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.