Thursday, 9 December 2010

Whose birthday is it anyway?

There was an interesting statistic in hubby’s Sunday paper the other day.
Apparently, the first Monday in December is the peak of online shopping for Christmas.  This year, due to the timing of the calendar it was predicted to peak on Monday the 29th November.

This time of year is not, actually the joy and cosy family time that is marketed at us.  Frankly, do you know even one person for whom it is that?  Well, maybe one…

In other words, we are buying the promise of a better Christmas when we go Christmas shopping and buy too much.  We always buy too much when we go Christmas shopping.

Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the SeasonWell get this – it is not your fault and not due to lack of will power.  But many of us cannot afford it and that is hard. 
There is a sophisticated marketing tool out there designed to part you from your money and make you want stuff and feel that you are buying a better Christmas. 
Last year I wrote about the car boot sale at this time of year. 
My mantra is this: ‘everything you buy new can be got down the car boot sale’ and it can.  In other words, the promise of a better life wears off very quickly and all that is left is the credit card bill.

'Unplug the Christmas Machine' is a book about this stuff - makes me realise I am not alone!  Give it to like-minded friends for Christmas.

What we know is, there is no such thing as a ‘wander round the shops’.  You end up buying something.
The shops you go to -and the online shops you frequent - are where you will spend your money. 

Now my big question is am I offending my relatives and friends and do they think I’m mean?
And will they mind getting the same Christmas card for the third year in a row? 

I bought 2 boxes of mixed cards 3 years back, only to find that they were ALL Christmas Fairies.  The thing is I don’t want to waste them – I don’t mind buying new ones, and am hoping to make some this year if the fairies run out but what with the Christmas card list being much reduced and money given to charity instead, they are lasting well. 
I try very hard to give back as much as I get and more but to be creative in how I do it. 

Our Christmas strategy  – but make up your own there is no one right answer to this:

·         Cut down the present and card list by simply suggesting that as we all have enough stuff, we could donate to charity instead. 
·         Only send cards to people you don’t see.  If you see them say ‘happy Christmas’ and explain your card strategy.  Most people heave a sigh of relief and express the wish to do something similar.  Before we did this we had a list of 200 cards to send (and growing).  It caused arguments about getting them written!
·         Think about what you want to achieve with Christmas shopping before you set out.
.     Only venture to the shops where you want to spend your money – and take a list.   
·         Decide your take on it before you go shopping - eg buy from organisations whose aims you support, make your own gifts, send money to charity and otherwise use it as a conscious time to make the world a better place. 
·         We used to go out with our children doing some kind of free fun or good work as part of Christmas.  I don’t even know if they remember it now, but we even did an anonymous beach clean up one year (great fun!)
·         One year a pile of us grownups had a wee fire on the beach and cooked bacon sandwiches.  We cleared up well of course and no one would have known we were there.
·         Make the Christmas cake on Boxing Day when you are bored and the shops are shut.  No one has room for it on Christmas day anyway.  Ice it straight away.  I’ll swear no one will even know the difference. 
·         Get your icing and marzipan in January and put them in the freezer for next year. 
.      read 'unplug the Christmas Machine on the 1st December every year!

Once I let go of trying to be what I think I ought, this Christmas thing really is fun.  
I have to remind myself of that and let go all over again every year!
The trick to this is, if anything makes you feel ‘oh no not another task’ DON’T DO IT. if you go whoopee  that sounds fun then DO IT.
If you push yourself this time of year, we all know what happens – you get ill for Christmas or New Year.  Your body gets you the respite you need in other words.

·         If you have kids, cut out a potato print of a Christmas tree.  Use kiddie paint to make printed cards. Even tiny kids can do this.  Write the address on the back of the card.  Tape the open edge of the card together and you don’t need an envelope. 
·         Last year I had a fire in the back garden and it was great.  (Yeah I have a thing about fire…)  We were snowed in so had to abandon plans to go away.  It was great and we saw my sister in March instead.
·         See article on this blog re buying presents at the car boot sale and donating the rest to charity (or buying the person more presents for the money!)
·         Get useful things for people such as a delivery of everyday groceries from Tesco for 20-something son…
·         Make presents – it doesn’t take any longer than all that shopping.
·         Think about the ‘whose birthday is it anyway?’ mantra.  It’s not mine, I think I got it from the New Road Map Foundation website last year.  I use it a lot and it clarifies my thinking.
here is a felted 'loopa knit' scarf - potential Christmas present?? though the photo makes it look rather strange...

Friday, 19 November 2010


If you like to shop, this may be for you.  I have just received £50 worth of Marks & Spencer gift vouchers but I am not going to spend them without doing some forward planning... 

Bargain hunting can be great fun.
It puts a whole new slant on shopping, and in fact on recreation.  We would rather spend time on something that is fun but will make us money or save us money, than on something that is also fun but will cost us money. Because it is soooo satisfying when you uncover a real bargain. 

Seven years ago in January, a friend e mailed me to say that Marks & Spencer had underwear reduced in their sale and her daughter had just got £96 worth of undies for £16. 

If you beome a committed bargain hunter, you will want to plan ahead, and keep a note of what your needs are likely to be for the coming year. 

I did this rigorously when our 3 kids were small and it meant they got to have a lot more than they otherwise would have, on our limited budget.
They were all the same size so we had no hand me downs within the family although we did have a bit of a system with friends of passing on clothes to each others' children.
I kept a book of what things I had been given that were too big for them, such as next year's size school uniforms, and then knew what we needed to buy at a glance and could snap up that bargain with confidence.

Our clothing needs are actually very predictable.  
Our kids would need a minimun of 12 pairs of new socks and underwear each a year, 5 school shirts, 2 school jumpers 2 pairs of school trousers, a school bag and so on.   Add to that another 5 play tee shirts, 2 pairs of play trousers, 2 smart pairs etc.  Once I sat down to think I realised it was really very easy.  The system also meant that everyone always had a smart outfit in their wardrobe that fitted if we got an unexpected invitation.
Once you have the list and you know what you are going to need, just wait and stock up when you see a bargain or until the end of the January or Midusmmer sales.  There is  no need to bother queueing for the expensive bargains on day one of the sales. 
By the time the sales are on, you may have found most of it in the charity shops anyway  but there is always something that has to be bought new, socks and undies being a good example.

Fashion may change but there are a surprising number of things that are fashion proof even if you are a fashionable person.  Socks, underwear and nightwear are good examples. Other relatively fashion proof things are school uniforms and tee shirts.  And actually those are all of the things that we will definitely have to replace regularly anyway.
Tee shirts and school stuff do change a bit fashion-wise - for example over the last few years Tee shirts went from longer length to waist length and are now back at longer length again.  Skirt lengths have done the same in reverse and trouser legs have gone wider and then narrower.

However it didn't change every year and if you buy a certain number of plainer shirts, skirts or trousers for everyday wear you can always buy a few more fashionable items with all that money you have saved!  The plainer ones are more fashion proof - it is this year's must have item that is totally out next year, your plain black tee shirt will still be okay.

As you get better at planning and buying in advance when things are cheap,  there are fewer urgent needs, because you have stocked up at a knock down price.
What's more, because you know what you are likely to need for the future, when you do see a bargain you can buy with confidence.   

This principle applies to all things, not just to clothes.  for instance, cans of tomatoes, ink cartridges, copier paper, spare oil filters for the car,,,

And then you begin to find you are getting better off.  This is one of the things that can give you real leverage.
You don't notice the difference at first, and I can remember wondering if it really did work when we started out15 yearsago.  
Then one day I found myself thinking 'how come we always seem to have so much money?!!'  Our income had not changed and we were not big earners but we had savings - money in the bank. In other words we had an emergency fund and that meant the next time there was an unexpected bill we did not have to borrow money. 
This is called 'The Snowball Effect' by Amy Dacyzyn who wrote The Tightwad Gazzette.   this book has been in print for probably 20 years.  It is phenomenol and quite literally saved our bacon.  If you buy two books about simplicity and getting ahead with money, get this one, and Your Money or Your Life 
by Joe Domnguez and Vikki Robbins.
Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century
The Complete Tightwad Gazette 

The snowball effect works like this: 
  • you predicted your needs and bought cheap.
  • you therefore spend less money and accumulate savings.
  • you don't need to borrow next time there is an unexpected bill.
  • you therefore save on loan interest payments and accumulate more savings
  • you are able to buy something that enables you to save even more money, such as a wood burning stove to burn free wood or a second hand sewing machine to make your own curtains.
  • You make a new friend when you get the free wood from their dead tree.  They get their garden cleared free and don't need to pay for a skip.  You give them some vegetables from your garden to say thanks for the wood.  
  • Next time they go fishing they leave you a fish on the door step. It turns out they don't eat fish anyway so from now on you have a regular supply of fish-for-vegetables thus saving you and them money on the grocery bill. 
In the present climate when we are all worried about money to varying extents, a plan like this can give you that emergency fund, or can help keep your head above water if things are bad.  It also gives you a morale boost because when you have no money you have things put by and can 'shop at home' and choose things out of your stock to treat yourself or the kids with.  

The 'mummy shop'
I used to keep a 'mummy shop' of bargains or things I had made.  If the kids did something that was thrifty or helped with a special job (they all helped a bit in the house in an age appropriate way as a matter of course), I would reward them with something from the mummy shop.    They totally loved it and I had fun finding things to put in it.
If you are a tax payer, money saved is worth more than money earned, because you don't pay tax on it.

So anyway, when my friend e mailed about that Marks & Spencer underwear sale, I was already poised with a list of our needs for the year.  By the time I actually got to Marks & Spencer the undies had gone down in price even more  – everything was £1! 
I e mailed her back and let her know.  By the time SHE got back there, everything was 50p.  Top quality, lovely stuff that had started out way over our budget.  So when it was 50p we bought a second lot for when the first lot wore out.  A bit of planning has saved a lot of money.  And I actually got a five year supply of undies for about £50.

So you can bet I won't be spending those M&S vouchers before Christmas.
Our kids got really good at spending any vouchers they got too.  They used to ask us if they could keep their Christmas money or vouchers until January.  Then they went shopping in the sales and got a lot more for their money.  Not a bad idea for anyone who gets a voucher this Christmas...

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


What to Do After You Turn Off the TV

We do not have TV.  When we had it,  the set ended up being on a lot.  If someone felt like watching TV, on it went.  Almost invariably there was nothing on worth watching.  Then the channel flicking started and finally everybody would settle for something they did not really want to see instead of switching it off again.  The off button was hard to find, it seems. 
The most striking thing was the way that the TV seemed to suck in energy.  In the evenings, the longer I watched it for, the more tired I became.  Finally there simply was not enough energy to contemplate doing something else.

When I do see TV in someone else’s house, I am appalled at some of the stuff that is on.  My job used to involve visiting people in their homes, so I got to see a fair cross section of daytime television.
Talk shows parading peoples’ problems would be on in the background and although no one was really watching it (except me, not having been exposed to much of that stuff I was transfixed!) it still creates a negative atmosphere and affects you view of the world.

Friends who have TV do not seem to know what I am on about. They ask me what I do in the evenings, if we do not have a TV set.  Before branding me as an extremist though, try going without TV for a month and then see how you react to it when it’s switched on again.  See later for tips about how to experiment with your TV use…

One study has researched the problem of us becoming desensitised to distress because we see it on TV a lot, and suggests that this can actually desensitise us to distress in real life and make us less likely to help someone out. 
If this is true, TV could be destroying our compassion. 

I do notice that TV-watching friends do not react as strongly as I do to these things, and feel that I react more strongly than I did in the days when I had a TV.

When we began to spend more time looking after our grand daughter we got some videos for her to watch. (Our old fashioned videos are all the same to her!)
One was never enough though and she got bored and fractious.  The video has never been on again and she doesn't ask for it.  if she is ever unwell, it might be useful.
One day it was torrential rain.  I thought maybe we would watch a video and then on impulse stopped on the way home and bought a child's umbrella for £1.  She played outside for ages with the umbrella and a cat litter tray full of water as a 'puddle' to stand in.  We do baking, play with home made play dough or with water in a bowl, dig the garden - all the things we did with our own kids in fact. 

TV seems to be everywhere.
It is common in doctors and dentists waiting rooms, and even the post office and the changing room at one local gym has it.  I have rarely seen anyone watching properly although they do glance at it. In fact people filter it out.

When the kids were small we went to the movies instead of watching TV.  It was a real family treat and good value.  (take your own popcorn and drinks or the cost can double).

We also had a TV/video combination unit, with the receiver removed.  This enabled us to legally watch rented videos.  We took the unit to a TV repair shop and they gave us a letter to send to TV licensing confirming that its reception capabilities had been disabled.   Now it is virtually obsolete due to the advent of the DVD but we did well for a while with videos purchased at the car boot sale for 10p/15c each as people got rid of them. 
We can still watch DVDs on the computer legally so long as it does not have a receiver in it and we occasionally use the internet based ‘watch again’ websites of the different TV companies.  Only about once a month though.  There usually seems to be something more interesting to do.

TV licensing paid us a visit about 5 years ago.  (They do check up on you eventually if you have told them you don’t have a TV.)  Years ago they used to send us lots of letters but not any more. 

We told them about the TV video combo and they naturally asked to see it.  And we couldn’t find it. 
They of course found this hilarious and said we were the first people they had seen that day who really didn’t have a TV.
It eventually turned out to be in our daughter’s wardrobe and they went away happy but still chuckling.

If you want to experiment with your TV use:
  • Try covering it with a nice cloth or put it in a TV cabinet.  Not having visual contact with it improves the feel of the room and means you don't get triggered to switch it on just because it is there rather than because there is something you really want to watch.
  • Decide not to watch TV first thing in the morning.  News programmes especially have a lot of negative stuff in them.  Is that really how you want to start the day?  
  • Have one TV free night at home a week and see how it feels.  If you are not used to it plan how you are going to spend the time.
  • Watch out that you don’t end up surfing the internet as a TV substitute.
  • Here are some of the things we do at home in the evenings: 
    Talk to each other, play board games, knit, read, make things, write, cook stuff for the freezer, spin, dye yarn, do stuff to support voluntary groups such as contribute to a newsletter, talk to friends on the phone, write this blog.

Sunday, 31 October 2010


I just, finally earned a £5/$8 voucher for buying petrol at Morrison ‘s supermarket.  It has taken a year to earn enough points.  I don’t often shop at Morrison’s, except for petrol (gas if you are American) but every so often they have a good value bargain, like the 5p\8c sausages I got late one night…

I decided to spend the voucher immediately and to get some things we would use anyway such as eggs and bananas, which are much the same price in all of our local supermarkets.  I also decided, in true frugal tradition that I would get a small treat with part of the voucher.  It is always a good idea to treat yourself when you earn something extra, as it makes it seem worthwhile.

It being Halloween in a few days’ time, there were lots of pumpkins.  Now in my childhood here in Scotland you hollowed out a large turnip or swede, not a pumpkin to make a Halloween lantern.  We were tough it those days no doubt, but I have to say that hollowing out a pumpkin does not result in a bent spoon and stigmata on the palms of the hands in quite the same way that hollowing out a turnip does.   

My vote therefore goes to the pumpkin every time though I am sure it has more air miles here in Scotland.  We can grow them, it is just that there are not many commercial pumpkin growers here…

The advantage of it being Halloween was that the pumpkins were being sold at £2/$3.00 per pumpkin rather than by weight, so a small one was just as expensive as a large one.  I therefore netted a large mis-shapen one for my £2, and got a great deal of pumpkin for my trouble. 
This is a great indulgence, as not having children in the house, I usually buy pumpkin on the 1st or 2nd of November when it can be had very cheap indeed or even picked up in the street a little charred but otherwise none the worse for wear - and I do hate waste as you have probably gathered. 
We celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 15th of February for the same reason – Last yearI got an enormous bunch of red roses for 50p/80c on the 15th of February in Tesco and was only sorry I didn’t need 50 bunches and a load of pot plants because they were all there for the taking.  Oysters are also worth looking out for on the 15th of Feb.

Anyway, on the way home from the pumpkin trip I just happened to call in at a local shop.  
 I netted 2 cartons of Convent Garden fresh pumpkin and bean soup for 25p/40c each, reduced from £2.25/$3.50 each.  It was to be used that day, so I brought it home and boiled it up vigorously before putting it in the fridge.  We ate it for our dinner last night with a bit of chicken chopped up in it.  The total cost of the dinner was about 40p/60c each and very tasty it was too. 
The chicken had been a bargain earlier in the week.  It had so far done 3 meals and we still had some left.  
(See below!)
Meanwhile, back to the pumpkin.  It is a variety called Crown Prince and a beautiful grey-blue colour, rather like a duck egg. 
I have a great pumpkin recipe, the original version of which comes from the ‘Boxing Clever Cook Book’ by Jacqui Jones and Joan Wilmot.   
They are involved in a CSA scheme, or Community Supported Agriculture.  CSA involves a group of people who pay a ‘share’ to a grower in advance and are promised a share of the produce when it is ready.  People usually help out at the farm or nursery for a day or so, making it a social thing too.  
 The book is about how to use all the vegetables that CSA members get, especially when there is a glut of something (usually cabbage no doubt).  It is therefore a great book for vegetable gardeners, those of us who bulk buys when things are cheap, or for anyone who has too much cabbage.  

I took the parsnips out of the recipe because they are not popular with our kids and added a few other things, including gravy, so here is my version of it.
Cut the top off the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds.  Prick the skin in several places, sprinkle it with salt and olive oil and put some garlic inside it. 
Put the pumpkin and the lid in a baking dish and bake until just tender but still holding its shape.  Or prick it all over, put it on a plate and microwave on medium for as long as it takes.  
(NB if you are going to chop up a  pumpkin for a different recipe, microwave it for a bit first and it will be much easier.)

Meanwhile, cook some potatoes, carrots and swede – or whatever other root vegetabes you have and mash them up with some olive oil and chopped chives.  Cook a handful of brown rice separately and mix it into the mash if desired. Mix in other left overs as you desire eg baked beans, peas, chopped meat or cheese.
Stuff the pumpkin with this mixture and bake until it is hot and tender.  

Mix some gravy by your usual method, or dissolve some miso, Marmite, Bovril or a stock cube in a mug of hot water, with some chopped parsley and chives in it if you have some.  Pour this over the potato mixture in the pumpkin before serving.  Serve with grated cheese on top or with a side serving of home-made tomato sauce. 
For a Halloween dinner it can be brought to the table with a candle stuck in the top of it, and you can hollow out a face before stuffing the pumpkin.
 The recipe can be used with any squash, pumpkin, courgette or marrow and the ingredients adapted to suit what you have in the fridge.

This pumpkin was destined to become other things though, because a whole stuffed pumpkin is a lot for the two of us. 
So half of it became pumpkin, pak choi and left over chicken curry and  pumkin soup.

The other half was cubed and frozen. NB you can freeze most vegetables for a month or so without having to blanche them, (ie scald in hot water for 2-3 minutes to destroy the enzymes).  for longer storage you will need to.  You can easily tell if frozen vegetables have started to deteriorate as they go tough and lose their structure.

Another option for home freezing is to cheat and part-cook the pumpkin (or other vegetables) in the microwave in a covered dish with a little water until hot.  Or just cook it and freeze ready to use.

High acid things like apples and rhubarb can be stored without blanching anyway and will keep for a long time. 
Having cooked the pumpkin then, the seeds were saved.  I looked in my gardening catalogue and seeds for this particular pumkin were £2.76 for ten.  I had about a hundred.  So I saved 20 or so for myself and a friend to plant next year, by rinsing them and putting them on paper towel to dry for 2-3 weeks.

I rinsed the rest and then baked them in the oven to eat.   Don't try this at home I have just had to change this entry - I think being able to bake and eat the pumpkin seeds is a bit like the poodle in the microwave adult fairy story, or the recipe for meadowsweet wine. (The Poodle didn't happen, the meadowsweet wine doesn't work).  I have cookery books that tell you the pumpkin seeds work - and for that matter that the meadowsweet wine does.  My pumpkin seeds stayed firmly stuck to the husk, half on each side when I split them open and were just not worth the bother.

So here is the story about the wine, just to make up for it.  I used to be a keen home wine maker and made many kinds of wine.  it was popular in the 1990's and seems to be making something of a comeback. 
I have just sold my wine making equipment on Cheapcycle (a free site to sell things) and could have sold it 6 times over.  I tried a couple of years ago and no one wanted it.

In the times when I was a keen winemaker,( I may blog about this soon so keep watching) a friend who was equally keen (if not more so) and myself experimented with many different kinds.  Several books had a recipe for wine made from a hedgerow flower called meadowsweet.
It smells divine when you first make the wine, which is a lovely golden shade.  Then it goes dark brown and tastes vile.  We covered it in paper and used dark demi johns and it made no difference.  I thought it was me and my friend thought it was her until we compared notes and found we had both tried everything!  Sometimes one could even suspect that people put recipes in books or, er on blogs without trying them out properly...

PS If you want the Poodle story I'm sure someone will tell you, or try the Internet, but then you probably know it anyway, I think everyone does!
PPS here's a link to the article I just did for Permaculture Magazine about growing winter veg. Pick those pumpkins though, they're not frost proof! 

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The true cost of decorating.

While we were away on holiday a month or so ago, I watched a 'house makeover' programme on TV.

I was intrigued to hear the makever guru describe how the new dining room table and chairs she was advising people to purchase was an 'investment piece'.  it cost £2,000/$3,000 and was white.  The chairs were covered in white leather, which, we were assured, would wipe clean.
Now this house belonged to a young couple with small children, and their kitchen was too small for a table, so presumably their kids will be eating at the white dining room table and the parents will now be getting tense about them dropping food on the new and expensive dining room carpet.

I remember how my kids used to sit at the table and play.  They used felt tip pens, paints, water and so on and it was great for them to be able to do that without worrying about our table, which was permanently covered in a heavy pvc coated table cloth.  So with a cloth on top of it, an expensive table would have looked just the same as a cheap one, and we bought a second hand good solid Ercol dining room table set for £35 from a local charity (thrift) shop.

In what sense, exactly is a dining room table an 'investment'?  An investment is something that increases the value of your money and can be sold (quickly and easily - ie when you need the money) for more than it cost.  A Chippendale  chair may be an investment, but not one you would make unless you already had money in easily-accessed tax free, safe savings.  But a white table will get stained.  And the chairs may be wipe clean but the leather will soon look used and the white will rub off in places.  The minute it leaves the shop the value becomes less than half of what you paid for it - and how on earth would you sell it anyway?  No investment this, then.

An investment has to be a realisable asset.  For most of us, even our house is not an investment.  
We need to live in it and cannot therefore easily sell it if we need some money, even if it has gone up in value.  It costs money for maintenance and to pay the mortgage, especially if we spend money on things that give no return like furniture, and is therefore actually a liability in financial terms.  It becomes an asset only if it can earn us money is some way. 
That could mean taking in a lodger so at least some of the costs are off-set.  It may mean using it to earn money such as by working from home as a child minder or moving your office to the house and therefore saving on rent for business premises if you are self-employed. It may even mean selling it, buying a cheaper one and investing the money.

We recently got a grant and interest free loan to install solar panels.  These give an electricity generating feed-in tariff in many European countries, so we get paid to generate electricity.  We used Renewable Resources and were very happy with them. give this blog a mention if you get in touch!
The panels should be paid for by this tariff in ten years (using calculations of the average amount we should expect to generate).  The tariff is guaranteed for 25 years and is index linked.  Those are the magic words.  Anything that is index linked keeps up with inflation of course and that is very important.  For us it means the tariff will go up every year when there is any inflation, which will quite possibly make the payback time shorter.

So how else can you make your house an asset?
By spending money in a way that helps it to earn its keep.  That doesn't usually mean an expensive kitchen, bathroom or conservatory which are depreciating and unrealisable assets.
It does mean doing the sums regarding any money you spend on it.  For example, if you add insulation or double glazing what is the pay back time? If the payback time is long, are there other benefits, such as wanting to go out less or just getting a lot of pleasure from it?

We recently installed a wood burning stove.  It cost us quite a lot of money but is worth every penny.  We are spending more time at home, and both ourselves and our friends enjoy spending time here more. 
We are enjoying getting our exercise collecting and chopping free wood.
We had had a stove at our last house so knew we would enjoy wood gathering, and I have always preferred to get exercise in ways that are useful.
Once we have done something that saves us money and adds to the quality of life at the same time, I love to find yet more ways that it can save us money.  So the wood stove has a kettle on it right now, boiling water for tea.  The kettle cost me 50p/80c at a car boot sale.  It also has a saucepan on it cooking potatoes for tomorrow's dinner.  We have managed so far to resist spending money on trailers, wood sheds, chain saws and other things that tempt new wood stove owners!

So I am sitting here toasting nicely whilst not spending a penny keeping warm and cooking a meal at no extra cost.  In other words, our money is earning its keep.
Our stove cost about the same as the white dining table and chairs in that make over programme by the way.

Sunday, 1 August 2010


In February I wrote about my food stockpile. The pile had a theme – all those so called health foods that you hear about. I say ‘so called’ because they don’t make you any healthier lurking in the cupboard, and in fact make your wallet a lot less healthier.

Blueberries are a great example.

Yes they are healthy but not so great when they have travelled half way round the world and are 3 weeks old by the time we eat them out of their plastic punnet for £2.99 a go.

And ironically, here in Scotland you can grow blackcurrants very easily for nothing. You simply get a bit of branch off someone else who has blackcurrants and stick it in the ground. Hey presto, only a year later you will have your first abundant crop. They have just as many anti oxidants in them and are good in porridge, wine, jam, juice and so on.

Who has ever managed to grow enough blueberries to make wine, jam and juice and still have enough left to put on their porridge? We grow both, and the birds either don’t bother with the blackcurrants or there are so many that we don’t notice the difference. (NB the trick with blackcurrants is to prune back to the ground everything that has fruited right after you pick the fruit. It leaves hardly anything, but don‘t let that worry you. I treasure my handful of blueberries per bush, whilst struggling to pick about 20 kilos of blackcurrants off our 6 bushes...

Simply add some black currants to your porridge from the freezer. Put the £2-£3 you would have spent on the blueberries each week in a pot and treat yourself to a weekend away instead at the end of the year. And watch out for the marketing hype with any food, with the likely associated price hike.

some of our blackcurrant crop...
Anyway, back to the food stockpile.

I have had some successes using things up. The mung bean stew has been great. I have only four tubs left, and have been getting a tub or even half a tub out of the freezer and adding different flavourings, tins of tomatoes, curry powder, vegetables etc to give us a range of almost free meals. I have even tried it out on a number of visitors with very positive results, and even requests for the recipe.

NB I did, honestly, tell them the story of the wee black things (see Feb 10 blog entry!) and offer a menu choice. Not one person was bothered, and it led to some interesting conversations about food waste.

The Cajun powder goes well with the mung bean stew and it, too is diminished.

The dried onions, glutinous rice and dried shitake mushrooms have all gone.

The brown chick peas have almost gone. I thought they had gone but hubby re-organised the freezer after the door got left open and frosted it up. Behold! Another bag of pre-cooked brown chick peas. He thoughtfully thawed them out and they will no doubt go in the bin once no one eats them and they go off in the fridge.

I like the ordinary ones but not these. A friend suggested sprouting them, and guess what – they are yummy sprouted. So the dried ones have all been sprouted and eaten, and the ones from the freezer went to said friend who likes them fine.

I am ashamed to say that almost all of the rest is still there. I have remembered to take the glucosamine a few times, but not enough to use up a whole one. I am quite stuck with the pollen granules, red quinoa, almond butter and the miso. I ought to use them up but keep not doing so. I hereby resolve to do one thing a week to use something up…

I HAVE FOUND ANOTHER STOCK PILE!This one is art materials for children. I used to do one to one art work with kids who had problems and have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of poster paint, bubbles (about a litre of it but you dilute it with 80% water - HELP) PVA glue (500mls) and several of those glue sticks.

I have a grandchild who is working hard at using all this stuff up but reckon it could take her the rest of her life to get through all that paint despite her best efforts.

Material World: A Global Family PortraitThere is a wonderful book called ‘Material World A Global Family Portrait’, by P Menzel. He went to different parts of the world and got people to put all their belongings outside their home. These were catalogued and photographed and the photos are in the book. The book also details the food the family eats. It was striking how many of the families only get to eat once a day, or who just eat beans and rice all the time whatever time of day it is and are grateful to be able to eat at all.

The American family’s stuff took up half a block. There was a family in Ethiopia who had only the clothes they stood up in, some cooking pots and a pair of wellingtons.

That is why I cannot bear to just throw away all this food and stuff that I should never have bought and may still be able to use up.

Actual stuff such as furniture, books and clothes is much easier to let go of. The money is gone, and it is better to send it to the charity shop or sell it so that someone else can get the use of it.

But you cannot do that with old food, part used poster paints and glue sticks.

So my resolution is to not let these things into my life without careful consideration. That is where the problem lies. 
But how to remember when I am at the shops and I want something???

Friday, 9 July 2010

Make do and Mend

Handy hints re:
• Making ink from soot, barley bannocks and a washing up bowl ‘shower’ should you ever need them!

Here’s thought:

The real value of things has been lost because they are so cheap here in the West and we think it will be that way forever. The things of true value such as food, water, shelter and community are often cheap in money terms until they become scarce and then we realise you can't eat money

These essential resources are likely to get more expensive as they become scarcer, which is already happening in many parts of the world. Historically we don’t notice something is running out until it is gone.

So the fact that many parts of the world (including the western world, such as Arizona) are running out of drinking water does not stop us (or even them) from using it to fill swimming pools and water lawns.

It is just hard for us to believe it until it's too late. And elected governments run for a term of about 4 years. What vested interest do they have in unpopular policies to conserve resources?  It just means they don’t get re-elected.

Our value base has changed a lot over the last 40 years or so without us noticing. Things have come to seem like the Only Hygienic Way for instance, when we managed perfectly well before.
The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic LivingMany people now think it is unhygienic to shower less than once a day or not flush the toilet every time we use it.
Remember If it's brown flush it down, if it's yellow let it mellow? 
NB if you have a toddler who plays with the toilet don't try to save on water this way!  If your dog drinks the toilet water you may also want to think here - or shut the lid!

 I have been following Mark Boyle’s blog on (he has just published a great book, the Moneyless Man).

He is quite a bit younger than me and I was struck by the things even he doesn’t know that his granny would have.
He also managed to do lots that I would never do of course. For example I am grateful to Mark for providing proper instructions on how to build a rocket stove.

Lots of people around the world rely on rocket stoves, made from old tin cans, to do their cooking on. They are efficient and use very little fuel. But many of us here would be appalled at the thought of having to use one.
Even if we in the UK (and I am sure many other Western countries) are on the dole (unemployment benefit) with hardly any money most of us would rather get into debt to pay the electricity bill than cook in the garden on a rocket stove in the better weather. Yeah I said most of us. I’m afraid this is where my family snigger and think to themselves ‘Not our Janet she would be out there under a borrowed Gazebo in the rain, actually’ and my Dad says ‘most people aren’t like you’ but actually he’s just the same. Well I would be out there in the rain under a gazebo  if it meant I had enough money and did not get into debt.

Here’s an example of what Mark Boyle doesn’t know that his granny could have told him.  (Sorry mark!!)
The thing about solar showers is that the water is gone before you get the soap off. Any good Girl Guide knows the best camping shower is a bowl of water.
Use a soap and flannel to soap yourself. Then stand in the basin and use a jug to pour  the water over yourself and wash the soap off. The basin catches the water of course so you can keep re-using it.  Or just use the flannel to wash off the soap.   And lean over the bowl to rinse your hair before you use the soap.

World Vision actually gives families plastic bowls for the purpose. They are like an over-sized washing up bowl and large enough for an average person to sit or kneel down in which is even better.

Mark spent ages making ink from mushrooms.
The Garden Cottage Diaries: My Year in the Eighteenth CenturyIn ‘The Garden Cottage Diaries, my year in the eighteenth century’ historian Fiona Houston describes how we used to make ink from soot here in Scotland. Much easier and available in abundance if living a subsistence lifestyle. Apparently it also lasts well on the page.
I think fiona just mixed soot with water  but I have loaned the book to a friend! Soot lasts hundreds of years as ink and does not damage paper as it is basically carbon.

Mark  agonises over whether to make bread, which he is fond of.
But it is a major hassle to make, due to the necessity for also making an outside cob oven and having to make sourdough as a starter.

In eighteenth century Britain they got around this by making flat bread, using whatever grains they had. It was unleavened and cooked on a flat iron griddle on top of the fire. They also made barley bannocks, delicious eaten hot . Barley was cheaper than wheat and was easier to grow in Scotland. has a bannock recipe.
Fiona Houston also has an authentic Scottish recipe for Bannocks and flatbread in her book.  She is a food historian and her recipes are very good. 

All this 'making do' led me to think about mending clothes. I tend to think it is a waste of time and I would be better doing something else, so the mending just sits there. Ultimately it means throwing the clothes in the bin though (or use them for rags/make a quilt - but how many of us bother?) Yet another example of how we undervalue what we have because it is cheap in money terms to buy.

So today I mended a tear in a skirt and remembered how good I am at it. I showed it to my daughter and it took us while to find the mend. I mended the strap on a bra and sewed a button on a cardigan. I tried to mend the sleeve on another cardigan only to find the whole sleeve had worn thin .
How great is that – I actually managed to wear something out! That cardigan was a favourite. It is cashmere and cost only £10 in a Tesco sale. I have had my money’s worth out of it.

It is a rare for us to wear clothes out . Or anything else for that matter. We get fed up with it and want new stuff. Or we buy the new stuff and it doesn’t all fit in the cupboard so then we get rid of the old stuff. And yet so many people in the world do not have enough.

One result of all this has been the growth of companies who do kerbside collections for our unwanted clothes and bric a brac. These are shipped out to other countries and sold to people who don’t have easy access to such things. Seems like a tidy solution but it has apparently led to the collapse of the textile industry in some countries, causing people to lose their jobs and the country to lose its self sufficiency in textile production.

So really the solution is to stop buying so much and wear out what we have.
What I have would probably last me the rest of my life though and I am bored with it already.
I am great at using what I have and not buying more until I go to the shops.

I am now trying not to buy anything brand new without first thinking whether I really need it and whether it could be got second hand. It has reduced our purchases and helped the finances into the bargain but is it still hard.
Sometimes you just want stuff because it seems like everyone else buys it. Buying knitting yarn and fibre for spinning seems to be my blind spot and I have so far not counted it as buying something new! I do have a lot already though – not counting the fibre and yarn that I sell as part of my business, this is just my personal stuff.

Mending the clothes made it feel like I had something new, because the things had been un-wearable for so long whilst waiting to be fixed. So it not only saved the cost of the item I repaired it saved the cost of a new one too.
And it was more satisfying to prevent these things from being thrown away than it would have been to go shopping.

I was going to bin the truly worn out cardigan. Then I realised I have been combing the charity shops for knitwear to make into felted knitting in the washing machine! So my cardigan is soon to be re-born as a felted knitted bag with beads on it. And if it doesn’t work, nothing is lost.

In the meantime I have had fun making a felted tea cosy from washing machine felt. (sadly not re-cycled, this was made from scratch.) I needed one and managed to design my own, with various buttons and handle holes in it. This means it fits two sizes of tea pot and the cafetiere. And making it kept me away from the shops…


Saturday, 8 May 2010



It is often said that if you have lost your way in life and don’t know what to do about it, look at what you loved to do as a child, and start there. As a child I loved to make things, especially food and textiles, to garden and ride my bike. It has not changed.

My part time business is textile based, and for most of my adult life I have had an argument going on inside my head about whether I should earn a more meagre living as a textile artist or a better off one doing something a lot heavier. Whenever I become too focused on the money instead of the love of the craft, it seems to let me know in some way and back I come to what I love.

If you follow your heart, your brain will tell you to be practical and remind you that there are bills to pay.

But continue to push yourself and to do things that challenge your integrity and your well-being could be at risk. It is quite simply bad for our health. And what if you didn’t make it to retirement, because the job you pushed yourself to keep doing had made you sick?

Simplicity offers a way out:

Eliminate the surplus spending that does not add to your quality of life. Save up a nest egg instead and then you can take a year off, take a risk, or use the money to do what you really want.

A job that is not in line with your integrity tends to lead to higher spending anyway, in the form of expensive holidays, treats to compensate for having to work and through having to pay for things that there is no time left do, such as cutting the grass and housework.

Now ask yourself these questions:

• What would make you really sad if you never got to do it?

• If you just went and did it, what is the worst thing that could happen?

• If that worst thing did happen, could you live with, or deal with the consequences?

My Dad was 80 in February this year. These are his questions, and my sister mentioned them when she gave a talk at his birthday party. I reckon they may have something to do with why he is still fit, active and happy at the age of 80.

Few of the things that keep us fit, active and happy actually cost a lot of money. STRESS may even cause more harm to our bodies than many of the more concrete health concerns we read about such as food additives etc.

Does it really make sense to work full time in a stressful job that you don’t love in order to pay for supermarket organic veg that has travelled half way round the world?

It may be better to work part time, have a simpler lifestyle, relax a lot more and eat local non organic veg...

Even better, grow some veg and don’t worry about the rest.

I just got hold of a ‘free’ green guide to my area. It is actually advertising for local ‘green’ businesses, which pay to be in there, and get priority for an article if they advertise. There is nothing wrong with that of course and I used to advertise in it myself.

However I am struck by how many different ways there are to spend money in order to deal with a malaise which is largely lifestyle based, or to do with stress and general discontent with our lot. Almost the whole magazine if filled with articles and advertisements about complementary health clinics, stress and relaxation treatments.

You need to work more in order to pay for all those treatments or therapies, but maybe working less and spending less could lead to the problem going away of its own accord?

Even if you do something you love, you still need time just to hang out and do nothing much.

Colin Bevan in his recent book ‘No Impact Man’ quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘The purpose of life is to futz around’. Yeah…

Monday, 15 March 2010

On foraging

I wrote the initial foraging article, 'On Foraging For Gloves' for the Financial Interity website and it can be viewed there. 

Here is a sequel. 

As you will have guessed by now, I hate waste

It is not about the money - you can buy many things so cheaply now that it is often hardly worth buying second hand or repairing things from a financial point of view.   Bear that in mind when you get scared about inflation - many things are cheaper now than they were 20 years ago, unless you really need the newest model.
It is worth it from the point of view of not wasting the resources of our planet, and from the point of view of our own integrity however.  It makes you feel a lot better if you know you are doing what is right.
Yet in the great abundance we have here,  it seems to take so much energy to re-use and value everything, and we already have so much that if we didn't waste anything, I feel I would never need to buy things again.  Some of them would probably outlive me.  
Face it - how long does it take to wear out a good coat, or a bicycle, or a sideboard, wardrobe, pair of wellingtons... for most adults these things last a very long time. 
We get rid of them because we are tired of them, or want another colour, or someone just bought us a new one for Christmas. 

I read somewhere (I think it was in the book 'Affluenza'  - see link) that in the 1950's some great marketing conference looked at what they could get us to buy now that we had everything we needed.  They set an aim of making shopping a leisure activity.  People said it couldn't be done...

What has set me off this time is seeing a bag of perfectly good stuff spilling out of a bin bag where it had been dumped in a lane.  First hubby came home with a pair of crutches (yes really!) out of the bag.  They were in perfect condition and have now been re-homed at the physiotherapy department of a local hospital where they should have been returned in the first place. 

So I had to go and have a look too and came home with a child's car booster seat - slightly muddy but otherwise fine.  There is nothing that can really go wrong with a booster seat so it is perfectly safe and now also nice and clean.  We will keep it for our grandchild.

That made me think about waste, as I had been about to go shopping (!) to buy a new jumper and a cardigan.  I resolved to go round all the charity shops and came home with a 100% cotton heavy cardigan originally from Next , which  looks brand new, and a silk and cotton jumper.  Both are lovely.  I also found a floaty layered skirt which will look nice with boots.  Total cost £12 approx.
I wanted a new brown eyeshadow because THE OTHER ONE HAD RUN OUT.  How great is that, I actually managed to finish something before I bought a new one.  So long as you don't count the other five eyeshadows that I don't really use...

I went into the local branch of a well-known chain of chemist's shops and the assistant helped me to find one which was exactly what I wanted for £16 ($23) - ouch. 
Luckily I overheard another assistant mention an alternative brand and spotted one for £5 ($7).  It was not quite the right colour, and somehow I felt pressure to buy the first one.  However, there was 3 times as much eyeshadow in the cheaper one, and I bought it.  Presumably, being larger,  it will last me the rest of my life...
When I got to the checkout, I realised I had enough points on my discount card to get it for nothing.  It had taken me about 3 years to save up the points and I almost forgot to ask - great.

I stopped to do the re-cycling on the way home, and spotted a bin bag dumped by the clothes re-cycling bin.  It was too big to go through the slot in the bin and the contents would be spoiled in the rain.  I had a quick look and there was some good stuff in there, so I put it in the car and brought it home.

My haul has netted me 5 pairs of jeans, 5 t-shirts, some pyjamas, and a couple of other things.  The rest will be taken back to be re-cycled, and I will make a donation to charity for the clothes I am keeping. 

It is better than them being ruined in the weather, and if I make a donation then it is a win-win.  Not sure what the ethics of that is,  but if feels okay.

PS re the Amazon link.  I am not an affiliate for Amazon and do not make any money out of you using that link.  I am neither for or against any particular book seller.
 If there is a better way for you to get the book, please feel free.  I just couldn't get the picture of the book to come up without the link. 
I borrowed my copy of Affluenza from a friend.  I have got many books by special request from my local library.  (see previous blog entry about books and libraries).