Sunday, 31 January 2016

My Sunday Times article on heating oil

Oil tanker delivering heating oil

An article I wrote on how to save money on heating oil is running in the Sunday Times today, so I finally had to do some housework.

The connection between heating oil and housework may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me.

When we moved to Suffolk, we swapped a connection to a gas main for a large oil tank lurking in the garden. Our central heating, hot water and even the elderly Aga are all oil-fired.

As I explain in today's article, we no longer have the peace of mind of a constant supply of gas. Instead, I have to keep an eye on the oil gauge on the tank, monitor volatile oil prices and then organise a delivery by oil tanker before our fuel runs out.

(Here's the link - afraid it's behind a paywall, but think you can still see a photo:

Before we moved, we assumed that we should get connected to the gas main asap and scrap the expensive oil tank. We even got people round to quote for installing a shiny new gas boiler. 
Luckily for us one of the heating engineers pointed out that our oil boiler is a good model and only about 5 years old, and suggested we keep it until it keels over. 

I say luckily, because since we moved in June 2014, the price of heating oil has plummeted. Our first delivery of 2,000 litres cost just north of £1,000 (ouch), but the quotes had halved to just under £500 this week. This means that for the last year it's actually been cheaper to heat your house with oil than gas. So hurrah for oil heating.

However, when you need more oil, you do still have to go through the faff of checking prices, looking at comparison sites and haggling with different suppliers. By the time you've ordered the stuff, the delivery itself is a very smooth process.

The first time the oil man came for a delivery, the whole family lined up to see what happens (we don't get out much). 

Just to share the excitement, I took some photos last time we had an oil delivery, back in November. 

The oil tanker parks outside the house, and the delivery driver drags a thick hose from the back of the tanker right across the garden to the oil tank. It all unrolls much like a hose from a fire engine.

Oil hose snaking across the lawn. 

The delivery driver unscrews the cap from the top of the oil tank, connects up the hose, starts the oil flowing and then waits for the tank to fill up.

Delivery driver being very patient while I hop around taking photos.

Meanwhile back on the oil tanker, the numbers on the meter whizz round like a petrol pump until the tank is full or the specific amount of oil you ordered has been decanted.

The hose gets detached and rolled up again, and the delivery driver hops back into the cab to sort out the receipt for the amount of oil actually delivered. 

Then he drives off happily, leaving you to face the hefty bill, although thankfully not as hefty as our first order.

So then you pitch an article to the Sunday Times, to help towards the heating oil bills. 

And the money editor decides to send round a photographer, to take some nice family photos to accompany the piece, with the the oil tank and oil-fired Aga in the background. 

So rather than having the reality of your ancient grubby, dusty Aga revealed to the nation, you find yourself getting up at some unfeasibly early hour, scrubbing away at the Aga (and tiles, kettle and assorted containers) before the photographer shows up. 

There wasn't a lot I could do about landscaping the oil tank on a cold January morning, apart from moving assorted wheelie bins to the other side of the garden. But here's a picture of it back in November, when the storm bush and climbing nasturtiums did a better job of hiding it.

The oil tank is lurking behind the trellis

On the plus side, the Aga does now look remarkably shiny and clean compared to its normal state. 
I even took a picture because let's face it, it's unlikely to last very long. 

Sparkly Aga! 

Postscript: Looking at the photo used by the Sunday Times online, boy am I glad I got round to cutting the hedge last year (as blogged here: ).

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Extreme frugality, 18th century style

Mad but true.

I came across this book by accident, looking for inspiration on the cookbook shelf in our local library, and found it fascinating if completely bonkers.

If you'd like to read about extreme frugality in living and cooking, check out "The Garden Cottage Diaries: My Year in the Eighteenth Century", by Fiona J. Houston, a historian and museum researcher.

Apparently when Ms Houston was researching an exhibition about the history of Scottish food, she was ranting on about how people at the end of the eighteenth century would have been better fed than living on today's processed foods.

Someone said: "You try living as they did in the eighteenth century!", so she did! For a whole year!

The author had a lifelong interest in the lives of ordinary people long ago, and was also concerned about self-sufficiency and local food production in the face of global warming,

Part of the reason I borrowed the book was because Fiona Houston chose to focus on life in the 1790s, and by coincidence the date stone on our house is from 1790. I was curious to find out more about how people lived during the period when the main part of our home was built.

The 1790 date stone above our back door

I read with mounting interest and horror all the implications of an eighteenth century environment - not just the constraints of clothing, laundry problems, restricted diet and waking up in fridge-level temperatures,  but the sheer amount of time spent chopping and carrying wood, starting fires without matches and even making her own candles, broom, string and ink.

Fetching outfits and quill pens

A particular low point came when the author delayed turning over the wool-stuffed mattress in her box bed, and found that it had gone mouldy underneath. Much as I may moan about the restrictions of our pre-War Aga, it's nothing to the cooking issues faced by Ms Houston.

It turns out when you can't spend money on fripperies like internet access, clothes from shops and electricity, life becomes a lot less expensive. Ms Houston supplemented the small amounts of food she bought with fruit and veg grown in her garden, foraging and presents brought by a parade of visitors, and ended up spending just under £1,275 for the year. (The bus trips are anachronistic, but she compared them to taking a stage coach).

Costs of the eighteenth century living experiment

Now I'm all for a slower more simple life, and could certainly do with saving some money.

I regret the amount of time I spend on screens, prefer cooking from scratch to processed foods, and enjoy walking where possible as opposed to relying on the car.

Some of the menus and recipes may yet provide inspiration - perhaps the persistent nettles in our veg garden can be put to better use as soup, and the bannocks and dried apple slices look genuinely tasty. I remain keen to attempt growing some fruit and veg now we actually have a garden.

Seasonal menus, based on local food.

But have no fear, I have no intention of attempting to recreate past centuries, although I take my hat off to Ms Houston for slogging through an entire calendar year. I have enormous admiration for her resourcefulness, resilience and self-denial.

Her book is both interesting and inspiring, describing a gloriously eccentric experiment.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sewing up the sofa

Sofa + patch. Success!

When we moved house, we needed a new sofa.

Rather than blowing the budget on brand new furniture, I kept an eye on the small ads on the noticeboard in our local Co-op.

Sure enough, we ended up with a virtually immaculate sofa bed, thanks to an older lady who was downsizing to a smaller house nearer her daughter.

Unfortunately since our children have been unleashed on the sofa, it is now somewhat less immaculate. Small fidgety fingers discovered a small hole on the sofa arm and made it larger.

The good news is that the fabric is a recognisable William Morris print, so I figured I could get hold of some new material and do a quick patch. Hurrah!

The bad news is that the fabric is a recognisable William Morris print, so buying a metre of cloth was going to cost more than we'd paid for the whole sofa. Rats.

Helpfully however, it's possible to get hold of fabric samples for a token payment for postage and packing.

After squinting at websites and messing around with a ruler to measure the hole, I ended up ordering a sample square of Golden Lily Minor, in the entertainingly named artichoke and vanilla colour combo.

When I finally got round to attempting the repair, I cut the square in half and sewed the ends together to make a long strip, big enough to cover the now distinctly larger hole.

From square to strip.
Blame my sister for the cow hide pattern ironing board cover.

I cobbled together the original fabric as much as possible, which left the sofa looking like something out of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie.

Massive stitches, only slightly less ugly than the original hole.

Spot the difference: stitched sofa, stitched dog.

Finally I sewed the new patch on top. Ta dah! A couple of episodes of the Big Bang Theory and some 8 out of 10 Cats later, and the sofa has a new lease of life.

Sofa, patched. Lucky it's less obvious on a vigorously patterned sofa.

With the limited material available in a sample square, I had to abandon any attempt at pattern matching. The new material is also brighter and less faded than the rest of the sofa. However, my rough and ready repair isn't too obvious amidst the riot of pattern, and looks so much better than the gaping hole.

Cost of postage for sample fabric: £3.
Cost of general smugness as finally repairing the sofa: priceless.

(Even if I do still need to fix the ragged bits right at the end of the sofa arm...)

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Fierce frost

Ice on the smoke bush, against  a cloudless sky

We woke up this morning to discover the first fierce frost of the year.

Thus far we've escaped any snow, but today the frost had left the garden looking magical.

Every twig and leaf is sparkling with ice crystals. The lawn looks like it has been dusted with icing sugar, and even the spider's web on the garden door is outlined with ice.

Ice dusted lawn and lavender bushes

The children experimented with huffing like steam trains as they ran ahead to school, delighted to see their breath white against the cold air. I was glad to be bundled up in a fleece, big coat, scarf and my new gloves. Despite the cold, I couldn't resist taking some photos.

Rose hips on the old rose

Much of our garden is quite sheltered, thanks to the boundary wall, but the back of the house takes the brunt of the wind and weather rushing up the hill. Frost on one of the yew hedges showed how one side was frozen, whereas the other side was left almost untouched.

Now you see it, now you don't - only frost on the front of the yew hedge.

I love how the frost outlines every leaf. I'm even happier when I can huddle inside, looking at the view, rather than lingering longer in sub-zero temperatures!

Every leaf, every blade of grass, outlined by the frost.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

DIY children's parties: birthday cake

Minion birthday cake: dodgy icing, made with love. 

Much as I like baking, I find making cake for parties rather daunting.

My standard favourite recipes involve minimal fuss, and even less icing, like Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle cake, marble cake, chocolate brownies and banana bread. The other common theme is that they taste best soon after coming out of the oven. 

Cakes for birthday parties however are a whole other ball game. They need to be cooked a day or two in advance and often to an unfeasible design dreamt up by a toddler's twisted genius.

Shirley Conran reckoned life is too short to stuff a mushroom. I reckon life is too short to wrestle with butter icing and a piping bag which is only slightly easier to handle than a recalcitrant octopus, and more prone to splitting (voice of bitter, if limited, experience). 

So when my children's parties approach each year I rely on ready-to-roll fondant icing and Playdoh skills to roll, twist and squidge icing into something resembling a dinosaur, princess, pony or pirate ship. I look back on the treasure chest cake as a doddle (loaf tin, loads of haphazard chocolate icing, showered with smarties and chocolate coins) but shudder when remembering the mermaid with a terrible tail. Gravity was not kind. 

This year, my six-year-old requested a Minions cake, so I pretty much abandoned any attempt at 3D recreations and stuck to a flat face.

I also wrestle with the cake underneath, because I feel one of life's major disappointments is a spectacularly iced cake concealing the consistency of sawdust. I begrudge the expense of many supermarket cakes because they don't even taste very nice.

Having tried and failed over the years with various iterations of standard sponge cake (too dry after a couple of days out of the oven) madeira cake (tasteless and dry) and rich chocolate cake with extortionate quantities of dark chocolate and a lengthy recipe (devoured by the adults, rejected by the children) I recommend this chocolate cake instead.

Favourite birthday party chocolate cake
Makes 12 to 16 slices

300g Stork, plus extra for greasing the tins.
300g soft brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
6 eggs
250g self-raising flour
6 tablespoons cocoa powder

Icing - inside
20g butter
12g cocoa
80g icing sugar
1 tablespoon milk

Icing - outside
4 tablespoons apricot jam
1 packet Dt Oetker coloured ready to roll Regal Ice
Bit of a packet of white ready to roll icing
Teaspoon or so of vodka to stick stuff together.

Heat the oven to 170 degrees C or gas mark 3.

Put a couple of 20cm round baking tins on some greaseproof / baking paper, and draw round the bases. Cut out the circles, grease the tins with a bit of extra butter or Stork, pop the paper circles in the bottom, and then grease the circles. It's worth the faff for any hope of getting the cooked cakes out of the tins. 

I think the Mary Berry method is then to bung all the cake ingredients into a food processor, mix it up, and chuck it in the tins. 

The alternative is to cream together the Stork and sugar with a wooden spoon. 
Crack the eggs into a seperate bowl, stir in the vanilla essence and mix it together with a fork.
Then sieve a bit of the flour and cocoa into the Stork and sugar mix, add some of the egg, and mix together. Repeat until you've added all the flour, cocoa and egg. 

However you make the cake mix, you then need to divide it between the two tins, use a knife to spread it flat, then cook in a preheated oven for 40-45 minutes. 

Faced with our elderly Aga, I put my cakes on a grid shelf on the bottom of the roasting oven, with the cold shelf on the lowest set of runners above it, then pray the cakes don't rise so much they hit the cold shelf. Cooking is usually a bit quicker - 30 to 35 minutes.

The cakes are done when you can tap the top of the cake and it sounds a bit hollow, rather than your finger making a bit of a depression, when a skewer or knife point stabbed in the centre comes out clean, and when the cakes have shrunk away from the edges of the tins slightly.

Leave the cakes for about 5 minutes after taking them out of the oven. Then run a knife round between the tin and the outside of the cake. Turn the tins upside down over a wire cooling rack, so the cakes comes out on the rack. Peel off the greaseproof paper and leave them to cool

Icing in the middle
Before icing, put one cake on top of another to see how much they wobble. Depending on how much your cakes have risen, you may have to cut off the tops of the cakes, so you have level surfaces to ice. 

Generally I try and get away with putting jam of whatever variety in the middle of a cake. 
For this chocolate birthday cake however I recommend making icing by melting the butter in a saucepan over a low heat, sieving in the cocoa powder, stirring together and cooking gently for a minute or so. 
Stir in the milk, seive in the icing sugar, then remove from the heat and mix to combine.
Spread one of the cold cakes with the icing, then pop the other cake on top and leave to set. 

Icing on top
I can only tell you my haphazard and slap dash approach to icing, which has worked OK so far faced with undiscriminating under 10s. 
Some book I read recommended brushing apricot glaze over your sponge cake, so the fondant icing would stick to the cake. 
My version is to bung several tablespoons of cheap and cheerful apricot jam in a saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of water, heat it up, and stir it until the jam melts, combines with the water, and becomes a runnier consistency. I then spoon it on the cake and spread it out with a knife or pastry brush, avoiding or removing any lumps of apricot in the process. 

With the ready-to-roll icing, I sieve some icing sugar onto a big chopping board, use more icing sugar to dust a rolling pin, and then roll out the regal-ice to whatever shape is needed. 
One year in a fit of economy I just bought white fondant icing, and tried to colour it myself with food colouring. Never again. It took enormous quantities of colouring, masses of kneading, much swearing and still came out streaky.

The Dr Oetker ready to roll Regal-Ice contains five 100g packets of coloured icing, which was just about enough to roll out a thin layer of yellow on top of the the cake and a thin layer of blue round the edge of the cake. NB It was worth doing the silver-painted goggles the day before cooking the cakes, so they had time to dry and set.

There was plenty of black for the hair, mouth, goggle straps and eyes. I made sausages from the unloved green colour, shaped them into circles, and painted them with metallic silver edible food paint (joys of eBay).

My husband got a bit worried when I produced a vodka bottle, but I'd ready somewhere else that vodka is useful to stick one bit of fondant icing to another, so I gave it a whirl. You can only use the tiniest amount anyway, if you don't want the colours to run and smudge the top of the cake.

Sliced for distribution in party bags

Then end result looked a bit bodged together, but I attempted to distract the viewers by shoving on some candles and a sparkler. It was definitely recognised as a Minion by the birthday boy, which was what really counts. 

Anyone else wrestle with home made birthday cakes? Or prefer to avoid the hassle, and select from the supermarket shelves?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

50 diet friendly options from the value ranges

Attempting to eating healthily on minimal money 

I start every New Year with the best of intentions about eating less and moving more.
Sometimes I manage to make it through a few days or weeks or months.
And sometimes I just end up reading WeightWatchers magazine while chomping left-over Christmas chocolate.

So many of the fashionable healthy eating fads seem to involve spending an arm and a leg in search of smaller limbs - from chia seeds to coconut oil, steak, salmon and spirulina.

I'm also a bit suspicious of "low fat" labels and processed diet foods, which seem to replace the fat by bumping up sugar, sweetners and assorted weirdness, and push up prices in the process.

Realistically, I'm more likely to stick to an "everything in moderation" approach which is heavy on fruit, veg and home cooking. Perhaps I can refer to it as clean eating, and jump on that particular trend?

Despite much faffing around and falling off the wagon, I have managed to shed a stone and a half since this time last year, while still trying to keep our shopping bills in check. I'd rather my weight loss looked more like a downward slope, and less like a heart rate monitor, but hey at least I'm lower than I started.

So in case it's helpful to anyone else out there trying to lose pounds without spending too many of them, here are some of the kinds of ingredients I recommend from the value ranges. It reflects my own preferences - so for example I like the tinned grapefuit, but don't like tinned mandarins, and recommend the marmalade and lemon curd even if I don't like Basics jam.

I've used examples from Sainsbury's Basics, but there are similar versions from Morrisons Savers, Tesco Everyday Value, Aldi Essentials and ASDA Smartprice.

As I found on Live Below the Line, shoehorning fruit into a minimal budget is tough.
Opting for tinned and frozen versions does cut costs, as does buying seasonal fruit, which means things likes apples, satsumas and pears right now. I rely on big bunches of bananas, too.
Other examples from the Basics range include:
Tinned pineapple in juice - 35p for 227g
Tinned peach slices in syrup - 35p for 411g (drain off the syrup first)
Tinned grapefruit segments in syrup - 35p for a big 539g tin (again, drain the syrup)
Apples - 80p for at least 4, if you're willing to take a lucky dip on the variety and size.
Pears - 80p for at least 3, which again can be a different sizes and varieties.
Sultanas - 85p for 500g. Good in baking, on porridge and in cous cous
Grapes - £1.25 for 500g if you need a treat
Frozen berry mix - £1.50 for 400g

If I lived nearer to Aldi, I'd stock up on their Super 6 fruit & veg every time I passed.
In the mean time, value range fresh veg tend to come in odder shapes or larger quantities, but are still fine in soups, stews and stir fries. Tinned or frozen options are often cheaper than fresh.
Tinned sweetcorn - 30p for 198g
Carton of chopped tomatoes - 35p for 400g, but keep an eye out for "3 for £1" offers on other brands.
Tinned peeled plum tomatoes - 35p for 400g
Carton of passata - 35p for 500g
Tomatoes - 65p for 450g NB size will vary, from cherry tomatoes to big slicing ones
Carrots - 75p for 1.5kg
Frozen mixed vegetables - 80p for 1kg
Mushrooms - 85p for 400g (not the cheapest by weight, but can add a lot of interest)
Onions - 90p for 1.5kg
Mixed peppers - £1 for 600g
Frozen peas - £1.40 for 1.2kg
Courgettes - £1.75 for 1kg

Low fat natural yogurt - 50p for 500g
Mozzarella - 50p for 125g
Soft cheese - (ie Philadelphia equivalent) 75p for 300g
Greek style salad cheese - (ie feta equivalent) 75p for 200g
Skimmed milk - if you can drink it before it goes off, it's cheaper to buy a big 4 pint/2.272 litre bottle for £1 than shell out for a litre of Basics UHT skimmed milk for 65p.

Protein tends to be a real budget-buster, especially as lean cuts of meat and fish tend to more expensive. Using dairy products and vegetarian options like eggs and pulses tend to be cheaper, although you'll need to look outside the value ranges for alternatives like chick peas, lentils and pearl barley.
Options within Sainsbury's Basics include:
Tinned kidney beans - 30p for 400g
Tinned baked beans - 25p for 420g (you can always rinse off the tomato sauce if you just want to use the beans)
Peanut butter - 65p for 340g
Tuna chunks in brine - 70p for 160g
Frozen white fish fillets - £1.70 for 520g, good for curries, fish stew, fish pie and fish kebabs.
Prawns - £3 for 300g if you're pushing the boat out
Eggs - I try to buy free-range eggs, and a bigger box of mixed weight eggs is likely to be cheapest, so £2 for 15 from Sainsburys and Morrisons. In contrast Basics barn eggs cost £1.25 for 15.
I haven't been brave enough to try the Basics cooked ham slices (65p for 125g) or smoked back bacon (£1.50 for 250g).

Brown and wholewheat versions are likely to leave you fuller for longer.
This is a pain because the value ranges tend to be stuffed with super cheap white pasta, white flour and white rice.
However, there are some healthier options:
Wholemeal bread - 40p for 800g
Wholewheat Breakfast Biscuits -  (ie Weetabix equivalent), 95p for 24
Porridge oats - for some reason Sainsbury's doesn't do a Basics version, and charges £1.20 for 1kg of own brand oats. At Morrisons you can get 1kg of M Savers oats for 75p.
Crumpets - just for a treat, 40p for 6
Plain flour and self-raising flour - 55p for 1.5kg. Work just fine for baking and cooking, even if wholemeal flour would be healthier.

Stock cubes - 30p for 10 x 10g cubes, whether chicken, vegetable or beef
English mustard - 35p for 180g, to add a kick to sandwiches and salad dressings
Mixed herbs - 50p for 13g
Marmalade - 30p for 454g
Lemon curd - 30p for 411g
Honey - £1 for 340g, good for cooking too.
Milk and dark chocolate - 35p for 100g. OK I admit it's a bit of a stretch including chocolate on a list of recommended diet friendly foods, but bear with me. Value range chocolate is good for cooking, but unlike a bar of Cadbury's, I can leave it in the cupboard for long enough to actually make it into a recipe. Result - I eat less chocolate.

Anyone else attempting to lose pounds without spending too many? Any recommendations for healthy eating options from the value ranges? I'd love to add more to my list!

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Money for nothing: cashback current accounts

Current accounts aren't very photogenic.

Want to pay less for your household bills? Keen to cut your council tax, gas, electricity, water, broadband, landline and mobile phone costs?

Then discover the joys of a cashback current account.

OK so we're only talking small amounts, with up to 3% cashback. But I am all in favour of earning money back on things I would spend anyway, as mentioned in my previous "Money for Nothing" post about cashback websites.

I'm also keen to earn as much interest as I can on our savings, which is tricky given most of the derisory interest rates on offer.

So I'm therefore a big fan of the Santander 123 current account, and will remain a fan (even if a slightly grumpy one) after they start charging two and a half times as much for the account from Monday.

I've written out lots of facts and figures below, but the basic message is: if you're prepared to switch your direct debits and would like to earn 3% interest on chunky savings, it's worth considering.

If you just want cashback, and don't have any savings or a Santander mortgage, consider the Rewards current account from NatWest or RBS, mentioned at the end.

What does it cost?

To put the charges on the Santander 123 current account in perspective, they're jumping up from £2 a month to £5 a month, so it will cost £60 a year rather than £24.

What do I get?

The reason I'm prepared to pay for the Santander 123 current account is because it offers cold hard cash back, rather than vague promises about mobile phone insurance and breakdown cover which I may or may not ever use.


- 3% cash back on mobile, home phone, broadband and (if you're that way inclined) paid for TV packages.

- 2% cash back on gas and electricity bills

- 1% cash back on water, council tax and the first £1,000 of Santander mortgage payments each month

- 3% gross interest a year on the whole balance when you have savings between £3,000 and £20,000. If your balance is lower, you'll earn less: 1% on the whole balance if you have between £1,000 and £2,000, or 2% on the whole lot once you have £2,000 up to £3,000.

In today's topsy turvy world, these interest rates on a current account are higher than the interest paid on most savings accounts.

Is it worth it?

My own conclusion is yes - if you've got savings as well as bills.

I had a look at my own earnings when deciding whether to continue with the higher fee.

Over the first 12 months for example, I earnt £67.44 from the cashback on bills, which does cover the new fees at £60 a year. Obviously if you have higher household bills, you'll earn more.

Santander has a cashback calculator on its website if you want to check the figures based on your own bills.

The real bonus is the savings rates of up to 3% a year before tax, once your balance is higher than £3,000. That means if you've got £3,000 savings you can earn up to £90 interest a year, while if you can salt away the maximum £20,000, you'll get up to £600 a year, before the taxman takes his cut.

Yes, you can find current accounts paying higher interest rates of up to 4% or 5% - but only on distinctly smaller balances of £2,000 to £5,000. Savings Champion has a good table of high interest paying current accounts.

Santander's cashback and interest is also paid every month, so you get some regular income rather than waiting for a lump sum at the end of the year.

Martin Lewis over at has a fact-filled blog post about whether it's worth sticking or ditching the account, and how much you need in savings to make it worth while.

How much hassle is it?

Brace yourself for the trials and tribulations of opening a current account, which could involve schlepping to a bank branch with assorted passports, driving licences and utility bills, and enduring an interview where you repeat a bunch of information you've already written on a form.

You don't even have to switch current accounts, but could leave your old faithful current account open, provided you meet the conditions for the Santander 123 version.

In pratice, you need to pay in at least £500 a month, set up at least two direct debits from the account, and fork out £5 a month as an account fee.

The £500 a month doesn't have to be salary, but could be a standing order from your existing account, which you promptly whisk away for other purposes.

In my case, the £500 paid in each month more than covers the bills paid out by direct debit plus the account fee, so once a month I transfer any money left, cashback and interest back into my original current account to help pay for everything else. Alternatively, you could leave any excess in the account to continue earning interest.

Some couples with big savings balances go the whole hog of opening three accounts, a sole account each and a joint account, to earn 3% interest on £60,000. I think at that point I'd lose the will to live.

Any alternatives?

NatWest and RBS offer a "Reward" cashback current account, where you pay £3 a month and in exchange get 3% cashback on bills paid by direct debit.

The bills are pretty much the same as for Santander 123 account - council tax, gas, electricity, water, home phone, mobile, TV and broadband.

The conditions are simpler. You don't need to pay in a specific amount each month, a minimum balance or a minimum number of direct debits, but neither do you earn any interest on any savings, or cashback on mortgage payments.

So long as your direct debits come to more than £100 a month, you'll make a profit after paying the £3 a month fee. With fees at £3 a month rather than a fiver, and the higher 3% flat rate cashback, you're likely to earn more cashback with the NatWest Reward account than with Santander.

However, if you have a Santander mortgage, or a savings balance, you're likely to find the Santander 123 account a better deal.

Barclays Blue Rewards offers rewards too, but they are mainly linked to forking out for specific Barclays products like mortgages and insurance.

So as a saver who hasn't found Barclays products very competitive, I'm sticking with Santander.

Anyone else a fan of cashback current accounts or fed up with ridiculously low savings rates?

Disclaimer: No I wasn't sponsored to write this post, and no I don't get any referral fees, I just use a cashback current account myself and think it is A Good Thing.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Hacking back the garden

The house may still be in a state of post-Christmas chaos, but green shoots are showing in the garden.

I'm guessing some of the bulbs are emerging earlier than normal after the ridiculously warm December. I would have taken some photos, but by the time I got back from the school run it was already dark.

Instead, here are some photos when I made an effort to tidy up parts of the garden last month, which made it possible to see some new growth now.

This particular corner is home to a very prickly rose bush, tree peony and climbing rose behind it, and the plants were attempting to take over the world.

Before: less a tree peony, more a triffid

And ta dah here's the end result after my over-enthusiastic attempts at pruning. Fingers crossed for their survival...

After: well and truly pruned

I was also given some aconite bulbs, and decided to plant them in a corner of the front garden which is noticeably bare. It turned into a slightly longer job than expected once I started weeding.

Before: loads of leaves, limited bricks

Turns out the brick area is bigger than expected too, but part had been covered by earth, leaves and general debris. When we first moved in, the bricks hosted an elderly sandpit crammed with snails.

It took a couple of trips to the tip to offload the rotting wood and grubby sand, but now it seems the slugs have moved in instead.

Yak, slugs.

Here's the sparse result after the clear out. The plant leaning to the right is the japonica planted quite in the wrong place, which only flowers on the other side of the wall (photo in previous post here).

The other small lonely shrub in the middle of the garden wall is a rhodendron I bought in a fit of optimism from Morrisons. If I ever get round to digging in some of the appropriate feeder / fertiliser, it might be a bit happier.

After: more bricks, general feeling of virtue

I love the variegated leaves on the plant in the photo below, which has popped up in a few places near tree trunks. Anyone know what it is?

Mystery leaves: pretty but probably a weed?

I think it started as these funny whorls earlier in the year, which struck me as weird enough to photograph at the time.

I'm going to pretend they're alien growths, rather than just a plant.

Now if the rain would only hold off a bit longer tomorrow, I could get out and investigate the bulbs.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Top 10 tips for keeping a spending diary

The wonders of keeping a spending diary.

My top tip if you want to spend less?

Write it down.

It really is that simple.

Somehow, seeing everything I spend written down in stark black and white makes me much more aware of every purchase, and whether it's worth it.

I first kept a spending diary years ago, when I was working as an au pair in Paris and living on the princely sum of £150 a month.

Scrap the tiny violins though, because it was actually more money to fritter away than I had subsequently as a student, surviving on grants and loans.
The bonus with being an au pair was that the family covered my accommodation, household bills, any meals eaten with them and a travel card.
However, anything else - clothes, books, toiletries, eating out, presents, travel apart from the Metro and buses and any form of social life - had to come out of the £150.
Writing down what I spent helped stop me ending up with too much month and not enough money.

Nowadays, our budget may be bigger, but a spending diary is still a real help with living on less.

So if you started the New Year needing to make your money stretch further, I recommend keeping a spending diary.

And ideally, a spending diary that captures all the the extras and day-to-day drains on your wallet.

The money for non-uniform day / Comic Relief / school trips / sponsorship for one-eyed rabbits running the marathon. The sneaky sandwich or chocolate or coffee or pester power treat that raises morale on a dismal day. The mega-expensive milk from the corner shop when you ran out. All those small purchases that add up to a big black hole of "where on earth did that go?" when you see a £50 cash withdrawal on your bank statement.

Usually, the starting point of any advice about saving money is to suggest that you draw up a budget. Yeah, great. If I knew what I spent, I probably wouldn't need to be making a budget. It's normally fairly easy to see what's coming in, and some of the biggest bills going out, but that leaves a whole world of "other".

So, I suggest a spending diary as a solution, and here are my top 10 tips on what works for me:

1. Give it a whirl. 
Don't feel you've shackled yourself to obsessively tracking your spending for ever and ever.
Try it for a month - that's long enough to give you an idea of all the small spending that is zapping your cash.
If you can face keeping it up for longer, you'll capture the less frequent payments like insurance renewals, household repairs and trips to the dentist/hairdresser/optician.

2. Pen and paper are fine...
Don't worry about downloading fancy budgeting software or grappling with apps, unless that really floats your boat.
The important part is to track what you're spending, so jotting it down in a notebook is just fine.

3. ...but spreadsheets are better.
Personally, I love spreadsheets, which remains a source of amusement to my nearest and dearest.
What's not to like about the ability to sum cells, play with percentages, insert extra columns or rows where you've forgotten stuff, and search for items? Maybe best not answer that.
Anyway, I use Excel to keep my spending diary, which is easy for me as I'm usually near my laptop. Anyone with a fancy phone (ie not me) might find that works better for them.

4. Little and often. 
A spending diary is much more manageable if you keep it updated every day. That keeps it quick, and there's much more chance of remembering what you spent when, rather than making it a big task that you put off.

5. Pay with plastic. 
I know some people prefer to stick with cash if their budget is really tight. Personally, I use cards to pay for as much as possible, so my statement provides a handy record of what got spent where.

6. Ask for receipts.
If the amount is so small I feel embarrassed offering a credit card, I try to grit my teeth and ask for a receipt. And then put it in my wallet, so it doesn't get lost. And then turf out the receipts when I get home, and make sure I've added them to the spending diary.

7. Check your cash. 
Every few days, see whether the cash left in your purse matches the cash you reckon you've spent. This tends to throw up the extra impulse purchases I've done my best to ignore.

8. Check your statements.
Jotting down your purchases and adding amounts from any receipts goes a long way, but won't capture all your spending. I also check our bank and credit card statements against the spending diary, and add in the direct debits and internet purchases.

9. Get your partner on board. 
If you share the spending with a husband / wife / partner / high-spending dog, there's not much point in accounting for every penny of your own purchases if your other half is flashing the cash like it's going out of fashion.
My husband doesn't track every Mars bar at the petrol station, but he is willing to use the card on our joint account for as many payments as possible, ask for receipts and pass them on, and keep cash withdrawals to a minimum.

10. Think about it.
If you've gone to all the effort of keeping a spending diary, see what it tells you. How much do all the small purchases add up? What else could you do with the money? If you scrapped the takeaway coffee, took packed lunches to work, and cancelled the unused gym / pay TV/ phone insurance direct debit, would that make a big dent in your debt, or add up to enough for a holiday?

Anyone else prepared to admit to keeping a spending diary, or are you just shaking your head thinking "this woman is completely mad"?

If you tried a spending diary, did you find it helpful, or reckon life is too short to be faffing around with receipts?

Monday, 4 January 2016

Last of the big spenders

Buy now! Only another 355 days to Christmas!

I am not normally the biggest shopper in the January sales. After the fiesta of consumption that is Christmas, the last thing our family needs is yet more stuff.

Even big discounts, that bring the mega-expensive down to mildly expensive, aren't quite temptation enough.

A bargain, according to my husband, is "something you do not want at a price you cannot resist".
I tried to bear this in mind while staring at a stand of cut-price reindeer shaped photo frames and sparkly napkin rings this weekend.

We made a family trip to Colchester, so my daughter could spend her Christmas present Build a Bear voucher. I was just about to write a rant about the explosion of brillantly coloured emotive, expensive polyster purveyed in the temple to kitsch that is Build a Bear, but my children love the place, so I won't. But it does make my eyes hurt.

Anyway, I try to take the approach of only buying things I definitely need anyway, and would buy at full price if I hadn't seen them in a sale. I reckon some of the few things worth buying in the January sales are cut-price Christmas stuff, so we had a look around.

If you've got the space to stash your bargains (and can remember where you put it come December, always a risk) then it's worth stocking up on things like Christmas cards, wrapping paper and stocking presents while the retailers want to get rid of them. I might draw the line at buying a turkey a year in advance, but Christmas crackers will keep perfectly well.

For example, the Co-op is selling off the kind of tiny Christmas cards that every child in my children's school seems to give to each other. The Co-op was still doing 3 for the price of 2 even on sale cards, so I was able to buy 60 cards for £1.50, which is less than the price of a single birthday card.

I also bought a box of 12 family crackers on sale at Morrisons, down 25%, even if that only meant a pound off the original £4. The feedback from this year's Christmas dinner was that crackers should contain toys and tricks, not fancy earrings, corkscrews and measuring spoons, so next year they will.

I gave Father Christmas a helping hand by buying a couple of packs of snap together Prehistoric Creatures at M&S down from a fiver to £1. Then yesterday I couldn't resist a couple of knight-topped pencils (99p each instead of £2.50) at the gift shop in Orford Castle.

I doubt if my £8.50 sale spending is going to rejuvenate the British High Street, but it will come in handy next December.

Love these gloves.

I also used some of my own Christmas money to buy a pair of black leather gloves in the sale at M&S. I've been looking for a new pair since last winter, but hadn't found anything I liked at a price I was willing to pay.

I would never have spent nearly £40 on a pair of gloves, but was willing to hand over £18. In true M&S fashion, these are not just any gloves, they are cashmere lined, Italian aniline leather gloves.

I don't even know what aniline leather is, but I do know they are remarkably soft, very warm, gloriously impractical and a lot smarter than my previous tattered pair.

So if you see someone wandering round Suffolk, stroking her own gloves, that would be me.

Anyone else go out bargain hunting in the sales? Or prefer to avoid further consumption and clutter?

Saturday, 2 January 2016

A fresh start

The glow of Christmas tree lights to welcome us home.

I rather like New Year.

After the excitment of Christmas and the car crash of family birthdays, I start the New Year feeling optimistic and fired up for a fresh start.

I always have the best of intentions, renewing evergreen resolutions about eating less and exercising more, spending less and earning more, and sorting the house out by cleaning up and clearing out.

It doesn't matter that my resolutions often fall by the wayside well before the end of January - right now, I can happily proceed as if they'll last all year long.

We spent New Year's Eve in familiar fashion, staying with friends along with a group of families we have known for more years than I care to mention. We catch up on each other's lives, eat far too much fabulous food, toast the New Year and take bets on whether I'll manage to be still awake at midnight. This year I did! Hurrah! Although I didn't make it much past midnight, mind you.

The New Year got off to a good start, dosed up with fresh air and a liberal coating of mud after tramping around the lake in the middle of Wanstead Park.

Now I'd like to get my hearing back. I ended up with an ear infection on the back of a pre-Christmas cold, so staggered through the festive season dosed up on antibiotics and horse-pill sized painkillers, fulfilling the role of the elderly relative saying "What? What?" every time anyone tried to penetrate my deafness.

So aside from hoping to hear again, I think my main New Year's Resolution is to be grateful for what I've got, and make the most of it. I'd like to carve out more time doing the things I enjoy, whether indoors or outdoors, and less time in front of one form of screen or another.

So here's to health and happiness for 2016!