Friday 30 March 2012

Frugal Friday...

A good pal of ours has recently started trying to do more cooking at home. This has been sparked in a large part because he has dicovered how much cheaper it is to cook and eat this way. One thing that has come to light in our discussions on this subject is that he has relatively little in the way of what I would consider to be basic everyday essentials for meal-planning. This got me thinking - I can't imagine life without our storecupboard, we bulk buy when prices are cheap, using special offers and the likes of Approved Food and the market stalls. As and when the last packet of one of the "staple" items gets started, a replacement goes on the shopping list.

So, what items do we consider essentials? Well....
Herbs & Spices: We buy in reasonable quantity, either from Ethnic supermarkets or from Fox's Spices who always have a stall at the Good Food Show. Whole spices keep well if stored in a cool dark place, and even ready ground items can be kept for a good time in this way. Cumin, Coriander, chilli (flakes and powder) and peppercorns - ideally black & green. Allspice is a fantastic addition to...well, anything really, and a mixed sweet spices is a great sandard for all sorts of baking. Through the summer I prefer fresh herbs to dried, with the exception being tarragon which we have always found difficult to grow. I do always have dried thyme and sage in the cupboard, and a generic "Italian mixed herbs" ideal for popping into a bolognese sauce or sprinkling over tomatoes before oven-roasting.
Pasta, Rice Pulses & Grains: Don't assume that the big 3kg bags of pasta sold by the supermarkets are the cheapest way to buy - quite often the "Discount Brands" 1kg bags are substantially better buys - always check the "Price per 100g" before you decide. Basmati rice - should ideally say "product of Pakistan" on it somewhere - and have that very distinctive smell...mmmm! Also long grain, Arborio, Paella and pudding rices. Dried yellow split peas make a wonderful indian dhal, red lentils are great added to stews.  Cous Cous is a great quick and easy alternative to the more traditional carbohydrates - simply measure the amount you want into a bowl, add the same amount of boiling water, pop a plate over the top and leave it to steam while you prep the accompaniment. Porridge Oats - Tesco Value are exactly the same thing as the branded version. Useful for all sorts of baking; as an ingredient in bread, muffins and cakes, as a bulker in stews etc. As a handy bonus, they also make a tasty breakfast! I also always have oatmeal in - again this is useful in baking, and a handful added to a stew not only thickens but adds a gorgeous creaminess to the gravy. It's increasingly difficult to get down here in England though - I buy a bag when we are in the Hebrides and bring it back with me.
Coffee, Tea & Sugar: The first two are always bought in quantity when on offer. Coffee is one of the very few things we buy branded versions of - Ben prefers Nescafe - he has tried various alternatives but really doesn't like them as much. When we see a multibuy offer for it we buy several jars at a time. I'm more experimental with tea-bags and will generally buy whichever are cheapest - I have an Aldi own brand at the moment and honestly, I hadn't noticed the difference between those and the Tesco ones I had last time - and neither did my Mum when she drank a cup the other day! Granulated sugar is cheapest bought in 5kg bags as a rule - we use it for bread and baking as well as some preserving. If you only use it in smaller quantities though check out the pound shops, or Lidl.
Bread Flour and other baking ingredients: Bread flour seems to be one of the worst items for the supermarkets cynical pricing policy - it regularly fluctuates between 68p for a 1.5kg bag right up to over £1 - and as ever with the supermarkets where one goes, the rest will follow. We make the majority of our own bread...or the bread machine does, any saving we can make by stocking up on this when it's cheap is welcome. I also always keep Plain and Self-Raising flour (Supermarket Value or Basic ranges), suet (for dumplings, puddings and pies) and a selection of dried fruit. Supermarket value ranges again for mixed dried fruit, dried apricots and sultanas. Bicarbonate of Soda is used for cleaning as well as baking, and is bought in bulk from the chinese supermarket. Yeast comes from Doves Farm - again via their Good Food Show stall.
Preserves: We make our own marmalade and chutneys, and trade these with Ben's Mum for Jams, jellies and fruit cheeses. A jar of home made marmalade also makes a great additional christmas gift - simply pop a square of pretty fabric over the lid, and tie with a ribbon and a gift tag.
As well as the dry goods, we always have salted and unsalted butter, lard & dripping in the fridge. Goose fat if we can get it, and sunflower, olive and sesame oils. Another fridge "staple" is a block of (preferably) extra mature cheddar cheese - the better the flavour of the cheese, the less of it you need to use. Again, buy when on offer.  Soy sauce - if you can only stretch to one then get dark - masses of flavour. Vinegar - there is more to life than Malt! Balsamic - for a simple dressing for salads, white wine and cider. Aspalls do a fabulous Apple Balsamic Vinegar which makes a truly special dressing. Tins of Chick peas make a great quick humous or veggie curry, and kidney beans added to bolognese sauce bulk out and turn it in to a chilli. Chopped tomatoes are another absolute 'must have' - preferably non-value branded as you get a thicker juice in those - depends on the special offers though! Finally baked beans - Branston ones ideally - regularly available for 4 for £1 in Lidl - that's cheaper than Tesco Value!

Do you have a storecupboard? If so, what are your essential items for filling it? And just as interestingly, if you don't, why is that?


(Mosaic made, as ever, using BigHugeLabs Mosaic Maker - thanks to Sue at The Quince Tree for introducing me to this!)

Friday 23 March 2012

Frugal Friday...

The price of groceries seems to be increasing week on week at the moment, most of us are finding the things we buy regularly seem to be getting steadily more expensive, and promotions such as Tesco's Big Price Drop and Morrisons Price Crunch only seem to serve to push the prices up, so they can subsequently be "Dropped" or "Crunched"! My grocery budget is under constant scrutiny - I feed the two of us, Plus HRH The Cat, for £150 per month, and keeping within this means shopping around, searching out the best deals, and buying products when they are on offer. When I get vouchers from the tills they get used to stock the storecupboard (more on that in a future post) - £20 spent in Tesco is a big shop for me, and when I get a "£5 off when you spend £40" that requires major forward planning!
As well as using the supermarkets (and I have little loyalty to one or the other - if they offer me a big enough discount on what I want to buy I'll shop there. If they don't, I'll shop somewhere else!) I buy from Chinese supermarkets, Cash & Carrys, Indian Supermarkets, Farmers Markets and market stalls. The cheapest places, basically, to purchase what I want, at the lowest possible price. Occasionally I also buy from a company called Approved Foods. They (and others like them) sell short-dated or past Best Before dated food at knockdown prices, and are a great boon to the frugal shopper. Our latest order has just been delivered, and a quick look at the delivery note tells me that according to the RRP I have had £136 worth of goods delivered, which has cost me the grand total of £40 - including delivery. The delivery charges are quite steep, so it pays to get as close to the maximum weight allowed as possible. So, what did I get in my two huge boxes then? Well......

 The trick is to be selective and choose the stuff that will really save you money. The bottles of squash at the back of this picture? 2 for £1. Bought in the supermarket? At least £2 for the two. The coconut milk....50p a can from AF - at its cheapest normally approaching double that. The huge tins of chopped tomatoes were £1.49 each, they are equivalent to over 6 standard sized cans and each one will do a massive batch of bolognese...or maybe chilli, with the 20p red kidney beans! I did get slightly sidetracked....the bottle of Cranberry drink at the front - 29p but pure indulgence. 5 little bars of Green & Black's chocolate for £1 sneaked into the box as well..... these things happen. :-) What I won't do it buy things that I could make better myself - so no cake mixes, yorkshire pudding batter mixes or suet pastry mix. For me, those are simply not a saving as they are all so easy to throw together myself, in the quantity I need and fresh every time.

Biggest bargain this time would be 12 sachets of Sharwoods Thai Red Curry paste for 49p. Total cost of the items in the picture above....£5.54.  If you were to buy in the supermarket I bet just the Cous Cous in the middle would be more than that! As well as what you see here there is also naan breads, masses of crisps (Ben has a packet each day with his lunch), a 7.5kilo bag of long grain rice, savoury crackers, a couple of those fajita kits (at 50p each, less that just the cost of buying the tortillas on their own) and lots more. Great fun unpacking the boxes....less so playing storecupboard reverse-jenga in a bid to get everything stored, and there is just a small chance that the cupboard used for storing tins in the kitchen may collapse at some stage....
What little tricks have you developed to make your grocery budget stretch further? Do you stock your storecupboard in this way, or simply  buy things as you need them? What's been your best shopping budget-saver recently?

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Up close and....

It's been glorious here today - bright sunshine, blue skies, white fluffy clouds. Naturally, as a result of this, I have been stuck in waiting for a parcel to be delivered (grrrr!) which didn't turn up (double Grrrr!) so my limit for enjoying the fabulous weather was a mooch round out pocket-handkerchief sized bit of garden. As you may remember a week or so ago we sowed our first seeds of the year - joy, some are beginning to emerge from the soil! Look!

Lettuces! And other salady type leaves. This is the planter which I scattered the crushed eggshells around the edges of to deter the pesky slugs and snails - lets hope the eggshell trick works now as I don't want to lose these little fellas to the slime-brigade. There are lots of seedlings so fingers crossed we might get a decent crop. Elsewhere there is less life to be seen....

 Cayenne Peppers and assorted tomatoes still sleeping. As it was warm enough today I opened the front of the mini-greenhouse to let some air circulate. It's done up nice and snug again overnight though - it's still getting quite chilly once the sun goes down, even if the daytimes are so springlike now. I was reading on another blog today about Other People's Herbs and it got me thinking....we have mint, savoury, oregano, rosemary, 2 mighty fine bay trees, some parsley and chives. The only thing we currently have *enough* of though to actually use is the chives.....see......

 ....that is a chive plant with a lopsided haircut. Poor thing, the parsley next door is probably goading it with "did you do that for a bet" type comments. Oh well - the parsley's turn for a dodgy trim will come. I'll want some basil, but having had little success in the past growing it from seed, I've decided to take the lead of the lovely Fay and free a supermarket concentration-camp one at some stage. That worked reasonably well last year for me, although not quite to her standard! Other than that, I seem to vaguely recall scattering some coriander seed in with the random salady type things in the trough at the top here....I guess we'll see when the seedlings start developing personalities of their own!

In the meantime, that Pulmonaria is still blooming away, and still attracting the bees.....

I *think* that this one is a Common Carder bee? There were lots of them about the plant anyway, and several Bumblebees too - which reminds me, both Ben & I have in the last couple of weeks found Bumblebees stranded in the shade on pavements and footpaths - in both cases we've been able to move them into a patch of sunlight where they can sit and "recharge their batteries" to get enough energy to take off. Poor little things.  next things to burst into flower in the garden will undoubtedly be our rather lovely tulips - we usually miss the best of their display through being away so it will be nice to actually get the benefit of them this year. The cheque for the balance of the holiday cottage got dropped into the postbox today so the clock is ticking now.....we've got several more adventures planned before then, though!


Saturday 17 March 2012

Scrap Bag Saturday...Cupboard love.

Joining in with Dreamer at Living a Slow & Simple Life for this one today. Thanks for the inspiration D!

One of the things on my To-Do list since we decorated the front room a while ago has been to find some suitable bits of replacement furniture for it. Years ago we 'inherited' an elderly nest of tables from my Grandmother - they were looking a bit tired when we got them, and after ten years further use have really got past the point where we want to live with them anymore. They're laminated, and the laminate is peeling off in places, so repainting wasn't really an option, and frankly, they've served their time. To replace the nest we actually need just two new tables - a coffee table for next to the sofa, and some kind of smaller lamp table or unit for the other side of the room. While browsing round the charity shop today, I found just the thing for the second of those.....

Yes, it's an over-varnished pine chest of drawers, but on closer inspection it is also sturdy, nicely made, with proper drawer bases rather than the chipboard that bends and eventually falls out that you get in cheaper units, and that lovely curving line top and bottom at the front.....really rather sweet,and instantly screamed to me that it could be made into something far nicer. Best of all was the price - £7! A bargain like that was always coming home with us! Straight after lunch I started work - first removing the knobs from the drawers, and then sanding down the rest of the unit.

I didn't worry about sanding off every last scrap of the old varnish - I jut wanted to "key" the surface enough to ensure that the new paint would cling OK..

All sanded down, I wiped over the whole thing with a sightly damp cloth to get rid of any traces of dust from the sanding. Then it was time to get on with the painting. I still had the remains of the paint we used for the front room, and felt that using those two colours would be a nice way of fitting the unit into the room. Note the "Paint stirring stick" on top of the right hand tin - doesn't every household have several of these?!

Several coats of paint later, and while the final coat dried I had a rummage through the cupboard and found the bag of spare knobs from our kitchen units. For some strange reason our predecessors left us a bag with about 20 of these...there are only 8 of them in the whole kitchen! Two more are now in use though - screwed onto the drawers from this unit they finished the thing off perfectly...

So there you go - a £7 charity shop pine unit given a new lease of life with a few coats of some paint we had anyway. It's the first time I've attempted anything like this and I'm really pleased with the way it's turned out - I wouldn't hesitate to urge anyone else to have a go as well, I've not in any way over-simplified what I did - it was as simple as it sounds!


Friday 16 March 2012

Frugal Friday...

I'm often at home for lunch, several days a week, and as a result, coming up with ideas for cheap lunches can be a bit of a struggle. 'Cup a Soups' and similar are suitably cheap (usually bought when on 2 for 99p in the 99p Shop) but are also UNsuitably full of nasties, and not terribly filling. Filled rolls or pittas are nice, but then you need to come up with a filling of some description. salads are lovely, but not every day..... Anyway, with all that in mind, and searching for ways of using up the glut of carrots I seem to have in the fridge (I usually buy just a few at a time, to avoid waste, but this time around Tesco were offering a big bag as part of a 3 for 2, making my carrots effectively free as I was buying the other products anyway....) and my mind turned to soup (Not literally you understand, although there are days....)  Specifically, Carrot & Red Lentil soup.

First step was to find a recipe - and as usual I turned to my failsafe "BBC Good Food" site, and quickly found a Jane Hornby recipe that looked like it should be adaptable.  Now, by adaptable, I mean adaptable by me leaving out the stuff I haven't got, adding more what I have, and tweaking the method if it looked like too much of a faff!  Case in point - the method on this one started by telling me to grate 600g of carrots. No. Life is way too short to grate carrots. I sort of chopped them roughly instead.  The idea of grating seems to me to be to reduce the cooking time right down - I just cooked it for longer, until the carrots were soft.

You start by toasting the spices - I used about a half teaspoon of each Cumin & Coriander - until they smell delicious and start trying to leap out of the pan. While they were toasting, I chopped the carrots, weighed the lentils, and made up a litre of stock...which was supposed to be vegetable, but I didn't have any veg stock concentrate, so I used an "Italian Herbs" cube instead (Yes Mum, one of those italian herbs cubes....I'll use them all up eventually!). Then everything goes into the pan together - I left the oil out altogether, and added a teaspoon of smoked paprika - and you simmer it all until it's cooked through. Once that was done, I left it to cool briefly before whizzing it with a hand blender - now personal taste comes into play here, you can whizz until completely smooth, whizz just enough to thicken slightly, but leave the soup chunky (although if you've grated your carrots, I can't believe there would be a lot of "chunkiness" in there!) or, as I have, leave just a little texture.

It was truly delicious. AND, what is more, the recipe quantities made four portions - good for four days lunches, and SO frugal! Costings (rough) as follows - based on the cheapest options I can find for each ingredient, so a big bag of value carrots, 2kg bag of lentils etc :
Carrots - one-third of a bag roughly - 25p
Lentils - 16p
Stock - if I was using my regular "Knorr Stockpot" concentrate, always bought on offer - then 19p
Milk - 13p
Spices etc - I'll call it a nominal 5p, we buy from indian supermarkets etc, and always in large quantities

So - four portions of soup = under 20p a portion. You could drag it down still further by using fresh veg stock you've made, using stock cubes, or even at a pinch plain water. I'll serve this up with a Value Pitta bread (6 for 20p in Tesco currently) and a blob of plain yogurt if I have some needing using.

I keep meaning to say, by the way, if anyone else wishes to join in with "Frugal Friday" please do - I would feel terribly flattered, just please do link back here as well, so I can see what frugalities are springing to mind for other people!


Tuesday 13 March 2012

A walk to Ware

One of my favourite walks recently has been along the towpath by the canal - from the Nature reserve at Amwell, through to Ware. A nice easy level walk where you can get a good pace going, and plenty to see on the way. Then you get to Ware, which has marvellous charity shops and is just perfect for a browse ahead of the walk back! So, come for a walk with me, and I'll show you what I mean....

Plenty of parking available on the road by the entrance to the nature reserve - so first stop is often at the hide to see what birds are about on the feeders.  Last time I was there, as well as this inquisitive Robin, there were Reed Buntings, Blue and Great Tits, Dunnocks, Chaffinches, a Greater Spotted Wodpecker and some adorable little Long Tailed Tits too.

These catkins caught my eye - the stillness of the day meant they were all hanging in perfectly straight lines - what a great sign of spring!  The stillness of the day also meant that the reflections of the trees in the canal were striking...

So, onwards, and a little further along, just as you approach the outskirts of Ware, there is a bridge over the canal from the footpath on one side back to the actual towpath. Usually I walk there along one side and back along the other - the towpath itself is nice but is also terribly popular with cyclists - hardly any of whom seem to have bells - and  also joggers and, worse, the power walking gangs of yummy-mummies - terrifying in their designer workout gear and immaculate makeup! What a lot of interesting stuff they miss though as they power along, looking only at each other and not enjoying the view - I'll stick to my slower pace please!

Just before you get to the town itself - what fun - a cafe on a narrowboat! "Table Service" it offers, for your "1970's style coffee - made with 100% milk!" - thankfully it seems that a perfectly ordinary cup of tea is also available. One of these weeks when a treat is in store I'll have to stop here and make use of it I think, maybe with a cheeky slice of cake, too!

So finally to the small town of Ware - famous for its malting industry. There is still a maltings not far away - French & Jupps - and this statue pays tribute to that history. Ware also has some mighty fine charity shops, which if I'm honest, is of more interest to me than the maltings! It's perfectly possibly to while away half a morning wandering from one to the next in search of interesting bargains! One seems to get some interesting clothes and homewares, while another gets some great fabric scraps - I got some bits from there recently for a project I plan to have a go at soon.

Finally, all charity shopped out and bags in hand, it's time to wander back along the towpath towards the car. On this particular walk I stopped to watch the  boat below come through the lock - there is something fascinating about a lock, don't you think? The sheer simplicity of the process...very clever indeed. This lucky lady looked to be thoroughly enjoying relocating her home anyway!


Sunday 11 March 2012

Garden Potterings..

It was a truly gorgeous day today - one of those March days that really gives you hope that not only has Spring sprung, it's intending to hang about for a while too. Just a perfect day for getting some work underway ready for a productive year from our pocket handkerchief of a garden. The actual veg patch space we have is tiny - less than 2m x 2m - so we have to plan carefully for growing as much additional stuff in containers of one sort or another as we can.  It also means that we can't really grow too much stuff that requires a lot of space - the room we have has to work hard and everything gets crammed in at far closer quarters than the seed packets demand! Anyway - first time for a little look at what is growing elsewhere...

... Ladybirds, it would seem! We always get a lot at the start of the spring, but this year we seem to be absolutely over-run with them! All good though, they eat lots of the pests that will make a nuisance of themselves otherwise. The other thing we have masses of is worms - we relieved my parents of a tub-full from their compost bin a few months ago, and by all accounts the little chaps are thriving on their diet of rather more citrus peel and onion trimmings than they are meant to like!

The first few flowers are showing themselves too - the pulmonaria above is looking as healthy as it ever has, and the bee on the left of the picture seems to be appreciating it too! I love this plant - we got a small plant from Auntie D's garden not long after we first moved here, popped it in a relatively shady spot, and away it went - the flowers come in all colours from pale pink through to deep blue, via various shades of mauve, and it flowers for months, too! The other bright spot was finding a good amount of new leaf breaking on our Clematis - we've struggled for years with keeping these alive - this one has now come through its second winter with us and appears to be doing well.

Anyway, time to get those seeds in. As usual we have planted a few of lots of different things. Leeks - sown in the traditional toilet roll centres - sown 2/3 to a tube. Those tubes will be planted directly into the ground as and when (if?!) the seedlings come through, and we probably won't thin them much either. Some Courgettes - "Eight Ball" - a round one that we know from experience has compact plants and prolific fruits. If those come up OK they will go into the flower bed side, where they should be fine. Some peppers - Cayenne for heat and Californian Wonder for sweetness. These will end up in pots, and will probably stay on the wall where they will get as much sunshine as possible and reflected warmth from the brickwork. Tomatoes - Alicante & Gardeners Delight. Again, these will get put into containers - of all shapes and sizes. Some large plant pots we got from Ben's Mum, a tub of the sort that mushrooms are wholesaled in which we found, an old bird-food bucket..... The trough has assorted salad type stuff in it, mustard greens, oriental leaves, and rocket.  As an experiment some Aubergines - we had the seeds, so decided to give them a go.

We planted some flowers too - Nasturtiums which cross the barrier between food and flower so far as we're concerned - the leaves are just delicious added to a burger, even better if it's a cheseburger, and the blooms not only taste good, but look beautiful in a salad. Then sweet peas - anything that we can use to climb up our slightly boring railings at the front of the flats just has to be good, so we always grow those. Plus they smell glorious and are wonderful as cut flowers, too.  Then finally three of our rather lovely blue china pots planted with a mix of all sorts of random things from the bottom of the seed box - pansies, violas, lobelia and more. We suspect most of those won't come up - some of them were incredibly old so the odds are against it, but we'll see!


Saturday 10 March 2012

For Today...

Outside my window...It is a dark, clear, evening, with just a faint chill in the air

 I am thinking...about having a whole day to ourselves tomorrow - no "must do's" or "we should's" - just us.

 I am thankful...for kind people who donate hardly used breadmakers to charity shops for me to find, and buy, at just £5.99!

 In the an experimental choc 'n' nut muffin cake - it was a good experiment and the cake is delicious!

 I am wearing...PJ's! Cow-print ones! Moooo!

 I am creating...or at least have plans for creating.....a bag from some fabric scraps I found in the charity shop.

 I am Ipswich Speedways first match of the new season on Thursday night. VERY excited about this - there is nothing like the feeling of anticipation one gets from the first meeting of the season!

 I am wondering...What seeds we might plant tomorrow - our  new mini-greenhouse is ready and waiting!

 I am reading...Real Fast Food - by Nigel Slater. I love his recipes - so simple, yet mouthwateringly tasty to even read about!

 I am hoping...that spring may now be upon us. Walking around earlier on there were daffodils showing their faces everywhere - so pretty!

 I am looking forward to...Lots of things - that speedway meeting, a visit to see a dear friend, and a weekend trip to Barcelona!

 I am learning...about networking for business purposes, and the possibilities thereof. Sounds dull, doesn't it....shhhh! It is, a little!

 Around the a little more washing up than I would ideally like.....

 I am pondering...On what style of bag I could make from my charity shop fabric. Any suggestions?

 A favorite quote for today..."De ja Moo - or the feeling that you have heard this particular kind of Bullsh*t before" (Jane Moore - Love is on the Air)

 One of my favorite things...To Do lists - no greater satisfaction than crossing things off a list!

 A few plans for the rest of the week: three days of work, two days of fun - now THAT is a good work/life balance!

A peek into my day...

This is more of a peek into tomorrow, really. It sums up what I'd like from my day tomorrow - some garden-based pottering, and tea. Lots of tea.


Taken from The Simple Woman's Daybook

Friday 9 March 2012

Frugal Friday

Martin Lewis' excellent website has just released its new "Mortgage Overpayment Calculator" - a super-handy tool that allows you to see just how much you could save on interest payments over the life of your mortgage by overpaying even a small amount each month. They announced this on Facebook earlier this week, and there have been a good many comments from folk since advocating overpaying, and sharing just how much they will have saved by doing so.  There have been a lot of comments from others though either saying there is no way they could do this, or asking how others manage it. I can't speak for others, but our story is fairly straightforward.
We took out our mortgage as first time buyers in 2003, when we bought this flat. We talked about overpaying then, but did nothing about it. We talked about it a few more times over the next few years too, but it wasn't until a chance conversation with a friend in 2007 that we finally "got it" - he showed me his spreadsheet showing the amount they were saving in interest payments, and how much earlier their mortgage would be clear as a result, and all of a sudden the lightbulb flickered into life!

Although enthusiastic, we started small, diverting an amount that let us feel we were doing "something" while not causing us any problem making ends meet. At the same time we scrutinised the terms of our mortgage to ascertain exactly what we were allowed to O/P - all lenders are different and you need to check whether yours will allow O/P's or you could get hit with penalties. It was good news for us - our deal at that time allowed unlimited overpayments plus the advantage of being able to withdraw the extra we had paid should we need to. With the green light given we set to thinking of ways we could pay a bit more...

There are lots of options- some people opt to transfer savings, with interest rates on savings being so low many folk see this as a better option. We set a rule - we would overhaul our finances and anywhere we could make savings, we would apply that saving to the mortgage. We sorted out the direct debits on our gas & electric, realised we were paying too much, clawed back the credit and cut down the direct debit. We set a budget for groceries, started making sure that everything got used, and cooked everything from scratch. We changed suppliers for TV, phone & broadband and made savings there. The monthly service charge on the flat was reduced a little - and that saving got put against the mortgage too. Basically, every time we managed to make a saving somewhere, we added that amount on to the monthly mortgage payment.

We're now paying more than 50% extra each month, and when we took a new mortgage deal at the end of last summer, we were able to shorten the remaining term by 5 years! Our new deal does have some restrictions on overpayments, but we have a few years to go yet before it will start causing problems, and a plan in place for dealing with it when it does!

If you're still thinking "we could never do that" then go, now, and prove yourself wrong. I've got an easy way for you to get started too - assuming you pay your council tax over 10 months, then this month, and last, you won't have had to pay anything. Last month's, well, let's face it, that's gone, probably a combination of a few extra morning coffees, a Burger King or two, and that sneaky Chinese takeaway, but this months should still be largely untouched. Give your mortgage company a call and start saving yourself money!

Wednesday 7 March 2012

What, No....

...Hebrides countdown shots yet?

Regular readers will recall that around this time of year I have usually started  my regular weekly posting of a shot from a previous years Hebrides shot, in order to "count down" to the next trip up there. This year, however, our timings are slightly different and we will be going across later in the year than normal - a great chance to see the islands at a slightly different time of year, along with all the different wildlife and plant life that should mean, too.

Going across later has meant that the finances have had to be given a tough evaluation. Going in a more "peak time" for tourism meant that our regular holiday cottage was simply too expensive for us, so we'll be staying somewhere new, albeit just a little further along the same road. It will be the first time we've stayed anywhere different since 2007, so it will be exciting having a new "home" to explore! The ferry tickets are the same price as they would have been had we gone up at Easter - once the summer timetable is set the prices are fixed, but we have had to book a lot further ahead than normal to be sure of getting our crossings. The majority of other expenses will only have increased according to inflation, but one thing we have given some thought to is the question of food costs. In terms of eating out, there is a chance that some of the hotels etc may have increased their prices a little for the tourist season, but the slightly odd one that might affect us is that, when we're planning to cook our evening meal at the cottage, we often call in to the Co-Op as we're passing in order to see what is reduced, and then plan our meals accordingly. It helps us to keep our costs down, the bargain hunting is fun, and it ensures a certain "Ready, Steady Cook" twist to our menu, as well!  The question will be, will there be fewer (as more people about) or more (as more stock bought in, and most tourists will avoid the reduced stuff) of the yellow stickered items to be hunted down? It will be interesting to see!

The shot above is Castlebay, Barra, familar to viewers of BBC TV's "An Island Parish" - and somewhere we usually try to take a day-trip to while we are up there. Barra was the location for the filming of the 1949 Ealing Comedy "Whisky Galore" based on the book by Compton MacKenzie, who lived on the island, and is buried at Cille Bharra cemetery.


Sunday 4 March 2012

Going Green...

We're keen to grow as much food as we can on our tiny patch of garden this year - we didn't do badly last year, in between a few beetroot, a very few runner beans, plenty of herbs, a few potatoes (after a thieving neighbour had the majority!), a few chillis and masses of lettuce (both thanks to far lovelier neighbours) and of course the stealth tomatoes. This year is going to be more of the same, plus a few extras we hope. One thing we always have problems with is actually bgetting seedlings to the point at which we can put them in the ground as sturdy little plants - we have very little space warm enough to bring them on - windowsills indoors are ruled out as HRH The Cat sees these very much as her territory, and anywhere outdoors is either too cold, or gets consumed by slugs and snails.  We've been talking for a while about buying one of the small freestanding greenhouses that are available, and thanks to a timely tip-off from my Mum earlier on about them being in stock at a store not too far away at a bargain price (£11.99), today we took the plunge.

"Easy to assemble" it said - and on opening the box we found that was very much the case - everything slots together, it's all just push-fit, and it rapidly became apparent where all the different component parts fitted. The tubes seem sturdy, and een the mesh shelves sat perfectly flat on the structure, unlike one far more expensive version we have seen where they were already twisted out of shape long before they got anything stood on them. The hardest part of putting it together was apparently tieing the tapes to keep the cover in the place at the back...

Eventually it was done though, so we rearranged things a little on the balcony and dragged it outside

A perfect fit! It even leaves room for a chair to one side - the only thing requiring rehoming at the moment is the bay tree in a pot - everything else has found a space, either inside the greenhouse for temporary storage (the bottom shelf won't get enough sunshine to grow things in so will form a permanent storage space for our many pots etc) or elsewhere on the balcony. This evening may well be spent sorting through our seeds and deciding what to grow! All of a sudden the possibilities are endless! Although the £12 spend was unplanned, if it helps us produce more edible stuff, then over the next few years it will more than pay for itself!


Friday 2 March 2012

Frugal Friday...

The end of a working week, and this evening, masses of people will be heading off down the road to the local Indian takeaway, or ringing them to deliver, to get the weekly chicken tikka masala and pilau rice. A couple of pints in the pub while waiting for it to be cooked, and, by the time you've added the usual bready accompaniments, and maybe a side dish or two, that's Friday evening for 2, with a spend of around £30 easily. Assuming that they do that every fortnight through the year that is over £700 down the drain - scary stuff eh?! Having braved the home made frugal fish and chips the other week, I thought that this week we would try a Frugalindian instead - so on the menu is curry with rice, dhal and naan bread (sort of)...all home made and at a fraction of the cost of that takeaway!

The dhal is the easy thing to get going - I use a Paul Merrett recipe from Economy Gastronomy and it never lets me down. Simply yellow split peas, garlic and spices, simmered in water until the peas break down completely and the whole thing forms a creamy goo. Once that was going, I turned my attention to the curry. As I had some previously made thai curry paste in the fridge needing using I decided that was the direction to go. A quick hunt through the freezer determined that we were going with a chicken curry, but this would work equally well with lamb, or even fish. I first threw finely chopped onion into a pan with some melted ghee, and added the curry paste, and some ginger/garlic mix from a jar we got for practically nothing at the Good Food Show in December. That lot fried off gently while I sorted my veg - as a general rule I work on the basis of including whatever needs using up in a curry, and tonight was no exception as the last of last weeks mushrooms and courgette went in, along with some frozen peppers as much for colour as anything else, and a tablespoon each of lime juice and fish sauce. A tin of coconut milk provided the liquid before I threw in the cooked chicken and set it to simmer.  Rather than doing Naan breads I decided to try the flatbread recipe from the River Cottage Everyday book - Hugh F-W's recipes usually work for me, and although I'd not tried this one before it was as easy and straightforward as his usually are - just four ingredients, flour, salt, oil and water, mixed into a dough, kneaded until smooth and left to rest, before forming into balls, rolling out and cooking on a hot pan. Easy peasy - and most effective.....

...very tasty too, they will get cooked again, espcially as I reckon the entire batch cost under 18p to make.

Rice was cooked the easy way - in the microwave steamer - with some coconut, cardomom pods and a few strands of saffron added. A quick bleep later and that was done and we were ready to plate up.

All in all a definite success - thai chicken curry, rice and dhal, with flatbreads, and I reckon the total cost was under £3 for the two of us - so a bit of a saving there over the takeaway! Washed down with a couple of beers bought on Morrisons "4 for £5.50" deal has just wrapped the night up nicely!

It's been a frugal day all round here - charity shop finds this morning were a candle making kit (pretty much complete - the moulds are missing but there is extra wax to compensate) and a three-quarter-length suede jacket - total cost £12.98. That'll do for me!

Have a great frugal weekend!