What’s your best money saving idea?

I belong to a few Facebook groups whose focus is frugality and the question that comes up time and again when people join is ‘How can I save money? Where do I start?’ It seems many people are still struggling to get from pay day to pay day and looking for money saving advice and inspiration.

My first piece of advice is to have a long, hard look at your outgoings. Go through your bank statements and see what you can cut. Have you an insurance policy on an item you no longer own? Are you paying too much for your utilities? Shop around. Can you save money on your mobile phone or your tv and internet package? You need to check if there is a penalty for early cancellation but sometimes it is worth paying, or you could stay with the same provider but downgrade your package. Do you have a gym membership you barely use?

Make a budget and stick to it. I use Budget Brain from Money Saving Expert. Check your bank balance regularly so you know how much is in the account and when you need to rein in your spending.  

It is interesting to see how much cash can drip out of your account in the form of small purchases on lunch, coffees, newspapers, etc. £10 withdrawals here and there can soon add up to hundreds of pounds. You can save a lot of money by anticipating these small expenses in advance and organising yourself. For example, take your own coffee, teabags and milk to work rather than buying it. Take your own packed lunch. 

Avoid temptation. If you know you are prone to impulse purchases, window shopping is not the pastime for you!

Food shopping is often a great place to save money. You can save loads if you stop buying branded goods and use cheaper supermarket own brands, buy your fruit and veg at a local market, minimise convenience foods, plan your menus, make a shopping list before you hit the supermarket, eat less meat…I could go on. There are so many money saving ideas.

Look at your heating and hot water costs. There are plenty of ways to insulate your home cheaply, you could turn the thermostat down a notch, get the family to wear more layers of clothing, etc. More ideas here.

What about transport? Could you car share? Leave the car at home and walk or cycle?

Do you have a garden? If so, how about growing some of your own food. Digging is as good as a gym session 😀.

What are your top money saving tips for the newbie?

Should you ever buy branded groceries?

I quite enjoy the adverts on TV for Aldi, where they compare an expensive brand of coffee, tea or whatever with their own version. The message is that theirs is just as good, but cheaper!

When I initially started trying to save money on my grocery shopping the first thing I did was dump the brands wherever I could. I tried all of the supermarket basics first. Some we liked and some we didn’t. Value/Smart Price baked beans were a definite no-no, unless included in a veggie stew. Loo rolls didn’t last as long but were worth buying as they were so much cheaper. Value bacon may not look as good but it tastes pretty similar. The kids ate the biscuits even if they didn’t arrive in fancy packaging. I now wouldn’t dream of buying anything other than a basic fruit juice either.

Where we didn’t enjoy the basic products, I moved up to supermarket own brand. Most we liked, but occasionally we still resorted to a branded product.

With the advent of the discount supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl, the situation has improved even more. Most of their own products are very good quality and as cheap or even cheaper than the old style shop own brands. I have found them to be better overall. 

I might consider something from a range such as a Tesco Finest if it is on offer but I have found some of these are disappointing. I think they are a marketing ploy and another way to squeeze a bit more money out of their customers. 

Generally speaking if I buy a brand it is because 1. I really like it more than the alternatives (such as my Millicano coffee mentioned in yesterday’s blog post) or 2. It is a really good price. I don’t need to pay for a company’s expensive branding – they pay marketing people a lot of money to work out how to make us spend our wages. I bet at least half the time if people did a blind test to decide which product was branded and which was a supermarket’s own brand they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. So, if you really want to save money on your groceries chuck out the brands and try some supermarket own labels!

Another Goode Book

Reader Rosemary reminded me of this one for my frugal bookshelf.  The Goode Kitchen was written by the late Shirley Goode to accompany her BBC series of the same name in 1986.

Shirley had a precise and logical approach to saving money in the kitchen, which has barely dated. In fact her approach to her kitchen decor (open shelves and a mix of charity shopped mixed crockery) seems positively on trend . Think shabby chic! She believed in spending more on the essentials, such as some quality knives and pans.

I first read the Goode Kitchen years ago and clearly absorbed this approach to cooking. Shirley can take a lot of the credit for much of my kitchen behaviour now – reusing yogurt pots and margarine pots to freeze soup or store leftovers, keeping old bread bags and making stock from bones and chicken carcasses.

She takes an interesting approach to budgeting that makes me think she was an influence on Jack Monroe, carefully costing her ingredients to easily calculate the price of any meal and adjusting ingredients to always get the best possible value.

The recipes are straightforward, nutritious and tasty. They use ingredients likely to be in most cook’s store cupboards or easy to find in a supermarket. For example, you will find recipes for fish chowder, Somerset rabbit casserole, poor man’s jugged hare (actually made with beef) and pauper’s pottage (a healthy vegetable stew) – great, no frills family food.

It is sadly out of print now but you can still find the odd copy secondhand on Amazon, as I did. If you see it at a reasonable price, grab it! There is a link below but you may have to go through and do a search.
goode kitchen


Cheaper groceries? I Approve!

Every now and again I have a look on Approved Food and get a few mega bargains. Last night, since I have my new bank card (the other one was used and abused by some scumbag and it was blocked), I decided to take a look and see if there was enough to tempt me to justify the £30 minimum order charge plus £5.99 delivery. As soon as I saw that there was the Felix cat food that my cats like (only £2 for 12 sachets), I knew it would be. I avoided all of the yummy looking sweets and chocolates, as I have given up sugar for the month, and focussed on purchases that would really save me money – items I either need now or soon would.

In case you haven’t come across them, Approved Food sells goods that are past their best before dates at huge discounts. The items are still perfectly good to use. The company doesn’t just sell food; as well as the groceries, they have alcohol (I took advantage and ordered some wine), pet supplies, toiletries, household goods and gifts.

You can’t do the week’s shop on there. There are some staples (I bought orange juice, teabags and Marigold vegetable stock), but no bread, milk or eggs. If you like branded goods such as washing powder and fabric softener you will really make massive savings. I bought a big tin of Vanish carpet spray (constantly clearing up cat sick in my house!) for £2 instead of £4 for example. There are often very cheap cook-in sauces as well for quick and convenient after work meals.

If you want to try Approved Food and you place an order using my link, I will earn a small commission. Thanks!

Try Approved Food

Haggling down the cost of your utilities 

I was listening to Chris Evans on the radio recently and he was relating the story of a woman who spent two hours on the phone to her utility companies threatening to leave and negotiating a better price with each. She eventually saved herself £2000! That is a good use of two hours of anybody’s time 😀.

I have never actually done them all in one go but I do shop around every time something is due for renewal, such as car and house insurance, to get a good price. However, I read reviews and if people are complaining about them I look elsewhere.

One thing I don’t intend to change is my energy provider, Good Energy. I switched to them after a horrific experience with First Utility, who tried to overcharge me by thousands. Their levels of customer service when I tried to get it sorted were appalling. Never again! Good Energy charges reasonable prices, produces all its energy from renewable sources and its customer service is the best I have ever experienced. I’m going nowhere! Sometimes the cheapest sounding deal isn’t worth it. I really recommend this company and, no, they haven’t paid me to say that! 

A year ago my water company offered me a great deal on emergency plumbing insurance, £6.50 for the whole year. At that price, why not? Last week I got a renewal letter and the price was £96.48 for the year, £8.04 a month. I didn’t think I needed this, so rang to cancel. I was then offered a reduced price of £75 for the year. When I refused again this went down to £55 for the year, or £45 if I had a £50 excess. The poor salesman had his work cut out with me and finally accepted I was cancelling. It did make me think though! Never accept the first price you are given!

Have you saved money by haggling down the price of your bills? 

How I’m keeping my food bill low

It’s so easy to overspend on food and end up wasting some. I do my best to avoid this – I don’t want to throw money in the bin! There is a lot of temptation in the supermarket when I am tired and hungry so I am planning all our meals and writing a list, which I stick to unless I see a huge bargain. I tend to shop straight after work, which isn’t the best time for a good yellow sticker bargain  so can’t rely on them, but if I do spot something I change my meal plan to accommodate it. 

I am using up what I have, which means eating up tins and packet pulses. These are a cheap form of protein and good for you too. I always have some tinned tuna and sardines in for the same reason. Some tinned veg is handy to have: tomatoes, obviously, but also potatoes, sweet corn and maybe mushrooms. 

I buy frozen quite a lot. Vegetables tend to be cheaper this way and there is no waste. Frozen meat is also cheaper. We eat a lot of chicken as that is good value I find. Generally we are eating less meat though. I dig out my old vegetarian recipe books for inspiration. I might buy and use some cheaper meat like braising steak and put it in the slow cooker.

I am no chef but I can cook, so we don’t eat ready meals. However, I don’t object to the odd short cut as I work full time so usually have a jar of casserole sauce lurking. I have got these from Approved Food in the past massively reduced so will be checking their website over the weekend. If there is anything good I will ask DD1 if she wants to share an order and split the delivery charge.

I quite often batch cook things like soup, casseroles and pasta sauces for the freezer. These are great for a quick dinner if we get home late. 

I also have eggs in for a quick omelette dinner or eggs on toast. Egg and chips is one of my favourite meals and so cheap!

So this is what I will continue to do to save money on the food bill. What about you? Are you trying to stick to a low food budget post Christmas?

Frugal steps: it’s the little things!

I think to anyone who isn’t into a frugal lifestyle some of the things we do to save money here at Shoestring Cottage must seem like a lot of effort for very little reward. But believe me, they all stack up to make a huge difference to making the books balance at the end of each month. It’s the little things!

I am having to really focus this month so that I only buy absolute  essentials. I have repaired a pair of ankle boots I wear quite a lot. Why throw out a perfectly good pair of boots or shoes because the sole or heel are coming away? It’s easy to repair them with some strong glue. 

As mentioned in previous posts, I am using up as much as I can in the larder to keep the grocery bills low. We will be eating less meat and fish than usual. I have some Quorn in the freezer and some cans of chickpeas that will make several meals. I have been making soup using home grown frozen veg and fruit purée with apples, blackberries and currants that we grew or were given. I have been baking already and will do some more for those moments when we need something sweet – I have flour, sugar,  nuts and dried fruit to use for this. 

When I do go shopping I will take a list and stick to it, unless I spy some good yellow stickered bargains, of course.

I always take a packed lunch, snacks, tea and coffee to work so I don’t need to spend money at the corner shop or in the vending machines.

I am conserving petrol by driving like a granny! Slowly and smoothly – whizzing along and screeching on the brakes at junctions used up a lot of fuel.

DD3 has her birthday next week. We will celebrate with a nice dinner and a home made cake. I am buying her a few small presents and giving her some money as she is saving for a new laptop. I would love to take her out to a posh restaurant but that would bust the budget and none of us are that bothered.

If I get any invitations out I will make my excuses this month. It’s more important to balance the books than socialise right now. 

What little things do you do to save money?

Small victories!

Another small victory for my bank balance – the cats love the cheap Lidl biscuits I bought! They are only £1.99 and I pay around £4 for the usual brand. Still being cautious and I won’t stock up too much just yet.  As Ilona commented on my last post, cats are fickle beasts so I won’t be at all surprised if they turn their noses up at some point.

I have two more ladies coming to view the spare room this week. I have made sure they have my number and asked them to text if they can’t make it after I waited in all afternooon for the last one. If I can get someone in before Christmas that will be a great help to the budget. We are all a little nervous about it though. We regularly have short term students but this is a different prospect. If we don’t get on they won’t be leaving after a couple of weeks! 

What if they both want the room – how on earth do I choose? On the other hand neither of them might like it, but at least I am getting a bit of interest.

As I type this, another email has popped into my inbox about the room. Fantastic 😀.

I have been tidying up still and making space in the kitchen cupboards for the lodger to store her stuff. I lined the rather tatty shelves with some nice plastic and they look much smarter. I need to clean out all the kitchen cupboards before I let anyone cook in there! 

There is always so much to do but I am trying to be as organised as possible and keeping the house super tidy so I can get people in seeing it at its best. Wish me luck!

More reasons to save

So, I put money away for Christmas and holidays but unfortunately not quite enough. I need to up the amount next year! We had one more holiday than we anticipated at the beginning of the year, which was our choice. That’s what saving and being frugal is for – to stop the worrying and allow money for the fun things in life.

I would also like to greatly increase the amount we have in our emergency fund next year. The boiler playing up has made me realise that. It is still not right despite two visits from the plumber. but he doesn’t think it is terminal. Let’s hope not as it is now very cold in the mornings and evenings and I need some heating!

The ad has finally gone on spareroom.com. I have already had a conversation with a nice lady from America who is coming over in January to study, but we have agreed I will keep the ad on for now as I had hoped to get a lodger sooner than that. I am not convinced we are close enough to the university to be ideal for her so she may find something more suitable anyway. 

I read a very interesting article about the new government Lifetime ISA coming in next year. If you are under 40 you can put your savings in and at the end of the financial year the government will give you a bonus of 25% of what you saved. This sounds great so what’s the catch? You can only take money out without penalties if you are buying your first house ir flat, or for your retirement at 60. 

If you are struggling to save to get a foot on the property ladder this appears an excellent way to do so. Similarly if you are nearing 40 and worried you haven’t saved enough for your retirement this could be a good deal. 

I have told my daughters to consider this and I hope they will. More information can be found here.

Regrets? I have a few…

Thanks for all the comments on my ‘young and broke’ blog the other day. It’s not easy for youngsters now even if they are organised and careful with their money. Many of them have been encouraged to go to university as a means to get a great career. In reality the job market is such that having a degree doesn’t guarantee you anything. I am a manager in a call centre and there are as many graduates working  there as non graduates. My daughter has recently graduated and managed to get a pretty decent job but many of her friends have just extended their student jobs and work in shops and cafes whilst they await their dream career. They had their expectations set so high…

It’s not a terrible salary at my place but it’s not great either. Enough to run a car or rent a room but not both. They either have to live with their parents or find an expensive house share. If they do the latter their chances of ever buying their own place are virtually non-existent unless they are lucky enough to have access to the bank of mum and dad. There are a few who scrimp and save and are absolutely determined to get on the housing ladder, which means not going out much, no splurges on new clothes or makeup, no holidays and watching every penny. I love that they are so disciplined as I know I wasn’t at that age.

When I was younger you got a full grant to go to university. I remember walking into a shop to ask if they had jobs and being given one on the spot. It was easy! I got my first house with no deposit – can you imagine any bank giving you a 100% mortgage now?

I was earning at 25 the same as the staff at my place earn now – I am now 50-something . I had no idea how lucky I was and I hugely regret not  making the most of my good fortune and saving lots or paying my mortgage off. I was hopeless with money! I had no idea! 

I didn’t start understanding money until I was getting divorced when I knew I had to embrace frugality or go under. Still,better late than never! Onwards and upwards!

Young and broke

There is a young woman at work in my office who is the kind who spends a lot around payday but has no money at all for the last week of the month. She is making the classic mistakes most of us probably made at her age. 

For the first two weeks she comes in with a Costa coffee every morning and maybe a glossy magazine. She spends her lunch hour buying clothes and make up online whilst she eats her ready made sandwich or Macdonalds. She arrives bleary eyed on Monday morning after a couple of heavy nights pubbing and clubbing.

What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask? She is a young working girl having fun! Well, nothing. It’s not my business what she spends her cash on. Except that at about halfway through the month she starts panicking. She has only £xx to last her for the next two weeks and her phone bill is due. She starts eating biscuits from the team tin for her breakfast and 10p noodles for her lunch. She moves from packet cigarettes to roll ups and finally has no money at all for cigarettes and gets very grumpy. She can’t afford to get the bus in and either takes holiday or changes her shifts so that she can beg lifts with friends.

By the end of the month she looks pale, hungry and anxious! It’s not actual FUN. She also forgot to pay her council tax so has a nice big bill to find the money for. 

The girl needs a budget. I have bigged up www.moneysavingexpert.com in the hope she will get on there and get some advice. I won’t hold my breath though!

I made all these mistakes at her age too. I really believe that financial education should be on every school curriculum, especially these days of high rents and massive mortgage deposits. It would have helped me!

Money saving and money making tips 

A friend and work colleague recently discovered my blog and has given me a good tip for putting money into savings. She has a banking app on her phone and can access both her current and savings account from this at any time. If she makes a purchase of a discounted item, be it on sale or yellow stickered, rather than simply congratulating herself on a wise buy she immediately transfers the amount saved into her savings account. She does this whatever the item is – food, clothes, household goods, etc. 

I think this is a great tip! Of course, it won’t work if you are only buying the item because it is on sale and wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise. It is food for thought though and you could create a healthy nest egg with very little effort.

Another useful thing she does is to rent out her driveway during the week as she lives in the centre of town. Whilst she is at work her drive is earning her money, which she receives in cash, so she makes this last for all her miscellaneous expenses during the week – that loaf of bread or pint of milk that might otherwise mean a trip to the cash point. 

You need to use the resources you have and be creative to make the most of your hard earned cash,and she is certainly doing that.

Personally, we don’t live close enough to town to rent our driveway, but we do have a spare room and take in foreign language students on a short term basis. I currently have two very nice French 16 year olds!

We have decided to use the room to create a more regular income and will be decorating it in the next few weeks and advertising for a lodger. We didn’t really want to go down this road as we value our space and privacy but we have a small back room that we have used as a dining room in the past. This is now going to become the lodger’s sitting room, so no need for awkward negotiations over the tv remote 😊. I hope we can find somebody nice.

I also used to teach yoga to make a little extra but this proved a real bind after a busy working day so it is on hold for the moment. I will start a new class at some point I expect.

What do you do to help you create a nest egg?

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?

Things I wish I had been told when I was 17

The day after the referendum, when I was feeling disappointed and anxious about the future, I sent the following text to my three daughters:

I wish I had been told that whoever is in government you need to be as self sufficient as possible to protect yourselves. The way the world is moving this is really important. Look after your health as the NHS is buggered – don’t smoke, exercise, eat healthily. Get as qualified as you can to improve your job prospects. Live within your means and have savings. Buy a property when you can and aim to pay off the mortgage asap to look after yourself as you get older. I wish I had been told this…

Rather gloomy and maybe a bit dramatic but it is how I felt and what I still believe. Regrets are pointless. There are many things I could have done differently in my life  that would have put me in a much better financial position than I am in currently. On the other hand, what I have learned in recent years means I am in a far better place than I could have been!

I was interested to read Jenni Hill’s recent post about saving for a’f**k off fund’:  http://www.cantswingacat.co.uk/2016/01/25/fuck-off-fund-emergency-savings/

I sent that to my daughters as well. I save myself for regular expenses like holidays, birthdays, the MOT, etc but this  gets spent as it is needed. I also have a separate contingency fund but it’s not huge. I would struggle to save 6 months salary! My outgoings are pretty low and my income is never going to be great! However I am doing my best to increase this fund. 

I hope my daughters will start their ‘f**k off’ funds soon so that they hit their fifties owning their own houses outright with no debts and a healthy contingency. At least they won’t look back and say ‘I wish someone had told me’…

Would you eat food beyond its best before date? Check out Approved Food

I haven’t ordered much from Approved Food lately. There is too much temptation in the form of chocolate, crisps and cakes and I have been watching my weight! I had a quick look yesterday and they have some great prices though so I will do an order over the weekend. I focus on store cupboard staples and timesavers such as casserole mixes and curry sauces for when I’m in a rush, pasta and rice, condiments, tinned fruit and veg, etc. Today they have on offer Heinz ketchup for 89p instead of £1.75, Hellman’s mayonnaise for 59p instead of £1.69, 20 small Lindt chocolate bunnies for £2 and 2 500g bags of fusilli for £1. So cheap!! They will all go in my basket, even the Lindt bunnies, since it would be rude not to. They even have toilet rolls and gifts on there, although why they would have a best before date is beyond me!

approved foodI have always liked the principle behind Approved Food; they sell short dated food near or beyond their best before dates but still perfectly good to eat. If they didn’t sell these products  they might end up in the bin, which in my view is a criminal waste of perfectly good food. If you click through and sign up for an account using my link I get a small commission in the way of credits to spend with the company, so if you are interested please use it and I will be very appreciative! The delivery cost for a box is £5.99 so I always get as much as possible – this still allows for massive savings on my grocery bill.

Approved Food Link

The weather has finally remembered it is spring!.It is gorgeous and sunny here. Shame I have to go to work as I would love to potter around my garden. There is still so much to do at this time of year.  I will have to make do with a walk at lunchtime.

I have friends for dinner tomorrow so I  have to do all the preparation tonight. It will be a busy night. I am making three different curries – my chicken and chickpea one here: http://www.shoestringcottage.com/?p=2960, a lentil dahl and saag aloo, so this shouldn’t break the bank. Lots of pulses and vegetables. I hope you are having some nice weather wherever you are in the world. Enjoy your day!




Forget it! I am not being a domestic goddess this Christmas 

How are your Christmas preparations coming on?

I have got myself into a financial stew in the past, buying people presents I couldn’t afford on my credit card and feeling an underlying anxiety about the whole thing. Never again! I have scaled down my buying to small but thoughtful presents generally, and I have money saved to pay for them. I reuse all the decorations and I have had the same artificial tree for ten years. I am not throwing any extravagant parties, although I will be having a meal with my team at work. I will write a few cards for those I don’t see often and maybe for some of my work colleagues. I have a huge stash of these that I have purchased very cheaply over the years in the post Christmas sales so I may as well use them.

I am not stressing myself out this year making Christmas puddings, mince pies, brandy butter and cakes from scratch. I work full time and I am quite busy enough without forcing myself to be a domestic goddess as well. I have got a pudding and cake already from Aldi. I love baking but not when it becomes yet another thing on my already too long to do list. It is only me and Mr S for Christmas dinner anyway so no need for a fuss. I am thinking about buying ready made beef wellington from Iceland for a change. Anyone tried it?

We are all off to my sister’s to catch up with the family on Boxing Day so I will make something to take to share there. I don’t need a big Turkey as we won’t be around to eat up the leftovers. I have some time off so I am looking forward to having some family time. The student is leaving on 20th December so the house will be ours again – until the next one anyway!

Christmas is nice but it’s really only one day. I am hoping for some rest and relaxation and as little stress as possible. How about you?

Meal Planning for Budget Eating

For me, planning my week’s meals is an essential part of sticking to my food budget. I check my cupboards, fridge and freezer to see what I already have and what especially needs using up and this is my starting point. I look at the diary to see who will be home on which days, when I will be out or home late so that I know how much time I will have to prepare the meal. When I am feeling skint, I reduce the amount of meat that we eat and stick to a more basic menu. In the summer, when I have lots of produce from the veg patch, I plan our meals around what we have ready to harvest.

I don’t like waste so I frequently have lots of small bits of leftover food sitting in the freezer, so I incorporate these into my plan as well.

I only roughly plan lunches and breakfasts but make sure I have plenty of bread and cereal and don’t buy more if we have some to use up. I also make vast pots of soup!

Because I am a busy person though I do sometimes get stuck in a rut: macaroni cheese, spaghetti bolognese, chicken stew, chick pea curry….if I am not careful it can get a little dull. So tonight I have made a list of different recipes. I have been through my ancient copy of Delia Smith’s Frugal Food and A Girl Called Jack’s first book, plus the internet, and come up with the following list that I will be working through:

Macaroni au gratin
Spaghetti with meatballs
Spaghetti with tuna and olives
Cheese and mushroom quiche
Leek, carrot and potato pie
Pancakes with spinach and cheese
Lentil and vegetable curry with rice
Spanish tortilla
Potato and cheese baked eggs
mushroom and spinach pasta
Smoky red lentil burgers in pittas
Brie and bacon risotto
Sort of paella
Ratatouille and rice
Ham, mushroom and cheese crepes
Vegetable masala curry
Creamy mustard chicken
Macaroni cheese with leeks and bacon

Most of these will be acceptable to the hungry hoards and help me stick to my budget, although Mr S will moan if he doesn’t see enough meat!

So how much does it cost to boil your kettle?

Thanks to my new plug in electricity monitor, I know that it costs me 3p to boil half a kettle. It also costs me 22p to run the dishwasher and 18p to run the washing machine. They are both energy efficient and fairly new, but this did surprise me. I thought they would be more expensive to operate.

The dehumidifier costs 10p an hour…if I run it for 4  hours a day that’s not too horrendous. only £2.80 a week. The electric plug in heater is 8p an hour, which again wouldn’t be too terrible but at this time of the year it is on for 12 hours a day so it soons adds up – that adds another almost £27 to the monthly bill. This has focussed our attention. DD1 used to leave it on all night and all day but now it is on a timer so it doesn’t matter if she forgets to turn it off.

Good Energy logo

The Worst Utility Company on the Planet, First Utility, continue to bug me even though I offically stopped being their customer on 24th November. Today they sent me a final bill charging me for the whole of December! I am no longer being polite. I emailed them to say they had already won the award for the most incompetent company ever so they could stop trying now!! I did get a swift response (which is unusual in itself) apologising and promising to send a new, revised final bill which, with any luck, will mean that they owe me money. Honestly! How do they stay in business??

My nice new shiny and helpful energy company, Good Energy, have promised to come and check the meter to make sure it isn’t faulty and have offered to help my monitor my energy usage as well.  I chose them not because they were the cheapest but because they were rated top for customer service. They also produce 100% of their electricity from renewable sources, so they are good for the environment too. So far so Good Energy :).

Does anyone else monitor their electricity use this closely? How do you keep your bills down?

Treading the hard path to a financial education

Many thanks for all the comments yesterday. It appears I am not alone in believing all children should be taught basic life skills such as cooking and sewing, with other sensible suggestions given such as finance and budgeting. I completely agree. I wish I had had lessons on basics like bank accounts and saving, how to budget, interest rates and the like. I bought my first house in a blissful cloud of ignorance about how this all worked and was lucky it didn’t all go pear shaped!

imageLearning about personal finance is a bit dull, frankly. I only know what I know now out of necessity. I made so many mistakes on the way. Still, regrets are pointless – going forward I will make fewer financial mistakes, and I will do my best to educate my daughters so that they go out into a harsher world with a bit more savvy.

Eyes down now in preparation for my new student on Sunday. This one is a full grown adult. Normally we have teenagers. Still, at least I won’t have to worry about him coming back late from the pub! I will keep the food bill as low as I can this week because next week will inevitably be more expensive. When we have the students I tend to cook more meat, buy and make desserts, etc. I am earning money from them after all and want them to enjoy their meals. I have given the room a deep clean in preparation. I enjoy this – I see it as paid work, which is what it is. I am looking forward to his arrival.

Last night was the first night I felt really cold in bed. I ended up with a duvet, two blankets, fleece pyjamas and a cardigan! I think tonight will be the same but I refuse to have the heating on at night. It’s expensive enough the rest of the time!! Still, we have yet to have the snow that some parts of the country have had and for that I am thankful.

How’s the weather where you are?

President of the Aldi fan club!

I love doing my food shop at Aldi. I can see why the discounters have got the big supermarkets running scared. I have shopped at my local one since it opened 4 years ago. To begin with it was very quiet; the car park was empty. People took a while to catch on. Then the recession hit and folk started to actively look at ways to save money. Now the car park is usually full, and I try to avoid going at the weekend as you can’t even get in unless you are there on the dot of 8 am.

I have heard all kinds of comments about Aldi that really quite annoy me. A Facebook friend suggested that only chavs and the great unwashed shopped there, but went a bit quiet when I told him that I rarely noticed this when I went in to do my weekly shop. I have since seen him in there!! A colleague’s wife said she wouldn’t be see dead in there in case people thought she was short of money. In my experience it is frequented by all sections of society and I have often seen brand new BMWs and Jaguars parked next to the old bangers like mine. Most sensible people enjoy a bargain!

For those who are on a low income, and for people who need to budget like myself, shops like Aldi, Lidl and now Kwiksave are an absolute Godsend. Yes, you have to change the way you shop and they may not sell absolutely everything you want. I have to go elsewhere for the Lactofree products I use and my gluten free flour. However, I find now that I plan my meals around what I know is likely to be in stock. I really enjoy the smallness of the stores and that I can get round and stick to my list in a very short time span without being distracted by clothes and household goods that I can’t afford and aren’t on my shopping list. I still manage to find some nice treats for us all – the chocolate and alcohol is excellent! The quality generally is brilliant; you just don’t have such a huge choice.

If you haven’t tried doing your main shop at a discount supermarket, then I urge you to do so. I estimate that I save around £30 a week by doing so. Not to be sniffed at! If you aren’t fortunate enough to have one locally then try the Value and Basics brands. If you read her blog you will see that a Girl called Jack practically lived on Sainsbury’s Basics and it doesn’t seem to have done her any harm….



Out with the old and in with the new! Shoestring Cottage resolutions for 2015

I love the new year! So much scope for new beginnings and renewed hope to make the changes in our lives that we need to, whether to improve our health, our relationships, our work situation or our finances. We can do this at any point during the year of course, but the New Year provides a point of focus and is a turning point for many people.

colchester castle I plan to carry on as I have been during 2014, but to really focus my attention on putting money away. I have some household projects that I would like to do, and I want to do more exercise and lose a bit of weight. I would love to take a holiday too – I know that some money savers would think this an unnecessary extravagance but for us it is really important. We love to travel and get away, but we do it as cheaply as possible.

 My top resolutions then:

Pay off credit card by April 2015. I don’t owe that much, but seem to have a small residue I can never quite get rid of!

Install the wood-burner. Mr S will do most of this, but we might need to get the chimney lined.

Save for a holiday.

Put away money for birthdays and Christmas.

Stick to a budget of £90 a week for food, including my Lactofree dairy products, cat food and cleaning stuff. This is going to be a challenge!!

Get quotes for some electrical work in the house and sort out a small loan through my bank. The lights in my daughter’s room and some of the power sockets in other rooms were all condemned over a year ago. I was quoted £1200 to get it sorted and just couldn’t afford to do anything about it at the time.  We have been managing with plug in lamps and lots of extension leads, but it’s not ideal. Now that I am better organised financially I will get some more quotes and bite the bullet to get this resolved this year, even if this does mean taking out a personal loan. I will do this as soon as the credit card is paid off.

Repaint the kitchen. I will also source bargain and second-hand accessories and a blind as and when I can.

Refurbish a lovely old dresser I have to go in the kitchen – this was in my parents’ house when I was a child. It is a small one and will be perfect but it needs repainting.

Do more exercise! I will stick with walking and yoga – both free.

Put money aside for the car tax and a contingency fund.

Give up alcohol and chocolate for the whole of January – my biggest challenge!!!!

To clean out one cupboard a week, starting with the kitchen cupboards. I am on a decluttering crusade!

colch castle We had a walk into town and around Colchester Castle to start off no 9, to get more exercise. It was windy and rather grey, but it blew away the cobwebs. It was nice to look round a few shops that were open without hoards of people.

 That’s it! I have publicly declared them so I now need to stick to them. What are your New Year’s resolutions?

Dreams of a camper van …

I very rarely go into town but yesterday I had to go and get my passport photos done.  I am hoping to go somewhere next year, no idea where yet and it will need to be cheap – maybe camping in France – but I don’t want a last minute scrabble to renew my passport.

imageI had a quick look around the shops and charity shops but didn’t find much. Then I went into New Look and found some short boots reduced from £35 to £17. I needed some new ones as my others, inherited from DD3, have developed a hole and are looking a bit the worse for wear. Bargain! I am very happy with them and they are pretty comfortable too.

I spent an hour yesterday looking through my pension paperwork. I have 4 different pots, all public sector pensions. We are thinking about releasing 25% when I am 55 to pay off the mortgage and buy a little camper van. This has been my dream for as long as I can remember. I will still have a decent pension pot but this will help us now. It’s only 3 years away!!

This will do ...

This will do …

I just want to travel; it’s what I enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to be abroad as there are lots of places in the uk we want to explore. So that’s the dream. Wouldn’t it be great to make it a reality!

Adapting recipes and using what you have

My daughter is at uni. She had a job to supplement her loan for the past year, but has found it too much so she has given it up and is attempting to survive in London on her loan. I hope she can do this, and that she has learned enough from her frugal mummy to do it. But in case she needs some tips, this post is for her :-).

The blacker the better!

The blacker the better!

I made a banana loaf this morning with some very black bananas that no one was going to eat. I used the Delia recipe as my starting point, but as I didn’t have any walnuts or oranges I substituted brazil nuts and dried cranberries. It was really delicious!

The frugal cook needs to be able to do this: either adapt recipes or make meals up to suit your ingredients. If you don’t have an expensive ingredient like sundried tomatoes try fresh or tinned with some tomato purée. If you don’t have shallots, use ordinary onions. If you don’t have dried porcini mushrooms, the usual fresh sort will work ok.

store cupboard 1Make sure you have plenty of store cupboard staples. Flour and baking powder, tinned tomatoes, tomato purée, tinned or dried pulses, pasta, rice and noodles spring to mind. Casserole sauces bought cheaply from places like Approved Food and Home Bargains are good for days when you can’t be bothered or don’t have time to cook from scratch. Tinned and frozen veg is handy to have. Canned tuna or sardines can make a good quick meal.

Staples from Aldi

Staples from Aldi

Eggs and cheese are good to have in the fridge, and a pack of bacon can add flavour and interest to all manner of dinners.

What to do if you think there is no food in the house? Have a good look in the store cupboards ; I bet there is a ton of food in there. You may not be able to make a meat and two veg type of meal, but how about a lentil shepherds pie or veggie curry for a change? If you can make a tomato sauce from onions and tomatoes, you can build it into a veggie casserole with courgettes , carrots, lentils, etc and make some dumplings to go with it. Or use it to make a pasta sauce with garlic and peppers, or a bolognese with some mince meat. Add and taste as you go along. Mess about with curry powder, cumin and chilli to add a bit of spice to what you have. Eggs can make an omelette, a quiche, or you can crack them over your tomato and pepper sauce and bake them the oven. How about curried eggs? If you have flour you can make pastry. What do you have that will go in a pie?

If you have cheese, onions and potatoes you have a veggie classic: cheese and potato pie with no pastry needed. Mash the spuds and mix in sautéed onions , plenty of cheese and some seasoning. Yummy with baked beans !

Use up all the bits of veg in a stir fry with noodles or rice. Make all kinds of fillings for a jacket potato with whatever you can find.

Use recipes as inspiration and as a guide for quantities rather than feeling you need to slavishly follow them.

And if you really can’t be bothered to cook, there is nothing wrong with the odd ‘something on toast’.

Just try not to give in to too many wild nights at the uni bar with the Chinese takeaway or kebab on the way home 🙂

Doing More with Less

Doing more with less; anyone who works for the public sector or even a struggling commercial company will probably hear this phrase often. We need to save money so will employ fewer people to do the same amount of work. To do this we will be super efficient and manage our resources better. Sometimes tough decisions will need to be made and we may not be able to offer all of the services that we used toimage.

I was thinking that I already apply some of this  philosophy to my own household. No , I’m not about to make any redundancies! However, we do need to do more with less.

Ways to do this might include:

Using one tea bag to make two mugs of tea
Driving more slowly to use less petrol
Keeping heating costs down by lowering the thermostat and wearing another layer
Drying the laundry on an airer instead of the tumble dryer
Reusing wrapping paper and envelopes
Washing and reusing tin foil
Cutting dishwasher tablets in half
Eating smaller portions (many of us eat too much!)
Not wasting food – use up your leftovers or freeze them for later
Opening a beer at home rather than going to the pub
Correctly measuring the laundry liquid/powder
Measuring rice and pasta portions so you don’t cook too much
Using up all the make up and toiletries you have already bought before buying more
Giving up shopping for fun
Cutting down on smoking or changing to roll ups
Eating less meat and more pulses
Taking showers instead of baths
Drink water instead of juice
Order books from the library or buy secondhand
Set a maximum budget for gifts
Reconsider the people you buy gifts for: do you need to buy something for all adults for Christmas and birthdays or could you focus just on children?
Growing your hair or having it cut by a junior
Buying used furniture and clothes
Packing your own lunch and flask for work or days out
Buying non perishables from Approved Food
Walking/cycling more and driving less
Shopping in Aldi/Lidl or making more use of basics ranges

There are so many ways to be more efficient and streamlined – these are things I already do off the top of my head but I am sure there are lots more. What are your top tips for doing more with less?


A day of small frugal steps

My daughter asked when I was planning to go shopping this week – I usually go on Friday, but this week we seem to have a lot of food and, now that I have sorted the store cupboard, we have plenty to keep us going. I only intend to buy a few bits such as milk, bread, cat food and maybe some chicken. She constantly complains that there is no food in the house. What she means is that there isn’t loads of rubbish that she can eat with no effort. I try to guide my daughters towards sensible eating, but it is a struggle sometimes! So I need to make sure there is some easy food that keeps us withing budget.

roasted tomatoesI began my day by putting 2 and a half kilograms of tomatoes on to roast with some olive oil and garlic. Whilst they were cooking I made porridge for everyone and touched up my roots – I don’t like to admit to going grey just yet. My hair costs hardly anything to do. I could spend £50 at the hairdressers having it coloured, but instead I mix up half a box of dye and brush it on myself. Yesterday in Boots they had my usual colour at 3 boxes for the price of two – so £12 for 3. These will last me at least 8 months. I intend to call the local college this week to book myself and DD3 in for a cut and blow dry each. This will cost about £8 each.

Tomato soupHair sorted and myself showered and dressed, I used the tomatoes to make a big pot of tomato and barley soup (determined to use up those store cupboard supplies!) and a smaller pot of roasted tomato sauce for the freezer. So that was lunch sorted for the next few days! As I grew the tomatoes, the cost was minimal.

I gave the house a thorough clean, including the student’s room. I don’t have one due until next month, but it will be one job less to do when she comes. This is an important source of income for me, so I have completed a form for a different agency today as well. They find placements on a slightly longer term basis. I think it is unlikely I will get any more students until the Spring with the agency I use currently.

I then made some courgette fritters for our tea, using up some from the garden – we had them with sausages, but I would be happy to have them as they are. I used some of the tomato sauce I made this morning with them.

I have spent the past hour checking my bank statement to see how the budget is going and to make sure there is nothing amiss. I have also changed energy supplier – hopefully now that First Utility have resolved our argument this will go through OK. I decided on Good Energy.  They aren’t the cheapest, but they come highest for customer satisfaction and use 100% renewable energy. After my nightmare with First Utility, getting a decent service is my top priority.

I have taken some plums out of the freezer and tomorrow I will make a plum crumble using the super cheap crumble mix I bought from Approved Foods. This should stop the troops moaning and keep them happy!! If I get time I will make a victoria sponge for the week as well.

I have also washed and hung two lots of laundry. One lot dried outside, but it clouded over and I thought it might rain, so the other is drying inside on the clothes horse. No tumble drying for me – far too expensive!!

So, a day of lots of small frugal steps. This is why I love weekends and I can potter and get a bit of control. What have you managed to do to save money today?

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?