Friday 31 August 2012

Frugal friday...

...Get your priorities straight!

When we first turned this place into "Frugal Central", one of the first things I had to do was to go through our budgets....actually, no, scrub that, we didn't have budgets, this was one of our problems! OK then, go through our bank Statements, and draw up a list of exactly what we had to spend in a month, on the mortgage, council tax, water, gas & electric, phone, insurances, food and travel to and from workplaces. that was our "Priority figure" - then we continued listing, only everything from then on was classified as "luxury" - Sky TV, the mobiles, a takeaway here and there, our personal spending money. All nice to have, all things that make life that much sweeter, but none of them essentials.  Once we'd added everything up, the first thing we discovered was that we easily had enough to cover our essentials. Phew. And the "luxuries" we'd earmarked as well. Phew again. The aim back then was to save the money to pay off a loan we'd taken out to buy the car, and to be able to start overpaying on that pesky mortgage. A plan was needed.
Plaque on the pier - Southwold
First step: Draw up budgets, and stick to them. This took us overnight out of a situation where although our liabilities were always met (we are fortunate in that, other than that car loan, the mortgage, and a small amount of personal debt of Mr EH's, we were never the sort of people to run up huge debts simply on keeping up with the Jones's - for that I am eternally grateful) we always found that the amount of month left was slightly too long for the amount of money to service it. We'd also fallen into the overdraft trap - "everyone uses their overdraft, don't they?!" (they don't, the banks like you to think they do though). Once we discovered that it was possible to have money left over at the end of the month, we were fully up for trying to make the most of it. Takeaways became an occasional treat, magazine subscriptions were cancelled, and we started thinking about what shopping we actually needed before going to the supermarket.

Famous fish & chips - cheaper than the restaurants!
Second Step: Start working through where savings can be made. We had a tin where we put "Money we had made a conscious decision not to spend" - so not buying a photography magazine (me) or another beer in the pub (Mr EH) - £3 or so in the pot. Hand washing the car rather than taking it to the jetwash? £4. Not having a chinese on a friday night, but instead eating food we already had in the house? Wow - we're into double figures, now!  We decided early on, too, that we would put aside any "money we didn't know we had" - in other words, money that we hadn't expected to have, into savings, ready to hurl at that loan when the time was right - that mounted up surprisingly quickly. Expenses from work, claimed back several weeks after spending them, mileage payments for personal travel for work, on one occasion a sizeable rebate from our energy company - all got stashed away into that account.

Third Step: Analyse and question everything - energy bills are a good one here. we'd been blindly paying the amount we were told each month, without questioning it, OR thinking about the fact that as our supplier never quite "got around" to reading our electricity meter, there was every chance that their figures might be a bit out. They were - to the tune of about £300 in overpayments! I read the meter, and after a bit of a battle, got the money refunded to us. That went into the savings account, as did the amount saved every month when the monthly Direct Debit was reduced to the correct level. I started doing online surveys - they don't pay much, but every little helps, as they say, and using cashback sites wherever I could. we still do this now - with payrises or money shaved off utilities - we figure that as we never had it before, we won't miss it if it heads straight off to the mortgage! Go through your bank statements - make sure you know what EVERYTHING  that leaves your account is for, and that each and every payment is for something you need, or still use and can afford.

Cheers! Here's to the savings!
If you're struggling - remember, you MUST prioritise paying your rent or mortgage, your council tax, and your essential utilities plus insurances and road tax etc on any vehicles you might own. You SHOULD have insurances for your house, contents and any animals. You HAVE to eat. Beyond that though, it turns to the areas of WANT and LIKE - believe it or not, you could exist without a mobile phone and Sky TV, if you really had to!


Wednesday 29 August 2012

Getting my eye in...

With some promised upcoming Red Arrows display action approaching, I decided that a quick trip to the Clacton Airshow in order to get some practice in shooting something fast moving would be a good idea! Clacton is reasonably easy for us to travel to, and being a seafront airshow it's free admission as well, although I always either buy a programme or pop a donation in a bucket at these events - the displays you are watching are phenomenally expensive to book so in the interests of seeing them again in the future, put your hands in your pockets, people!  At Clacton a programme was just £3 - pretty reasonable considering it gives you a plan of the display area and also the timings for each of the displays as well as information about the planes you are seeing.

First step was to identify "display centre" which for the red Arrows show is where they will "centre" their close passes and synchro moves. The entire display pivots around this centre point - which is usually a large red or orange buoy or barrage of some description - so being as close to it as possible is essential for getting the best pictures you can. (There are exceptions to this however - if you ever get the chance to watch one of these displays from a hill overlooking the display area then go for it for a completely different perspective on the whole thing!) With an hour to go to start of the action I found myself a spot as close as I could manage to centre and settled myself down to wait. Plenty to occupy me in between people watching, and checking on camera settings - I set both cameras up for displays - the 40D with the 70-200mm lens and the 20D with the 300mm covers me for an "average" display, although there is one special one where I swap that 300mm for something rather shorter and wider in a bid to capture the surroundings as well as the planes themselves....this time though it was the two long lenses that were needed. I set the two cameras up to mirror one another exactly - I'm aiming to get close to identical exposure etc from each so the shots will intersperse seamlessly for online albums etc so ISO settings, aperture etc are all set identically.

The "Reds" did a super display - one of the best I've seen in a long while in fact, with some recognisable bits....

...And a lot of red, white & blue smoke....

A lovely tribute to Jon Egging and Sean Cunningham, both tragically killed whilst displaying/training with the team last year...

And finally a little fly-past over the display site trailing red, white and blue smoke.

Quite honestly, you barely noticed that they were displaying with just 7 planes rather than their trademark 9 - although obviously the classic "Diamond 9" formation was missing, there were so many new things in there what we ended up with was a vibrant, fresh display with masses to make the crowd "Ooh" and "Ahhh!" in approval. the reduced numbers also mean a LOT more close-passes from the Synchro-pair of Red 6 - Flt. Ltnt. Ben Plank & Red 7 - Flt. Ltnt. Chris Lyndon-Smith, always a crowd-pleaser and from a photography point of view plenty more chances to capture that elusive "crossover" shot....

Didn't help me much though - your timing only needs to be a split second out for you to miss the cross entirely or end up with one plane half way out of the frame, and even shooting at 6.5 frames per second, the speed those planes move at there is a LOT more chance of missing it, than the opposite!

With the Reds display over and done with, we then had the solo hawk display - just look at its fabulous livery for the 2012 display season -

...and the fabulous Battle of Britain Memorial flight, this time round made up of 2 Spitfires and a Lancaster. Always an emotive sight - and sound!

My results were wobbly at first - the sheer speed takes some getting used to again when the fastest thing you've photographed for a year or so is a rugby player! I persevered though and ended up getting some decent shots, as well as remind myself of some key tricks to getting better shots next time. Keep your eyes out on here over the next few weeks for permitting!


Tuesday 28 August 2012

Gone West...

We've just had the loveliest weekend! it all started on Friday, with my trip to the Clacton Airshow - no Ben along for this one as he sadly had to spend his Friday in a stuffy office. Glad I didn't as it was a lovely bright day, just perfect for watching the Red Arrows and others....

The "Reds" did a super display - one of the best I've seen in a long while in fact, with some old formations....

...And some new moves.

And finally a little fly-past over the display site trailing red, white and blue smoke.

A really great display - thoroughly enjoyed by all, I think!

The on Saturday, off we went to Cardiff for the British Speedway Grand Prix. Held annually at the Millennium Stadium, it's a fantastic occasion which is far more about the social aspects of meeting up with - and having fun with - friends who in a lot of cases, you only see once each year! A whole group of us were sitting together in the "cheap seats" this year - which massively added to the social aspect, and the view of the track (in fact, the entire stadium!) was superb! We had the very cheapest tickets available, and Ben & I spent the night in student accommodation which cost us just a fraction of the price of other people's plush hotels - as we were only using the room to sleep and shower, that was just fine!

As it was a Bank Holiday weekend we had decided to make the most of the extra day by staying across in wales - using a discount code to book a Budget hotel room for the Sunday night. camping would usually be our preferred option as you know, but with campsites in the area looking at being anything up to £25 per night, and the hotel available for £29 with the discount, we decided the extra few £'s were well spent to gain us the time usually spent pitching and breaking down the tent, and give us additional time to enjoy the area.

Sunday saw a trip to an area I spent a bit of time in some years ago - the Gower Peninsula. This is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, the high spot of which is the stunning beach at Rhossili Bay - the equal of anything in the Hebrides if a little more populated!

A walk along the coast path to Worms Head - an island only accessible at low tide - which it wasn't...

Before we got as far as the Gower we made use of our National Trust membership again, stopping off at Aberdulais Tin works & Falls...

A fascinating place with a long industrial heritage - before it was a tin works it was a mill, and now, that waterwheel you see there? The largest in Europe producing electricity! It also has a rather fabulous little tea-shop in the old schoolroom so naturally we stopped for tea & cake - well if people are polite enough to provide such things it would be rude not to, eh?!

Those are welshcakes, in case you were wondering - priced at a very reasonable 50p each - full marks to that tea shop!

Bank Holiday Monday dawned a bit grey and dreary, making our decision not to use the tent all the more justified. Another sound reason for deciding against using it was that last time we camped, on taking it down we noticed that another of the fibreglass pole sections had split, and others were showing signs of going the same way. We have already replaced one section on this tent, but as it is now on its third season, having had heavy use, and is beginning to let in water in a few spots, we decided that the time had come to replace. A lot of research for a suitable replacement proved that the best for our needs was going to be the current one's "big brother" - the Vango Beta 450 - and the best place to get it was going to be Taunton Leisure down in Somerset, by coincidence not far from where we were going to be over the weekend! Credit where it is due - this was the first time we had bought a tent from a specialist provider, rather than from a big outdoor warehouse, and the difference was amazing. I enquired which footprint would suit the tent best, as Vango don't make one for that model specifically, and after some debating, the three chaps in the store agreed that we would be best simply "home-making" one from a tarpaulin. Just think of the number of places who would have just flogged us any old one for the sake of getting our money?! Impressive stuff, and their price was the best of the bunch, too - we'd happily shop there again.

Final stop of the weekend was Glastonbury - not the festival, but the Tor itself. Somewhere that had been on our "to go" list for long while, so it was fantastic to finally get there.

As is so often the case, the view was worth the climb as well....

...although we might have to return at some stage on a slightly clearer (and drier!) day!


Friday 24 August 2012

Frugal Friday...

I did a little recap the other day over our financial "achievements" - partly as I was having one of those "we're getting nowhere with this!" moments, and partly as I was entering some new information in the notebook I keep for the purpose. The first Big Push (yes it deserves capitals!) was in 2008, when I decided that we wanted to pay off a car loan earlier than the original end date to the term. we did it too, getting rid of it in 13 months rather than the 30 it was scheduled for, and then chased after its provider for PPI repayment. That success proved the kick-start we needed to start attacking the mortgage - initially just a tiny amount each month, increasing to the in-excess-of 50% we are overpaying each month now. If we can maintain these rates of overpayment then the mortgage will be finished in 6 years time - paid off in 15 years as opposed to 25!

Celebrate your achievements!
One thing this recap reminded me of is the importance of keeping records and notes - not only as a way of seeing what has been achieved either, although at the slow, low points that can get you out of a hole! We have a spreadsheet for the Mortgage which tells us how the overpayments are affecting things. It's something I can play with from time to time, and see how making an extra payment will affect the term down the line, and also means I can keep track of things like when the fixed rate period will expire, and at what stage we will need to curb the OP's in favour of transferring money to savings to avoid going over the limit that the lender sets on us, which would eventually cost us money in penalties. Ben has a similar spreadsheet kept on another machine which means we can check one against the other to pick up on any discrepancies, and also means that should something nasty happen to one of them, the other one can simply be copied and we continue as before. It's great fun when ringing the mortgage company to make extra payments to hear the note of surprise in their voices when they get a VERY accurate answer to the security question as to how much is outstanding on the mortgage, too!

I also keep a "money notebook" - where I note things like expiry dates on insurances etc, end dates for various deals, and if things are sent off to claim back cashback for example, when this has been done. This means that should money due back to us from cashback offers or survey sites not materialise, I can chase it up knowing exactly when a claim was submitted. My iPhone comes in useful for setting reminders for getting insurance quotes, and for noting meter readings for the gas & electricity - I have a brilliant little free App (the majority of my apps are free versions!) which I can set to remind me of various things which is a godsend for one with a dodgy memory such as myself! (Mad isn't it, I can happily remember pretty much all the monthly outgoings from our joint account, and the renewal dates for various things, but ask me what I had for dinner last night and I will probably struggle!). There are a number of useful money-related apps out there - from those designed as a "spending diary" to help you keep track of the day to day frittering to others designed to show you the state of your bank account. Think carefully about their relevance to you, and whether you would actually put enough into them to make them worthwhile, before paying any money out though.

I check the bank accounts regularly - probably at least three times most weeks, particularly at busy times when lots of direct debits etc are scheduled to come out, and this means that I can see quickly if anything has come out that shouldn't, or that wasn't entirely expected, and move money around to cover any shortfall. when the Cash-back credit card statement arrives we go through it straight away, marking up each item as a joint expense (diesel, other travel costs, food and some spending on trips out etc) or to be paid from one or the other of our own accounts, or one of the savings "pots" (Car, Household etc). Money is then transferred back to the joint account in time for the Direct Debit to be taken. If I were to leave it until nearer the time that the payment is due I know full well it would get forgotten - doing it well ahead of time is the best way of avoiding bank charges!
Todays Frugal day out to see these guys only cost diesel & £3 donation to the (free!) event!
I often seem to get people telling me that I'm "very organised" - and it still baffles me every time because in my head, I'm not! The only reason I can come up with to explain why I appear that way (as presumably I do) to the outside world is that I do write everything down, set reminders, and try to plan ahead as much as possible. Having the money lined up for annual expenses ahead of time is a great help too - earlier in the week when I called in to pay the home insurance, for example, I was all ready to pay on the cashback credit card, as usual, until they told me that there was a 2.5% fee for doing this! Knowing that the money was sitting there in our household expenses budgeting account meant I could squirrel away the credit card, and triumphantly whip out a debit card instead! a quick "money tango" from one account to another when I got back home, and there was THAT job done for another year!


Thursday 23 August 2012

Social Media and Social Responsibility - a Question

In the style of Sex and the City.... (and unusually for me, a post without pictures - sorry!)

"Do we, as Bloggers, have a responsibility to behave in a certain way towards those reading and commenting on material we put out into the world?"

I, like the majority of my friends, was brought up to believe in a few things; that courtesy costs nothing; that everyone has a right to their opinion even if it contradicts your own; that to resort to swearing in a response to somebody generally indicates a lack of vocabulary; and that you should treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. I was also brought up to understand that all these things taken in combination are what help to maintain a civilised world where debate is welcome.

I'm a member of several online communities - forums, Social networks (Twitter) and an online networking group. Every so often, as in daily life, you encounter someone who has a differing opinion to you on something. It's inevitable, the beauty of the internet is the fact that everyone can meet on an equal footing, without perceptions of class, status, race or religion getting in the way, and thus people are often far more ready to venture their opinions than they would be on a face-to-face level where they may feel intimidated by the people they are speaking with. On the face of it, this is a great thing, meaning as it does that all sorts of people who would never usually be brave enough to venture their opinions for fear of being told that those opinions are wrong (they're not, they're most likely just different, or at worse misinformed) are willing to air their views - often adding greatly to what can become an interesting debate.

The Worldwide Web is a fantastic tool, giving anyone who wants the right to set up a platform - an online soapbox if you like, from which they can share ideas, views, opinions etc. There are blogs out there on every subject under the sun, I bet most of us have a right old mix on their reading lists, yes? I know a quick run through mine takes you from Photography to Philosophy, via Frugality and Parenthood. Two of those subjects are things that I have no personal experience of, but I find the writers on the subject to be entertaining, and as a result, their posts make me think about subjects I would otherwise have no direct dealings with - which has to be a good thing. If we're using the web for the purposes of self-promotion, whether for financial gain or otherwise, do we have a responsibility to do so in a polite and mannerly way though? After all, if you were in a discussion with someone in the office, or on a night out, and they happened to say they disagreed with something you'd said, you wouldn't turn to them and say "I don't care what you think - F-Off!" would you? Just imagine what the world be like if everyone started behaving that way - horrendous, full of conflict, and with the only people willing to risk sharing their opinions being the largest and strongest, very probably backing up their views with force! Online forums have huge problems with these "Keyboard Commandos" - basically bullies who enjoy using their online personas to make others' lives a misery, or to trample on them. If challenged face to face, the majority of these people would cower away from any conflict, but from the safety of an anonymous position they are brave as lions!

The online networking group I am part of had an issue a while back with one member who suddenly, inexplicably turned on another. The victim is an intelligent, articulate and confident lady, (as on the face of it was the perpetrator) however she was left at a total loss as to how best to deal with what was actually a rather unpleasant and personal attack. Thankfully a couple of other members of the group happened upon what had begun and challenged the behaviour. Predictably (this is a well known ploy on forums) the perpetrator then posted something to the effect of "Well it's best if I just leave then!" - a classic  trick aiming to turn the focus back onto herself and redefine her role in the situation as the victim. The intention of this is almost invariably to have other members of the group "turn" on the original victim and leave the perpetrator as "king of the castle" as it were. What actually happened on this occasion was that I spotted the "turning" post, and responded saying that if she felt that way, perhaps that would be for the best. Unsurprisingly, she was gone within a few hours - if she was not able to become top of our particular pile, she had no reason to linger, and like most bullies, she wasn't able to handle being stood up to.

When abusive behaviour takes place on social networking sites or blogs, a further consideration becomes relevant - and that is the network or hosting site's own policy on use of abusive language. Most Forums have very clear rules on this, and reporting such things to their moderators gets dealt with swiftly and harshly, with the content being removed and the abuser warned, or in serious cases, banned. When the abuse appears on something like Twitter though, or on somebody's blog, it becomes harder to deal with - firstly finding a method of reporting can be difficult, and secondly there is a perception of that being someone's personal space so is it correct to be offended by it in any case? "If you don't like what you see here, don't read it!" is a popular retort, but by the time you have become aware of its offensive nature (whether that is racist, sexist or simply unpleasant) you have already read it and BEEN offended!

So - you read the comment you consider offensive, or that you simply don't agree with, and think "Do you know, I can't let that go - I need to speak up on this" and you post a response, a comment, or a reply saying "I'm afraid I think your standpoint on this is wrong...". Jason Manford took a great stance on this recently, writing an item on the subject of the deeply unpleasant and offensive comments made about Gary Barlow on Twitter & Facebook following the tragic loss of Gary's & his wife's daughter and his appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony shortly after. Most of us of course don't have the public profile of Jason, meaning our challenges to online-antisocial behaviour go mostly unnoticed. That doesn't mean that those challenges are any less valuable though, or that they should not be made.

In most cases, challenges invoke debate and consideration from all parties, and an amiable truce is reached, but increasingly now it seems that some people think it is acceptable to simply deal out abuse at the challenger, regardless of how politely the challenge was worded. Now, I would suggest that when posting something into the great ether that is the worldwide web, we need to consider first that those views are being posted into an environment that can be seen, and read by anyone. By having the facility for others to comment, that is a tacit acceptance of the fact that we are inviting others to do so, and some of those people may have differing views from our own. I don't have comment moderation on my blog - I get few enough comments as a rule that it's not an issue, but I also have the expectation that those commenting will do it politely, civilly, and without using language that may offend either me or other readers. Comments that breach those guidelines will be edited out. What I will NOT do, however, is edit comments to make it appear that everyone responding to a post agrees with me - naturally it is the Blogger's right to do this, but does that make it right?

To sum up I'll borrow a quotation - "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - to which I would add "So long as you do so in a way acceptable to polite society, thank you!"


ps - Should you wish to reproduce this post you are welcome to do as long as it is reproduced in full, with no alterations, and is credited to

Sunday 19 August 2012

I Did it Anyway!

You know that phrase, right? Feel the fear, and do it anyway - that one? Well today, I did.

We visited the Historic Dockyard at Chatham - somewhere we've been talking about going for absolutely ages, years. Today we fancied a day out, the sun was shining, and we had Clubcard Days Out vouchers to spend - the Dockyard admission can be paid using these, reducing the cost from £33 cash price down to a mere £7.50 in vouchers - these were exchanged on the bonus 5x deal earlier this year. Off we went, stopping en route to get some salads and bread for lunch, and a bottle of juice to avoid the no doubt pricey food & drink inside.

On arrival one of the first things we noticed was a large, black, naval submarine. HMS Ocelot, to be exact. One of the next things we noticed was that they were giving guided tours of said Submarine - actually down inside the thing.... Now at this point, my Mum will be cringing. You see, one thing of many that Mum and I have in common is claustrophobia. I've had it since I was a tiny baby apparently - it makes it hard for me to travel on the Underground at busy times, I positively loathe lifts, particularly small or noisy ones, and if you ever, even in fun, try to hold onto me and not let go, you will rapidly find out just how hard I can fight to escape. Confined spaces, or confinement generally, panic me. Ben suffers no such demon, and was positively beaming with excitement at the idea of exploring inside a real submarine. He REALLY wanted to go on it. I REALLY didn't - I was getting slightly anxious just contemplating the idea - heat, for me, makes claustrophobia symptoms worse, much worse, and today was roastingly hot......

"You'd like to go on there, I assume" I asked casually, hoping that he would for some reason say no, actually, he wasn't that bothered, maybe another time......of course, what he actually said was "yes, I'd really like to" - drat! The thing is of course, I knew he'd enjoy it that much more with company - these things are always more fun with someone else to compare them with, aren't they. If I decided to stay outside, in the fresh air, and wide open spaces, he'd spend the whole way round feeling guilty -there's nothing like discussing the view through a submarine's attack periscope with someone else who knows what it looks like, after all! So I took a deep breath, and stepped forward to ask the lady giving out tickets what time we could take a tour. I checked with her also that I would be able to get out again if I discovered I couldn't cope, and she reassured me that yes, all I would need to do was let the tour guide know, and he would arrange for her to come through and collect me.

4.15pm found us back at the sub, Ben ever more like an excited schoolboy, and me feeling ever more like it was the gallows awaiting me, not a perfectly tame tour around a large metal coffin. The tour lasted 30 minutes - the toughest bit was actually descending into the sub in the first place - once inside it was actually roomier than I expected, swinging through the tiny round hatches on bars placed above them for the purpose was actually quite fun, and the view up the periscope was an unexpected bonus. Only right at the end, in the engine room, when it got really REALLY hot, did I really start to feel I needed to get out - but the fact that it was right at the end, and a handy open hatch above us offering both cool air and a glimpse of sky, got me past that, and a few minutes later we were indeed out in the open again, with the tour guide asking whether we thought we'd make submariners - "they're accepting women into submarine crews now, you know!" he joked to me. I explained that, not THIS woman, they wouldn't be, and told him why, and he was genuinely impressed, telling me that I'd done really well going on the tour at all, and that he wouldn't have guessed..... For me, it feels like a massive step. Would I do it again? Hmmm, maybe. It would be far, far easier on a cooler day, with less people. If I never venture onto another submarine again though, it won't matter - I tackled it, and won!


Friday 17 August 2012

Frugal Friday...

My current 4-wheeled partner in crime....
We have entered a financially squeaky time of year.  August is always financially squeaky however, and this means we can plan a bit - always helpful. The squeakiness is caused by several different factors:

1) I am self employed so when I am not available for work, I'm not earning any money. we have just spent a week volunteering at the beer festival, meaning I will be a week short on my August invoicing, when it occurs at the end of the month.
2) Car insurance fell due - and with 2 cars in the household this is significant.
3) Along with the car insurance comes breakdown cover - essential in my book, and one of those insurances that I am very happy to pay for...
4) Later on this month Home Contents Insurance becomes due...

I decided to tackle these items one at a time, first up being the shortfall in invoicing for August. My only method of covering this is to try to get extra days of work both before and after any break - on this occasion it was a couple of extra days over the last fortnight of July, and a couple over the first & second weeks back. the July time has been" set off" against the low August, and of course the August ones will fall within that period too. I also ensure that I set aside more in each regular month for tax & National Insurance payments, meaning that I can set aside less in any low month. All in all, that means that  the shortfall will be covered. Squeakiness point 1 averted.

My much loved first car - acquired for £100 in 1990!
Next on the agenda was the car insurance. In spite of neither of our cars being what you could in any way describe as sporty, a certain insurance company offering multicar policies and advertised by a gentleman wearing a naval uniform decided that a sum approaching £800 was a fair price to ask for renewal., I don't think so. This is the same insurance company who, a couple of years ago, felt that it was entirely reasonable to charge me an extra £50 on my premium for a claim being changed to show no fault on my part. Apparently this was because "it might make me less careful in the future" - I know, you couldn't make it up, could you?! Anyway, this year I decided that their time had come, and so started searching for other quotes. Martin Lewis' excellent (and oft mentioned on this 'ere blog) site Money Saving Expert has a brilliant guide on this very subject - detailing the order to attack comparison sites etc. Well worth a read through. On this occasion it turned up a £200 saving across the two vehicles, which was not to be sneezed at, and well worth the inconvenience of having two separate policies. Add to this the fact that the money to pay for the insurances has been saved up over the course of the last 12 months and was sitting tucked away in our "Car" savings account, just waiting to be handed over, and - tick -Squeakiness point 2 alleviated!

Breakdown Insurance next then......previously we have always had this linked to the car insurance. The aformentioned Senior Naval officer's organisation required the sum of £137 for this, which seemed fairly high bearing in mind their suggestions that it is subsidised to their insurance customers. A quick search online revealed first one well-known national breakdown chain would offer Roadside, Recovery, At Home and Onward travel options for £144 - which considering the saving of £200 on the insurance in the first place, seemed pretty fair. A further quote from those gentlemen in Orange vans however revealed that their "online discount" would reduce this figure still further - to £135! Add to this the £60.60 cashback payable by buying via "TopCashback" and that adds up to one very budget-friendly premium. (A quick note on cashback -  always be careful to ensure that you don't pay over the odds for a product on the strength of getting cashback - there are sometimes problems with it tracking, and payment is never guaranteed until such time as the money arrives in your bank). As with the car insurance, the money is already stashed aside for this, so that will be Squeakiness point 3 running away with its tail between its legs....

My second car - and the start of an obsession with small, nippy french ones...
The Home Contents Insurance will be following a similar pattern to the car insurance - comparison sites, comparison against the renewal quote, and a couple of "stand Alone" quotes from those who aren't included on the comparison sites, before seeing if any of the leading players are covered on the cashback sites. I always try to use TopCashBack if possible as they don't charge an annual fee, have been about a long time, and are swift and reliable payers. I don't expect to save much - if anything - for this policy, but I am hopeful that some cashback might be possible. With a renewal date of the 22nd, this will be sorted out and in place by the end of the weekend, so we can take it that Squeakiness point 4 is currently hiding around the corner, shaking.

The only remaining question is whether to pay off that £200 saving on the car insurance against the mortgage....hmmmm, what do YOU think?!


Friday 10 August 2012

Frugal Friday...

The subject this week? Downshifting to expand your options. In other words, if there is something you want to do that is technically outside your budget, don't give up on it, or blow the budget and create debts, instead work out how you change a few things to make it "do-able". Want to spend a weekend in a particular place but can't afford a hotel? Borrow a tent and camping gear and do it for a fraction of the cost. Want a special day out to a Zoo or similar but find the entry costs a bit steep? Look about for "2 for 1" deals when you  buy a train ticket (more common than you might think) - often you only have to travel a single stop and the savings can be huge.

For a good many years now MrEH and I have been volunteering at a large national Beer Festival run by the Campaign for Real Ale in London. It takes up a full week of our time each summer, and life without it is almost unimaginable! We stay with a London based friend (who also works at the festival) and, as volunteers, the Campaign provides us each with a voucher for breakfast each day we are working, and pays for a taxi to get home at the end of each night. There is also a subsidised staff canteen for other meals, or we can use a staff discount at the food stalls in the festival.  All lovely, but in spite of this it's easy for costs to mount up - two meals a day to pay for, plus travel from our friends to the festival each day, and travel from Home to London and back at the start and finish....add to that the fact that, being self-employed, working at the festival at all means losing a weeks pay, savings were needed! Last year I decided to dissect the whole experience and see where savings could be made.

Travel: To and from London. Living where we do, we get little change out of £12 -£15 each per journey by the time bus fares and tube fares are taken into account. Two of us, each way.....and the return trip done at least twice per festival - quite a steep bill before we even start! The answer was to take our friend up on two oft-made offers - firstly, to stay an extra few days with her, and secondly, to bring the car across and pop it in her large garage for the duration. Far less costly than all those trips on public transport!
Travel: From our friends house in South West London to the festival venue. There are two options for this - Tube or Overground trains, the overground being the slightly cheaper of the two, although also slightly slower. A simple matter though to check the train times in advance and ensure we were at the station in time.

Food: The campaign's "breakfast" voucher is actually accepted as payment for any meal - breakfast, lunch or dinner, and the staff food is extremely good, and not as unhealthy as it used to be back when we first started volunteering. Whilst a cooked breakfast is nice, it makes far more sense economically to use the voucher for an evening meal. Breakfast was easily dealt with by investing in a packet of cereal - and a plastic bowl. I eat my cereal dry so no need to worry about milk, and Juice, tea & coffee is provided free of charge to all staff. Lunch was slightly more of a challenge, until we spotted the supermarket just along the road from the station - simple enough to pop in there in the morning and buy some bread or rolls, and cheese sandwich fillings. A multipack of crisps and some fresh fruit, and we were sorted - at a fraction of the cost of a meal at the staff canteen, and less calories than eating from most of the festival stalls! With a cooked evening meal using a meal voucher we ate well all week and never felt as though we were missing out in any way

I wondered in advance if taking these measures might make me feel somehow hard done by, but when I worked through my priorities I realised that actually, if I had some money to spend, I would rather spend it on a night out with the team prior to the festival opening to the public than on purchasing food at times when more cost-effective versions were available. A slightly longer journey on the train in the morning was actually more pleasant than a shorter one crammed into the Tube with the commuters, and being based in London throughout rather than just when the festival was actually open to the public was actually easier - and more fun!



Friday 3 August 2012

Frugal Friday...

Looking towards Lochmaddy from Blaisheval, North Uist
We made another "extra" overpayment to the mortgage this week. This isn't that unusual in itself - we do so when we can, when we have some "money we didn't know we had"  - a refund from something, or the two months when we don't have to pay the council tax...and of course this is on top of the "regular" overpayment - we overpay by 55% on the basic amount each month anyway, an amount we have worked up to over the years, adding a little extra here and a little extra there. When our income fell, rather than taking the "easy" approach and knocking the overpayments on the head, or reducing them for a while, instead we worked our backsides of shaving pennies off everywhere else we could think of in order to continue throwing that extra amount at it each month.

From Burrival, North Uist.
We've marked our progress out as we have gone along with "milestones" - the first of these was the "tipping point" where suddenly we were paying more in capital off it each month that we were in interest. In terms of hammering down a mortgage, that is the point at which you can really start to see the amount owing dropping. Then there was the split in Northern Rock (who we have our mortgage with) when we found ourselves in the "good bank" - I was told in a NR branch that 98% of mortgage customers got left with NRAM, meaning that when their fixed rate deals ended they got stuck on the (quite high) standard variable rate, so for us that was a real result.  Another biggie was getting our new mortgage deal last year when we were able to knock a whole 5 years off the remaining term thanks to the work we had already done overpaying! Each time we go into a new "ten thousand" bracket is cause for celebrations too - we're hammering the amount outstanding down by about 10k a year at the moment too so there will be another one of those along early next year! The latest MASSIVE milestone came when we made that extra payment this week - if all goes to plan, and we are able to keep overpaying as we are, then in six years from now we will have made our final mortgage payment!

Looking over Lochmaddy from North Lee, North Uist.
We've done all this by cutting back, and by making savings where we can, utilising any "extra" money that happens along, and treating pay increases as things to be ignored for the most part. What we haven't done though is cut our lives back to nothing. We still go out, see friends, go to sporting events, and treat ourselves to the occasional takeaway. We go away for weekends - taking the tent to keep the costs down - and enjoy trips to beer festivals, food festivals and other events. When birthdays and Christmas come along we celebrate, and if we're invited out for a meal we usually try to make it. Back in the spring we had a fabulous weekend in Barcelona with the rugby team, and later in the year we will be travelling to Cardiff for the British speedway Grand Prix. The motto is "Frugal, yes, Tight, no!" We're keen to get rid of the mortgage so that we can move our lives on in the direction we wish, but not at the expense of living life now too. Anything could happen to either one of us in the next six years, although touch wood nothing will, but you never know - life is short and we have only limited control over the path we tread. Sure we have an eventual goal in mind, but equally life now is for living, for grabbing with both hands and relishing every second of. All being well we will reach and enjoy our goal within the timescale we have set ourselves, but if the worst comes to the worst, we will also have a lot of great memories of things we "went and did" rather than "things we could have done, but we decided to save the money for the mortgage". Remember to look at the view, not just focus on the climb.


Thursday 2 August 2012

What do you think of it so far?

Can't imagine by now that, if I tell you the subject is the Olympics, anyone is going to shout "rubbish!" That amazing opening ceremony - witty, funny, touching, but above all, terrifically British. Apparently a well known American broadcast network cut some of it because "it wasn't tailored for a USA audience" - well good, Danny Boyle got it right then! This is OUR Olympics, in OUR country, and indeed, for me, in MY city, and by god I'm proud of that! The Opening Ceremony set fluttering nerves at rest - those who had been concerned that we would mess the whole thing up somehow were silenced, and the doubters won around.

One thing that has been hugely noticeable this year is the number of Union Flags around. In England we're all used to seeing the St George's Flag around - mainly sadly when there is some football tournament or another going on. For a few weeks every few years numerous people feel the waves of patriotism flooding over them, only for those waves to flood away again just as fast when England get knocked out again! In Scotland they have a tendency to display the St Andrews flag a lot more, and not only for sporting events either!

This year the combination of first the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and now the Olympics, means that the Union Flag is getting a good old outing. Flying from cars, in people's windows, on tee-shirts and shorts - wherever you look there is that Red, White & Blue fluttering away. It's a flag that lends itself to all sorts of designs,those bold colours, that strong design, no wonder now people have discovered it they are happy to display it proudly!

The overwhelming thing we keep hearing from the British athletes competing at London 2012 is the support they get from the crowd - that "wall of sound" I commented on hearing at Putney for the Cyucling road race has been repeated at every venue across the games it seems, from the South coast and the sailing at Weymouth, to the usually reserved atmosphere of Eton Dorney and the rowing. They all seem humbled and thankful for the chance to compete at a "home games" with its attendant home support. Britain being Britain though, our fans have been cheering others, too - winners regardless of nationality are getting huge ovations - one of our swimmers having just competed in his heat at the Aquatic Centre pleaded with the crowd to just cheer for him in his final the following day, not the other competitors as well!

So far at least we appear to have proved that we can get it right, the travel worries have faded, threats of gridlocked roads subsided after the first few days of the Closures and Olympic Lanes, and the Underground has performed well so far, with people being able to switch travel options when there have been problems, and no drastic issues with travelling to venues being reported. Great Britain appears to be proving why it's GREAT!