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.