Sunday, 29 January 2012

Charitable Giving on a Budget

When you're barely keeping your head above water it seems inconceivable to give money to charity, even if you'd really like to. I'm here to tell you that there are a lot of different ways to make a difference without breaking the budget!

  • Do you have an old mobile phone you no longer want or used printing ink cartridge? Even if it's broken, many companies will recycle it for you for free. Recycle 4 Charity let you choose who receives your money, paying £1 for an ink cartridge and up to £70 for a working phone.

  • What do you do with old pairs of glasses? Did you know that 10% of the world are disabled or disadvantaged because they don't have access to spectacles? Many are excluded from school and cannot see properly to work. If you get a new pair of glasses, please don't throw the others away! Take them to your optician and they will send them to Vision Aid Overseas free of charge.

  • Have a bit of a spring clean and donate old clothing, CDs, DVDs, games, ornaments or even furniture to your local charity shop. Most places are always in desperate need of new stock. Charities range from animal welfare to medical research to global humanitarian groups, so you can choose who you want to support.

  • You can make a donation in someone's name as a birthday or Christmas present for someone in your life who wants to help too, but perhaps can't afford to make a donation themselves. Oxfam have a great range of clutter-free gifts that allow you to provide water, food, education or shelter to people in need.
  • Many people save their copper coins but even with a full piggy bank you are left with little reward but a lengthy trip to the bank to get it changed to more usable tender! Why not donate your 1p and 2p coins to charity whenever you pass a collection box? It'll be a quick and easy way to make a small difference.

  • What about taking part in a sponsored event, or organising your own? Most charities have a link on their websites for information on events and how to help. You might even get to try something you've never done before – skydiving, anyone?

  • Volunteer! You can find out about a huge range of volunteer work in your area using Do-It. From conservation work to working with the elderly, from charity shop work to helping to run a youth centre for children; pick a charity you feel best suits your concerns about the world and then go out there and make a difference.

  • Many charities rely on small monthly donation. A £2 a month donation to Oxfam provides food for people that need it most, at a cost of £24 a year to you.

We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.” 
Mother Teresa

Friday, 27 January 2012

Warning: UK Fuel Price Hike

If you go down to the pumps today, you're sure of a big surprise.
A combination of an oil refinery closure and tanker driver strikes means that UK fuel costs are set to rise over the weekend to the highest ever prices. If you have a little spare money, you might want to fill up your tank this evening to save a few pence over the next few weeks.

I will fill up at the cheaper prices today because I seriously begrudge paying any more than I have to!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Scandal of Five Pence Sauces

I am currently employed at McDonald's. It is a franchised restaurant, and one of the store policies is to charge 5p for a pot of sauce, including ketchup. This is because they have to buy it in from the corporation, and people get greedy with free stuff. You get one free with a chicken nuggets meal, that's about it.

Personally, I wish the sauces were free. Free the sauce! You wouldn't believe the amount of hassle I get every day about this 5p!

The reactions of customers to “they're five pence each, how many would you like?” are on a sliding scale:
  • Yup, here you go (my personal favourite!)
  • Oh.. ok.
  • Okaaaaay (slightly exasperatedly)
  • *Grumbles and walks off*
  • Really? ... You're joking, right? (People actually think I'm making it up for a laugh. If I were going to make a joke, I'd at least make it obvious - £5 at least! :D)
  • How long has it been like that?! I was in (insert other place here)'s McDonald's just last week and didn't get charged there! (Cue having to explain the franchise system agaaaain)
  • That's outrageous! I just spent £X on a meal! (Well five pence more is probably not going to hurt then..)
  • WELL $%@& OFF THEN! (Yes, this has happened)

I don't really have an opinion on whether or not it is “wrong” for them to charge for sauces. I mean it's a business after all. It's just the way people speak to me when I'm just doing my job that does my head in every day!

So please, if you are ever charged for sauce, please remember that your cashier is not the one making the policies!

Monday, 23 January 2012

In Sickness or in Wealth

In the UK we are lucky to have the National Health Service (NHS). Despite its criticisms, I am extremely grateful to be able to rely on free access to medical care. We British may therefore not think it necessary to worry about the financial implications of getting sick. Unfortunately the bubble will burst if you become chronically ill.

Initial loss of earnings
I am paid hourly, yet every day at least one person rings in sick to my workplace. To be honest, their loss of hours is often my gain. I am amazed that people can afford to ring in sick however; losing one shift means losing £30-£50! Salaried workers are at an advantage here; a few sick days will not be taken out of their wages.

Statutory Sick Pay
After four consecutive days of sickness (including days you do not normally work) you are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, as long as you earn more than £102 a week. Unfortunately, the standard rate of sick pay is £81.60 a week. This would equate to £353.60 a month. Could you pay your bills with that?

Long term illness
If you are unable to work for a longer period, for example you have been temporarily or permanently disabled, you can claim Employment and Support Allowance of up to £99 per week. You may also be entitled to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.

Additional costs of illness
Unlike in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, people living in England have to pay for prescriptions (unless they are except from fees). Currently the cost of medication is a set £7.40 per item. If you require 3 different tablets for one condition, too bad. That'll be £22.20 please. 

Other costs may include getting yourself to a doctor (potentially not easy/cheap if you're too sick to drive or walk), childcare, and long-term changes to your life like installing a wheelchair ramp.

Prevention is better than a cure (especially at £7.40 a pop)
Whilst of course it is not always possible, there are a few things you can do to try and prevent sickness or long-term health problems:
  • Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes and mouth
  • Ensure you have a high vitamin C intake (citrus fruits are rich in this)
  • Get enough exercise – this is two-fold. Firstly exercise boosts your immune system, helping you to ward off infection. Secondly, you are less likely to suffer from circulatory problems or diabetes later in life.
  • Get enough sleep – six to seven hours is enough to regenerate cells and keep your immune system healthy
  • Follow Health and Safety guidelines – while these are very wishy-washy, it is important to ensure your safety at work. Keep an eye out for spills, lift with your knees and don't carry too heavy an object, you know the drill.

Protect yourself
Do you have an emergency fund in place? Even if you only miss a day's pay, on a tight budget this could mean a week's worth of groceries. Take steps to save a little for when the unexpected occurs. For longer term illness, make sure that you know what you are entitled to, both from the state and your employer.

Most of all, stay safe.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Decluttering: Getting Money Back for Old Textbooks

Textbooks at University cost an absolute fortune! Before you start your first year you are sent a reading list of epic proportions, so as the dedicated undergraduate you now are, you take yourself down to the University bookshop, Amazon or Ebay and buy the lot!

First of all, let me tell you that if you haven't yet started University and haven't got your books, don't buy them! “But then how will I succeed??Every good University has a VERY well stocked library. They have 15-30 copies of the core textbooks! I promise you that with very little planning, you'll be able to have all the access you need to the textbooks. This won't help if you're still up at 3am cramming for an exam, but as a dedicated student that won't be the case.. right?

Even if you do decide later that you'd like your own copy of the textbook, you won't be losing anything by waiting until you know you need it before draining that new student loan of yours. 

If you've already bought the books (like me!), then don't worry, I have tips about recouping your losses once you're done with them.
  1. Keep the books in a good condition – To ensure that you get the most back from your books when you re-sell them, you need to keep them as pristine as possible. If you must make notes in them (something I've never understood), then write lightly in pencil. DON'T highlight text, but underline it if necessary.
  2. Target other students first – If you put posters up in the toilets, café and noticeboards of your building at the start of the new academic year, other people on the same degree scheme as you will see them. These are the most likely candidates to buy the books – they have the same reading list you had! Check the going rate of the books at the University bookshop and Amazon, then set your price £5 to £10 lower than that. Put your mobile phone number at the bottom and wait for the messages to flood in!
  3. Re-sell to the bookstore – Our University bookshop, Blackwells, guaranteed to pay you 40% of the price you paid for the book if you bought it from them. You must keep your receipt and the book must be in a good condition.
  4. Sell on Amazon – If you didn't have any luck with the above, it's time to sell to further afield. I currently have two textbooks listed on Amazon. You just search for the book and click “Sell on Amazon”. There is a 15% of sale price + 43p fee on all sales. The postage is pre-set to £2.75; now I don't know about you, but most of my textbooks weigh around 3kg, making the true postage over £7.00. You'll be losing money here, so make sure the value of the book will exceed the cost of postage combined with fees! It's the first time I've done this, so I don't know how long it takes! You can also trade the book in for an Amazon gift voucher if you prefer.
  5. Sell on Ebay - I've never sold anything on Ebay, but you can list your book on there too. :D

The income from your textbooks will likely be a valuable source of money in the next few years of your degree. It's much more expensive to live in a shared house than it is to live in halls in the first year. Buy only the books you need, preferably second hand, and look after them!

Also, should I just jump on 1999-train and start using Ebay?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Decluttering: My First Freecycle

Today I entered the wonderful world of Freecycle. I can't imagine there are many frugal people who've never heard of it, but just in case...

Freecycle is a global network of local groups, where members post items to giveaway to others. Basically the idea is to get out of the consumer cycle and reduce waste. It's a way of recycling. Things offered on my local group today included a wardrobe, working dishwasher, top soil, lots of baby clothes, a small TV, a trampoline and a 3-piece suit of sofa and chairs.

Honestly, my post wasn't all that exciting compared to that stuff!

I've been having a bit of a declutter. I advertised that I wanted to be rid of a big folder full of plastic wallets that I used to keep my Uni work neat. I would never use them again; they are expensive, environmentally damaging, and you have to keep pulling the sheets of paper out to be able to write on them!!

Within a few minutes of the post going live I had four e-mails from people desperate for my second-hand plastic wallets!

I decided I wasn't too keen on the idea of someone coming to my house to collect them, so I asked the first replier to meet me outside the pub in the village. It must've looked a strange exchange; two cars pulling into a dark carpark, exchanging an unmarked bag with few words exchanged, then each driving off in a separate direction.. Hee hee!

Have you ever got anything exciting from Freecycle? There is certainly a lot I would've liked today but the point is to REDUCE my clutter, not add to it! The Boyfriend once got a load of educational books he needed for free, which I thought was amazing at the time, considering the cost of them.

Would you list your things on Freecycle? Would you let someone come to your house to collect them, or am I just paranoid? :)

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Keep Britain Tidy!

Yesterday I decided to go for a walk. Inspired by Ilona's rubbish walks, I took a couple of bin bags and a pair of rubber gloves with me, in order to pick up any rubbish I found. (Mum came with me as the official “holder of clean stuff and photographer”).

I didn't get far before I found my first piece of plastic. In fact, I didn't walk very far all day. I walked a grand total of 0.4 miles before I had to turn back.

Why did I turn back so soon? I simply couldn't carry any more rubbish!

My lane is a single track, poorly maintained road running through dairy fields and cropland. It is not highly populated or busy with traffic, yet I collected 2 bin liners full of rubbish.

On the face of it, the lane didn't look too bad. I'd seen an old fertiliser bag on the side of the road and a plastic bag attached to a bramble, but nothing much else. The problem was that it was all half-hidden in the foliage of the hedges.

Amongst other things, I found: 

  • A half-full soy milk carton – OH, THE SMELL! 
  • 5 coffee cups 
  • 2 Red Bull cans 
  • A beer bottle
  • A ring-holder for cans – prime choking material for wildlife 
  • Agricultural rubbish – black liners from hay bales and fertiliser bags.
  • Lots and lots of clear plastic – mainly cellophane. 
  • Several cola bottles, including one half-full 2 litre bottle! 
  • Two plastic bags full of soy milk cartons.. (this was definitely the strangest find, but they were in a ditch so it was a deliberate dumping)

Why do people feel the need to fling things out of the window as they drive through the beautiful Cornish countryside? It's polluting and damages the health of wildlife. The next free day I have I'm going back out to clear the next section of lane of rubbish. I WILL get round my 4 mile circuit!

Have you ever collected rubbish? Would you give it a go?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Mobile Packages: Five Minutes, £60 A Year Better Off

How much do you spend on being easily contactable?

The vast majority of people in the UK have a mobile phone. In fact, there are 1.3 phones per person! There are a whopping 5.9 billion phones worldwide.

How many of us are paying over the odds?
I was on a £15.50 a month SIM only contract, which could be cancelled at any time and gave me 600 minutes and unlimited texts. Yesterday I realised that since I've finished Uni I'm only using 100 minutes or so a month!

It took me five minutes to go online and changed my tariff to a 300 minute, unlimited texts plan for £10.50, a saving of £5 a month or £60 a year! I looked into pay-as-you-go tariffs, but it would've worked out slightly more expensive for me. 

Are you on the best deal for you?
  • Check your bill! - I realised that since I've been home from Uni I've slashed the number of minutes I've needed. Keeping in contact with my family and The Boyfriend used most of my 600 minutes a month contract, but now I see them all the time. Has your situation changed?
  • Would a SIM only contract be better? - When I first had a contract I paid £30 for a 600 minute plan and a lovely touch-screen phone. I broke the phone twice during the contract and gave up fixing it, resorting to a £10 robust mobile that bounced when I dropped it, rather than breaking into tiny pieces... AGAIN! I'm happy with a bog-standard model!
  • What happens if you go over your tariff allowance? - The trick of a mobile phone is to work out exactly what you need it for, how much you use it, and what costs are involved. There can be excessive charges if you go over the allowance in a contract, whereas pay-as-you-go is a standard charge no matter how much or little you use it!
  • Would you be better off on pay-as-you-go? - I still use about 100 minutes a month and a lot of texts, so it would cost me more to be on pay as you go. Work yours out by checking out both contracts AND pay-as-you-go tariffs? Generally if you use more than around 70-100 minutes a month you'd be better off on a contract.
  • Will there be a cancellation charge if you change? - If you find a better deal, you need to consider whether you'll be charged a fee for cancelling your current contract. Depending on how much you'll be saving, it might still be worth it!
  • CUT THE INSURANCE! - I used to pay an extra £9.99 a month on a £30 contract – that's an extra 25% to get it fixed if I drop it. It covers you if someone steals the phone and racks up a huge bill, but you can freeze the phone as soon as you realise it's lost, so chances are this isn't worth the £120 a year.
  • Check your data usage – I don't have a clue what sort of things use data, I just know that you can rack up some hefty charges if you go over your plan. I'll leave you to Google that one for yourself if necessary! :D
I recommend you all go and do this if you haven't looked at your bill in a couple of months. You could save yourself a lot of money, especially if you've had the same contract for many years. Don't pay over the odds – mobile phone companies don't need any more money!!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Hidden Costs of Finding a Degree

Over the past month I've started some serious PhD applications. It's very time-consuming, but also surprisingly expensive! If you are considering applying to university, you should ensure you have the money to cover the following expenses:

Admin Fee
Some universities actually charge you an admin fee to apply for a post-graduate degree! This is typically institutions where they receive a huge number of applications. The University College London charges £25 for an application, whilst Oxford and Cambridge are charging £50 this year!

Most people will have to travel to interviews and open days. Depending on where you are, this can be very expensive. From Cornwall, the transport of choice is almost always National Rail using a Young Person's railcard (purchased for £28 for one year), which knocks around a third off travel.

Other cheap transport options include Megabus (very useful if you live in, or are travelling to, London), National Express (more flexible than Megabus but often nearly as expensive as a train ticket), or driving.

There are some potential concerns about driving there:
  • How nervous will you be – will this affect your concentration on the road? Could you get someone else to drive?
  • The fuel costsGoogle maps can estimate the cost of fuel for your journey based on an adjustable price, fuel type, and fuel consumption rate of your car. I have found it to be fairly accurate.
  • What time is the interview? Will you have to stay somewhere overnight? This will bring additional costs.
  • What is your back-up plan? Cars break down, you could get stuck in traffic, there might be a diversion. How will you get there?

Then again, it would be a lot more flexible to drive. It could actually work out cheaper too because of the huge hike in rail fares. You could arrange your day to avoid accommodation fees and additional public transport costs in town too.

Interview Costs
What would you wear to an interview? If you are anything like me, you've probably never had a formal interview before you went to Uni. It is important to make a good impression. I would definitely recommend wearing smart attire, preferably a suit or blouse and skirt. Make sure you have smart, clean shoes to wear.

None of this has to be hugely expensive. A ladies suit cost me about £35 a few years ago. Girls could get a smart skirt and blouse for significantly less from discount shops or even charity shops.

Not to mention..
Don't forget that when you've found your ideal course you may have to find your own accommodation, especially as a graduate. This will involve additional admin, travel and accommodation fees!

Good luck, and please wish me the same!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

CHALLENGE: Best of British – What I Learned

Thank you for all your comments over the past few days! 

This challenge was an absolute eye-opener. I couldn't believe how heavily I rely on imported foods for every day living! Although I wasn't quite as naïve as some of my friends, who wondered why I couldn't have tea since it is an “English heritage”!

What I Will Take Away
Whilst this diet will be too restrictive to keep up, until I build up my own resources anyway, I would like to take away a few goals for the year. Firstly, I will grow much more of my own food in the future. When I get my own place I would love to keep chickens for eggs, but that is a long way off yet. In the meantime I'll get my hands dirty in the garden!

If I had known during 2011 that I would decide to undertake this challenge in January 2012, it would have been prudent to grow beans and can them in preparation for winter protein. This year I will definitely preserve home-grown food, as I would love to become more self-sufficient.

I will make an effort to eat “mainly” British. If most of the ingredients are British (for example Hovis uses 100% British wheat), that will be a good compromise for me. I will eat seasonal vegetables grown in the UK, which will save me money as well as reducing my carbon footprint!

Eating entirely British is very difficult and I don't really recommend trying it. My challenge to you is to pay attention to where you food comes from in the next couple of weeks. What surprised you? Maybe try to incorporate more 100% British meals (or wherever you live). It'll save you money (when eating seasonally) and be kinder to the planet!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

CHALLENGE: Best of British – The Frugality of Eating Local

Firstly, a big thank you to Pamela over at Frugal Homemaking, who wrote about my challenge in her blog. She mentioned that even meat has seasons, which is something I hadn't considered before. Meat eaters could have a problem trying to find British lamb before spring is sprung, whilst many species of fish can only be caught at specific times of year. Just more difficulties to add to the list!

The Frugality of Eating Local
Onto my thoughts for today. You may think I've been paying over the odds for foods just to ensure they are British. Whilst that may be the case for some foods (HONEY = £3.99 for a jar from Devon, 99p for Tesco Value honey jar of the same size!!), I've found that in general it is actually enabling me to save money!

Meal planning
This challenge is very restrictive, especially as a vegetarian, so it is important I have in my head an idea of what I will eat for the day. A typical day's worth of food has been:
  - Porridge for breakfast (Scottish oats and Cornish milk) – 23p (~5p for the porridge, 18p for the milk)
  - Spinach, leek and cheese omelette with a salad for lunch (fried in British butter to avoid the unclear origins of vegetable oil) – 99p (~20p for the spinach, 9p for the leek, 25p for the cheese, 35p for the eggs, 10p for the lettuce)
  - Apple for a snack (from Kent) - ~9p
  - A big bowl of vegetable stew for dinner (carrots, potatoes, parsnips, swede – no salt as Cornish sea salt is bloody expensive, although Pamela mentioned a book about eating locally where the authors made their own salt from seawater) - ~40p (~5p for carrot, 10p for potato, 10p for parsnip, 15p for swede)
  - Yogurt and honey for a snack – 65p (~40p for yogurt, 25p for spoonful of honey)

To be honest, most days have had very similar menus! It is hard to be creative on the narrow scope of this challenge, especially when I was fitting food in around two jobs! An entire day's food for £2.36 can't be bad though!

Seasonal eating
Whilst eating locally, you have to eat seasonally. Whatever's in season is cheapest. We all know this, yet I for one have rarely paid it any attention. A simple rule is that if you can find it in your local farmer's market, you'll know that it is seasonal, fresh and cheap. If you eat winter vegetables now, and stock up on British strawberries in the summer, you'll save yourself a bundle over the year. (If you have your own vegetable patch you're already miles ahead – FREE seasonal food!!)

No junk food!
Pretty much NO junk food snacks are 100% British, so I've not been wasting any money on that! Walkers crisps are made with British potatoes, but the oil and flavourings are likely to be imported. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which grow in Africa. Lots of cakes are made using palm oil from Africa or Asia, something which I will not be returning to after this week is over because of its devastating effect on the environment

For those who want to make an entirely British sugary snack, why not make biscuits from 250g butter, 140g Silverspoon sugar (the only company I've found to use British sugar beet rather than imported sugar cane to make sugar), 1 egg yolk and 300g plain flour. Bake at 180°C or gas mark 4 for 12-15 minutes.

Savings of the Past
We could learn a lot by revisiting old recipes from World War II, when imported fruit and veg was almost non-existent and people had to make do with what they had. It can be very cheap to survive on a diet of local meats and seasonal vegetables. If you had to survive entirely on your own country's food, what would you need to change to do it? Start a vegetable plot? Preserve food? Raise animals? What do you already do to eat local?

Monday, 9 January 2012

CHALLENGE: Best of British – The Difficulties of Eating Local

The past few days I have been eating only British food. This means no tea, rice, pasta, beans, couscous, sweet potatoes or chocolate. The salt in processed food is almost certainly not British, so these are a no-no! It is not enough to be simply made in the UK, the foodstuff must also have entirely British ingredients.

Over the past couple of days I have met several difficulties. The challenge is much harder than I initially thought it would be. I encourage anyone to try it however, to learn more about the food that goes onto their plates!

The Veggie Dilemma
The challenge of eating entirely local would be much simpler if I ate meat. I've been a vegetarian for almost a year now, getting most of my protein from beans and dairy products. Different beans come from different places, but most beans are grown in the Americas, Asia, Africa or the Mediterranean, so unless I found British varieties (unlikely in winter) they were off the menu!

Instead I have resorted to a lot of cheese and milk, with an omelette pretty much daily! A vegan would have major difficulties in getting enough British protein, especially at this time of year.

Location, Location, Location
Some supermarkets are very good and let you know where all of your fruit and veg come from. It can, however, be very hard to determine where the ingredients in various products come from. If you are eating British, make sure you look out for added sugar, salt, oils, etc., which are probably manufactured on the cheap in other countries!

Surprisingly Hard to Find!
Retailers go for cheapness of product rather than worrying about sourcing locally. Things that are commonly grown in the UK are bizarrely difficult to find! My local grocer only had mushrooms from Holland, whilst the supermarkets had British ones! Apples are seasonally available in the UK, yet even at this time of year most of them are grown in New Zealand!

It's cold, it's wet, and it's no good for growing fruit! There is very little British fruit available at this time of year. I found some DELICIOUS apples (Cameo variety, if you're interested), but of course there are no berries available until the summer. My beloved bananas don't grow here at all (well, they do in the Eden Project but they're not for sale).

Fortunately there are several vegetables ripe for munching at this time of year. As this calendar shows, it is peak carrot season! I've also been eating leeks, parsnips and cabbage, and cauliflower is around pretty much all year.

Lack of Caffeine
Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, chocolate and cola. None of these things grow in the UK, which made for a steep drop in my caffeine intake! It's not the withdrawal symptoms I had when I stopped drinking gallons of tea after my finals (headaches all day - I drank A LOT of tea!), but I've been feeling a lot more sleepy!

I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer and is paying the price now that winter's here! I will definitely be getting my vegetable patch to work for me this year! Come back tomorrow for another post about this dratted challenge! :)