Friday, 17 February 2017

Ten fabulously frugal things for half term (17 Feb)

Winter jasmine, from a trip to the Gainsborough Museum in Sudbury

This week was half term, so I've focused on fabulously frugal things that were fun for the children without breaking the bank.
Being frugal doesn't mean spending nothing at all, but I try to make any money we do spend stretch further.
So for example we balanced free activities like country walks, gardening and baking with a day trip to London where we took advantage of offers and vouchers.
School holidays are always a juggling act, with me trying to fit in some work round the edges, but here's how we got on!

OK so the Little Grey Rabbit book was more for me than any offspring.

Stocked up on books at the charity shop and library

On the last day of term, my daughter and I did a quick scan of the charity shops while my son was at football after school. The children get a pound a week pocket money, and I try to divert them onto longer lasting purchases before we reach the sweet shop.
This time I splashed out on some children's books at Hadleigh Thrift Shop, to help with entertainment during the half term holiday - a bargain at £1 for five!
My daughter is a big David Walliams fan, so I also reserved a copy of his latest book, The Midnight Gang*, at our local library. It showed up just in time for our day in London, and kept her occupied on the train trip.

Freebie seeds resurrected from down the side of the radio

Sowed some seeds

Last year, I took out an offer subscription to Kitchen Garden magazine, at just £5 for three issues plus 20 packets of seeds. You even get extra seeds with each issue.
If you're interested, they're actually running the same offer again - just remember to cancel in time, if you don't want to pay £20 every six months afterwards.
Sadly, the packets then just sat on the  kitchen windowsill, wedged down the side of the radio.
Anyway, my son declared that during half term he really wanted to sow some seeds.
I asked him to read the back of the packets and find stuff suitable for sowing in February.
He piled potting compost into a cheap and cheerful windowsill seed tray I bought last year (like this £2.50 version from Wilkos), poked holes the right depth, dropped the seeds in, and insisted on watering them with a water pistol (as you do). I was chief packet opener, in an attempt not to scatter the remaining seeds everywhere.
The seed tray is now ensconced on the kitchen windowsill, and we're waiting to see if anything emerges from the carrot, kale, pepper, salad leaves and onions seeds in the tray.

Plunging down a hill on a voyage of discovery

Explored the railway walk

The next item on the half term schedule written by my seven-year-old son was a trip to explore the Railway Walk. It's a nature reserve just near our house, along the route of (you've guessed it) an old railway line. It's great for dog walkers, runners and cyclists, and also children who want to explore the interesting side turnings, hills and hummocks.
I let my son lead the way, along different paths through the brambles and gorse, and pelting down a hill between the oak trees. We discovered a brick tunnel we hadn't tried before, and then found our way back to familiar routes. Good to get outside and all for no cost at all!

Romance, in biscuit form

Baked some biscuits

My son also insisted on baking some chocolate chip cookies, and as it was Valentine's Day, we had a go at heart shapes. We used the tried and tested recipe at the end of this post, and mainly value range ingredients, which helps keep the cost down. They made my husband smile when he got home from work.

Posing up a storm at Liverpool Street Station

Saved on train tickets to London

Planning ahead can play a big part in living a more frugal life. When Greater Anglia were running an offer for cheap off peak day return tickets during the week, I noticed the offer included half term, and booked to take the children for a day in London.
So on Wednesday, the three of us took the train from Manningtree to Liverpool Street and back for the princely sum of £19. My son has been studying the Great Fire of London at school, so we walked round to see places he'd heard about like Monument, Pudding Lane and St Paul's.

Arsonists need not apply.

Checked out 2 for 1 offers when travelling by train

If you travel by National Rail, you can save money at the Days Out Guide website with two for the price of one offers at loads of different museums and attractions.
I had a look at the website before our day in London, and could have got two for one entry to St Pauls and the exhibition about the Great Fire of London at the Museum of London.
However, the voucher for the Fire! Fire! exhibition could only be used at the ticket desk.
I could see that the timed tickets were starting to sell out, so in the end I booked in advance online, to be sure we'd actually get in to the exhibition. At least the Museum of London knocked £3 off when booking for an adult and two children.
So the 2 for 1 offers are worth checking - but not worth trying to save the cash if you miss out on something you'd really like to do!

Trying sushi for the first time

Downloaded a voucher when eating out

Currently, my kids are fixated on Japan. I blame YouTube and clips of vending machines and capsule hotels. Anyway, they were really keen to try some Japanese food, so I promised to take them to Yo Sushi while we were in London, figuring they'd like the coloured plates and conveyor belt.
Eating out in general, and Yo Sushi in particular, are not remotely frugal choices. However, this was a special occasion so I checked for any offers before we left - and printed out a voucher for a free katsu curry. We also packed crisps, drinks, fruit and yogurt tubes to take with us, to save elsewhere.
If you know you're going to be buying from a particular website, shop or restaurant, I figure it's always worth checking if there is some kind of discount available.

Almost wish I'd seen it myself.

Used cinema vouchers from Club Lloyds

I've spread our cash savings across assorted current accounts, in an attempt to earn more than the minimal interest than we'd get elsewhere, including a Club Lloyds account.
Lloyds was one of several banks to slash the interest paid on its current account recently, down from a maximum of 4% to 2% on up to £5,000. Boo, hiss, gnashing of teeth etc.
However, it turns out that the "lifestyle benefits" we got when opening the account are actually an annual offer.
We opt for six Cineworld cinema tickets, rather than an annual magazine subscription or Gourmet Society membership. Last year, we used some of the vouchers to see Kung Fu Panda III.
This year, the vouchers were emailed just in time for half term. When my husband took a day of leave so I could work, he carried the kids off for a trip to Ipswich They enjoyed a jam-packed day, including visiting Ipswich Museum, letting off steam in the park and using vouchers to see the LEGO Batman Movie, which saved more than £24.
Turns out a LEGO Movie and a happy meal from MaccyDs is pretty much as good as it gets when you're seven and nine.

Free wristband from Great Run Local.

Staggered round a free Great Run Local

As mentioned in my post with an update on my get fit for less resolution, on Sunday I met the other winners of the Great East Run Challenge competition (waves to Jeff, Paula, Sara and Tony!).
We all showed up at Needham Lake at hideously early o'clock to have our photo taken for the local paper, before the regular Sunday morning runs.
Great Run Local runs are completely free, welcome both adults and children and if you register on the website beforehand, you will be sent a free snazzy wristband to record your time.
At Needham Lake there are 2K and 5K courses, so even younger runners can get round.
I was in a dilemma about whether to opt for the 2K or 5K route, as I hadn't got far enough along Couch to 5K to complete a whole 5K.
In the end I decided to do my Couch to 5K week 7 run along the 5K route before walking the rest.
My family all came along in support, and my kids were keen to run part of the route with me. With my son, daughter, and Bridget, one of the organisers of Needham Lake Great Local, running alongside, I even managed to run the final part of the course after all.
The fancy wristband showed that I covered the 5K in 38 minutes 57 seconds - but boy did I feel tired afterwards! The kids are now keen to complete their own run, so my husband has volunteered to accompany them on the shorter 2K in future.

Handy list of funeral directors for participants in the Great East Run...

Used a voucher to cut the cost of the newspaper

I duly increased the circulation of the East Anglian Daily Times the next day, when I bought a copy to see the article and particularly flattering photos.
I even managed to a) find and b) remember to take one of the vouchers for the relaunched newspaper, saving an entire 25p off the 85p cover price.
The article about the Great East Run competition appeared next to an ad listing local funeral directors - should I be worried???

In the news

On Sunday, I'll be chatting to Georgina Wroe at BBC Radio Suffolk about frugal fitness. Tune in at 12.30pm for an update on Couch to 5K and other money saving ways to get fitter not fatter!

Get Kids Pass for 60 days for just a pound!

Offer for Much More With Less Readers: £1 for 60 days of Kids Pass

Here's your chance to save money on children's activities, by signing up for 60 days of Kids Pass for just £1 using this link*.
With Kids Pass, you can get discounts for you and your children at more than 5,000 places including cinemas, theatres, attractions, restaurants, family breaks and more.
At only £1, it's worth a punt to find out if you'll use the membership to make real savings.
Sign up now*, and the £1 trial stretches right over the Easter holidays too.
After the trial, Kids Pass will automatically renew at £39.99 for a full year's membership, rather than the normal £75 annual rate.
So do remember to cancel before the 60 days are up, if you don't want to pay for membership afterwards.
You can cancel at any time during the 60 days by calling 0161 244 8225, writing to KidsPass, emailing the customer service team or online in the Members' Area of the Kids Pass website.

Now - over to you. What are you top tips for surviving half term without spending a bundle? I'd love to hear, what with the Easter holidays on the horizon...

I’m linking up with this CassEmma and Becky in this week’s ‘Five Fabulously Frugal things I’ve done this week’ linky.

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

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Get fit for less: be careful what you wish for!

Running shoes in cleaner days, before recent mud and rain.

Back at the beginning of the year, I posted a list of my five fabulously frugal New Year's Resolutions.

Top of the list was get fit for less. Even though I am hardly a natural runner, I reckon running is a good bet for exercise that takes limited money and less time. Basically until some scientist can come up with a form of fitness that takes place while I sleep, I'm stuck with running.

I resolved to have another go at Couch to 5K, which is a nine-week running programme designed to take complete couch potatoes (ie me), get them out running three times a week, and end up being able to run for 30 minutes straight. I did the programme last year, and then a couple of free 5km Park Runs, but what with one thing or another, I let it slide.

(If you're interested, here's a link to the NHS Couch to 5K podcasts with the lovely Laura and rather rubbish music, which I really recommend. There's also great support on the NHS Choices Couch to 5K forum on HealthUnlocked)

So the good news is that I've managed to extend this fit of enthusiasm beyond the first few days of January.

I've been heading out roughly every other day and rewarding my inner five-year-old with stickers on the family calendar. You can even follow my progress over on Twitter, where I post a #Couchto5K tweet every time I stumble back from a run. Yesterday I finished the third run on week 6, which involves staggering along for an entire 25 minutes straight. Given when I started last month it was a bit of push to run for 60 seconds, I'm still not quite sure how I managed that.

And the 'be careful what you wish for' part?

I do rather like free stuff.

And I do rather like entering competitions.

Mostly I just fill in my details, enter the competition, and forget about it, but I figure you've got to be in it to win it. And sometimes - just sometimes - I do, whether it's a free book from Mumsnet Books Club mentioned yesterday, or an amazing manicure / pedicure / London hotel stay.

Anyway, I was casting around for ways to keep myself motivated once the nine weeks of Couch to 5K finish, so I didn't just let any exercise drift again.

I was reading a free copy of the East Anglian Daily Times which was put through our letterbox, and had a whole big spread about the new Great East Run, which will be taking place in Ipswich in September.

And there was a competition specifically for beginner runners who have never run a half marathon before. Five prizes were up for grabs with free VIP entry to the race, Great Run training kit, Skype training tips with Team GB's Andy Vernon and a cryptic reference to "other support".

(I think you might be able to see where this is going) 

Competition in the East Anglian Daily Times - what have I done???

So I bunged off an email with the details requested, and I've only gone and won a place on a half marathon. Eeeek!

That means running for 13.1 miles, which Google assures me is 21.1 kilometres. It's also more than four times further than I've ever run before, and gracious that 5K seemed pretty tough at the time.

So somehow between now and 24 September, I need to be able to run a half marathon. While that's not a completely insane timetable, it's still going to be a massive stretch. At least it has been a cause of great amusement to my nearest and dearest, although my star husband has said he will run it with me, and my mate Rach might even make it to Ipswich too.

And tomorrow I have to show up at Needham Lake before the weekly Great Run Local, to meet the other winners and have our photo taken. Double eeek!

There are two runs afterwards, a 2K and a 5K, and given I don't think I can manage as far as 5K tomorrow goodness knows how I'm going to cope with 21.1K come September.

But hey, I saved £30 on race entry and might get a free T shirt, to go along with the blisters. So there's that.

Anyone else ever bitten off rather more than they bargained for? Or feel like running the Great East Run with us? I reckon we could do with the company!

Friday, 10 February 2017

Five fabulously frugal things I did this week (10 Feb)

Signs of spring from the cyclamen

This week I've enjoyed spotting some of the first signs of spring in our garden, and the peace before the chaos of half term next week. Wish me luck!

We've also had time for a few frugal things this week, from flowers to freebies and bank account opening.

First snowdrops to flower

Celebrating the first snowdrops

After the bleak winter weather, I was delighted to spot the first snowdrops to flower in our garden.
It seems so long since there has been any colour amidst the browns, blacks and greens under grey skies. Since then I've spotted a few tiny flashes of pink, from cyclamen at the edge of the lawn, some tentative yellow primroses emerging in the front beds, and delicate white daphne flowers (or at least I think it's daphne) on a bush at the back of the house.
As the days lengthen, and the light lasts longer, I'm enjoying these signs that spring is on its way. Enjoying our garden, and the Suffolk landscape, is such a wonder and all completely free.
If you'd like to see more pictures, I post a photo of a flower a day over on Instagram - do come over there and follow my feed.

Free book. Excellent.

Bagged a free book from the Mumsnet Book Club

This week I was excited to get a parcel in the post (easily pleased, me) with a free book from the Mumsnet Book Club. If you sign up for their book club emails, they often do book giveaways. All you have to do it fill in your details, keep your fingers crossed, and then leave a brief book review if you're lucky enough to win a copy.
I'm really looking forward to reading "The Trouble With Goats and Sheep" by Joanna CannonOne of the reviews on the cover describes it as "A quirky, moving and beautifully written tale of life in 1970s Britain", so I'm looking forward to wallowing in nostalgia from my own childhood.
If you want to buy your own copy, as opposed to borrowing one from the library, the cheapest I found was £4.21 with free delivery at The Book Depository*

Cutting out pieces for a doll

Helping my daughter make her own doll

I do worry that my children watch too much TV, but sometimes it does actually inspire them to do something else instead. Chopsticks were pressed into action as wands when shouting spells, post Harry Potter viewing, and the sitting room got taken over by a blanket tent after we went to see Swallows and Amazons.
My daughter used part of her Christmas money to buy a Laika DVD boxset - Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls* - keen to point out that £7 was a good deal for three films.
She was remarkably unmoved by the whole "buttons for eyes" storyline in Coraline that freaked me out, but was very taken by Coraline's mini-me rag doll, and announced that she would like to make her own.
Rather than rushing out to buy materials, I unearthed some possibilities from my fabric stash and dug out a bargain £2.99 book about doll making* that I got ages ago. My daughter decided to use some of the silk left over from my wedding dress and traced a pattern ready to cut out the pieces. She's now part way through sewing it up, and hopefully we can finish the doll, stuffing, button eyes, clothes and all, from things we already have in the house.

Voucher-tastic savings

Remembered to use vouchers on my supermarket shopping

I'm not always the biggest fan of money-off vouchers, as they tend focus on branded food.
Often, even after you've used a voucher, the product is still more expensive than if you'd bought an own brand alternative. It feels like you're nabbing a bargain, but actually you end up spending more than you need to.
However, I do like vouchers where you get something completely free, and last Sunday when we went to Morrisons I remembered to use a combination of vouchers sent by post, email and via supermarket cashback apps.
I used one of the Rachel's Organic vouchers I blogged about before to get a free pot of their £1.84 low-fat rhubarb yogurt.
I also claimed the £2 cost of a box of 24 Weetabix via TopCashback's Snap & Save. The offer is still valid through Sunday (12 February) if you get a shimmy on.
I also lashed out on some no added sugar Ribena, but took advantage of a 50p off voucher from a Change4Life email, plus another 25p off via the TopCashback mobile app.
It's hard to justify the Ribena, as I could have bought a perfectly good litre of Morrisons no added sugar blackcurrant high juice squash for £1.36, rather than the £1.73 the 850ml Ribena cost me after discounts, but it cheered the children up.

Joys of opening current accounts

Opened yet another current account

I'm still keen to earn as much interest as possible on our savings, even if it's tricky when rates are so rubbish right now. Current accounts seem to be one of the few places where you can earn slightly higher interest, albeit on limited amounts.
Last Saturday I got round to setting up yet another current account, this time with Bank of Scotland.
I applied online and ticked the "Vantage" box, which means I can earn as much as 3% on balances up to £5,000.
I'll happily pocket an extra £150 a year, especially when the new Personal Savings Allowance means basic-rate taxpayers can earn £1,000 a year in interest without paying a penny in tax, and even higher-rate taxpayers can earn £500 a year tax-free.
The good news is that you don't have to switch your current account to benefit and there's no acccount fee, but you do need to pay in £1,000 a month and pay at least two direct debits every month. For details of other high interest current accounts on offer, check out my post here.
Once the computer generated my account number and sort code, I was able to tweak the standing orders that move money round between our different accounts, so that £1,000 will be paid into the Bank of Scotland account every month.
The letter with my internet banking code showed up yesterday, so I've now been able to set up a standing order to transfer the money out of Bank of Scotland a few days later, and back into our main current account. I was also able to check that the £1 test payment I did on Saturday showed up in the right place, and then transfer more of our savings.
The direct debits are slightly trickier. I prefer to pay most of my direct debits from my Santander 123 current account, as it pays cashback on household bills that covers the fiver-a-month fee.
Instead, I've changed our direct debit details on the TV licence website, so it will now go out of the new Bank of Scotland account, and I've also set up a pound-a-month direct debit to Shelter. It may be a minimal contribution, but it meets the account criteria, and I know the money will go to a good cause. Hopefully as it's an automated payment it won't cost the charity too much to adminster.
I've written this all out because although it may sound a bit complicated, once you've set it up, everything happens automatically and you can just sit back and pocket the interest.

So that's my round up of five frugal things this week. Now over to you - any thrifty successes to celebrate? 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!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

How to cut the cost of heating oil

Filling up the oil tank. Outfit: delivery man's own.

One of the big changes in moving from London to Suffolk has been adapting to the harsh realities of heating oil.

We swapped a connection to the gas main for a large oil tank squatting in the garden. Our heating, our hot water, and previously even our cooking, all depend on oil.

Posting last month about our oil bill really made me think about the differences.

Several people commented with surprise at the cost - but only those with gas boilers. I suspect anyone else who relies on heating oil was too busy licking their wounds about recent price hikes!

With gas, I could check prices once a year or so, switch to the cheapest deal, and then relax knowing that so long as the direct debits kept going out, gas would keep heating our home.

One of the big differences with oil however is the very real risk of running out.

Imagine it - frost outside, chilly inside, but oops no heating because you've used up all your oil. We've haven't actually run out (yet) but came pretty close to it the first winter when we hadn't worked out how to use the fuel gauge on the side of the tank.

Unlike gas and electricity, heating oil customers can't go running to Ofgem if they have any problems. The heating oil market isn't regulated.

Since moving to an oil boiler, I've had to adapt to checking the oil level, estimating how long it will last, checking oil prices, guessing future price movements, ringing round for quotes,  allowing for 5% VAT, juggling amounts, prices and delivery times, waiting for the tanker to show up and gritting my teeth as I pay the final bill.

We've also had to adjust our budget - rather than allowing for a modest monthly direct debit, we face a massive bill at irregular intervals.

Because the real crunch for us, along with more than 1.4 million other households in the UK who rely on heating oil, is that we are at the mercy of oil prices.

Boy, has that been a rollercoaster ride over the last few years. Politics, terrorism, OPEC agreements, weather conditions, fracking and exchange rates have sent oil prices all over the place.

Sure, gas and electricity prices go up and down. But I've never experienced the same peaks and troughs as I've seen since moving to oil.

If you've tried to exchange money for a holiday abroad, you'll be aware that post-Brexit your pound buys a lot less than it used to. Now remember that oil trades in dollars - so today anyone with an oil boiler gets less oil for the same amount of pounds.

So for example, our very first oil delivery back in October 2014 cost 48p per litre.
48p might not sound very much.
However, when you're ordering 2,000 litres at a time, that adds up to £1,008 with a dollop of 5% VAT on top. Ouch.

Since then, we saw the price drop by a quarter to the following January. Hurrah!
When I checked prices a year later, January 2016, oil had dropped to a six year low, at only 23.07p a litre - less than half what we paid for our first delivery.
I wrote an article for the Sunday Times and a blog post about heating oil roughly when prices hit their lowest point.
However, by last month, January 2017, prices had soared right back up to 44.75p a litre.

So in two and a half years, we've seen the price of 2,000 litres of oil start at £1,008, drop to less than half at just under £500, and then almost double again in a year, up to £940. Talk about a moving target!

As you might guess given the size of the bills, I'm pretty keen on cutting the cost of our oil.
Just like most household bills, you can cut your cost in two ways:
- using less
- paying less for what you use

This post talks about how to pay less for heating oil, and I'm hoping write a separate post about how to use less in the first place.

Here are my six top tips on how to cut the cost of heating oil:

1. Don't leave it till the last moment

Ordering oil is a nerve-wracking process, if you're hanging on to delay a big bill, or hoping that prices might fall.
However, running out of oil is no fun and no-one wants to risk sludgey stuff from the bottom of the tank oozing into your boiler and causing chaos.
You can also get stung financially if you have to order oil in a hurry, rather than being able to wait a couple of weeks.
For example, when I got a quote from BoilerJuice, an oil comparison site, in January, it quoted 44.58p per litre - provided I could wait for two weeks.
The price for an emergency next day delivery soared to 50.56p, adding an extra £125 to the cost of 2,000 litres. Today, it's saying I couldn't get any oil for five days at the earliest, as their suppliers are too busy to make emergency deliveries.
So the main message is: save money by ordering in advance.

2. Watch out for the weather

On top of all the global factors affecting oil prices, local weather can also have a big impact.
If it suddenly turns chilly, and everyone fires up their boiler and discovers they need more oil, then prices can rise and delivery times can lengthen.
In the past, it tended to be a good plan to stock up in summer, and avoid for example a rush just before Christmas. I'm slightly wary of this advice, as by the end of 2015 prices were lower than during the summer, but then last year a summer delivery would indeed have been cheaper.
Fundamentally it all depends on the size of your oil tank. If it's already full, you can't add any more!

3. Buy in bulk

The minimum order for heating oil is typically 500 litres, but if you buy bigger quantities you can typically get a better (read cheaper) price per litre.
We have a pretty big tank, so I tend to hang on until I can order about 2,000 litres a time.
The alternative is to club together with other people to benefit from a bigger order.
BoilerJuice, the comparison website I mentioned, will pass on savings if it can include your delivery in a larger group order.
I also recommend checking if there is an oil club in your area, so you can join a bulk order.
I signed up for free with The Oil Club, and get emailed once a week with the rates for the snappily named "Hadleigh, Lower Layham and Raydon Heating Oil Club". Typically, the oil club prices are pretty low, but you do need to allow up to a fortnight after the email for the oil to arrive. Miss the Monday midday deadline for ordering, and you could delay your delivery for an extra week.

4. Compare quotes

In addition to the comparison sites, I ecommend getting quotes from a few local suppliers.
You don't even have to wait to ring during working hours, as many of the bigger companies will email a quote after you've plugged your details into the website.
I tracked down suppliers by googling "heating oil Suffolk", but you can also get a list of accredited suppliers from the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers

5. Start bargaining

This is the part I like least.
If you want to shave off some cash, start ringing round suppliers, asking if they can beat the lowest quote you've had elsewhere.
Heating oil companies seem to be used to people asking for a better deal, so there's no harm in trying.
I find that if I ask for a quote online, some of the companies then ring me the next morning, which can be a great time to say "Oh, I was quoted a lower price of xp per litre by another company, what can you do?".
I keep in mind that every half pence off the price of oil saves me £10.50 when ordering 2,000 litres. On occasion I've been willing to pay a bit higher to a local company, Goff Petroleum, knowing that they will deliver quicker than if I have to wait for the Oil Club. Goff is also willing to fill up the tank, rather than delivering a fixed amount based on me staring at a transparent tube and guessing.
Alternatively, the heating oil comparison sites like BoilerJuice and Fuel Tool suggest that you save time, effort and energy by ordering from them rather than ringing round and getting your own quotes.

6. Beware of payment plans

The downsides of ordering a tankfull of oil each time are a) big bills and b) the forking out for a big bill, only to see prices plummet afterwards.
Instead, some oil suppliers offer payment plans, where you sign up for a regular monthly direct debt designed to cover the annual cost of your oil.
However, you are then tied in to buying oil from that particular supplier - who may not offer the cheapest prices in future.
Instead, I reckon you'd be better off setting up a standing order into a bank account of your own, which can then be used to buy oil for the lowest price when needed. If you use a high interest current account to stash your savings, you might even be able to earn some extra interest before paying the bills.

Anyone else have any top tips for how to pay less for heating oil? Or a sense of relief at relying on good old gas? Do share your advice in the comments below, I'd love to hear!

Friday, 3 February 2017

Five first steps to being frugal

Me! On a podcast!

Ever thought you should be a bit more frugal?

Opened a credit card statement and thought "ouch"?

Wondered how there was too much month for your money?

Last week I recorded an interview with Martin Bamford over at Informed Choice Radio, chatting away about money matters and freedom via frugality.

(If you'd like a listen, here's the link).

We talked about the small changes I made each month during 2016, that added up to a big difference - nearly £5,000 in money saving measures, topped up with a whole chunk from investments.

One of the questions he asked was: "What are the first steps for those wanting to live more frugal lives?".

Now, I've had times in my life when I earned a lot of money, and times when I scraped by on next to nothing. Since moving to the country, we're been living on less, and I've thought a lot about how to make the most of it. If we want to live in our wildly impractical house, then every penny counts!

I'm not suggesting that frugality means sitting around shivering under a blanket, eating gruel.

As I said in the quote Martin used with the photo, there are so many things you can do to make the most of your money that will have absolutely no impact on your quality of life.

Sometimes the idea of sorting out money matters can seem overwhelming, and it's difficult to know where to begin.

So when it comes to first steps to being frugal, I suggest:

1. Check your direct debits

Look at all your direct debits. Is there anything you are paying for that you don't use any more?
See if you can cancel direct debits for stuff like magazines you don't read, gym membership you don't use or free trial subscriptions that you now pay for.
For the direct debits you can't cancel - bills like gas, electricity, landline, broadband, mobile, insurance etc - start tackling them one at a time. See if you can cut costs by switching to a different company, or getting a better deal from the current company.

2. Get paid to spend

I'm a big fan of earning cashback on money you'd spend anyway.
Get paid a percentage back by:
- checking cashback websites like TopCashback and Quidco before you buy online
- handing over loyalty cards and vouchers
- paying with a cashback credit card
- using a current account that pays cashback on household bills
- saving on food shopping using supermarket cashback apps
Small sums, but it all adds up!

3. Keep a spending diary

If you want to spend less - write it down. It's that simple. Whether you use pen and paper, a whizzy spreadsheet or a memo on your phone, make a note of everything you spend. Yes, even that snack on the way to work, magazine when you're bored or donation to red nose day.
Keeping a spending diary will show you where your money disappears and help you consider where to make changes.

4. Use what you have

Next time you think of running to the shops - check the contents of your cupboards. You may be surprised by how much you already have at home.
I've blogged before about food challenges (here and here), using up the contents of our kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer, but this applies much more widely than food.
Whether it's clothes, shoes, toys, toiletries, books, films, music, whatever, see if you already own something that you could use instead.
Retrieve the outfit you haven't worn for a while from the back of the wardrobe, unearth the games the kids haven't played with in ages or dig out the fancy soap you were given last year.
Using stuff up can mean massive savings.

5. Start saving

Now that you have freed up some money by cutting costs, earning extra and spending less - start saving!
Make a conscious effort to set money aside. Whether you start hoarding £2 coins, transferring odd amounts or setting up a direct debit to a savings account straight after payday, don't let your savings disappear into a big black hole.
If you have debts, you are almost certainly paying more money in interest than you can earn elsewhere, so use any extra cash to pay down the money you owe.
Once debts are cleared, look out for the highest interest you can earn elsewhere. Remember that in today's topsy turvy world, it may well be a current account rather than a savings account.

These are my five first steps for being frugal, to get you off to a good start.

Now over to you - what are your top tips for starting to live a more frugal life? I'd love to hear! Do share your suggestions in the comments below.

I’m linking up with this CassEmma and Becky in this week’s ‘Five Fabulously Frugal things I’ve done this week’ linky.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Five fabulously frugal things I did this week (27 Jan)

Pancake made with aquafaba. Looks better than it tasted.

About the best thing that can be said for this week is that it's been a pretty low spend, apart from the oil delivery (of which more later).
I got poleaxed by a cold half way through, which took me out for a couple of days and means I still don't feel fab now.
Before coming down with the cold, I recorded a podcast about the blog with Informed Choice Radio, so will let you know when that's available to hear.
Also, the interview I did about money saving tips and Much More with Less with Georgie Frost at Share Radio was aired, so nip over here if you'd like a listen.

And now here's my round up of the five frugal (ish) things we managed this week.

No really, chick pea water does whip up like this, honest guv. 

Attempted to use aquafaba as an egg replacement.

I've included this as a cautionary tale about attempted frugality.
We always make pancakes on Sunday mornings, but in my attempts to rein in our food spending during January (as blogged here), I hadn't bought new eggs when we ran out last week.
Instead, I thought I'd have a go at using chickpea water as a substitute. Bear with me here, as this isn't a completely insane idea but something I've read about in vegan recipes.
Anyway it's true that the water drained from a tin of chickpeas did indeed whip up much like egg whites. However, my family were unconvinced about the taste and voiced their dissatisfaction loudly.
I haven't included the recipe as I really wouldn't recommend it, and regretfully I won't be using aquafaba in pancakes again any time soon.
However, the chick peas did come in handy in some carrot and chickpea soup, using this Jack Monroe recipe that I definitely can recommend.
Has anyone had any more success with aquafaba, maybe in meringues? I'd love to hear.

Plain. Black. Does the job. Perfect.

Saved on wellies

Sometimes I think the Chinese knew a thing or two when it came to foot binding, as my children's feet grow faster than Jack's beanstalk.
A regular part of my childhood was an ear-bashing from my mother about the importance of shoes that fit growing feet, delivered at full volume in many shoe shops. This means that at regular intervals I resign myself to taking both children to be measured at Clarks, hoping for well-fitting, long-lasting shoes even if they do cost an arm and a leg.
On Saturday, we went to Ipswich in search of shoes. Joyfully my daughter's feet stayed the same, but my son had gone up an whole size. This means not just new school shoes, but the whole whack - wellies, trainers for PE lessons at school, trainers for outside school and rugby boots that double up for football too. Whoop whoop. Not.
Anyway, we shelled out at Clarks for the school shoes, trainers and a second pair of trainers that were thankfully in the sale.  However, I then nipped round to Shoe Zone for bargain  black wellies at £7.99. We also threw ethical purchasing to the wind and bought the rugby boots half price from Sports Direct.
Anyone care to bet how long before we'll be back for replacements, in the next size up?

Pretty in pink - a cold survival kit

Bought own-brand medicine

Goodness I felt rubbish this week, laid low by a nasty cold. On Wednesday I staggered to the chemist after dropping the children at school, and remembered to buy Boots own brand cold and flu sachets, rather than spending a whole extra pound on Lemsip.
Buying generic or own brand medicines can be massively cheaper than buying the branded versions with big advertising budgets to support.
For example, the active ingredient in Nurofen is ibuprofen.
Taking a quick gander at the Boots website, Nurofen 200mg Ibuprofen tablets cost £3.29 for 24 tablets, so 14p each.
Yet if you buy the Value Health 200mg Ibuprofen tablets instead, they only cost 35p for 16 tablets - nearly a tenth of the price, and just 2p per tablet. Bet your headache can't tell the difference.
I should probably just have popped a paracetamol and made myself some honey and lemon, rather than using the cold and flu sachets, but look how pretty the pink blackcurrant version looks!

Untrammelled growth before...

...and viciously hacked back afterwards.


Got out into the garden

I still wasn't feeling great on Thursday, but knew the garden waste collection was due.
We pay £40 a year to the local council so they will take away a wheelie bin full of garden rubbish once a fortnight.
We're certainly not lacking in garden waste to remove, so it provides a incentive for me to actually get outside and fill the bin.
Thursday morning found me hacking back the rosa rugosa and tree peony at the corner of the house, and clearing out the assorted weeds and leaves beneath. The cheeky blackbird re-appeared to investigate anything edible, and was joined by a camera-shy robin. I duly filled the bin and will have to hope that the plants survive my attack.
In previous years I pruned them right back in November, so I do hope I haven't left it too late.
Anyway, it was encouraging to see some green shoots from bulbs starting to break through underneath, so we should see some growth one way or another.

An oil delivery in happier (read cheaper) times

Bargained when buying oil

This was the big bust-your-wallet, sharp-intake-of-breath, how-much-did-you-say?, purchase of the week.
Yup, it was time to refill the oil tank.
When we moved from London to Suffolk, we swapped a connection to the gas main for a large oil tank squatting in the garden. Our central heating and even our cooking, up until we got the new cooker, all depended on oil.
I've written before about oil deliveries, and we've actually been pretty lucky since moving in 2014, as the oil price dropped down and down to a six-year low last January.
The bad news is that oil prices have soared since, pushed up by the post-Brexit plummeting pound and OPEC deciding to restrict supply. So cheers for that.
I kept putting off ordering more oil, in the vain hope prices might wobble downwards, but finally had to order some more before our supplies ran out.
My top tips are to sign up for the Oil Club, get several other quotes online when you need oil, and then ring round asking people to beat the lowest quote you have. Ideal world, it also helps if you can wait a couple of weeks for delivery, rather than leaving it to the last minute, as I did this time.
Anyway last Friday the nice man from Goff Oil showed up with a large tanker and a massive hose (no sniggers at the back please) before we actually ran out. He delivered 2,266 litres, which cost a whopping £1,064.74.
Attempting to look on the bright side, it would have cost another £60 if I'd gone for the most expensive quote elsewhere. So there's that. Sob.
As you might guess, ways to use less oil have been on my mind, so I'm part way through a new blog post on how to save energy. Here's hoping I can put some of the info to good use...

Does anyone else have any frugal things to celebrate this week? Perhaps more successfully than my attempts at tweaking our Sunday morning pancake recipe? I'd love to hear!

I’m linking up with this CassEmma and Becky in this week’s ‘Five Fabulously Frugal things I’ve done this week’ linky.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Five fabulously frugal things I did this week (21 Jan)

Taking advantage of train ticket offers to London

Wow it's been a chilly week. Winter has well and truly set in.
I love the way every leaf and blade of grass is outlined with frost and sparkles in the sunlight, but I could do without the draughts whirling about our house.
I've also been juggling work and everything else, as I had a packed day in London and my daughter was off school poorly for a couple of days (all fine now!).

So without further ado, here are the five frugal things we fitted in this week.

New year, new menu plans

Rejoined WeightWatchers for less

Here's a quick hack if you use WeightWatchers Monthly Pass to pay for meetings and get access to the app and resources online. 
I'm sure a true frugalista wouldn't fork out £21.45 for monthly membership but would just shift the weight themselves. 
Personally, I can do with all the help I can get and value the inspiration and support from meetings once a week (waves at any Hadleigh members who might be reading!).
However, I rather begrudge paying for membership during December. I'm even less likely to stick to it over the festive season, and also most meetings shut between Christmas and the New Year, and may be closed on other days too, depending on the timing of bank holidays. 
Plus you can be pretty sure that as soon as January starts, WeightWatchers will offer cut price membership to lure in people making New Year's Resolutions. However, the offers are only available to new members, not those of us who've been shelling out for months. 
So this year, I rang to cancel my membership back in early December. This meant I didn't get stung for the £21.45 direct debit that month.
Due to the weirdness of the way WeightWatchers charges, my membership didn't actually expire until 12 January - but then I rejoined online two days later, taking advantage of a "30% off 3 month's new membership" offer for £52.05. By clicking through from the cashback website Quidco* to WeightWatchers, I also earned £11.58 cashback on top. 
If I'd let my direct debit continue, I would have paid £85.80 for the four months December through March.(That looks particularly painful written down). 
Instead, by cancelling and rejoining, I only paid £40.47 after cashback - less than half the price.
Now I just need to shed some of the weight to make it worth it...

Want to find out more about cashback? Read this post and this one here

Want a free tenner? Get a £10 bonus if you spend £10 via Quidco!

If you've never signed up for Quidco before, then if you join by clicking this link*, you will earn £10 cashback when you spend £10 or more with any of the 4,300+ Quidco retailers before January 31. 

A fine array of yellow-stickered food 

Went food shopping for less

As well as shedding lbs with WeightWatchers, I'm also attempting to save ££s on our food shopping this month (Read more about my five frugal New Year's Resolutions here). 
This week, I scooped up a good haul of suitably healthy yellow-stickered food at the Co-op. I needed to buy milk after dropping the children at school, and always check out the reduced shelves while I'm there. 
Looking at the photo from top left to right, I was able to buy malted sliced bread from a local producer, a piece of cooked ham, strawberries, grapes, decent bacon, bananas, cucumber, sugar snap peas, two packets of Warburtons sandwich thins, piccolo cherry tomatoes and a fancy salad bag, all for less than the normal price. 
In total it cost £9.31, down from £22.32. 
Admittedly, the Co-op prices tend to start out higher than many other supermarkets, but the reduced prices definitely help keep our bills down. The key is to buy either food you know you will eat quickly, or food you can freeze. 
We've already polished off everything in the pic above, apart from a few slices of bread, half the ham and one pack of sandwich thins, which are all stashed in the freezer.

Cheeky trip to London for less - including half term

Booked train tickets for less

One big decision when moving to Suffolk was that we weren't going to endure a daily commute to London. However, I do still nip up and down every so often, either for work or (shock horror) purely social reasons.
This meant I was delighted to spot an offer from our local train company, Greater Anglia, just when I had two work trips on the horizon. The "Wake Up Your Weekdays" promo applies to off peak day return tickets during the week (try saying that three times fast).
Book online before 3 February, and you can pay £10, £15 or £20 for a return ticket, depending on how far you're travelling.
Even though I can't get a third off with my railcard, and have to pay for tube and bus travel on top, it's still cheaper. I took advantage of the offer to book tickets for two trips and saved a bit more than £13 compared to the normal cost.
As an added bonus, you can book for travel right up until 10 March - which covers half term. So now I'm planning a day trip with the kids, as you can take up to two children with you for just £2 each.

Brand spanking new Cubs uniform

Ordered Cubs uniform for less

After attending her first few sessions, my daughter is keen to continue with Cubs, so I bit the bullet and ordered the uniform.
After a quick search online, I ordered the sweatshirt and polo shirt for £25.47 including delivery from Cubs Uniform, more than £4.50 less than if I'd got them from the official scout shop website (sorry Scouts).
Delivery was super speedy too - I ordered on Wednesday morning, and the parcel arrived on Friday.
I have attempted to buy the sweatshirt in size "she'll grow in to it enormous", as I don't fancy unpicking and resewing badges on a new one any time soon.

Ok, so the jam might finally be finished now

Scraping the barrel jam jar

I'm putting this one out there to see if anyone else does this! Anyone else willing to admit to taking a spatula to their jars, or having a good scrape around with a spoon, to use up the last remnants of jam, mayo or whatever else it is? Anyone? Or just me then? I reckon every little helps, so I'm going to keep on scraping away!

Still need to face up to your tax return?

If you need any top tips about tackling your tax return, I've written an article for this weekend's Sunday Times Money section, and will also be on BBC Radio Suffolk at about 12.30 on Sunday, talking to Georgina Wroe.
If you're on the hook for self-assessment, it's worth filing your return before 31 January, or you'll get hit with a £100 fine even if you don't owe a penny in tax.

I’m linking up with this CassEmma and Becky in this week’s ‘Five Fabulously Frugal things I’ve done this week’ linky.

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