leave and move on to new pastures.  The senior guys and gals I dealt with at these places (senior in terms of their positions within the company) have departed and, although these companies are still prospering, I'm just not on the radar of the next generation of leaders now pulling the strings.  Luckily, in recent years, neither of these clients had been a particularly large contributor to my company's turnover.

So although my company has provided me with a decent income and also made a profit for twenty-odd consecutive years, it's prudent to be planning for a time when most of the work might suddenly dry up, which could happen whether I want to continue or not.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

SIPP Performance Comparison ...

At the beginning of September 2014, we opened a SIPP account for my wife into which she pays a nominal sum each month, gets a little tax relief added and her employer also makes a generous additional contribution.

I've been managing this pot on her behalf from the outset, and I've been relatively cautious with the choice of investments since I'm very conscious that it's not my money I'm playing with here ...

The total monthly contributions are not huge and so previously I'd let them accumulate for up to six months before buying any assets, simply to reduce the size of the percentage which was lost to trading costs.   However, more recently the broker has changed its charging structure to a monthly fee which includes a trading credit.  These credits can be rolled over for a few months before they expire, but it effectively means there are now fewer barriers to investing smaller sums more regularly.

There are currently nine separate holdings in her SIPP and they're all collective investments - no individual shares at all - some of which are conservative wealth-preservation funds (e.g. RCP.L and CLDN.L) and some much more adventurous (e.g. SSON.L that was bought at the IPO late last year).  The account is almost fully-invested with only around 2% held as cash, and the weightings of the individual funds range from 2.8% to 15.9% of the portfolio total.

Dividends have been reinvested into the same funds from which they were received, and nothing at all has been sold since the account was opened in 2014, so it's very much been a buy-and-hold approach.  Recently, new money has been used for top-ups of existing holdings rather than opening new positions.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to compare the performance of her SIPP portfolio, and its softly-softly approach, with that of my own over the past five years.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Yucca Rescue ?

After its spectacular flowering display last autumn, our largest yucca gloriosa went into a serious decline over the winter.

It was suffering from a fungal infection which shows itself as brown spots on the leaves.  It's happened several times before to a lesser degree and, although there's no cure, the infected leaves can be simply cut off leaving the unaffected ones on the plant.  

However, this time around, every single leaf was discoloured.   Previously, these infections had also started during the winter months, particularly in prolonged wet periods, but last winter and early spring had been remarkably dry.

I first thought perhaps that yucca were monocarpic, i.e. they flower only once and then die, but then I remembered I'd seen very much larger specimens in flower in the Canary Islands, and in that climate it seemed unlikely they'd reached such a size without flowering several times before.

So what to do with the plant ?  A bit of research on the internet seemed to suggest that the top of the plant could be cut off and, with a bit of luck, it may respond by producing new shoots from the side of the trunk.

So in late April, during a spell of warmer weather, this is exactly what I did, cutting the whole head off the plant and leaving a bare stump of 300 mm height.

the freshly cut stump ...

Friday, 5 July 2019

Investment Review - June 2019

Here's the combined portfolio update on the last working day of June :-

Friday, 7 June 2019

Cotoneaster Lacteus Hedge Training

To form our parallel evergreen hedge, we planted the cell-grown saplings at the start of June 2017, so this is now their third summer in the garden.

the saplings after planting in summer 2017 ...
... and in early summer 2018

For the first couple of years, we'd basically just left them to become well established, resisting the temptation to trim or thin them in any significant way. 

Left to its own devices, Cotoneaster Lacteus is of spreading & arching habit and hence very slow in gaining significant height, so by this April there was a dense tangle of low growth and it was time to start training some of it upwards to form the high hedge we want. 

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Making a Garden Water Feature - Cascade

Hot on the heels of our waterwheel, we've now built another water feature to sit under the Cypress tree in the south-east corner of the rear garden.

This was an unusual project for me, in that there were no plans drawn up or even preliminary sketches - I had the idea for it one evening, made a start immediately and then everything was just built on the fly over the next few days.

We had five large stepping stones in the front garden bed, of irregular shapes, which I lifted and then hauled them around to the back.  I laid them out in a rough curve around and between some existing plants, overlapping the ends of the stones to establish the required start and finish points of the cascade.

I had some lengths of 2"x2" timber behind the shed, reclaimed from the old rabbit enclosures, and I used these plus other timber offcuts to make a simple carcass with five levels to carry the stepping stones.  I made the first drop much larger than the subsequent ones, to form a waterfall which pours onto the second stone down.   Each stone feeds the one below.  The fifth and lowest stone overflows directly into an underground sump from where it is recirculated back to the top using a pump.

The carcass tower was framed with offcuts of fence boards from our front fence build last year.  

carcass during construction

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Making a Garden Water Feature - Waterwheel

This is a project that had its origins over six years ago, but I've only just completed it !  Therefore some of the first descriptions of cleaning the pump and building up a waterwheel date back to a draft post from 2013 which was never published.

My wife has always wanted a water feature in the the garden.  When we did the major landscaping works in 2013 we put a couple of old round resin sinks into the planted gravel area to be used as sumps, and although I've played around with a few ideas over the years these sumps are just too small to be effective for water features and fountains - they're very shallow and tend to empty quickly due to water loss from splashing and also the wind carrying the water outside the bowl area.

the two sumps installed in position many moons ago....

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Two Islands ...

A somewhat belated post, from our now regular trips to the sun during the first few months of the year, to escape the cold and miserable weather of north-east England.

This year, we split our time away across two islands, with a three-week gap at home between.  One of the reasons for this was that last year we returned home from an extended break only to find we hadn't actually missed the worst of the cold weather, which was still to come in mid March.

So this year, we went first to Fuerteventura and then made another trip to Tenerife.

Feurteventura was quite cool at the start of the year, although there were several days of warm weather during the trip.  There were also strong north-easterly winds blowing continuously, which is supposedly one of the reasons for the name of the island.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Living with Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation

Today's an anniversary of sorts.

In April 2013 I woke up in the early hours of a Saturday morning with my heart beating wildly and very fast, thumping hard in my chest and clearly out of rhythm.  Given the history of heart disease in the family, I thought my time was up ...

I called the ambulance service on 999 but they weren't as concerned as I was (!) when I said I had no chest pain, and they told me to make my own way to the nearest hospital with an A&E department.

Once there, I was seen quite quickly, given aspirin & beta-blockers, lain on a bed and hooked up to an ECG machine.  Soon afterwards, the symptoms subsided somewhat and I left the hospital late on the same morning with some further medication and an appointment at the hospital's regular Chest Pain Clinic on the next Monday, although I hadn't actually experienced any pain at all.

Another ECG at this next appointment, and then booked in for an ultrasound scan of my heart, the results of which were that my heart seemed structurally sound but I had suffered an attack of atrial fibrillation (AF or A-Fib in the medical jargon), where the chambers of the heart beat out of synch with each other.  They said it could either be the start of a longer-term problem or it might never happen again.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Financial Planning - 2019 Annual Review

We've just clocked up six full years into the 'Grand Plan', so here are the usual two graphs :-

SIPP POT to Mar-19

Monday, 8 April 2019

Plum crazy ....

When we did the major landscaping works on our garden extension six years ago, one of the trees we planted at that time was a young Victoria plum tree.

It's grown into quite a substantial tree with a trunk around 125 mm (5") diameter.  

However, it has never produced a single blossom in all the time it's been in the garden.   Given that it was probably three years old when it was planted, it's likely now heading into its tenth year and again doesn't look as if it will blossom this spring.

the old 'Victoria' plum tree

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Investment Review - March 2019

Here's the quarterly update of the combined portfolio on the last working day of March :-

Saturday, 30 March 2019

The new Climbing Roses .... Six on Saturday

Following on from building the pergolas and summerhouse late last year (see posts passim), over the winter and early spring we've sourced and planted the new climbing roses.

And since there just happens to be six of them, I thought I'd use the opportunity to join in with the Six on Saturday brigade for the first time, a theme hosted every week by The Propagator and which is one of the gardening blogs I read regularly. The SoS links are the source of much inspiration around the garden.

However, since I'm not a particularly prolific blogger, I'll likely only be a very occasional contributor to this community.

But, on with the chosen roses.

At the base of both trellis panels on the pergola at the rear of the house, we've used 2x Climbing Icebergs to provide an all-white display over this structure, which frames the view from the kitchen window.  These are pot-grown specimens which were planted in the early autumn of last year, so they're the most established of all the new roses.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Cost of Car Ownership over 9 years ...

We've just replaced our 15-year old car, which we've owned for the last 9 years.   It was just about on its last legs, was going to cost a fortune to keep on the road for another year, and it effectively had zero residual value when we got rid of it.  

Still, it's been a good workhorse for us, had carried tonnes of stuff and taken us many times on very long journeys both in the UK and across mainland Europe.

Anyway, I thought I'd take a look at what this car had actually cost us during the time we owned it, and so here's the summary spreadsheet (click on it for a larger image) :-

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Calculating Portfolio Returns - Bogleheads Spreadsheet

Calculating portfolio returns has been a hot, or at least a warm, topic on the FI blogs recently, in particular with regard to accounting for regular and / or ad-hoc additions and withdrawals of cash to and from the portfolio.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this page link on one of the investing forums.

On this page, you can download a free Excel spreadsheet in which you can select a current or historical start date and then populate all the relevant cells with end-of-month valuations, contributions and withdrawals.

The spreadsheet and its formulae & formatting is not protected in any way, so although it's initially populated with examples using US dollars, it's very easy to get in there and change the cell formats etc to suit any currency.

So, armed with the data from my own portfolio spreadsheets, I copied and pasted all the values into this Bogleheads sheet.   If you're starting from scratch, then you could either link this spreadsheet to your own or just use it as a standalone calculator.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

High Yield Portfolio - what's in a name ?

A High Yield Portfolio (HYP) seems to me a harmless and generic name for any group of investments cobbled together in an attempt to bring in above-average income.  Until recently I had no idea of the origin of the term, which is common enough in the FI blogs and even the MSM.

However, to the boys over at The Lemon Fool forum, HYP is a religion.  It has its own messiah, texts, rules, specific and tightly-moderated forum boards and a gaggle of hard-line disciples, with a kill-the-heretic mentality for anyone daring to suggest actually selling portfolio shares or including investment trusts etc.

The constant bitching that goes on between the strict adherents and the heretics is actually quite amusing.   Check it out, they're in top form at the minute ...

It reminds me of Graham Chapman in the Life of Brian asking 'are you the Judean People's Front ?'

Sunday, 27 January 2019

New High Yield Group within SIPP

These days, I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with holding large chunks of individual company shares, preferring instead to spread the perceived risk by using funds and trusts that invest across many companies.  I must be getting old ...

Within my combined portfolio, Centrica (CNA.L), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSB.L) may each be a relatively small piece of the whole, but if considered together they'd become my largest equity holding and be quite significant in actual cash terms.

And there's good reason to link them together.  These three shares are amongst the largest contributors to my passive income stream, and in combination produced 18% of last year's total income despite comprising just 6.5% of the total portfolio valuation at the year end. Understandably therefore, I'm very reluctant to ditch them altogether.   

So instead, a few days ago I created my own high-yield 'fund' by actually increasing the number of individual shares within the portfolio but using much smaller holdings.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Investment Review - December 2018

And so this is Christmas, and how have we done ?  

Firstly, the combined portfolio spreadsheet updated on Monday 31 December 2018.