Tuesday, 10 January 2017

2017...some thoughts.

Notwithstanding the "not making resolutions" thing, I do like to start the New Year with a bit of planning in mind - some rough goals I'd like to achieve really. With that in mind (and triggered in part by reading something online earlier on in which someone stated that for them, this year was going to be all about "connection and contentment" - I mean how perfect is that?) I thought I'd make a bit of a list...

My goals tend not to be "set in stone" types - I've done this so often before, saying that I want to do X, Y or Z, and then I set my bar too high, don't quite reach it, and end up feeling like I've failed completely. I admire those who are able to set tremendously ambitious goals and reach them each and every time - sadly that's not me. Step counting is a great example - I would love to be able to reach the ideal of 10k steps per day, but realistically most days of the week this just isn't achievable for me. I have no options to walk to or from work, my walking is generally pretty limited to what I can jam in before work, at lunchtime, or after I finish. So with that in mind, my first "personal" goal is set at a rather more sustainable level...

- I will aim to reach a minimum of 5,000 steps per day. There will be days when for whatever reason I won't manage this, but the average across a week is the important thing.
- I want to concentrate on eating well - with a focus on learning more about foodstuffs that will potentially assist with a health issue I'm trying to work to overcome.
- Continue with a general plan to Eat Less, Move More - again in a bid to assist with the health issue.
- Continue using my Bullet-ish journal to help with planning and general organisation
- Look into yoga classes locally or if there is anything good I can do online - again this is related to the health issue

We want to continue with the works on the flat, initially to make it a lovely place for us to live, but also to add value.
- New door and window to be fitted to the kitchen
- New front door to be fitted
- Complete kitchen redesign/refit. This will include some building works.
- Hallway to be refloored/redecorated.
- Decluttering on a minor scale - focus on seeing items within the house that we don't use
- Work consciously on using the things we have - whether that's foodstuffs, or useful items.

- Joint savings to continue as they are
- I will keep a good eye on interest rates and make the most of any access we have to higher interest savings
- I would like to have paid off at least £700 from the 0% card by the end of 2017.
- The paying down of the 0% card is to happen as much as possible without dipping into savings.
- Aim to make £30 extra per month minimum via surveys, cashback etc to pay against the 0% card

- Keep doing it!
- Look to upgrade my long lens next winter
- Really work on concentrating and being present in my photography
- Stop. Think. Shoot.

- Continue to work on gaining confidence in friendships
- "Let it go" and "This too shall pass"
- Stop and think before acting
- Try not to feel hurt or upset when other people behave unpleasantly or unkindly - I can't control their behaviour, I can control my reaction to it.
- Be conscious and mindful. Think about the choices I have, and those I make
- Tidy up both laptop and desktop in readiness for the new Airshow Season.
- Continue with volunteering stuff
- Have fun - make the most of situations that offer themselves to me, and be brave enough to take them up.
- Try to tick a couple more items off our big "We want to..." list.

Of course there are two points as a result of all of this. The first is that *technically speaking* you might say that there's little difference between my goals, and the next person's "New Year's Resolutions" - I'd dispute that though - my goals will get reviewed at various stages, and may even get added to as I think of various things. The second is that for the first year in....well, years, I'm not setting ANY goals along the lines of "blog regularly" - ironic, eh?!


Sunday, 8 January 2017

New Toy...

So as I mentioned in my Frugal Friday post, I've recently become the owner of a new Canon 80D DSLR. This becomes my second camera body, alongside the 7DMk2 and replacing the 40D I've had in my kit since 2009. The 40D has been brilliant - I've used it for speedway, rugby and aviation stuff, and even a few weddings! It's been to the Hebrides about 7 times, and lots of other places besides. It's been drenched numerous times, and been "round the clock" in terms of shutter clicks, having to have its shutter mechanism replaced back in about 2012 I think it was. To be honest I'm quite sad to see it go, BUT it had just reached the point where its age was starting to show - in digital camera terms the 40D was positively ancient, and switching mid Reds display from the 7MK2 to the 40 I was really noticing its limitations.

By way of comparison - I've swapped out a 10.1mp sensor for a 24.2mp one. 9 autofocus points for 45. Strangely the shooting speed is pretty much the same - maximum 6.5fps on the 40D, and just half a frame quicker pm the 80D. The new one feels a LOT closer to the 7Mk2 - but it's still taking some getting used to. I took it to the Hebrides at christmas, thinking that I'd have lots of time to get to grips with it, but the weather was such that it barely left the bag! So far the only flying things it's been pointed at are birds, but so far I've been pretty impressed with the results.

The autofocus is fast and the tracking in servo mode nice and smooth, and the detail it captures is exceptional. Another feature that was a real selling point for me was the built in wifi - meaning that I can upload photos from the card in the camera to my phone. Might be nice come airshow season to be able to fill quiet moments between displays with a quick bit of processing and social media posting - and as I have apps on my phone for both processing RAW files and copyright marking the processed shots, that's very achievable.

It handles colour well too - as these sunset shots show

Those colours are accurate to what I could see at the time of shooting. All the shots on this post have minimal processing - quite simply they've needed almost nothing. Sharpening only on the two Robin shots, and a bit of levels and highlights, plus sharpening on the sunsets. I used a little noise reduction on one of the Robin ones.

It's no slouch when the daylight fades away entirely either. Remember that supermoon last month...?

That was with the camera mounted on a monopod. It had no issue getting or maintaining focus, and happily gave me a shutter speed of 1/1000th at ISO 400. (If I'd had my tripod handy I would happily have dropped both ISO and shutter speed further.) Again I'm pleased with the detail, and once again relatively little processing was needed.

So - the verdict so far? Impressed. Hoping to get the chance to shoot some Little Red Jets with it  next week - I'll be interested to do a straight comparison with the 7MK2 and really get to grips with how they perform against one another. Fingers crossed for some nice blue skies!


Friday, 6 January 2017

Frugal Friday...

Predictably, I'm not making resolutions - yes, again! I am however planning for the year ahead, it feels a bit like the start of term when you were at school, the New year. While I'm not a great fan of all the hoo ha that goes with New Year's eve, I do in some ways quite like the feeling of starting afresh. I'll try and update on some of the other things we're thinking about and planning in the next little while, but for now, it IS a Friday, after all...

As always at this time of year we're turning our attentions to things financial - although more with a mindset of a "reset" than anything else. Just looking over what we're doing, Where we're spending, and reminding ourselves to be conscious about the money going out. I've got myself a little bit of a money challenge going on once again - which actually feels quite good, it's nice to have that focus again. In the tail end of 2016 I made two reasoned big purchases - a new camera and an upgrade to  my phone. Once cashback etc was taken into account the camera was purchased for the best price I could possibly have bought it for - and I was pleased to be able to buy from the UK rather than going the Hong Kong route, this time. The phone was dealt with in two phases - with just under 3 months to go on my EE contract I gave them a call as I'd spotted a SIM only deal that I hoped they might consider matching - to my delight they did - saving me around £12 per month on my bill, and increasing my data allowance to a level where I may not run out on several months of the year, too! Having done that, I then purchased the new phone paying upfront from a third party seller - fully unlocked and ready to go when it arrived. I did a lot of research on this - friends left, right and centre were urging me to go for the iPhone 6s - but with my previous one being a 5s, I was wary of the increase in size, so was also looking at the iPhone SE. I read a lot of articles comparing the two, and made a pros and cons list of the advantages of one over the other - there were few features that the 6S boasted over the SE that I really felt I wanted to be honest, and the massive win from the perspective of the SE was the extra battery life over it's bigger sibling. I also analysed how I used my phone and was surprised to realise quite how much of the time I use it one-handed - I estimated that at least 75% of my use was in that way. With that in mind the final deciding test was to handle my Mum's 6s - and that proved to be the decision-maker as each and every time I tried to use her phone one handed, I promptly flipped out of my hand and had I not been ready for it would have landed on the floor. With the decision made to opt for the SE I was even more pleasantly surprised to discover a £100+ difference in price - I eventually paid £409 for mine.

Although I had the money sitting in savings ready to pay for both items, I paid on the Credit Card both for the financial protection it gives, and also thanks to the cashback it pays. It was then that a thought occurred to me...a quick look on the Money Saving Expert site revealed a fee-free balance transfer card which I was likely to qualify to get. (Sainsbury's Bank - 0% for 22 months in case you were wondering.) Applied, and got - result! This means I have a space of time where the money can stay in my account earning at least a little interest - well anything is better than nothing, right? My plan is as follows: I've got back into doing surveys again - and anything I earn via that route will get paid against the 0% card. I'm also setting the Direct Debit for the initial minimum payment, rounded up to the next £. whereas normally if you just set it for the straight minimum payment, it will fall over time, mine will stay the same, meaning that as the balance drops each payment will effectively have more of an impact on the balance remaining. Assuming the TopCashBack payments on the two purchases some through OK, those will also go back against the card. My aim is to pay off both items within the interest free period, (obviously!) but using as little money from my savings as possible. So far I've chipped £35 off the balance - £11 survey money plus the £24 I would usually have paid on my phone bill (it came in at zero this month due to the change onto the new SIM only deal).

I'll keep you informed of how things go - it feels slightly odd to be thinking in terms of being "in debt" again, but currently the very fact that I don't like that much is serving as a good incentive to get it gone! Oh - and the new camera - well see for yourself, I'm happy...!


Friday, 11 November 2016


Today is not for commercialism, or commercialisation.
It is not for dwelling on the present, but for thinking about the past.
Today is not for promotion, or indeed self-promotion.
Today is not for glitz, or bling.
It matters not how shiny or fancy or shiny your poppy, but just that you wear one.
Today is not about noise, and bustle.
It is about quiet reflection, and pausing to remember.
It is unimportant where that reflection & remembrance happens,
What matters is simply that you DO remember.
Today is not about you, but about them.

For those who gave their today, that we may have ours.
For those who never returned home.
For those who returned, but not as the person their loved ones knew previously.
For all those who served, and those who continue to serve.
For those missing family members and friends today, as a result of that service.

Thank you.

Frugal Friday...

Regular readers probably already know that I'm a member of the MSE Forums, posting mostly on the Debt Free Wannabe boards. I've been on there for years - and got SO much help from folk when we were first in the position of sorting out our finances - now I mostly tend to try to "repay" that by posting in support of others, as well as keeping up with a few longer term chums who had a longer journey to travel to get their debts cleared. My time for regular volunteering is limited - during the summer in particular I would struggle to commit many hours, but posting in support on the DFW boards is something I CAN do.

We see some truly sad stories on there - people arrive for all sorts of reasons, but the most common one is that they've suddenly realised that if they don't do something about their finances, and fast, they're going to go under. We call that their "Lightbulb Moment" or LBM - and it hits people in all sorts of ways - some are absolutely devastated, literally in bits, you can hear the tearfulness in their posts. Others are grimly determined. others still are in a blind panic and have no idea what they need to do next. Generally speaking you know within someone's first few posts whether they've truly had their LBM, though, and every now and again we get one who just doesn't *quite* "get it". Recently someone arrived on the boards who was without question at the stage of not really having realised that she was on a downwards slide. Her initial post was saying how hard it was to make ends meet, and asking in a tone of some desperation  how everyone else does it. I posted with our usual advice - that the person needs to prepare a Statement Of Affairs (SOA) so they know exactly where their money is going - in this case I noticed from previous posts that she'd been advised previously to do this but had never done so - this always rings alarm bells. Her first post also revealed that she'd consolidated debts previously, and was paying that consolidation loan off. Now consolidation is one of those things that can work for some people, but before going down that route you REALLY need to have your house in order financially - without that, you're going to repeat the same cycle and double the debt in no time. I asked if she actually knew how much her debt totalled - she said yes she did, named a figure, then proceeded to tell us about the two car loans and a loan for furniture as well...oh dear!

It's really tough if someone is just part-way there. We try to be patient, a lot of the time it's about keeping on repeating the same things. "You need to do your SOA" "You need a budget" "You need to know whether your outgoings are greater than your income" - and that last really IS the thing is all hinges on. I guess the real answer to the "how do you do it" question is to know exactly how your finances stand - once you have that information you know whether you should have a surplus, whether your income is over committed, and then you can work things out accordingly. Without that very basic info, though, you're scuppered. In this instance, she started getting hostile, she wanted someone to come along and agree with her I think, but that was never going to be helpful. She'd already told us that she had several hundred pounds per month "spare" but had no idea where it was going - someone suggested she started keeping a spending diary - to which she responded that she would "from next month" - err, no, you need to get a grip on this NOW! Someone said that they felt she'd not yet had her LBM, and others posted agreeing, and finally, after a lot of resistance and arguing, the penny dropped and she suddenly "got it".

It remains to be seen if that person actually sees things through this time. Honestly, looking at her history of consolidation, overspending, failure to budget and more consolidation, I doubt it, but we've done all we can. It's truly over to her now, and frankly, she's still failing to see her consolidation loan as "debt" and still quibbling over the basic stuff. Bottom line is if you're in debt, and struggling, only you can make the decision to break the cycle and sort it out. Others can offer help, and support, but the legwork has to be done by the individual. There is SUCH a culture of borrowing in the western world now, it's not surprising that people do get into trouble. Credit cards can be fantastic tools, used correctly. When they're used to enable someone to have a higher standard of living than their income allows, though, that's just plain dangerous. Thankfully the banks are starting to wake up to this now and are acting accordingly. The tendency to simply increase credit limits without reference to the customer is dying out - and unusual spending patterns tend to get picked up on. Mortgage companies have far tighter rules on borrowing now than they did - when we took our mortgage out in 2003 it was a 110% Mortgage - these are rightly pretty much non-existent now. We knew we could afford ours but how many people took these out and then found themselves struggling?  I'd happily use a 0% on purchases credit card for a larger spend, but only once I'd saved and know that the money is safely stashed away to clear the debt when the 0% deal ends. I'd just find it too stressful otherwise, to be honest. I actively enjoy budgeting for things - I love a nice surprise, but a nasty financial one is never pleasant, after all!


ps - if you're struggling with debt, do visit the forums at www.moneysavingexpert.com for help, advice and support.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Frugal Friday...

Well following on from last Friday's momentous action, we now need to make some decisions about where we go from here. Yes the long term aim is still Hebrides - but the time is not right quite yet for that. We ARE now in a position where if the right property was to come up for sale up there, we may consider taking a look, though. So with that aim in mind something we will definitely NOT be doing is blowing our new-found "spare" cash on exotic holidays or flashy new cars. But then you knew that already, right?

Things have changed immensely since we first started the onslaught on our finances back in 2008. Thankfully unlike so many people we never saw our home as a status symbol, so the temptation to over stretch ourselves when we originally took out our mortgage was never there.

Back in 2008 we had the mortgage, overdrafts and a loan. All of these seemed utterly normal to us at the time, although as soon as it was pointed out that there was an alternative we instantly grasped the benefits! We do seem to have a culture in the UK (although I'm assured it is similar in other parts of the western world) where living off credit is simply the "norm" - and while for some people there genuinely isn't an option around this, for the vast majority it's just that they want "stuff"without taking the time to save for it first. Martin Lewis makes a valid point about "Good" debt - for example a mortgage, for education, or for a car to provide essential transport to work or as a lifeline for those living in an area without good public transport. I'd add to that the costs that good friends of mine recently found themselves facing - that of immigration costs to enable them to live in the same country - and also in some cases to facilitate higher quality medical care than is available on the NHS in a person's local area. (Although whether this last *should* ever be required is a different subject which we'll not be getting into here!)

First job when we started this was to tackle where our money was going - on paper there was a surplus, when in fact....umm, no. Bank statements were examined. Takeaways and random unplanned treats were reined in, and the overdrafts vanished. We turned our attention to the car loan - that was paid off in 13 months rather than the 30 that it was scheduled for. Then the mortgage, and we all know where that ended now! In theory there should have been a hiccup in the middle where my income fell dramatically - in fact overnight it fell by over 50%, and is now probably still less than 50% of where it would have been had I stayed on my previous career path. There WAS no hiccup because we were already living a LONG way below our means through choice. There are aspects where we have been fortunate, but very few of these are "luck" as such - our household income is good, and our outgoings are low, but we have chosen for them to be low. Our mortgage was not a big one - but again that was a conscious choice to an extent. For a long while our property didn't appreciate in value much at all - none of the big killings that others have been able to make on property for us - but that didn't matter as we had no intention of moving on until such time as we'd paid off the mortgage anyway.  Interest rates have - by the standards of the 80's when I grew up - been low, albeit we didn't get the benefit of the super-low rates that some folk are seeing now.

Now our plan is to increase our personal spending money a little - and also increase our food budget a little per month too - to allow for more frequent purchases of things that would previously have been a treat, fresh fish for example. We'll continue to use the farmers market and local suppliers where we can. Our "joint fun" budget will increase a wee bit too. We plan to increase spending a little on weekends away - not necessarily to have more of them (god knows I'm rarely at home during the summer, anyway!) but to allow ourselves slightly less "budget" accommodation in the places where we would be going anyway, on occasion. Sometimes a Travelodge suits us perfectly, at other times a "nice" hotel will make for a more enjoyable trip. The actual mortgage money itself will still be heading straight into our savings accounts, the extra spending above will be funded from the "extra" money that we've previously diverted to the "overpayments" account - and THAT needs a new name allocated to it now, as well! All of the above will take account of less than £100 of our "spare" money - and after all we've achieved so far, we rather feel we deserve that!


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

A simple supper & guilty pleasures...

I love spending time with MrEH - he's my best friend, as well as anything else, and we are, and have always been, quite happy in each others company for as much time as we have. Equally though we're not joined at the hip - we have different interests as well as those which we enjoy together, during the summer I have my aviation stuff, during the winter he plays rugby. Yes obviously it would be helpful if these two things overlapped on time, but life's not like that, is it! So we're happy to each let the other go off and "do their thing" - sometimes I go to rugby with him, occasionally he comes to an airshow thing with me. He gets on fine with my airshow gang, I get on fine with his rugby crowd. The rugby thing isn't just limited to the season when he's actually playing, either, as there are regular training sessions throughout the year, too, meaning that a couple of nights a week, generally speaking, we need to sort out meals that will work for us individually, rather than eating together.

For me, those evenings are a chance to just cook something really simple but tasty (MrEH usually defaults to an omelette or pasta when he gets home, I never quite know what time he will be in and this is quick and easy for him to rustle up) - often something which he would be less keen on - and then catch up on my "guilty pleasure" TV - Casualty, Escape to the Country, Amazing Spaces... I'm not massively a TV person, but do often have it on in the background while I'm processing photos - so when we're both in generally he will choose what we watch - which suits me fine!

On the food front all sorts of things might tick my boxes, and it will partly depend on what we have to use up. If we have posh bread left over from the weekend then it might be a big pile of fluffy scrambled eggs alongside (never on - soggy food, eurgh!) toast. Or sometimes a tin of soup - ThaT SupermarkeT's own Lentil and Bacon at 45p a can, for example. Yum. (And a guilty pleasure in itself!) Sometimes a bowl of salad with tuna, or small bits of bacon fried to JUST starting to crisp. And sometimes, like Monday night, the "odds and ends to use up" don't lend themselves to any of the above....2 chicken drumsticks rescued from the freezer. A few mushrooms, a handful of rocket, a single egg...and that is when I put into the play the meal that an acquaintance on MSE always referred to as a "Buddha Bowl". Now obviously as soon as you add meat or poultry you're immediately swerving this away from any sort of authenticity, but sometimes that doesn't matter, you know?

A quick Google search confirms that a traditional "Buddha Bowl" is essentially a dish containing a grain (or at least a starch of some kind), a protein and vegetables, usually with the addition of some kind of savoury sauce. I often end up forgetting the sauce though because the rest all smells so DAMNED good by the time I think about it. Last night was one of those occasions. I chose couscous as my base - easy as you like - a scoop in the base of my bowl, cover with the same quantity of boiling water, whack a plate on the top and leave it to steam which you deal with the rest.  I thickly sliced the mushrooms, I wanted chunks rather than slices, and popped those to cook off gently in a splash of rapeseed oil while I stripped the meat off the drumsticks. Once the mushroom was soft and turning golden I added in the chicken, and stirred it all about until it was thoroughly heated through. A handful of rocket was dumped on top and I turned my attention back to the couscous which was nicely plumped up by this time. A pinch of seaweed infused sea salt and a knob of chipotle butter were stirred through to give it a bit of punch, before the chicken, mushroom & rocket were thrown on the top, juices and all. The finally touch was a just-cooked single egg omelette cut into strips to top it off. Joy in a bowl. even more joyous as the whole lot was cooked in one pan, plus the bowl I ate it from. 4 items were dirtied in the making of this dish - no, hang on, 5, I forgot the fork I ate with! My kind of cooking!

Had I thought about a dressing in good time I might have gone for something like a teaspoon of tahini let down with lemon juice, and then added a sprinkle of sesame seeds for crunch. A vinaigrette with grain mustard added maybe. Or Rapeseed oil, lime juice and finely chopped coriander leaves. (I'm making myself hungry now!) Perhaps next time I should make the sauce first, while the kettle is boiling?!

Do you have a "go to" simple supper dish for nights like that?