Monday 31 December 2012

Looking back at 2012

Been quite a year hasn't it? I thought a quick look back on what we've done, where we've been, and what I've achieved in the past 12 months might be quite fun - we seem to have packed an awful lot in....!

The year itself seems to have been quite busy for us - there was a reasonably quiet start to the year then the rugby team trip to Barcelona of course -

 great fun, and excellent to be standing in baking heat and bright sunshine watching a rugby match when it was piddling down at home! Easter was spent exploring the Lake District ...

...and then onwards for a flying visit to Edinburgh where we stayed in a wigwam. Great fun and quite a relief when we got up in the morning and found it was snowing - a tent might have been a bit chilly!  Then there was a cheery trip to Brighton of course  before whizzing off for the annual fortnight in the Hebrides - where once again we were fortunate enough to have stunning weather while the South East drowned. The poor Queen got wet celebrating her own Jubilee (and missed poor Prince Phillip, no doubt, who was taken off to hospital in the middle of it) and everyone else got wet watching her - we, meanwhile, had a fortnight of sunshine, and spent a fair bit of time without shoes & socks on...

Our long awaited return trip to the Farne Islands finally happened in July - although once again we had our plans to visit both Inner Farne and Staple Island scuppered as the wind was wrong for boat landings. We still had a great time though and MrEH even got dive-bombed by a Tern - they left me alone, thankfully! As usual these little guys stole the show....

July of course also saw the London 2012 Olympics and what a triumph it was! To all those who said London would blow it, well you can just get stuffed - it was by general acknowledgement one of the greatest Olympic Games EVER, and a time to be rightfully proud of being a Londoner!  We dashed into London on the first saturday and saw the Cycling Road Race and then during the Paralympics made a visit to the Olympic Park & Stadium which was absolutely fantastic and I wouldn't have missed for the world!

August started for us with the fantastic Great British Beer Festival returning to it's "Spiritual Home" of Olympia - quite fitting considering the Olympics were in full flow at the time! A successful festival and greatly enjoyable with our lovely hard working team as ever. They really are a fantastic bunch of guys and gals and it's a privilege to work with them each year.  Then a little later in the month I made a quick trip to Clacton Airshow to see the Red Arrows and get my eye in ready for their display  at Dartmouth Regattaboth displays were as good, and as thrilling, as ever!

Then there was a  lovely day in Sheffield meeting up with some cheery friends, visits to Ludlow, Norfolk, Devon again, Portsmouth, an unexpected weekend camping in Suffolk, some work with the local Conservation Volunteers, some falconry  and a ride on a cablecar...

In spite of all these things we have continued to overpay the mortgage, and used some "unexpected money" to repair or replace some household items which either died (PC, Television and most recently my beloved camera) or were threatening to (Laptop, kettle) or were simply so elderly that they were probably becoming a health risk (microwave!) all without having to resort to credit of any sort. We have also managed to stash some money into savings, and continued to work on driving down our costs. In terms of this blog I also started the Frugal Friday series which is now being posted in by other bloggers too - exactly what I hoped would happen! That series will continue to run for as long as I come up with ideas for it - I have no intention of it turning into one of those things that simply recycles the same old subjects and recipes on a 7 weekly basis! I have also done something that I had been thinking about for a good while now, and taken up playing the clarinet again - I wanted some form of challenge, and straight study simply isn't for me these days, I have been away from it for too long I suspect. Re-learning an instrument I have always loved though ticked several boxes - wanting something to "stretch" me mentally, wanting a new hobby, and also allowing me to at last do something that feels creative - I'm not great with knitting needles, glue or a sewing machine, but it seems I can still manage to get musical notes in roughly the right order!

So all that remains now is to thank you all for reading, and wish you all a very happy New year and 2013 to come!


Friday 28 December 2012

Frugal Friday..

I'm not even going to pretend that this post is being written on the day it's appearing - of course it's not - as with most of you there is such a lot going on at this time of year Blogger's helpful "Schedule post" option is coming into its own once more! I've had some help writing this one too, from some of the lovely bloggers who have joined in with the Frugal Friday spot in the last 12 months - we've talked about all sorts from Cwtch Corner's Cheri and her "Cafe at Home" (I loved that post - what a great idea, lovely coffee and delicious homemade biscuits or cakes on a budget, AND you don't have to trail out in the cold to get them!) to buying clothes and generally being a Frugalista....that one fromthe fabulous Singlegirl . I asked each of the contributors to let me have their absolute No.1 favourite frugal tip, and this is what they came up with.

Dreamer at Living a Slow & Simple Life has this to say... "My favourite frugal tip is just to take a step back whenever you are doing anything and truly look for the potential in whatever you are doing or producing. Whether it is a way to use less energy, make something stretch further, make something multi purpose, or just a way to utilise what you have to the absolute limit there are always ways to make little improvements. In the long run it is all these little steps that add up to make your money go further and help you get good value." - watch out for a Guest Post from Dreamer appearing next week - the first one I've ever featured! Very good points there too - just taking stock can be your greatest tool in the Frugal/Simple Living armoury I think! (And then there's MAKING stock, which is also good!)

Wittgenstein's Watering Can's Rachel summarises things nicely too - "My frugality is all about spending money. Being frugal for me isn’t about not spending anything, but about making my money go further. I get excited by super-cheap reductions in the supermarket and about bargain clothes (if someone says “I like your dress”, my first reaction is “thanks” followed very closely by “it was in the sale/from a charity shop/ off eBay”). I’ll also repair and recycle things, like the odd collection of growing containers in my garden – olive oil tins, colanders, old Ikea storage boxes – rather than buying new. I grow some of my own food and I cook things from scratch because it tastes better, mainly, but also because I can’t bring myself to spend money on ready meals if I can knock the same thing up myself for less. This all means I have money spare for the things I really want to do, which I wouldn’t have otherwise. If I wasn’t frugal, I wouldn’t have been able to pay the fees for the Masters course I’m doing, in a subject that utterly fascinates me. I wouldn’t be able to treat myself to nice weekends away to coincide with the study days for my course – finding bargains on hotels (having a load of frugal friends who know the best sites helps ;-)) so I can splash out on really good meals, one of my favourite things to do. However, my best frugal moment this year involved playing music – being able to save about 1/3 of my wages each month meant that when a great deal (yes another one of those) on a new instrument appeared, I was able to snap it up and replace the savings within a few months. There’s great pleasure in getting a bargain, in stretching your money, and in getting something for nothing. But it's also wonderful to be able to spend your money – not just on the things you need, but on the things that you love." I love the recycled containers idea - we use mushroom cartons from the supermarket for growing seedlings in the spring, but now have the idea of a row of tins with cheery plants in growing on our wall next spring! And yes, to me frugality is all about enabling your life, rather than DISabling it.

Meanwhile, Cheerful Living Adventure's Jenni touches on another fab idea.... "My one frugal tip would be to take a deep breath and wait. Whatever you want, whatever you need, just wait. You don't have to wait very long - half an hour will do, or even five minutes if that's all you have. While you're waiting, ask yourself 'what do I really need? What do I really want?' I often find that the thing I really want or need isn't what I'm about to buy. If I'm replacing something that's broken, often the perfect thing will catch my eye after a week or two, usually much cheaper than if I'd bought it straight away. If I'm gazing wistfully through a shop window at something so fabulous that I feel I have to have it right now, then it's more difficult, but it's still possible to wait. Sometimes I'll walk down the road and back, or go home, and if I'm still thinking about it later, then yes, I might go back and buy it. But often that intense longing passes as quickly as it arrived. Being able to wait is the key to finding treasures in charity shops. Carry a list of things to look out for, but be patient. They'll turn up eventually, or you might realise you can live perfectly well without them.

Waiting is skill, and if you can cultivate it you might find it can save you a fortune."
Now THAT truly is common sense...I can see I need to work on developing a sense of patience!

Finally, Horticultural Hints from Fay at The wind And The Wellies.... "Thinking of growing your own in the coming year? Why not its rewarding and a really frugal way of enjoying food with zero miles. You can’t get more local than your own garden, windowsill or patio. Space needn’t be an issue. A simple pot of herbs on the window sill brightens up your day and can yield lots of lovely flavour enriching herbs for your table. When faced with the garden centres and their pots of prepared herbs/vegetable starter packs these can be expensive. The solution? Well those who are a bit more canny can invest in a packet of seeds or swap with friends to start things going. If you’re a bit less experienced or not so green fingered, supermarket herbs are a fantastic buy. Each pot has up to 50 small ready grown plants in it and if carefully split up can give you sufficient herbs for months.  Set a pot free today and rather than spend £1 or so on a small bag of herbs, split up a pot of herbs take good care of it and you’ll be eating herbs right into the late summer.  All the better if there’s a deal on! Enjoy."   Inspired? Then here's a link to Fay's method to get you started - I've done this myself the last few years and she's right, it really does work, and just think of all the happy little plants you're giving leg-stretching room to as well - got to be good karma in there!

Thanks so much to everyone who's joined in with the Frugal Friday posting over the past year - I do intend to continue with the series for now at least - while the ideas keep coming, I'll keep on posting them. I've had some great comments from some utterly unexpected people on these too - and it's always nice to think that others can gain something from what you write, particularly when you primarily write for your own enjoyment!

The first space in the series for 2013, as I mentioned, will be taken up by dreamer's Guest post - remember to pop by and take a look!


(The photos on this post were all taken on a weekend away with a couple of the folk who feature within the post)

Friday frugality also from Jenni today : A Cheerful Living Adventure

Sunday 23 December 2012

The Reds & the River...

The end of August sees the annual Port Of Dartmouth Royal Regatta, in Dartmouth, Devon.  MrEH hails from those parts, and as we have family down there we usually find ourself there for "Regatta weekend" and all the fun and games it entails. This year was no exception, with lots going on - everything from the "Sea Fury" plane of the Royal Navy Historic Flight, to the newly introduced "Bungee Rowing" event (yes, it is exactly what it sounds like!). To many though, young and old, the excitement peaks on the friday afternoon at 6pm when the Red Arrows fly in.  The Reds have been heard to say that Dartmouth is one of their favourite places to display, and indeed invariably we get a super display, including one year when one of the planes suffered a mechanical failure on the fly-in from Exeter them taking the unprecedented step to delay the start of the display while the spare Hawk was collected!  The display takes place in the river-valley, which forms a natural amphitheatre and makes the whole thing feel so much more immediate. It also has the advantage that, by climbing up the hill above the town, you can get a near-unique view looking down on the planes. You will of course have guessed by now that this is precisely what I did!

45 minutes before display time I started up, stopping a few times after the steepest bits - we're talking some of the steepest roads you can imagine here - 33% gradients - fancy driving your car up there? No, me neither, but people do! Eventually I reached the end of the lane onto the middle of the hill itself, and just needed to choose my spot. This year I elected to climb almost to the top, most folk who've walked up stay roughly around where the path comes out, while those who have driven and parked their cars in the car park on the far side usually sit on the top.  I chose a spot with some nice dry-looking grass and nobody else around (to complain when I wanted to stand up through the display, not because I was being antisocial!) and settled to wait.

The views are phenomenal - you can see right down on the town, across to Kingswear at the other side of the river, out to Start Bay and the sea, and across to the Britannia Royal Naval College - although only the bits of that which they are happy for you to see, naturally! I'd have been quite happy for a good while sitting just looking at the views to be honest, but before too long the Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight appeared - a Spitfire, a Hurricane, and a Lancaster bomber. I have a bit of "history" with the BBMF - rarely managing to see all three planes together, so I was most relieved to see that this time, at least, all were present and correct! The Lancaster pilot seemed to think it was quite entertaining to do low passes over the hill we were sat on, too - believe me, they are pretty noisy at point-blank range!

Then it was on to the main event - and we all waited with baited breath to see the "Reds" appear. It was easy to spot those who are "regulars" up the hill for this display as we were the ones watching out to the right - their usual pattern is to appear over the brow of the hill on that side as they can "creep up" on the town itself that way. Not this time though - instead they appeared from the top of the hill behind us, making us all jump! The display itself was phenomenal as ever - from my vantage point the close-passes from the synchro-pair look even closer and we can really appreciate the precision of the whole thing. Ironically after the difficulties of getting the timing right for the synchro-pass shots the week before at Clacton, this time almost all of them came off perfectly!


(This post was written way back in early September, but posting was delayed due to the failure of the old PC.....and then I forgot about it - sorry!)

Friday 21 December 2012

Frugal Friday - and Merry Christmas!

This time of year can be quite horribly painful on the bank accounts. By the time you've bought the presents, done the wrapping, sent the cards and loaded the fridge ready for Xmas dinner, you can be left with more of a feeling of dread in relation to the January credit card statement than the Christmas cheer you're meant to be feeling! It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to spend a fortune to make Christmas a success for the family, but there are ways and means of reducing the pain, and now is the perfect time to get the wheels in motion ready to make next Christmas a far less painful experience....

Firstly - a budget. Set one. Working out what you need to be spending is the first and best way of a) reducing what you ACTUALLY spend, and b) reducing the mid January credit card induced heart failure. List everything you need to buy, all the people you have to get presents for, the food, everything, and put an approximate value against each item. Then add them all up. When you've stood up again and regained your breath, you're ready to start tackling the scary figures! Some things you can probably reduce by a bit of clever planning, while for those that we can't, we have set up a small transfer each month going across into a dedicated savings account - meaning that when we come to start buying presents etc, the money is there and waiting.

Presents. More and more now there is a shift towards it being acceptable to say "Do you know, I really can't afford that" - a lot of families buy for children only, and Martin Lewis proved on his "Money Show" a few weeks ago the absolute joy that is, for an under 5, a huge box filled with balloons. An Auntie or Uncle trying to do a present on a budget? Then the Pound shops are your friend for younger children - get a gift bag and fill with an assortment of odds and ends - look out for items like packs of toy cars that can be split down and wrapped individually. We visited family at the weekend and took a bag for each of the littlies filled with all manner of things we'd found through the year - Pound Shop purchases, big bags of marbles found for pennies at the charity shop, colouring pencils bought 2 packs for 99p when we saw them - back in about July! Everything was roughly wrapped in tissue paper or scraps of wrapping paper so the kids still had the "unwrapping" experience, and they were AGES unwrapping all the odds and ends, and loved every minute of it. Present of the day was undoubtedly the "Crawling Octopus" - you throw it at a window, or the wall, and being made of a rather unpleasant textured sticky substance, it proceeds to crawl down.....both children absolutely adored them, and they cost about £1 each!  With friends, if you want to buy presents, and can afford it, then brilliant, go for it, but why not consider agreeing a budget to stick to? Or even do it on a "Secret Santa" basis - a group of friends and I have done just that this year and it's been great fun!

Food. The rest of the year we've been happily cooking from scratch, meal planning, and batch cooking, so why at Christmas does that all go out of the window for so many people in a hale of pre-made processed stuff? whilst some things are great to buy ready made (Life is definitely too short to stuff a mushroom) others are so much nicer home made. Anything pastry based is a great place to start - pastry is at its best when it's really fresh so making your own almost guarantees you'll end up with something tastier than the options lurking on the supermarket shelf. Mince pies are easy, and as for sausage rolls, well, food doesn't come much simpler! And if you have a food processor, making the pastry doesn't even need to be time-consuming. Dips too - bit of yogurt, some very finely chopped caramelised onion, and some grated cheddar - cheese & onion dip. Pot of Soured cream, some snipped chives....well, you can work that out!. A perfectly acceptable thousand island style dip can be made by mixing equal quantities of yogurt & mayo, stirring in tomato ketchup until the desired colour is reached, then adding a little cayenne - easy! Houmous is a doddle to make at home too, and very popular.

Plan ahead - buy now for next year. Not foodstuffs obviously, but the post-christmas sales are a great time to buy cards, tags and wrapping paper to put aside ready for next December. Gift bags are rarely reduced, but there are a number of budget card shops out there now selling bags in varying sizes 3, 4, 6 or 8 for £1 making them increasingly affordable. Particularly for elderly relatives they are often a lot easier to manage too, and of course they are a godsend for tricky-to-wrap items. Ours go round the family for years - they don't get thrown away until they are too tatty to use, it's not at all uncommon for someone, on being given a present, to exclaim they were the original purchaser of that particular bag! The sales are also a good time to buy reduced price presents ready for particular people's birthdays or christmas presents as well - just ensure you remember where you've stored them! If your Christmas food and drink bill causes a sting, then why not buy a couple of savings stamps from your supermarket of choice each time you visit through the year - by next year you would have £100 or so to put towards your festive fare, and most of the supermarkets will give you a small bonus when you redeem a full card too.

Above all, remember that this can be a stressful time of year, and worrying about the bills around it will only increase that stress. If you have barely any time for cooking, and need to buy everything pre-made, then so be it, there are other ways you can economise. Remember though that pastry can be made ahead and frozen, so it might be possible to do things in advance? If you are happy to spend lots on Christmas, then so long as you have the money and aren't going into the red to do it, then all good - that's your choice, and nobody should call you a fool for exercising that right. Setting budgets for things can still be a good idea though - you might be happy to spend, but being in control of the spending is always good. If you HAVE overspent, and are sitting in a panic dreading the arrival of the next brown envelope, then remember that the hardest thing is facing up to the problem, Martin Lewis of always says he has never seen a debt problem without a solution, so pop over there, visit the forums, and ask for help. Within a few minutes (yes, even on christmas day) you will have folk willing to help, offer advice, and point you in the right direction.

Merry Christmas!


Tuesday 18 December 2012

How it should be...

I mentioned recently that when we visited Birmingham the other week we had a wander round the Bullring Market and were left extremely impressed. We got there at the end of the day but the market was still vibrant, with plenty of folk around looking for that last minute bargain.

Years ago this would have been a scene repeated in every town across the country, but whilst some places have held onto that tradition others seem to have let it go without so much as a whimper. Walthamstow in North East London has it's famous street market - not quite the mile long that myth would have us believe but stretching the full length of the town's High Street, it rightfully holds the title of Europe's longest street market. When we lived there we used it weekly for our fruit and veg, along with the excellent Parsons Butchers shop for meat - it was from there that we first got our taste for mutton. Having somewhere like that on the doorstep was not only useful, at times it was downright vital, as when money is tight there is no better place to shop than a market.  I remember a few occasions when faced with the task of feeding two of us for a week on under £10 I managed to do so with relative ease thanks to that market - and we ate well, too!

The first noticeable thing about a good market should be the way everything is beautifully laid out - in this case it's tidily stacked bowls, in others it might be immaculately built pyramids of fruit or veg. The signage too is now a classic style - often along with a few spelling mistakes or misplaced apostrophes which a greengrocer once told me weren't actually mistakes - but instead were designed to attract attention - clever eh?!

If you have a market locally - USE IT, otherwise you will sure as anything lose it. If your local high street has also - like ours - lost its Greengrocer, then this is all the more important. On the continent they cherish and celebrate their markets - they are fantastically laid out and people will do their entire weeks shopping there - fruit, veg, meat, fish, cheese, milk, bread.....the whole lot. Over here, shopping on a market can have a slightly shameful air to it - even somewhere like Walthamstow where for those of us who grew up there the market has always been part of life, people still sometimes look askance at you if you refer to doing your food shopping there. It's sad really - to my mind, that sort of setting for people to shop in is exactly how it should be...

Sunday 16 December 2012

Astonished but pleased...

...and very grateful indeed to all who voted for my pictures in the recent photo competition. There were some stunning photos entered from some extremely talented photographers. Imagine my surprise to see earlier this evening when the winners were announced that the shot above had won first prize. Very flattering indeed - thanks so much to everyone who took the time and trouble to go, look, and click.


December fun...

Lots of fun had around here whenever we can, as you know, and the last few weeks have been no exception  - the month started with a trip to Birmingham for the Good Food Show. We've been up for this for the past few years now - it's always a good day out, we save a pound or two each per week against the cost of the goodies we come back with and see it as a good chance to treat ourselves to some tasty goodies, and also buy a few cheeky Christmas presents.  The tickets are kept budget-friendly too as we use Clubcard Vouchers for them - getting us into the show for £8 each. As usual we booked into our favourite Travelodge not far from the NEC - the staff are lovely and as it's a "takeover" rather than a purpose built budget hotel, the rooms are far larger than usual and MUCH posher!

Having checked in, the weekend started with a trip into Birmingham -

This is the iconic and unusual Selfridges Building, one of those you either love or hate I suspect. For me it goes along with the Gherkin & the Shard in London - fantastic! Every year I try to find a new angle for a photo - I think this year might have nailed it...

...I really like both of those shots. It won't stop me trying again next year though! Then time for a wander round the excellent Bullring Market - precisely what a traditional street market should be like, this - I won't dwell too long on it as I want to do another post all about it, so I'll whet your appetite with this...

...looks tempting, doesn't it? From there we had a wander round the German Christmas market - a mix of fairly authentic and unusual odds and ends, cheap tat, and copious numbers of stalls selling the sort of fizzy beer that we generally ignore. The key thing for us is the stall selling the glorious, colourful little wooden childrens toys with the "push-up" bases - when the base is pressed upwards the toy collapses onto itself, or can be made to nod its head, sit down, etc.

I routinely got given one of these each Christmas until I was about 10 or so - in fact I still have at least one - and MrEH and I have continued the tradition with our Niece & Nephew. They're great fun and so cheery! Shopping done, and stomachs lined, it was on to the business of the evening - a meet-up with some of the members of our team from the Great British Beer festival - fantastic to see everyone again and another meet is now being planned for ahead of the Festival next summer...

The Food show itself was excellent fun as ever - we came back loaded with masses of tasty treats many of which seem to be cheese-related - the "Cheese Bartering Stall" was particularly entertaining! We also saw a theatre show with the lovely James Martin - always nice!

The back to normality with work last week, until Wednesday morning when we got up to discover this...

...yes, that's barely an inch of snow, but was still (ridiculously) enough to ensure that our normal 10 - 15 minute journey from home to the motorway took 2 hours and 25 minutes instead.  We were unimpressed, especially when it became apparent that the cause of this level of chaos was the local authority failing to make any attempt at gritting the roads the night before - my rant on this subject on Twitter made the front page of the local paper the following day, which I found quite amusing! On the plus side, the cold weather and snow did mean we saw this rather lovely sunrise on the way to work the following day...

I also had a days work for a client in the City of London which made an interesting change. Not sure I would fancy doing the rush-hour travel on public transport on a daily basis, but as an occasional thing it is fine. it also means that I get the chance to see, and point the camera at, things like this...

...on the walk back to Liverpool Street - nice, eh? Good compensation for crowded trains and grumpy commuters, that is!


Friday 14 December 2012

Frugal Friday..

So, we have started washing our own cars, stopped giving money to Costalot Coffee shops and their high-priced brethren, and are dutifully carrying packed lunches to the office most days, the next place to turn attention might well be the stuff that you don't think you can make a difference to - how about those pesky utilities and household bills? This cold weather, where the dark evenings make time spent huddled indoors, are the perfect time to think through some of this stuff, and re-plan budgets...

Electricity and Gas - first step is to read your meters and submit the readings online if you have the ability to do this, otherwise call your suppliers with them. That ensures that they have the correct details and that you are not paying for fuel you've not used. Once that's done, time to start reducing the usage...
- Go from room to room - check what is plugged in and decide whether whatever it is needs to be.
- Laptops and anything with an inline power-adaptor uses power even when powered down if it's plugged in and the power is flowing. Switch off from the socket when not in use.
- Likewise TV's and stereo's on standby - standby still uses power - use the off-switch instead!
- Are you on Economy7 electricity? If so a timer-switch is your new best friend. use it to set washing machines, dishwashers and tumbledriers to run overnight if your living arrangements allow.
- Don't tumbledry if the weather is good enough, and you have the facility to dry outside. Even quite a small balcony will take an airer, and you can dry a surprising amount outside on one of those on a warm sunny day!
- You can also use your airer indoors of course, but be cautious of damp developing.
- Turn your heating down - if you're in short sleeves, indoors, in December, then you can turn it down quite a long way once you've popped a jumper on!
- If you're using the oven try to cook several things at one time.
You might find you can acquire one of those energy monitors that attaches to the meter out-cable from your energy company free of charge, or some libraries loan them out - it's astonishing what things you can track down as power-guzzlers! Remember also to turn out lights when you're not in a room, and consider changing regular light bulbs for low energy where you can - with table-lamps though be careful that the fitting is suitable - otherwise they can actually use MORE power!

Water - are you on a meter already? If not, Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis recommends that if you have more bedrooms than people living in your home, then most will definitely make a saving by switching to a meter, same number, and it's worth considering, less, and savings are less likely if you're in an area with average priced water rates. HOWEVER - and this is the biggie - when you take the decision to switch, you have 12 months to then change your mind at which point you can revert back to a rated bill, no problem. For most people that could be a bit of a win-win situation! If you are in a flat with one central main pipe coming in, then you may not be able to revert.

Telephone - Analyse what sort of user you are - we for example make most of our calls from our mobiles, or communicate with friends and family by text & email, meaning that a basic land-line package with standard inclusive free weekend and evening calls is great for us. If you are at home a lot during the day and making calls one of these packages could be expensive for you though, you might be better with one that includes daytime calls as well for a fixed additional cost. it may be that you feel you don't require a landline at all - although if you take this step you MUST be sure to have a fully charged mobile handy in the event of needing to make an emergency call, and if you want broadband many providers require you to have a landline too.

TV/Broadband/Telephone packages - sometimes these are cheaper, but not always. Are you paying for a TV package that you simply aren't using - for example if you only watch films once or twice a month there is little point in paying for Sky Movies, you would be better with a pay-per-view postal DVD or download service. Likewise Sports channels - we remove our sports package from the bundle over the winter months as the sport we use it for - speedway - isn't on then. Paying for it for only seven months of the year can save as much as £100! How about your broadband - if you're constantly being charged extra for going over your download limit it might be worth checking how much extra you would pay to go to an unlimited deal.

Mobiles - ah now this is a good one! I was on a contract for years - it gave me masses of free minutes, more texts than you can shake a stick at, and the same package now would include 500mb of data a month. The only problem was, my £20 a month was being wasted as I didn't use that many minutes, and barely made a dent in the text allowance! When I bought the iPhone I switched to Pay As You Go - my provider trebles whatever credit I put on, which makes my calls & texts free for a month, and they also give me a free 500mb data-bundle as a thank you for topping up £15 at a time, so that's a months-worth there, too! the second month I add a data-bundle and a text bundle - at £5 each, and the whole process gets repeated for month 3. So from £20 a month on contract, I have dropped to an average £7.50 per month - quite a saving! Obviously in my case the phone was a big expenditure, however I've now had it for three years, my contract over the time would have cost me over £700, whereas PAYG has cost just £270 - so as things stand the phone is effectively cash neutral. It also gets used for business as well as personal use of course.

So how much do you reckon you could save? Or maybe you've already done these work-throughs, and can think of a few extra ideas for people to try?


Lovely OrkneyFlowers has joined in with Frugal Friday again this week - click her name to read the post!

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Getting Competitive...(Part 2)

Here you go then, time to share another couple of the pics I've entered for the photo competition over on the website. I'm extremely flattered that my pics seem to be getting quite a bit of attention - far more than I expected!

North Uist:

This is probably my personal favourite of the pictures I've entered. For a start I had to really work for the shot - this was taken from the top of North Lee - 263m of uneven ground with a long walk-in. Of course the long lead in means you know you've had a walk by the time you even get the base of the hill.... As you can see from this though it was well worth the scramble! I realised part way up that the ferry was due a short time later, and was utterly determined to make it in time to see her come in.
The link for this pic is here: - If you'd like to give it a vote in the competition for me you need to go to the buttons below the pic on that link, and either "share", "Like" or "Tweet" to give it a vote.

South Uist:

This was taken on a lovely walk at Lochcarnan, South Uist. Initially the light seemed distinctly unpromising, but as we approached this abandoned cottage all of a sudden the clouds shifted and presented a scene just begging for a bit of mono-moodiness. This is one of those places where there are ruins next to ruins too - just to the left of where I was standing was the ruins of what was presumably the family's blackhouse, which they had obviously left to move into the one pictured.... although the entire settlement has now been abandoned. 
The link for this one is and the same thing applies, to vote, click on the link, then on "Like" "Tweet" or "Share" below the image. 

Thank you!


ps - there appears to be some issues with links on Blogger at the moment so the links here appear in full in case they are not clickable.

Friday 7 December 2012

Frugal Friday

Last week we talked about "The Mindshift" - when you start actively seeking to change the way you live - this week is all about "The Downshift" - the bits that come next.

Deciding you want to change the way things are is almost the easy bit, in some ways, when it happens, it's not necessarily a big flashy lights, chorus girls and fireworks type thing, it's more likely to be a quiet realisation of the fact that you're ready to move to a new phase. How to go about that though can be far more difficult - when we first started we had no idea how to go about making the changes - we just knew that we wanted to see actual money in our accounts at the end of each month, not simply have our pay returning us back to zero again! Tackling one thing at a time can be the way forwards - for example:

- Stop throwing the car keys to those nice chaps in the supermarket car park and paying them to wash it. A sturdy bucket can be bought for £1, as can a pack of large sponges, and car shampoo is not much more (in fact I bet 99p stores do that, too!) - doing the job yourself gives you a chance to check for any scratches or knocks to the paintwork, too. Don't be tempted to economise still further though and use washing up liquid - it's appallingly bad for the paintwork and will prove to be a false-economy!

- While we're on the subject of the car - think about fuel economy. Empty out any rubbish you've got hanging about in there, and sort out the clutter in the boot - do you really need everything that you're carrying about? Remember that heavy acceleration and sharp braking is not only poor for economy, it's piss-poor driving too, so cut it out - a little bit of looking ahead will make you far better and safer driver. If your car has one of those trip computers that shows the Miles Per Gallon set it to show this on the dashboard - that will make you think. My 1.5 litre diesel can do 65mpg on a good day! Think about your speed too - if you'd usually drive at 70mph on the motorway, cutting back by 5mph will make almost no difference to your time of arrival, but quite a lot of difference to your pocket.

- Stop heading into one of those faceless big-brand coffee shops each morning out of habit. If a number of you in the office are doing this why not agree to club together on buying a coffee machine - those that take the "pods" can make a seemingly endless number of different styles of coffee at a fraction of the cost per cup of buying from a chain. Alternatively there is the option of a cafetiere or one of those little stove-top espresso makers, if you have facilities for such a thing? If your walk to the station or bus is short enough why not invest in an insulated mug and make your brew before leaving home - lovely to have a hot drink while you're standing at a nippy bus-stop or on a damp platform, too!

- As above - buying lunch each day could be costing you the earth! Even the cheapest of the supermarket "Meal deals" is around £3 a day - in the course of a working year this could mean you parting with over £700! The simple switch to buying packets of rolls and sandwich fillings to put in them, or a pack of cup-soups to eat with them, could save you a fortune. Buying multipacks of fruit with your weekly syhop is cheaper than buying individual items each day - you could always take them all into work on a Monday and leave in your drawer.  A friend has recently started taking those "Add water and leave to stand" flavoured couscous packets for her lunches and loves it - fab to have something hot in the middle of the day, and if its raining, you don't even have to go out and buy it!

- If you and your friends/family/workmates all buy assorted magazines each month why not organise a swap? Each person buys one mag that they would have bought anyway, and you all swap about - the same reading material for a fraction of the cost. Also remember the free magazine - at some supermarkets, railways stations etc. You never know what you might learn!

- If you are going to be travelling somewhere by train, try buying your ticket in advance via Red Spotted Hanky or a similar site. Even our little short-hop into London can be booked the day before at a saving, and the more notice you have of your intended date of travel, the higher the saving can be. Remember my recent trip to Sheffield and back for just £6.50 return?  Also think if you are travelling any distance whether a train ticket booked in advance like this may even be cheaper than using the car? MrEH and I are off to Manchester next year - we have booked train travel there and back for just £48 for the two of us - it would cost us more than this in diesel!

Things to remember...
- A little planning goes a long way
- The sooner your finances get sorted out, the sooner you can resume some of the things you are giving up - if you want to, that is!
- Life without "stuff" can be so much more pleasant!
- Don't confuse "Frugality" with tightness, or meanness of spirit. Neither are attractive traits and they stand out a mile in those suffering from them!
- There will always be those who don't wish to join in - live & let live. They will either come round or, in ten years of so, will be suffering a serious case of the green-eyed monster.
-The meals you make, for yourself, from scratch, will always taste better than anything that required you to "pierce film lid" before cooking.
- home made bread is one of the nicest smells in the world.
- It is much, much nicer, to know that there is money in the bank to cover an unexpected bill, than to have to panic that one might arrive.


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Getting competitive! (Part 1)

I rarely enter photo competitions, in spite of people regularly telling me that I "should". In part it's the knowledge that actually, put up against people who take time over setting up shots, getting to the location at the crack of dawn to get the right light, and working out all their settings with a technical precision, my stuff is little more than snapshots. Partly though - and, if I'm honest, probably the greater part, is that I simply can't be bothered. Mostly it requires sizing shots precisely, having taken them in the right format in the first place, or worse, getting prints made and sent off - ugh! However, recently I came across an online competition on one of the Hebridean Island sites that even I could muster the enthusiasm for. The rules were basically - upload your pics - one per island across 8 islands, then plug them shamelessly to get folk to "share" the pic. the five with the most "shares" from the site page at the end of the competition will be declared winners. Of course not being up there, with lots of friends and relatives who are using the site regularly, is leaving me at a slight disadvantage - however, what I DO have is you lovely lot - so who fancies giving me a hand? First off though you need to see the shots of course.....I'll share a couple per post over the next little while, and tell you a bit about each one.


One of our favourite walks this - a fairly gentle hill, Rueval is the only real high point on Benbecula but with the rest of the island being fairly low-lying this means it affords some simply amazing views. The path you see winding its way through the picture is another great walk - nice and flat for the most part, with reasonably good footing, and it goes out for miles with great views of all sorts of wildlife as you go - we did one of the local RSPB's "Raptor Walks" out there one evening this year with the lovely Stuart who was great fun and very entertaining. We didn't see many Rapors but it was a nice wander nonetheless.

The link to this one is here: View of Benbecula from Rueval - If you'd like to give it a vote in the competition for me you need to go to the buttons below the pic, and either "share", "Like" or "Tweet" to give it a vote.


This is the rather lovely Princes Strand - said to be the landing place of Bonnie Prince Charlie - Charles Stuart. This shot was taken from a rather convenient viewpoint just along from the ferry terminal. This is one ferry trip that it's WELL worth turning up early for as you can stroll along the road and take a look at one of the most beautiful views on the islands.

The link for this one is here: Princes Strand, Eriskay - and the method is the same as above.

All votes gratefully received, and I hope you like my choice of photos!


Sunday 2 December 2012


I've been going through lots of old Hebrides photos over the last few weeks, searching out entries for an online photo competition I decided to enter. It's been good fun - so often the temptation is to take the shots, then post some on here, maybe get them printed into a photo book, but then just leave them gathering virtual dust on a hard drive. what a shame this is, and how much I would mourn some of these old shots if they were lost, was brought home to me recently.

Having taken the decision to replace the rather tired, never-worked-terribly-well laptop while there was still a wheezing semblance of life left in it, it naturally followed that the Desktop PC decided to die a few weeks later. There was a slightly worrying whine, a sort of whirring noise, and then the machine quietly shut itself down. I think it was quite a peaceful death, however it did leave us with a quandary. I'm pretty good at backing up photos - stuff from the laptop gets copied to the external hard drive, things get duplicated from machine to machine, and everything of any particular personal value (Hebrides stuff in particular) gets kept on memory cards, too. I did realise at that stage though that I am more shoddy than I should be about backups for other things. More vital things, some might say, like work records and my tax spreadsheet. That sort of thing. For the last 6 weeks or so it's felt as though EVERY file I've wanted has been on the hard-drive from the old machine. The inaccessible hard drive. There has been foot-stamping. Finally this week we got around to ordering the bit of kit that would enable us to access everything again, and this has lead to much going through old pics, remembering back to old holidays and the things we did.

The shot above was taken on Benbecula, the year I first started playing with Canon's bundled editing software and discovered "Photostitch" - a surprisingly good panorama creating. There were a good number of pano shots taken that year! It was the first year we spent a full fortnight up there too, so lots and lots of photos!

Oh, and lesson learnt - the first job when we got access to the old hard drive? To copy everything across to the new machine, of course!


Friday 30 November 2012

Frugal Friday...

I've mentioned before I think, that a few years ago circumstances meant that with little warning I found myself taking the plunge into becoming self employed, and our household income fell by a third, overnight. Thankfully, three years before that we had (with the aid of a good friend) found Martin Lewis' fantastically helpful  site, and it's excellent and informative forums, had overhauled our finances and started overpaying our mortgage, but most important of all, we had adjusted our mindset. This was what made the drop in income easier to bear in some ways. As things stood, we were paying around an extra £300 per month to the mortgage, and stashing a good sum into savings too - once those were taken into account, the drop in income didn't actually need to affect our day to day standard of living to a great extent, particularly as along with the drop in income, there were also some drops in expenditure - notably me no longer doing around 1000 miles each month commuting to and from my old workplace.

As commutes go, this one would be OK...
For anyone in debt and struggling to get out of it, looking to bring your household expenditure down to a level which more closely matches your income, or simply looking to improve your monthly cashflow, save some pennies, and learn about budgeting,  I couldn't urge you more strongly to visit MSE if you haven't already. There you will find everything from hints and tips for minimising fuel use in your car, to suggestions as to how you might live more cheaply, to advice on how to find the best price for home, pet or car insurance. If your concern is debt-related, then the Debt Free Wannabe board on the forum is your first port of call, this is just a massive fund of really REALLY good advice, from people who understand your situation. I pop in there occasionally even now - it does no harm to remind yourself from time to time just what true hardship is - there are people posting there in utter desperation, having been in many cases left knee-deep in debt through no fault of their own, but as a result of a partner leaving them unexpectedly, or even, in some cases, through bereavement. Some of the tales are truly heartbreaking - I've been left in tears on many occasions and your heart just goes out to these folk. All though, have finally found a place where not only will they be listened to, but where also they can get excellent advice on what to do - and in some cases more importantly what NOT to do - next.

We truly are fortunate. Yes, our combined income is still some way below where it would have been before, but we are still able to make that - for us - all important overpayment to the mortgage each month. It's not massive, it's true, but it's sufficient that if we continue at the level we are, we shall hope to have the mortgage cleared by this time in 2018 - having paid it off in 15 years rather than the scheduled 25. Saving these days is tricky - there is little spare at the end of each month, but what there is gets stashed away into savings, and we make a point of setting money aside each month towards Christmas, car repairs, and the all important Hebrides trips. We refuse to compromise on the food we eat - I've said before, we will not put processed crap into our bodies simply to save money. Nor will we eat foods that we know have been produced more cheaply by economising on the quality of life of the animal they originate from - so this means no battery eggs or EU pork. We have all we need, and a good many luxuries besides. We don't say we "can't afford" things - as mostly, we could, if we wanted to, but we choose to spend our money elsewhere.

"But I'm HUNGRY! Really I am!"

We are well above the poverty or "survival" line - if you are in doubt about how much survival would cost you, then write down all your absolutely necessary expenditure - the things you HAVE to pay - rent/mortgage, council tax/service charge if you pay it, water, electric, gas. If you have central heating then reduce the figure you currently spend on heating by half and go and put a jumper on. (We spend a combined total of £45 per month currently on gas & electric - and bear in mind our heating is electric too - this costs more to run for the same amount of heat than gas central heating. I refuse to allow the house to get so cold that damp starts forming - this is no good for either the fabric of the building or your own health)  Food - we spend £150 per month tops on food for us and HRH The Cat, and cleaning materials - if needed this could easily be reduced to £100. Travel to work needs to be included, as do basic toiletries - and by basic, you can buy a basic set of deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and shower gel for under £2 from the supermarket value ranges. Insurances too - failing to be insured correctly is a false economy. Finally if you *need* to run a car (in our case our work commute is far, far cheaper by car than it would be by public transport - in fact, we run two cars for a fraction of the cost that public transport for our commutes would cost - we always joke that in effect MrEH's car is "free"!) then the cost of tax, insurance and a basic maintenance/depreciation budget.  Add the lot together - that figure is your survival budget. You can leave out telephone (a cheap PAYG mobile used for essential calls only would be far cheaper than line rental on a landline), TV (the license alone is £12 per month, before you think about the cost of cable or satellite), internet, any travel beyond that which HAS to be done, makeup, new clothes (Charity shops are excellent these days). All these things are nice to have,  and even the most hardened voluntary frugalista is unlikely to actually give up all of them, but none of them are actually essential.
Categorically NOT a luxury!
Next time you find yourself saying "We can't afford...." or "we can get by, but only just, it's a struggle" stop and think - are things REALLY that tough? When you actually have money, but are choosing not to spend it on "stuff", then frugality is little more than a game, essentially. It may be a means to an end, enabling you to save money on mortgage interest, save for things you want, or simply in order to live more simply, but be careful to make sure that you keep realistic and are prepared to acknowledge that, in fact, poverty and real hardship is a long way off. Apart from anything else, failing to do this is nothing short of a downright insult to those for whom life genuinely IS a financial struggle!


Thursday 29 November 2012

Farne Islands...part 2.

As I mentioned previously, well, some months ago when I wrote the first of these two posts, the seals were only part of the wildlife we saw on the Farne Islands trip recently. The Farnes are also home to a vast number of seabirds, from Guillemots and Razorbills, via Terns & Kittiwakes, through to the adorable but extremely strange looking Puffins of course...

Although they are National Trust Islands, the regular boat trips only really run out there during the breeding season - May, June & July, allowing people to visit, and photograph these amazing birds when the largest numbers of them are present on the islands. The majority of the Puffins are resident on Staple Island (the one we visited previously back in 2008 - see the album on the main site for photos from this) while Inner Farne (where we landed this time) is the main place for the Terns. Indeed, on coming ashore from the boat one of the first things we realised was that you REALLY need to watch your step - the things are everywhere!

There were Terns on the walkways, fences, gateposts.....wherever there was something to perch on, there was a Tern. Some of them were rather young and helpless looking, too - this one for example cried steadily for food all the time we watched - periodically Mum or Dad would arrive, ram something into the waiting beak, and then fly away again, at which point the cries resumed!

There were a good number of Puffins about, but nothing like as many as we saw on Staple Island on our last trip. Those that there were seemed content enough to pose for photos though thankfully...

Mostly though this trip was about the Terns - it's only when you see them close up that you realise how stunningly beautiful they are...

Fabulous colouring, and that amazing almost transluscent wing structure. They're feisty little devils though - in the main breeding season you are advised to wear a cap and old clothing as they have a habit of dive-bombing and pooing on people...thankfully by the time we got there they had remembered their manners and mostly behaved, except for one which took a dislike to MrEH and went after him. No photos I'm afraid - I was laughing too much. 

We certainly want to make further trips to the Farnes, and hope one day to manage to do both Islands, although as things stand we well and truly got our moneys worth from this trip, getting much MUCH longer than you usually do on the Island itself, and a fabulous cruise round in stunning weather, too.