The glamorous* things keeping me sane now that home is work and work is home

Two sprays of Byredo cedar scent which takes me on a dreamy night out with my fiancee, even though I’ve only been to a bar once in five months. With each push of the metal cap I imagine a 20p piece jangling into a piggy bank, the price of each expensive squirt.

The smell of suncream applied in the morning, even when it’s cloudy outside. It never fails in fooling my brain that I’m at the beach. My only worry is that I might overpower the sun and sand association and permanently replace it with a memory of my bathroom, circa 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Updating my savings spreadsheet. Opening all the tabs and totting up the changes in the stock market or the miserly interest is a very soothing ritual for me. Some nights I go to sleep thinking of my financial cushion. If you’re looking for mental peace, you don’t need meditation: you need a “fuck off” fund.

Doing the meter reading. You mean I have to go outside to do a task? Shall I get dressed up?

Rearranging my book shelves and rotating the books on my bedside table is so important. Want to escape the dishes? Better pick up some Cixin Liu and visit outer space. Frustrated with pandemic politics? Pick up Dark Money and get angry. I’ve been reading at a rate of knots ince I started putting the books that actually interest me within my eye line. Next up, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is soon to graduate from propping up the fan to my reading list.

As a fair skinned man, tanning is not top of the list of my abilities. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to develop a healthy cyclist’s tan with a very noticeable threshold on my legs from pasty to almost healthy looking. Maintaining it with regular rides is what counts for fun in 2020.

Apparently the key to keeping house plants alive is spending your entire life at home. All they need is water, sunlight and the occasional chat.

*actually utterly unglamorous, but you wouldn’t have clicked that.

Freetrade makes it easier to lose your money on the stock market

gordon gekko and bud fox holding a phone with freetrade

Gordon Gecko. The Wolf of Wall Street. Christian Bale’s portrayal of Michael Burry in the Big Short. These characters embody the public idea of ruthless finance types who will use every trick in the book – including cheating pensioners out of their money – to make their own millions.

To that roster of characters I’d like to add me, Conrad Quilty-Harper, blogger, digital editor and the proud owner of £636.36 worth of stocks, commodities and bonds. I’m not going to make millions with my tiny pot of money, but to own those shares at least I didn’t have to move to Wall Street, don a double-breasted suit or set up an ISDA Master Agreement*: I simply downloaded an app on my phone.

Yours truly and my £199.28 Freetrade stock portfolio, back in December 2018.

This is a review of Freetrade.io, a new app, based in London, which allows its users to access a selection of shares available to buy in the UK and abroad. With a few touches and a thumb press, you can buy and sell shares, and have a very good reason to reinstall the iOS Stocks app.

Of course it’s always been relatively easy to buy shares if you really wanted to. MoneySavingExpert has a brilliant list of some affordable options. The difference with Freetrade is that, as the name suggests, it’s free to trade.

When the app launched, free trades used to be limited to 4PM every day, and you had to pay £1 per trade if you want to do it “instantly.” They’ve since made instant trading free. That compares remarkably favourably with existing competitors like AJ Bell (from £1.50 a trade), Interactive Investor (£7.99), X-O (£5.95) and Hargreaves Lansdown (£5.95, but you have to make more than 20 trades in one month). Some of these more established companies have reduced their prices since Freetrade launched, but that also might be to do with commission-free trading options from Revolut and eToro, and low fee options trading apps like BUX and Degiro.

What none of those more expensive or complicated options offer is a process as seamless as Freetrade. If you have online banking already, to gain access it’s only slightly more complicated than signing up for Netflix. Put in your details, your National Insurance number, transfer some money to a bank account, and within a few days you’re able to buy shares.

I’ll use this animated gif to show you how many touches it takes to sell my £13 worth of Vodafone shares.

Not many.

The app still isn’t perfect, nearly two years since its launch. It does a lot of those annoying fintech things like not put an axis on its charts (WHY?!) and uses language that developers think are cute but actually make you question whether you should give them your money at all (e.g. BT’s listing in the app is described as “slow internet”). On the other hand, when I encountered a bug they fixed it within a day and sent me a chat message within the app.

I signed up to Freetrade simply to play around with the app, but as the app has developed and the company continues to add new shares (the roadmap is quite comprehensive) it has started to replace my other investment platforms. I’ve even invested in the app itself via one of its Crowdcube funding rounds.

One final thing: Freetrade made me realise how poor most of the news and information is there about the stock market for retail investors. You can use the iOS Stocks app, for instance, but that often has no recent news about relevant companies. A better source is the FT’s Markets section, but again their coverage isn’t universal. Surely there’s an opportunity there…

More information about Freetrade and investing apps in the UK

Can I use Robinhood in the UK?

Not at the moment. Robinhood, a similar app which launched in the US in 2013 and also offers “commission-free” trading, has “indefinitely postponed” its UK launch. The company announced in August that it had regulatory approval to operate as a broker in the UK and it planned to allow UK customers to buy and sell shares from 2020.

What is Freetrade app?

Freetrade is a stock and shares investment smartphone app which allows you to trade for free. The company is still an early stage start-up, and has raised money several times using crowdfunding platform CrowdCube. More than 200,000 people have accounts with Freetrade, and it’s been operating for nearly two years.

How can I trade for free?

It’s possible to trade “for free” using Freetrade, a mobile app which lets you invest in a limited selection of stocks, shares and exchange traded funds (ETFs).

How can I get Freetrade?

Sign up to Freetrade with this link and you’ll get a free share. Here’s some more information about the offer.

Further reading if you’re interested in finance

• Reddit’s UKPersonalFinance is fascinating if you’re interested in money

You really should be reading more about pensions 

• Better Have My Money is a very entertaining newsletter by a newbie investor

(This blog was originally published in December 2018. *A plot point in The Big Short.)

Got a NEST pension? Consider changing your default fund

The government’s pensions auto enrolment fund has been wildly successful. Today, 87 per cent of people have a UK pension scheme, up from 55 per cent in 2012 when the rules changed to mean that you had to opt-out of saving (rather than opt-in). The numbers are even more impressive for young people: 84 per cent of people aged 22-29 now have a workplace pension, up from 24 per cent in 2012.

A huge number of these new savers are investing their money in a NEST pension, one of the government’s main pension scheme options which now has more than six million members.

99 per cent of these six million savers are invested in NEST’s “default funds.” In other words, of the millions of new automatic savers, only 1 per cent have made a manual decision about where their money goes.

I’m one of those 1 per cent.

The default fund option in NEST is not right for me, and I think many other savers who, like me, have many decades until retirement, should consider moving their money too.

What was the NEST default fund wrong for me?

The objectives of the default fund are threefold: maximising the total size of the retirement pots; ensuring that cohorts who contribute similar amounts have similar outcomes; and, to “dampen volatility” while people are saving.

To achieve these objectives, the default fund invests a maximum of 55% of its portfolio in equities, presumably because any major volatility in the stock market would mean a temporary fall in the value of their pension, which would put off savers who will then choose to withdraw their money entirely.

Even worse, in the first five years of investing, only 35 per cent of your default fund money is in the stock market, and up to 30 per cent of your money could be invested in cash (in other words, inflating away!).

The portfolio for the default NEST pension fund in its least conservative phase puts a maximum of 65% of its assets in the stock market, which I feel is very conservative

I want my retirement fund to make me as much money as possible and for me the best way to do that is to put it all in the stock market. Read my Freetrade review for more detailed reasons why.

Since I won’t be able to access my retirement fund for at least 30 years, I’m not worried about monthly or even annual fluctuations. NEST does provide alternative options for those who want to take on more risk, but even its “higher risk” fund targets a portfolio that is 70 per cent equities. The only option that is 100 per cent equities is the Sharia fund, (which also happens to be the fund that’s performed best since inception.)

In summary: the default fund is an incredibly conservative and risk-averse option, and you should consider changing it. Even if you don’t change, you should know where your money is going.

Further reading

NEST’s different funds and how they invest your money

UK Post Box review: my most luxurious digital service

Is your pension plan water?

TfL fare refund tool Reeclaim lets you save money on the underground

Sign up to Reeclaim and get money back if your tube is running late

In July I signed up to an automatic fare refund tool Reeclaim that gives me money back whenever I’m on a tube train that’s late. No catch.

As of 22 February I’ve received £9 back without having to do anything.

Half the time I didn’t even realise my tube train was late. All credit to TfL for letting their website work with such a scheme.

Pensions: WATER or a nice cottage by the water?

The polar bear optical illusion you can see in the Needles from Bournemouth. (Photo by Terry Robinson)

Two stories in the Sunday Times today offer two conflicting perspectives about pensions, which I think is as good a topic as any to restart my blog.

In Ian Cowie’s latest column about his retirement fund he says he’s recently liquidated a fairly big chunk of his shares so he can buy a seaside cottage. Good for him.

“…so many editorial colleagues over the years seemed to think they were being terribly witty telling me, “Pensions are boring. Sometimes I would say: ‘Not really, I enjoy sailing around in part of my pension.’ Soon, with luck, Sue and I will also have a Victorian cottage with a splendid sea view, all thanks to saving and investing effectively. How boring is that?”

Josh Glancy is less impressed with his pension savings which, at the moment, would probably only cover a few dozen Brooklyn brunches. Not so good for him.

“My retirement plan is more like Water: won’t aim to ever retire. This realisation was a shock at first, but I’m coming round to the idea. I’ve chosen to prioritise satisfaction over security, thrills today over funds tomorrow.”

I wonder what the two would say about each other’s columns…