Thursday, 15 December 2011

Something for nothing and the art of giving

This is a time of year when a lot of thought goes into giving and receiving.  I find the whole spending thing depressing.
Thinking about shopping in general and the waste of stuff and money got me to thinking about how easy it is  to get many things without money if you are prepared to wait and to share what you have with others.  
Frugal living is not sponging 
 That said, frugality is not about being a sponger, cheating or using others.  It does not mean going to the pub and letting someone else pay for the drinks and the golden rule is always give something back somehow, in some way to somebody.  Simplicity is about is building a sense of community in which people feel okay about borrowing things, sharing and passing on good fortune. 
gift carpet spare room

A good example is the past ‘foraging for clothes’ article on this blog.  I rescued a bag of clothes dumped beside a re-cycling bin.  It was raining heavily; a bank holiday and they would have been ruined long before being collected by the charity. 
I took them home and kept some of the clothes.
We gave the rest in to a charity shop and I donated £10 to the charity who owned the bin.  They got more than the value of the clothes had they been re-cycled, another charity benefitted by being able to sell the clothes and we got some good clothes for only £10. They did not end up in landfill so the Planet benefitted too.
I call that a win-win though am not strictly clear about the legality of it!  I was honest and did not rip anyone off though and my conscience is clear.

Accept things graciously.
Most people enjoy helping others by passing things on.  The bit we all find harder is accepting things when they are offered to us.  By saying no you deprive that person of the satisfaction of helping another and re-homing things that are no longer needed.
So if you say no do it gently and thank the person for thinking of you. It takes courage to offer things to others which is the main reason it does not happen more often. If you don't want something but know someone else who could use it, offer to pass it on. It will encourage that person to offer things to others again and it may have been the first time they plucked up the courage to ask.  
Deal with your ‘gratitude feelings’ about being given things by entering into the spirit and sharing or passing on the surplus. 

gift carpet 2
How long can you keep it going?
The best fun ever is seeing how long you can keep it going.  For example, Jude gives me 6lbs/3kg of rhubarb from her garden.  She has more than she can use and does not want it to be wasted.  I say thanks and make some rhubarb jam and chutney with some of  it and put the rest in the freezer - which is easy as you just chop it up and bung it in a plastic bag.  If you make wine (but only if it is good wine) you could do that too.  Never, ever inflict battery-acid style home made wine on your friends.

  • I give some jam to Eric as a thank you for the wood he gave me for the stove. (His old garden furniture and it saved him paying the Council to take it away). 
  • I give some chutney to Joanne because I know she likes it and doesn’t make her own.  I would like to get to know her better and it breaks the ice. 
  • I leave another jar on Clive’s doorstep and hope he has fun guessing who it is from.
  • I invite Jude, Eric, Jude, Joanne and Clive round for a Christmas Eve drink and nibbles 6 months later and tell everyone the jam in the tarts is made from Jude’s rhubarb which chuffs her no end.
  • Everyone brought some baking with them (unasked) and I now have a freezer full as no one wants to take it home with them.  I decide to stop buying Kettle Chips and eat pancakes from the freezer saving me £3 a week.  I give some of the baking to the Church for their forthcoming coffee morning although I do not attend that Church.  I find out about their shoe box campaign for Romania as a result and resolve to fill a shoe box next year.   
  • There is lots of milk left over from the get together.  I put some in the freezer in small jugs or sterilised plastic milk cartons, as we don’t use much and it is handy for visitors. 
  • I make some yoghurt with the rest and give half to a friend.
  • We have an almost-free pudding of stewed rhubarb, yoghurt and left over macaroons that someone brought to the get together.  Yum.
  • Everyone gets to know one another a bit better and Clive and Jude realise they could give each other lifts to work.  Jude decides to help at the Church coffee mornings now she knows that Joanne goes.

This is how you build community.  Everyone used to do it before going to the shops and going out for dinner (aka spending money) took over as forms of entertainment. Many people still do it of course  (and if that is you well done).
Those of us who commute by car tend to get the shopping from the supermarket near work on the way home.  This means you are not  out and about on foot near home, will not see the notice about the church coffee morning and won't even know it is on.
this phone just needed a new battery

How to give something back
We have great fun thinking how express appreciation.  Sometimes it is just a thank you card.  The fact you have thought to say thanks can build bridges and friendships in surprising ways.
It does not always have to be something given back to the person concerned.  The general concept of generosity, passing on good fortune and not being stingy is the overriding principle here. 
Giving and not getting caught is one of our best forms of entertainment. 

Here are some other ideas.
  • The no hoarding principle.  If you don’t need all of it, keep some and pass the rest on. That generosity will come back in surprising ways.

  • Each time you get something for nothing, give something back to someone somehow, somewhere. 

  • Offer to re-home things you cannot use if you know someone else who would appreciate them.  Always ask if that is okay with the person giving it to you. 

  • If something is re-homed make a point of telling the giver where it ended up as it will give them great satisfaction.  Feedback encourages people to re-home or re-cycle in the future.

  • Think who would like things before offering and do not burden others with your old junk.  Some things really do need to be re-cycled or thrown away.

Some of the things we have been given.  Most were destined for landfill.
Our son’s 3 piece suite and cooker due to be picked up by the Council one hour later!
Floor covering for the garage
A washing up bowl brand new, rescued from a skip
A chest of drawers
A carpet for the spare bedroom
A carpet for our bedroom
The living room carpet in our last house
Towels that did not match someone’s new decor

woodshed from re-claimed timber.
Timber for building a wood shed
Herbal and fruit teas that no one wanted
A cordless phone that needed a new battery
Children’s clothes
Tea bags being dumped when a wooden holiday chalet was cleared out

Some of the things we have given to others.
A disabled hand rail given to us by someone for re-homing
Jam, chutney, home-made wine
All manner of garden produce including apples rhubarb strawberries potatoes leeks herbs garlic and salad
Plants for gardens including herbs, blackcurrant bushes, raspberry canes, strawberry plants
Children’s clothes
Home cured bacon made from pork we got on special offer ( A future blog topic this)
Kitchen units we inherited in the garage
Seeds for the garden
Hand knitted hats and baby things

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

don't get scared

kale pesto is cheap and surprisingly good
I have been listening to the news in order to learn about the recession.  I am blessed because it has had some impact on me, (I will not get my pension until I am a lot older than I would have) but overall life is okay.

Our financial house is in reasonable order, we have no debt and the mortgage is paid so we could survive for a while if we had to.  Yet despite all this I have been feeling anxious about the recession.
So I asked myself this: if I did not listen to the news, how would I feel? the answer is fine.  I am still doing the same things, still in good health, have a roof over my head and enough to eat.  We never did have a lavish lifestyle anyway as you will have guessed if you read this blog regularly - that is the whole point.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that listening to the news or reading the papers (or watching it on TV) does not give you a balanced view of world events, or even of those in your local area.  It only reports the bad things and it is easy to think that things are worse than they are.  Some people who live in gated communities get an impression that the world outside the gate is a dangerous place, and this is bit the same.

So despite the fact that I don't personally know anyone whose life is in ruins I feel like all of our lives are.  That is not to minimise the impact on some of us, and it is important to work together as a community and family to help those who are not doing so well.
I have therefore made the following decisions:
1.  to stop listening to the news
2.  to give more money to charities that help those in difficult circumstances
3.  to continue blogging about saving money, living on less and all those great things that anyone can do whether they really need to because they are broke or because they just want to live a better life and to live on less.
4.  to harvest all the veg in my garden that is still out there.  we grew such a lot this year and the freezer is nearly full.
5.  to don my frugal black belt and do all I can to save, economise and otherwise be a good example to my kids.
Frugal recipe  kale Pesto
A good handful of young soft kale leaves.  this is important.  it is tasty with young leaves and strong and tough with old ones.
the young leaves are sweet and delicious. Cook the leaves until just tender in pan, the base of which is covered with a little water.  drain.
tablespoon of pine nuts or cashews
1 table spoon of olive oil.
blend until smooth and serve with pasta.  It is very good.  a raw version can be made if the kale is not cooked first.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Is it worth growing your own food?

A lot more people are growing a bit of fruit and veg now and it seems to be one of the good things to come out of this recession.  Yes, there are some good things, though not so much if you have lost your job and are really struggling.
If you are struggling it may be even more worthwhile to grow some food. 
the equation works like this:
There is the actual value of the food if you were to buy it.  Now on this basis, the gains are small for the work and hours you put in. However if your produce is organic you may find you are eating healthier food than you could afford to buy as well as saving a bit of money compared to the cost of buying the non organic alternative.  If you compare the price of the organic food directly the savings are greater. the food is or course very fresh so its nutritional value will be better than even the shop bought organic produce.
Our strawberry bed is only 10 feet x 4 feet (3mx 1.5) and we get a kilo/2.4lbs of strawberries a day for a month from it.  It is in the front garden and does not even look out of place.
All for the price of a compost bin of our own kitchen waste each year.  perennial crops like strawberries, raspberries blackcurrants and apples give a lot of food for relatively little work and expense.

You get free exercise Cancel that gym membership for the summer - it probably exercises your wallet more than it exercises you anyway.  Put the £20-40/$10-20 a month it saves you (even assuming you did not drive the car to the gym and use fuel to get there) in a savings account.  It can pay for next year's load of manure in one month and the seeds in another.  All the rest is a saving.

Substitute your own produce for what you would normally buy.  This means that a home grown potato is the equivalent of not only shop bought organic potatoes  but also can replace rice or pasta.  It does more than that, because there are a whole host of meals actually based on potatoes, such as potato and spinach curry, baked potatoes, potatoes au gratin etc.  Add four different varieties of veg and salad (eg stir fried chard, mange tout & shallots with a lettuce & rocket salad made with four kinds of lettuce) and who would not feel it is a meal.  If you want to add meat, fish eggs or cheese go for it but they do not need to be the centre of the meal unless you want them to be.  But don't worry too much about the protein.  It is actually hard for someone in the Western world to ed up with a protein deficiency.  The amount an adult needs per day is only 00g/4oz which is smaller than almost any protein serving we have at one meal these days.  A child needs a little more if they are growing but only about 6ozs/150g.  One glass of milk and a small piece of meat, an egg or a small amount of cheese in other words.

Added value.
Added value means making things with your produce that you would pay more for, such as chutney and jam, dried fruit, pies etc.  Then the produce replaces something more expensive to buy.  Another idea is to dry things like apple rings and strawberries to add to muesli.  We dried strawberries ad blackcurrants this year and I wish we had done more.

How to make chutney.
Plum chutney
I have just made four jars of plum, apple and carrot chutney.  I added curry spices, chilli and ginger and it will replace expensive lime pickle to go with curries.  Delicious.  Just pick any chutney recipe and substitute any other fruit or veg for the one specified.  Change the spices and seasoning.  I miss out the raisins and sultanas too.

Swap produce with friends. 
It is good to grow a smaller amount of more different things and eat them as they go rather than waiting until they are 'ready' especially with potatoes.  Another idea is to swap with friends so that you get more variety.  I just swapped some of our grapes and celery for some plums to make the chutney with.  Makes a change.

Instead of freezing it all as veg, make soup and stews and freeze those.
 That means you have a freezer full of healthy, organic ready meals.  the main thing that stops people using all the veg they grow is that they get home from work hungry.  It is raining and they do not want to dig up veg, wash and cook it before they can eat.  Pick and wash salad in advance and keep it in plastic boxes in the fridge.  Then is is just as handy as bought, bagged salad.

It takes practise to get the best yields
Bear in mind that in your first year the yields will not be as high because it will probably take a couple of years to build up the soil fertility - annual veg crops in particular need a lot of nutrients.  In the beginning, more things will not succeed due to learning and after two or three seasons you will have a better idea what is likely to do well in your locality.

Get gardening - not shopping!
The buying habit can simply transfer itself to gardening and then there will be little financial benefit for quite a while.  Buying expensive plastic raised beds, bags of compost and fertiliser (hopefully organic fertiliser at least), exotic seeds and expensive seed varieties that promise all sorts of things will soon break the bank.  The garden products and seeds that promise all those miracles are a bit like hair and beauty products.
Eventually you learn to be selective after ten different products do not make your hair shinier or give bigger yields of extra fast growing crops, but in the meantime it costs a lot!
And fertiliser is of course good old fashioned manure.  Horse or cow manure will do fine.  There is no need to worry about E Coli contamination - composting the manure for a year takes care of it and it is apparently only present in cow manure not in horse manure as it does not survive the gut of the horse.  If you are worried, compost it for two years and pretty much all experts agree it is safe.

Network or join a gardening club
lots of things on sale at the garden centre are being chucked out by gardeners all over the country.  eventually mature plants need thinning out and the surplus just goes on the compost heap.  Many gardeners hate the waste and will be delighted to give you cuttings and root stocks.  For instance, blackcurrants must be pruned each year.  Just shove some of the prunings in the ground and they grow new bushes.  Or you can buy them for £8/$14 each of course.  Raspberries throw up suckers.  These are what the garden centres pot up and sell to us as new plants, but many gardeners have to throw them away.  The garden centre would say theirs are better and disease free, but every time I have had a disease it came from a garden centre, not from a friend, who would tell you if there was a problem after all. 

Garden companies tell us it is too risky to use supermarket potatoes as seed because of the risk of disease.  But you can see disease on potatoes and I have often seen it on seed potatoes, which lets face it are grown in a field just like any other potato is.

Blight is the biggest threat to potatoes in temperate zones with high rain fall.  It caused the Irish potato famine.  Sarpo varieties of potatoes are very blight resistant - they just don't get blight - and therefore you can save a few for next year once you have some.  You can also just leave a few in the ground.  common wisdom is that this spreads disease - but most gardeners will have noticed that the once that got left in the ground are usually the only ones that don't get blight!

Keep it simple to start with.
Grow a few potatoes, some broad beans, leeks onions and salad crops such as rocket and lettuce.  If you live somewhere with a reasonable climate, try some runner beans and courgettes.  Buy standard seed varieties.  the tried and tested ones are often the cheapest and the newer more expensive varieties not always worth the extra cash.
 And do the sums, do not waste money on expensive promises and buy good basic seeds.

What did we grow this year?
Well it is not over yet.  We have  a small polytunnel and there will be produce in it until Christmas. 
Our best producers this year (in common with most gardeners) are:
Rhubarb 10kg
One day's strawberry pickings.  about 3kg.  They semi ripe ones will be ripe by morning.
Strawberries 30kg
Blackcurrants 30kg
Apples 25kg (small cordon trees along a fence then they fit in a small garden)
Potatoes about 20kg
Broad beans 10kg
Courgettes about 10kg so far
Tomatoes 3kg so far and lots more to come
Lettuce and rocket  as much as we could eat since April  (got to the lettuce soup stage!)
Onions, shallots & leeks.  more still to come but about  5kg in total
lots of tasty but less productive things such as grapes, mange tout and purple podded peas 10kg in total.
20kg of celery.

that's 173 kg of fruit and veg at a conservative estimate.  That is a lot of food.  It is probably nearer 200 kg in actual fact and we grow veg all winter too.  Although the returns are less in January and Febtruary, the cost of fresh produce is more in winter so the savings on salad in October to December are significant.    At a cost to buy of £2/$4 a kilo that is £346 $692 approx.  We spent about £100 on the garden - £40/$80 for a load of manure, £40/$80 on seeds and £20/$40 on books and other things. 

We had a load of fun and the food tasted better than anything we could buy.  Actually keeping accounts of the financial costs and benefits has been great fun too.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

How recession-proof are you?
Some of us are of course really struggling in this recession.  When that happens, it is all about survival paying the mortgage or rent and buying food.  If there is no money for anything else you do not get anything else. 
The trouble is, many people have actually been in that position for years without realising it.  In other words, they had less than nothing to start with because they have borrowed more than they earned and were not paying off the debt as a priority, but spending their income on other non-essential things.  Then when someone in the household loses a job it is a disaster, even if there is someone still working.  So this is about how to assess your situation and recession-proof insofar as that is possible, because this affects everyone.
We have been  reviewing our position given the changes and these are the questions we are asking ourselves.
1.       How inflation proof are we?
2.       Are we living on income or capital?
3.       Are we putting some money into savings each month – even if it is a very small amount?
4.       How would we manage if one or both of us lost our work?
5.       How will the proposed changes in our occupational and state pensions affect us in the future?  This is relevant no matter how young you are.
1.       How inflation proof are you?
We are fortunate to have a relatively inflation proof lifestyle.  Not having a large income, we also do not spend much money.  That means spending time doing things instead of paying others to do them, which is more inflation proof.  
As the price of goods and services goes up and the risk of unemployment gets higher, the value of doing things yourself also goes up.
So for example economising to reduce expenditure rather than just earning more money makes sense.   The job can disappear in a moment and when no money is coming in, the time spent growing food is worthwhile even if the hourly rate is low.  The lower the expenses the better you survive unemployment and wage cuts.
There are other hidden benefits to things like growing vegetables such as meeting the neighbours whilst out in the garden and being able to cancel the gym membership.
2.       Are you living off income or capital?
Spending everything you earn in wages actually means you are living off capital!  There is nothing there for unexpected expenses so when those occur you need to borrow money.
This is not a time to deplete savings but to increase them whenever possible.  The interest earned on savings has gone down in many cases (unless you have inflation linked savings) which means you need to save harder to gain the same ground.
Here are some useful questions:
Are you saving 20% - or at the very least 10% of everything you earn?  If not you are actually living beyond your means and have no financial cushion if circumstances change or for roof repairs, a new car or other larger expenses.
·         Do you have debt?  If you are working in a well paid job but have debt get rid of it as fast as possible.  Put every spare penny/cent into paying it off.  If the debt agreement does not allow you to pay if off early, put the money into a separate savings account to pay for it later.  Get rid of the most expensive debt first.  Transfer any credit card debt to a 0% deal.  Do NOT use that card for purchases and aim to pay it off before the 0% deal is finished.
Remember – debt can be a disaster if you become unemployed.
·         Insure what you cannot afford to lose – but no more.
In other words, insure your house and your car.  Your health if you live in a country without a National Health Service.  If you have dependents and no income other than your job, look into insuring against you becoming ill or dying so that they will survive without you.
·         If you lose your job, make sure you will not lose your home.  If there are two people in jobs within a household, mortgage protection insurance may only pay up if both people lose their jobs.   Or it may pay for half the cost of the mortgage but not all of it.  Check that the cover has the right balance, so that if the main wage earner is made redundant there will be enough to pay the mortgage and remember there is usually no payment for the first three months.  In other words, the very least there should ever be in the bank is enough to cover three months, mortgage, council/property tax and bills.  Remember you are unlikely to get any state benefits if the other person is still working, mortgage or not, and it is very difficult to borrow money if you do not have a job.
·         Put your savings into tax free cash savings.  This is not the time for individuals to play the stock market.  Remember financial advisers do not make commission out of cash savings such as National Savings and Investments so are unlikely to recommend them or be abreast of them in the same way they are with other investments. 
Use up all the tax free cash savings options available.  In the UK National Savings and Investments Index Linked Savings Certificates are tax free and earn the equivalent to the Retail Price Index in interest, plus a small amount.   That means they are inflation proof.  Check the inflation rate and if it is high (as it is at the time of writing) they are very worthwhile.    You are not paying any commission off what they earn either.
·         Check that your personal pension is in the safest investments possible whilst the stock market is volatile.  You will have to ask the question, it will not happen automatically.   Keep an eye on how the pension is doing and it will do much better.
·         Remember - no one will look after your money as well as you will.  Keep on top of it, move it when interest rates go down and keep putting a little bit into savings each month.
·         Consider all the ways you can reduce out goings and inflation proof your lifestyle for the future.  We installed solar panels which have inflation linked payments for the electricity generated, grow some of our own food, have a wood burning stove and have paid off the mortgage early.  Your house is a liability rather than an investment in most cases, because you cannot sell it and live off the money without becoming homeless.  Make the house as low a liability as possible by moving to a smaller house if you have a large mortgage, doing Bed and Breakfast, getting a lodger or anything else you can think of. 
In other words this is a time to be resourceful, reduce unnecessary spending and put more money into savings.  Develop good habits now and if things do go wrong, it will be much easier to cope.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Chop Wood, Carry Water.

Helen and Scott Nearing in their famous book ‘The Good Life’, talk about the meaning of life being ‘chop wood, carry water’.
The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living
I know exactly what they mean.  The things that give life meaning are things that make us feel real.  It does not literally have to be chopping wood and carrying water – they can get a bit irksome if you have to do them all the time.
I have been listening to a rather amusing series on Radio 4 about a care worker from abroad called Beauty.  She commented yesterday that we Europeans seem intent on doing away with all our modern comforts and conveniences and living like someone in the third world – ie back to nature, camping, doing without electricity etc.  She has a point, actually.  It is all very well doing without these things if you already have them and can go back to them at any time.  If you really have to depend on chopping wood and carrying water and growing all your own food for your survival it is very hard, especially if you are ill, or old, or pregnant…
However, somewhere in there is a compromise.  There is no need to exhaust ourselves trying to do it all, but maybe it makes sense to make mashed potato rather than buy a plastic tray of it in the supermarket for £1/$1.50.  It will be more enjoyable not just because it tastes a whole lot better, but because you made it and because it only cost 20p/30c.
I love to chop wood and I love to rescue wood from the dump and use it on our woodstove.  This week I learned to use metal splitting wedges to split huge logs.  I phoned up a company that sold such things and asked what a five foot tall and not very strong woman could use to split logs.  So now I am the proud owner of two wedges.  With a sledge hammer, a bit of practise and the help of a You Tube video I found I can split some quite large logs that I was given and it feels great.  But thank goodness it is not my only form of heating in minus 20c. 
I guess it is all about balance.  I like to make do and mend rather than have to work full time.  But too much make do and mend and I feel deprived and am likely to go and spend money to make myself feel better.  A bit like the binge and diet syndrome. 
We all have deep human needs to be 1. Understood,  and   2.  Useful and valued. Doing no work at all is quite depressing actually.  
I do not mean only paid work here, having children or relatives to care for, volunteering, growing food, chopping wood and carrying water all qualify.
Even Scott and Helen Nearing left their ‘Good Life’ when they got older.  Actually, the whole point of communities is to not have to do it all yourself.  And we simplify and aim to live in one place and have a locally based life of meaning and community, then realise that is just what people living in small towns and villages all over the world have done for generations.  It just does not seem sexy when it is the kind of life you grew up with.  Peasant life in rural France seems romantic if you grew up in a mining village in the UK and probably vice versa.
So here I am living the life that my Grandparents did, in a geographically different but otherwise very similar part of the country.  They had allotments, so did I.  They grew veg and kept chickens, so have I.  They chopped wood for the fire and so do I.  My grandmother saved bits of string and plastic bags and so do I.  I can even still taste the tinned ham that was fast food if she ever got unexpected guests.  (It makes a great sandwich with a spot of mustard - yum).
The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook: America's Bestselling Step-by-Step Cookbook, with More Than 1,400 RecipesIn fact today I bought a new(er) copy  of the Good Housekeeping Cook Book. In our local charity shop.   
 My mother gave me a copy when I left home and it has everything in it that I have ever needed to know, even down to party menus and quantities for larger scale catering.  Her mother had bought her a copy of it when she got married.  And it is still in print today.  And I chopped wood, but drew the line at carrying water and used the hosepipe and automatic sprinkler to water the poly tunnel and strawberry bed.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A Cheap Valentine (and other gifts)

I am often told I am a cheap date.  It’s kind of a standing joke but also true.  I was always the woman saying ‘let’s go for a picnic and keep the money towards the deposit on a house.’
Consequently, Valentine’s Day is on the 15th of February or later in our house.  The reason will be obvious to you frugal folk out there. 
If you go out for dinner, buy flowers or do pretty much anything else on the 14th of Feb, or for that matter the weekend just before it (sometimes just after it too if the 15th is on the Saturday night) you can bet your bottom dollar that you will pay up to twice the price for the same thing.

A similar rip off happens with weddings.  Tell the florist the button-hole posies are for a wedding and the price can double.  I know someone who was best man and contacted a hotel to ask the price for a reception.  He then asked the price for the same facilities for a birthday party and it was a lot less.  He booked a birthday party and they brought the flowers from the church to decorate the tables.  No one missed the extra bits of razzmatazz and the happy couple started married life with a bit more cash in their pockets.

On the 15th  of February, you can get dinner for the normal price, (or go out early as we usually do and get a 2 for 1 deal at 6pm on a weekday), and oysters, red roses and valentine’s cards are all reduced in the supermarket and cost next to nothing.  Especially the oysters as they won’t keep! 

One year I came home with a large bunch of red roses from Tesco for 50p and I could have had any amount of them.  I also netted a cashmere jumper for my beloved for £2 in the sale, and a huge quantity of fresh king prawns going begging at a silly price at the fish counter that had to be eaten that day.  There were so many that we could not eat them all.  They had already been frozen, so with a flash of ingenuity I boiled them briskly in a pot and then froze them.

The thing is, it sounds mean, doesn’t it?  Do I still love him as much if we celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 15th, or if we book the birthday party instead of the wedding?  Or have we just seen too many advertisements saying things like ‘because she’s worth it?’…
My take on it is this:  the ‘mean message’ comes from subtle marketing to get us to part with money.  It happens because someone wants to make money out of us, not because it is truly mean to spend less on things like that. 
The original intention of Valentine’s Day was to let someone know you fancied them when you were too scared to say.  Just like the original intention of Christmas was to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the exchange of gifts was meant to be symbolic, not a massive spending spree to be regretted when the credit card bill comes in, in January.  The original meaning has been hi-jacked by shopping.

Speaking of flowers, In an office where I once worked, we were having a whip round and each contributing £5 for flowers for someone who was in hospital.  When we contacted the florist, the £35 we had amassed was only enough to get a small bunch of flowers delivered. 

I suggested we went to the supermarket across the road and got £35 worth of flowers and took them to the hospital ourselves.  Face it, in many supermarkets you get a lot of flowers for £35.  I had florist’s cellophane and ribbon at home and could have made them up into a large bouquet.  This was not about saving money, you understand, it was about the person getting something nicer for the same money.  However the organiser of the gift thought that was ‘mean’ (I am still trying to work that one out too) and arranged for a small bunch of flowers to be delivered, then drove up to the hospital to visit empty handed.   
It used to be nice to take flowers from your garden to give to people but no doubt that is considered mean in some circles too.  It is actually nicer, and chances are the flowers will be unique and will not have been treated with pesticides or used up precious water in parts of the world where people do not have enough to drink.I once picked a selection of February flowers from my garden and gave them to my beloved on valentine's day.  how proud was I of having a wee bunch of flowers to pick in  my garden in February!  - Since you ask, snow drops, pussy willow, christmas roses and sprigs of contoneaster covered in red berries.

I still remember the lovely bunch of hand-picked flowers carefully arranged in a margarine tub with oasis in it, which someone who was totally broke took to the crematorium for me when we suffered a loss some years ago. They were the most special thing there and a lot of thought and love had gone into those flowers, as well as the courage to bring them and not to mind what others might think. 

When a close friend was getting married and I saw the florist’s price list with button holes listed at £5 each I was appalled.  That is £5 for one carnation and a bit of greenery!
I offered to make the buton holes and the bride was delighted.  She an I did it together and bought florist’s tape and two bunches of carnations for a total of £5 and added ferns and foliage from the garden.  We made all 10 button holes for £5, or 50p each and they were lovely.  There is lots of florist’s tape left to lend to someone else, too. 
The fact that it was us potential recipients of the button holes who made the suggestion gave the happy couple permission to do it without seeming mean.
I spent my money contributing to the reception as a wedding gift (I bought the champagne), which saved them a bit more money.  Like I said, it is not about being mean but getting best value and spending money on the things that matter. 
I love to get gifts that help someone get ahead, or contribute toexpenses of an event like a wedding as a gift.  this is especially handy with young people who need some money mentoring as it gives them the idea of being thrifty with money and helps them out at the same time.

In a similar vein, I bought a year’s supply of mail order nappies as a gift for a young couple who had a baby, knowing that babies get too many clothes anyway and there can never be enough nappies. they were not the sort to have re-usable nappies or that would have been an even better present. 
 I also got them some other almost-new b baby things, such as a wicker crib for virtually nothing at the car boot sale. When the couple concerned had finished with the crib, we gave it to someone else.  I got my £2($1.50) worth of pleasure out of that one! 
I now get the child concerned birthday and Christmas gifts of properly fitted leather shoes along with car boot sale toys.   This saves the parents money as well as being a nice gift, which I think is the optimum combination.
As a house-warming gift, consider things like curtain rails, blinds or linoleum, or even phone or electricity vouchers.   People are unlikely to get them from anyone else and it will save the reipient money.

So think about the person concerned and what will be useful rather than what you can find in the shops.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

where did all the money go?

In the recent and painful economic downturn what I have been wondering is this:  If everybody is harder up, where has all the money gone?
Did it just disappear?  You do hear that a lot of money just moves electronically from one place to another but does not come into existence because it is not taken out of the bank.  In other words, if we all want our actual money at once, we are in trouble because there is not enough to go around.  That is what happens when bank get into difficulties I believe, and also when everyone sells shares on the stock exchange at once.
However, this crisis was apparently all started by companies selling on mortgage debt and that money did presumably exist because someone, somewhere bought a house with it. 
It seems that the number of new millionaires is still increasing, so someone is making money out of all of this.  It is just not the average person on the street.
It hasn’t burned us much as yet and for this we are very very thankful.  A friend of a friend has just come back from Ireland and says that people are going hungry because the cuts in benefits are so severe that benefits are only available for a limited period of time. 
Their homes have been re-possessed and they have nowhere to go and no money at all.
 If anyone out there knows anything about this, please post it on the comments section of this blog.  We are not hearing much about it, but the media did report that people were going hungry in Iceland last year.  How are they doing now?  What about people in the USA?  I noticed a book on (Although it is American I could not find it on about how to survive whilst living out of your car, if you cannot afford to pay rent and feed yourself.  It was written in the 1990's - the last recession. But how great is that, to survive it and write a book about it.
Car living by Jane Archer

It raises two questions:
1.       What can we all do to help each other when times are tough?
2.      How can we best protect ourselves from future hardship?
A sense of community and getting to know your neighbours is the very best safety valve there is in hard times.  That is how many countries have survived in the past, and it is a win-win situation.  That way we can share skills and resources rather than fight each other.  

Getting to know the neighbours is not always easy and someone has to make the first move.  I had fun leaving tubs of strawberries on our neighbours’ doorsteps and it broke the ice. 
We put a bench in our front garden too because in summer people are outside more.  Getting involved or just starting something locally works too.  It doesn’t need a committee if it doesn’t hold any money, so just do it.

Living frugally (but that doesn’t mean depriving yourself, being mean or doing it at other peoples’ expense) has been the secret of our wellbeing for many years.   
When I first started on the simplicity path – on my own at the very start, but hubby quickly got the plot when the credit card debt disappeared – I came across a book called ‘How To Feed Your Family on £4 a Day’ by Bernadine Lawrence.  
An Inspiration!

I had it out of the library and renewed it many times.   I took it back briefly as I could only renew it a certain number of times but when I went to get it back a few weeks later it had been got rid of!
I had been unable to get hold of it again until last week when I found a second hand copy on (it is not available on It has been re-printed twice and became ‘How to Feed Your Family on £5 a Day’ in the second edition.
The food is all costed out and amazingly little has gone up in price since the 1990’s except the water cress. 
The recipes are good basic healthy food but the reason I love this book is because it is inspirational.  Bernadine went from having a good job, to being in a high rise flat with four children and on benefits.  Her strategy enabled them to live well despite having little money.
She fed 2 adults and 4 children very well for £5 a day. 
I actually hadn’t thought it until now but we fed ourselves for that much quite easily when we were paying off the mortgage and were highly motivated – admittedly we had 3 children rather than 4. 
In recent years I have found the bills creeping up again and am now back on focus with the grocery bill, and have challenged myself to reduce spending whilst not compromising on quality, so watch this space.

It is not the amount we spend each week that we focus on but the overall average over the course of a year.  This is because if we find something cheap we tend to stock up on it.  In some months we have  a lot more garden produce than others.  So far I have spent more and not less but watch this space.

We do not have a big garden and it is vertically challenged (the main part of the garden is almost as high as the roof of the house.)  It was mostly subsoil when we moved in because the top layer had been removed to reduce the height of the hill behind the house. 

The front garden now has some vegetables in it as well as the small poly tunnel and veg beds we have at the back.   For the front we choose food plants that look pleasing such as runner beans with their nice flowers, rhubarb and strawberries placed in amongst the other plants.  Think of a lawn as a green desert, and increase the size of the borders to grow salad crops.

This is a place to share your own inspiration about saving money and managing on less, so feel free to add your own ideas. 
We will be starting our courses on ‘simple living in an urban setting this year' so watch this space. They aim to help people get ahead whether or not they are in debt and - well - it certainly changed our lives for the better so why not learn from someone who has done it?
If you have enough savings to last for a year and no mortgage you can sleep at night without fear.   It can be done!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

dare you do an inventory?

Following our original de-cluttering efforts a few years ago, I got into the habit of doing an inventory at New Year.
I would spend a happy day making a list of every single thing we owned.
It was amazing. 
The first thing I realised was that we could see exactly where all the money went
There was this pile of stuff that had all been bought and seemed worth the money at the time.  But it was now worth very little.  I came to thinking about why something is worth so much less second hand. 
The only difference is often that it does not have a nice box or any of the marketing hype, sales talk or advertising.  In other words the second hand value is actually the real value of the thing.
That’s why it often seems like something great in the shop (or online store) and rather ho-hum when you get it home.
In other words, you slave at a job you don’t really like in order to spend the money on something you don’t really want.

 The second thing that I realised is that we had more than one of some things because we couldn’t find the first one or had forgotten we had it.  For instance I had bought a ruler thinking the original one had disappeared forever – yet there it was when I did the inventory.
Never happened to you?  Yeah, I believe you…maybe.
The same thing was in a different room or in the garage and we never even knew it was there.  Only one or two things but WOW what a revelation.  We had so much stuff we didn’t know we had it.
Books in waiting - these are listed on Amazon and will hopefully sell, clear my shelves and earn a bit of the money back.  listing is a lot easier than E Bay and you don't need  a Paypal account.

The third thing I realised is that I really didn’t know what we owned until I did this.  Post-inventory I now had a mental picture of my belongings.  And how awesome is it that you could put in an insurance claim and say casually ‘oh, here’s an inventory of everything we own, we update it every year.’ 
I have an ex work colleague who was burgled once.  At least she thought she had been – it took her a couple of days to notice, because the thieves had only rifled a few drawers and left them in a state of disarray.  One of the drawers was where she kept her purse, but all her old purses were in there too, and she couldn’t really be sure it had been there and not been mislaid somewhere else. 

When she finally realised a window had been forced (they had carefully shut it behind them on the way out so it wasn’t immediately obvious) and the Police asked her what had been taken she couldn’t tell them for sure.  Sounds incredible?  Could you tell exactly what had been taken if you were burgled?  I doubt many of us could actually.

After the first inventory it is much easier to do subsequent ones as you are updating an existing list. 
I have been lazy about it for the last couple of years and probably should update it.  Here is an easier way to do it:  inventory one drawer at a time.  Do one drawer a day or week.  Start by just noticing the contents of the drawers each time you open them.  It is quite likely you will see things you had forgotten or that you no longer need.  They can be weeded out and by the time you do the inventory there will be less to go on the list anyway.
Keep a box or basket in a handy place – ours is in the porch – and put anything you no longer need into it.  Then when you next go out it can be picked up and taken to the charity shop.
If you don’t do this it becomes increasingly difficult to clear out because each clear out leaves a pile of homeless stuff kicking about.  By the time you have decided what to do with it half of it will be back in the cupboards as you/family members will have seen it and ‘rescued’ it in case it comes in handy after all.
Our charity box in the porch.  visitors often find things they want in it and go home with a freebie!