Friday, 25 November 2016

Five fabulously frugal things I have done this week #12

Pudsey ears in action

It's been a funny old week, starting last Friday with Children in Need, all about raising money for good causes, and ending with Black Friday, all about spending money in hyped-up sales.

As someone who believes that the most important things in life aren't things at all (a great phrase from Sue's website over at Our New Life in the Country), I find all the emails urging me to "buy, buy, buy" rather unsettling.
Yet with Christmas coming, and a month-long madness of family birthdays on top, even I've had to start finding some presents.

Here's my round up of our five frugal things this week.

I pretended the children made them. They hadn't.

Baking cakes for Children in Need

Last Friday the children's school was fundraising for Children in Need. I'd promised to bake for the cake sale, but then got bogged down in work.
Rather than the carefully-produced Pudsey-themed cakes I'd imagined, I ended up with less than an hour before school pick up. Aaaargh!
I figured I could throw together some cupcakes in time, right until I checked the fridge - almost out of Stork. Fridge - no spare butter. Butter dish - almost out. Triple aaaargh!
Luckily when I ran round to our next-door-but-one neighbour Helen, a stalwart of the WI and ex-Brownie leader, she kindly gave me a box of Stork.
Anyway, the photo above shows the rushed results of my approach to baking for school cake sales - basically stick enough sprinkles on top of value range ingredients, and they'll sell.
Let's gloss over the fact that the cakes were still too warm, and the icing too runny, so the hundreds and thousands were sliding off the top...
I made 24 cakes, and reckon they came out at 10p each, which is just as well as I think the school only sell them for 30p a pop. A combination of value range ingredients, cake cases at £1 for 100, and sprinkles from the Jane Asher range at Poundland (2 pots for £1) keeps the cost down.
I kept a few back, so my children could decorate some cakes at home even if the stall sold out. (See pic at the top!)
So - hardly things of beauty, but all in a good cause.

Free £10 to spend? Don't mind if I do.

Using a White Company voucher

Sometimes not doing much shopping comes in handy.
Last week, a £10 White Company voucher showed up in the post, to "tempt me back" because I hadn't bought anything in ages.
It was my favourite kind of no-strings-attached voucher, with no minimum spend, and I'd also put aside a 20% discount card from a catalogue.
I nipped into a shop while I was in Cambridge on Saturday, so I could avoid wasting part of the voucher on postage.
It turned out a lot of the stuff was already reduced by 20% or 30%, so although I couldn't use the discount card on top, I could still use the voucher. I ended up buying a fancy Christmas present for 75% less than the official price - many cheers!

Jumping the hurdles to max out my Nectar points

Doubling up Nectar Points at Sainsbury's

Spending Nectar points at Sainsbury's can be a tad more complicated than the White Company's "have a free tenner" approach.
During Double Up promotions a couple of times a year, Nectar points are worth twice as much as normal.
It sounds great, but can make your head hurt when you realise it only applies to specific categories.
Forget food - it's limited to spending on toys, entertainment, electrical, Tu clothes, homeware, seasonal stuff and selected Sainsbury's Taste the Difference booze.
The vouchers have to be requested and spent on the individual categories, rather than across the whole lot, and jump up in £10 chunks without giving change.
Anyway, I tend to hoard Nectar points, waiting for Double Up promotions.
We don't do much food shopping at Sainsbury's any more, so I don't get many Nectar points that way. However, my husband still stops at a Sainsbury's petrol station on the way home, so we earn points on fuel.
I spotted the promotion was running earlier this week, and shot over to Sainsbury's to swap £30 of Nectar points for £60 of shopping.
I emerged with sparkly shoes and a skirt for my daughter, plus Christmas presents including three DVDs, a big Lego set and a couple of Lego mini figs for stockings.
I reckon this is a great example of money for nothing apart from a headache working it all out. We'd buy fuel there anyway, and just by handing over a loyalty card, we've ended up with £60 worth of shopping.

Obviously by getting 30% off a Boden shirt for my husband, our Christmas will suddenly look like this.

Cashing in on cashback

Yup, yet more Christmas and birthday shopping.
After avoiding spending for so much of the year, it feels really weird to be buying lots of things now. Reflecting on the presents I've bought this week, I seem to have followed the "something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read" approach, whether conciously or not.
The frugal part when buying the assorted toys, chocolate, clothes and books online has been clicking through from cashback websites beforehand.
This week I've racked up more than £18 cashback with TopCashback, on stuff on offers and in sales that I was intending to buy anyway.
If you've never signed up with cashback websites like TopCashback or Quidco before, then hang on for a decent "new customer" joining bonus.
In October, I finally took the plunge with Quidco when I was promised £15 for joining, which is now safely in my savings account.
TopCashback is running a similar kind of promotion now, so if you sign up using this link*, and spend £10 or more at any one of the sites listed on TopCashback before 4 December, you will receive £15 in cashback.
(More info on cashback websites in this post and this one).

Optimistic attempt at growing garlic

Planting some garlic cloves

I was intrigued to see a photo on Instagram recently, where someone was planting oodles of garlic cloves to prepare for a crop next year.
As I had a couple of bulbs in the cupboard, I figured it was worth a punt sticking some cloves in the herb bed. (More about the herb bed here).
Who knows whether anything will emerge, but I shoved some in the soil, and marked the position with short bamboo canes to avoid weeding them by mistake.
Fingers crossed for next spring!

In other news: setting up a Facebook page

This week I had to fill in a form about the blog which wouldn't let me submit it without a Facebook page link.
So now I have a Facebook page for Much More With Less, even if I'm not entirely sure what to do with it.
Maybe I'll post a few more pics? And some of the short posts that aren't long enough for a blog post? Anyway, if anyone fancies 'liking' the page, or even stopping by to say hello, that would be lovely. This is the link:
I've also added it to the "follow me elsewhere" buttons at the top right of the blog.

Anyone else have frugal successes to share? Or are you staying away from your keyboard in the face of Black Friday? I'd love to hear!

I'm joining in with the #5frugalthings blog linky. If you'd like to join, or just want to check out other thrifty suggestions, hop on over to visit Cass at Diary of a Frugal Family, Becky at Family Budgeting and Emma at Emma's Savvy Savings

*indicates an affiliate link, so anything you buy through them will help support the blog, as I will get a small commission, at no cost to you. Many thanks!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Five fabulously frugal things I've done this week #11

Joys of autumn. Less a lawn, more a sea of leaves

This week I have been finally facing up to the "C" word, and acknowledging that Christmas is fast approaching. Gulp.
I've also zig-zagged back and forth to London, beamed with pride at my son's rendition of Samuel Pepys in a school play, and traipsed more than 8 miles in a day on the school run, shopping and shepherding my daughter to Cubs.
Roll on the weekend, I say.
And, without further ado, here's my round up of this week's five frugal things.

Stash to stuff stockings. NB Father Christmas uses very stretchy socks.

Snapping up stocking presents

In our house, Father Christmas sometimes needs a little assistance when it comes to stuffing stockings.
Much as I love Christmas stockings, the contents can easily cost an arm and a leg, rather than a mere sockful.
When I was traipsing round Hadleigh on a desperate hunt for Pudsey ears (theme days at school have a lot to answer for), I did at least spot a bunch of stocking presents.
I'll split the £3 pack of Star Wars light sabre pens and £1.49 Christmas socks between two children, but otherwise everything else cost under a pound a pop from QD Stores*.
As you'll see, I'm keen on stuff that might keep overexcited children occupied for extra moments on Christmas morning. Check out the fun wooden retro toys like dominoes, Ludo, pick up sticks and 3D dinosaur puzzles, all for under £1.25, in the pocket money toys section on their website*.
If you need any inspiration for cheap and cheerful stocking fillers, here's a link to an article I wrote for Mirror Online last year.
I also found Terry's dark chocolate oranges for a mere £1.49 in QD. For some reason, you can usually find the milk chocolate version on offer for £1, but the dark chocolate ones can be rarer than hens' teeth and much more expensive. £1.95 I paid last year! (Sometimes that OCD spending diary spreadsheet comes in handy).

Nostalgia in a mug

Buying Christmas mugs

One other Christmas purchase was a fetching couple of Christmas mugs ordered online.
I spotted an offer in the weekly newsletter from MoneySavingExpert (if you aren't one of the millions of people who get it, it's worth signing up for assorted financial snippets).
I paid £7.99 including postage for a couple of Spode mugs in the 1930s Christmas Tree design, which normally sell for around £13 each. Best I can see elsewhere at the moment is £5.20 each plus P&P.
I'm hoping they'll go down well with the children on Christmas morning and be used for many years to come.

Over optimistic bulb present purchases

Planting Christmas presents

Now, I'll fess up right immediately that I suspect I've left this one too a bit late.
One idea I had for a nice but money-saving Christmas present was to plant bulbs in pots decorated by the children. Thought it might work as a present for assorted teachers and teaching assistants fed up with yet more chocs, biscuits and bath stuff.
(Mind you, last time my daughter decided to give her teacher an Elvis fan club magazine as a thank you present, so who knows what we'll actually take in at the end of term.)
While I was in QD I looked for the earliest flowering bulbs, which turned out to be hyacinths. Apparently if planted by end September (cough) they should flower by mid December. I got six bulbs for £4.98 and six clay pots for 80p each, which combined with spray paint, stencils and compost we already have, comes in at just over £1.60 a present.
This year, any recipients may end up staring at a green stumpy thing poking up from some earth, but maybe this post will remind me to start earlier next year!
In the mean time I will go and dig out my copy of The Diary of a Provincial Lady just to remind myself how badly indoor bulbs can go wrong.

Ta dah, newly raked lawn! All ready for the trees to dump a new load of leaves...

Raking up leaves

On my way back from all that shopping, I ended up racing a rubbish van to our door.
The local council charges £40 a year to collect a wheelie bin full of garden waste every fortnight. Well worth the money, I reckon, to cut down on trips to the tip.
Spotting the rubbish van in the High Street made me realise I'd forgotten to put the bin out that morning. I hurried home, shovelled in multiple bags of leaves, and was relieved to see them carried away. Always good to make the most of that £1.50 fortnightly charge...
It also inspired me to rake up more leaves from the lawn, so we're all set for the next collection too.

Scummy Mummies: I will never look at a catsuit in quite the same way again...

Heading to London on a discount Blogfest ticket

Last weekend, I ended up making a lighting dash down to London for Mumsnet Blogfest 2016.
I'd been havering back and forth about whether to go and feeling plenty of parental guilt about abandoning my husband and children on a Saturday. In the end, I think it was finding a 15% off voucher code the night before that finally swung it, so my frugal point is always to do a quick Google for discount codes. My network railcard also helps with getting a third off off-peak train travel.
Attempting to claw back the ticket price by eating my bodyweight in breakfast pastries was perhaps not my best plan, but it was an inspiring and informative day. I might even get some work out of it!
I'm guessing not many people reading this are bloggers who'd be fascinated by a blow-by-blow account of the day, so I won't bang on about it, but do say in the comments if you'd like to hear more.

Over to you: any frugal successes to celebrate? Are your Christmas presents all done and dusted, or are you still hunting high and low? I'd love to know.

I'm joining in with the #5frugalthings blog linky. If you'd like to join, or just want to check out other thrifty suggestions, hop on over to visit Cass at Diary of a Frugal Family, Becky at Family Budgeting and Emma at Emma's Savvy Savings

*indicates an affiliate link, so anything you buy through them will help support the blog, as I will get a small commission, at no cost to you. Many thanks!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Teaching kids about cash? Try chocolate

Lessons in money that won't be forgotten

As a parent, I reckon it's vitally important to help my children learn about managing money.
Today marks the start of Financial Capability Week, so I wanted to write about different ways to approach cash with your kids.

I can bang on about the importance of saving, when confronted with demands for Pokemon cards.
I can try to translate the price of a Lego Death Star into weeks of pocket money (most of a lifetime, frankly).
I can even attempt to bribe my offspring into doing jobs I don't want to do, but sadly the lawn is still covered with leaves.

Lectures on mortgages are never going to cut it with an eight-year-old, so I've stuck to the real priority: sweets.

My daughter can be pretty resistant to Maths homework.

However, when it comes to working out how to get the most sugar for the least money, she suddenly perks up. So goodbye healthy eating, and hello life lessons in hard cash.

We've already covered vital topics like:

- taking advantage of special offers (that would be the enormous bag of marshmallows, selling for only £1)
- looking out for multibuys (turns out three bags of Co-op sweets for £1 weigh way more than a £1 bag of Haribo)
- downshifting brands (the pack of four own brand ice cream cones that cost loads less than the Cornettos).

During the October Savings Challenge, my daugher and I headed off for a freebie cinema showing. I wasn't keen to hand stump up for gold-plated pick and mix in the cinema foyer, so we nipped into a corner shop to stock up on snacks beforehand.

Now, my daugher is pretty partial to a bit* of caramel chocolate.
*For a bit, subsitute "a truckload", funds and parental guilt permitting.

Anyway, it seemed like an ideal time to learn about money through the medium of chocolate, as we went on a mission to find the most Cadbury's Caramel for the least cash.

Do you have any idea how many types of Cadbury's Caramel it is possible to buy in one small shop?

Think the shaky pic is due to me exclaiming "how much?"

First of all, my daugher spotted some Cadbury's Heroes, which include "super cute" mini Caramel bars, apparently. I pointed out they'd have to be particularly cute when you only get 92g of chocolate for £1.69.

One big bar, one pound

Next we eyed up the massive bars of Cabury's Caramel, on offer at £1 for 120g. That was definitely more chocolate for less money than the Heroes.

Brand extension into biscuits. Nice.

However, there were also some Cadbury's Caramel biscuits on offer, where your £1 got you a heftier 130g.

Yet more Cadbury's Caramel for £1 - only this time more for your money!

In the end though, the winner was the four pack of small Cadbury's Caramel bars, where £1 bought 148g.

I always knew that it was important to check the price per unit when food shopping.
But wow, the difference depending on packaging was massive when it came to Cadbury's Caramel.

With a small bag of Cadbury's Heroes, £1 would only stretch to 54g of sweets.
Yet a four pack of Cadbury's Caramel on special offer meant we could get 148g of chocolate for £1 - nearly three times as much.

Despite the eye-rolling in the aisles, my daughter was glad to get more choc for her money.
And we enjoyed the film too.

What are your top tips for helping your children make the most of their pocket money? I'd love to hear!

Friday, 11 November 2016

Five fabulously frugal things I've done this week #10

Bargain toys at pocket money prices #5frugalthings

Another busy week, and I'm still not quite sure where's it gone.
We've settled back into the routine of school, work and after school excitement. I've dug out assorted hats, scarves and gloves to combat the colder weather, and we have a new set of five frugal things to report.

No Beavers were harmed in the taking of this photograph.

Celebrating Bonfire night 

Rather than heading to the big fireworks display in Ipswich, we celebrated Guy Fawkes night closer to home. Earlier in the week, we walked down to the Beavers and Cubs bonfire party organised by Hadleigh Sea Scouts.
My son is already in Beavers, and my daughter was just about to start in Cubs, so they were raring to go. Every family was asked to bring a big firework, and the leaders organised drinks and snacks in the Scout Hut. With burgers at £2 a pop and cakes for 50p we were unlikely to go bankrupt either.

Planetarium in action. In a cupboard. Spot the 80s film reference.

Buying pocket money toys from the charity shop

After school on Monday, I took the children along the High Street, as they could spend their pocket money. We nipped into a couple of the charity shops where the kids can get more for their money, while simultaneously knowing it will go to a good cause. I also support charity shops for ensuring stuff is reused, rather than getting sent straight to landfill.
My daughter spent a pound on baby clothes at the East Anglian Children's Hospice (EACH) shop. The vest and shoes are the perfect size for one of her (many) teddies, as seen at the top of this post, and far cheaper than buying official dolls' clothes.
My son decided to top up his pocket money with some cash from his grandparents, and splashed out the princely sum of £3.50 on a National Geographic planetarium. I was a bit suspicious of the strange lump of plastic, but it turned out to rotate, light up and even provide a commentary on the stars.
When we took it home and set it going in his bedroom, it created a magical effect in the darkness, with the constellations rotating across the walls and ceiling.

Free cookbook ahoy

Winning a free cook book

I usually have some golden syrup knocking around in the kitchen cupboards.
The children love eating syrup with fruit on Sunday morning pancakes, and it's an ingredient in some of our favourite family recipes, like New Zealand biscuits and choc chip cookies (both recipes in this post, plus a fetching pic of Mary Berry when younger!).
When I was scanning supermarket cashback apps during the October savings challenge, I was delighted to spot CheckoutSmart offering 60p off a tin of Lyle's golden syrup. I have a real soft spot for their traditional tin design, but am usually wary of buying more expensive branded products.
Anyway, I was even more delighted when Morrisons had it on offer, down from £1.15 to £1, so my tin ended up costing just 40p after cashback.
To cap it all, the tin had a competition to win one of 5,000 cookbooks, so I bunged my promo code into the website, and bingo, I'm now the proud possessor of a Lyle's Golden Syrup Cookbook.
The hardback version is on sale for £16.59 even on offer*, so I'm very glad to get one for free.
Should be fun trying out the recipes, including savoury ones like barbecued pork chops and teriyaki salmon, even if my waistline thinks otherwise...

Vouchers for a Rachel's Organic yogurt fest

Getting sent some vouchers for Rachel's Organic

Out of the blue, I received an email from Rachel's Organic including some delicious looking winter-warming recipes. They also offered me some vouchers, so I could try them out.
Short answer: yes please!
So now I have £12.25 of vouchers to spend on the Rachel's Organic range. Should make a nice change from my normal value range natural yogurt, and maybe I can start weaning the children off frubes...
Will let you know how I get on with trying out soups like pea & watercress and carrot & ginger, rather than my ordinary options.

10 pin bowling: it really was a fun day out for all the family

Outing to the bowling alley

On Sunday, it was cold and raining. We all needed to get out of the house, but couldn't face getting ravaged by the elements. In the end, we decided on a family trip to the local ten pin bowling alley in Ipswich.
It wasn't the cheapest outing, at £15 for a game for four of us, but we had a great time together, watching the bowling balls go anywhere other than intended.
Afterwards, we changed a couple of pounds into 2p pieces and the children tried their luck on the 2p drop machines.
We went mid afternoon, so were home in time for dinner, rather than spending extra on food while we were out.

October savings challenge

Yes, I'm still writing up posts about last month's saving challenge, with my small changes to spend less, earn more and save a chunk of cash towards Christmas.
This week I managed to write about:
- Cutting costs with discount gift vouchers, and grabbing a free fiver
- Earning as much as 5% interest on your current account
More on the food front to follow!

Over to you: any frugal successes to celebrate? Would be great to hear about uplifting examples, in the aftershock of the US election.

I'm joining in with the #5frugalthings blog linky. If you'd like to join, or just want to check out other thrifty suggestions, hop on over to visit Cass at Diary of a Frugal Family, Becky at Family Budgeting and Emma at Emma's Savvy Savings

*indicates an affiliate link, so anything you buy through them will help support the blog, as I will get a small commission, at no cost to you. Many thanks!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Save in October Day 13: Earning interest from current accounts

Where to find interest rates to shoot the lights out

This week was the first time I've ever regretted not being robbed.

(I've got some pretty big regrets about the US election too, but will try to shut up about those).

During October, I opened a Tesco current account to stash some of my savings.
Then this weekend, I was pelted with texts and news that hackers had attacked Tesco Bank and stolen money from 20,000 accounts.

As a money journalist, it would have made a great story if my account was raided.
Unfortunately, "Tesco Bank customer, money completely fine" doesn't make such a good headline.

So my Tesco balance is still intact (phew) and more importantly, is paying 3% interest on my savings.

Make your money work for you

Here at Much More With Less, I'm a big fan of earning money for nothing. I'm all in favour of handing my emergency cash to a bank, and getting paid for the privilege.

OK, so interest rates are pretty rubbish right now, but it's got to be better than hiding it from hackers under the mattress, and earning zip all.

If I just popped my savings in a money box, I'd be much more likely to spend it too.

Why I'm saving in a current account

So as part of the October savings challenge, making small changes each day to spend less, earn more and save a chunk of cash for Christmas, I wanted to find a high-paying home for my readies.

In today's topsy turvy world, you can earn more interest on your money from a current account than a savings account. Weird eh?

The highest paying accounts have been cutting interest rates right, left and centre (yeah, thanks a lot Santander, Lloyds and TSB).

I would dearly love to scoop up my money and flounce away in protest.

However, I am forced to admit that even with the rates slashed - current accounts still represent the best chance to earn more interest on your savings.

Top tips for saving in a current account

When you get to the list of current account below, it might all sound like a lot of hassle.
However, if you can grit your teeth and sort out the admin at the start, it then all takes care of itself.
Even better, most of it can be organised on computer, without having to schlep to a bank.

These are my top tips for saving in a current account:

1. Look for the highest rates. I recommend checking the independent website Savings Champion. It's best buy tables are clear and easy to understand, and its run by Sue and Anna who really know their stuff.

2. Watch out for the maximum balances. The table-topping rates tend to be only available on a limited amount of cash. I appreciate that's not a problem if you've only got a tenner to you name. However, if you're aiming to save an emergency fund to cover expenses for three to six months, it could become an issue.

3. Newsflash: you can have more than one current account. Fortunate enough to have more savings than the maximum that earns interest in one account? Open another account. In fact, open several. Between us, my husband and I have seven (count 'em) current accounts. It helps us earn as much interest as possible, before we have to splash out on a new roof.
It also means we can use current accounts for different purposes. I can keep my work expenses separate from the account that earns cashback on household bills, and separate again from the current accounts paying interest on our savings.

4. Don't worry, you don't have to switch. With most of the interest-paying accounts, you can just open a new account, and don't have to switch your tried and tested ordinary current account.
Mind you, if you're willing to switch your account entirely, First Direct will pay you £100, M&S Bank doles out a £100 gift voucher just for switching, and if you act quickly, the Co-op Bank will bung you £150 if you switch tomorrow (11 November). There are also other benefits if you jump through certain hoops.

5. Read the small print. Current accounts paying decent interest can be tricksy things. To earn the interest, they might demand that you pay in a minimum amount each month, set up a certain number of direct debits or use internet banking a certain number of times.

6. Set up standing orders in a circle. If you have to make certain minimum payments each month, remember you can always set up a standing order from your main account, to transfer money across, and then set up another standing order back again a few days later. OK so it might require a bit of admin at the start - but after that it takes care of itself.

7. Get paid to pay your bills.
I've written in the past about how you can make money from your household bills. Santander, NatWest and RBS all have accounts that pay you up to 3% cashback on your main utility bills - water, gas, electricity, council tax, mobile phone, landline, broadband and any TV subscriptions.
I use the Santander account, because it pays interest on chunky credit balances as well as 1%, 2% or 3% cashback depending on the bill, but it did hoik its fees up to £5 a month, and has now halved the interest rate too.
If you don't have significant savings, the NatWest and RBS Reward current accounts pay a flat rate of 3%, and charge a lower £3 a month fee.

8. Dole out the direct debits. 
Some current accounts will only pay out if you set up a certain number of direct debits. Don't miss out on extra money, just because you couldn't be bothered to switch extra direct debits. Like the standing orders to meet minimum income rules, once you've done it, the direct debits take care of themselves.
I pay any direct debits that will earn cashback out of our Santander account, and then use other ones to meet the requirements for other current accounts.
Examples might be the direct debits for your TV licence, life assurance and any insurance policies you don't pay in a lump sum, like cover for pets, buildings, contents or your car. If you have a problem coming up with enough direct debits, consider setting up a small monthly payment to your favourite charity.

9. Earn more from regular saver accounts.
If you want to save even more, some of the current accounts have linked regular saving accounts that pay chunky interest on limited monthly payments. Nationwide, First Direct and M&S Bank all offer regular saver accounts paying 5% for a year - but you can only open them if you're already a current account customer. You can pay in up to £500, £300 or £250 a month, respectively.

Best rates right now

So what's left?

Nationwide pays 5% on the Flexclusive current account on balances up to £2,500. You have to pay in £1,000 a month and the rate drops to 1% after a year.
Most interest you could earn in a year: £250.

TSB currently pays 5% on the Classic Plus current account on balances up to £2,000. You have to pay in £500 a month, register for internet banking and paperless statements and correspondence.
TSB will also hand over 5% cashback on the first £100 you spend each month on a contactless debit card, up to 30 September 2017.
However, from January, the rate drops to 3% on up to £1,500.
If you're willing to switch your account, MoneySavingExpert has a link that promises £100, provided you apply before 11 December and switch everything over before 30 December. (Here's the page with the MSE link)
From January, most interest you could earn in a year: £45. So £100 switching bonus would be handy.

Lloyds currently pays as much as 4% on the Club Lloyds account, if you have a balance between £4,000 and £5,000. You have to pay in £1,500 a month, or they'll swipe a £5 fee. You also need to pay two direct debits each month. However, the rate is dropping to 2% on all balances under £5,000 in January.
From January, most interest you could earn in a year: £100

Tesco Bank pays 3% on balances up to £3,000 on a nice simple account. There's no monthly fee, no need to set up direct debits, and no minimum monthly payment.
Most interest you could earn in a year: £90. 

Bank of Scotland via Vantage also pays as much as 3%, and on higher balances up to £5,000. You have to pay in at least £1,000 a month, stay in credit and pay two direct debits each month, but there's no monthly fee.
Most interest you could earn in a year: £150

Santander 123 current account always used to be a good bet, because it paid interest on a much higher balance than other current accounts - up to £20,000 - and paid up to 3% cashback on bills.
However, first it hoiked up the monthly fee from £2 to £5, and now it has halved the interest rate from 3% to 1.5%.
If your cashback covers the monthly fee, the most interest you could earn in a year is now £300.
Spreading your money across several higher paying current accounts is now likely to pay more interest than sticking with Santander.

I opened a Tesco Bank account as part of the October savings challenge because I already have current accounts with TSB, Nationwide, Lloyds and Santander, all of which have either already cut my interest rates, or will do so in January. Curses.

Anyone else making money from their current account? Any top tips on how to earn extra interest? I'd love to hear!

Disclaimer: this post isn't sponsored, and doesn't contain any affiliate links, it's just based on my own research and experience.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Save in October Day 12: Cut costs with gift vouchers & grab a free fiver

Get more for less buying discounted gift vouchers at Zeek

Want to spend less on stuff you'd buy anyway? Keen to cut the cost of Christmas?
Then nip over to the Zeek website, where you can buy gift vouchers for less - and even claim a free fiver!

I gave Zeek a whirl as part of my October savings challenge, to spend less, earn more and save a chunk of cash. I don't do much shopping, but when I do, I try to get more for less.

In the end, I was so impressed by the savings, I've even been back.

Read on to find out what I bought, how much I saved, and my top 10 tips for making the most of Zeek.

What is Zeek?

Zeek is a website where you can buy and sell unwanted gift vouchers.

When I was a child, I was hugely over-excited every time I got a £10 WHSmith's voucher for my birthday. It opened up a nirvana of matching pens, pencil cases and weirdly scented erasers.
Nowadays, not so much.
Gift vouchers are a strange half way house between "I have no idea what to buy you as a present" and "I didn't feel I could just stuff a tenner in an envelope".
As a recipient, you clamp on your best grateful face, try desperately to think what on earth you'll buy, then stuff them in a drawer until they expire.

But now, if you're landed with a gift voucher you'll never use - you can flog it for cash on Zeek!
Even better for savvy spenders - you can pay less for unwanted gift vouchers.

You can access Zeek via your computer or using an app on your smartphone. The registration process is super easy, and you can pay for vouchers using a credit card, debit card or by PayPal.

What did I buy?

When I first looked at Zeek, I was a bit bewildered by the choice.
There are gift vouchers for everything from toys to travel, sports to supermarkets and restaurants to department stores.

After a small diversion daydreaming about half-price spa days with afternoon tea, I focused on things we genuinely needed to buy.

Supermarket shopping may be less glamorous than relaxing with cake, but we always need food. I discovered that different shops have different discounts, voucher values and expiry dates.
At the time, there were vouchers for up to 4% off at Sainsburys, 3% at Tesco and 2% at Morrisons. All fine and dandy, but in practice a 4% discount at Sainsbury's involved spending £28.80 for a £30 voucher, and waiting up to 7 days for the card to arrive. It seemed a lot of hassle to save £1.20.

Frying pans a go go

Instead, I searched for savings on a frying pan, as we need a bigger pan for the induction hob on our new cooker.

Checking department stores, I discovered the biggest discount at Debenhams, with up to 8% off, but only up 6% off at House of Fraser, and up to 5% at John Lewis.

Even better, Debenhams was running its Blue Cross sale, and I could earn cashback if I clicked through from the TopCashback* website.

I ended up choosing a hard-anodised frying pan with a 10 year guarantee, (it's this one! shiny!) which normally sells for £40. However, it only cost me £28.39, nearly 30% less, after loading on all the savings:

- £8 saving from 20% off in the Blue Cross sale
- £2 saving from 8% off a Debenhams voucher from Zeek, down from £25 to £23
- £1.61 saving from 5.05% cashback on Debenhams Home & Garden purchases from TopCashback*

Bring on the booze

I also spotted that Zeek was offering vouchers for Laithwaites with up to 8% off.
With Christmas round the corner and a disappointingly empty wine rank, I figured we were in the market for some discount drink.
Again, I checked the Laithwaites website for offers and searched for cashback via QuidCo* or TopCashback*.

In the end I chose a mixed crate of 12 bottles of wine, which supposedly sells for £108.88 - so just over £9 a bottle.

Instead, it cost me £44, which is just £3.67 a bottle:
- £61 saving with a Laithwaites introductory offer
- £4 saving from 8% off a Laithwaites voucher from Zeek, down from £50 to £46
- £2 saving from 5.05% cashback from TopCashback

As an added bonus, Laithwaites threw in a pair of Dartington Crystal stemless wine glasses, which normally cost anywhere between £7 and £14. I reckon they'll make a nice Christmas present for someone, and save me buying something else.

Back for Lego

I'm such a Zeek convert that I even checked out the website when buying Lego for my son's birthday.

Sainsbury's and Argos were both running toy sales, but didn't have the desired dragon in stock.
However Toys R Us had the right dragon at the same price, and I was able to buy a £25 gift voucher with 7% off from Zeek, benefit from £1.57 cashback from Quidco*, get a free Kai Mini Dragon, normally £4.99, for spending more than £15 on Lego Ninjago, and qualify for free delivery.

Example of Zeek offers sorted by highest discount

10 top tips for using Zeek

After trying Zeek, here are my tips for bargain hunters who want to get much more for less:

1. Deep discounts
Sort the gift vouchers by "High Discount" rather than "Popular", to find the biggest savings. You can also search by category or by brand, if you've got a specific shop in mind.

2. Don't get dazzled
As with any offer, don't get dazzled by discounts into spending more than you mean to. Use Zeek to cut the cost of things you were going to buy anyway - not land yourself with a big bill.

3. Size matters
Some of the biggest discounts are available on stonkingly large gift cards, which can then be hard to spend. Much as my daughter loves Build a Bear, and I like a 10% discount, I still didn't want to fork out £90 for a £100 gift card.
Luckily, Zeek offers vouchers elsewhere starting from just £5.

3. Consider swapping shops
The discounts vary between different brands, so if you want to buy something available in several places, look for the cheapest option.
For example, if you want to buy books, currently you can get up to 10% off at Waterstones, but only up to 5% off at WHSmiths.
Even if Zeek offers a decent discount, do check whether you can still get stuff cheaper elsewhere, without using a giftcard.

4. Opt for online
Make sure of savings by searching for "eGift Card" rather than "Physical Gift Card".
If I had to wait for a gift card to show up by post, I'd risk forgetting what I meant to buy or losing the damn thing, which is a complete waste of money. Instead, if you buy an eGift Card, you get the code immediately and can spend it straight away.

5. Double the discount with cashback
If you're shopping online, remember to check if you can get cashback on top from websites like TopCashback* or QuidCo*.
Right now, you can buy eGift Cards for The Entertainer for up to 10% less on Zeek.
If you then click through to The Entertainer from the TopCashback website*, you can then get an extra 6.06% cashback.
This is a real benefit - usually you can't combine cashback offers with discount codes from somewhere else. Yet because Zeek sells gift vouchers, not voucher codes, you should still earn cashback. You should also qualify for cashback on the whole amount spent, not just the balance after deducting the giftcard. Bargain.

6. Get a triple whammy with sale savings
If you wait until a website is having a sale before nabbing a cheap gift card on Zeek, you could benefit from the triple whammy of savings from the sale, cashback and discounted gift voucher.

7. Check Zeek first
From now on, if I intend to buy something specific online, I'll swing by the Zeek website first to see if I can get a cheap gift voucher for roughly the right amount. I buy a particular style and size of Gap jeans for example, so next time they're on sale, I'll see if Zeek is still offering up to 10% off vouchers.

8. Here today, gone tomorrow
Zeek is a marketplace, rather than a shop, so the brands and discounts can appear and disappear.
The stock on depends on availability, so even if you don't see a tempting discount today, you might find something better tomorrow. Just don't get panicked into buying a bargain gift card you might not use.

9. Swap unwanted vouchers for cash
I haven't tried selling gift vouchers on Zeek, but if you're given a gift voucher you can't imagine spending, it's a good way to get some of the value as cash.
Just remember that you have to set a selling price of at least 10% less than the value of the voucher, and will need to pay Zeek a 7% processing fee, with a minimum £3 charge. Once sold, you can choose to get your money paid by PayPal or bank transfer, and it should show up within 14 business days.

10. Grab a free fiver
The great news is that you can get £5 for free to spend at Zeek, using the code 2CJTLAUC, and I'll get a £5 credit too.
You can either click on this link* or register on the Zeek website, click on the Account Menu in the top right hand corner, then choose "Promo Code", enter the code 2CJTLAUC and click "Redeem". Bingo - you have 10 days to save an extra £5 when buying your first gift voucher.
The only catch is that you'll have to pay a minimum of £1 yourself, but the £1 gets added back as a credit for next time.

Even better - you can generate your own promo code to share with friends. If they use it, they can earn a free fiver and you'll get another free fiver yourself!

The only quibbles I have about Zeek are that you can only buy a single gift voucher at a time, rather than loading several into your basket, so you have to go through the check out process all over again if you want to buy more than one.

Also, I'd like to be able to search for the amount of the gift voucher, and for example just see vouchers costing less than £25. This would stop me getting hyped about Eurostar savings, only to discover the cheapest voucher still costs £90.

Current offers

If you'd like to make some savings on your Christmas shopping, here are some of the best discounts I've spotted today:

Up to 20% off at Cineworld, if you'd like to see the latest Harry Potter spin off film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Book Cineworld tickets online, and you can save an extra 10%, as mentioned in this post.

Up to 15% off Monsoon, for party dresses and presents

Up to 12% at Buyagift, if you know anyone else who daydreams about spa days

Up to 10% for Theatre Tokens, if you'd rather give a trip to the theatre instead of cluttering up someone's home

Up to 10% at The Entertainer and up to 7% at Toys R Us and Argos, if you're in the market for Christmas toys

Up to 9% at Pizza Express, which could be a particularly cheap meal out if combined with its regular offers or vouchers from Nectar points.

Up to 8% at Laithwaites if you're also up for Christmas booze

If you're feeling particularly fancy at Christmas, you can also find discounts on gift vouchers for Mulberry, Liberty and Tiffany & Co. I'll be sticking to my frying pan though.

Remember, with all of these discounts, you can get an extra fiver off if you use the promo code 2CJTLAUC or click on this link* to register for Zeek.

Anyone else think Zeek could be a good idea? I'd love to hear if you give it a whirl.

Disclaimer: I received a credit to try out the Zeek website, but all views are my own. I wouldn't recommend anything that I don't use myself, and won't continue to use in future.
*Indicates affiliate links, so anything you buy through them will help support the blog, as I will get a small commission at no cost to you. Many thanks!

Friday, 4 November 2016

Five fabulously frugal things I've done this week #9

A spooky theme for this week's five frugal things

New week, new month, and a new start back at school when the children returned after half term.

I was talking to my husband about how recently it's been a perfect storm for me of infrequent events all colliding at the same time.

Take two writing deadlines and the last careers workshop I'm responsible for organising, mix in half term, day trips and a family visit, then kerpow hit the entire family with a vomiting bug (nice) and even when school restarts, pile on a school trip and Hallowe'en.

So here's for a more peaceful but still thrifty November!

And here's my round up of our five fabulously frugal things this week, with a distinctly spooky theme due to Hallowe'en.

Trick or treat bags making their annual appearance

Reusing trick or treat bags

My children go crazy for Hallowe'en. They like the dressing up, the decorations and going out after dark, but what they really love is returning with their bodyweight in Haribo.
I'm definitely up for the community feel of Hallowe'en, meeting neighbours that take part and saying hi to other families, but I'm not up for an expensive evening, or buying loads of plastic tat that will only end up in landfill.
Part of the way I contain costs at Hallowe'en is by reusing stuff from previous years.
When the children were tiny, I lovingly made a couple of trick or treat bags from felt. After all that effort, I made damn sure to pack them away where they could be resurrected in future.
So - resisting any calls for bright orange plastic pumpkin baskets - the home-made trick or treat bags were brought out for another year.
We also dug out previous supermarket costumes, so my daughter could dress up as the grim reaper, and my son could transform into a skeleton.
The fluttering cut out bats, crepe paper ghost, haunting blue lightbulb and cardboard grave stone all made a reappearance too.
I was amazed to discover we'd run out of IKEA tealights (thought that bag was inexhaustible). Luckily we had some elderly Citronella tea lights that worked fine inside pumpkin lanterns, even if they weren't much needed as insect deterrents at this time of year!
Total cost for costumes and decorations: 0p.
General feeling of smugness: priceless.

Action shot of pumpkin carving

Reducing the cost of pumpkins and trick or treat sweets

When I do spend money at Hallowe'en, I look out for offers and discounts.
One year, I made the mistake of buying pumpkins ages in advance of Hallowe'en. By the time it got to 31 October, we ended up with two rather mouldy gourds oozing onto the doorstep.
So this year, I waited till a couple of days before, and we picked up two medium-sized pumpkins for £1 from Morrisons. Bargain.
I also spent £1.50 on a big bag of jelly snakes on offer, for any children showing up at our front door.
Back at home I persuaded the children away from the TV long enough to draw their own designs and have a go at pumpkin carving.
Luckily they emerged with all fingers intact, although I never realised the contents of two pumpkins could cover quite so much of the kitchen.

Roasted pumpkin seeds had better taste good,
after picking them out of the pumpkin flesh.

Recycling the pumpkin contents

Rather than just binning the pumpkin contents, I laboriously sorted through the pumpkin seeds, rinsed them, and roasted them with a glug of olive oil for 10 minutes. They made a surprisingly tasty, crunchy snack.
I'm not convinced pumpkin flesh tastes of much, but I've put it in the fridge ready to make pumpkin, bacon and red lentil soup. As a general rule in life, I reckon most things taste better with bacon.

Actual pears from our actual garden

Picking up windfall peears

This week I also picked up some windfall pears from underneath the tiny pear tree in the secret garden. They're not very ripe, but I'm hoping if I poach them they'll taste nice in a crumble or eaten with ice cream. It is still very exciting to have any produce grown in our garden, after all the years in London with no garden at all, or just some tiny beds round paving.

Bulbs a plenty

Buying bags of bulbs

In a fit of gardening enthusiam, I ordered some bulbs spotted on an email of offers from BBC Gardners' World magazine. 
Bulbs are my kind of plant, because you just bung them in the ground and forget about them - no thinning out, watering, pruning or anything requiring further effort.
It was one of those tricksy "free" offers, where you actually have to fork out for postage and packing.
However, I reckon £5.65 for 200 spring bulbs from Thompson & Morgan*, a company based locally in Ipswich, is a good deal.
The offer included beautiful snakes' head fritillaries, mini daffodils and crocuses. I don't even know what brodiaea and chinodoxa are, but they look pretty. 
Anyway the grand plan is to plant some in our rather forlorn big ceramic pots, so we have extra colour outside in the spring. I also have vague thoughts of popping some in smaller pots as potential Christmas presents.
I think this particular offer may have expired, but Thompson & Morgan* do have some other good deals available, such as four packs of autumn planting bulbs for the price of three*.

October saving challenge

October may be over, but my savings challenge continues, in that I still plan to write up the small changes I made to spend less, earn more and save a chunk of cash towards Christmas.
I definitely saved more than £100, and will be working out quite how much more!

Now over to you - any top tips for a thrifty Hallowe'en? I'd love to some inspiration for next year!

I'm joining in with the #5frugalthings blog linky. If you'd like to join, or just want to check out other thrifty suggestions, hop on over to visit Cass at Diary of a Frugal Family, Becky at Family Budgeting and Emma at Emma's Savvy Savings

*indicates affiliate links, so anything you buy through them will help support the blog, as I will get a small commission, at no cost to you. Many thanks!