Tuesday 29 April 2014

Hebrides Countdown...

Speaking with a friend recently about our lengthy journeys to and from various bits of Scotland (specifically the 18 hour marathon back from Orkney last week) she said "Ooh - for a journey that length I'd want a lovely beach I could just sit on in the sunshine...!" - it made me smile a bit. While we're really not "beach-sitters" - rather more beach-combers, beach walkers or beach paddlers, our trips to the Hebrides are punctuated on almost a daily basis with the most beautiful beaches you can imagine..and the best thing? We often have them to ourselves, too! If you look carefully in that pic you can just see one other person way off in the distance, but any more than 4 or 5 others on the same beach up there and you tend to think you'll walk along a bit to the next stretch of white sand - after all you need to give folks their space - it wouldn't do to be crowded, would it?

So while others can jet off to exotic locations, we'll be enjoying beaches like the one above, at Grenitote, North Uist. We'll be staying just under a mile walk from the west coast of the island this year so beaches not unlike this will be an easy stroll away. While I can entirely understand that this sort of holiday isn't to everyone's taste, if I'm honest, the thought of a holiday which mainly revolves around sitting on a beach roasting in the sun bores me to tears. Still, the more people jetting off for just those sorts of holidays, the quieter our Hebridean beaches will stay!


Friday 25 April 2014

Frugal Friday

Hurrah - we're just back from a cheery weekend away visiting a lovely chum waaaay up north. A fabby time was had, spending money was taken from a special fund which is lurking for just such adventures, and some photos from the trip will be making their way onto here before too long. On arrival back, we were greeted by the credit card bill sitting on the doormat - not quite so cheery, that!

Terns - Farne Islands 2013
So, we're all familiar with the next bit aren't we - rip open the envelope, glance across at the "total due" figure and Whooomph! Your heart sinks into your boots with the shock of it. Even on a month when we know we've had some spendiness, the shock of the amount seen in one lump like that still has the power to make us think "aargh" - but whether that sinking feeling lasts or not depends entirely on how you deal with it from there. In years gone by we would have consoled ourselves that the Direct debit was set to take the minimum repayment in any case, and we could worry about the remainder of the bill over a few months. It would have been "out of sight, out of mind" for a while, at least. Thankfully, we've seen the light, and a more proactive approach gets taken these days.

When the bill arrives (and we always know to within a few days when that will be - step one is to learn your card's relevant dates - both billing and payment!) the first thing we do is sit down and check through everything. Because we have two cards on the same account, and the card pays cashback on spending, we both put all spending - joint and personal - on the cards where we can, so we check through and make sure that one or the other of us recognises all the transactions listed. Step two: Are you 100% sure only those people authorised are using the card? Once we're happy that there's nothing unusual on there, we start to break things down. Some spending comes under the habit of "general" and this is accounted for by the money we each automatically transfer over to the joint account each month. So diesel for the cars, Mr EH's train ticket, odds and ends of food shopping etc. Some joint travel also gets accounted for in that way - we each add £10 or £20 to our Oyster cards most months for example. Periodically we add up things like diesel costs for example, so we can keep track of what we spend in those areas on a monthly basis. Step three: Learn what your basic expenditures in an average month will be - that way you come to expect them. 

Sunset at Loch Bee, South Uist, 2013
The next stage is to go through the bill line by line "claiming" spends - this month MrEH had some dental work done, for example, and bought a new waterproof coat ready for our trips to Orkney and the Hebrides. I'd taken the plunge and bought the new camera I've been looking at - slightly sooner than planned but I came across precisely the one I wanted at a hard-to-beat price and so grabbed it quick! We also had odds and ends of car related expenditure, a couple of small spends relating to the holiday, and some train tickets bought which weren't quite "general expenditure" but were for both of us. We mark off the bill - our initials against personal items, or "C", "H", "Jt" etc for the other areas. Once every line is "claimed" we add everything up and make sure it equals the amount we need - simple eh?

Thanks to that thing back in step one, we know when we need to start thinking about moving money across into the joint account where the Direct debit will be taken from. Remember also that knowing the DD date is only half of the answer here as usually DD's can come out within a few days of the "actual" date. In our case the DD date is the 26th - but we know it can actually get taken from the account anywhere between the 22nd and the 29th, so the money needs to be sitting waiting "just in case". Step 4 - Get Organised! So, the actual money shuffling itself then - Car costs and holiday spending are budgeted for monthly of course, so that's just a simple matter of shifting the money across from those accounts. Our own personal stuff too, we move from our own current accounts or savings accounts. Some big annual spends go on the card too - insurances for example, and those are budgeted from either the car account or our "Household" account which is fed with a sum monthly to account for such things. Things like train travel for joint adventures, or tickets to events we're both attending get taken from our "joint fun" account - again this gets "fed" a regular monthly amount. We've also got accounts for things like Christmas present expenditure, making it less likely that things like that will come as a nasty shock, too. (And let's face it, it shouldn't, should it!). Once everything is shifted across, one final check both that there is enough money in the account, AND that there are no other DD's to come out which might leave us with a shortfall, and we're done!  Our joint current account is not interest-paying, so we try not to leave extra money kicking around in there for longer than we have to, so often once the card DD has come out and before MrEH's pay goes in, we can be done to mere pennies in there....you know though, so long as those pennies aren't preceded by the "minus" symbol, that's just fine!

Grenitote Beach, North Uist, 2012
If you spend on a credit card how do you manage it? Pay off in full every month or put big purchases on and pay off over time? If you're a "pay off in full" person, have you got a cashback or points-earning card to maximise the advantage of this?


Friday 18 April 2014

Frugal Friday...

Come on then - hands up, who's done Martin Lewis's "Downshift challenge" - where you switch your regular shopping choices for a brand level lower to see if the family notice the difference? Hmmm...that's a LOT of you. In which case I bet you have also, at some stage, ended up with a product sooooo appallingly bad that you practically had to hold everyone else at gunpoint to get it finished? (The flip-side of course is the really nice things you find that you end up preferring to the earlier, pricier version...value jaffa cakes, anyone?)

For those that don't have the foggiest what I'm talking about - the premise of the challenge then - if you normally buy a store's premium own brand goods, then you try dropping those to branded. If you normally buy branded, you drop to store own-brand, and if you usually buy own-brand, then it's the good old budget ranges for you. Good idea, eh? There's even a special section on the Money Saving Expert site with a calculator thingy with clever sliders that you can use to see how much you might be able to save.

Orkney - Easter 2013
There are other tricks to saving money in the supermarket too, but to fully capitalise, you need to get inside those sneaky supermarket head-honcho's brains a little - in order to really save money, firstly you need to understand what they're trying to make you think. Firstly, have a think about your local Supermarket - and specifically about any value/savers/budget range goods you buy. How often do you reach a hand out at eye-level and grab one of those items from the shelf? Pretty much never - that's how often! The goods they want you to buy are the ones you'll find at eye level - those are most commonly branded goods (carrying a higher price tag in the first place) and their own brand (because they get the biggest mark-up on those, for the most part). Premium store brands tend to be higher up (the higher on the shelf, the more people think the quality has gone up with it) and value items right on the very bottom - where only those who are actively searching for them will find them.  Stores also put tempting items right near the door - if the first thing you see when you walk in is something like bags of apples for a bargain £1, or a special offer on some tasty looking tomatoes, the subtle implication is that the pricing throughout the store is like that - wrong!

Constipated Unicorn at Hampton Court
We've talked before about shopping armed with a list - and how that avoids some of the impulse-buys that so often push up spending. You can take this one step further though - by learning the layout of your local store. Watch people shopping in a supermarket, and how often do you see people walking up and down each aisle, regardless of whether they want anything there or not. Try putting your list in order - so the things you encounter first at the beginning (usually fruit/veg, and dairy) then jars and tins, and finally frozen food right at the end.  This means you can then miss out whole great chunks of the store by only visiting the sections you need, and because you're only covering each section of ground once - it's quicker, too! It also has the advantage of often finishing you up right near the less-used tills at the far end of the store away from the doors, meaning you get through that stage quicker, and your frozen stuff gets home still frozen!

Turnstones on the beach - Balranald, North Uist.
How about those "Special offer" "Big Pack - Better Value!" type signages - those have got to be the ones to go for, surely? Well, not always, no. Buy One get One Free offers are great, but ONLY if you will actually use the product before it goes off, or it can be frozen for later use. Sometimes those offers will let you choose the "free" product from a range - salad goods for example that let you have two from a range of produce and the cheapest one comes free, or you can get both for £1. Far more useful than 2 iceberg lettuces! Bigger sized items need careful checking - that 1kg box of cereal is only a good buy at £3 if the 750g packs aren't on BOGOF at £3.20! Look at all the sizes of a product before making your choice, and if necessary get a calculator out and work out the "per g" or "per ml"  cost.  If branded is cheaper than value because of special offers - then buy the branded product - it's not rocket science after all!

So - the value products then - which are worth trying and would you not go near? We find value or cheapy washing up liquids are a complete false economy, and always now buy Fairy. We keep our eyes open for special offers, BOGOF deals etc, and buy only on special offer. The same applies to coffee - MrEH has tried various other brands, but he likes Nescafe - so we stock up when prices are good. Cream crackers - Tesco own brand are nicer, we think, than their pricier Jacobs counterparts, and value fruit and veg is nearly always worth a look - although sometimes the bag sizes mean that again, you need to do the maths around whether you will actually use than many carrots before they go soft and bendy. (If you have freezer space, then carrots make delicious soup, would be my tip!) The best suggestion is to give it a try - if you don't like a particular item you don't have to buy it again, and the good thing about the value ranges is that you're very rarely going to spend a fortune on anything! Over to you then - any recommendations for us?


Ps - yes, random unrelated photos again this week - enjoy!

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Hebrides Countdown...

Talking to a family member yesterday about our trip to the Hebrides, she commented that it must be beautiful at the time we go, because all the spring flowers will be out. Well, yes and no, actually. The harsher weather conditions that the Islands get means that everything happens a bit later - Our daffodils at home are pretty much finished now, where as the ones on Uist will only just be coming out around now, I expect. We are hopeful though that the mild winter we've had this year might mean that everything will be a little ahead of where it would normally be at this time of year.

The shot above was taken in 2012 - another year with a relatively mild winter, although not so much as this time around. As you can see, the machair was already looking good and colourful - it just gets better and better from that point through into the summer. That year we were also just in time to see the first of the Iris coming out - gorgeous bright yellow spikes at the roadsides - we saw our first one open the day before we left to come home if I remember rightly. Waterlilies too - many of the small lochs are covered in lily pads from early spring, but the flowers need just a bit of warmer weather to appear...

By the time we arrives the shorelines should be edged with pretty pink thrift, a plant that absolutely thrives up there, and the first of the orchids will be appearing too, Hebridean spotted Orchids, Early Marsh Orchids and Heath Spotted Orchids. Bees are plentiful there too - including many different varieties to those that we see at home. We're hoping to spend some time with a friend this year learning about identifying some of the rarer varieties too.

Each and every year when we return we see different things, and learn more about everything the Islands have to offer. It's nice to start to feel that we're "in on the secret" - we know what the plants and birds are called, and where we can expect to find certain species. There's usually something a bit special too  - last year it was a displaying Ruff (Helpfully situated at the RSPB reserve at Balranald!) and we've regularly seen the Snowy Owl up there. Having said that though - rarities entirely depend where you are - on Uist, they get excited about seeing a Dunnock - common as you like down here!


Sunday 13 April 2014

Five Favourites...

..This time - birds. Or, more specifically, my bird photos. Over the past few years we've got better and better at identifying the various birds we see - particularly when we're out and about in the Hebrides - it's difficult to spend any amount of time in such a wildlife-rich environment without getting a more in-depth interest I guess. We love joining in with the RSPB guided walks up there, and were extremely chuffed last year to be included in the list of people to "just ask..." if people wanted an identification confirmed.

So - on with the pics then. First - and a "must have" - is one from the Farne Islands. Now I could have agonised for ages over which particular Puffin pic to include here, but instead I just jumped in and chose one - and it was this one...

They're so funny the way they stand - on land they just look so unnatural, but when you see them flying, or better still on the water, the bodyshape makes complete sense! We're hoping to get back across to the Farnes this year - so hopefully there will be some more Puffin photos to come!

Next, we have a bit of a rarity. This bird has been on the RSPB's endangered list for a number of years now, after modern farming methods have adversely affected its natural habitat. Currently there are small populations in Northern Ireland, and on the west coast of mainland Scotland, but the bird's main stronghold is now on the Western Isles. Yep, you've guessed it - it's the Corncrake!

Not a great picture this, I know, the grass has slightly interfered with the focus and the bird is partly obscured, but we'd waited SO long to actually see one, it makes it in here for that reason. This one nearly didn't make it to being photographed, as it chose to run straight out in front of our car as we were driving out of the RSPB Reserve at Balranald! Thankfully there were no other cars wanting to pass by, the camera was within easy reach, and I was on the right side of the car to be able to shoot from where I was so not scare the bird any more. We've had several more brief glimpses of Corncrakes since, but nothing this close up.

Another Hebrides one - this was taken on our very last full day last year, on the island of Benbecula. Earlier in the week we'd done one of the RSPB walks hoping to see Raptors on at track to the east of Benbecula. we didn't see much in the way of birds of prey, but we DID see a good number of these...

He's a juvenile Stonechat - cute eh? We went back that last day because on our evening walk the light was too poor to make any decent photos possible, and I wanted to see if I could get a good shot of one of these little chaps. This one was further out along the track, and was trusting enough to let me creep right up on him - you can see that he was fully aware I was there!

A bit further South again for this next one - this was taken at one of our local nature reserves - Amwell, in Hertfordshire. This was the first proper chance I'd had to use my new 100-400mm lens earlier this year, the light was good, and the birds were being obliging.

I love this pictures for several reasons - Blue Tits are one of my favourite birds without question, and yet are quite hard to photograph, the colours can easily look false and garish, or dull and uninteresting, and this pic manages to pretty faithfully portray the actual colours I was seeing at the time. The background and setting is nice - although what draws the small birds in to this area is lots of feeders, it's always nice to be able to get a "clean" picture without any of them in view. Finally, the beautiful smoothness of that background - a true mark of quality in a lens, the ability to make the out of focus areas pleasing to the eye.

So, the fifth and final choice - and this one took some deciding on. I've finally settled on this Arctic Tern from our last Farne Islands trip...

I like the fact that you can *just* see more Terns in the background - there were So many of them, swooping, diving, and just sitting around looking malevolently at the humans who'd invaded their world! One took exception to MrEH and dive-bombed his head a few times. Annoyingly I wasn't able to grab the camera fast enough, or that shot might have been here instead... ;-)


Friday 11 April 2014

Frugal Friday...

We've embarked on an interesting challenge this year. As you know, one of our long term plans involves a potential move to the Hebrides. It's a good way off yet, but we know that eventually, that's where we'd like to end up. That, in turn, means that we need to experience the islands at various times of year to be sure that we have done our research well - MrEH, for example, was unsure how much of a problem he'd find the extremely long daylight hours in the summer - while my main concern is precisely the opposite - being the lack of daylight in the middle of winter. Bearing in mind that in mid-winter it doesn't get light up there until around 9am - and is dark again by soon after 3pm - this is a significant concern!

Beautiful - but do I want to see it at 3pm?
Anyway, we've now visited at times ranging from early March to Mid June - and although that only seems like a short time-window, it actually gives us a fair amount of different conditions we have experienced. We've been feeling for a while though that we'd like to try to get up there even just for a week in the very depths of the winter - hopefully meaning we should experience the worst of the lack of daylight, and also some of the more extreme weather conditions. We realised a while ago that the Christmas/New Year holiday 2014/15 should give us just such an opportunity, and we've been planning accordingly.

Obviously we have no intention of losing our lovely fortnight away in the spring/early summer - we enjoy that far too much, and having a full fortnight away is such a lovely thing to be able to do. That's far from the cheapest of holidays either, but we fund it by making regular deposits into a savings account through the year, saving loose change, and undercutting our grocery budget in order to have the whole cost covered before we even set foot on a ferry. This does mean though that there is no spare cash lying about to divert to an additional trip up - so how to fund such a trip, was the question?

Fulmars nesting amongst the Thrift at Ness...
The first step was to work out what our costs are likely to be. A bit of research suggests that travel is likely to be a fairly big expense as you might expect. In December it's not going to be practical to take the car up - the drive up takes up 2 days for a start, and that's without factoring in the risk of seriously nasty weather, so the options come down to train & ferry, or flying. That comment about the possibility of seriously nasty weather has already put us off any option involving ferries - at that time of year an unusual week in the Western isles is one where all the ferries have run as scheduled, so we've pretty much decided that flying up and back will be the answer. This is likely to cost us in the region of £300. Accommodation should be achievable for around £300 for the week also - a lot of holiday lets view the time aver Christmas & New Year as "peak season" but there are options out there for that sort of price. If we're flying up and back, one problem that gives us is travel while we're there - we're likely to be some way off the beaten track so far as bus routes are concerned - so will need to factor in hiring a car - we're currently budgeting £200 for that, plus a tank full of fuel, but are hoping to get a decent deal on the hire cost. Then there will be food and drink. General spending money will be relatively low - there's very little open at that time of year to spend money on - we'll be eating out a few times no doubt, but other than that our entertainment is likely to be mostly walking, and curling up in the cottage listening to the wind whipping around! The food, drink and "general" spends will come from our trusty grocery account again - we already know that it's perfectly possible to build up a good credit balance in there. So - our extra week in the Hebrides will cost us in the region of £850 - how to fund that?

For a good few years now we've been saving into an online "sealed pot" - traditionally this comes from money "rounded down" from other bank accounts and transferred in - so the odd pennies on a balance, or sometimes a few pounds as well in order to round a balance down to the nearest £5 or £10 threshold. This year, and with the challenge of the "cash neutral holiday" in mind, we've also taken to popping our TopCashBack money into there, and more recently a cheque received as a refund from a long-ago cancelled insurance policy. It was a tough decision to do that as in the past all our "unexpected" money has gone off to the account we save for mortgage overpayments in - however in real terms this extra trip is research for our hoped for future move, so it doesn't feel TOO much like cheating! (We still dispatched the council tax & water rates money from February & March off to the mortgage as normal). Interest from savings accounts also heads off into the "VSP" (Virtual Sealed Pot) account. We had £300 sitting there from last year, and so far this year we've managed to add very nearly another £360 so far! Astonishing, eh? That's already our accommodation and flights funded, and probably the fuel for the hire car, too! Although I've long been a fan of VSP saving, it's really come as a surprise quite how much can be saved this way when you really put your mind to it, and because it's only a tiny amount that you shave off the accounts each time you do it, you really don't notice the going of it. (Which in turn leads to the question "where the heck did it go before, then?" I guess!) It's certainly a great way of making something like a holiday pretty much cash neutral, and we'll certainly be carrying on with that method of saving for specific things on into the future.

That snow on the mainland hills is one reason for NOT taking the car up in winter!
How about you - have you come up with a crafty way of making something you really want "cash neutral"? Or perhaps you already use methods like this to pay for something like Christmas, or the kids birthday presents? I'd love to hear how you go about it!


Thursday 10 April 2014

A question of choice...

There is one subject out there which seems guaranteed to foster all manner of snidey comments, one-upmanship, bitchiness. What, you may ask? Well I'll tell you - it's the question of choice around having children, or not. I know, hard to believe isn't it, but read on...

I knew from when I was quite young that I didn't want children of my own. Until I was in my mid 20's I always assumed that "eventually" the maternal genes would kick in, but the older I got, the more I realised that I wasn't feeling any differently about it. When I  met MrEH, as soon as we realised that things were serious I did the "decent thing" and told him how I felt - his response was that he'd always assumed he'd have children, but only because he'd always assumed he'd marry a woman who would want them, not because he actually wanted them himself. Phew! So, we got married. And before all that long, the "nudges" started, the "probing" questions...yes, you know the ones! It's funny isn't it, the personal questions that people feel it's perfectly fair game to ask?

People seem to be entirely unthinking (maybe even uncaring?) how how much they wound the feelings of others sometimes. I've been called selfish, cold, even "unnatural". I've been told that I'm cruel, and that I was being unfair to MrEH, and even to my Mum, for goodness sake. All this from people who have NO idea of what those around me feel about the subject.  On one occasion on board a ferry I was asked (very loudly) to move so that a woman who'd got on at the very last minute with three children could sit where I was - why? "Because the children would like to be able to see out" - oddly enough, I would have liked to have seen out as well, and I'd actually managed to arrive in good enough time to ensure that I could! When MrEH and I went to Dublin we were advised to buy a "Family Ticket" to travel on the public transport system, as it was far cheaper than buying individual day tickets. When we went to buy them I checked with the lady on the ticket desk that we'd be OK to use the tickets as we hadn't got children with us. "Of course!" she said "Why ever would you not?" I had to explain that in England, "Family" in this context only applies to those with children. She was astonished, and hastened to assure me that there was "none of that sort of discrimination here". (Halleluiah! Can I move in?!) That was the first time I really recognised it as discrimination too.

Often it comes in a more subtle form - people assume that if you don't have children of your own and are prepared to be honest and admit that you've chosen that path, you must actively dislike them. In fact I adore spending time with our young niece and nephew, and they love me too, funny, considering that children are supposed to know those who don't like them, and shy away from those people?  The classically dismissive "Oh of course you wouldn't understand, not having children" crops up fairly regularly, a close friend of "You can't possibly understand real love, like a mother feels for her children" (No, because I and those like me are emotional wastelands, clearly?). The conversation turned to the topic of films in the office recently, and a colleague (Mother of two) turned to me and casually said "Of course watching that was far worse for me because there were children involved" - my jaw literally dropped. Then there is the offhand assumption that the lives of those of us without children are so simple - with no constraints, nothing to stop us doing whatever we choose, at the drop of a hat (apart from a mortgage and bills to be paid of course, jobs to be held down, and very likely other family committments) and how often are we told "Oh well of course life's a lot more complicated when you have children"...it may well be, but  if it's enough of a problem to be worthy of (constant) mention you should perhaps have thought about it before pregnancy featured in the equation?

What many people seem to forget is that having children is a lifestyle choice just as much as choosing not to have them. When you choose to have children, it shouldn't come with a teflon coating of superiority - you're no better than anyone else, you simply have another person in your home & life. Why would that make you feel that you are somehow better than someone who has taken the decision not to take that path? Do you also feel superior to people who are unable to have children? (I fear that in many cases the answer to that might be a smug "Yes, actually!") A friend who found herself unable to have children decided that explaining this was simply too intensely painful - she began telling people she'd decided against having kids, but stopped equally fast, astonished at the spite this unleashed in her direction. She eventually opted for the bald facts - the embarrassment people felt on hearing her response was preferable, apparently to the judgmental contempt she'd felt when using the "we decided against having them" line.

Reasons I've heard from people with kids about their reasons for having them have included "well it's just what you do isn't it", "We'd hate to be all alone with no family when we're old" (yes, really!) "I couldn't deprive my Mum of having grandkids" (yes, but it's hardly like buying her a pair of slippers, is it!) to "well you're not really a family without children, are you?" (Err...yes, but even if not, that's a reason for having them how, exactly?)  - so you tell me - who's the selfish one now? The one statement I've now heard many, many times though, is "If I could wind the clock back, I'm not sure I'd have them....I mean I wouldn't be without them now, of course, but..." I wouldn't dream of turning to someone with kids and calling them a drain on the system for claiming their tax credits or whatever other benefits they're entitled to - so why do so many people feel that those of us without children are fair game to treat appallingly?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that every parent is like this, not even slightly. My Sister in Law, for example, is THE most down to earth, sensible woman you'd care to meet, and I have a good many friends in the same mould, thank goodness. There are many folk out there who wanted children for all the right reasons, have thought the whole process through and worked out that they can cope both mentally and financially. Sadly though for every one level-headed accepting individual who realises that having children is just, well, having children, there is another who thinks it gives her a right to treat those who are childless (for whatever reason) as second class citizens. Yes, I've quite deliberately used the word "her" there - because that's the saddest thing of all - each and everyone one of the spiteful, unpleasant or just plain unthinking comments I've mentioned above has come from another woman.

If it's on the tip of your tongue to judge another woman for the considered choices she's made about her life - no matter how subtle you intend to be about it, stop and think how you'd feel if someone judged YOU in the same way. We'd all be up in arms if a man dismissed a woman's choices in this way, after all!


ps - my usual rule on deletion of abusive comments and "naming and shaming" the individual stands firm on this one by the way, so please think before you type. (or "put brain into gear before engaging fingers" as I like to think of it!)

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Hebrides Countdown...

Yes, it's that time of year again! As usual we've been squirrelling money away since last year and by the time we get in the car to head north everything will be accounted for - no credit card bills to stress about while we're away!

We've got all sorts of plans for this year's trip - it will be the first time we've stayed over on the west side of the Island - which is quite exciting all on its own as it means that we will be within walking distance of some beautiful beaches. I'm planning at least one day when we take a picnic, amble to the beach, and spend all day wandering, paddling, reading and generally lazing about before ambling back. doesn't that sound like a perfect day?

We'll be aiming to continue our theme of lots of walks elsewhere too -  I particularly fancy redoing a walk we last did back in 2007 - down on South Uist, from the end of the Loch Carnan road across to Loch Skipport - giving an amazingly different view of our favourite old Pier. With being up later in the year than on that occasion we're hoping that it might be a little drier underfoot than the last time, too = I seem to recall that we both ended up with soggy socks that time!

Ruined whitehouse -Loch Carnan


Friday 4 April 2014

Frugal Friday...

One thing that consistently comes up when people are struggling for money is the fact that all too often, they are paying for things that they're not using. Be that unusued gym memberships, insurance for items that they no longer own, magazine subscriptions where the mags sit for ages unread, or any of the myriad other ways in which your hard-earned can slip away without you even noticing. I bet by now you're smugly thinking "Well none of those things apply to ME!" - but how about checking the stuff you pay for that you DO use? Bank Statements for example - not only to check that the balances are where you expect (and if you don't know where they should be - why on earth not?), or that you've been paid, but that other transactions are as they should be, payments haven't been missed (An energy supplier on one occasion managed to cancel our direct debit - thankfully I noticed, called them up and flagged it up - had I not checked the first I knew of it not leaving our account as normal would have been when the red bill arrived, no doubt!)

Yes, random photos again - Vatersay, Outer Hebrides
That neatly brings us onto energy suppliers - and their bills are something we should ALL be checking. Yes, the cost of energy is escalating, we're all well aware of that, but with care you can still keep your bills, if not "cheap" then at least manageable. The first thing is to know what you use - familiarise yourself with your meters and read them regularly - initially if you're just starting to monitor your use, you may want to do this each week on a set day, but as you settle in to a routine of knowing what you should be using, you can probably drop that back to monthly. If you have a smartphone then there are some great little apps out there for helping you to keep track - you input your rates, and readings, and the app then produces all sorts of useful stats that let you see at a glance if your useage is usually high, for example. Of course, if you have an online-manageable energy account, then you can also submit your readings to your supplier - meaning your bills should be a more accurate representation of the power you are actually using. This applies with particular importance to those of us who are trying to cut back our use, as the suppliers do have a tendency to assume that we all have thermostats set at 25 degrees, leave every light in the house on, and cook a three course meal every day without fail! If you have a thermostat, then put a jumper on, yes, and some socks, slip your feet into your slippers, and now turn that thermostat down until the temperature is just comfortable for you. Go from room  to room in your house and find all the power-drains - clock radio in the rarely used guest bedroom permanently switched on? A computer than only gets used once a week left switched on but "asleep" - TV's and DVD players left on standby...all these things will burn your money, so get them gone. Get an energy monitor - some energy companies will supply them for free, you may find that friends of relatives have a spare that they don't use, and I understand that in some cases you can even borrow them from the local library! Try to fill your oven - and if you have an electric oven you may well find it cheaper to cook small meals in a mini-oven or combination microwave. If you have Economy 7 electricity it's absolutely vital that at least 50% of your use, and preferably more, if overnight - otherwise you're drastically overpaying!
Sticking with beaches...this is Grenitote, North Uist
I had cause to ring British Gas twice over the past week - the first time was on Saturday, after we got a document that claimed to be our "Annual Energy Statement" - my curiosity was piqued initially as so far as I could recall, and in spite of having been on our current Gas tariff for several years, we'd never been sent one of these before! Add to that the fact that it wasn't a statement at all, as nowhere did it tell us what we'd paid, over the time it said it referred to. A slightly longer look revealed the answer - it was really to inform us that our current tariff had now been stopped - at the end of January in fact - and that we were now on "Standard" tariff - which included a 26p a day Standing Charge. Now, to put that into context, until now our total gas bill for the whole year has been less than £60, and this service charge alone amounts to £95, you can begin to see why alarm bells started ringing! I rang customer services to ask what was going on, to be informed that they had "told us" this was going to happen. A little more probing revealed that "telling us" consisted of a single line on a previous bill - so not really fulfilling their duty of care to keep customers informed about such changes! The lady I spoke to was very helpful, promised to escalate the complaint and agreed a £10 Goodwill credit as she could see why we were unhappy. I rang off, and immediately went to check what our options were.

The Money Saving Expert Cheap Energy Club came in useful for the next bit - letting me input both our current supplier and tariff, and our exact usage, to get a clear picture of which suppliers might be useful for us. To our delight we found a small, independent "Not For Profit" supplier whose unit charges were lower than we had been paying British Gas, and more importantly without that pesky Standing Charge! (Or rather, they have one, it's just set at Zero p/per day!) Their forecast for us suggests that we'll now be paying under £30 a year for our gas - which is a definite result!

Sanderling on the beach at Berneray, Hebrides. 
The second call to British Gas came on Tuesday after, coincidentally, I'd just recieved our up to date bill from them. The first thing that surprised me was how much it was for - bearing in mind I checked the balance on the account just a couple of months ago and it was sitting at just a little in credit, to suddenly be owing over £40 seemed a bit unlikely! A bit more investigation revealed a litany of problems - in spite of the notification that our tariff would end in January previously they'd applied the new Standing Charge from November, and then created the tariff change at the end of December! They'd made all these changes without once managing to actually read our meter, or indeed to ask us to, so as to get an accurate picture of where we stood at the time the prices were changed! Apparently they "should have" informed us in September that the Standing Charge was going to be added - however it was patently obvious from the conversation that they knew full well that they hadn't! Eventually I told the call centre operator what I believed we should have been charged, and he used those figures to work out a further credit which would be applied.

I've now asked for the next Direct Debit to be set to clear the outstanding balance on the account, and hopefully by the time the following one is due, we'll be settled in with the new supplier and will just be able to clear the final balance by cheque. For us this all worked out well, however I do find myself wondering how many others who also weren't informed about this change will just completely fail to notice or challenge it, allowing British Gas to profit at their expense. Whoever your energy suppliers are, it pays to check their bills carefully - and not just the bits that are all they know most folk will check - the bottom line figure - either!


Thursday 3 April 2014

It's a different way, that doesn't make it wrong...

Unless you've been under a rock for the past few weeks, you will have realised that Sunday 30th March was "Mother's Day" or to give it it's traditional original UK name - "Mothering Sunday". Originally a religious celebration - it always falls on the fourth Sunday in lent, and its traditions have nothing to do with "Mums" and everything to do with people returning to their Mother Church on that day each year - domestic servants would be given a day off for the purpose, and this is where the link to family comes in as in a lot of cases this would be the one day in each year when the whole family could worship together. Young people who were in service would pick wildflowers on their way back home, which they would place in the church - as time moved on this evolved into the flowers being presented to their own mothers, and there you have the reason why it's now seen as a day to give gifts to your mother.
Mother's Day is something entirely different - and it won't surprise most of you in the least to known that this one started out as an American thing. Ironically enough, it's founder - Anna Jarvis - originally campaigned to have the day made a holiday, she was successful in this by 1914, but by 1920 had already become disillusioned with it's commercialism - I wonder what she'd think if she could see the way it is celebrated today?! For what it's worth - the original "Mother's Day" was the 2nd Sunday in May - no wonder people in the UK have become confused as to which event they're marking!

As a family we have never marked Mother's Day at all, and would never have marked Mothering Sunday as we're not religious. My Mum explained to me when I was very small that she would far rather than I did something nice for her randomly, as a surprise, during the year, than on one specific day in the year when I felt that I "ought to" - to me, that makes perfect sense too - and if I'd been in any doubt as to the logic of that, it would have been confirmed when I went into town on friday afternoon. Everywhere signs telling people "Not to forget" Mother's Day (surely if it was that important to them, they wouldn't be in danger of forgetting anyway?) but more notably, the clusters of people wearing worried, slightly put-upon expressions, and complaining that they "had to" get something for their Mums. How on earth is going out with that attitude showing ANY form of respect to the person who has brought you up, nurtured you, and made you into the person you are today. Hang on though, maybe that has something to do with the attitudes? Hmmm.

As a child, I remember sitting in class watching while everyone else was instructed to make their mum a Mother's Day card. I drew a picture instead I think - I was determined enough even then to take note of what my Mum said she wanted that I wasn't going to join in, in spite of being told that I was wrong not to! It was hard feeling that I was the odd one out, I must admit, but even then the number of people I remember complaining about it stood out to be as being entirely counter to the idea of the day as it was intended. Since then I've regularly encountered people being absolutely astonished when I'd had cause to explain that as a family, we don't celebrate the day. In fact, the first person I came across who simply accepted it was MrEH - and oddly enough he was also the first person I'd come across outside my own family whose family also didn't celebrate it!

Of course these days, the "hype" for want of a better word, around this day has become almost entirely commercial - pretty much anything out there can be wrapped up in a "Mother's Day" wrapper in order to sell more, and is. From Supermarkets persuading you to buy flowers & chocolates, to cosmetic companies suggesting that "All your Mum wants for Mothers Day..." is a pot of their miracle cream. It's come a long way from that lovingly and tenderly gathered bunch of wildflowers, hasn't it?

The people I feel that the whole thing must be hardest on are those who've lost their Mums, particularly children who have lost their Mum unexpectedly. How difficult must it be to be surrounded by posters and banners exhorting you to "buy this" or "Book a table for lunch" or "Treat your Mum to..." when all you can think on is that you no longer have a Mum to do those things for? It used to be that the toughest days were always birthdays, Christmas, perhaps another special day like your parents wedding anniversary - now though there is another day where even if you might want to, you're unable to escape from the harsh reality of the situation. Grieving is a very personal, and private thing, and yet a sort of "public day of mourning" is forced on people whether they feel able to cope, or not.

I'm not suggesting for one moment that those that wish to celebrate Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandparents Day or whatever other family member's day the card companies will choose to focus on next should not be able to do so. How about, though, starting a drift back towards something a little more traditional, individual even - a little more focused on love, and respect, and appreciation, than on a big card and a gift. How about doing something on a day of YOUR choosing, rather than on the same day as everyone else? As for those of us who choose NOT to celebrate it - try to remember that this is our choice, and the choice of our Mums, and they have every much right to having their views respected as your Mum does.

As for the flower pics in this post - these are for MY Mum, nothing to do with Mother's Day, but just because you're you, and I appreciate you for that, 365 days of the year.


ps - Thanks to my Mum for the interesting web-link that set me off learning more about this subject!

Tuesday 1 April 2014

On This Day...

1st April 2010

We were in the Hebrides - part way through the first of our two weeks on North Uist. It was a gloriously sunny day, and we had decided to do the shorter of the two circular walks around the island of Berneray. We'd finished the walk, and were standing on the top of the dunes overlooking East Beach. I'd changed my camera lens from the standard zoom I had used on the walk, to my 300mm prime as I was hoping to get some shots of the small wading birds that seem to like this stretch of beach so much. suddenly I was startled by MrEH shouting "Up! Up! Look UP!" and I did....to see this flying overhead.

A Juvenile White Tailed Eagle. We've seen these again since, but never so close, or so unexpectedly. truly a memorable day!