Thursday 28 June 2012

Let's talk money

There are plenty of people out there who can give proper financial advice so the following post is written from a purely personal viewpoint.

When I unexpectedly became a single parent I was in a financial mess.  Not from debt so I was lucky in that respect but I didn't have my own bank account, I didn't have a credit card and I had no savings.  For the last 24 years I had given financial control to someone else.  Everything was in joint names but as the non earner I had no financial clout.  I was removed from all the joint accounts.

Anyone ever tried to open a bank account recently?  It's not easy.  I spent a whole afternoon in my bank manager's office trying to open an account.  I had my passport and driving licence as proof of identity but I had no utility bills with my name on them.  I didn't have a job and therefore had no payslips to prove I had an income.  It was a humiliating experience.  Luckily my bank manager worked really hard on my behalf and I eventually got an account opened.

So once I had a bank account the next step was getting a credit card.  I thought this would be easy.  The news was full of how easy it was to get a card and run up huge debts.  I didn't want to spend, spend, spend.  I just needed a card for emergencies as I had no savings to fall back on. I was declined by several card companies including my own bank!!  Not because I had a bad credit rating.  I had NO credit rating at all because I had always been the additional card holder.  It took a while but I eventually got one and have been building up a good credit rating by using my card sensibly and paying it all off at the end of the month.

Looking back I was so naive.  I remember when I first got married my granny told me to always have some 'running away money.'  Wise words in retrospect!!   I'm not really sure how it happened but over the years I was made to believe that I was useless when it came to money.  I know now that's not true but it's taken the last 18 months to find out.  At 46 I'm finally in full control of my own finances.

As parents we have to teach our children about handling money responsibly but girls in particular need to learn to be financially independent even in a long term relationship.  My parents never discussed money with me but I talk about it with my son all the time.  He knows we're on a limited budget but we make some spending choices together.  He has his own bank account and he now manages his own money.  He's responsible for his own phone bill, buying non school clothes and his own entertainment costs. Already I can see he's developing good habits and we laugh when he gets his bank statement telling him that he's earned 4p in interest that month!

I hope I'm setting a good example for him and the other young people in my life.  We keep hearing that the world is in a financial mess thanks to my generation getting it so wrong.  I want the next generation to get it right.  Look after the pennies and all that.........

Monday 25 June 2012


I opened my Etsy shop today :-)

Click on the page linky above and you'll get sent straight there.

So far all I've done is list some items and opened it.  That's taken all morning so lunch now then I'll add some detail to my shop profile etc.  I'm unlikely to make a fortune but anything I make will go into my savings.  It will hopefully add up over time.

Let me know what you think :-)

Thursday 21 June 2012

Stash busting blankets

I have a rather large stash of yarn.  I could never resist a gorgeous colour (usually pink) or a bargain.  The John Lewis sale was always my weakness.  But at some point I realised I was accumulating yarn quicker than I was able to use it.  So I put myself on a yarn diet which means you can only buy accessories like needles or buttons.  Then I gathered up all my yarn in one place.  It wasn't as bad as some fellow knitters I know but let's just say I haven't needed to buy any for 2 years except for one very special item to be revealed next month ;-) and 2 balls of cheap cream.

Making Afghans or big blankets is a great way to use up yarn.  I bought myself a large crochet hook (size 9mm) and started on the Big Pink Blankie.  This is my third crocheted one.

It's mostly double knitting yarn doubled or chunky yarns so it grew quickly.  I've only been crocheting for a few years, taught by an American friend.  I get mixed up between UK and US crochet terms but think it's basically a treble stitch (UK) but you go into the space below instead of the chain.  Apologies if any crochet experts are reading this!!

The 'pattern' is one row pink, one row cream, one row pink, one row pale pink.  And repeat until the yarn runs out.  The pinks are all varied odd balls that I've acquired over the years.  The cream was a pound shop bargain and the pale pink is from an unravelled cardigan.  It's not quite finished yet.  It's a great project to work on while watching TV.

This smaller throw was knitted using some bargain Debbie Bliss Cashmerino I picked up in the JL sale ages ago.  More of a lap blanket but it's so soft and cosy.  And done on big needles so it was quick to knit!

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Pickled beetroot

I've gotten into the habit of visiting my supermarket just before it closes.  I'm in Stirling a couple of times a week for the teenager's sporty activities so we pop in on the way home.  Sometimes I'm lucky and pick up some bargains, sometimes there's nothing usable.  That's half the fun!!

Last night I picked up some reduced beetroot.  2kg for 40p!  I love beetroot, roasted or pickled.  Since I'm looking ahead to making gifts for Christmas and for hostess gifts I decided to pickle this lovely lot.

I used:

2kg of beetroot
1 litre distilled vinegar
1 sachet Schwarz pickling spice
100g sugar (optional but I think it takes the harshness off the vinegar)

Trim the beetroot but leave some stalks on to stop it bleeding.  Bake wrapped in foil for 90mins.  Test beetroot is soft and remove from oven.

While the beetroot is baking put vinegar, spices and sugar (if using) in a pan and bring to the boil.  Remove form heat and leave to infuse.

Let the beetroot cool enough to handle and peel.

Wear gloves if you don't want people to think you've murdered someone!!

Slice or quarter beetroot and pack into sterilised jars.

Pour strained vinegar to top of  jar. Label and store for at least a few weeks.

Beetroot cost 40p and the vinegar cost £1.48.  I already had the pickling spice and sugar so 7 jars of pickled beetroot cost less than £2.  Some for me and some for gifts :-)

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Sock yarn leftovers

I knit a lot of these! Whoever invented self striping yarn deserves a medal.  Sock yarn is (usually) 95% wool and 5% acrylic. It comes in 4ply or 6ply.  The 4ply is harder wearing. It washes well in a machine and some people even tumble dry their hand knitted socks (I don't tumble mine)

The teenager loves my socks but now he's a size 9 it takes much longer to knit him a pair.

These are my all time favourites.  I think they're about 3 years old now and still going strong.

A pair of adult socks takes about 80g of 4ply yarn (maybe more or maybe less depending on size) and comes in 50g or 100g balls depending on the brand.  So you can be left with a lot of wee balls with just a small amount of yarn.  I never throw out yarn so have a large bag of leftovers.

So I started knitting squares.  I cast on 28 stitches and in basket stitch (K4 P4) created reversible squares.  I stitch them together in 4s to make a larger square and then stitch together the larger squares.

This is the result so far.  When knitty people know you're using up sock yarn they give you their leftovers (knitters hate throwing out yarn!!)  And I've swapped a few as well just to get a variety of colours.  It's very satisfying knitting the wee squares as they can be done very quickly, they're portable so I take them on trains, in waiting rooms etc.  I've learned from past experience to finish off the ends as I'm going along and not wait until the end.  So far I've made around 80 squares and I'd guess the blanket is about 1/4 done.

But the best bit is that it's free to make :-)

Monday 18 June 2012

What would Gran do?

This is a rare precious photo of my grandparents and their 3 boys taken in 1944.  My dad is the baby on my Gran's knee.  Sadly just a few weeks after this picture was taken, my Grandpa died of pneumonia leaving my Gran to raise those 3 boys on her own.  In 1944 there was no NHS or benefit system.  Grandpa didn't serve in the army as he had a protected job as a baker with the Co op so Gran didn't even get a war widow's pension.  She worked 3 jobs just to put food on the table and relied on hand me down clothes from her sisters and their children.  She lived and raised those boys in a tiny 2 bedroomed pre fab house that was supposed to be post war temporary accommodation.  She lived there for 24 years before being re housed.

She died when I was 14.  I didn't appreciate at the time how difficult her life must have been.  I didn't appreciate all the skills she had that were never passed on.  She could knit, crochet, sew, bake, make jam and chutney from foraged fruits, grew her own veg and could feed an army of hungry kids at the drop of a hat. She lived a frugal life because she had no alternative.  She never wasted a scrap of food, she reused and recycled everything decades before it became fashionable.  Now I'm not romanticising her cos what you don't see in that photo is that she had flaming red hair.  And the stereotypical temper to go with it!! She was quick to rise but equally quick to move on.

About 19 months ago around the time when my life changed forever, my uncle (in the fair isle jumper) gave my mum a suitcase of photos and items that belonged to my gran.  He'd had them stored in his house after she died but never sorted through them.  He thought mum might like to see what was in it.  Alongside old recipe books, magazine clippings and handwritten notes we found this photo.  No one knew it existed.  I have a copy of her wedding photo on my wall so I see her every morning when I wake up.  But seeing her with her husband and 3 boys really hit home to me just how much she had lost.  She was a single parent to 3 boys, like me.

I truly believe it was the universe sending me a sign.  No matter how tough life seemed to be for me at that time, this was a reminder that I came from a strong woman who had survived.  Not only could I survive but I would thrive. 

I often find myself asking 'What would Gran do?' when I'm faced with a problem.  Ok, trying to work out the best broadband deal or decide which mobile phone to get when my contract runs out next month aren't the kind of problems she would have faced.  But not wasting food, recycling and reusing stuff, making my money go further, shopping around for the best deals on something (she famously walked miles to save money on sugar during jam season) and just simply appreciating what I do have all make me think of her :-)

Sunday 17 June 2012

Feel the fear

I've never really understood the idea of 'feel the fear and do it anyway.'  Why would anyone want to make themselves do something that really scares them?  It's become one of those throwaway lines that are supposed to motivate you.  My brain has never worked like that.  The biggest fear I've conquered in the past was a fear of flying and that took a day long course with psychologists and a full British Airways flight crew to get me on a plane.  I still don't like flying but I can do it.

Today I did something so scary and waaay out my comfort zone that made me finally understand what is meant by 'feel the fear.'  Today I enjoyed my Christmas present from my partner and spent 3 hours on a treetop adventure that included the UK's longest zipwire, a Tarzan Swing, some smaller zipwires and lots of swinging rope bridge contraptions.  Have a look here

I'll be honest, it wouldn't have been on my list of 100 things to do for fun as

1. I'm scared of heights 
2. I have vertigo
3. I'm a natural born scaredy cat

But after the initial scary zipwire and a few wobbly rope bridges I was starting to enjoy it.  Then came the Tarzan Swing (think mini bungee!!!)  I had the option of a nice safe rope bridge if I couldn't face it but I thought this was an opportunity I may never have again.  So I got up on the platform, clipped my 3 safety ropes onto the swing and jumped.  Even now I don't know how I did it.  I landed on the cargo net at the other side and clung on for dear life.  My legs were shaking so much I couldn't move them.  I had to haul myself up onto the platform just using my arms.  But I did it.  I stood on the platform high above the ground dizzy and breathless from pure adrenaline.

Now that was a real feel the fear moment.  I was terrified, I didn't have to do it but I did it anyway. And cheesy as it sounds, hours later I'm thinking what could be more scary than that?  I'm still smiling.  I feel like I can do anything.  Fear of failing doesn't scare me any more.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Brands v Own Labels

In the past my supermarket spending was ridiculously high.  As a family we ate well and I was in a financial position of being able to buy brands, supermarket premium products, Fairtrade goods, organic fruit and veg and organic meat.  I still believe that we should fuel our bodies with good food but as a single parent I cannot afford to spend the same amount money I used to.  Over the last few months I have reduced my supermarket bill by two thirds.  I cook from scratch and refuse to put rubbish into my body.  I still buy meat that has come from animals who have lived a decent life but probably only once a week now.

I pulled a few random products out of my cupboards.  On the right are the brands that I still buy as I haven't found suitable replacements yet or are a guilty pleasure!  But I buy them when they're on offer and we use them sparingly.  On the left are some of the supermarket value and basic lines that we've found are a pretty good substitute.

For example last week in Sainsbury's, Green Giant sweetcorn was on offer at 4 x 198g pack for £2.23. Their Basics sweetcorn (also in sugar, salt and water) were 21p each.  So that's 84p for 4 x 198g.  And it tastes the same! I did a blind taste test on the teenager!! It's a no brainer.

I now buy UHT milk as I was throwing out fresh milk every week (even stretching it by using it past it's use by date!!)  A pack of 6 x 1 litres was on offer at £3.  That's 50p a litre.  Almost half the cost of fresh milk.  I don't drink it at all. The teen and visitors have it in their tea n coffee. And nobody has noticed the difference.

I've worked out I can bake a white loaf for under 50p or buy a Warburtons white sliced one for £1.35.  I can make a decent home made loaded pizza for a fraction of the cost of a premium brand one.  And the teenager loves them both.

I used to think that saving 50p on milk or £1.39 on tins of sweetcorn wasn't worth the time and effort to compare prices.  I never checked my till receipt to see if it was correct.  Earlier this week I returned to Sainbury's as they'd overcharged me by £1.70 on a frozen fruit deal. I got my refund. But now every single penny saved goes towards my future financial freedom.  I'm treating this like my job.  I'm running my home like I would run a business.  It's challenging but so far I'm enjoying the challenge.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Free wild salmon

After a week of internet hassles I think I've finally got it cracked.  New deal with a new provider and all in my own name at long last :-)

I have a source of free wild salmon from a family friend who does proper fishing.  It comes to me already gutted and frozen.  Only thing is it takes ages to defrost in the fridge and like last weekend it isn't always ready to cook when I need it!  I had to rustle up something else for a romantic meal for 2 instead.

So next day I had 2 whole defrosted fish each about a pound in weight to deal with.  I poached it wrapped in foil in a roasting tin half filled with boiling water then into a hot oven for 15 mins.  Then I turned the oven off and left it in there to cool down.  Remove skin and bones and you end up with a large plate of perfectly cooked wild salmon.

So once I'd had some on toast for breakfast I had to think of other ways to use it.

Flaked and stirred through a risotto.

Salmon pate with melba toast.

Mix 250g of salmon with 2 tbsp of half fat creme freche, 1 tbsp of mayo, a good squeeze of lemon juice and season to taste.

A frugal gourmet dish costing me pennies.  Yum!

Monday 4 June 2012

Apricot jam

I picked up some reduced fruit in my local supermarket including 3 punnets of apricots, down from £1.99 to 80p.

There was nothing wrong with them, no blemishes just a wee bit hard.  Lots of fruit is now sold as 'perfect for ripening in the bowl' so buying them on the sell by date is a good option.  Now even I can't eat 1.2 kg of apricots, so I decided to make jam.  Some for us to eat and some to give as gifts.

My adapted recipe from Thane Prince's Jams and Chutneys book

1.2kg apricots, stoned and quartered
juice of 3 lemons
1kg of sugar
150ml liquid pectin (optional but I made my own)

Add fruit, lemon juice and 400ml water to a large pan.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 mins until fruit is soft.
Add sugar, stir gently to dissolve.
Bring back to a rolling boil and boil for 5 mins.
Add pectin (if using) and boil for 2 mins.
Test for set.
If not using pectin, then you need to boil for longer (about 15mins) to get to a setting point.
Pour into hot sterilised jars.

3 large jars, 2 wee ones and a tub for immediate use as I didn't sterilise enough jars!! One jar  has already been gifted :-)

Total cost £6