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!).