Monthly Archives: August 2014

Finally won the First Utility battle!!

Well my email to the CEO of First Utility did the trick. I had contact the following day, and on Friday they called to tell me my account was now up to date and I didn’t owe them anything. Massive relief, but it turned out they owed me money – hundreds!! this is because the Ombudsman ruled in my favour and applied the principle of back billing, meaning they could only bill me for the last year . So I basically have had 6 months gas and electricity refunded. I am so thrilled. They have given me so much stress with their total incompetence that I feel it is the least they can do. It is a shame I had to fight them for so long and write to the CEO to get a resolution though. Best of all, Christmas is now sorted and I have no worries about paying for it.

However, I still need to watch every penny, of course. This week I did a small shop in Aldi and also got an order from Approved Foods. Ridiculously cheap!! I don’t eat a lot of convenience food usually, but the odd jar of sauce does make life easier if I am late back from work or rushing out to yoga. I bought 5 jars of curry and casserole sauces, some pastry mixes, loads of crumble topping mixes as it was such a bargain, and some batter mixes. I have never used these before, but will give them a try as they were such a good price. I bought a few other bits and treats too, including some small gifts that I will put aside for stocking fillers for Christmas. Yes, I know it is only August, but I need to start early to spread the cost! Even with my energy bill rebate I can’t afford to rest on my laurels.

Hopefully this order will help me keep food costs to the minimum over the next month or so. I still have quite a lot of vegetables growing in the garden, although the courgettes are almost finished. I have masses of tomatoes, quite a lot of beans, swiss chard, a few corn on the cobs, celeriac, lettuce and some cucumbers, so I really don’t need to buy much in the way of veg. I have also been given cooking apples, greengages and plums, so we are doing quite well for fruit too. I must get out and do some more blackberrying!

I had Mr Shoestring’s brother and his partner over for lunch today. She suffers from coeliac’s disease so it had to be gluten free. I did a roast because that’s pretty easy, and made an apple and blackberry crumble (foraged and donated fruit) using gluten free flour and baking powder. It was really nice – a crumblier texture than crumble topping made with wheat flour but very good nonetheless. I told her about Approved Foods, as they often seem to have gluten free food on there.

So, a pretty frugal and satisfying weekend. How about you?

Spicy roasted tomato sauce – a great way to use the glut

Roasted and ready to be whizzed up - I could have eaten these as they were with some crusty bread

Roasted and ready to be whizzed up – I could have eaten these as they were with some crusty bread

I found this recipe on the internet but adapted it slightly. It is delicious and spicy, and because we have lots of lovely ripe tomatoes at the moment, it is also very, very cheap.

To serve 4-5

500g pasta
1kg tomatoes, halved
70 ml olive oil
Clove garlic, crushed
1.5 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
I medium chilli pepper, kept whole
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, gas mark 6. Place the oil, garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper in a large bowl and stir. Dip each tomato half into the oil mix and place face up onto an oven proof dish with the whole chilli. Sprinkle with a little sugar. Cook for one hour. Allow to cool, remove the chilli and cut out the seeds. If you don’t like your sauce too hot just put half of the chilli in with the tomatoes, but if you can take the heat put the whole thing in, and whizz up with a hand blender.

You can sieve the sauce if you want it really smooth, but I didn’t bother. Mix in with your cooked pasta and top with. Grated cheese.

Mmm, delish!

Supermarket sweep! (Well, sort of) plus the perils of ethical clothes buying

I had a meeting in Chelmsford today, and as work paid my train fares I thought I would take advantage of being there to do a quick sweep of Primark.

I generally buy most of my clothes secondhand, but DD3 was desperate for some new things for sixth form (they are a grammar and insist on smart casual) and my office clothes are looking generally a bit tatty. I only had 20 minutes, which did focus my attention somewhat, but I managed to whizz round and get her 3 tops, 2 skirts and 2 packs of tights, as well as some work clothes for myself – 2 tops, a skirt and a cardi, all for £70! Some people would spend that much on a single outfit.

I know there are some ethical issues with Primark, but to be honest in recent years these have also been raised with many much more expensive brands too. It is hard to know where it is safe to shop!!

I cannot afford to buy only items that are marked as fair trade and organic, and since I usually buy very little and when I do it is second hand, I have to just go with it sometimes.

Niggling worries about the ethical issues aside, I am pretty happy with my purchases. They will have to last a while as that is my clothing budget spent out!

Do you have qualms about buying from large chain stores, especially the budget ones? How do you get round these whilst being frugal?

Warning – a rant (and maybe you can help?)

Tonight I was driven to  rant on Facebook, Twitter and email about the generally appalling levels of customer service offered by large companies these days. From utility providers to retail outlets, I have rarely experienced anything good in recent years.

Regular readers will know that I have had ongoing issues with First Utility for months and months. They have overcharged me on my gas due to an incorrect reading in April 2013. This lead them to attempt to charge me £1500, which I disputed. I knew I hadn’t suddenly increased my energy usage by that much. Despite numerous phone calls and emails, I couldn’t get an explanation of why they thought I owed that much, or accurate readings on my on-line account to give me the chance to work it out for myself. They tried to insist that I increase my monthly gas and electricity bill from £115 per month to £435!! As if!! I lost some sleep over this, I can tell you, and finally contacted the Energy Ombudsman last May. They ruled in my favour, and told First Utility they had to provide me with accurate accounts, waiver all my gas bills for 6 months  and give me a small financial recompense for the stress and aggravation. That was at the end of June. They had 28 days to provide a resolution. To date, they have done nothing except at the beginning of August, after me chasing them and the Ombudsman again, send me a letter acknowledging that they were dealing with my complaint but saying that they had so many to deal with it might be a while! What a thing to casually admit to a customer!!

Ten days ago, my Talk Talk on demand TV service stopped working. I rang them, they rang me back on my mobile and we went through some tests. After half an hour the phone cut out. ‘That’s OK’, I thought. ‘They have my number, they will call me back so that we can continue’. They didn’t . I wasn’t about to call them and start the whole process again, so I wrote a stinking email. To their credit, they responded within a couple of days, decided an engineer was needed, but then said the earliest possible was 9th September!!

Then this evening, to cap it all, my daughter’s quite expensive new bed arrived from Argos. She was very excited, as hers broke and she has been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a month.  When we tried to assemble it, however, we discovered that half the fittings were missing. It was impossible to secure the two pieces together. She rang them and asked them to get the appropriate bits out asap, and they said they had no spares and wouldn’t be able to send any for three weeks, but we could buy them ourselves if we wanted!! Well, you can imagine our rage and indignation…. DD1 is a bit of a firecracker, and insisted on speaking to a manager. He said he could get the bits in a week, and would give us a £50 refund. She wasn’t really happy, so tweeted a complaint, and lo – their customer services department had messaged her within the hour asking her to send them her order number. So let’s hope we have a better outcome. Bits of her bed are currently clogging up the lounge and the hallway!

It made me think about the power of Twitter, anyway, and I have tweeted First Utility. this is where some of you might be able to help. If you do Twitter, maybe you can follow me (@shoestringjane) and retweet what I sent. I am hoping that, useless as they are, First Utility might also have a customer services section that watches Twitter and acts accordingly to avert bad publicity.

I also Googled to find out who the CEO of First Utility is and his email address. I have sent him a long email berating him for the way his company are treating me and I have copied my MP in.

I am fed up with these companies. They are too big and don’t want to spend enough money making sure they offer decent customer services. Once they get you in with the big offer, they don’t want to know.

How about you? Any customer service horror stories? Or do you have any examples of marvellously helpful service you have received to prove me wrong?

 

Kitchen gadgets I couldn’t live without

Chopped up the veg...

Chopped up the veg…

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Made some chicken stock…

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Topped it up with some of the giant catering pack of veg stock I got from Approved Foods…

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Whiz zed it up with my trusty hand blender…

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And poured it all into containers ready for the freezer!

I finally managed to make a mega batch of courgette soup this morning. Lots to keep our bellies full until the pumpkins are ready and the next soup making session begins. They are cooling in the kitchen in a load of recycled ice cream and yogurt containers. I need to organise the freezers to fit them all in. So, fave kitchen gadget number 1 is my hand blender!!

Chopping up the plums

Chopping up the plums

Out with the mixer...

Out with the mixer…

Mmm... Yummy plum cake

Mmm… Yummy plum cake

We found plums being given away for free when we were in Long Melford the other day, so today I froze some and used the remainder to make a delicious almond and plum cake, which we had for dessert tonight. So, fave gadget no 2 is my hand mixer.

I think these two items are essential for the frugal kitchen, and I couldn’t be without them. I do have a food processor, but I rarely use it as it is such a faff to get it out of the cupboard and find the bits I need then wash it all  and put it back.

Not a bad way to spend a rainy bank holiday Monday – a thrifty and productive day!

Which kitchen gadgets would you hate to live without?

Adios amigo!

Yesterday we said goodbye to our lovely Spanish student. I was sorry to see him go; it was really a pleasure to be his host mother. imageAs his taxi wasn’t due to arrive until 5, and because we also have a friend staying from Italy, we decided to have a day out in Suffolk to show them some typical English countryside. We packed up a picnic and headed out to the historic market town of Lavenham, before heading over to Long Melford, where we sat on the green to eat our rolls.image image

I have said it before, but will say it again – Suffolk really is a beautiful county. So much lush green scenery and interesting little towns and villages. If you are a camper, you could stay at the campsite owned by fellow blogger Sue at Frugal in Suffolk!

I hope you are doing something nice this bank holiday weekend. I am making a point of not doing jobs all weekend. A girl needs a bit of rest and recuperation!

Shoestring cottage, the youth hostel

I realise that my blogging is getting a bit sporadic at the moment. Just a crazy busy time at home and work at the moment – even worse than usual!

As well as our paying student, a 16 year old Spanish boy who is really lovely, one of the students we hosted back in March has returned for a visit. This time she is here as a friend as she became best buddies with DD3, bonding over their mutual love for One Direction and Harry Potter. She was an absolute delight as a house guest so we are all pleased to see her back. I am hoping DD3 will pluck up the confidence to pay her a return visit to Italy some time.

We have had the plumber visit twice this week as well. The first time to sort the leak I blogged about before. Then he popped back to repair the shower – the mixer won’t work which means you either get a blast of scalding water or an icy shock! We may be able to find a replacement widget but if we can’t it will have to be a whole new shower 🙁

Despite convincing herself that she had failed all of her GCSEs, DD3 was pleasantly surprised to discover that she is actually really clever, managing 11 As and Bs. My budget didn’t run to a fancy meal out, so we celebrated with a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of Cava, which was great!

Anyone else been waiting on exam results?

It could have been a disaster…saved by the plumber

There's a hole in my ceiling...

There’s a hole in my ceiling…

Regular readers will know that myself and Mr S sweated blood and tears to redecorate our sorry hallway, and waited over 3 years to finally buy a stair carpet. Transforming the most awful space in the house gave  such satisfaction :-).

So it was with some alarm that we discovered a small water leak in the downstairs hallway: first the water pressure in the boiler kept dropping causing it to cut out. Then I arrived home late Saturday evening to find a puddle on the floor and the light fitting full of water. Fortunately it seemed a slow leak, so rather than pay a plumber for a Sunday call out we made a small hole in the plaster to release the water and stuck a bucket underneath. The plumber arrived yesterday to confirm what we had suspected: the new carpet  and the floorboards upstairs had to come up so that he could repair the pipe. Mr S had accidentally stuck a screw through a pipe when he was tightening the creaky old floorboards!

Never mind – these things are sent to try us and it is all sorted now.

imageOn the plus side, the veg patch is still very productive and it looks like being a bumper pumpkin crop – they are huge!

Bounce-back-ability! Getting back up when you fall

imageI finally got round to sorting Mr S’s grapevine out yesterday. It hasn’t done anything for the past two years since he planted it but this year it has suddenly gone wild and had fallen off its supports. I picked it up and tied it to the trellis yesterday, and was staggered to find it full of grapes! I’m not sure how tasty they will be as they are tiny and barely ripening, but I am thinking maybe stuffed vine leaves…

I had a bit of a blow yesterday. My long term student, who had planned to come from Mexico to do her A levels at my daughter’s school, didn’t get her predicted grades by a fraction and the school won’t take her. She is understandably disappointed but so am I! Having her was part of my long term strategy for managing my finances. There may be a few other short term language students this year, but I really need regular extra income. As I say, a bit of a blow, but we will manage somehow – we always do.

imageThe first thing I will do is go through my finances with a fine toothed comb to see where I can save money. I had relaxed a bit with my spending in anticipation of the student income but now I need to draw back and live as simply and cheaply as I possibly can. I will also sign up with other agencies as some require host families for a term at a time and place them in January as well as September.

As the great Nelson Mandela once said, “The greatest glory of living lies not in never falling but in rising every time you fall.” He should know. Time to plan my bounce back!

Mad dogs and English women go gardening in the midday rain!

imageWell Hurricane Bertha turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, thankfully, but we did get some weird weather today. It was very mild and pouring with rain one minute, then blazing sunshine, then the wind whipped up and blew a few pots around the garden, then hailstones! Talk about 4 seasons in one day.

imageWe were tempted outside by a break in the rain. Mr S got a fire going to burn lots of old woody stuff that was too big to compost. He managed to get it burning fiercely enough that the rain didn’t put it out.

imageI spent an hour or so digging the squash patch and pulling up some skeletal brassicas that had been completely decimated by the cabbage white butterfly laying their pesky eggs. That was all the kale and purple sprouting broccoli that had looked so promising a few weeks ago. It is my own fault for not netting them. To start with, each time it rained we ran into the greenhouse but after a while we stopped caring and carried on in the rain. I’m sure the neighbours think we are crazy! The language student looked a bit bemused.

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I always look my best with wild damp hair and welly boots!!

He seemed to enjoy his first English roast dinner: pork with crackling, roast potatoes, yorkshires and veg from the garden, followed by Apple Pie and custard. I like a man who enjoys his food!