Lovely day out today using our RHS cards for free entry to Hyde Hall gardens near Rettendon in Essex.

There was a great sculpture trail:

Superb displays of summer flowers:

The pond lilies were beautiful and such a restful place to eat our picnic.

Their vegetable garden was very productive, as you would expect:

Such a nice place to spend a pleasant Sunday! Next week we will have two students to entertain so we thought we would make the most of our solitude.

Adult education can improve your prospects

One of the big regrets of my life is not going to university and getting a degree. I kept putting it off and before I knew it I had a husband and a mortgage! It most definitely restricted me in my working life. I went into magazine publishing but found it difficult to move on as everyone wanted a graduate, even though I had experience. Later, when I had children, I wanted to become a teacher, but 4 years of study wasn’t financially viable. If I had got a degree it would have been just a year. Yet it is never too late for some adult education.

Give yourself more options

I did feel the benefit of study later. I became a yoga teacher, which was a useful source of income when my children were small (and also proved to be the saviour of my sanity!). When I struggled  to find an office job I enrolled in the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) with my local Learning Shop and started getting interviews straight away. I got a part time job with the local council which eventually led to the job I have now.

I really believe that, to improve your chances of getting the best possible career and giving yourself more options and choices, you need to get trained and qualified.

But if you have little money, what to do? If you are unemployed or on a low income the first place to go is your local Learning Shop (most towns have them). They will tell you about all the courses available to you, many of which will be at a hugely reduced cost and some could even be free. They tend to focus on English, maths, IT and employability skills and can also give careers advice.

Find your local adult education centre

You should also check out your local adult education centre. These are great for vocational courses such as hairdressing, beauty, complementary therapies, languages, IT and basic skills. Some of these can be very expensive normally (£1000 plus) but a fraction of the full price if you are on a qualifying benefit.

There are also loads of free courses online. Just google it. For example, I have been exploring Future Learn, where I can learn Dutch, how to start a business or – a great one for this blog – Financial Planning and Budgeting. I have sent my daughter this site as they have useful looking courses on cv writing, applying for jobs and interview techniques.

Older people can explore the University of the Third Age which offers subjects as diverse as history, yoga and singing. The members share their hobbies and skills and become teachers as well as learners, not for qualifications but just for fun.

I now take as many opportunities to learn as I can, and encourage my daughters to get all qualifications possible. Do you do any learning and how has it benefitted you?

I take Aldi when I  go on holiday

When we went to Wales recently Mr S sighed and said, ‘Don’t take too much food. They do sell it there.’ Of course they do! However the village we were going to did not have an Aldi or a Lidl, just a small, expensive Coop. They have a lovely weekly market but this tends towards luxury foods like cheeses, speciality cake and bread. 

We always take a flask!

 Because we are holidaying on a tight budget we go self catering and we hardly eat out, apart from the occasional fish and chip supper. We make dinner each night and take a flask of coffee, our water bottles and a picnic lunch each day. So I take lots of basics. Usually a meal ready for when we arrive; perhaps a curry, chilli or bolognese in a Tupperware. Some onions, tinned tomatoes, dried herbs, bread, cheese, eggs, bacon, wine, juice, milk, teabags, coffee and snacks. We then top up locally as we need it. It saves loads of money!

We have another cheap week booked in Devon in September and will do the same, although there will be less room in the car because there are four of us, so we might get settled and then go in search of a supermarket.

I feel a bit guilty not to support local businesses more when we are away, but the truth is if we didn’t self cater and buy in advance we wouldn’t be able to afford to go away at all. 

Anyone else have any holiday money saving tips?

All is not lost!

Yesterday I blogged that there had been a few disasters with the veg growing this year. Well, I went down to water the patch this morning and things are looking up! 

The runner beans that survived the slugs have suddenly become super productive, the courgettes have all grown a lot in the last few days and I can see some baby courgettes on the way, there are masses of cucumbers and we still have lots of broadbeans coming. We have hit the time of year when I can more or less stop buying salads and veg for a while.

We even have some lovely blueberries. The first year our little bush has produced this many. So I have blueberries on my porridge today – lots of healthy antioxidants!

We said goodbye to our French student this morning. I had an early start as I had to drop him for the coach at 7 am. This is why I had time to look at the garden and blog before work! He was a pleasure to host, so polite and thoughtful. I have two more next week so I hope they are as nice!

Do you grow your own?

Blackberries and raspberries from the garden

One of our money saving schemes is to grow as much fruit and veg as we can. We are constrained by the amount of time it takes to sow and plant out, prepare the soil, feed, water, weed and ultimately harvest. We both work full time and, although we love getting outside, we don’t want to spend all our precious spare time working in the garden. I also need time to preserve some of the harvest so I freeze what I can as it is, make soup for the freezer too and some preserves when I have enough fruit.

We are lucky if course to have a big enough garden to do this. I know that some people have to wait months or years to get a council allotment.

This year has been a mixed bag. Two crops we can usually rely on have been rubbish! The courgettes have failed to thrive and the runner beans got eaten by slugs. The tomatoes looked fantastic but are showing slight signs of possible blight. The carrots either failed to become seedlings or were eaten immediately, I’m not sure. We do have a few growing in an old recycling bin though 😀. The spinach also bolted as I put it in a sunny spot then we didn’t water it enough and the raspberries were smothered in bindweed so we have just a few. 

However, we have fabulous beetroot, leeks, cucumbers, redcurrants, broad beans, some chard coming on and sprouts which have so far avoided being decimated by cabbage whites, as happened last year. The neighbour’s blackberries tip over to our side and they are already ripening. Not our best year, but not a complete failure!

I think it is just about worth the effort. Do you grow your own? Do you think it saves you money?

Making a budget: can we balance the books?

With my youngest daughter leaving school and the consequent loss of tax credits and child benefit, it was time today for a new budget to make sure the sums still add up. Hopefully she will get a job soon and make a contribution towards the housekeeping, but until she does we need to ensure the books still balance!

I use Budget Brain from moneysavingexpert.com as it is easy to use and takes into account pretty much everything. It calculates whether your income is more or less than your outgoings, so you can see where to make adjustments to keep yourself in the black. 

I always approach this task with fear and trepidation if I am honest.  Today, Budget Brain gave us the thumbs up but with very little to spare each month. We don’t have any scope to deviate from the budget and it doesn’t leave much for unexpected expenses! 

This is why we need alternative sources of income. Our foreign language students and eBay sales make all the difference. We do include money to save within our budget, so if we are really stuck we can dip into that but would prefer not to.

I am going to start setting myself monthly targets for spending and saving and make sure I stick with these targets. I will also see where we can cut costs a bit to create more of a comfort zone. 

Do you set and stick to a budget? Are you feeling the pinch and having to tighten your belt? How do you boost your income?

Come on ladies, don’t be fooled by that pseudo science!

The skincare and cosmetics business is a racket! On the very rare occasions that I venture into a department store I am always stunned by the cost of products on sale. £45 for tiny tub of miracle moisturiser? I could feed myself for a week for that. I don’t buy them anymore, but I know the pages of the high end glossy women’s magazines are full of impossibly beautiful, photoshopped models and celebrities selling products claiming to reduce wrinkles, to revitalise your skin, to ‘replenish, hydrate and protect’, to ‘firm and lift’. One product I found claims to renew cells overnight; I’m sure that happens anyway! 

My daughter worked as an assistant in the beauty department of a national newspaper as a student. They were sent hundreds of such products to review and she brought me some to try a couple of times. One was an anti-aging serum which retailed at, wait for it, £120!!! I used it a couple of times but i didn’t rate it. I truly prefer my £1.99 Aldi face cream. Another freebie was a ‘natural’ moisturiser which was so highly perfumed I could only stand using it as a hand cream. This one would have cost £48 to buy.

I wonder if the claims of the companies producing these items have ever been scientifically tested? I doubt it. 

I do think it is a good idea to use some form of moisturiser and also sun protection. But you can purchase these things for less than a fiver. I have been using my Aldi creams for about five years now and I swear I don’t look a day over 25 😉. Don’t waste your money and take a holiday with what you save! 

The wonder of water and how it saves me money

I have been taking some tips from Ilona over on Life After Money and started diluting stuff to make it last. Because I am lactose intolerant I buy Lactofree milk. This can be expensive – usually around £1.35 a litre, but I have seen it for as much as £1.50! Last night it was on offer at my local Sainsbury’s for £1 so I stocked up. I will make this last by diluting it in everything except tea and coffee. I drank a perfectly nice cup of ovaltine before bed last night made with 50-50 milk and water and the same this morning on my cereal. I put a little water in the orange juice as well. Not too much – I don’t mind it weak but everyone else complains.

I would drink soya milk as it is cheaper but I can’t stand the stuff!

I stopped buying handwash a while back and we now have good, old fashioned soap in bars. However, the last  few bottles of handwash lasted quite a long time in diluted form 😀. I do the same with washing up liquid since everyone always squirts too much in anyway.

I add water to shampoo and sometimes a small amount to conditioner too. I don’t think anyone has noticed! I stopped buying shower gel and bubble bath when I switched back to soap or I would dilute those as well :-).

I encourage everyone at home to drink water instead of squash or juice anyway as it is better for you and almost free.

Talking of Ilona, I read on her blog that she will soon be on Shed of the Year on TV. I love this programme and look forward to seeing if she wins. If you haven’t seen her awesome summer house have a look here. It starts next Friday, 29th July, 8 pm on Channel 4.

I popped into the Co-op last night 15 minutes before they closed to see if there were any good reductions. There was a lot: I got yogurts, ham, some mince and diced turkey. Most of it will freeze but the yogurts and some of the ham will come in handy for the student’s lunches over the next coupe of days. I have to provide two rounds of sandwiches, fruit, crisps, a cake or yogurt and a drink each day.

He is proving no problem to feed. Tonight we had macaroni cheese, bread and leftover salad and again he ate it all with enthusiasm. He tells me that in France families still tend to sit together to eat, always have a proper meal rather than microwave rubbish and drink water rather than pop. I love this and it was how we approached meal times when the girls were younger. I think many British families have given this up in favour of the TV dinner. Shame.

However, our student even prefers water to a nice cup of tea. That’s a step too far for me 😀.

En vacances in West Mersea 

Our new language student arrived yesterday, another one from the new French organisation I discovered this year. I am glad I found them as the rumour is that the long established college that has sent me students for several years is to close. They have had far fewer European students since the last recession and never really recovered it appears. What a shame. This has been a great source of extra income each summer.

Our new arrival is a French boy of 16. He seems nice and can speak English quite well already. He is also not a fussy eater and polished off the tray baked chicken I made last night. 

As it was such a lovely evening we took him for a drive to West Mersea, only half an hour away. It was absolutely beautiful there and we watched the crabbers as the sun went down.

He is only here for a week, then I have a break of a couple of weeks before my next and this time I have agreed to take two. This will involve setting up an extra bed but I think it will be worth it to get two lots of money in one hit. They may be the last students I get this year.

If you are ever in Essex take a trip to Mersea!

Taking the early train on the hottest day

Today I took the early train to London with all the bleary eyed commuters (not grumpy though; today is a beautiful day and, since we get so few of those they were mostly happy!). 

Me and my girl

I am not a big fan of the city: too busy, too frantic and fast paced, too dirty for me. But today was a big day. Darling daughter no 2’s graduation day! They only allow two people to the ceremony, so I was accompanied by her lovely boyfriend, with everyone else joining us for a celebratory lunch afterwards. They drove down and parked near her shared house in Hackney as that was cheaper than the train for three of them.

Hats off!

 The ceremony was interesting, not too long so that it got dull, but long enough and with adequate pomp and ceremony to feel special. Then it was lots of pix in the baking sun – our hottest day of the year so far at 34 degrees – and a glass of fizz in the hall. 
 I loved seeing all the graduates in their gowns – very Harry Potter-esque!

My girl and her gorgeous boyfriend

We had a lovely lunch at a Turkish restaurant in Hackney. It was perfect light Mediterranean food for such a hot day and good value at around £10 each for a main course. I had dolma (cheese and rice stuffed courgettes and pepper) which was really tasty. I am going to look out a recipe.

We drove back in very heavy traffic and we were all sweating buckets by the time we arrived home. I am currently wilting in front of a fan on the sofa. Still, we have storms forecast for tonight so I suppose I should enjoy the sun while it is here!