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?


Tuesday, 4 October 2016

New Challenges...

I have to confess that on Saturday I woke up feeling a bit "meh" - after all the excitement over paying off the mortgage, it all felt like a bit of an anti climax after it was actually done. Mostly, friends just didn't quite "get" it - with a few exceptions who couldn't have been more delighted for us. One person I would formerly have described as a very close friend who I KNOW saw the text mentioning it (and had she for some reason not, would definitely have seen it on Twitter) chose not only to totally ignore it, but hasn't even mentioned it since - that sort of thing makes you re-evaluate, you know? We all have things going on in our lives, but I cannot imagine one SINGLE circumstance where I would let momentous news like that go without giving heartfelt congratulations to the person concerned, no matter how much there was a little bit of me sitting saying "why not me?". Hey ho, there's nowt so queer as folk, eh?

I said before that I was always just a teeny bit scared about this point - and I guess now I can say why - people just aren't meant to get to 44 and find themselves mortgage free, are they? The thing I was a little bit worried about was exactly that - that it would change the way people saw me....saw us, in fact. People don't see the hard work and effort that has gone in, the tears that were shed when I lost such a massive chunk of my income back in 2010 - and we genuinely had visions of all that work falling by the wayside (For a while I wasn't fit enough mentally to go back to even part-time work - it was at that stage that we took the decision that going forward I would only work 4 days a week, which has of course also impacted on my earning potential), the times when we've had to say "Oh no, I'm sorry, we're not about" because there just wasn't enough money to allow for us to join in with what was being proposed, or more recently the times I've had to sit mentally working out what "cheap" option I can eat off a menu so I still have enough money to stand my round of drinks because my personal spending money was so limited. Bottom line is, there is NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT THESE PEOPLE - so there you go, it's out there, I'm letting it go. (But, as I've said, with certain re-evaluations of where people stand in my life and where I clearly stand in theirs). I'm not angry - it's just hurtful that I can get a warmer, more excited and congratulatory reaction from people out here in blogland than from someone I actually choose to spend time with.

So - new challenges are required. I can't imagine, now, us not having a "goal" to work to in certain areas! The first is purely financial and is to rebuild the lump sum we've just paid out to clear the mortgage as quickly as possible. We're making a few minor tweaks in what money goes where, and allowing for  a "standard of living" increase to occur - "inflation" if you like. We've always been careful to make sure that our food choices are healthy and as far as possible, ethical, but we're now aiming to be able to buy better cuts of meat when we choose to, and more things like fresh fish, and shellfish, which we love! Being able to have that stuff regularly not just as a treat will be fantastic. Our savings are now spread over three main accounts - 2 regular savers and an ISA - as well as our "routine" savings pots which allow us to budget for regular expenses. I'll post more about the money stuff in a Frugal Friday post, I think.

The second is a bit of a decluttering challenge - I've done these before, including a whole YEAR of decluttering back in 2013 - but the time feels right to do it again. I'm not doing this in any sort of structured way this time, just "taking it as it comes" and aiming to free up space. My wardrobe needs tackling, and I want to look through DVD's, and books, too. It'll be done in 15 minute bursts as that is a method that works well for me. It'll be nice to be able to get clothes in my wardrobe without having to fight with what's already in there!

Thirdly is an attack on our well stocked larder and storecupboard. We're intending to get our kitchen rebuilt later this year, and as we already know from the upheaval of the bathroom rebuild back in the spring, living in a flat does mean that this sort of work around the place causes a certain amount of upheaval which simply has less of an impact if you live in a house...and thinking about how much storage was needed to house everything from the bathroom, the thought of having to empty our kitchen into the spare room, or front room, or wherever is just terrifying! SO - the intention is to start thinking about what can be used up, with the rationale on attacking the storecupboard as well being simply this: The more free space there is in the storecupboard, the more stuff from the larder it will house when the time comes. Simple. The first stage on this is, I think, to go through the larder and work out what is in there that can simply be used, and what there is if anything that has been overlooked too long, and needs disposal. I'm hoping there's not too much of that, though, food waste makes me very cross. My bullet (ish) journal contains a rolling list of foodstuffs that I know need using, and when I do my meal plans for the week I take these into account. That helps stop us take our "eyes off the ball". While doing that we will also refill any of the containers in there that need it, and I'll establish whether there is anything in there that can be better and more tidily stored. When the kitchen is redone the inside of the Larder will be getting fully re-tiled/painted so we need to consider how best to store things from then on. I might post back here about this challenge, we'll see.


Friday, 30 September 2016

Frugal Friday...

At 9.10am this morning I heard the words "I can confirm that you have just cleared your mortgage" down the phone - the lovely chap at Virgin Money sounded almost as pleased to say it as I did to hear it! Long term readers of this blog will know that we've been working towards this for quite a long while - since Spring 2008 in fact when a chance conversation took us from talking about overpaying our mortgage to actually doing it!

I tweeted about our new found Mortgage Free status this morning, and thanks to a RT from Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert fame it got quite a lot of interest and congratulations. LOVELY that total strangers will take the time to comment on something like that, so thank you to them! One question that was asked, though, was what tips we could give others, and that got me thinking...

Firstly - start by getting your house in order, financially. Work out exactly what your outgoings are, and what surplus you have left each month. Then check you actually DO have that amount left over - a spending diary can be helpful!

Don't just talk about overpaying, do it! People use all sorts of excuses for not getting on with it - "I don't know if my mortgage deal allows it..." ring the mortgage company and ask! "I don't know how to go about it" - usually it's as easy as asking the mortgage company to increase your Direct debit, and telling them to take OP's off the capital, not the term - that one is important! The big one is usually "I can't overpay enough to make a difference" - oh yes you can! As little as £10 a month starts to make an impact, and you can increase as time goes on. EVERYTHING extra you pay chips away at the interest you will pay over the term.

Fund your overpayments first off by making savings in your outgoings, not by reducing your standard of living. Take a look at your energy bills and if you're not on the best deal - switch! That saving can be added to the mortgage payment. Negotiate a deal with Sky or Virgin for your TV, broadband & phone - haggling with those guys works superbly and again, anything saved can go straight to the mortgage.

PLAN! If you plan upfront where your money is going, and ensure that everything is allocated to where it needs to go, you know exactly how much spare you have that can be used to fund overpayments. We have found that savings accounts attached to our current accounts work brilliantly - at the start of each month when we get paid automatic transfers send money across to those for the things we budget for - car expenses, holiday, household expenses and that sort of thing. Personal spending money gets transferred to our personal accounts, and the joint account then doesn't get touched for general spending, it;s just DD's etc that come out of it. At the end of the month any surplus got transferred to our "Mortgage OP account" and then headed across to the mortgage itselt at a suitable point.

Don't try to cut everything  back to the absolute bone. I've read so many blogs over the past few years with people not only cutting back their quality of life to zero, but berating others for not doing the same, and they all have one thing in common - they are not mortgage free now. Go at it steadily but with determination, heat your house, eat decent food, go out occasionally and have fun - those are all the things that will keep you motivated and stop you feeling as though it's too tough. Have fun, but budget for it.

Above all remember that even the tiniest saving can help. Maybe try taking the odd pennies off your account balance each time you log in to your online banking. Turn the thermostat down a few degrees, or if you are on Economy 7 electricity fit timeswitches to your washing machine and dishwasher (please take note the Fire Service urge caution on using appliances overnight/while you are out) so they can run overnight on the cheap rate. Change standard lightbulbs for low energy ones. Stocktake your kitchen cupboards, freezer and larder and challenge yourself to use up the contents thereof so saving money on your food bill.

As we sit here tonight within 4 walls that are entirely owned by us, I can 100% tell you that all the work on it has absolutely been worth it - the feeling this morning when I got off the phone was just amazing. Old habits die hard though - we're not going out for a posh meal, and there's no champagne being opened - instead it's our favourite celebration meal of an indian takeaway, and beer from the bottles we had in the larder already! Does it feel like a hardship? Does it hell!


(ps - I totally appreciate the irony of a Frugal Friday post on a day when I spent £20,606 before breakfast!)

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

And finally...

...that's the UK airshow season at a close for us. I spent yesterday at RAF Scampton for the Reds final ISP's (In season Practises) of the year - then on Thursday the jets and Circus depart for India on the first leg of their tour. The other Blues going as part of the support crew will also be heading off but their departures are staggered over several days throughout the week between now and Saturday. The next time I will see the jets fly now will probably be in the New Year, which in itself feels odd as normally this time in the year we're looking forward to winter training and all the fun and games that go along with that.

It's been another brilliant year - no question about it. From the season opener for the team at Shuttleworth in May right through to yesterday we've had so much fun again. Once again we have people leaving - my friend Nicky has already departed the Squadron having been promoted and posted into a new role. Three of the pilots will be leaving the team when they return from tour - Synchro leader Steve, and Reds 8 & 9 - Stew and Joe. They'll be missed as always when they move on. On the bright side we have a new bunch who will be moving into the coveted "Circus" roles backseating in the jets during next season - including a very good friend's husband so SHE'S over the moon at all the photos she will get of him doing his thing during 2017!

Possibly the best way possible of finishing the season, for us, was this...

...we've waited a while for that. Extra special for having Lingy (Red 10) in there too - and for me also because it's the three of us - me, Claire & Tom - who've done so much and shared so many of the amazing experiences over the past few seasons. It just wouldn't have been quite the same if one of us had missed out. Bloody epic. Smiling may happen for a while yet... ;-)


Friday, 23 September 2016

Frugal Friday...

The summer is such a difficult time of year for me to even attempt to keep up the frugal thing. In everyday life we still carry on as normal - using the washing machine and dishwasher overnight, and showering when we first get up to make use of the night-rate on the electric. Buying basic or budget brands where they are are good as branded. Driving economically. Shopping around for things. All that and more. BUT at that time of year I'm away almost every weekend photographing those Little Red Jets, and that always involves a lot of driving, and often an overnight stay, and buying food while I'm away...However it also involves a lot of fun, and some huge laughs, and so it's well worth (for me) me spending pretty much all my disposable income on it, during these few months!

As ever, there are ways and means of cutting the cost down a bit, too. Hotels generally get booked as soon as we have even an inkling of which shows we're likely to want to do - booked through one of the booking websites via Topcashback on a "cancellable" basis, and pricechecked through a site like Trivago as well. If I'm booking for myself alone I'll also often look at booking a little further out, and travelling in to the show as this can often save a fortune. If there is an option to use public transport then I always see if that will work out economically if it's practical to do so. For group meals out in the evenings after some of the shows we tend to default to Wetherspoons pubs if there is one - the food is reliable even if not gourmet standard, and in a group which generally includes a couple of real ale drinkers, a Guinness fan, a gin queen and a wine-a-holic, it's great to be able to go somewhere that we know we'll each be able to get our tipple of choice without being charged through the nose for it. We're all in the same boat mostly as far as needing to keep costs sensible, so these measures mean we can have more fun, for less dosh - a no-brainer! I set aside money through the winter months to cover the cost of my summer entertainment, and this works well for me - I can't justify running up costs on credit cards etc - I'm just not comfortable doing that as the shadow of "what happens if I can't pay it back" would always be hanging over me spoiling the fun.

The things that tend to slip by me during the busy time of year are things like meal-planning - I have a basic fund of meals that can be rustled up very quickly indeed, but that are still healthy and above all tasty. On the day of writing for example dinner will be some delicious Norfolk Pink new potatoes, boiled to tender and then gently tossed in a pan with chunks of bacon and courgette, a drizzlwe of good rapeseed oil, and served up with some fresh sweetcorn bought in Norfolk over the weekend. It'll be delicious, plates will be cleared, but it doesn't appear on ANY meal plan, anywhere! Those same potatoes (I bought a 5kg sack from our favourite campsite at the weekend) will feature a lot over the next few weeks - and at a cost of £3 for that 5kg sack that's unquestionably a frugal way of eating!

I've got a few ideas that I may try to put in place over the winter to see if next summer can be just a bit more organised on this front. The first of these is a rotating 3 or 4 week meal plan - not necessarily something rigid with "this meal on that day" but more a rough weekly "fund" of recipes - some quick to prepare, others a little more time-consuming. So as a rough guideline, a salad day, a pasta day, an egg day, a veggie day, plus options like stews or soups. The first step top this is going to be to go back over old meal plans I think and get together a full list of the sorts of meals we're happy to eat in each category - then from there work them into rough sets of 5 days. 2 days a week are complicated by MrEH having rugby training - meals need to either be very quick for him to prep when he gets in (omelettes for example), or something that I can prep and just leave in the fridge for him (salads fit this category brilliantly!). This is going to need a lot of planning and thinking about I guess - and at the moment I'm finding it slightly daunting. I'll keep you posted!


Monday, 19 September 2016

That photography thing...

I realised recently that next year it will be 10 years since I started this blog. I started it originally to make myself take photos - but it's evolved somewhat since then! Still though I see photos as being at the heart of it - and indeed more and more photography is so much a part of me now it's difficult to ever imagine it not being.

For those who aren't aware, my Grandfather on my Mum's side was a photographer. (He was a musician as well, but I've come to the conclusion that I didn't inherit much of that!) As a result there are a LOT of very lovely photos of Mum taken by him from her babyhood right through to her & Dad's wedding. Sadly he died when I was three so while there are still quite a lot of photos of me growing up, they're rather more "kodak instamatic" that the earlier family shots. (Sorry Mum, but I know you'll agree!). I do often find myself wondering just how astonished he would be if he could see the camera gear I'm shooting with now - it's a world away from what he would have been used to in terms of instancy, but I suspect that may have been something that would have really appealed to him. In some ways though things really aren't so different - to get the most from my gear I still need to understand the fundamentals - metering is done via the camera these days rather than by using a separate light meter, but things like depth of field and freezing/blurring of movement are done in the same way. Perhaps in some ways the biggest change within camera themselves once you remove the film -v- sensor/memory card aspect is the way in which we change ISO these days - with film you select your film according to the conditions - a very bright sunny day - ISO100 film, for more standard use ISO200, and for lower light ISO400. Anything above that was harder to get and demanded a certain acceptance of graininess  ("noise") in the final print. Now of course it's done by the press of a button and the turn of a dial - and can be adjusted to far more precise increments. My current DSLR produces almost no discernable "noise" at ISO800, and indeed will produce perfectly acceptable results at far higher levels than that, also.
Chaffinch - Canon 7DMk2 @ ISO2500 
Now I have the ability to take a camera pretty much everywhere I go, in one form or another. of course a lot of my leisure time activities involves carrying the full kit, but even on a regular working day for example, my iPhone is always with me, and indeed sometimes I'll default to shooting with that in preference to the DSLR! The days of me needing to own a small compact camera as well are long gone. That "portability" is something that I imagine Grandpop would have heartily approved of!

My current kit is my Canon 7DMk2 - which is truly remarkable. Nicest camera I have ever owned without question. That pairs up a lot of the time with the wonderful Canon L series 100-400mm zoom, for aviation & wildlife purposes, or with the Sigma 18-250mm for more general "walkabout" stuff. The third lens in my collection is still the rather brilliant canon 50mm  f1.8 "nifty fifty" - cheap as chips but really packing a punch. I'm about to upgrade my second body - I'm currently still using my old 40D as a backup body -  I bought it back in early 2009 so it's done incredibly well. When I bought my 7DMk2 I had no hesitation in keeping the 40 and part-exing the original 7D, though - it really IS that good. God knows how many shots I've taken on it - it had a new shutter assembly fitted a few years ago so I'm guessing that will have seen it past the 150k clicks mark, though. Coincidentally it is also the second nicest I've ever owned...! I'm hopeful that its replacement - the recently released Canon 80D, will prove to be a worthy successor.

I'm feeling that I need to get back to challenging myself photographically, though, So much of what I do these days is just "camera, lens, known settings" as a starting point, I want to stretch myself a bit, do more stuff where I really have to think about what I'm doing, how I'm setting up, and the results I want to get. I've a vague notion of setting myself a series of challenges through the winter months - while there's not much going on in my more familiar aviation world. I'm still musing on what these challenges might be, currently, but in my head at the moment is:
- A day shooting ONLY in black & white (via settings within the camera)
- More days out shooting only with the 50mm lens
- A day where I restrict myself to 36 shots only, and cover over the screen on the back to replicate the "film experience"
I've got other ideas too - limiting myself to using manual mode, perhaps breaking out my old film camera and running a couple of rolls of film through that (Almost certainly the rather lovely Ilford XP-2) - that would also limit me to the 50mm lens, as my Sigma is "digital only" and won't work well with the old camera. I'd like to do some more low-light photography - something I used to absolutely love but have got out of the habit of doing in recent years. Some more documentation of interesting areas locally maybe. I'm also intending to pick the brains of a good friend - who also happens to be an award-winning RAF photog - to see what he suggests, maybe even get him to set me a challenge himself. I think what I'll end up doing is making a list of things I'd like to do photographically and then ticking them off as I go, with no particular timescale. I can sense a new page of "plans" in my Bullet Journal, can't you?!