Sunday, 29 April 2012

How to Make a Sewing Machine Cover from a Pillow Case: Very Easy and Frugal!

Covered in the plastic bag it came in, my sewing machine watched me with envious eyes as I stitched up a hole in my trousers by hand. I felt guilty for not paying it more attention, although I have a lot of sewing to do soon, so I decided to make it a lovely dust cover. The plastic bag did stop dust, of course, but it looked untidy and not nearly pretty enough!

This is a VERY basic tutorial, so any sewing people out there will probably be able to see what I did just from the photos!

A little while ago I got two second-hand pillow cases in a clothing warehouse for 50p. I used one of these to turn into my cover. I decided not to make a perfectly fitted one because of the jutting out knobs on the front, so measuring was quite easy. Cut along one of the long edges of the case then open it out and lay it over your sewing machine. If it fits with a few inches to spare for hems, then it's good to go!

As it turns out, my pillow case was too big for my little machine. I turned it inside out and cut off the turnover on the original opening of the case (see photo), but kept it to use for pockets later on.

Next I cut the case down to size. You could be all precise and measure very accurately, but my approach was to make a slightly looser fit so that I could keep the plastic bag on the machine under the cover to protect against water/damp. All you do is hold or pin the pillow case closed around the sewing machine and cut off any excess. Make sure to leave an inch for hemming.

Now that you have the right size, turn the pillow case inside out and stitch together the shorter open side (where you cut the turnover off earlier). Leave the long side open!

You now need to hem the bottom of the cover, which is the long open edge. Fold it over about half an inch so that the cut edge of the material is on the wrong side of the cover (inside it). Now hem the edge, sewing a line about a quarter of an inch away from the edge of the cover. You have to hang the material over the end of the sewing machine to avoid sewing the two long edges together.

To finish it properly, fold the hemmed edge over another half an inch and hem again, so that there is no cut material showing.

Turn the cover the right way out and check that it fits your sewing machine. Now you could leave it there, but I added some optional pockets for threads, bobbins and the power lead and foot (and instruction manual that I still need on a daily basis!)

To add a pocket, grab some leftover material and hem the edges. To make a single pocket, stitch a rectangle directly onto the good side of the cover's material, leaving the top edge open to put things in. To make a double pocket, use a longer rectangle and first sew a line along the middle of the rectangle onto the cover to make a divide, then sew the rest of the edges on, leaving the top edge open.

Quite cute and definitely practical! Now I have somewhere to store my sewing stuff. Mum also suggested that when I take the case off to use it, I could hang it over the back of the chair so that the threads and things are just behind you when you need them! She's a clever one!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Homemade Millionaire's (Caramel) Shortbread

The other day I made the BBC Good Food millionaires' shortbreads. The link to the recipe is here, however I thought I'd write my own post about it because I have some top tips to add! :D

Firstly, when you make the shortbread, you will notice that the 13 x 9 inch tray that you have lovingly prepared is about two times too big. If you spread your shortbread that thin you'll have a burnt mess. Get a 6 x 9 inch tray ready instead.

One thing I've learnt from experience is to score lines onto the shortbread whilst it is still hot. It will make it A LOT easier to slice up the portions later.

The recipe tends to result in a thick layer of caramel. This is quite sickly! I don't think that halving the mix would give quite enough caramel, but if you use condensed milk for anything else consider making 75% of the mix and saving half a can of condensed milk for another day!

The caramel mixture is VERY fickle. When they say stir continuously, they mean CONTINUOUSLY! Even a few seconds flicking the kettle on will mean you have caramelised sugar forming on the bottom of the saucepan. This tastes fine but it will leave little chewy lumps in the caramel.

After you pour the chocolate over the cooled caramel and shortbread, wait for it to almost-but-not-quite set and score lines into the surface to mark out the portions. The chocolate tends to splinter when cut if the lines aren't already marked.

All in all I really like this recipe, although you will definitely need a sweet tooth to enjoy it! It is a very bad-for-you treat to share with friends or bring to a party.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Growing Your Own Tomatoes – The Pros and Cons of Seeds

Totally missed my 100th post. I'm a centenarian now! :)

Growing your own veg is a brilliant thing to do. You save money, reduce waste and food miles, and it is immensely rewarding too!

Tomatoes are a favourite of many gardeners because they are fairly simple to grow (light + warmth + water + fertiliser = yummy tomatoes), but in my family at least there is a big debate over whether to grow the plants from seeds or pick up young plants from the garden centre.

The PROS of growing from seed
Cost – The obvious benefit of growing tomatoes (and most plants) from seed is that they are MUCH cheaper. Most seed packets (around 50 seeds) retail for around £1 to £1.50, whereas small plants in my local garden centre were 85p each. Even if you buy top quality seeds (F1 hybrids that are pretty much guaranteed to germinate, survive and produce a lot of fruit) for £3 a packet, you will get 15-20 good plants that will produce a lot of fruit.

Greater selection – If you look in a garden centre, they will probably be selling one variety of regular tomato plant and maybe a cherry tomato variety. In contrast, there are 5+ varieties of tomato seeds in my local garden centre. If you look online you will be truly spoilt for choice, with a massive array of seeds available for £1 plus a few pence postage.

Sense of pride – I love the excitement of seeing the first little seedling poking up through the soil. If you raise a plant from germination to fruition you get far more of a sense of pride than planting a tomato from the shop and collecting the fruits later on.

The CONS of growing from seed
Need a propagator – I said that tomatoes were fairly easy to grow, but they are quite fussy blighters. The seeds will not germinate if they don't get the conditions they like. They need to be kept at ~20°C, which at this time of year means that you will probably need a propagator. They also like to be not too wet, not too dry, with lots of light once the seedlings are up.

More susceptible to disease – Tomatoes are susceptible to “damping off”, a generic term for fungal rot which can affect both seeds and young seedlings. You can prevent this by storing seeds in dry conditions until ready to plant and by not over-watering them once planted. You should also ensure seedlings get a lot of light and the air is not excessively humid.

Require fairly constant care – Seedlings generally require a lot more looking after because they are not yet established. This means you will need to check if they need watering every 1-2 days and make sure you move them to a warm location if it will be really cold overnight. You also have to keep an eye out for disease because they are growing at such close proximity to each other and it will spread quickly through the young plants.

Do you prefer growing your tomatoes from a stock plant or from seed? Anyone tried both methods and can compare their yields from the two? For now I'll just watch my tiny seedlings grow in the window. :)

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Frugal Parcel Packaging: Cheap Alternatives!

Next time you need to post a parcel, stop and think before rushing out and buying a year's supply of bubble wrap and paper. Do you have anything that you could re-use for a frugal and green packaging solution?

Think of typical packaging materials. Boxes, brown paper, bubble wrap, bags? You can get free alternatives for all of these to save some serious money. The only thing you need to buy is parcel tape!

Boxes – NEVER BUY BOXES! You can pick up free boxes absolutely everywhere! Supermarkets are a top choice, local food halls, even restaurants will give you boxes if you approach them during the quiet period. Top tip: Fast food outlets like McDonald's have a huge variety of different sized boxes. If they don't have a size you want, cut them to fit and secure with parcel tape.

Brown paperUse paper that you would otherwise throw away. Keep paper bags around the same thickness as brown paper, from shops like Primark, your local greengrocer and gift shops. Another option is used printer paper. If you no longer need those directions to York or the joke you printed to show your friend, tape a few sheets together and wrap the parcel with these.

Bubble wrap – Bubble wrap can be very expensive. It can be as much as £4 a roll in the Post Office (although my village Post Office sells the same roll for £1.95, so it pays to shop around!). Why not use free alternatives? Plastic supermarket bags are terrible for the environment, so why not get one much use out of them before sending them to landfill. Scrunch them into a ball and package up your item. Newspaper balls also work well, but make sure that the ink cannot damage your items.

Clothes packaging Most people tend to package clothes in those thick plastic bags from the post office, but you can easily make your own from a thick bin liner with a few criss-crosses of parcel tape to prevent rips. Alternatively, wrap it in a bag to waterproof it then send it in a box.

If you often post parcels, make sure you keep any packaging that comes your way. Jiffy bags are incredibly handy for sending small objects (just stick your own label over the original address), even envelopes can be re-used several times!

What other environmentally-friendly packaging solutions do you use? I see it as a bit of a challenge every time I wrap something!!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Frugality Vs. Minimalism

How much do we really need?

Frugality and minimalism are often thought of as opposites. Frugal people tend to hang on to stuff because it will probably come in handy later. Minimalists balk at this idea and get rid of anything they haven't used in the last year/month/week!

To some extent I agree with the dichotomy. Perhaps it is my preconceptions, but I imagine a frugal home as a small cottage with a vegetable garden, in which people can persue creative and productive hobbies. In contrast, I imagine a minimalist home as very stylish and modern flat somewhere, with far fewer money saving tools and a hefty price tag for each item.

But can frugality be minimalist and vice versa?

Frugality is about avoiding wasteful or unnecessary spending so that you have money to use on the things you really want. We live better for less so that you have more money for travel or retirement. As J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly puts it: “You can have anything you want – but you can't have everything you want”.

Minimalism is the notion that less is more, both with physical objects and uses of your time. Minimalists tend to keep only items that have more than one function, with a very select few decorative pieces to add interest to their otherwise fairly empty space.

Frugality and minimalism can be at odds. Minimalists are willing to spend a lot of money on a very stylish or very useful object, whilst a frugal person would likely be more reserved, calculating how long they worked to pay for that £350 vase!

Can frugality and minimalism ever work together? Both lifestyles are about the realisation that there is much more to life than consumerism and possessions. You could say that the minimalist was frugal in avoiding unnecessary purchases in order to save up the money to buy that expensive vase.

Frugal Babe describes frugality and minimalism as the perfect partners in a simple life. Both frugal people and minimalists tend to live in smaller homes, both are unlikely to have debt or will be working hard to be rid of it, and both advocate the ideal of living without a car, although it is not possible for everyone.

I believe that by removing the excess in your life (minimalism) and concentrating your resources on what really matters to you (frugality), you are more likely to be able to do the things you most want to do. By spending less, frugal and minimalist people are not obligated to work so much, leaving them more free time to live life to the full. 

What do you think? Would  you consider yourself frugal, and if so, do you think that you could ever fit a minimalist approach into that lifestyle? 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs

My tax code has been wrong for the past six months and now that we're in a new tax year I really thought it would've been sorted out. Wrong! Originally they were waiting for information from the Chinese restaurant I used to work at, but they were sent that MONTHS ago now. COME ON GUYS!

I, like most other people, hate being on hold on the phone. Unfortunately I had to resign myself to listening to the bizarre Super Mario-esque music of the HMRC helpline in order to try and get this sorted out. I mean I'm losing ~£150 a month in overpaid tax! (I know you get it back eventually, but I need that money to do the things that I want to do, rather than have it gain interest in the government's coffers (or worse..).

14:15 – get home from work.
14:30 – settle down in my room with my lunch, a cup of tea and an Easter egg. You just never know how many supplies you'll need! Got to keep your strength up!
14:35 – finally make it past the irritating “If you want this random selection of options, press one”, complete with a minute or two of “helpful” advice after each option, including the never-ending referring you to their website. Believe me, if I could do this online I WOULD!
14:50 – still on hold. Getting a little narked now because the sandwich is gone and I've been thanked for waiting about 400,000 times already.
15:00 - every so often the music seems to cut out, causing me to hope against hope that my call will be answered. Then it starts again. Same track.
15:10 – wishing I had driven the 30 minutes to the tax office. It'd have taken less time, AND probably have cost less (since it's an 0845 number and we're not with BT..)
15:15 – starting to go a bit crazy. What if I accidentally press the hang up button? Would I have the stamina to ring again? (Answer: no).
15:20 – I was two chapters into my book when someone announced themselves. It made me jump! I explained my situation, and she told me that they'd send out the new tax code to my employers and that the tax rebate should be set in motion sometime in June when all the information has been received from employers. (I will be checking up on this as they've never actually managed to do it on their own before...)
15:28 – I finally get off the phone. My ear is sweaty.

FIFTY-EIGHT MINUTES! I know it must be a busy time of year for them, but I also know they take on extra staff to deal with the influx of calls. Still, it's probably worth it to get an extra £150 a month. Probably.

If you are in a similar situation, write to them. It will probably get there faster.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

How Much Should You Give to Charity?

A recent post on decluttering via eBay sparked a little debate in the comments. Is it right to sell things you no longer want for your own gain, or should you donate them to charity shops?

Some felt disenfranchised by charity shops. The amount that they charge for second hand clothes has soared up almost to the original retail price, meaning whilst you are giving money to charity, you almost resent doing so!

Why donate to charity?
Although the majority of charitable donations in the UK go to medical research, I personally think that the most important issue is international aid.

UNICEF estimated that 24,000 children under the age of five die every day, most from preventable causes directly linked to extreme poverty, with undernutrition contributing to about one-third of these deaths. As bioethics philosopher Peter Singer said, if you could save a drowning child, you would, with no regard for ruining your suit or the expensive shoes you were wearing.

How many people donate?
In the UK, 58% of UK adults will donate to charity in any one month. I was shocked to learn that I am in the group least likely to donate to charity (47% of women aged 16-24, compared to 49% of men the same age, or 67% of women aged 45-64).

How much is “enough”?
One solution to the eBay vs. charity shops debate would be to donate a proportion of all income you receive to charity. But how much is “enough”? Some religious groups suggest giving a tithe (10% of all your income). Americans give an average of 1.6%, with the poorest giving proportionally more than everyone else. British people give just 0.7% of their income, although this was significantly more than the 0.14% of French incomes.

David Cameron's plan for Big Society is to increase philanthropic giving, with suggestions for people to donate 1% of their income to charity. Loathe as I am to agree with anything that man says, I must admit that I think that's a reasonable suggestion. It is estimated that to alleviate extreme poverty people earning under $105,000 (£66,000) should donate 1% of their income, with those earning more than this threshold donating proportionally more.

This may sound a lot for people on low incomes, but if you are earning say £12000 a year, 1% is £10 a month. Most people waste a lot more than that on alcohol alone.

How much are you giving each year?
Donations can be achieved in a number of ways. You may already be giving more than you think you are.
  • Do you make a regular (monthly) donation to charity?
  • Have you sponsored friends/relatives to do something?
  • Do you buy from charity shops?
  • Have you called in to a telethon or texted to donate?
  • Do you give items to charity shops?
  • Do you volunteer your time?

Other ways to give
Back in January I wrote about charitable giving on a budget, with ways to give objects, time and money to people who need it.

I think the most important thing is simply to do something!

Who to give to?
If you want your money to do the most good, you need to know how it will be spent. Visit GiveWell to find the top-rated charities by measure of the significantly improving lives in a cost-effective way.