Friday, 16 March 2018

Frugal Friday...

This time of year is famed for people having their "Lightbulb moment"  in relation to debt & finances - the "LBM" is something we refer to a lot over on the Money Saving Expert forums - it simply refers to the point at which someone has that blinding realisation that their situation is not a good one and that they really want to do something about it. It takes different forms for different folks - for some people it is a sinking acknowledgement that if they don't sort things RIGHT NOW they are going to go under, while others may find that it arrives as a more gradual thing of thinking "I don't like where I'm heading and I want to sort it out". Ours - over 10 years ago now - was as simple as stopping looking only at the immediate and starting to think ahead - that made us realise how much money we were wasting each month on paying off a loan, and on overdraft fees. In real terms we had enough money to go around, we just weren't handling it well.

For the person who has just felt that lightbulb blaze into life, things can feel incredibly daunting - and one of the reasons for a lot of people backing off at that stage is a total lack of any idea where to go next with sorting things out.  If you've spent years financing things with credit, and thinking of that as "just what people do" then to change that mindset to "I don't want to use credit any more" can be a huge step to take. When you DO reach that point of no longer needing to rely on the cards though, it's the most incredibly rewarding feeling!

The first step to take is not to change anything until you have all the information you need to do it properly - and this can feel counter-intuitive when you're just desperate to start putting your new-found enthusiasm for all things money-saving into use! The good news is that the first stage needn't take all that long, leaving you free to crack on with changes that genuinely will change the way you live your life. A "Statement of Affairs" or SOA sounds terrifying, but in fact is as simple as a full list of everything you have to spend money on, and some of the things that you want to spend on too. For most people it will work best to look at a month as the time period - as this accounts for the majority of bills being paid monthly. Remember also though to account for the things that you pay out less often than that - and at this time of year, don't forget the Council Tax which many people will not have paid for the past couple of months! A good way of doing it is to brainstorm to start with, perhaps using one of the calculators found online (see for more info on this) and then to use bank statements and credit card bills to fill in any gaps. That also helps you get a better grasp of what you're really spending for things like food, and entertainment, that often go out in small sums here and there. Last week's £20 supermarket "main shop" spend may look wonderful, but it may also not be representative of a "regular" week in your life, so it pays to work these things out with a bit more attention. The SOA, once completed, give you both your starting point for change, AND your ongoing monthly budget - it is not a static document - quite the opposite, it should evolve and change as time goes on and you identify more and more changes that you could make.

Once you have your budget, live with it for a couple of months to see how it feels, this also lets you pick up on any areas where you've not been realistic at the first pass. During this time begin the process of stopping to think before you spend, and also start to set up a framework that will help you going forwards. If you have a car, then a regular monthly transfer into a savings account for the things you pay annually for it might be a good idea - so think insurance, road tax, MoT Test, servicing, tyres and other consumables. Add a bit extra on top for contingencies. If you currently pay for your road tax, or insurance, in monthly installments then aim to switch to paying annually as soon as you can as this method of payment costs extra.  If you have any debts then this is also a good time to start diverting any excess money that you've identified over to the most expensive debt too - usually the most expensive will be the one with the highest interest rate - if all your debt in on 0% then it is generally the debt where that 0% rate will be ending the soonest. You should also think about using the same "setting aside" method as described for car expenses, for things like holiday, Christmas expenditure and unexpected household expenses.

Ten places it's worth looking for the possibility of savings:
1)  Are you on the best possible deal for your gas & electric? Have you done a comparison lately to check? it's dead easy, and requires pretty much zero effort from you to actually change suppliers if you find you're being charged too much.
2)  If you're not in contract with whoever you use for our telephone, broadband & TV package if you pay for these, then give them a call and say you're unhappy with their charges - most will reduce your payments in exchange for you signing up for a new contracted period. 
3)  Are you paying the right amount for your car and home insurances? (Clue - if you have let these auto-renew then you're almost certainly paying over the odds!) Do a price comparison and review.
4)  Are you paying fees for an overdraft? If so, and your SOA shows a surplus, then work on avoiding use of the overdraft to start with, and so cutting these fees entirely!
5)  Think about your food waste - not only does this cost money it's also appallingly bad for the environment. Meal planning and a "Fridge audit" before shopping trips can help with this - why not make dinner the night before you shop one where you routinely use up anything left over from the previous week that needs using up?
6)  Keep a spending diary - this will note the little random spends that usually go unnoticed. 
7)  Step away from contactless - while you may choose to continue using a card (debit, ideally, unless you have a cashback credit card that you clear IN FULL every month) for your main shopping each week, why not withdraw cash for those little "pint of milk" visits to the supermarket - spending physical cash often makes us more mindful of what we're spending, while using Contactless tends to have the opposite effect.
8)  Add up every penny you have spent on non-essentials for the past month - the figure may frighten you! If you have debt then aim to bring this figure down as far as possible, if not then you can still stop and think, do you need it, will you use it, is it worth what you're about to pay for it. This is about making sure that the money you spend has value, rather than "not spending" as such.
9)  Think whether you may be able to reduce costs like travel that you've always viewed as set in stone. Does getting off the tube, train or bus on your commute make a difference to the cost of the fare? can you park a little further away and park for free rather than using the pricey multi-storey car park? Can you combine journeys, so shop on the way home from work for example, rather than taking the car out for a special trip?
10) Think twice about takeaways. And those easy pre-prepared foods that you may have fallen into the habit of buying when you shop.  A news article this week informed us that "Chinese takeaway food is full of salt!" - well I have no idea about you but that was a bit of a non-story as far as I'm concerned - anyone who's stopped to actually taste what they are eating will not have been taken by surprise buy this news. We'll continue to eat it though because a takeaway is a treat, not a habit - and if we have two of them in a month that's a rarity. Ditch the sense of entitlement about "I deserve this" after a long day, make sure you have some super-quick to prepare good stuff in at home, and your purse AND your waistline will probably thank you!

There's plenty more ways of making savings - but those 10 are relatively low effort and can achieve huge "quick fix" surpluses in your monthly budget, so that's where I'd always urge people to start looking.   If you have debt, at the end of the month transfer 75% of any surplus over to the most expensive debt, and set aside the remaining 25% towards building an "emergency fund" - renters with no car should aim for £250 - £500, homeowners aim for £1000 - possibly a bit more if you have a car too - as a starting point. It is this "pot" of savings which will help you to avoid falling back into the trap of using credit - with the idea being that if the washing machine unexpectedly dies, you have cash sitting there waiting to spend on a repair or replacement, rather than reaching for the plastic.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Islandey planning...

This year is feeling a bit upside down on the Island front. Of course we were in the Hebrides for Christmas which was wonderful - we had a glorious week in a lovely little cottage right next to a beach - can't be beaten, that!  Normally at this time of year we would be beginning to think of all the things we need to do ahead of our main fortnight trip up there - but not this year as we've been invited to join a big group of pals for a trip to Lundy again instead at the same sort of time - so the main Hebrides holiday has been postponed until later in the year. It feels very odd that we are only now booking our accommodation for that fortnight!

Lundy - The view of the Old Light from the graveyard - May 2015

We've decided to re-book for the lovely cottage at Balranald where we stayed last year - it suited us well and we loved the location. Being within walking distance of our favourite RSPB reserve was a definite bonus and it makes a lovely circular walk on a day when we don't want to take the car out - we always try to avoid using the car at least one day while we're on the Islands. We did have somewhere else in mind to book as well, so a decision had to be made. We reverted to our old planning method of a Pro's and Cons list for each place, and then discussed that between ourselves to reach a conclusion. While there are some things that are really a "must have" for us when we're away for a fortnight now (a real fire, and a nice location close to beaches) there are others that are negotiable and we have found that writing a proper list of the advantages and disadvantages can really help to clarify things. This time around advantages included "A bit cheaper" on one, and "All electric included" on the other, which kind of balanced each other out a bit - but we decided in the end to book the less expensive one with limited electricity included, but to politely ask whether a bit more electric could be added in for us as we are booking for a fortnight at a less popular (and colder!) time of year - the answer came back "Yes, we can do that" right away which we were appreciative of. It's always nice when people will go that extra mile to thank you for repeat business, and this just confirmed that our decision to return is the right one.

The views from that sunroom out over the machair are fabulous!

While we were discussing our planning for this year's trip, it also suddenly occurred to us that if we want to switch our weeks back to our usual time of year for next year, we'd need to think about booking that pretty soon to so as to be sure to get the weeks we want in the accommodation we chose - and for that we've decided to take the plunge and book the other property that we were looking at for this year. A quick look revealed that for the different time of year that one was actually going to work out a little cheaper, and as none of the other "Cons" on that one's list were anything substantial, we've decided that a change will be good, and if it works out well it will give us another option for choosing our accommodation for future trips. It's in a beautiful location a little further around the west coast - and still has glorious walking right from the door in all directions. It's also an area we've said before that we'd like to explore better, so hopefully being right there will enable that. Yes, it does seem utterly crazy to be thinking about booking a 2019 trip already, but with the tendency of people re-booking for the following year directly after their current stay we really will have to get cracking on this within the next few months if we don't want to miss out.

Definitely a "Room with a view" at the top of the Old Light!

I mentioned Lundy above - well that isn't our only visit there this year as we have been invited to spend Christmas on the Island - with the same group we're going with in the Spring. Availability of accommodation on the Island for Christmas and New Year can be a bit of a nightmare as the regulars tend to snap it up - our group have a couple of folk not able to attend this time and so we've been asked if we'd like to take their place - needless to say we jumped at the chance! We seem to have slipped into a bit of a pattern over the past few years of spending Christmas on an Island - with the last two years being on Benbecula of course - I'm vaguely hopeful that MrEH might avoid giving me a streaming cold for Christmas this year though - that would be rather nice!


Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Campaign for...?

I have posted a couple of times here about my CAMRA activities - on how much fun and hard work the Great British Beer Festival is, and also on a trip to Norwich for the Annual Conference & Members Weekend a few years ago. The Campaign is facing a few struggles at the moment though - and it's that which has prompted me to write this post. Questions over our future have surfaced, and are rapidly seeming likely to split the Campaign in two, something which is quite horrible to contemplate to a long-term active member like myself.

First - some background. I worked at my first CAMRA beer festival when I was (I think) 10 years old - my Father could probably confirm as it is after all his fault, but I'm pretty sure that first one was Pigs Ear Festival 1982, working on the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity stall in the foyer. I've been a life member of the Campaign since 1996, met my now Husband (MrEH) working at a beer festival in 1997. I've worked at 20 Great British Beer festivals and am now a Deputy Bar Manager there, and countless local festivals including having for a time been organiser of a highly successful local festival in London. I have also been active at local branch level at various times although not currently. I'm not exclusively a beer drinker - at home I'm more likely to drink either gin or wine, but at the pub, a well kept Real Ale is my preferred beverage - I've never been a lager drinker - I don't get on well with CO2 and find that more than about half a pint of lager or keg beer tends to make me feel incredibly sick and uncomfortable. I don't drink any quantity of Coca Cola or similar drinks for the same reason.  Oddly enough, nobody has ever told me that I'm narrow minded, stuck in the past or a "dinosaur" for saying "Nah, you're alright thanks!" to a Pepsi though...

Further background: CAMRA is one of Britain's largest and arguably most successful consumer organisations with over 190,000 members at time of writing. From the Campaign's own website I take the following:
  • We are independent and our policies and campaigning objectives are set by our membership
  • CAMRA's decision making process is wholly independent of any commercial companies or other organisations
  • We are not-for-profit and all proceeds are put back into achieving our campaigning objectives
  • We are consumers. We have no commercial interests in pub or brewery ownership or management
  • We are non-party political. 
to that I would also add the important fact that we are a volunteer-led organisation -with our many successful beer festivals around the country being run and staffed by a volunteer workforce. Although for some festivals people receive their accommodation and food on a subsidised basis, no actual payment is made for the many hours tirelessly offered by those who do it purely for the love of Real Ale (and Real Cider & Perry), the campaign and the massive social scene that has grown around our activities. The majority of the active members are incredibly proud to be involved with such a vibrant and enthusiastic organisation - indeed most of us will shout it from the rooftops at any opportunity!

The UK beer scene has changed massively in the past few years, let alone since CAMRA was formed back in the early 70's. (Coincidentally at around the same time I was formed...make of that what you will!) and continues to grow apace with the advent of "craft" beer. What is craft beer, you might be asking? Well yes, that's a question. The truth of it is that nobody actually knows what is meant by the term "craft beer" - it kind of doesn't mean anything. Brains and Adnams breweries, two of Britain's big regionals, both brew "craft" beers, so it isn't related to brewery size, "craft" beers are sold in cans, bottles and in over the bar dispense, so it's not related to serving method. The ingredients are mostly pretty much the same as for cask conditioned beer, and indeed some craft beers are also Real Ales - perhaps in fact all Real Ales are actually craft beers too? Real Ale is also brewed by breweries ranging from huge enterprises right down to "one man and his dog in a shed" sized, and perhaps most surprisingly to a lot of folk Real Ale can be found in cask form, bottles and indeed cans. What can't under any circumstances be said though is to suggest that all craft beer is Real Ale - that's a long way from the truth. Real Ale has a solid stated definition, and has to contain live yeast to be considered "Real" - in fact at the Great British Beer Festival we have access to clever microscope wielding folk that can show you the little...ummm...yeasts....floating (swimming?) about. High tech indeed! With a name like the Campaign For Real Ale you'd think it was pretty well established what we're in favour of - it's pretty up front and out there, and if anyone had signed up and was taken by surprise by it, then I'd be amazed. As for what we're against - well, nothing really. We're not keen on bad pubs, definitely not keen on closed pubs, and not big fans of the sorts of people who would tell you that drinking is evil regardless of quantity or quality. Against though? No, nothing. People drink lager? Fine - most of us tend not to - and we'll have a great go at introducing the average lager drinker to something with a bit more taste and a lot more provenance. If you want to carry on drinking lager though it's a rare CAMRA member who will berate you for it. Similarly a lot of our members drink non Real Ales at least sometimes - from a bottle perhaps, or in some cases a "craft" keg beer in a pub. Grand - each to their own, their choice even if not for me, but if it's not Real Ale, realistically, nobody would expect the Campaign for Real Ale to be actively supporting it, would they? And there is the sticking point - as seemingly there is a number of folk out there who rather than thinking "Hmmm...I like drinking this tasty keg stuff, but it's not Real Ale. Hey, tell you what, why don't I join an organisation that supports and promotes that?!" (like the Campaign for Really Good Beer for example - which already exists!), prefer instead to change a different existing Campaign (CAMRA) to suit their end. Logic would say that two strong organisations with like-minded individuals, and many "in common" interests like pubs, pub-based socialising, and a vibrant UK beer & brewing scene, could work together on the things that they were in agreement on, and perhaps even be stronger that way, no?

A lot of the debate on the subject is in the usual way of things within CAMRA, good natured. Talked out online, or over a pint in the pub, people disagree, but agree to disagree. As ever though a minority are refusing to listen to any other point of view to their own, to see anything good in the subject of change at all, shouting down those who don't share their view or choosing intimidation as the best way of trying to silence opposing views. Couple that with a very opaque and one-sided presentation of the changes that are being proposed, and a lot of conflict is resulting, leading to bad-feeling and in some cases real unpleasantness. People have put forward reasonable requests for the right to present an alternative view, and have been declined. (Our local branch has gone ahead regardless and emailed all local members on the subject.) Others have suggested that a clear statement of intent could be issued to clarify what is meant by a particular phrase which is currently causing a lot of worry - and so far nothing has appeared on that, either. This has lead to misunderstanding and suspicion from some folk, along with a groundswell of protectiveness towards the Campaign from many of those who are most involved with it - all we truly want is clarification and a clear statement, in order that we can make our minds up on the proposals with a full picture to work with - and without that it's almost impossible to do anything other than vote against, as to vote for the proposals in full as drafted currently means that we'd potentially be allowing a dramatic change to the raison d'etre for the Campaign that we are members of. Fact over speculation is invariably helpful in these sorts of situations, and the thing that is frustrating most of the more level headed members currently seems to be the lack of clarity on one of the key points and the unwillingness to allow the other side of the argument to be heard. with just 6 weeks to go now until the members weekend and conference, it now feels as though time is running out to reach a sensible conclusion to this.


Monday, 5 March 2018

2018 challenge update - 2 months in

The more attentive among you will have spotted that I completed my Frugal February challenge and called it a success. That's not the only success I had with my challenges during February though! I mentioned at the end of my Exercise Every Day challenge in January that I'd set myself a little challenge for February too - this one being to do a full minute of push-ups and a full minute of sit-ups each day during February - and as an afterthought I decided to sandwich the two things together with a plank, too - starting at 30 seconds and working my way up to a minute by the end of the month.  Doesn't sound like much, that, does it? Right then - unless you're a superfit athletic type (or in the military with a recent fitness test under your belt!) go and give it a try. Yes - now you know what I was dealing with!

I started out able to do around 30 seconds of full push-ups before having to drop to  my knees to the modified version - and I was unable to get myself up in a sit-up without having my feet held. The 30 second plank I felt was no massive issue - hence using that as a starting point, and in fact immediately after doing push-ups I rapidly realised it did prove to be more of a challenge anyway! MrEH suggested that I worked on the sit-ups using my arms in a sort of pendulum movement to help me swing myself up and forwards - and initially this idea worked very well - until I started suffering from some lower back pain. A bit of scrutiny revealed that I was pulling myself up unevenly probably due to an imbalance in my core, and further investigation also showed that the hamstring in my right leg is a lot tighter than the one in my left - the two things are almost certainly combining to cause the back pain. When I made the connection between the sit-ups and the pain I stepped back to doing them with my feet lightly held instead, but focusing on the form and on ensuring that I kept the motion even. The push-ups weren't without their issues either - upper body strength is incredibly difficult to build up and I found trying to increase these a real challenge. Added to that I had underestimated the effect of doing them every day on a rather week and prone to strains right wrist - sure enough by 20 days in it had begun to get quite sore, and for a few days towards the end I had to substitute a minute of squats for the push-ups (Not entirely a fail, as until recently I couldn't do squats either!). On the final day of the month though I did indeed manage - just - a minute of full push-ups which felt like a real triumph - just to realise I could do that! The plank built steadily up over the month to the full minute too - and I then started March by doing a 2 minute one at the Gym on Thursday night!  I missed just one day - at the start of the final week when I was struggling with health stuff generally and just completely and utterly forgot about the challenge until the following day - and I'm kicking myself about that! I guess technically I shouldn't call it a success regardless - but I am, as in spite of missing the day I did get there with the full minute of both push-ups and plank, and the sit-ups albeit with feet held. I can see a distinct difference in my body shape as a result of the month and feel stronger through my arms and shoulders too.

Another challenge for me this month was to run a "proper" 5k - and before anyone gets affronted and feels as though I'm somehow slighting parkrun, I'm really not - but I did want to do an "entered ahead of time and paid for race with a blingy medal at the end" too. Yeah, cheap I know, but there you go! When I first realised I could actually run a full 5k I decided there and then that at some stage I wanted to run at the Olympic Park - and a bit of Googling revealed a company called RunthroughUK who put on events all across London - they have a winter race series called "Chase the Moon" which happen on Wednesday evenings at the Queen Elizabeth Park once a month through the winter - so I took a deep breath and entered the one on February 14th. The idea of entering something like that simply wouldn't have occurred to me up until a few months ago - I would have convinced myself that it was for "proper" runners, not people like me, but I've done a lot of learning recently - in part from "proper runners" and the one thing that I've kept being told is that if you run, you are a runner - and that's all there is to it. Within that there are fast runners, slow runners, runners who want to compete with others, and runners who want to compete with themselves - all of those are valid and all of those folk are still runners, just the same! The Runthrough series comes with the advantage of giving you a chip-timed result too so you get a proper, accurate picture of your time, and I admit that appealed to me a bit.  The weather forecast leading up to the day of the race got steadily worse, and I confess that mid-afternoon, glancing out of the office window to see a steady, heavy drizzle pouring down outside, I was seriously tempted to just bottle out altogether - this of course is where the "paid for" aspect of the race comes in - it puts you off deciding not to bother! Things got steadily worse and by the time I got to the Olympic Park the rain was heavy, the temperature had plummeted and the wind was howling - thank goodness for the lovely folk at the cafe by the meeting point who were happy to have several hundred runners crammed into their premises all desperately trying to keep dry and warm! I skipped doing a proper warm up in favour of staying warmer - not ideal to have to choose but I was clearly going to be drenched and freezing pretty much immediately I stepped outside. As start time approached MrEH arrived having come straight from work - thankfully with a waterproof jacket on and a heavy duty carrier bag so I had somewhere dry to pop my coat and other oddments. The call went up to go to the start - initially those aiming for super-fast times, the sub 20-minute 5k people, then sub 30's...I ignored both and settled in with the other slow people at the back...

Countdown from 10 seconds to go...and we were off. Except the back of the field weren't going anywhere immediately of course as it takes a while to get that many runners, running! The rain was still pouring down and I rapidly realised that all my plans regarding using my phone for timing and pace were going to have to be scrapped as if I'd kept it out it would have drowned by about the first kilometre! Instead I just hit the button to start Strava recording and shoved the phone into my running belt with crossed fingers that it would survive. The next problem was that I'd totally forgotten to pop contact lenses in my bag to run in - and heavy rain + glasses = zero vision every time you approach a brightly lit area! I first encountered this literally as I went through the start line and it kept causing me problems at regular intervals further round the course, too. With my original plan scrapped due to lack of useability of my phone, I changed tack deciding to keep to a steady pace but then kick on a bit at each slightly uphill section - it was a 2 lap course so I knew I could use the first lap to get to grips with it and then on the second I'd know where I wanted to turn the speed up a bit towards the finish - and as a strategy this actually worked well. The course was relatively flat but the few gently upwards sloping patches gave me the chance to push myself a bit and each time I actually passed people who'd slowed a bit giving me (although probably not them!) a bit of a psychological boost. By the time I hit the final one of these - also the steepest and within half a K of the finish - for the second time it was time to start speeding up, and I managed a full on sprint finish sloshing and squelching in my sodden trainers over the line to receive my lovely shiny medal! The time on the clock was 30m30sec which I confess to being a bit disappointed with until MrEH reminded me that the clock had started on the official start, but I'd not passed through the start until later, so my chip time would be different - sure enough on looking a little later I got confirmation of a 29:36 time - very respectable for a first timer particularly in those conditions! Strava in fact recorded my "pure" 5k distance (the race course was very slightly over) as sub-29 - just!

It was without question the hardest run I've done and I was hugely gratified the following day to see serious runners on social media describing the conditions as dreadful, and some of the worst they have run in - firstly it's nice to know that it wasn't just me being wimpy, thinking like that, and secondly I reckon if I can run in that, I can run in anything! It also thoroughly confirmed to me that I really don't enjoy running in the rain - from the trainers filled with freezing cold water to the sopping wet tangled hair, it's really not for me, and while I'd do it again in the same circumstances I certainly won't be popping out for a run in torrential rain any time soon! Well, unless I've paid to do so, obviously...!

Friday, 2 March 2018

Frugal February - done!

Well here we are then - that's my planned Frugal month done and dusted! One final week's shopping: Morrisons again and my nifty little points app shows that I now have a £5 voucher waiting for me next time I go in, and am 1680 points towards my next. Shopping came to £21.88 which was spent on the credit card as usual, earning us a tiny amount of cashback in the process of course. This means that over the month we have spent a total of £74.13 on our routine food shopping - plus the meat box I purchased although we've barely touched that as yet. I *could* have cut it down lower than that, but chose not to compromise on the sorts of meals we're enjoying eating at the moment. I did keep a keen eye for special offers - hence the decision to purchase the meat box, and the couscous at the bargain price. I've meal-planned every week, and stuck to my lists, and as a result we've come in well below our monthly food budget. We have as always eaten good food, cooked from scratch, and have had no food-waste in the month either which I'm very pleased with! (We did have to throw away one yogurt from a multi-pack but that was because it had gone off in spite of only being on the final day of its best before).We've had no takeaways at all. (But we're planning fish and chips for tonight!)

Last weekend was, as I predicted, quite high-spend. I did moderate where I could though - choosing the more time consuming walk > Bus > Tube route into Central London rather than walking to the station and getting the train. I popped into Boots and bought a sandwich, crisps and a fruit & nut snack for the train journey so I had lunch to hand, using my advantage card points so that was cash neutral, and took a bottle of water from home which I refilled over the weekend as needed. I used the time on the train to go through the Credit Card bill for last month and do the money shuffling for that so that was time well used too. The accommodation in Derby had been chosen for convenience as it was just a mile and a half from the Festival venue so I walked there to drop my bag, and back to the venue, then my friend and I walked back there at the end of the night. Food at the festival is well priced and good quality as it's done by the students at the catering college - I had an extremely good pie and a pile of fantastic chips for £4.75 - bargain and just the sort of food that's needed at a beer festival! Saturday Tony and I had to travel across to Norwich so we chose to just grab breakfast at the Travelodge which I paid for. It was an all you can eat buffet thing and I like to think we both got our money's worth! Tony then covered the cost of the fuel for the journey. Saturday continued in much the same vein - with the spends all being beer and food - there are worse ways to spend a weekend!  All costs apart from the food were paid in cash - the food went on the CC and will be paid for from my "fun budget" - and that's the key of course, it's budgeted for! The rest of the spending just came from my regular spending money. On Sunday we started the day with a much needed breakfast (Wetherspooons - always a post beer-festival favourite!) paid for in cash, and then MrEH and I came home via one of our favourite RSPB reserves and naturally partook of the tea & cake in their cafe (Delicious caramel shortbreads!).

The rest of the week has been almost spend free - the weather has pretty much seen to that! I did finally get to the gym last night (£7) which was a good thing as I was pretty much suffering from cabin fever by then, and if all has gone to plan I will have gone swimming this morning - but need to check first if the pool will actually be open!

There has been spending this month - on accommodation for various trips away. I've explored Air BnB for the first time and realised that sometimes you can find somewhere on there where there is no availability on the other sites we use, and sometimes you can find somewhere that is a lot better value than the other booking sites too. We'll probably let the first of those bookings happen before we book through there again, but so far we're impressed. I've returned to using the PetrolPrices website for checking local best prices for diesel for the cars, and have topped mine up twice in Lincoln where prices are frequently a few pence lower than at home. MrEH has been making use of Morrisons where possible as they are frequently the cheapest for the areas he fuels up in AND we get "More"  Points each time of course.

 As I said at the start of the month it was never going to be the "to the bone" frugality of previous occasions, but I'd say that it certainly has served its purpose. It's made me think, and swap back to using cash far more and contactless far less. I've bought no clothes this month and have taken the time to come up with a far more structured list of the things I do still need. I've set up a new savings account to put money aside monthly for necessary clothing purchases and will add to that each month. It's made us use up things we have, and stop to think before routinely replacing items. It's re-focused us on stopping to think about whether a deal is REALLY a good deal, and worth using, or not. I've batch cooked, doubled up on quantities, made good use of the oven when I've switched it on and made sure every scrap of food we've bought has found a use. Spending has been considered rather than habitual or mindless. And the result is that we've ended the month with a very healthy surplus in the joint account, and I've finished up with a small but significant surplus in my personal account too. There's no question in my mind as to the value of a month every now and again when we just back the truck up a bit and reinforce the good habits. All in all - mission accomplished!


Friday, 23 February 2018

Frugal Friday

Three full weeks down and another half to go - and sorry to disappoint anyone who is waiting for me to trip up here but nope, still going to plan!

Shopping last week was done as a spur of the moment decision in Morrisons after MrEH came home from putting fuel in his car with a voucher for 2000 extra "Morrisons More" points on a £20 shop. This is worth £2 so is a decent saving on a shop of that level - it's nice to find a supermarket that are happy to reward those of us who don't spend £40 - £50 every week! As I think I've mentioned before I'm quite a fan of Morrisons and would very much like to have one more locally to us - their quality is good, I like their ethics regarding stocking British meat, and also the less popular cuts. They also make a point of trying to sell off as many parts of the animals as they can with things like Pork Cheeks and lamb bones that you don't always find the other mainstream supermarkets offering. The sustainability of this really appeals to me.  Our shopping list and meal plan was all in place and the shopping came to £20.38. The usual weekly visit to Aldi was also made - £2.54 in there, and unusually a second visit there the following day when I remembered that we needed bread flour - well worth making a special trip as they sell for 65p a bag while ThaT supermarkeT want £1 a bag for the same amount! So an additional £1.95 for the three bags I bought, making our full weekly shopping bill £24.87 - not bad at all! I suspect we will be using Morrisons next week also as I got given a till-spit for a further 2000 extra points so am keen to use that!

The weekend was a quiet and low-spend one for us aside from the shopping. I went for a run on Saturday afternoon but then spent the rest of the day at home, and after a delicious roast dinner on Sunday we headed out on foot for a walk across country to a local pub for just a couple of beers each. it was a lovely if slightly muddy walk exploring a few places locally that we'd heard about but never seen on the way, and we walked back round the road as it was dark by the time we left the pub! It was really nice to have a day where we didn't use either car at all!

I mentioned the roast dinner - this used the Pork Loin Joint from the "Heartier" meat box I bought a few weeks ago. I'm happy to recommend Heartier to anyone - so far the stuff we've had from them has always been great quality and a not at all unreasonable price for the products too. The loin also gave us enough leftovers that we had a tasty stir-fry from it on Wednesday evening - I just tear the cold meat into chunks or strips and then cook off lightly in a wok before adding the veggies and some cooked noodles. The other really tasty meal we had over the weekend was home made pizzas - and these are incredibly frugal as well! I use the bread machine for the dough as it does a far better job of kneading than I ever will. For variation this time I used garlic infused rapeseed oil in the mix and also threw in some dried basil as well - the small as it was rising was heavenly! I then flipped the risen dough out, knocked it back lightly and divided it into two, then each piece into 2 again. 2 portions were popped into bags to go into the freezer and the other two were pressed out to form nice thin bases which crisp up beautifully. For the sauce I use a mixture of 50% ketchup with 50% tomato puree which gives a nice mix of sweetness and tomatoeyness (is that a word?) and also spreads easily onto the uncooked bases. From there it's as simple as choosing your toppings - this time we went for a few thinly sliced mushrooms, the remains of a pack of bacon from the freezer and also from the freezer some of the slices of pepperoni that were given to me when we had toasties for lunch in the office a few weeks back. I then scattered the tops with a ripped up ball of T's value mozzarella (always rip, never slice, as that way you get a great variation in thickness on the pieces and it goes far further across your pizza too!) The pizzas were then popped into a moderately hot oven along with a pack of Aldi Garlic butter doughballs (I *think* I paid 69p for these and they were every bit as tasty as the more premium brands!) and taken out when the bases were crisp on the edges and the cheese had started to bubble and brown. Gorgeous!

Spending review for this week then:
- Accommodation booked for a planned few days away later in the year. We weighed up a holiday-let -v- a budget hotel and in the end found a holiday let for the same price - this will save us money as it's got its own parking (Hotel would have meant another £22 in parking costs) AND will mean that we can prepare our own breakfasts and packed lunches for the days we're there rather than having to rely on eating out for all our meals.
- £7 for the gym for me on Wednesday
- I topped up my car with fuel when I saw it at a good price in Lincoln last Friday
The beers on Sunday afternoon

I mentioned that trip away above - and this has been the main thrust of our financial planning this week, in fact. We have a bit of a plan to try to visit as many RSPB reserves across the country as we can manage, and there were a couple up north that have been fixtures on our "to do" list for a while now - Bempton Cliffs and Blacktoft Sands. We've found accommodation a short drive from both reserves, and are planning to loop in catching up with a friend while up there as well as visiting a favourite pub which I've used a lot but MrEH has not yet made it to, on the way. We're fans of having our own space when we're away for more than a couple of nights, as we've found that often it costs little more than a budget hotel while giving us a lot more freedom, and saving us money as mentioned above as we're not forced into cafe breakfasts every day of a stay and also have easy options to throw together packed lunches to take out, and to bring back a takeaway or cook something tasty and local that we've bought on our travels rather than eating out each evening. It also means that in the event of a day where the weather is simply too poor to do much we can more comfortably decide to just stay in, and more easily dry wet clothes if we decide to brave it and go out! We're RSPB Members so entry to & parking at the reserves will be free to us, and we also plan to do some exploring around the market town that we're staying in, including the market itself which apparently happens every Saturday. There's also some lovely (and some very cheesy!) seaside within a short distance that we'll try to get to. Food will be our main spend and we're planning to eat out in the evenings in some of the town's excellent pubs - this will be budgeted from our personal spending money, and our "fun" budget while the cost of the accommodation is covered by the money that doesn't get spent in March on Council Tax & Water rates. Diesel will come from our regular monthly fuel budget. I will set aside any Morrisons vouchers we acquire ahead of the trip to cover some of the spend for breakfast goods and lunches. There will no doubt be some tea & cake incidents...again from our personal spending money. It won't be a cheap weekend, but it will be planned for and within a budget, and thanks to the work we put in in years gone by on clearing our mortgage and paying off all debt, the ability to do stuff like this is there for us. It's one of the good things when life becomes more about "experiences" than "stuff"!  


Friday, 16 February 2018

Frugal Friday

Frugal February - end of week 2...

Half way through the challenge and still ticking along. Gone are the sweeping financial sacrifices of years gone by - we're not in that place any more and this was never the purpose of this challenge. The name of the game this time round is to stop and think, to re-train ourselves to return to the habit of "yes but is it actually needed? Is it of value to us?" before spending. And so far, it's working!

Our shopping spend this week ended up precisely where I hoped - with the arrival of the meat box expected for Tuesday we were keen to see what stuff we could use from the freezer before the spoils from the box needed squeezing in there. The meal plan reflected this, and I pulled out a couple of "ends of loaf" ready for weekend breakfast toast. (Sometimes if MrEH doesn't get time to make rolls we make a loaf for our weekday lunchtime sandwiches - and when this happens there is always a bit of loaf left over past the point when it's fresh enough to use for sandwiches - he's taken to slicing this ready for use and popping into a bag in the freezer ready to take out a slice at a time and toast). Last Friday night's dinner of "home-made Indian takeaway" used up a couple of naan breads that had been waiting for just such an occasion. A chunk of shin of beef was taken out for defrosting ready for a massive pot of beef stew that fed us on Sunday and again on Tuesday, some liver and bacon came out ready for Monday night's meal, and the second half of a pack of pork was used to make a "use up the veggies" stir fry yesterday. As a result of this the shopping list veered towards the minimal and spends were £17.48 total spend which we were happy with. I took out £10 food money and the Aldi spend came from this with that balance being on the Pay+ app again. Unusually for me there was a second supermarket visit yesterday when I popped in to grab a sandwich to take with me to Scampton today - wanting to avoid the "meal deal" option I picked up a sandwich then wandered to the crisps and snacks aisle and grabbed a multipack of crisps well below our "target price" of 10p per packet at £2.49 for 30 packs. While in store I also noticed a deal on for the wholewheat couscous we use - 2 packs for £1 rather than the standard 70p a pack is a good saving and I decided it was well worth purchasing a couple of packs. If the offer is still on at the weekend I will be stocking up on a few more as well - it's not an offer I've seen before and on a product we use a lot of it's a deal worth having. Total of £5.99 spent.

A chance discussion in the office in the week made me realise how different our shopping habits probably are to a lot of other folk's - the question arose as to whether we were planning pancakes for Tuesday night, to which my response was that we weren't, and in fact we'd not even got any eggs in so we definitely wouldn't be. A chorus of "how can you not have eggs?!" followed - well, quite simply as there were no meals requiring eggs on the plan, and the last of the previous box had been used, so there was no requirement to buy more currently! Generally speaking the only things we buy routinely so we "always have in" are storecupboard and freezer goods. Fresh stuff gets bought on an "when needed" basis as I find that this minimises waste. So if I put omelettes on the meal plan I'll buy a box of 15 Free Range eggs as this is the best value way of buying them, for me, and I'll then factor in meals the following week that involve the rest of the eggs too. So we tend to go "feast to famine" on the egg front - a couple of weeks with lots of eggs and then a couple of weeks without any at all. (And of course now I've thought about it next time we DO have eggs I might well use some of them to make pancakes!)

Spends this week then: Not too many.
- Some accommodation has been booked for airshow trips for me for later in the year. I've shopped around, studied a few of the booking sites AND double checked that I can't get a cheaper price by going direct to the properties themselves rather than through a booking site. It's all budgeted and saved for ready and cashback has been earned where possible.
- MrEH needed to put money on his smartcard for his work travel.
- £20 to tax MrEH's car for another year. (Yes - and that yearly tax price is one reason why we're in no hurry to replace it!)
- Beers at the rugby club while we watched the match on Saturday - £10 from me for a round and MrEH and others bought rounds too. 
- On Wednesday night we had a meal out. We budget to eat out once a month but do't always do this - on this occasion though we decided to do so as I was taking part in a 5k race at the Olympic Park after work and I knew it would be late to eat by the time we got home. We shared starters and had a main course each at a nice pub locally to where I work and it cost just over £30 which was paid on the credit card.
- Sunday we had intended to get ice creams at the RSPB reserve we visited but got back to the shop too late to allow it so instead stopped and got a bar of chocolate each as a treat. 
- MrEH also treated me to a cup of tea and a piece of cake at parkrun - it felt richly deserved after a freezing cold and very icy run and was in aid of a good cause too with donations going to MIND.

Our monthly takeaway budget remains untouched for a second month - and will stay that way for another week also as I've a quick but tasty meal planned for tonight.

The rugby club is forming a key part of our social life these days - with the club having moved to its new location last year it now has the advantage of being a short walking distance from home so we're tending to spend more time there than we used to at the old club. The bar prices are good and it's really nice to socialise with friends a bit more than we used to particularly without having either a long walk or needing to think about getting a cab home. From my perspective I can tend to "hibernate" a bit during the winter months and it's been god for me to be out and about a bit more than usual too.

Next week's main plan on the financial front is to work out what we intend to do for a long weekend we have coming up and plan ahead for that, making any bookings that are needed at the best prices we can find and planning things to do while we're away. If there is anywhere in particular that we want to visit that is chargeable this will give us time to get Clubcard vouchers changed if this will help, or to look for any discount codes that might come in handy. Also to have a proper discussion of where we see things going from here in relation to our cars - currently we both drive diesels and with the changes coming in on the MOT Test shortly this may have to change. Finally I want to take a look at our electricity costs and pay any outstanding balance we have there as winter starts (hopefully!) to draw to a close and we will be discussing whether an increase in the Direct Debit amount would be sensible. Sitting down on an occasional basis to have a "summit meeting" on all things financial means that we're both singing from the same hymn sheet and we both know where we stand. Although I look after our household finances on a day to day basis we both keep infiormed on everything as should anything happen to take me out of the loop this means no nasty surprises for MrEH.

Finally - fancy the chance of some "Free money"? Who doesn't! For those of you not already in the know the Free Postcode Lottery basically does what it says on the tin - it's free to join, you just register a single postcode (can be work, home, anywhere you like!) and then check the site daily to see if you've won. They guarantee not to generate you any spam, and don't sell your details on to third parties. I already know of one person who's won the main daily prize and it's absolutely genuine - so why not sign up and have a go for yourself? (For transparency the link in this post is a referral link which will add to my "bonus" on the site although not generate me any actual money unless I do win one of the draws at any stage.).

Until next week!