Friday, 1 October 2010

From Headlines to Hard Times: I watched Ed Mitchell tell his story

This week, I went to a conference for Money Advisers working in the charitable advice sector, at which one of the speakers was a former tv journalist, Ed Mitchell, who, because of alcoholism and debt, became homeless for a while. It was very interesting to hear the perspective of someone who was well-educated, and successful in his career, but despite this lost his home and had to file for bankruptcy.

Mr Mitchell, who told his story eloquently and in places humorously, identified one of the reasons for his situation as being a dislike for personal finance generally, and another, a belief that life would be 'all boom and no bust'. Therefore, he never saved money from his high salary and so when he lost his job, was forced to depend on frighteningly accessible and expensive credit to survive.

He has now recovered from his alcohol addiction, and has a flat, thanks in part to a documentary - 'Saving Ed Mitchell' and also to sales of his book 'From Headlines to Hard Times', which describe his experience. (I will now read the book!)

It seemed to me that this story is an answer to those who think that earning a high income - especially life as a television celebrity or sports person - is in itself the route to financial security.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Losing weight - and learning to focus?

I've recently started a weight loss plan. I am counting calories and eating between 1200 and 1400 calories a day, with a view to losing an initial 9lb. Once I reach that target, I will review and decide whether I would like to lose any further weight. I am not fat, being an average weight for my height, but I once was slim, and would like to be so again.

Leo Babauta, in 'The Power of Less'says that when acquiring a new habit, you should focus on it for 30 days, and not try and make any other changes during that period. I had never counted calories before I started this plan - 17 days' ago - so consider this a habit I need to acquire. So far, I am making quite good progress with the plan, and have lost over 4lb without feeling overly deprived. I noticed, though, that after a fortnight or so this initial success made me feel quite euphoric, and I instantly started thinking about all the other things I could do - start exercising, start learning Korean, and so on.

However, I'm convinced that Leo Babauta is right; as soon as I start thinking about those other new habits or projects I might start, I can feel I am losing interest in my weight loss goal. So I am telling myself repeatedly that 'after 30 days' I will start thinking about those other things, one at a time. In the meantime, I won't distract myself with any new projects until the 30 days is up. Though my weight loss plan may still be ongoing after this time, it should by then be sufficiently automatic that I don't need to think about it too much.

After all, this is the weight gain of a dozen years - so really, concentrating on losing it for 30 days does not seem unreasonable!

Friday, 27 August 2010

TV programme call-out

I've been contacted by a television company who are planning a programme about people with unhealthy relationships with money. In case anyone is interested in applying, here are the details.....

Do you know someone whose spending is way out of control?

Or are you living with someone whose penny-pinching is making life a misery?

Or perhaps you yourself just can’t get a grip on your finances ….

Well, a new series is being developed for Channel 4 that aims to sort out unhealthy relationships with money whatever the problem.

So, if you’re fed up with scrimpers, or frightened of dire debt,
and are over 18, this is the show to teach you about smart spending, healthy saving, how to manage your money and still have a life - despite the credit crunch!

To apply to take part, email and you’ll automatically receive an application form which you can return either by email or to

Take control of your money, don’t let it control you!

Remarkable will use any information provided by you for the purposes of selecting participants for the programme and will only share information with Channel 4 and any independent contractors involved in the programme.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Autumnal weather, and the urge to splurge

Autumn is in the - very chilly - air, and I'm feeling restless and spendthrift. The autumn Boden catalogue has come through the letterbox, and while I've not been tempted by a catalogue in a long while, suddenly I want something on every other page of this one.

This evening we went out for a mid-week supper, again for the first time in a while. It wasn't very satisfying; we visited an Italian chain we used to frequent quite regularly in the bad old days of being much more stressed and in need of treats than we generally are now. I felt slightly annoyed afterwards that we had spent money on a rather average meal, and that we could have made something nicer at home.

Apart from the weather, and darkening evenings, which do bother me, I'm not entirely sure why I feel inclined to spend money at the moment. Partly, I think it may be a back-to-school feeling; I have to keep reminding myself that I am not about to return to a corporate job I don't enjoy, but for which I feel I should have a new Autumn wardrobe as a small compensation. In fact, J. and I are about to have a week off, after which life should revert to its current varied pattern, just with worse weather. And for which the clothes I have will, for the moment at least, do perfectly well....

Sunday, 22 August 2010

My birthday treat

It was my birthday this month, and I decided to do something a bit different. For a while, and especially since my friend Polly's post about gardening, I have been wanting to start growing vegetables. However, the space in my garden where I would do so was cluttered with awkward to remove plants, like mint, which had overtaken most of the patch. J. and I between us felt overwhelmed by the task of dealing with it.

So, as my birthday treat, I invited my family to a 'gardening day'. Between us, we dug up all the mint. (I'm afraid that I lacked the bodily strength to do much of the actual digging, which was largely done by the male members of the party.) We also cleared some large shrubs, my father pruned many bushes and trees, and we stuffed bags full of the resulting rubbish.

In between our labours, as it was a gorgeous day, we dragged the dining table out into the garden - we have no substantial garden furniture - and had lunch there; my mother and sister had made goats cheese and tomato tart, roast chicken and salad, with meringues and chocolate ganache to follow. Heavenly. The table was decorated with a bunch of flowers J. picked from our garden, and some my parents had brought from theirs.

I had asked for no presents this year, partly as I was asking for help in the garden instead. I did get some lovely presents, though: some books, a pair of fuschia gloves and a purple 'moc croc' wallet that I had bought on holiday and given to J to wrap up, and managed to forget about quite successfully in the meantime, some perfume.

My favourite present, though, was one my father made for me. Following the gardening theme of the day, it was a set of seed markers, made of wood and painted in delicate greens, greys and blue. The paints were testers left over from when my parents painted their house. I cannot think when I was last given a home-made present, and I absolutely loved it.

By the end of the day, we had sowed rows of lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard, and a pot full of rocket. The rocket and chard at least are looking promising at the time of writing, although the other seedlings seem to have suffered after a bout of torrential rain earlier in the week. I am definitely inspired to keep going, though.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Money versus time taken to earn it: I think I have finally 'got' it

It is a reasonably common piece of personal finance advice that it helps to think of money in terms of how long it would take you to earn the price of an item or experience that you are considering buying.

I've read this tip often, and made some use of it, but found it of limited use when I had a full-time job. It was an intellectual rather than emotional understanding. I had to go to work exactly as much anyway, regardless of how much I spent, I had some spare money, and buying the treat made me feel - albeit very temporarily - better about life and about my job.

Now, though, partly because I have just read 'Your Money or Your Life', which I will write about more later, and partly because I'm now dependent primarily on my husband's self-employed income, this suddenly makes a lot more sense. It has really come home to me that for each say £100 spent, this equates to a unit of his time that could either be saved, or used to buy time off for him at some later date.

If I spent say £10 a week on sweets, coffees and the like, which would not be at all difficult, it would take him more than a day a year of hard work to earn the money to pay for my treats. That really horrified me, as it feels like a terrible use of J's time and energy - I think I have now 'got' this concept. I'm not saying I'll never buy a coffee or packet of sweets again, but I hope I will only do so where I really want to, and as a treat, rather than as a habit.

Correction: it would actually take well over 2 days for J to earn the money for my treats, at this rate. (I knew this really, but somehow could not compute!)

Friday, 30 July 2010

I made a short, but sweet, list of my top possessions. What are yours?

I have been re-starting my de-cluttering project again recently; our house looks much better these days, but I am sure that there are still some things that we could do without.  As part of this,  and also while thinking about materialism, and home improvements, I have given some thought to what are my top ten possessions.  Not that I'm planning to get rid of everything else, but it seemed worthwhile to think about which, of my possessions, I really want to keep.   Partly, this was a useful reminder of how few of my belongings really matter to me.

Here's what I came up with - see that I didn't even get to ten:
  • My engagement ring.
  • The blue coat I had made last winter.
  • A silver christening spoon.
  • The armchair which belonged to my great-grandfather.
  • The portable writing-desk my grandfather gave me, which belonged to his aunt.
  • My Tod's handbag (a 30th birthday present)
  • My bed, with the headboard a friend made for it.
  • (Maybe) my apple laptop.
And that is actually about it.  Is that odd?  I would miss all my many books, but in a way it is not so much the physical books themselves that I need, as the memory of them, and hence the ability to find the information they contain again.  I don't value books as objects in themselves, very much.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The temptation to splurge on 'projects' - or spending money on home maintenance

I am struggling with the urge to buy things at the moment. It is all very well for me to get our day-to-day bills down to a minimum, which I've proudly done - and the process continues; yesterday J. negotiated a better deal for us for phone and internet for the next year - but that is of limited use if our one-off spending is high.  The problem for me comes in 'projects'.  Once a project is undertaken - and it can be anything, but is almost always something to do with the house - budgets and plans can go out of the window.  

Until a month or two ago, we had done very little to our house for some time.  Then, our fridge broke, and we decided to replace it with a beautiful, though expensive fridge which we will aim to keep forever. (I am very happy with this decision.)   

Next, we finally got around to getting a plumber to replace our dripping kitchen tap with one bought months' earlier.  Once that was done, we asked him to come back to fix our leaking bath, which he will do today.  He will also replace a cracked wash basin for us.   

We had to repair the fence between us and our neighbours - it is our responsibility - and while we were doing that, decided to get a quote to replace the garden gate which was rotting away. The price was reasonable, and so we went ahead.  

I am determined that we should stop here, having dealt with the main niggles, although the temptation is to carry on; we could add a sink to the washing machine area, we could build the bookshelves we have been talking about for years, we could get blackout blinds for our room to keep out the early morning sunshine which currently seeps through.  

And as I was hoovering this morning, I found myself casting a critical eye over some of our carpets, thinking that some of them could do with being replaced, and others with a professional clean.....

In my view, there are several problems.  One is the slippery slope; once a psychological barrier has been broken, it is only too easy to break it again.  Secondly, the imperfections that you get into the habit of ignoring daily - like being restricted to showers rather than baths for months at a time, or the fact that the kitchen tap drips - suddenly spring into focus when other work is done.   Finally, there's an illogical part of me which deep down feels that money spent on the house is acceptable because it is an 'investment'.  There's an element of truth in this, of course, but it is an argument to be used with caution.

Although I recognise it is bad housekeeping on my part, as well as wasteful of water, to leave dripping taps and cracked wash basins un-mended, there may be something to be said for an ability to live with less than perfect conditions.  I need to put my critical faculties away and be happy with what I have, while distinguishing between what needs to be done, and what it would be nice to do some time.  

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cooking ingredients: where to spend and where to save

Following on from her kitchen equipment list, here are my chef sister's suggestions on how to eat well, where to economise, and where not to, when food shopping:

It is obvious and much repeated but if you only shop in season you’ll get better value for money. Buy English strawberries only in mid-season and you can eat them every day. Asparagus just coming in is expensive, but hold on a bit for the price to go down.

Investigate the end of line baskets at supermarkets, they often have interesting random vinegars etc in their fancy foreign muck sections which don’t sell, so end up going cheap. The same goes for bin-ends for wine - you can find some interesting things.

Do what peasants around the world have been doing forever – just use a little meat in a hotpot/stew/whatever as a flavouring. One of the loveliest things I ate on a very greedy holiday in Andalucia was a stew of mostly potato, onion and pepper, with just a little pork, all cooked in delicious stock. The potatoes took on all the meaty flavour as they cooked.

Do not scrimp on:

Bread – it is such a major part of our diet but most people make do with the dullest, cheapest stuff.  Don’t put up with it! Buy the nicest you can, and then ‘something on toast’ is transformed.

Pasta – don’t ask me why, but supermarket value brand stuff is just not as good as more expensive versions.

Baked beans and tomato ketchup – only Heinz will do in my opinion.

Potatoes – have realized why the value bags are cheap – they sometimes seem to be a random selection of diff varieties and all cook at different speeds, so you end up with a pan of falling-apart and rock hard. Disaster.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Kitchen equipment recommendations from a chef

As mentioned in an earlier post, I asked my sister, a Leiths' trained chef, for her suggestions on where to spend money on kitchen equipment.  Here is her, surprisingly short, list.

Kitchen Equipment List

Knives! One big chef’s knife, one small paring/office for veg cutting, and one steel for sharpening – serrated is also useful for tomatoes and fruit, but not vital.

1 big saucepan, one small, both stainless steel, not non-stick, the best quality you can afford – they will last. A handle that isn’t screwed on, is part of the pan, or it will start wobbling and fall off.

A good big chopping board, wood is good as long as you don’t worry about hygiene! Just don’t use it for raw meat, get a plastic one and keep it only for that.

A frying pan – opinion is divided on this one. I like a good, solid non-stick one which, I admit, won’t last forever unless you’re militant about no metal utensils and watch other people like a hawk if they use it…Or some serious types get e.g cast iron and just season it very carefully. Never seem to manage it myself.

A good large mixing bowl; lightweight metal is good for most things.

A nice big balloon whisk, electric hand whisk also v useful., or see below if you have the funds… 

[Digital scales: I recently had to reprimand Penny for using old-fashioned scales for baking.  They just aren't accurate enough for cake-making...]

More extravagant items include

A lovely, solid, and supposedly lifetime-lasting Le Creuset. A casserole for 6-8 people is probably your best bet, in whichever colour you won't get bored of.

A Kitchenaid or Kenwood mixer. Kitchenaid is my preference, but Kenwoods are known to be v reliable and long-lasting, though just don’t have the glamour factor.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Bill-pruning and increasing my pension contribution

Despite all my recent efforts to cut down regular bills - as part of which we've saved considerably on home and contents insurance, joined an oil-buying group, and changed our AA cover to save £137 a year, and made various other changes, there was one insurance policy that I had not thought about cancelling.  It suddenly occurred to me, a few days ago, that it was something I no longer needed, and so I decided to cancel the plan, and divert the money saved on the monthly premium to my pension.  While I was about it, I also made a change to my clothes and spending allowance which I had been contemplating for a little while, cutting it by a quarter and adding that extra money to my pension as well.  

So today I rang the pension company and informed them of my increased contributions.  The young woman I spoke to congratulated me on making the change, wondering if I had had a pay rise.   

I am pleased to have taken this action; it feels good to have immediately diverted the money saved into something specific, particularly into the pension.  It does not feel very helpful to save money, if the difference is then swallowed up in general spending.

However, as I have mentioned before, I do like spending money on clothes, so the cut in spending money may be a bit of a challenge for me. I will see it as a test of my ingenuity....We will see how I get on.

Monday, 5 July 2010

One-off actions and easy habits

I can be lazy, so I like the kind of frugality where just one initial set-up action is needed, with maybe the occasional review.

Some examples of one-off actions that I have taken:
  • Getting a water butt for the garden several years ago.  I like this because it is environmentally friendly, while also providing free water, enough for all our gardening needs. (Though my mother would say that I don't water the garden enough, so that may be why....)
  • Working out the cheapest way to pay regular bills - for most bills this is by monthly direct debit- and setting up payment accordingly. I first did this many years ago, and do now review the situation every so often.
  • Putting dryer balls (mentioned in an earlier post) in my tumble dryer.
  • Fitting water-reducing devices into our lavatories years ago, which saves a considerable amount of water.
We also have some habits which are so simple, and so ingrained, that they are now almost automatic:
  • Using second-class stamps for all non-urgent post
  • Putting the end of a loaf of bread in the freezer for later use as toast, before it goes stale
  • Using plastic carrier bags as kitchen bin liners
  • Putting vegetable matter, tea leaves, and coffee grounds onto the compost heap
  • Contributing a proportion of our income to our pensions, whenever we are paid, at the same time we save money for tax.  (This doesn't happen automatically, now that we are both self-employed.)
Many of these actions and habits won't result in large savings, but the effort involved is minimal, and over the years these small things add up.  What am I missing?  What habits or one-off actions have you taken?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Women prefer bonds

A few months' ago, I wrote a post about Japanese women and their attitude to money.  I was intrigued that Japanese women generally have control of their household's budgets, giving their husbands pocket money, and being keen, if conservative, savers.  As a follow on, I have just read an article about an advertising campaign for government bonds in Japan, in which a young Japanese woman states her preference for men who invest in government bonds. 'Playboys are no good', she says.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Unseasonal home-made baked beans

It seems a bit unseasonal now, as it is really hot - for England - here at the moment, but last week I had a go at making baked beans in the slow cooker, something I had been meaning to try for a while.  It worked rather well; recipes abound, but I chose one from the useful site  All Recipes. Just don't do what I did initially when making the beans and forget to add tomato ketchup and mustard for the last hour of cooking, as without these flavourings the treacle flavour is overpowering, and the dish tastes rather odd.  Leftover beans went nicely with pasta and some grated cheese.

Sunday, 27 June 2010


I've recently bought some Ecoballs (shown here on the John Lewis website) in our local Oxfam shop.  They were advertised as an environmentally friendly, and economical, way of washing clothes.  They are supposed to last for up to 1,000 washes, and to cost therefore about 3 pence per wash.  (I actually bought them half price, so make that 1.5p.) They seem to be working well so far, after three weeks of use, though I have noticed that although clothes smell clean when they come out of the washing machine, they don't have that aggressively clean smell that commercial detergents produce.  That is probably a very good thing, chemicals-wise, but slightly disconcerting to begin with.  Also, the ecoballs can't be used at very high temperatures, though as I try to keep wash temperatures fairly low, that does not bother me.

I already try to minimise use of the tumble dryer, by hanging clothes out to dry on a drying rack as much as possible, and have long been using dryer balls to reduce energy use.  They may work - but they also produce quite a bit of noise when the machine is in use.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Saving nearly £300 on home and contents insurance

For the first time in ages, or possibly ever, I've been really thorough about getting a good price for our home and contents renewal.  We had a renewal notice through from our existing insurer, with what I felt was a very high price, as well as one or two solicitations from other insurers.

Today, I've worked through the process Martin Lewis suggests, involving going through a number of online brokers, as well as getting a few direct quotes, and it really is amazing how much difference it makes to the price.  I spent more or less a whole morning on the - boring but still quite satisfying - process.  The result is that the quote I'm about to accept is very nearly £300 cheaper than our renewal quote.  

This isn't the cheapest quote, however, but about £80 higher.  After the poor service I experienced from my car insurer earlier in the year, I've looked at some online reviews, as well as bearing in mind comments I had heard from others about service, before choosing whom to go with.  I found some very positive feedback for Direct Line - and the person I spoke to there about a query had also been very helpful - and made my decision accordingly.

So, a slightly tedious process, but thoroughly worth doing when I consider how long it would take me to earn the £300....

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Some grocery items I can't bear to economise on....

I've been talking to my sister, the chef, about some posts she has written for the blog on food and equipment, and where to spend money, and where to save it.  (And we've been done some baking in my kitchen and she's been horrified at my lack of a set of digital scales; I have some beautiful, old-fashioned ones, but they are not terribly precise. They may have to be supplemented with something more precise.)
Her posts will follow soon, but in the meantime, here are my own thoughts on food and drink items where economising would be painful and, for me, not worthwhile except in a dire emergency.

Tea and coffee

I like English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and Ceylon, preferably leaf tea.  I have drunk economy tea in the past, but now would find it very hard to adjust back to it.


I now dislike the taste of instant coffee, and like ground coffee made using a cafetiere or espresso machine.


Time was, I would make cakes using margarine, but now only butter will do.


I think I might, once or twice in my life, have bought non-free range eggs when nothing else was available, but buying non-free-range eggs is not an option as far as I'm concerned.  


We used to eat economy sausages, and J would still use them for toad-in-the hole or in a pasta sauce, but I have definitely grown out of the idea....The taste of the more expensive sausages is so much better, leaving aside the thought of the ingredients cheaper sausages may contain..

Monday, 14 June 2010

A review of 'The Spirit Level' by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

As mentioned in my last post, Jian has recently told me about  The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Although it is not wholly personal-finance related, it covers topics such as financial equality among others, and so I asked him to review it for the blog. Here are his thoughts..PF

As Penny knows, I hadn't heard of this book or its authors when I spotted it at Heathrow while waiting for our flight to Athens. However, it looked like my sort of thing, so off it went into the rucksack for later perusal.
Yes, I paid for it.
The Spirit Level (subtitle: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better) is basically a popular sociology book by two British researchers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It is a summary of research conducted by the authors about the associations of various social outcomes and variables (including physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, and imprisonment) with financial equality in around twenty developed nations (such as the UK, US, Japan, and Sweden) and the 50 states of the United States. Financial equality being, basically, how narrow the distribution of wages are in that state or nation. It's not about social equality, or gender equality, or racial equality, though all those are discussed later. 

They're pretty clear about how they conducted the research, having mainly obtained the figures from objective censuses and United Nations records. The data is generally presented as scatter plots; there's a nice little chapter at the beginning about how scatter plots work, and how a statistically significant effect might be detected. 
(A quick aside for the statistically minded: Yes, this is generally cross-sectional, and so gives at first instance no chronological data, though this is covered in one of the chapters concerning increasing inequality in the US and UK and the effect on outcomes. No, scatter plots are not necessarily the best tool for detecting this sort of association. No, they didn't say how many associations they tested, and so they could have cherry-picked the significant ones; however, the fact that the vast majority of the associations shown are pretty straightforward and not statistically nudged for significance does make this very unlikely.)

The book therefore consists of two parts after a brief discussion of methods: results and conclusions, and what to do about said conclusions. First part: as you might expect, financial equality has been going down the tubes in the US and UK over the last fifty years. And financially equal nations are healthier (both physically and mentally), have less crime, less teen pregnancy (though, in an odd exception, Japan – a financially pretty equal nation – has high rates of teen pregnancy. However, it's almost all married teen pregnancy), fewer people in prison, less drug abuse, and higher social mobility, than unequal nations. Shocker, eh? In other words, there's good hard data that countries with a few very rich people and a lot of very poor people (top scorers: USA, UK, Portugal), are worse off in almost every way than countries with more even wealth distribution (top scorers: Japan, pretty much all of Scandinavia). The conclusion is, unequal countries suffer from an overall lack of trust and security: people don't trust each other, so they're out for themselves, so they commit crimes, cheat on their taxes, and vote for police and prisons rather than health care and drug rehabilitation. As a result, everyone suffers, including the rich. 

All the data is, as noted before, from rich countries (the top twenty most developed and wealthy nations); that's what the book is concerned with. So no comparisons with Cuba, for instance, except to note that yes, Americans generally have lower mortality and higher infant mortality than Cubans.
By the way, the same pattern holds across the different states of the USA. 
You might be feeling a bit depressed by now, I certainly was; while the analysis presented is hardly invulnerable to criticism, it's very difficult to deflect or write off the argument unless you really are the most blinkered kind of self-deceiving idiot. And I hope I'm not. So, I asked, what can I, or we, do about this? Isn't this the fate of all humanity, to develop less equal societies where selfishness and ambition are rewarded over altruism and co-operation? After all, the equal European way seems to be failing; the financial crisis is driving various European governments to cur public service funding and encourage less equal financial policies. 
Well no, say the authors. They cite a game where you form participants into pairs of offerers and recipients. The pairs never meet, and never play this game again, to avoid learning behaviour. All participants are told that there is, for each pair, a pot of £100 (or $100, or whatever). The offerer is asked to offer the recipient, by note or similar, a share of this money. If the recipient accepts this share, both get the money; if he refuses, neither do. The researchers were expecting an average accepted offer of about £30 (in other words, this would be about the threshold at which most recipients will accept a share, however unequal, rather than get no money at all. More would be more than most offerers would be willing to give, and less would be less than most recipients would swallow their pride in order to accept). Actually, the average accepted offer was about £48. It turns out, we are inclined to reward generosity and punish selfishness more than you might think.

The authors continue to discuss how to make society more equal. One way is to encourage companies and organisations who treat their employees more equally or are genuinely co-operative, and discourage those that don't: they cite the Co-op (shocker!) and John Lewis in the UK as good companies to support. Another way is to shake off the Cold War idea that we can't have both equality and liberty; as we have seen, less equal societies are less free societies, with less social mobility and more prisons. We should encourage our politicians and business leaders to stop bandaging the cracks; a measure to reduce drinking by increasing the cost of alcohol (to get all topical in the UK) may reduce drinking a little, but really all it does is increase profits for the government and for drink manufacturers. People drink themselves blind at the weekend because they're stressed, and it's a good escape; and they're stressed, for instance, because they have no money, are in debt, and can't leave their jobs. And these things are worse because of inequality. Change that, and they might stop drinking so much. Similarly, there's no point kidding ourselves that we'll reduce our carbon footprints and save the planet with advances in green technology; if we save ourselves a bit of ecological resource with low-energy light-bulbs or electric cars, we'll just spend it again. And again. Because of the way our societies are.

There are two ways, say the authors, to improve financial equality in societies. One is the Japanese way, which is to have more equal incomes before benefits; in other words, have a society where the most highly paid aren't paid much more than the least well paid. The other is the Scandinavian way, which is to have benefits, taxes, and other governmental measures to increase the effective incomes of the least well off. The second options requires more state input and control, but does at least allow for those who are unemployed to be supported by society. And from our starting point of wide disparity in incomes, it probably makes more sense.

Phew! Sorry if I've been a bit long-winded. Basically, it's a fantastic read, and very well communicated. Whether you agree or disagree with its agenda and conclusions, give it a go. Personally, I think it's a bit thin on practical solutions, but that's hardly very surprising, and it would make a whole separate book in itself. Maybe that's due.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Back to reality with a bump - and a general catch-up

We got back from holiday at the end of last week.  The day we returned to the UK, the sun was blazing, much as it had been as we travelled home from Italy, so the transition to home was quite easy.  (We took the overnight train from Venice; a great experience which I thoroughly recommend, by the way.)  Yesterday and today, however, it has been raining - a lot.  Oh, the joys of the English summer.  

Now we are home, we are trying to readjust to not eating out,  to having chores to do, and of course to work.  We're back on our £50 a week food budget, and it is actually quite nice to be cooking for ourselves again, although I'm occasionally missing the seafood pasta and prosecco of Venice.

I'm planning to start a food growing project shortly, hopefully when the weather improves a little.  It is rather late in the year,  of course, but I didn't want to leave seeds un-watered while we were away.   

Another summer plan is to do some fruit picking, to make jam and for freezing.  Strawberries are available now, and gooseberries and other berries are coming soon; my sister made amazing gooseberry jam last year, so I am hoping that she and I will make some together this year.

Finally, J and I both read quite a bit while away; one book that I have not read yet, but which I have been discussing with J. since he read it, is 'The Spirit Level', a book about equality, of which more in due course.  In the meantime, because of it we may change some of our shopping habits, and have already opened a new bank account.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On holiday

In the hurry of preparing to go away on holiday last week, I failed to post a note about my absence. So I am now writing from a hotel computer in Cyprus. I will be back at the end of next week, hopefully full of energy and enthusiasm, with some new ideas to write about. I have to say that I have not been giving personal finance, or many other issues for that matter, any deep consideration.

My main personal financial preoccupation at this moment revolves around the cost of drinking water. Here, the tap water is supposedly not drinkable - at home I always drink tap rather than bottled - and the hotel water from bar, restaurant or minibar costs a huge amount, say EUR$4.50 for a large bottle. So we are taking every opportunity to stockpile bottles of water wherever they can be bought cheaply, at shops away from the resort, or in the nearby supermarket.

That is about as deep as it gets at the moment...... Back soon.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Smart shopping tips revisited

Thanks to those who commented.  From feedback received, my own ideas and habits, and some reading I have done, I have come up with the following:

  • Buy-one-get-one-frees: only buy if you have cash, space to store, and the items won't go off before they can be used.
  • If you haven't much space to store bulk-bought items, consider clubbing together with friends or family to buy them between you, and share the benefit of the discounts.
  • Consider own brands vs branded items: compare the price per 100g, but generally own brands will be cheaper, and taste just as good.
  • Plan meals, even roughly, before you go shopping, bearing in mind how many meals you need to cater over the week, and buy only what you need for those.
  • If you eat a lot of ready meals, consider cutting those down and cooking more; this will be cheaper as well as healthier.  Something on toast, e.g beans and poached egg, will cost less and be quick to prepare, as an alternative to a ready meal.
  • Keep a running shopping list on the fridge and add to it as you run out of things, so you don't forget anything when you go shopping.  
  • Don't go shopping when you are tired, hungry, or in a hurry.
  • Set a cash budget for food per week; take cash out at the beginning of the week, and use this to pay for groceries until it runs out. (This will help with budgeting, and also it is psychologically harder to spend cash than use cards.)
  • Try to last one day longer than you think you can manage without going food shopping, and make that last meal with what you have left in the cupboard.  
  • Try and make enough food for two or three meals, in one go: e.g make enough spaghetti bolognaise to turn this into chilli the following day, or freeze half of what you make for another day.
  • Pick-your-own fruit and vegetables when it is cheapest, and store in the freezer or use to make jams or chutney.
  • Even if you don't do PYO, then still buy fruit and vegetables that are in season.
  • Keep cleaning products to the basics: supermarket own-brands will generally be much cheaper and no less effective than branded products.
  • Buy Christmas paper, cards, and birthday cards when you see them on special offer, if you can store them.  (Or make your own.)
  • Check washing instructions before you buy new clothes, and avoid those which need dry-cleaning.
  • Buy shoes with soles which can be repaired or replaced.
  • Sign up to receive nectar or clubcard points, don't buy things in order to get extra points, however. 
  • Processed cereals are expensive and not very nutritious; porrige or homemade muesli are filling, cheap and healthy.
  • Avoid, or minimise, fizzy drinks.  Squash, or one nice idea I read, lemon juice and sugar, make an alternative soft drink.
  • Compare prices online before you go shopping, e.g at
  • Watch the cash register and look at your receipt before you leave the shop, to avoid mistakes.
  • If you are going to the shop to buy a pint of milk, don't pick up a basket; if you are planning to buy a few items, take a basket rather than a trolley.
  • Toiletries will likely be more expensive in a supermarket than chemist.
  • Check whether loose or packaged fruit and vegetables are cheaper; loose generally cost less.
  • If you do buy bags of fruit and vegetables then weigh them to ensure you are getting the correct weight.
  • Instead of cooking large portions of meat, cook pasta, rice or beans to accompany a small amount of meat. 
  • If you are a meat-eater, try having a few meatless days a week.
  • PS - If carrier bags are charged for where you shop, take your own.  Otherwise, use the free ones for reuse as bin liners.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Smart shopping: any good tips?

As part of the financial capability scheme I'm volunteering for, I've been asked to prepare a 40 minute presentation on 'smart shopping'.  I need to get this done before going on holiday in ten days' time, and am quite busy with various other projects in the meantime.  While I gather my thoughts, I thought I'd - rather cheekily - invite suggestions....  I would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions for tips you think I should include.  The audience will be a group of older people living in sheltered housing; the main things they need to pay for from their pensions are food, clothing, entertainment, and Christmas and birthday presents.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Some good web resources on personal finance

As part of my financial capability training, I've been directed to various good financial resources online which were new to me.

Everybody uses Martin Lewis' excellent site, of course.

Other useful sites I've started using, which include various calculators and resources, are:

The BBC's raw money site

Monday, 26 April 2010

Spring de-cluttering

I've been working quite hard on de-cluttering our house, over the last few days.  Although the house generally looks reasonably tidy to me, apart from the study, which tends to be full of pieces of paper, I've realised how much junk we have accumulated over the last few years.  This is I think one of the disadvantages of having a reasonable amount of space, and not having moved house for seven years.  I've also realised that as we've bought replacement kitchen equipment, bedding and so on, we have often not got rid of the items we were replacing, hence our increasingly full home.

Now, I am trying to imagine that we are about to start packing for a move, and to try and picture what we would want to take with us, and what we would want to give, or throw, away.  This has been quite effective so far.  I've managed to de-clutter several kitchen cupboards, including the baking tin cupboard, the worst, which has now been thoroughly cleaned, pruned, and organised.  We've also identified a pile of clothes, books, saucepans, bedding, and other miscellaneous items which need to go.  At the moment, I've put everything we no longer want into one room; the next stage of the project is to determine what is worth giving away or selling, and what is just rubbish.

As part of this project, we've also decided to buy a few new things, where we were using things that were unsatisfactory or didn't work properly; a new cake tin, as I was using one with a lid which didn't close properly; a new duvet cover; and a new filing cabinet.

The filing cabinet is needed for the next phase in our project, which is to sort out our office; at the moment our filing system is so complicated, having grown from one concertina file to several plus two lever arch files and several box files, that I only catch up with filing very occasionally, and with gritted teeth.  What I am aiming for is one central system so that things can be easily filed as soon as the post arrives.   (I would be interested in comments on how others manage their filing, by the way....)  I've added the Unclutter blog to my reading list, as well.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

My sister, and spending money on food and kitchen equipment

My sister has been staying us for the last couple of days, with her baby girl, as my brother-in-law, whom I interviewed in an earlier post, has gone away on a job for a few weeks.  

As I may have mentioned before, my sister is a - very good, though I'm possibly rather biaised -chef.  She is therefore slightly horrified, though I think interested, by our £50 a week food challenge, as her standards of food and cooking are rather higher than ours.  We are still sticking to our food budget, by the way, although occasionally it is a bit of a stretch.   

My sister and I talk quite a bit about food, what is worth spending money on, and where economies are feasible.  Despite her training and general preference for use of the best quality ingredients, my sister and I are both influenced by our grandmothers' wartime and austerity Britain recipes.  Yesterday, we attempted to recreate one grandmother's flapjack, which had a treacle-y, chewy toffee-ish texture that we have not found in flapjacks eaten since.  We read through dozens of recipes, then made two batches, using slightly different proportions of fat, sugar and oats, in an attempt to create the perfect flapjack.  We do not yet know if we've achieved it, as one thing we can recall about our grandmother's method was that it involved leaving the flapjack to go chewy for several days before being eaten.

I've asked my sister to contribute some thoughts in future posts on economical eating, areas where she feels it is particularly worthwhile to pay for high-quality ingredients, and also to comment on the best, minimal, kitchen equipment she can recommend, and where it is worth spending on high quality. Whenever she cooks at my house, I'm always a bit ashamed of my rather blunt knives and scrappy baking tins, and so once she's formulated her list, I'm hoping to persuade her to come shopping with me to help me choose a few new pieces of equipment.  
More to follow in due course...

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Thoughts on growing your own vegetables for the first time

This is a guest post from my friend Polly, whom I interviewed earlier in the week.

As I'm a keen amateur gardener, Penny has suggested I write a piece about the joys of growing your own. I should make it clear up front that I'm hardly a qualified expert, but having acquired a garden a few years ago I can testify to the trials and tribulations of a new vegetable grower.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that it's already April so a post about growing your own is perhaps a little late. But that brings me to my first tip - I think that one of the main things I've learned is not to be put off if I don't do things exactly as it says on the instructions. If you're using seeds, it's well worth taking a chance on a late sowing as the price of a packet of seed is not a large stake. And with the late spring this year, seeds planted last year are only now germinating, so it's not too late to get started (as I finally did, today - ahem).
The other factor which works in your favour is a greenhouse. There's no need for a fancy glass walk-in one - I use a very basic plastic one which you can get for around £10 from discount stores (it's also great for small gardens as it doesn't take up too much space). Failing that, a sunny windowsill is perfectly good for getting your seedlings off to a good start. Once it gets to June and there's no more risk of frost, seeds can be planted out into the ground or else transplanted into containers if you don't have much space.
Third tip in, and you'll have noticed that I've been talking exclusively about seeds. It can be very tempting to buy the 'baby plants' which are everywhere at the moment, but personally I've never had much success with them and have consistently had better results from seed which is of course also much cheaper. But I can't speak for every gardener, so you may want to try both to see which works better for you.
It's been a matter of trial and error as to what will grow in my garden and what won't. I've really struggled with brassicas (I've tried sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli) as they get decimated by caterpillars, but I've found that peas and beans are easy to grow. The other plus for peas and beans is that you can plant them outside directly without having to start them off in the greenhouse. In previous years I've grown some vegetables in containers and some in beds, but due to a glut of slugs and snails the last couple of summers I'm opting for containers as much as possible this year for damage limitation. I've sown peas and beans in large round pots, and radish and little gem lettuce in long troughs. The courgettes will need to go into the ground when they're big enough.
One of the tips I've seen elsewhere is to grow what you like to eat, which seems rather obvious. What wasn't perhaps so obvious to me though is that it's worth thinking about the quantity you want of the vegetable and when - so I've kept back a few pots for subsequent sowings so that I don't end up with just the one crop. The instructions on seed packets are very helpful in this respect, though I've often found them over-optimistic about how late you can do a final sowing.
Finally, if you are on the late side with sowing your seeds, don't despair - I've quite often been surprised by what's germinated in the spring, such as a beautiful patch of honesty which I'd forgotten I'd sown as it had failed to germinate the previous summer. And I've overwintered cherry tomatoes on my kitchen windowsill before now.
So what do I get out of gardening? I can hardly say that I'm self-sufficient, but growing my own does mean I spend a bit less buying veg, and I probably do end up in profit. But the quality of eating my own veg outweighs the financial savings for me. Eating a freshly cut salad, or a handful of peas straight from the pod, can't be compared with produce which has travelled hundreds of miles to get to the shop. And, food aside, it's a very cheap and healthy hobby which gives me a new appreciation of my environment - from the beautiful Jersey tiger moths in my garden last year (quite possibly the same caterpillars which ate the broccoli) to the pair of robins who are currently nest-building in the neighbourhood. So I would heartily recommend growing your own for both economy and quality!

Monday, 5 April 2010

Interview with Polly, my super-frugal friend and future guest-poster

My friend Polly, whom I've known since university, has always been extremely frugal and good with money. I've asked her to contribute some guest posts, beginning with the subject of vegetable growing. In the meantime, I've interviewed Polly about her money habits.
Q -You've always been careful with money; where did you learn to be so?
A- I learned the value of money quite early on through the influence of my parents who had a strong belief in the need for responsibility when dealing with money. I remember having to save up for a tape recorder at the age of 13 and appreciating it all the more because I had had to choose to save my pocket money rather than spend it on magazines or sweets.
Q-What do you most dislike spending money on?
A- I find it incredible how much money goes on utilities, insurance etc. I could probably save money by shopping around more, but constantly changing deals and limited time mean I feel I'm always playing catch-up.
Q-What do you enjoy spending money on?
A-This is easy - holidays. I wouldn't say I'm a big spender, but I enjoy making the most of my time off work and love trips to interesting places such as Syria and Russia.
Q-Do you have a top money-saving habit?
A -Until a couple of years ago, I used to record everything that I spent, cash or electronic payment. I'd then regularly review what I was spending money on, which meant that I could target areas for savings if I felt I was spending too much on eg clothes or nights out.
Q-What has been your biggest financial challenge so far?
A -I think my biggest challenge was being a student - really having to count every penny as I didn't have a huge amount of savings. That said, this was before tuition fees, plus I was lucky enough to get a grant - I find it sad that these days students start their adult lives with the expectation that it's normal to be in debt.
Q-Do you have any financial goals that you are prepared to share with us?
A-My big goal is to pay off my mortgage - I recently calculated that I should be able to do this by 2015. Then I'll be looking to enhance my pension arrangements (not that I'll be needing them for some time yet!).

Monday, 29 March 2010

The ladies of Cranford: role models for the 21st century?

I haven't been around much lately; a combination of freelance work, financial capability training, and other bits and pieces have taken up my time.  For a while, however, I have been meaning to review one of my favourite books, Cranford.  (There is also a very good BBC television series, starring Judi Dench, which is true to the books in spirit, if not in the letter of the plot.)

Elizabeth Gaskell's wonderful town of Cranford is populated almost entirely by lone women. Miss Matty Jenkyns and her sister Deborah are the main characters when the stories begin. They are the daughters of a clergyman, with limited means, who live in a small, comfortable house in the centre of the town. They are generous, thoughtful friends and hosts, but there is no formality or grandeur about their lives.

They have a single servant, and practice economical habits - Miss Matty for instance being particularly concerned about not wasting candles. New dresses are a rarity for them and their friends, although Miss Matty relishes the process of choosing a dress when the occasion arises, and the ladies buy the occasional pretty new bonnet for variety, and to show that they are following the fashions.

After Miss Deborah's death, and a subsequent disaster, Miss Matty's financial resources are reduced considerably. Movingly, Miss Matty's friends, themselves all relatively impoverished, contribute without her knowledge to supplement her income, and Miss Matty sets up a small tea shop from her home, which she runs quite successfully until she is rescued from her financial troubles...

'There [in Cranford] economy was always 'elegant' and money-spending always 'vulgar and ostentatious'; a sort of sour-grapeism which made us all very peaceful and satisfied'.

I am thinking of adopting the Cranford ladies as my role models in their approach to life, as well as their finances.... They enjoy life, adapt to changing circumstances, are imaginative, thrifty, creative, and charitable. Within the limits of their society and time, they take control of their lives.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Getting my car back

I've mentioned in earlier posts that I had to manage without my car for several weeks, because of bad service by my insurance company.  During that time, I practised living without my car, and found it surprisingly easy, and occasionally actually liberating.  Now that I have my car back, I am making some use of it, but am definitely still considering selling, and having us move to a one-car lifestyle.  I know that there are some times, like today, when I drove over to my parents' house twenty miles or so away, when it would be very inconvenient not to have my car - I could get to them, but it would involve at least a two stage train journey plus bus or taxi -  but I'm still weighing up whether those times are worth the cost in money, and also importantly in time and trouble, that having two cars between the two of us necessitates.  

I've been reading 'The Power of Less',  by Leo Babauta, which I'm sure I will review in more detail soon, but some of the ideas he puts forward, including looking at what your key priorities are and getting rid of other things,  are encouraging me in my view that getting rid of my car might be quite a good thing.

I've also been reading Wojciech's posts at Fiscal Fizzle on his car-related thought processes and decision, and those of his readers, with some interest.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

An interview with my brother-in-law, the abseiler and former mortgage adviser

Writing this blog has encouraged me to have conversations about money with some of my friends and family.  This is an interview with my brother-in-law, a former financial professional, and an excellent planner...

Q:So you now have a very exciting, outdoor-type job.  (PF: He is an offshore rope access supervisor, meaning in layman's terms that he sets up and oversees abseiling work on oil rigs.) Tell me about the financial advice work you used to do?

A: I used to work as a mortgage adviser for a bank, so had to help people create budgets when they were applying for mortgages to see what would be realistically affordable and so on.

Q:What was the biggest mistake people you saw would make in their finances?

A:Most people underestimated how much they spent, particularly their personal spending.  They were too optimistic, and this meant that it wasn't possible for them to budget properly. Regular bills are easy to estimate but the little things like extras at a petrol station, taxis to restaurants etc soon build up and become significant yet nearly every person I interviewed ignored these outgoings.

Q:What was the best habit you acquired from doing this job?

A:The ability to plan ahead. I now note the due dates of all bills on a calendar, so I can see what is coming, and have time to prepare.  Being self-employed, and having a varying income, this is particularly important and saves a lot of stress when the bills arrive.

Q: What would your advice be to anyone in really dire financial straits?

A: Prioritise; if you have more to pay out than you can afford in a month, you need to work out which payments you really shouldn't miss and how to miss the least number of bills in order to receive the least amount of penalties possible, as it is generally better to miss 1 bill rather than 5!  Stop any payments that you can't make as far in advance as you can, so that you aren't penalized if they bounce.  And if you need to feed yourself on pretty much nothing, eat lots of potatoes for a little while....this one is from personal experience when retraining myself nearly backfired!

Q: You have a tiny, and absolutely adorable - I am a very proud aunt – baby daughter.  What lessons would you like to teach her about money?

A: Enjoy your money as much as possible!!! But pay your bills first, and make sure it's your money you're enjoying not the bank's, and remember you live in England, so a rainy day is always just round the corner!!!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

What difference has self-employment made to us so far?

My husband has been self-employed for the last six months, and I have since the beginning of the year.  It has made a difference to us in various ways, both practically and psychologically:
  • There is no longer such a thing as pay day, so we have to make sure we end the month with money to pay our expenses for the following month.   We get paid regularly, but not on a set date each month. 
  • We are more motivated to build up our savings, in an attempt to make good use of a high earning month, and also because this helps us to feel more secure.
  • We have to actively invoice in order to be paid, which still feels odd to me, and to keep track of money coming in from different sources and chase it up if it does not arrive.
  • We need to make sure we save a proportion of everything that comes in, to pay tax, rather than this being deducted automatically.
  • We have to keep track of expenses which may be tax-deductible.
  • We need to actively make pension contributions, rather than have them deducted from pay automatically.
  • We have both started to think more in terms of the value of our time; if we want to take time off we have to pay for that by working at another time. We no longer have paid holiday or sick pay.
  • There is scope for a greater variety of types of work; I'm doing contract work in my industry, but also setting up another part-time business, and trying to write as well as do voluntary work. We both feel more entrepreneurial.
  • One of us sometimes works at weekends, but we often have a day off together in the week instead; not every day involves an early start.
  • There is less of a routine; it is possible to forget what day it is.  On the other hand, the dreaded 'Sunday night feeling'  before the start of a traditional week's work is no longer a problem.
  • If work becomes a bit quiet for a week or two, it can become disconcerting, although having the extra free time is nice. (My husband wrote a detective story during a slightly quiet phase at the beginning of the year.)

Friday, 5 March 2010

Lessons from February

I like the way many personal finance blogs, particularly US ones, include a goals and net worth update at the end of each month. I'm a bit too inhibited to do the same, even anonymously, but this month felt I'd learnt various financial lessons, and had a few small successes, which I thought I would document. This may even become a habit....
Here's my list:
  • Joined a local oil-buying consortium and cancelled my oil direct debit
  • Continued using up toiletries, cleaning products and freezer contents
  • Kept within our £50 a week food budget
  • Saved most of my freelance earnings
  • Experimented successfully with life without a car for a few weeks. (The experiment continues, beyond my control...)
  • Learned that if an oyster card is not swiped firmly enough, the gate may open, but extra money will be deducted from the card as a penalty. (I got most of the extra few pounds re-credited when I queried how my card could be down to a £0 balance after a very few uses, but am not sure I have heard many things as nonsensical as this explanation. Others may not be aware of this quirk in the system....)
  • Was charged interest in a catch-22 type situation by my credit card - but managed to get it deducted after pointing out the unfairness of the charge. (I had been asked to re-register my payment details after a new card was issued, did so immediately, but not in time for the next payment due date, and my payment was therefore inevitably late.)
  • Discovered the dangers of buying cheap car insurance through a broker. Next time, I will check feedback on car insurers before renewing, rather than just going for the cheapest quote, as my current insurer was, for many days, completely failing to progress an insurance claim. (It is now ongoing again, after much pestering from me, thank goodness!)
  • Learnt much about the handling of debts, budgeting, and the UK benefits system, as part of my financial capability training course. These budgeting tools from Martin Lewis's site were recommended to me; I intend to try some of them out in the

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Making a salt body scrub

I'd never tried making cosmetics or toiletries before, but thought I would try making a salt scrub, rather than buying one, and found many recipes on e-how.  It was very easy, quite satisfying, and definitely cheaper than buying one. (I used grapeseed oil, which was cheaper than almond, but more appealing than sunflower for this purpose, and a few drops of lavender essential oil.)  

I might try making some other toiletries next, though I am still trying to use up the odds and ends in the cupboard before buying anything new.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Bartering and swapping

I was getting my hair cut earlier, and we were discussing the hairdresser's holiday plans.  She mentioned that to get to her holiday location, she needed another vehicle, ideally a people-carrier to fit six people.  Apparently, in August, at school-holiday time, hiring a people carrier costs a massive £400 for a week!  We discussed whether she could borrow one from someone, and we thought it would be great if she could barter for it, maybe offering some free haircuts plus use of her small car, in exchange for the use of their large car for a week.  I guess such an arrangement would only work in a fairly small community - you would want to either know the other party, or know a friend of theirs - as it would involve quite a bit of trust.  But it would be great if such an arrangement could work.  I think I might ask the person who runs the local oil-buying group - which we have now joined - if he knows of any bartering groups in my area.  If not, maybe we could set something up.   In the meantime, the hairdresser is going to sound people out via Facebook.

Anyone else have any experience of bartering, and if so, how did it work out??

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Public transport & freedom

I am still involuntarily car-less, but the experiment of  managing without a car is going well so far.  Today, I had to get into town in the middle of the day for a dentist's appointment. For the first time I ever, I took the bus from my village; it was on time, quick, and only slightly more expensive than I had expected.  (My ideas of what buses should cost are somewhat late 1990s...)  I had to get the bus rather early, because of the limited bus timetable, but spent a contented hour in a coffee shop in town, getting quite a bit of work done, and also did some useful errands. Rather than wait for the bus home, which would have involved another two hours out, and would have definitely meant buying lunch, I took a taxi, which was cheaper than expected, and speedy to arrive. 

Somewhat to my surprise, far from feeling restricted by my lack of independent transportation, I felt unexpectedly free, not having to drive, or worry about finding a car parking space or being stuck in traffic.  It was also rather refreshing being early for my appointment, rather than trying to 'efficiently' time my arrival so as to be just on time, as I would probably have done if driving.  I am sure that once I have done this trip a few times, the novelty will wear off, but so far, so good.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Could I manage without my car?

Thanks to some idiotic behaviour by my insurance company – for the sake of my blood pressure I will not go into the details - I do not have a car at the moment.  Anyway, I’ve decided to use the opportunity to see how I get on without a car for a little while.  We live in a fairly rural area, and I had, until recently, never seriously considered whether we might be able to get by on one car long term.

My husband needs his car for work – he has to make visits to patients during the day – so my dropping him off and collecting him in the evening won’t work.  I work from home several days’ a week.  At least once a week, I get the train to London from the station about 10 minutes’ drive, and 4 miles, from where I live.  On at least one other day, I need to get to a nearby town in the morning. 

Until yesterday, I thought that there was perhaps one bus a day in each direction to my nearest town. However,  I have discovered that there are three buses a day each way, and they go first to my nearest small town – where the station, dentist, supermarket, public library etc are – and then on to the much bigger town. The bus even stops a few minutes’ walk from where my sister lives! 

So I am considering reasonably seriously whether we could sell my car, and get by pretty well on one car.  

My thoughts so far are as follows:
  • On days that I go to London,  J. already usually drops me off at the station and collects me in the evening.  (This saves us about £6 a day in parking costs, and is reasonably convenient for him.) So not much change would be needed there, except that he would always need to collect me, or I would have to take a taxi home if he were not available.
  • On days that I go to other places to work, I would need to plan my journey ahead, and either a) get J. to drop me at the station or bus station b) take a taxi part or all of the way, c) get the bus into my local town and take a bus or train from there, or d) for major expeditions, maybe hire a car for a day.
  • If I were working at home and either needed or wanted to make an expedition into town, I would need to time my outing to catch the bus either both ways, or bus one way and taxi back.
  • We might occasionally have to make use of online supermarket shopping, something we have not really done so far. 
  • For holidays, evening or weekend outings, we already generally use J's car as it is more comfortable than mine anyway, so no change would be needed there.
  • The main difficulty I see is in my going on a spontaneous outing during the day, or in getting to certain work locations if they are far from a station or bus, but perhaps I just need to become used to taking the bus, or using taxis.    

It is very nice having my own transportation, but I am not sure whether that comfort and convenience is worth the nearly £3000 a year I estimate that my car is costing me.  (I do not have a car loan, but that figure takes account of car tax, insurance, servicing costs, petrol, and an estimate for depreciation.) 

I wonder if it is mad of me to think that I can manage without a vehicle, living where I do, or whether this could actually work?  Further consideration is definitely needed, but advice or comments from others would be welcome....

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The cupboards are feeling bare...

I've mentioned that we've implemented a cash food jar each week; although we've managed to stay within budget - £50 - every week so far, one of the side effects is that we have been using up some of the odds and ends in our larder and freezer, to keep within our cash limit.

However, I'm now starting to panic slightly at the fact that our stores of food are running unusually low; I suppose that the only time this would actually matter would be if we were snowed in, or overtaken by some other natural disaster, and  I think that if that happened, we'd find enough to eat for quite a few - probably rather dull - meals. In the meantime, I should probably try and get used to our new 'just-in-time' system.....

P.S I am not sure whether £50 a week is a lot or a little, for two people (and one cat)?  It is definitely less than we were spending before we started this system.  We have included small-scale entertaining and wine in that figure, and lunches, as we pack these ourselves.   Any meals out come out of our 'fun' jar.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Myers-Briggs practitioner writes about types and attitudes to money

Today, I have a guest post from my fellow UK-based personal financial blogger, Anastasia at  Living on a Budget on a subject of great interest to me.  Among her many other qualifications, Anastasia is qualified as an MBTI practitioner, and so I asked her to write about the impact of a person's Myers-Briggs type on their attitudes to money.  (I'm an INFJ, and what Anastasia says below pretty much rings true to me....)

Many people do not handle money effectively. But why? Laziness? Ignorance? Apathy? Fear? Can so many people really be so inept at handling money? Or is there something else? Do other factors, such as personality type and gender, also play a role?

The question is an intriguing one… 

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was developed by Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs to try and understand the differences and similarities in human personalities. The test is based on the work of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who believed that personality traits are innate. Each year, more than one million people take the MBTI, which analyzes people by these four ranges of personality traits.  

Thinking-Feeling: This range focuses on how people make decisions. Thinking (T) people prefer to decide on the basis of logic, analysis and reason. They tend to follow their head rather than their heart, whereas Feeling (F) people usually decide first on the basis of personal preferences, second, on the basis of logic. 

Judging-Perceiving: This range suggests the type of lifestyle and work habits people prefer. Perceiving (P) types are more spontaneous and seek out additional information and options. Judging (J) types tend to be planners, preferring more order and structure.  

Sensing-Intuition: This describes how people take in information. Sensing (S) people prefer concrete facts, organization and structure. Intuitive (N) people tend more to hunches. They want to know the theory first before deciding what facts are important.

Extrovert-Introvert: This category focuses on how people get their energy. Extroverts (E) are more energized by interaction with others, Introverts (I) by the inner world of reflection, thought and contemplation. 

One survey found that based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTl) two preference dichotomies are especially relevant to personal financial management: the Judging / Perceiving, and Thinking / Feeling preference combination. 

The Judging types of both genders are more interested in and more savvy about managing their finances. They actually enjoy managing their finances more, and are better diversified in their investments, than the Perceiving types.  

The Feeling group is less likely to own a property, have a brokerage account or measure their progress. 

How else could your preferences affect the way you deal with money? Let’s have a look at each preference and its implication:

E - Extroverts would rather deal with money in a social situation. Prefer face to face banking rather than on line, for example. Pictures of the stock market traders that I've seen on TV seem like prime examples of Extroverts (and an Introvert's worst nightmare). 

I - Introverts need down time away from people in order to recharge. This doesn't mean that we don't like people, so I'd bet Introverts deal with most of their money stuff online. Online budgeting communities like Wesabe and blogging are both good examples of how Introverts can interact with other people, and still get their down time. 

N - Intuitive people probably play the stock market, where their inclination to find patterns for the future can get a workout. 

S - Sensing types are probably more into automatic deposits into a retirement funds, ISA, or other high yield but predictable returns. (I'm also guessing more Sensing types end up with a sizeable retirement nest egg.) 

T - Thinking types probably make the best math based financial decisions. When they do have to pay off debt, they work on the one with the highest interest rate first, and then work their way down. Or they would be at least inclined to apply some sort of debt repayment method rather than “just somehow” pay debts off.  

F - Feeling types, however, probably buy stocks on how much those stocks are ethical, environmental etc. (depending on values most important to those people) 

J - Judging types have a plan. They have a budget, and have mapped out how much to save, spend, and invest for their goals. I think Judging types would do the math to see how much money they would save (or lose) by taking out cash on a very low / 0% interest card, and putting that money in a savings account (shtoozing), making only minimum payments until full interest rate kicks in. 

P - Perceiving types probably would prefer very flexible investments with immediate access and no strict deadlines.  

It is important to know and understand your MBTI type as it can help you to make decisions based on your personal strengths rather than on what other are telling you! 

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Financial Capability volunteering

In a recent post, I mentioned that I had plans to do some different things now that I have left my full-time job, and am working freelance.  One of them is becoming a part-time volunteer financial capability adviser with the Citizens' Advice Bureau.  This is part of a fairly new UK scheme whose purpose is to train individuals on good financial management.  

I've always thought it odd that in the UK, at least, we aren't generally trained on money management at school or university, so as soon as I heard that this scheme existed, I decided I wanted to take part. I had previously considered training as a debt counsellor, or general CAB adviser, but I think I will find it more satisfying to prevent people from getting into debt in the first place, and to help them plan for their futures.

I start my training next week.  Apparently, once I'm trained and have observed a few sessions, I am likely to be presenting to groups in the Armed Forces, at Colleges of Further Education, and some charitable bodies.  

Sounds like fun to me - I will report back in due course...