Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Exercise is good, FREE exercise is better! Post 2 of 2!

Yesterday I posted about hiking, cycling and dancing as free ways to exercise. Here are another three I enjoy!

I would only recommend this to a confident swimmer, but have you ever considered skipping the pool and heading for the nearest beach/lake/river? Never disregard safety signs and only swim at a lifeguarded beach. For rivers, check that it is safe to swim before you jump in. (NEVER SWIM IN THE THAMES – Bleurgh!)

Swimming burns around 400-600 calories an hour.

Three important things to consider:
  1. Is the water safe? Water is a lot cleaner than it used to be in the UK, but make sure you check out your local river quality using the Environment Agency's map. Grade A is perfect, grades B and C pose a low risk to health if swum in, grades D, E and F should not be swum in. If the water looks scummy or full of algae, do not swim. Some rivers have strong currents, so follow any signs preventing swimming. For beaches, check the information provided to see whether it is safe to swim.
  2. Don't swim on a beach when the tide is going out, or if you do not understand how to escape a rip current.
  3. The water will be COLD at this time of year. Wait until summer for nicer conditions!
If you do swim at a beach, remember that the water is salt water and that you should wash your swimming gear as soon as you get home to prevent it rotting.

Think gardening is relaxing? Think again! An hour's worth of digging over your vegetable patch can burn 350+ calories an hour, and even raking or mowing the lawn can burn over 300 calories in an hour. Spend a warm spring day sprucing up your garden!

Another favourite of mine in the summer is bodyboarding. I LOVE IT! I'd go every day if I got the chance. You can do it without a wetsuit, but a cheap one will keep you warm – mine was £20 from Tesco and you could get one a lot cheaper than that! The board itself will cost £5-10, but you can use it forever! :) Very cheap boards are made of fabric-covered polystyrene. These might work for little kids but they are pants for adults. Get yourself a foam board!

Swim out to where the waves are breaking, then jump onto the board on your belly just in front of a wave about to break and paddle like mad! If you catch the wave, you'll shoot forward riding the white water. It's fantastic, and you can do it for hours without getting bored.

Safety tips: Only bodyboard when the tide is coming in, and bodyboard at a lifeguarded beach between the yellow-and-red flags. (Black-and-white flags are for proper surfers with boards that could easily knock you out if you get hit in the head - not a good idea in the sea!) 

You'll think you're not really exercising, but you can burn 200-300 calories an hour without even trying!

Got any tips? 
What's your favourite free or nearly free exercise? :) I hate jogging, but I'm open to anything else!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Exercise is good, FREE exercise is better! Post 1 of 2!

The original post was a bit long, so I've split it in two. See tomorrow for post 2!

I made a New Year's resolution to lose weight and get healthier (I know, horribly cliché and yawn-city!). In true New Year's Resolution style, by mid-January I had somewhat fallen off the wagon, but lately I've been turning it back around!

Exercise is a major factor in the fight to de-chub and build muscles. No matter how much lettuce you eat, if you don't do any exercise you won't be fit, just skinny. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to lose weight for less! :)

I LOVE hiking! I love to explore nature, see some of the most beautiful places in Cornwall, and get fit at the same time. Hiking burns around 250-400 calories an hour, depending on how heavy you are. If the terrain is difficult or you are carrying a heavy load, it may be even more.

If you have never hiked before, you may believe you'll need some expensive kit. Hiking boots can be expensive, maps, rucksacks and a lifetime's supple of trail mix can add up, right? If you're a beginner, just do some easy walks in trainers. That way you'll see if hiking is something you'd enjoy.

If you decide you want to get some proper boots you have two cheap options; 1) Possibly not for everyone, but often people give away new or nearly new hiking boots on Freecycle. The Boyfriend got me some free boots from his workplace, which someone had worn once and forgotten about when they left! 2) Lidl often sell good-quality hiking boots for around £15 in the spring. Keep your eyes open in the next month or two, because my Mum absolutely loves her pair!

Many websites give free walks to do in your local area. See Walking Routes for links to your local area, or Walking Britain for walks in your nearest National Park.

Many people have a bicycle sitting in their garage/shed. If you're not one of them, chances are you could procure one very cheaply by looking in your local paper, or even for free on Freecycle. Once you have a bike, you have a free mode of transport that can get you places at 10-15 miles an hour, or over 20mph if you are willing to arrive very sweaty!

A slow cycle will burn around 400 calories for a 150lb person. It will be significantly higher if you are heavier or cycle faster! Another plus is that you could cycle to and from somewhere you need to go, saving fuel!

I really enjoy Zumba, a cross between salsa dancing and aerobics. I used to pay £3 a class at University, but in Cornwall the cheapest I've found is £5 for an hour. Not bad, but free is better! If you have a bit of free space at home, just look on Youtube for some videos showing you the basic steps. Once you have the basic moves, you can make up your own routine to your favourite songs. It doesn't have to look amazing, no-one's going to see you. Just get wiggling!

Do you have any favourite free ways to exercise? 
Come back tomorrow for three more free ways to get fit! :)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Five Easy Car Maintenance Steps That Will Save You Money

Once again, Jools the golden Peugeot is trying to either kill me or bankrupt me! A simple Google of his symptoms led me to discover he was leaking brake fluid, so it was off to the garage AGAIN! It only cost £64 to repair, but since I've just used the last of my car fund to buy road tax, it came out of my dwindling emergency fund!

Cars are expensive! Fortunately there are a lot of checks that we can make to ensure the safety and longevity of our cars. Here is a checklist of basic car maintenance, simple enough that even I can do it! (In fact, I hereby challenge myself to complete this checklist this weekend!)

PLEASE remember to check the manual for your car before doing any of this maintenance to ensure you are using the correct materials and methods. I'M A BIOLOGIST, NOT A MECHANIC!

1. Checking Your Tyres
There are two easy checks you can do on tyres. Firstly, check they are properly inflated. This website gives you a good guide to what the proper pressure is for your vehicle, but if you have specialist tyres then you should check the manufacturer's instructions. If your tyres are too inflated, you run the risk that they will burst. If they are not inflated enough, your car will use more fuel and will be harder to steer. If the pressure gets really low you risk damaging your wheels.

Secondly, check the tread. Your car will fail its MOT if the tread is less than 1.6mm deep. It will not grip the road as well and might not stop when you want it to! An excellent tip for checking tyre tread depth, which I saw on Channel 4's Superscrimpers, is to slot a 20p piece into the tread. If the border of the coin is visible above the tread, the tyre needs replacing. Check this before you send your car for an MOT to avoid failing and having to re-test!

2. Checking and Topping Up Engine Oil
When your car is completely cool (several hours after driving) and parked on flat ground, open your bonnet and pull out your oil dipstick. It usually has a loop at the top to hook it out of the engine. Wipe off the excess oil from the end, reinsert it into the slot it came out of then pull it back out. The oil level should be between the minimum and maximum marks, usually denoted by a hatched region on the metal.

If your oil level is too low, find the picture of an oil canister (see this image). Remove this cover and you can pour oil in to top it up. You must check what kind of oil is required for your car, because different cars require different oils. You can find this information online or in your car's handbook. Check your oil level again afterwards to make sure it is now correct.

3. Radiator/Engine Coolant
Caution: do NOT do this when your car is hot, because the steam will scald you.

If your car is water-cooled (most cars are), then you will have a radiator filled with engine coolant. It is an essentially sealed system, with the coolant absorbing the heat from the engine then returning to the radiator to disperse the heat out of the car. However, the level will run down over time. You do NOT want to be driving your car with no engine coolant – it will overheat and could receive irreparable damage.

The cap for the radiator is usually marked as “ENGINE COOLANT”, so it's not hard to find the right tank and have a look. If it needs topping up, you'll need a 50/50 solution of water and antifreeze, which will either be ethylene glycol or propylene glycol. Check which one you need in your manual.

4. Cleaning and Changing Windscreen Wipers
As the video below shows, you can clean your windscreen wipers using alcohol to condition the rubber and extend the lifetime of the blade. If the rubber is cracked and the blades need replacing, the video shows you how to do it yourself easily. Don't pay a garage through the nose to do this simple job for you!

5. Keep Your Car Clean
If you live near the sea, the salt in the air will cause your car to rust prematurely and slowly fall to bits. My main problem is that there are dairy farms at either end of my lane. This means there's always a lot of mud (and worse!) on the road, splattering the underneath of the car and up the sides of the body! This promotes rust too.

It can be really disheartening to clean because you know it's just going to get muddy again the next time you use it, but I need to start keeping Jools cleaner to stop him rusting!

Over to you
Do you have any simple checks or maintenance tasks you perform to save you from costly garage fees? Also, does anyone use that premium fuel? How does it compare to regular?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Your UK Tax Code: Myths and Realities

Have you ever wondered why you pay the tax you do? Maybe you think you're on the wrong tax code? I hear so many people throwing incorrect “facts” around about income tax! This post is to discuss the facts, and importantly the myths, of your UK income tax! (Information most useful to PAYE employees, rather than self-employed self-assessment tax)

Standard tax code
Employers have to deduct a specific amount of tax from each pay cheque and send it to the government for use in their schemes. If you are the employee of a company, the most likely tax code you have is 747L (due to change to 810L in April). 747L means that you are entitled to £7475 a year before having to pay any tax (the tax year is 6th April - 5th April). This is known as your personal allowance

If you are aged 65-74, you are entitled to a larger personal allowance of £9,940 (your tax code will end in a P), although if you receive more than just £24,000 you will have to pay tax on all of your income. If you are 75 or over, your personal allowance is raised to £10,090 (tax code ends in a Y).

Rather than waiting until you've earned £7475 then taxing you heavily, HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) divide the allowance between each pay cheque. If you are paid every week, your weekly allowance would be £7475 / 52 = £143.75. If you are paid monthly, it would be £7475 / 12 = £622.92.

Incomes up to £35,000
If you earn less than £35,000 a year, you will be charged 20% on anything above the allowance. For example if you earned £243.75 one week, that would be £100 over the £143.75 personal allowance, so you would pay £20 (20% of £100) in tax that week.

If you earn £120 one week, but £200 the next week, you would not be charged any tax on the first week but would pay tax the second week.

High earners (£35,001 to £150,000)
If you earn between £35,001 and £150,000, you will pay 40% of whatever you earn over your personal allowance. If you earn more than £100,000 a year, you are not eligible for the personal allowance and will pay tax on all your earnings.

Extremely high earners (£150,000+)
If you earn more than £150,000, you do not have any personal allowance and will pay 50% of whatever you earn as income tax.

MYTH: You pay so much tax on a second job that it's not worth doing!
If you have a second job, your tax code will be BR (Basic Rate) and you will pay 20% tax on all your earnings (unless you're earning more than £35,000 in your second job). This is because your personal allowance is all allocated to your first job and it is assumed that you will reach the £7475 income threshold.

You are paying exactly the same amount of tax as you pay on whatever you earn over your personal allowance at your first job, so your time is worth the same wherever you put in the extra hours!

If you are paid more at your second job, you should get in contact with your local tax office, who will be able to switch the allowance over to the higher paying job. This means you will not be paying as much tax overall.

If you do not receive more than £7475 for either job, you can ask the tax office to split the personal allowance between the two jobs, so that you receive some tax-free income from both employers.

MYTH: Students don't pay tax
The most common misconception I hear about tax is that students (either full-time or part-time) don't pay tax. RUBBISH! Students have the same tax code as anyone else, but because they often only work a couple of days a week, they generally do not earn enough to reach the £7475 personal allowance boundary.

A common problem for some students is actually paying too much tax! This can occur when you work full-time in the holidays, but don't work during term time. You are charged 20% tax on whatever you earn over the personal allowance each pay cheque (£143.75 a week, £622.91 a month), but you don't earn the full £7475 a year. This means that you are owed tax back at the start of the next tax year (6th April). 

Claiming tax back
If you started a new job after the 6th April, or you have been on the wrong tax code for part of the year, there is a good chance that you have paid too much tax and are owed a refund by the government. Don't wait for HMRC to come to you, cheque in hand. They are supposed to, but I waited two years before taking matters into my own hands!

You can check how much tax you are owed by using the form (P60) you are given at the end of a tax year. This sheet shows you how much you earned and how much tax you paid. You can use the online tax-checker provided by HMRC to calculate whether you are entitled to a refund.

If you find you are owed money, you should ring HMRC on the number provided on your pay slip, or call 0845 300 0627 (8.00 am to 8.00 pm, Monday to Friday, 8.00 am to 4.00 pm Saturday).

Please note: You can only claim tax back for the past six years. If you discover you are owed tax, claim it back ASAP!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Things You Will Never Need to Buy

There are some things that just sit in your house gathering dust and taking up space. If you've got good neighbours/relatives/friends, stop buying these once-a-month/year/decade items and borrow when needed!

Suitcases – One third of my wardrobe is taken up by a suitcase, which in turn contains holdalls and a hiking rucksack! The person you borrow it off will be glad to get theirs out of the way for a week!
Lawnmowers – Save yourself some shed space and borrow next door's mower when your lawn starts looking like a jungle.
Books and DVDs – You can borrow books and films from the library or friends. I don't know about you, but my bookshelf is stuffed to the brim already! No more room for new purchases!
DIY stuff – No-one needs instant access to a cordless drill or wallpapering table. Borrow as required. (The Boyfriend is already accumulating a lot of random power tools. I would like to put a stop to this before we live together!)
Canning or preserve making stuff – A lot of people have this equipment burrowed away in the back of a cupboard. Ask around and someone will probably be happy to get some use out of their stuff!
Gardening tools Many a part-time gardener is not going to need their fork and spade all day every weekend. Ask them when they'll be doing their work, then borrow their stuff in the down time.

Top tips for borrowing
  • LOOK AFTER IT! You'll remain friends and be more likely to receive a favour again in the future.
  • Never borrow anything that you can't afford to replace if you do break it.
  • Borrow it for a set period of time. (“I'll get it back to you by Friday”) Even if you haven't finished with it, ring/visit your friend and ask if you can continue using it.
  • Don't forget to give it back! The whole point is to reduce clutter, so you don't want someone else's kayak taking up room in your garage!

One more tip, for future students; if you're going into a Halls of Residence, DON'T TAKE SAUCEPANS OR KITCHEN UTENSILS. Everyone buys a new set for their first time living away from home, which means you end up with six sets of everything!

Anyone got any more suggestions? Do you borrow anything expensive from relatives?

Friday, 17 February 2012

An Explanation

If you read yesterday's post about how much your time should be worth, you may have thought I don't do anything but avoid spending money. I sort of went off-topic, but let me explain why.

The value of money has been on my mind for a while now. In January, the Chinese restaurant I work at shut for a month for Chinese new year, so I decided to ask for more shifts at my other job to reduce the impact of losing half my wage!

Even with the extra hours, I went from ~55 hours a week to ~35, which is a loss of about £100 a week after tax. This is a lot of money for me. Whilst I'm only down in Cornwall for another seven months or so, it would mean another £2800 before I go back to Uni. Yet still I couldn't shake the feeling that life was better working less and living more. Instead of working 5:00 -14:00 then 17:00 - 22:00, I could spend the afternoon and evening doing what I wanted, not using every spare second of the day preparing for the next shift and trying to catch up on missed sleep.

Before Christmas I was constantly exhausted, family and friends never saw me, I rarely even had a day off. I felt like I was missing out on life, something I definitely didn't want during my last year in Cornwall for probably a decade or more (there are no research jobs in my field of interest here).

So as you can imagine, I phoned the Chinese restaurant a few weeks ago and let them know I wouldn't be coming back. It's been a relief, but now that I'm down to one minimum wage job I have less “spare” money. I have to cut back in some areas in order to stay out of debt and keep Jools the golden Peugeot on the road, as well as saving a little to do things I most enjoy.

I have set myself the challenge to bring in a little additional money each month. I say yes to overtime, last month I had a load of Christmas tips on the last day of work at the Chinese, this month I've sold a couple of textbooks on Amazon. (Selling on Amazon is brilliantly easy except that you can't change the postage price, and £2.80 doesn't really cover the cost to send a 5kg textbook by Royal Mail!) I'm also pondering making and selling some things now that I have more free time.

So in answer to my own question yesterday, my time is worth more than £100 a week to me if it means that I have some free time along the way to enjoy life!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

What is Your Time Really Worth?

Working in a restaurant, I am continually faced with people brandishing huge amounts of money. First, I wonder why on Earth they carry so much on them in cash! Secondly, I wonder how long it took them to earn it.

When I think about the amount of effort I put in each hour at work, it's so incredibly disproportionate to the £6.08 of minimum wage I receive in return. It's a bit of a sore topic actually! I mean what's the cut off point? Would we be happy working for £3 an hour? What about the outrageous £2.60 an hour for an apprentice?

I normally start work very early. A typical shift for me is 5am - 2pm. When this was first suggested to me, I was shocked! I was a typical student – get up late and go to bed VERY late! Now I'm used to the shift pattern I actually much prefer it. I have most of the day left to get stuff done! Another type of shift pattern at work is 11am-7pm. I've worked this a few times, but I find the pay even less of a compensation than normal, simply because you're wasting an entire day at work, not just a morning!

The customers at work are happy blowing £5 on a meal, so how long did it take them to earn it? It's dangerous to my budget, because I start following the consumerist ideas of “I deserve it” and begin spending more erratically again! I find myself wanting meals out, cinema trips, nights on the town, just because I've “earned it”! I need to remember what I'm earning is financial stability for my future!

My time is worth a lot more to me than £6.08 an hour. Unfortunately this year, that's just the way it's gotta be!

What about you? How much do you think you're worth? ;)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

St. Valentine's Day Plans

With less than a week 'til V-day, I've already been asked many times what The Boyfriend and I will be doing to celebrate. This was also mentioned by the man himself, who went “OH CRAP, it's Valentine's Day soon... What shall we do?!” Whilst it's fun to make him sweat a little, I really don't want to do anything on the 14th! 

Frugal Dad recently wrote a post about the money spent on Valentine's day in the US, which was an astonishing $15.7 billion annually! He did also point out that giving gifts to those you love isn't necessarily a bad thing, and can even have health benefits! I just don't like the idea of people frantically running round the shops to buy more Stuff.

There have been a few craft-based Valentine's posts recently too, including Heavenly Handmades' gorgeous muslin heart wreath and Debt Free By Thirty's valentine faux bois. (DEFINITELY didn't have to Google the phrase “faux bois” either... “Faux Bois (from the French for false wood) refers to the artistic imitation of wood or wood grains in various media”...).

Whilst these are very pretty, I don't really want to decorate for Valentine's day. I don't want to go out for dinner either, because it's a) expensive and b) too crowded! Hopefully we'll just dig out a seldom-watched DVD and a bottle of wine left over from Christmas.

What are your plans, if any? Are you staying frugal or pulling out all the stops?

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Missing in Action

Hello bloggy world. I've been missing in action of late, but I've caught up on all your lovely posts! I'll have some more posts going up soon, but for now here's a brief update:

I've been travelling round the country! Sounds very fancy and extravagant, but actually I've been visiting Universities that I have applied to do a PhD with. As I mentioned before, it can be pretty pricey to get the train from the deep reaches of Cornwall over the border and up into “the North” (Devon and beyond!) I've spent about £150 so far, but it's been worth it to meet people I would potentially be working with, have interviews, make contacts, have a nose at various people's research. That kind of thing. I've come away with some very positive feedback and I'm quite confident that all will fall into place for me to return to Uni this year. :) SO EXCITING!

I've had the last of my travellings for a couple of weeks at least, so it's back to the grind! Actually, I've been working pretty much all the days I've not been travelling and used holiday pay for the days I was away, so luckily I've not lost any hours/wages!

I haaate interviews! Even when I know my stuff I always think I sound daft! Anyone have any advice? I go bright red too! :D

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Budget: Percentages of income

Have you sat and thought about how much of your wages you spend on different things?

I'm sure most people interested in reducing debt and living frugally have a budget. What I was wondering is what percentage of your pay do you allocate to various things?

There are many different alternatives and of course what works well for some people might not work well for others. In my opinion it also depends how much income you bring home to start with; for example, a third of your wages for rent/mortgage payments might sound reasonable, but the average rent in Cornwall (£699 per month) is around 50% of the average take home pay (£1385 net per month).

Last month I spent:
19% on housing (set rate)
12% on bills (set rate)
10% on basic living costs like fuel and some food (fairly set)
15% on wants like entertainment and non-vital purchases (have been spending more than my target lately :-/)
and 44% was savings, both for an emergency fund and for annual expenses like car maintenance.

I am living with my parents for a year after graduating university. It's not glamorous, but it is allowing me to spend that third of my wages on both rent AND bills combined. I'm sure this report would look a lot different this time next year, when I will hopefully be back at Uni!

Have you taken a look at how well you matched your budget with your spending? I have been monitoring my spending for the past month. It has really helped me to see what I'm doing well and what I need to cut back on. Top priority: use some free entertainment ideas this month!!