Tuesday, 26 April 2016

My Mirror Online article: feed your family for less with a freezer

One faithful freezer, all stashed ready for the zombie apocalypse.

How do I love my freezer? Let me count the ways.

It may seem odd to pen an ode to my faithful freezer (and don't worry, I'm not about to burst out into blank verse) but I reckon it really does save some serious cash.

So when Mirror Online asked me to write an article about freezers, I was more than happy to oblige.

Admittedly, I can't claim credit for the headline: "The single magic item that slashes shopping bills, keeps me healthy and delivers food on demand".
But hey, it made me keen to find out what on earth was in the article, and I'd written it.

Anyway here's the link to the full article:
http://www.mirror.co.uk/money/single-magic-item-slashes-shopping-7810384 
but in summary my top 10 tips for feeding your family for less with a freezer are:

1. Pay less for frozen options

2. Bag short-dated bargains

3. Slash food waste

4. Banish boredom from bulk cooking

5. Prepare packed lunches

6. Avoid expensive takeaways

7. Feed friends and family

8. Resist pester power

9. Watch my waistline

10. Profit from a garden glut


Anyone else think freezers rock when it comes to cutting food costs?
I'd love to hear your top tips on making the most of your freezer.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Broadband: how to save without switching

Computer with essential broadband connection,
while wisteria takes over the world.

Last weekend, I saved about £150 on our bills, just by calling our broadband provider.
Reckon it must be the best paid few minutes I've ever spent!

Also makes me wonder why I hadn't got round to it before.
It's not as if you don't hear all the time about how you can save money by switching suppliers.

I've happily switched the likes of savings accounts, electricity providers and insurance policies in search of better rates, but somehow broadband never reached the top of the "to do" list.

I think it's a combination of bad experiences, fear, confusion and laziness, with is quite a big burden for just an internet connection.

Bad experiences because we've had a rubbish time with broadband providers in the past. (BT and Virgin, I'm thinking of you.) But Plusnet have been great. They even moved our contract with us when we decamped from London to Suffolk, and had us up and running on the day we moved in. So brilliant that I rarely have to think about our broadband at all.

Fear, because the internet connection really is at the heart of our home. On the rare occasions our broadband ever falters, you can hear the cries from all over the house. Catch up TV, games apps, web research and social media addictions all grind to a halt. Apart from my own internet dependency, I have no wish to be lynched by my husband and children for depriving them of theirs.

Confusion, because I wouldn't know a fibre optic cable from an ADSL  line if it hit me in the face, and all the techie options give me a headache.

And laziness because hey, on an average day I'd rather not deal with the faff of broadband bills.

So in the meantime, our connection kept connecting and the direct debits kept disappearing, and I always had vague intentions about seeing if we could get a better deal.

Then this weekend I finally added up our bills.
Home phone and broadband, for one year: nearly £500. Ouch.
It's not even as if we make many calls!

So finally I searched my emails for log in details, pestered my husband until he found where he'd written the password, and logged on to look at our bills. It made me miss the days of paper bills - I never needed a password to open an envelope.

Turns out while our unlimited usage for broadband was working just fine, our all-inclusive phone calls weren't so inclusive after all. We'd been racking up charges for calling mobiles (necessary because there's limited mobile coverage at home) and for international calls (ie ringing my mother in Madeira. Hi Mum!).

So I checked a couple of comparison websites, and had a look at all the dazzling free offers from broadband providers I dislike.
After inspecting our bills, I realised the super-low prices advertised were unrealistic.
On top of any free broadband we'd need to pay line rental, plus any call packages for calling internationally and during the day.

Next I took a deep breath and rang Plusnet to see if we could do any better.

I pressed the options to say I was thinking of leaving, even though we weren't really, and got through to a nice man who told me we'd been with Plusnet for (cough) 8 years. Wow. Guess it really has taken me a long time to get round to dealing with our broadband bills.

I explained our bills were high, so we were thinking of going elsewhere, and he promptly suggested halving our broadband costs for two years, down from £9.99 to £4.99 a month.
Hurray! Saved £60 a year and £120 overall straight off!

I queried the charges for line rental, and discovered we could save about 10% by paying for a year in advance. Woohoo, saved another £18!

He had a look at the extra phone charges, and pointed out that our bills already include an allowance for international calls, but I talk too much. (although he was far too polite to put it in quite those words).

Turns out the international allowance only includes calls up to 30 minutes. Bang on for longer, and you get landed with hefty call costs.
So either I need to shut up sooner, or if there are great events of world-shattering importance to discuss, I need to hang up at about minute 29 and redial. If I'd remembered that last year, I could have saved £38.

He also suggested we make fewer calls to mobiles, and I explained about our rubbish mobile coverage indoors. Finally, grudgingly, he put me on hold and came back to say that if we paid an extra £3 a month, we could have an allowance of 100 minutes of mobile calls a month. So the £75 we spent on calls to mobiles last year would now get swallowed up by the £36 a year allowance - saving nearly £40!

So by the end of the call, I'd saved:
- £60 off broadband charges
- £18 off line rental
- £38 off international calls, now I've been reminded to get off the phone within half an hour
- £39 off calls to mobiles, by paying for an allowance of mobile minutes
Total: £155

I was even able to take his extension number, ring off and go away and think about it.
My husband and I did waver a bit about whether to shell out for speedier fibre optic broadband (so blisteringly fast it's like "a super-charged Usain Bolt on roller skates" according to one comparison website) but decided our connection is fine as it is.
Then I rang back and agreed all the changes.

Best of all, we don't have the hassle of switching provider. Sure, it might have been nice to get some cashback and free broadband for a while. But we're happy with Plusnet. And even happier now it will cost us less.

So if you've ever wanted to save money on your broadband bills, it really is worth giving your provider a call!

Anyone else had good or bad experiences switching broadband supplier? Or got a better deal just by giving them a call? I'd love to hear!

Disclaimer: Nope this still isn't a sponsored post, just writing about my own experience and opinions.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

East of England Co-op election excitement

Me! On a ballot paper!

Today's excitement is due to the arrival of the ballot paper for the East of England Co-op election.

Well, it's exciting for me, because I'm standing for election to become a director on the Co-op board. As are another 30 people, for a grand total of 5 spare places. So let's just say my chances aren't that great.

But if you have an East of England Co-op card, and might be willing to vote, that would be fabulous!
You can vote for 5 different candidates, and the election statements, including mine, can all be found on their website. (Clue: I'm listed as Faith Archer, as opposed to Much More with Less...) 

[UPDATE 5 December 2016: afraid all the election statements are no longer on the East of England Co-op website]

If you haven't had anything by post or email, but would still like to vote, sign up at this link before April 21: Postal vote

I would love the chance to unite my passions for food and retailing, and help the Co-op remain a successful business at the centre of our local community, but we'll just have to see how it all goes.

For now, it feels really odd every time I nip into the Hadleigh Co-op and see my name on a poster on the noticeboard.

The poster in the Co-op. I'm in there somewhere!

Results will be announced at the East of England Co-op AGM in Wherstead on May 7th.
Hope I have any nails left by then!

Friday, 8 April 2016

Making the most of membership for family days out

Making the most of English Heritage membership at Framlingham Castle

With the last weekend of the Easter holidays looming, I thought this article I wrote for Mirror Online might provide some inspiration for family activities:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/money/easter-family-days-out-best-7622123

I wrote about making the most of membership, and taking advantage of family-friendly benefits offered by everyone from the National Trust and English Heritage to supermarkets, banks and building societies.

The article highlights some of the offers available from different companies, and where relevant how to get membership for less, including:

- Tesco Clubcard
- Nectar
- Merlin Annual Pass
- National Trust
- English Heritage
- Club Lloyds
- Nationwide Simply Rewards
- Sainsbury's and Tesco Bank credit cards

As a family, we've enjoyed assorted excitement from tickets to Pensthorpe Natural Park courtesy of Tesco Clubcard vouchers, to an Easter visit to see Kung Fu Panda II via free Club Lloyds cinema tickets and meals at Pizza Express thanks to Nectar points.

Forking out for annual membership of the National Trust or English Heritage isn't cheap, and I definitely weighed up the benefits before paying up.

However, individual visits to their assorted castles, houses, gardens and beaches soon add up, so that annual membership can work out less expensive.

When I was thinking of joining English Heritage, I had a look at how much family tickets would cost to visit the places we were likely to visit:

£14.00 at the Landguard Fort at Felixstowe
£17.90 at Orford Castle
£19.70 at Framlingham Castle
£43.20 at Audley End (ouch)
£13.70 at Portland Castle while on holiday

Total: £108.50 for visiting each of these places once, even without making a detour to Stonehenge (£40.30, another ouch).

In comparison, annual family membership of English Heritage was £88 at the time, which suddenly didn't seem so bad.
Even better, I only signed up when I found an offer code for 20% off.
I also joined online via TopCashback, which meant I got another £5.33 credited back.
(If you haven't discovered the joys of TopCashback or QuidCo yet, here's my post about the benefits: Money for nothing: cashback websites )

So in the end, a year's membership of English Heritage only cost us £65.07.

Once you've signed on the dotted line, you can then take advantage of the assorted events and family activities on offer, and return at different times of year without paying anything extra.

This Easter, we duly headed off to Framlingham Castle to do an Easter treasure hunt.

The children raced around following the clues, enticed by the promise of a chocolate reward. Once they'd discovered all the clues and identified the mystery word, the nice lady in the gift shop handed over a massive chocolate coin and a small pot of Playdoh each.

Loot from the Framlingham Castle treasure hunt

They also enjoyed taking part in a battle scene (luckily with foam swords...), trying on armour and nearly getting blown off the walk round the battlements.

Nearly getting blown off the battlements

We headed home windswept but happy, and all for the cost of £1 for two pencils because I'd forgotten to bring any pens. Doh.


Poster from an exhibition inside the castle

Anyone else found membership schemes with worthwhile benefits?

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Couch to 5K: The return of the running shoes

Unearthing extra fitness equipment

Fortunately for my quest to get fit on a budget, I finally found my running shoes, which were missing in my last post

You can probably get some idea of my fitness regime by the fact said running shoes hadn't been seen since we moved - nearly (cough) two years ago.

Plus some idea of my efficiency when moving, in that said shoes were right at the bottom of a big brown packing box.

But the good news is I also found, among other things, my fancy black shoes, my fancy black handbag, the missing soft-toy stuffing and the black tracksuit trousers bought to go trekking in the Catskills. Many cheers! (And some added insight into how frequently I go to fancy occasions, get creative or go on long distance walks nowadays.)

I completed my first Couch to 5K run in my extremely elderly trainers, but feared they were not long for this world, so I've been glad to switch to the running shoes. They also gained qualified approval from daughter, who damned the old pair as "weird".

Fired up by my success at locating the running shoes, I have also unearthed some other essential items of fitness equipment.

Turns out elderly tracksuit bottoms with saggy elastic are not ideal, if they make a break for freedom every time you start running and hold your stomach in. I do not recommend running with one hand yanking up your waistband.

Luckily the resurrected trekking trousers have a drawstring waist, so if tied up more tightly than is entirely comfortable when sitting down, they stay up when running. I'll count that as a success.

I have also realised that it helps to have more than one pair of sports socks, if you intend to go running three times a week. Luckily I also remembered that my husband has a couple of pairs of running socks that he reckoned were too small. They are mine now, mine I tell you.

I have located both my Shock Absorber sports bras, bought at different times when I was different sizes, but both involving the unsettling experience of jumping up and down in a John Lewis changing room, attempting to establish the amount of bounce. (Clue: less bounce = good).

The difference in sizes means I can wear both at the same time, which will hopefully be less terrifying for other people on my running route.

I even found my sports armband, which is held on by velcro like a blood pressure monitor with a plastic window. As I run with my smartphone, so I can listen to the podcast telling me what to do, it means I can push my phone into the plastic pocket, strap it onto my arm, plug in my headphones and run without fear of dropping it.

So, I've been staggering on with Couch to 5K, urged on by Laura as the voice of the NHS Couch to 5K podcasts, telling me when to start and stop running interspersed with words of wisdom.

I did flirt with Jo Whiley as an alternative, after downloading the latest NHS Couch to 5K app, part of the Live Well campaign supported by the BBC.

I rather liked the bit of the app where you awarded yourself stars after completing each run, and could see your progress building up.
But Jo just went silent in between instructions, with no encouraging if unfamiliar music, so I quickly went back to the NHS podcasts.

The first week only involves 8 minutes of actual running each time. You begin with a 5 minutes of brisk walking to warm up, then alternate 60 seconds of running with 90 seconds of walking, repeated 8 times, then do 5 minutes of brisk walking to warm down.

The programme is based on running one day and resting the next, so after my first attempt right after a school run I then did my second run on Good Friday (sunny, cheerful, nearly tripped over a puppy that wanted to play) and my third on Easter Sunday (wind sandblasted my face, great feeling of virtue in the face of chocolate).

The second week of Couch to 5K seemed tougher, despite the fact it only actually went up to 9 minutes of running. However, each individual run was 50% longer, as you have to alternate 90 seconds of running with 2 minutes of walking, repeated 6 times in between the warm up and warm down walks.

The reality of running during the school holidays also meant I had to get out before 7am on Tuesday and Thursday, while my husband was still around to look after the children.

This wasn't so bad the first time, under cheerful blue skies, but Thursday morning started out grey and dismal. I felt every one of the extra 30 seconds of my 90 second runs, although my spirits lifted as the sunlight started slanting across the fields.

So, as of this morning I have completed my third and last run on Week 2 of Couch to 5K, emerging red as a tomato from the blinding sunshine.

Just another seven weeks to go.

Anyone have any recommendations for essential items of running kit? Or top tips for surviving Couch to 5K?