More Thoughts on Remote Working during the COVID-19 Crisis

It has been a few months since the COVID-19 crisis has hit, and as a result of this crisis, I have settled into working from home. I’d like to describe my experience working from home from my parents’ home for the last few months.

Disadvantages of remote work

First of all, I find I have been quite busy. I would often either wake up early or work into the night in order to get work done. It seems there is more work to do when working from home. There are definitely advantages of working from home, but there are definitely disadvantages, the main disadvantage being that it is more difficult to work with others. For example, when you’re in an office, you can walk to someone’s desk and talk to them about something, but in a remote environment, you need to e-mail or call them, and they may not respond to your e-mails or calls. Furthermore, when I am in the office, I can walk to someone’s desk. If they are on the phone, it is clear they are busy, so I can walk away and come back at another time. However, when working remotely, I am more reluctant to ring someone because I have no idea what they are doing. They might be in the toilet or they might be changing their baby’s nappies, so there is this fear that I may intrude on their private lives whereas at work the expectation is that you work at work so you have no private life at work. Working from home does not seem to work well for “fast-paced” work where quick communication is necessary, especially when there is a deadline looming.

Advantages of remote work

There are advantages of remote work. In my opinion, there are more advantages than disadvantages. If I had to choose between working at home or working at the office, I’d prefer working at home, but ideally I’d prefer to have both options. There are some tasks I’d prefer to ask colleagues to come into the office to do, and there is also better socialisation in the office. For those who do live by themselves or who do not have too many friends outside of work, the office becomes the source of friend and family.

For me, the key benefit of working from home is I save a considerable amount of time not commuting. You don’t need to drive or take a train to work, which benefits me greatly because it takes one hour for me to get to work, which means I get two extra hours per day to sleep, exercise, read or watch Netflix. Another benefit is that you don’t need to worry about what you wear. When you go into the office, you need to dress correctly. However, when you work from home, you can wear anything. You can just put on sweatpants and a hoodie or you can stay in your pajamas. Even if you are on a Zoom call, you can turn off the video or you can position the camera so your clothes are off the screen.

Another benefit of working from home is that you don’t need to concentrate in meetings. This might sounds bad, but there are many meetings where you can safely turn off video and audio and do your other work. You can dedicate half your attention listening to the meeting (in case you need to speak) and the other half doing your other work.

Something I have noticed ever since working from home is that I am signing up to many webinars. Back in the office there are plenty of optional training sessions that I do not sign up for because I simply don’t have time. If I needed to get off my desk to go to one hour of training, that is one hour I would not be working. I only go to those training sessions that are mandatory. However, since all these training sessions are now online, they are quick and easy to sign up for, you can listen to them while doing your other work, and if something urgent comes up at work, you can simply and easily leave the webinar without any embarrassment or shame. As a result, I have gone to many webinars and feel I have learned a considerable amount about many different topics, from HR all the way to finance, retirement planning, etc.

Another benefit of the COVID-19 crisis is the amount of money I have saved. I don’t drive much, but in the last three months I have not driven at all, so I have saved a lot of money on petrol. Even when I have the option to drive short distances, I prefer to walk instead because I spend so much time indoors that I want to walk more to be outdoors. (When you drive, you are indoors.) I also never eat out, go to cafes, etc. Any socialising needs to be online, so it is free. I watch Netflix rather than go to the cinemas. Basically everything is done at home or online, which is much cheaper than “going out.”

I am still working from home and I have no idea when I will be going back to the office. I have heard that many organisations have asked their workers to come back whereas others are providing staff with the option to work from home or not. In my opinion, the best approach is to permanently give staff freedom to work from home or come into the office, which is what Twitter has done.

Impact on the property market

The impact of COVID-19 on the property market is very unclear. There is a considerable amount of stimulus being applied to prop up not just the property market but also the stock market. That being said, if remote working becomes the norm, there is no advantage of working near the city anymore. This means I can live in the outer suburbs without worrying. Even if it takes me two hours to commute into the city, if I do so rarely, it’s not a problem. This means the cost of putting a roof over your head goes down considerably. It costs about $1600 per month to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city, but in the outskirts of the city it costs about $1000 per month, so automatically you save $600 per month. Using the 4% rule, this means you only need to save $300k to pay rent forever (rather than $480k).

The frugal non-consumerist post-COVID lifestyle

Based on quick calculations for a single childfree person living in an Australian city, COVID-19 has reduced the cost of living by about one-third, from $3500 per month to about $2111 per month. Once again, using the 4% rule, this means you only need about $633k to retire rather than $1 million.

How is this possible? Because you no longer need to live near work, you can minimise costs by moving to the outskirts of the city, which should halve your rent. I am assuming the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne CBD vs a one-bedroom unit in the outskirts of Melbourne (e.g. Frankston). Because you are not going out at all but eating at home all the time, this should halve your food costs. You also don’t need a car because you can walk, bike or take public transport everywhere. Assuming all other expenses stay the same, this cuts costs by about one-third.

Expense ItemMonthly Post-COVID CostMonthly Pre-COVID Cost
Rent$1000 $2000
Food$311 $600
Car$100
Other$800 $800
Total$2111 $3500
Estimated monthly cost of living pre-COVID and post-COVID. “Other” includes electricity, internet, streaming services, etc.

In my opinion, one of the benefits of the COVID crisis is that it has forced people to live a non-consumerist lifestyle, which may result in many people realising that they are able to retire early if they want to. You don’t necessarily need $1 million to retire because living in isolation has taught you that you only need about $650k to retire.

In my opinion, a post-COVID lifestyle presents an opportunity to live more environmentally sustainably. A lifestyle with less car use, less overseas travel, less “going out” and more bike riding, walking, having meetings online, etc are better for the environment. I also think that caring for the environment can help you save more money because it provides extra motivation. For example, I am driving less today not only because I save money driving less but also because I am starting to feel very guilty driving a car. This extra guilt helps to discourage me from driving or travelling or going out to restaurants.

What about the economy and personal finances?

There is a considerable amount of uncertainty about the future of the economy. Some believe there will be a V-shaped recovery whereas others are expecting a W-shape or even an L-shape. Regardless of what letter of the alphabet the stock market resembles, I am not too concerned because I have diversified my portfolio to include not just equities but also bonds, gold and even cryptocurrency.

Another benefit of the COVID crisis is that interest rates have fallen. The interest rates on my CommSec margin loan as well as NAB Equity Builder have both fallen (5.6% and 3.9% respectively). As I have explained in other posts, debt can be positive because you are able to deduct interest expenses. Many people invest with debt when buying a property, and they deduct interest expenses. It is possible to do the same with ETFs, but in my opinion the main benefit of holding debt to buy shares rather than property is that stocks or ETFs can quickly and cheaply be sold to extinguish the debt whereas a property is very expensive to sell. For example, if I borrowed money to buy ETFs and suddenly wanted to retire early, I can sell ETFs and with the proceeds I can pay off all my debt. However, if I borrowed to buy a property and suddenly wanted to retire, selling a property to extinguish the debt would cost me about $30k in real estate agent commission.

Another benefit of ETFs vs property is that you can avoid or minimise capital gains tax. If you own an investment property with debt on it and you suddenly retire, you need to sell it to pay off the debt. Selling it will trigger capital gains tax. For example, suppose you buy a property for $500k and it increases in price to $1 million. Then you sell it but need to pay CGT on the $500k price rise. However, the benefit of ETFs is that you don’t have to sell all ETFs at once. Suppose you purchase $500k in ETFs and it rises to $1 million in price. Rather than sell all the ETFs, you only sell half thereby realising only $250k in capital gains. Then you sell the other half the next year thereby maximising the amount of capital gains subject to lower income tax rates. This works in Australia because capital gains tax is based on the progressive income tax rates. Under the Australian income tax system, income (including triggered capital gains) under $18200 in the financial year is exempt from any tax whereas any amount above that is subject to tax. So if you sell a property and realise $500k capital gains, then only $18.2k of that is exempt from tax with the rest being subject to tax. But if you sell half your ETFs in one year and the other half the next year, then $36.4k is exempt from tax. ETFs are highly divisible, which allows this, but property is not. You cannot sell half the house and then the other half the next year.

Because I have invested in a range of different ETFs, if I needed to retire quickly and needed to extinguish the debt, I would simply sell an ETF that has made large gains and then offset these gains by selling off a different ETF that has made losses. The losses and the gains would roughly cancel each other out, which means there is little capital gains tax to pay. Any existing capital gains can be left untriggered. ETFs allow you to control your capital gains and therefore your capital gains tax.

Some people say that an easy way to avoid CGT is to put your money into your principal property of residence (PPOR), which is exempt from CGT. However, this does not work. When people buy an property, there is a reason why investors prefer to put a tenant into it even if doing so removes CGT exemption. It is because putting a tenant into a property provides the landlord with rental income as well as the ability to deduct expenses. The gains from the rental income and interest deductions is greater than the loss of CGT exemption. If this were not the case, there would be no investment properties because landlord would put any extra money into their main residence rather than invest it in a rental property. This means it would be impossible to rent because no landlord would put money into rental properties because the tax advantages would be greater for main residence. The government must provide rental property investors greater tax benefits for rental property compared to main residences otherwise the rental market would not exist. That rental income and tax deduction on expenses from owning investments is greater than CGT exemption on a PPOR is the key factor that justifies “rentvesting” but that is a topic for a separate future post.

Am I close to retirement?

There are two main reasons why I would feel uncomfortable retiring today. One is that I have quite a bit of debt. Of course, I can sell assets to pay off the debt, and some of my investment income can be used to meet the debt repayments. However, I feel reluctant to do this. Part of me feels that I should pay off more debt or at least generate more dividend income to meet all debt obligations.

Another reason why I am reluctant to retire is because a substantial amount of my personal wealth is in my superannuation fund, which I don’t have access to until I am 60. This means that if I retire now, I will need to implement the “two bucket system” and run down my non-super bucket that will tide me over until I have access to my super, which will help me pay off my debts. If I implement the “two bucket system” right now, I’d be living a very frugal lifestyle with a pre-super safe withdrawal rate of about 2 per cent rather than 4 per cent. I want to build up more wealth in my non-super bucket that will tide me over until 60.

New podcasts and website

While under lockdown, I have been listening to many podcasts. A recent podcast that I highly recommend is FIRE and Chill which discusses personal finance in Australia.

Another website that I find useful is the Nomadlist FIRE calculator, which helps you determine which countries you are able to retire in based on your net worth. The most expensive city to live in is New York, so if you have enough net worth to be able to retire in New York (about US$1.1 million), in my opinion you are effectively financially independent. However, what this site teaches you is that even if you have low net worth, there are many countries all around the world where the cost of living is low, which means you will be able to retire very quickly. Many people assume that they need to live in expensive cities e.g. Sydney, Melbourne, New York, London, etc. However, the world is enormous and there are so many places where it is cheap to live. For example, in Liverpool, UK you can live off US$500k. In Davao, Phillipines you can live off US$250k. Looking at sites like this is a strong motivator because as my net worth grows, I am able to tick off cities around the world where I am able to live. The ultimate achievement is ticking off on New York because then you’d have the safety and security of knowing you can retire early in the world’s most expensive city.

Deliberate Ignorance of Net Worth

When I started working, I tracked my net worth religiously. I did it every month. I was living with my parents and saving 80% of my salary. I invested in shares, ETFs, etc, and now I am putting a little into crypto.

However, something that annoyed me was that everyone kept asking about my net worth and they would automatically compare me to this person or that person. Gradually I increased my savings rate to 100% of salary and lived off my investments, but now I don’t bother with checking my net worth. For some reason, everyone keeps trying to pry into my finances. So now I don’t keep track of my net worth. I simply spread all my pay into many different investments and don’t even look at it. I don’t keep track of the performance. I keep myself deliberately ignorant.

People keep asking me when I am going to buy a house, when I will marry, when I will have children, how much I’ve saved, why I am still living with my parents, when will I grow up and be a man, etc, and now I simply tell them that I am a minimalist so don’t want much. I don’t want to be burdened by debt or obligations or social customs. I also don’t keep track of anything so I don’t know my net worth.

The benefit of this is that all the consumerism is gone. People cannot compare anything to me and I too cannot compare myself to others simply because I don’t know how much I am worth. So long as the dividends come in, I just live off it. This I believe is what money is all about: living and having freedom. However, an obsession over net worth distracts people into thinking money is about comparing yourself with others to see who is better, who is “more of a man” or who “has his life together.”

After living like this for a while I found that it is more calming. I no longer compare myself to others and others cannot compare themselves to me. Because I am limited by how much I can spend because I can only spend investment income, I cannot splurge on anything. This keeps me from indulging in consumerism.

My main point is that net worth is important but not as important as passive income. Passive income can keep you alive but net worth doesn’t necessarily do so as your wealth may be locked up in illiquid assets. Furthermore, an obsession on net worth seems to make you obsessive with consumerism and materialism as you’re comparing yourself with others. At the end of the day what matters is freedom, and freedom comes from having no debt, no obligations, and passive income.