Friday 30 September 2016

Frugal Friday...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday 27 September 2016

And finally...

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

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

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

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


Friday 23 September 2016

Frugal Friday...

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

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

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

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


Monday 19 September 2016

That photography thing...

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

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

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

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


Wednesday 14 September 2016

Playing by the rules...

...some people are just really good at "doing things properly" - you know what I mean? They are the ones whose clothes are always ironed, who have proper organised "date nights" with their partners, whose homes are tidy, meal plans magneted onto their very tidy (and clean!) fridge doors and the lid to the recycling bin actually closes... Then there's the rest of us. Now I don't know about you, but I've never been good at sticking to the rules. As a child, colouring in, my attention invariably wandered and I went outside the fact, that sums up my life really - pretty bright, and colourful, and fun, but a lot of that bright, colourful fun just manages to sneak outside the lines and look a bit untidy. *Sigh*. I've spent years feeling I should be "that person" - the one who tidies their winter clothes away neatly in April and brings them out again in October. The person who knows precisely where to find things, and never forgets a birthday (sorry to all those who either haven't had cards from me this year, or got them very, VERY late. Again) Some of those things I'd even like to achieve - a tidy house would be my dream, but unfortunately I live with MrEH and this comes lower on his priority list than it does on mine. Plus I'm actually a bit rubbish about keeping up the sort of routines that enable true tidiness, "stuff" just seems to creep in. I'm reminded here of a conversation with a good friend of mine, in connection with a planned move of accommodation that he was preparing for - he was complaining about the amount of stuff he seemed to have accumulated, to which I replied "I had you down as a bit of a neat-freak?" "Yeah I am!" he responded "...but I'm a hoarder, too!" Once I stopped laughing I realised that yes, I can identify with that!

Regardless of how organised I can be through the quieter, winter months, things tend to get away from me again during the summer. When I'm away most weekends doing brilliantly fun airshow stuff, and then spending most of my weekday evenings sorting out the photos from those weekends, boring stuff like putting clothes away and (ugh) dusting tend to get pushed into the background. I start the year writing everything into a diary...dates, birthdays, anniversaries, you name it, it will go in there. By mid July though? Less so, and by August I'm a stressy heap of disorganised forgetfulness all over again. and that just isn't good. Oh and I beat myself up for not managing to keep on top of everything, which just adds to the stressiness...yes, life in my head is a complete ball sometimes!

Is there another way (she wondered, out loud)? well yes, I think there is (obviously - is there wasn't, this would be the shortest blog post ever wouldn't it!) - it's just about finding the ways that things can work for me. I suspect the first thing is to keep things brief, not overload myself (the "you can do 15 minutes of anything" approach) and to take things a day at a time. I wrote elsewhere recently "And everything else can wait" - and do you know, it really can! SO:

Lists: I know they work for me, but letting them get overly long is counter productive.
15 minute bursts: 15 minutes of tidying somewhere at home EVERY day I'm there.
Goals: Short lists of 5 items - nothing earth shattering but just things I want to get sorted. New items to go here mean a new list, and that list will never be more than 5 items long.
Wants: Things I'd LIKE to do, stuff for me. If it never happens, it doesn't matter.
Preparation: whether it's getting stuff ready for the morning (clothes etc) or batch cooking ahead of time.
Prioritisation: Key to organisation and getting things done, I guess?

My "Bullet-esque Journal" is going to help me here. (Yes I KNOW it's a fad, and I KNOW 90% of people will stop using them once it stops being trendy, I'm hoping that as it's a variation on the diary/notebook thing I've done for ages anyway, I'll be in that other 10%, OK? Humour me here!) I'm a visual person, and having stuff written out in a very easy to follow, visual way works far better for me than disjointed dates on a page with no room to elaborate on anything much. Plus I actually like writing, as opposed to typing - notebooks are a regular feature of my life. Of course I'm not following the rules - but as someone else pointed out we're pretty sure there aren't "Bullet Journal police" out there ready to pounce at every incorrect indicator or missing page number. Mine's sectioned (Yes, as I should probably be, before anyone else jumps in there!), a sort of diary bit, a "planning" section, somewhere for finances as that is a regular thing I use a notebook for, and a bit for general notes and to-do stuff.
Weekly pages are just that - a page, with room for planned "stuff", a meal plan, stuff that needs to be booked and a SHORT to do list. It can't get longer than that as that's the space available for it - simple, yes? I'm also allocating a page per month to keep track of the bigger picture, and a "forward planning" grid of 12 blocks which will help to keep track of things planned for next year, thus removing some of the panic associated with potential double-bookings.

I need to remember that I don't have to do it all, that sometimes the path of least resistance is the easiest path to take. Sometimes, "enough" is absolutely fine. My home doesn't have to be worthy of a "Homes and Gardens" spread, it just has to be somewhere I want to go home to on a cold night. I need to remember to set aside time to organise myself, not just to try to hit everything head on. I've got 8 months until the airshow season gets up to speed again - is that enough time to develop habits that I may be able to continue even when I'm busy, I wonder?