Thursday, 28 March 2013

Everyday budgeting without pain

One of the things I’ve noticed since having to keep an eye on the finances a bit more closely, is just how easy it can be to cut down on bills, by just shopping around, or paying a bit more attention.  I am acutely aware that for some people, money is so tight, that the steps below would only be a drop in the ocean, but for many of us, NOT doing these steps is to throw money down the drain.  Money that could otherwise be saved for the future, or taken from your debts, or simply used to balance the books.
The following are some of my top tips for household bills – I’d love to hear about some of yours:
1)   Look critically at your utility bills and mortgage.  Can you switch to a cheaper provider?  Are you even on the right tariff?  Can you reduce the overall amount you’re paying by paying up front (this is often an option for phone/broadband deals).  Paying by direct debit can often work out cheaper.  Also check the amount you’re paying on your utility bills – if you’re in credit, reduce your payments!  It’s amazing how often utility providers ask you to pay more, regardless of the status of your account.  Better the funds in your pocket than theirs.
2)   Lower the temperature on your central heating by half a degree to a degree – particularly if you have it set on higher than 20 degrees.  Our houses shouldn’t be warm enough to be able to walk around in shorts and t-shirt in the winter.  While you’re on, turn the temperature on your hot water down by a couple of degrees too – I promise you won’t notice the difference (and you’re less likely to scald yourself too).
3)   Turn off the lights in rooms you’re not using.  If you have a room you rarely use, consider turning the radiator off completely, or turning down very low.
4)   Don’t use domestic air-conditioning.  It really isn’t necessary in the UK.  And most other places in Northern Europe.  And it really isn't pleasant being in an air-conditioned environment.  Open a window - use a fan.
5)   Keep track of your spending – don’t just do the budget as a one –off exercise, but keep an eye on things all the time.  If you know you’ll have to write it down, it keeps you accountable.
6)   Consider getting a water meter if you live in a property with more bedrooms than people, or if you are out for much of the day.  Even with us having 3 bedrooms and 3 people and the extra washing that comes with a baby or toddler, we still come out ahead.  Why pay more for the same thing?
7)   Check your direct debits and standing orders on your bank account, as well as any regular payments coming from your credit card.  Are you paying for something that you no longer need, or that has been cancelled?  Examples could include insurance, a direct debit for a membership which has expired, or something like airport lounge access when you no longer fly frequently (yes  - that was me!)
8)   Get a cashback credit card and use it for as much as possible.  Its amazing how much you can gain.  But beware.  Only do this if you know you can keep track, and you know you’ll be able to pay it off in full each month.  The costs of borrowing on these cards far outweigh any benefit to be gained from the cashback.  You can also make ‘extra’ cash by shopping online via cashback websites (I use  You need to be disciplined though, as their whole purpose is to tempt you into additional purchases with the thought of cashback.  If you didn’t need the item in the first place, it isn’t free cashback.  Same goes for loyalty points – I find Boots and their threshold spend coupons the most dangerous.  Just check that what you are gaining outweighs the cost.
9)   Run your washing machine on cold, or 30 degrees.  Use a short cycle unless what you are washing is really dirty.  Take the same approach for the dishwasher.  Use the short cycle for everyday – its rare that something won’t be clean within the 30-40 mins it takes.   And only run it when totally full.  Most of us have sufficient crockery and cutlery to manage.
10) Save your loose change in a jar – we save everything up to and including 50 pence pieces.  Its amazing how it adds up!
11) Walk where possible instead of using the car.  This one is easy for me as I don’t even drive – but it astonishes me the number of people who drive the few hundred metres to the local shop.  Walk.  Better for your health, your wallet and the planet.
Next instalment in the series will be about eating well and still keeping the budget in check.
In the meantime, have a wonderful Easter!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Living elegantly and well within your means

The concept of living within your means somehow sounds terribly old-fashioned.  To me it conjures up images of a 50’s housewife trying to stretch the housekeeping money.  But its a concept that seems have even more meaning in current times, where just about everyone is feeling the pinch.
Pre-Biscuit, Mr Biscuit and I were in the very lucky situation of having 2 substantial full time salaries coming in every month.  Things were good enough that the cost of holidays didn’t really need to be considered too much, and my clothing ‘budget’ was more or less whatever I fancied spending.
Following the birth of the Biscuit, I was lucky enough to have 6 months maternity leave with full pay, so even then things didn’t really change (in fact as I was spending less, they were even easier financially).  But then I went back to work part time – 4 days a week.  And we hired a nanny for the Biscuit – even more expensive than nursery.  And then 4 months later Mr Biscuit was made redundant.
So our disposable income went down overnight by about 70%.   Although Mr Biscuit is now nicely self-employed and loving what he is doing, he is evidently at the moment not earning what he used to.
Slowly the penny dropped that we probably needed to start budgeting and that the ‘thoughtless’ spending that we’d been used to couldn’t carry on.  We were actually very lucky that we had never gone overboard on the mortgage, and had only borrowed an amount that one of us could easily pay on our salary.  We had no other debts, and also a reasonable level of savings to keep the wolf from the door in the worst case scenario.  Our car isn’t fancy either, and was paid for in cash a couple of years ago.
I’ve been hearing the phrase ‘elegant frugality’ bandied around the blogosphere.  No idea where it started, but it felt like something I could embrace.  I couldn’t truly comprehend a self-denying, bad-food eating kind of frugality, but I was feeling excited about a change in lifestyle which focussed on simple but enjoyable home cooking, making the most out of basic and affordable ingredients, a wardrobe where each piece was considered and appropriate and within budget, and pleasant and fun holidays and outings. 
My ideas and actions aren’t necessarily focussed on those people who might be in a worse situation financially; those who may need to consider the repayment of significant debts or who doesn’t have the necessary cushion of savings.  They may need to be more robust in their approach – there is plenty of help out there – one of the best known in the UK is Martin Lewis on but there also seems to be a huge community of bloggers who espouse true frugality and economy.  Try searching for the words ‘frugal blog’ and see what you find.  I’d be interested to hear about any real gems.
I’m planning a series of posts, with some of the tips that I’ve found helpful in balancing the budget. 
The first step is evidently to know what you have coming in, and going out.  There are various tools out there to help (including one on MoneySavingExpert), but depending on your abilities with excel and other software, you could easily create your own.  The main thing is to include all outgoings – including the intermittent ones such as Christmas, car repairs/servicing etc, and not just those regular monthly bills.   And don’t kid yourself.  Look at your bank statements and credit card and be honest about how much you spend on clothes, or beauty treatments, or hair, or dining out.  The exercise can only work if you have the full picture upfront.

Having done this myself, I was showing initially about a £1000 per month shortfall.  The next step was to find ways of cutting this down – ideally without too much suffering!
Any good ideas are more than welcome here.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Panic

Out it came from the wardrobe.  The grey sweater that I’d forgotten about and that doesn’t even really fit that well.  The one that I haven’t worn for 3 years.  And in it went to the charity shop bag.  Along with those white cropped linen trousers which are just, so , grannyish.  And so not sexy yummy mummy forty-something French vogue-ish funky city dwelling rock chick.  (A girl has to aim high!)
And off I went to work.
And then the panic set in.  No matter that I could retrieve the jumper and trousers when I got home. No matter that I’d forgotten I owned the jumper, and the trousers were just too M&S for words.  I was instantly worrying that I would IMMEDIATELY have cause to wear them, and that if I didn’t have them anymore I’d have to go and find new ones, and I probably wouldn’t be able to, and then WHAT WOULD I DO????!!!!
What on earth was all that about?  I’ve been clearing and sorting my wardrobe for ages, on and off.  And whilst the current purge is probably more extensive and far-ranging than any other I’ve done, I’m not just leaving myself with a pair of jeans and a white shirt (that would be hell on earth for me!).  And some of the things I’ve got rid of or sold, I liked far more than these 2 things.
The only thing I can think of is that the decision this morning wasn’t based on a few weeks of consideration like most of my ‘deletions’.  It was spur of the moment, ‘I don’t like this’. 
But I’m resolute – they are staying in the charity bag.
Have you ever experienced this?  What did you do?  Did you manage to stay resolute in the face of temptation?

Monday, 11 March 2013

Project 333 wardrobe March

Project 333 wardrobe March

First of all, apologies for this being a bit late, but here is my 33 item wardrobe for March (from Polyvore).  Its had a few last minute additions as the weather here in London has suddenly turned freezing and snowy again (please- its March!  Some warmth would be most welcome).  Luckily I'd actually originally planned to 29 items only, so it was easy to add on a couple of things.  You'll notice its not too dissimilar to February in composition - I was hoping it would have a bit more of a springlike look to it by now- but with this weather we are still firmly in winter mode.  Just one significant new addition - my new Whistles dress (the blue and pink patterned one front and centre stage).  Its hubby's birthday tomorrow, so this will be getting an outing.  Can't wait!

I'm finding this 33 item wardrobe idea strangely liberating at the moment, although I suspect as the weather starts changing it may become trickier to cover all the bases.  It has definitely helped me to get rid of a number of things out of the wardrobe - focusses the mind on what really works rather than keeping things just in case.  Last month and this month together I've cleared 40 items out (10 % of my total wardrobe) - with another 12 that need Ebaying when I get round to it.  Slowly and surely.

Would love to know what you think.  Any suggestions of pieces to add?

Monday, 4 March 2013

The one vital question

As a Pinterest and decluttering addict, it really is amazing how much information you can find out there in the blogosphere.  In particular there are endless lists of questions which are designed to guide the organiser through the decision making process of what to keep and what to save.
One recent blog I was reading had an article with 36 (yes – really – 36!) ways to cull your closet.  I’m not going to post the link here after being ever so slightly derogatory about it (sorry!), but having read through it, I really felt that if I’d answered every question, I’d have talked myself out of getting rid of the item.  Especially when some of the questions relate to absolute value/cost of the item, rather than its intrinsic worth to you.
Such questions would have led to me keeping a number of very expensive designer items from what I always think of as ‘my former life’ that neither fit me or suit me and that there is no way I would have worn again.
Ultimately, the one vital question for me is always – would I buy it again today?
Don’t consider whether you could afford to buy it again today – if I did that then all my lovely expensive dresses would be gone!  No.  This is quite simply another way of putting ‘do I love it’ – and ‘was it worth it’ combined into one simple question. 
It is truly and amazingly effective.  This last 2 weeks I’ve got rid of a couple of skirts that are ‘nice’ – but not wow.  A pair of trousers that I’d been keeping just in case (in case of what I have no idea).  And a pink jacket that is absolutely lovely – but that is absolutely not me.  These were all things that had stuck in my wardrobe from initial declutterings, and even the kick-start clearout from the 33 item wardrobe. 
 Try it and let me know the results.  I think you might be amazed!