Friday, 13 January 2017

Five fabulously frugal things I did this week (13 Jan)

Nice tree, but no snow. 


With the children back at school, we've been slotting back into a normal routine.
During term time, we tend to mix dashes to school with a merry-go-round of swimming, Strikers, guitar, Beavers, Cubs and Brownies. (Yes, you did read that correctly. Two children and yet all three of Beavers, Cubs and Brownies. Go figure).
My working week has been a dollop of tax returns with a side order of writing about tax returns, and now I'm just cursing the anti-climax of hardly any snow. I wanted blankets of picturesque white stuff, to gaze at while wrapped up warmly inside. Maybe next week!

In the mean time, here are my five fabulously frugal things for this week.


Stewed apple - virtue in a jar


Made stewed apple to cut food waste


Some of the apples we've been given were looking a bit soft and wrinkly. Rather than ignoring them until it was too late, I peeled and cored all five, chopped them roughly, and chucked them in a saucepan with a splash of water.
I softened them over a low heat, and made a couple of jars of stewed apple.
The stewed apple has several other benefits, quite apart from extending the life of the apples and avoiding food waste.
It tastes great on top of porridge or with natural yogurt, as part of the New Year's Resolutions I mentioned last week about healthy eating on a budget.
Plus, it's not just a money saver, but also a time saver. If I'm in a hurry, I'm more likely to snack on something sensible when it's handy in the fridge. A winner all ways round.



Jellytastic. Anyone else nostalgic for Tupperware?


Raided the storecupboard to make snacks for the children


It's fair to say, however, that my children are less enamoured with stewed apple as a snack.
As part of my plans to use up the contents of our cupboards, rather than spending extra money on food, I unearthed a packet of strawberry jelly.
One packet made six little pots for the fridge (anyone else nostalgic about Tupperware?). They went down very well as an after school snack for several days.


Hoping for inspiration for healthy food, fast


Borrowed rather than bought a book


Continuing with my resolutions to get fitter, not fatter, I wanted to check out a copy of the Hairy Dieters: Fast Food cookbook.
It promises lower calorie recipes that only take half an hour to cook. I'm not really up for supposedly healthy eating that involves scything entire food groups from my diet, and rather than existing solely on almond milk and quinoa, I like their approach of hearty meals that are full of flavour.
Sadly, I have discovered that merely buying a book does not cause pounds to drop off - unless you count the damage to my bank balance.
So rather than shelling out for yet another cookbook, before I know whether I'll actually like any of the recipes, I reserved a copy from the library.
We're very fortunate that our local library is still alive and kicking, and a great resource for borrowing books and DVDs.
Looks good so far - I've spotted several budget-friendly recipes like breakfast cranachan mixing the oats and berries with natural yogurt, plus ham and pea fritters, white bean and tuna fishcakes, blackeyed peas and greens, and a fish crumble.
(And if you fancy getting your own copy, rather than borrowing one from the library, The Book People are offering the Hairy Dieters book for a bargainous £5.99 rather than £14.99)*.



Sadly, filing my tax return did not enable me to levitate. Swizz.


Did my tax return, avoided a £100 fine


I may not have found the inner peace promised by HM Revenue & Customs, but it's certainly a great relief to have filed my tax return online.
I don't why I always leave it so late - the tax year finishes on April 5, but somehow I never get round to it until January. Perhaps it's the threat of a £100 fine if I don't get it in by January 31 that finally focuses my mind...
Anyway, I dragged the bulging "tax" file out of the filing cabinet, and after much poring over bank statements and reference to my trusty excel spreadsheet, it was finally done.
I've also written an article for this weekend's Sunday Times with some top tips for completing your tax return - so the payment will be something to add to next year's taxes!


Sunshine slanting across the Railway Walk, earlier this week.


Got out in the fresh air


One thing I've been really enjoying this week is getting outside in the fresh air. I spent a whole chunk of November and December with my head down typing away in front of a screen, so it's been good to get out of the house.
I'm still plugging away at the Couch to 5K running programme as part of my New Year's Resolutions, with a short run every other day. At the weekend, my daughter asked if I could come out with her to ride her Christmas bike, so we went along the Railway Walk so she could hurtle over the hills and hummocks beside the track.
The colours may be muted greens and browns, but the sunshine slanting across the path was very beautiful. There are still robins, pigeons and blackbirds darting around, and plenty of dogs and dog walkers. Best of all from a frugal perspective, bike rides and runs are completely free once you've shelled out for the initial equipment.


Anyone else got some frugal triumphs to share? Submitted your tax return, or dreading the day when you will finally get round to it? 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.

*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!

Friday, 6 January 2017

Five fabulously frugal New Year's Resolutions this week

Soup, using up bendy veg in the fridge. Healthy AND money saving!


I had a cracking year on the frugal front during 2016, and it really made a difference to our family finances (post here).

One thing I really enjoyed was starting to write these "five fabulously frugal things I've done" posts each week. They definitely helped celebrate any frugal successes, and remind me how much the small changes add up.

So now I'm starting 2017 with five fabulously frugal New Year's Resolutions - all very familiar topics, I'm sure, but hopefully with a thrifty spin!

I'm also sure that I'm not alone in seeing many resolutions fall by the way side over the years. However, in a triumph of hope over experience, I always get enthusiastic about January as a fresh start.


Grabbed the wrong headphones to start running again - doh.


Resolution 1: Get Fit For Less

I'm about as far from a gym-honed fitness freak as possible, so I could definitely benefit from doing a bit more any exercise.
Rather than signing up for expensive gym membership, I recommend running as exercise involving less time and even less money.
Last year I surprised myself by having a go at the Couch to 5K running programme, which is based on a completely free app or podcast. I really enjoyed feeling fitter, having a lot more energy and getting outside for half an hour or so three times a week. I even staggered around a few (free) 5K Park Runs. However, what with one thing and another, I got out of the routine of regular running, and now I'd like to start again.


Progress this week

After dropping the children back at school on Wednesday, I headed out for my first run in absolutely ages. I've gone right back to the beginning, with the very first run of Couch to 5K.
However, I now know that if I keep going for the next nine weeks, I'll be able to run for 30 minutes straight by the end of it.
I'll be posting quick updates on Twitter, but you might want to check back mid March to see if I've managed it...

For more on Couch to 5K, including info on equipment, downloads and how I found it:
Cheapo Fitness: Couch to 5K
Couch to 5K: The Return of the Running Shoes
Couch to 5K in tweets
Summary for Mirror Online: "How I got fit for free"


Lose lbs, win £££s - let's see if this will keep me motivated!


Resolution 2: Lose Weight For Less


Well, it wouldn't be New Year without my perennial resolution to lose weight!
As ever, I would like to be fitter not fatter.
I still valiantly believe is it possible to shift lbs without spending a gazillion £££s, so I'm aiming to eat healthily on a budget. I can't promise earth shattering revelations - I was thinking more of watching my portion sizes, making healthier choices (eg more fruit & veg, less cake) and moving more (see Resolution 1).


Progress this week

Project "get back into my jeans" started on January 2, right after I'd scoffed the last of the coffee & walnut birthday cake for breakfast (oops). Turns out having to buy new clothes because you grew out of your old ones is not a frugal option...
In a thrifty spin, I've joined a Diet Bet set up by the amazing Emma Drew (do check out her money making / money saving blog if you haven't already).
You place a bet - in this case $20 - that you can shed 4% of your body weight in 4 weeks. If you don't, you lose your money. If you do, you get to share the pot with anyone else who managed it too - and could end up getting more than your original stake back.
Let's see if the chance of getting paid to lose half a stone can keep me motivated...

For more info:
50 diet-friendly options from the value ranges
Slimming on a budget - shopping
DietBet website


Stretching a chicken over multiple meals


Resolution 3: Spend Less on Food

Anyone else keen to cut their food costs in January?
I've started another storecupboard challenge, hoping to spend less on food by using up the contents of our kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer.
Right now, after freezing an array of yellow-stickered bargains, I'm playing freezer Tetris every time I want to add anything else. It is definitely time to Eat the Freezer, as one of my friends calls it.
When we tried this last February and in June the year before, it lopped more than 30% off our food bills.
This time, I'm keen to see how it affects the pounds spent when I'm trying to shed lbs at the same time. At the very least, we should gain more space in the cupboards and freezer to store healthier options!


Progress this week

We got off to a good start by defrosting a whole chicken, bought half price on Christmas Eve.
So far, it's provided the basis for:
- a roast meal for our family of four, with potatoes, carrots, parsnips, broccoli and gravy.
- chicken stir fry for four, with onion, peppers and rice
- chicken sandwiches for my husband's packed lunch
- creamy mustard chicken and pea pasta for two, as the kids preferred creamy ham and pea pasta instead).
- chicken stock to be added to soup or risotto

For more on the storecupboard challenges, see:
Storecupboard stock check challenge
Storecupboard challenge results: clearer cupboards & 40% lower food bills
10 tips for cutting February's food bills


Switching electricity provider: let there be light for less


Resolution 4: Make 2017 a Money Saving Year

Last year, I was amazed at how small tweaks each month to cut costs and earn extra really added up (this is the post).
I'm keen to continue our money saving efforts this year. I'm not talking about shivering under a blanket, eating gruel. Instead, I mean the kind of things like switching insurance companies that don't affect your lifestyle but can save serious cash.


Progress this week

We switched electricity provider last January, which means our one-year tariff at a fixed price is just about to finish.
Rather than rolling over onto more expensive charges with the same supplier, I've switched to a cheaper option. It doesn't save the nearly £400 we netted last year, but it should still cut our costs by almost £50 compared to staying put.
Someone asked how long all my money saving changes took. In this case, I'll fess up that I spent an hour and a half, from start to finish.
It needn't take that long, but I faffed around taking our meter reading, calculating how many kWh we use each year, comparing the figures for a couple of comparison websites, searching for cashback, checking customer service comments for the firm that was cheapest, and then ringing the company with a query about their website. Will let you know whether the eventual switch goes smoothly or not!

More info:
Small changes, big difference: how I saved thousands in 2016


Climbing rose running rampant over the back door


Resolution 5: Make More of Our House and Garden


I've been back and forth over my fifth resolution, but I think what I'd really like to do is focus on our home.
We have way too much stuff, and could do with shedding a lot.
We're hoping to get a couple of rooms repainted, and even put ceiling lights in some of the rooms that don't have them. (Who knew when viewing a house you should check if all the rooms have ceiling lights? It's right pain in the middle of winter darkness when they don't, I'm telling you)
I would also like to get to grips more with the garden, whether that's hacking back plants that have run rampant, banishing more weeds or growing a few of our own veg. I have a box of bulbs and a stash of seeds down the side of the radio that are making me feel guilty!

Progress this week


I really have to face up to the great Drawer of Stuff For eBay (and that's while still igoring the Mountain of Clothes For eBay, or the Box of Random Rubbish For eBay etc).
I mentioned on the #MondayMoneyUK Twitter chat that I'd been putting off selling some stuff on eBay, using the excuse of waiting for an offer on final value fees. Then bingo, two days later, an email from eBay offering 25% off. Spooky.
So I've now accepted the offer, ready to list some stuff this weekend.

More info on eBay (I really should follow my own advice):
Make a mint by selling hidden treasures online


Hopefully, I'll be able to write some follow up posts so you can follow the progress of my resolutions.

Now over to you - what are your New Year's Resolutions? Do share your ideas in the comments, 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.



Monday, 2 January 2017

Small changes, big difference: how I saved thousands in 2016

Small changes, big difference


I love New Year's Resolutions.

Ever the optimist, I start January bursting with enthusiasm about getting fitter not fatter, sweeping clutter from my home (in fact, just sweeping my home), never snapping at my nearest and dearest and oh, maybe a little bit of world peace. As you do.

Sure, many of them fall by the wayside. Life, laziness and cake intervene.

But last year, I resolved to do something extra each month to make the most of my family's money.
All that stuff like comparing insurance prices, switching electricity providers and applying for higher-paying current accounts. The kind of thing you know you should do, but don't always get round to.

I wrote about the results in yesterday's Sunday Times, and when I added up all the cost savings and extra earnings during 2016 it came to a whopping £9,000.

Wow.

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

However much I bang on about small savings adding up, I was really surprised at the total.
As regular readers will know, I already try to make every penny count.

We live on a limited income, but do still have emergency savings and money stashed away for retirement. This means I'm keen both to cut costs on money we spend, and also to earn extra on our savings, at a time when interest rates are generally rubbish.

So in case it helps with any of your own New Year's Resolutions to make the most of your money, here's what I did:

CUT COSTS


Switched electricity provider, saved £394, earned £16.16 cashback by clicking through from TopCashback to the comparison site.

Cut costs on our broadband and home phone without switching, saved £118.
I blogged about asking Plusnet for a better deal back in April last year.

Sold a broken washing machine on eBay, saved £38.50.
Instead of paying the council £38.50 to remove our broken washing machine, I sold it for a penny on eBay for repairs or spares - with the buyer to collect.

Switched to a multi car insurance policy, saved £529, earned £65.65 cashback
We finally bought a new-to-us second car in June. Rather than paying the eye-popping insurance quote, we saved by switching to an Admiral multi car policy, getting a partial refund from our old insurer and clicking through from TopCashback to buy the policy.

Cut our petrol costs, saved £216
Switching to a smaller, more efficient car means we spend a lot less on petrol for my husband's commute into Ipswich.

Bought mobile handsets and switched to cheaper tariffs, saved £195
Buying an older handset outright and adding a SIM-only deal turned out to be cheaper than a contract for the lastest all-singing all-dancing smartphone. I asked for a second fiver a month SIM card from Virgin Mobile for my husband, and cut his costs too.

Researched cooker and connection prices, saved £539
Remember my excitement about the new cooker? I saved £500 by asking a local firm, Stellisons, to price match the best deal I found online, and also found an electrician to connect the cooker for less.

Claimed water leakage allowance, saved £92.97
We had a couple of dripping taps and leaky loos, which is not great when you're on a water meter. Once I got it all fixed, Anglia Water paid us a one-off leakage allowance.

Compared heating oil quotes, saved £150
I've written before for the Sunday Times about saving money on heating oil, as blogged here, and saved £150 in 2016 by ringing around different suppliers.

Cut train fares with a railcard, saved £145
My £30 Network Railcard, as mentioned here and here, has more than paid for itself by cutting a third off the cost of off peak train tickets to London.

Grew herbs, saved £8
Remember my attempts at growing some herbs? Somewhat to my surprise, all but one have survived, and I reckon I've saved about £8 in 2016 compared to buying herbs like parsley, mint, sage and tarragon from the supermarket.

GOT PAID TO SPEND


Applied for a cashback credit card, earned £95 cashback
I'm a big fan of earning cashback on money we would have spent anyway. We use a simple no fee Nationwide Select credit card to get 0.5% cashback, but check out websites like www.moneyfacts.co.uk to find out which cards might suit your circumstances.

Claimed loyalty points, earned £300
I've blogged before about making the most of supermarket vouchers and loyalty cards.
However, even I was surprised to find we'd benefited by £300 thanks to a combination of the Boots Advantage, Morrisons More and Sainsbury's Nectar schemes, plus my Co-op card.

Got cashback on when shopping online, earned an extra £65
In addition to the cashback on insurance and switching electricity provider mentioned above, we earned another £65 from assorted online shopping via cashback websites like Quidco and TopCashback.

MADE THE MOST OF ANY SAVINGS


Opened regular saver accounts, earned £260 interest
Interest rates are ridiculously low right now, but you can still get 5% interest on limited monthly payments for a year on regular saver accounts linked to current accounts from the likes of First Direct and Nationwide, For clear, independent best buy tables on savings, I always go to Savings Champion.

Used high-interest current accounts, earned £830 interest & cashback
I've blogged before about using current accounts to earn reasonable rates on your savings.
The good news is that we earned £830 in interest and cashback, after fees, on our five (count 'em) current accounts. The bad news is that the Club Lloyds, TSB Classic and Santander 123 current accounts have all either already cut their rates or will this month, and introductory rate we had with Nationwide only lasted for a year, so I can't hope for similar interest earnings again. Check out Savings Champion if you'd like to see which current accounts are the best bets today, including the Tesco current account I opened in November..

Paid into my pension, earned £675 in tax relief. 
I don't know many investments that earn you 25% on day one, but if you bung money in a pension, the taxman will top it up with tax relief. I sent off a cheque for £2,700 to my personal pension, the taxman added £675, and now I can sit back and hope the investment grows.

STARTED INVESTING


Now this one was the biggie.

All my attempts above added up to around £4,700 during 2016.

However, I've also written for the Sunday Times about how just over a year ago I overcame a lifetime of caution to move my hard-won Isa savings from cash into the stock market, and how they progressed afterwards.

Got growth and dividends on my investments, earned £4,300
During 2016, the investment trusts in my Isa grew 14% - from just under £30,070 to almost £34,370 with dividends invested. That's a whole £4,300 higher than on 1 January 2016, carried along with the rising stockmarket.
It bumped up the grand total saved and earned in 2016 to £9,000.

I haven't blogged about my investments before, partly because this blog started off about frugal food and I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested.

But I've been writing about investing for the newspapers for more years than I care to mention - so if you might be interested in me blogging a bit more about what I've invested in, and why, then please do say so in the comments.


Any financial resolutions or top tips for saving more money in 2017? I'd love to hear!



Thursday, 29 December 2016

Five festive frugal things I did this week #16

Nativity - knitted.


Hope you had a fabulous Christmas!

My mother has been busy knitting, and sent us a shepherd with staff and sheep to add to last year's Mary, Joseph and Jesus. My mother moved out to Madeira when she retired, so I don't see her at Christmas, but I can still smile every time I see her knitted nativity on the mantelpiece.

We've had a fun if frantic time, packing in Christmas and two birthday during the last fortnight.
Every so often we even paused long enough to enjoy it.

Now I'm looking forward to seeing in the New Year this weekend, and in the mean time, here's a round up of our five suitably festive frugal things.


A tree full of memories


Rediscovering our favourite Christmas tree decorations


Rather than splashing out on a new colour scheme every Christmas, we enjoy retrieving the boxes of Christmas tree decorations and hunting for familiar favourites.
The decorations are a motley collection, bought, given or made by the children.
I get filled with nostalgia bringing out the dragons from a trip to Hong Kong, or the wonky salt crystal star made by my daughter. There are a few fragile baubles remaining from the very first Christmas tree my husband and I ever decorated together, a silver bell that's older than I am, a wonderfully carved wooden snowflake and some glam glittery disco balls.
Spending an afternoon together, with the whole family taking it turns to put decorations on the tree, is one of my favourite parts of preparing for Christmas.



Mince pies with a star on top and everything


Making mince pies for 10p a pop


This year I had the blissful prospect of heading to the grandparents for Christmas itself - which meant I didn't have to cook!
However, I did make some cranberry sauce and mince pies to take along, plus the ingredients for my husband's favourite coffee and walnut birthday cake.
One of my daughter's godfathers popped round on Christmas Eve to deliver a present, so I pottered around making mince pies while he and my husband chatted over a cup of tea.
I used an old faithful recipe from the Mary Berry Christmas Collection*, where the pastry gets a lift from adding a bit of icing sugar and the grated zest of half an orange (recipe is also in this article).
I spent £1 on a jar of mincemeat, which stretches to make 24 mince pies. With the addition of Stork, value range plain flour and mixed weight free range eggs, they ended up costing just 10p each.



A big ol' pile of presents


Cutting gift tags out of Christmas cards


Every year, I save some of the Christmas cards we're sent, and make them into gift tags for next year's presents. In theory, I get busy with the ruler, craft knife and hole punch early in the New Year. In practice, I was frantically cutting out tags on Christmas Eve, and attempting to match pictures to the recipients.
I rather like the end result, especially when the wrapping paper cost £99p for a 2 meter roll from QD and the ribbon was £1 for 20 metres from Flying Tiger.


Getting outside for some fresh air on Boxing Day


Heading out for country walks


Despite the accusations of child cruelty, we dragged the kids out for a family walk across the fields on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
I love getting blown about outside in the bright winter sunshine, and returning for some well-deserved ginger wine. My daughter ended up running from one clump of trees to another, while my son hunted for light sabre sticks, and we could all admire the amazing scenery.
Total cost: absolutely nothing at all.


Preparing for next Christmas


Sale shopping for next Christmas


Back at home I ignored the suitcases and boxes of presents that needed unpacking, and headed out to check the sale shelves at Morrisons and the Co-op.
I reckon one of the best things to buy in the January sales is stuff for next Christmas. Glad I managed to get half price Christmas cards for my children to give out to their classmates (£2 for 60!) again, plus a bath time gift set that will be a perfect party present for one of my daugher's friends.
I also loaded up with some marked down goodies including a box of Florentines and a tin of shortbread for New Year. Healthy eating can start in January, can't it?

Spreading the frugal word


Excitement this week included chatting to Sarah Lilley on BBC Radio Suffolk about sale shopping and financial tips for January. If you'd like a listen, scroll along to 2:30.

I'm also very over excited because I've written about our 2016 month-by-month money saving progress for the Money section of the Sunday Times. Grab a copy of the paper this weekend if you'd like to read it! Hopefully some of the tips on how to cut costs and earn more might help if money is tight in January.

I'm then due back on BBC Radio Suffolk to talk to Georgina Wroe about the article (Sunday Jan 1, about 12.30), and will also be discussing it with Ed Bowsher on Share Radio (Tuesday Jan 3, about 1.50pm).

Fingers crossed I can cut down on the number of times I say "urm" and "I think" and actually get something useful across!

How was your Christmas? Any frugal tip to share? I'd love to hear!


Think the official #5frugalthings blog linky with Cass, Emma and Becky will be restarting in January, but if anyone has any #5frugalthings posts before then, do bung them in the comments below!

*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!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Baking Christmas biscuits

Christmas biscuits, ready to decorate


Yesterday morning marked a baking frenzy, making Christmas biscuits for the children to decorate.
The whole house ended up smelling of gingerbread,which felt very festive.

I use a tried-and-tested recipe that has been part of our Christmas for several years now, and also comes in handy for children's parties and playdates.

The children particularly like rolling the biscuits out, cutting out the shapes and decorating them with lavish quantities of icing sugar and sprinkles.

Provided you chill the dough before rolling it out, the biscuits come out of the oven still in the shapes you cut out, rather than melting and spreading into one big disappointing mess. Result!

So here's my recommended recipe, followed by top tips for making Christmas biscuits.

INGREDIENTS

350g plain flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of ginger (could bung in more if you like them extra gingery)
100g Stork or butter
175g soft brown sugar
4 tablespoons golden syrup, roughly 80g
1 egg

For the icing, I use about 100g icing sugar, sieved, with a few tablespoons of water mixed in, plus any food colouring.

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees normal oven / 180 degrees fan over / Gas Mark 5. 
Prepare the baking trays by either greasing them with butter or marge, or lining them with greaseproof paper.
Put the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ginger into a bowl. Rub in the stork or butter, till it's bit like fine breadcrumbs. Alternatively, bung into a food processor, press the button, and prepare yourself to face the washing up afterwards. 
Next add the sugar, syrup and egg and mix together to form a dough.
Put the dough in a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for a good 15 minutes.
Knead the dough a bit, then roll out on a floured surface and cut out whatever shapes you want.
Put the biscuits on the trays, with space between them in case they do spread a bit in the oven.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes or so, until golden brown. Might take a few more minutes.
Remove the trays, leave to firm up for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack.
When they've cooled right down, scoff the lot, or go crazy with icing and sprinkles.

COST

I priced these up at Morrisons, because it's usually good value and my nearest supermarket.

11p for 350g plain flour (45p for 1.5kg Morrisons Plain Flour)
3p for teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (£1.35 for 100g Dr Oetker Bicarbonate of Soda. It's only 85p for 180g of Sainsbury's bicarbonate of soda, and less at Aldi and Lidl, so worth picking up elsewhere)
4p for teaspoon of ground ginger (64p for 85g Rajah Ground Ginger)
22p for 100g Stork (2.24 for 1kg Stork)
42p for 175g soft brown sugar (£2.42 for 1kg of Billingtons Dark Soft Brown Sugar)
20p for 80g of golden syrup (£1.15 for 454g tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup)
13p for 1 egg (£2 for 15 free range mixed-weight eggs)
 
Total: £1.15, plus icing sugar and sprinkles if desired.


Top Tips for Making Christmas Biscuits


Use Stork

Seriously, you can use Stork. No-one will know it's not butter, and it's a lot cheaper. If you still want to use butter, make sure it's room temperature before you start, rather than a frozen lump straight out of the fridge.

Get savvy with your spices

Check out the world food aisles in the supermarket for ground ginger - you're likely to get a  bigger bag for a lot less than if you buy a fancy branded jar from the herbs and spices section.

Use half, freeze half

The recipe makes a reasonable amount of dough, so sometimes I'll use half and freeze the other half for another day.

Chill before cutting out biscuits

Once you've made the dough, shove it in the fridge for at least half an hour, or even all day or overnight. Crucially this means the biscuits are less likely to spread out into unrecognisable shapes during cooking.
When you take the dough out of the fridge, you'll need to squeeze it between your hands a bit so it's soft enough to roll out, but otherwise it should be fine.
Otherwise, you could cut the biscuits out first, put them on trays, and then put the trays in the fridge to chill. However this does depend on a) having a big enough fridge and b) having enough room in said fridge to cram in baking trays of biscuits without disaster.

Be liberal with the flour

Resign yourself to some kitchen chaos when cooking with children. Accept that you (and they) will need to fling some flour around on the surface where you'll be rolling out cookies. Otherwise the biscuits will stick, and you'll be left prising distorted shapes off the table or worktop. Remember to sprinkle flour on the rolling pin too.

Vary the thickness

I've tried these biscuits rolled out thin, when they have a delightful crunch, and distinctly thicker, when they end up more chewy in the middle. Go wild and try out different thicknesses to find out what you prefer. The thinner you roll it, the more biscuits you'll get out of the same amount of dough.

Let them cool

Voice of bitter experience: however over-excited your children might be about decorating biscuits, don't attempt it straight out of the oven. The icing melts, the sprinkles melt, and it all ends up a big melted mess. Leave them on the tray for a few minutes, and transfer to a wire cooling rack for 10 minutes or so - it needn't be too long. These biscuits also store well for several days, uniced, in a decent airtight box, so can be baked ahead.


See that greaseproof paper underneath the biscuits?
I really wanted to get them off in one piece.


Prepare the trays

Fewer things are more disappointing than a tray of beautiful biscuits, which shatter when you try to remove them, because they are stuck like concrete to the baking tray. Fact.
It's worth preparing the trays, either by greasing them with lavish amounts of butter or marge, or by lining them with greaseproof paper.

Go easy on the water

I just mix up icing sugar, water and food colouring to make icing for biscuits - easy and cheap. If you want to do white icing as snow on Christmas biscuits, you don't even need the food colouring. However, do be careful when adding water. I seive the icing sugar into a bowl and then add the water a spoonful at a time, mixing in between. You can always add a bit more water, but if you slosh in too much the icing can get way too runny, and then need loads more icing sugar added to make it usable.

Biscuits, decorated


Stock up on cheap sprinkles

Some sprinkles cost an arm and a leg if you're buying multiple packs, but Poundland is a good source for less. The Jane Asher range includes 2 for £1, and also does pairs of food colour gel tubes for £1.We used white chocolate stars and sugar snowflakes for our Christmas biscuits. Most sprinkles are pretty much pure sugar, so will keep for ages.
I've had limited success with little tubes of writing icing, because I find it really hard to squeeze the icing out.

Stretch the meaning of sprinkles

Get creative, depending on what you've got in the house. Yesterday we raided the raisins and the mini marshmallows bought for hot chocolate.


See the strip across the cutters? Makes it easier for kids to press down.


Kids and cutters

Years ago, I bought a set of four plastic Christmas cutters from Lakeland. They are hardly glamorous compared to traditional metal cutters, but have the advantage of a handle across the top. This is particularly good with toddlers and young kids, because then they use them the right way round, and don't hurt their hands pressing down on a sharp cutting edge.


Star biscuits all bagged up and ready to go


Bag 'em up as presents or to sell

If you get shanghaied into baking for Christmas fairs, this is a good basic recipe.
In the past, I've bagged up star shaped cookies, added some ribbon at the top, and they've sold well on the cake stall.
I've also given them out as token Christmas presents, complete with labels cut out from last year's Christmas cards, with the ribbon threaded through a hole made with a hole punch. In the past, I've bought big packs of cellophane bags - 50 or so - and used them for party bags or sweet cones as well as biscuits.


Superhero masks, with boiled sweets in the eye holes, for a 4th birthday party


Great for parties too

These biscuits are too good to keep just for Christmas!
I've baked loads for children to decorate at parties or when people come to play. I use different cutters depending on the theme - dinosaurs, superhero masks, pirate parrots, circles as Minion faces and even dress and pyjama trousers for a sleepover party.
Make up bowls with three or so different colours of icing, set out loads of sprinkles, provide more spoons than you ever thought possible and then stand well back.
Oh, and if you're doing it at a party - give everyone a paper plate to go underneath their biscuit while decorating. If anyone wants to take theirs home rather than eating it immeadiately, get them to write their name on the plate. Helps match abandoned biscuits to proud producers come home time.


Ever made Christmas biscuits? Any top tips or favourite recipes to add? I'd love to hear!

Friday, 16 December 2016

Five fabulously frugal things I did this week #15

Let the great present wrapping commence! 


This week involved juggling birthday celebrations and continuing Christmas prep on top of work.
Mind you, one of the articles I'm writing is a round up of the year, so it's been interesting adding up what has been spent or saved in 2016.
However, it's still rather touch and go whether I manage to finish all the Christmas preparations before Christmas itself actually happens...

In the mean time, here is my round up of five frugal things this week:


Apparently, birthdays are better with a scary film


Using a gift voucher to cut the cost of a cinema trip


My daughter's birthday is really close to Christmas, so we always have a party or other celebration earlier. This year, rather than a traditional party for her 9th birthday, my daughter asked to take a couple of friends to see "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" at the cinema.
I happily promised to take her before they announced the certificate - only for it to be a 12A, so no-one under 12 can attend without an adult.
Never mind, I thought, and double-checked with the other mothers that they didn't mind their children coming.
Surely a Harry Potter spin off that involves losing magical creatures in New York and rounding them up again can't be too scary? Turns out - very scary!
Luckily I had my husband and three almost nine-year olds to reassure me, as they were distinctly braver than I was.
Anyway, the frugal side was that I paid for the tickets using a discount gift voucher from Zeek. The combination of the discount and referral credits meant I ended up getting the tickets half price, saving more than £17.
(More about Zeek here, if you're interested, including a promo code so you can get your own free fiver)


My son keeping an eye on things from above


Playing games at Grandpa's 80th birthday party


On Sunday, we celebrated my father-in-law's 80th birthday at a big party for family and friends over at Castle House, home of the Alfred Munnings art collection.
It was a really happy occasion, with lots of familiar faces in a kaleidoscope of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who'd known my husband since he was small, but my children were definitely the youngest guests!
My frugal top tip for entertainment was going armed with my son's travel Connect 4. Bought for 75p on holiday in Bridport, it kept us occupied for several games sitting on the carpet.
I also whisked both children outside in the garden for a while, where we played some slightly chilly Hide and Seek.


Bright (fairy) lights, big city


Dropping off presents when down in London


On Tuesday, I headed to London for a work Christmas lunch. As mentioned on Instagram, as a freelancer I was very touched to be invited. It was lovely to catch up with some familiar faces and get the chance to meet new people whose work I'd admired for years. I finally left the lunch at about 6pm, paper hat askew, which gives you some idea that I had a good time!
As I was coming to London anyway, I'd contacted a couple of my closest friends from College and made the most of my travel card with a flying visit to Blackheath. It was wonderful to see them too, however briefly, and as an added frugal bonus I could hand over Christmas presents in person rather than paying for postage.


Bargain mini Christmas cards from the January sales


Writing Christmas cards for school friends


At my children's school, they all seem to send each other little tiny Christmas cards. You can tell it's December when a small snow drift of cards and ripped envelopes falls out of the children's school bags every evening.
Luckily, I clocked this last year, in time to buy some small cards during the January sales - a bargain at £1.50 for 60 cards.
Even better, I managed to unearth them from the back of the present cupboard this week, and the children had a mammoth card-writing session at the kitchen table.
I'll keep very quiet about any card writing by adults however. We bought a pack of the school fundraising cards, but otherwise I've only just got round to ordering some extras using Boots Advantage Points. Fingers crossed they'll show up in our local branch tomorrow...


Sparkly!


Investing in a Christmas cardigan


It's probably no surprise that I'm a real Scrooge when it comes to Christmas jumpers.
I'm not a big fan of clothes that can only be worn for a few days, and then discarded.
Strikes me that all that comedy knitwear isn't great either financially or environmentally (boo, hiss, bah humbug etc etc).
However, when I was doing a quick scan of the local charity shops this week, I spotted this cardigan. It has sparkly white and cream beads in an icicle pattern round the neck, and my favourite small shell buttons. So for £4 I now have a festive cardigan that can keep me warm at this weekend's Christmas party and on the big day itself.
I may yet be able to wear it at other times too - unless I spill large quantities of Christmas pudding down the front, given it is gloriously impractical white.

So do let me know any of your own frugal triumphs this week - or share your own views on the wonder or otherwise of Christmas jumpers! 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, 10 December 2016

Five fabulously frugal things I did this week #14

Red leaves against red brick, during a rare night away


Last week started with enormous excitement.
I took the children to the Christmas fair at school, and then my husband and I went away for an entire night - get this - without them!
We were invited over to Cambridge for a meal last Friday, and the grandparents very kindly had the children over to stay. Think it might be the first time our son has ever spent a night away from both us. Given he's just celebrated his seventh birthday, it's been a while.
Fabulous food, rather too much wine and I even had to wear a dress, so my long black swishy number got a rare outing.

Here's the round up of my five frugal things since then:


Chunky jigsaws, retor packaging and loads of Lego. What's not to love?


Playing games at the grandparents


We made it back to collect the children in time for lunch on Saturday, and then spent part of the afternoon playing games. The grandparents have a great collection of retro toys and games which the children love getting out.
We all played snakes and ladders, and I also ended up racking my brains trying to remember the rules of draughts.
It made me remember that we have such a great time for free whenever I drag out games like Othello, Junior Monopoly or cards. We should do it more often.


Always good to buy our food for 8% less.


Snapping up a extra discount on Zeek gift vouchers


Regular readers may remember me banging on about Zeek in the past. It's a website where you can sell unwanted gift vouchers and buy them at a discount.

Last week Zeek emailed an offer code for an extra £3 off on top of the normal discounts.
This meant I could buy £50 of Morrisons vouchers for just £46, knowing we will definitely use the money for our food shopping. It was the first time I'd bought paper vouchers from Zeek, rather than an eGift card to use online, and they arrived after only a couple of days.

I also bought one on my husband's account (sneaky eh), and spent £10.30 to get £15 Pizza Express vouchers. We don't eat out very often, but we do occasionally go to Pizza Express as a family treat. The children like the piccolo menu, and if I use the gift voucher with an offer from the website or topped up with Nectar points, it will keep the costs in check.

I genuinely think you can save money if you use Zeek to get cut-price gift vouchers for stuff you'd buy anyway. They've even got a sale on at the moment.
If you'd like to give Zeek a whirl, you can get a free fiver (and I'll get one too) by bunging in the promo code 2CJTLAUC.
Worth a thought, to help towards the cost of Christmas!


Half price, no delivery charge and all on points. Bargain.


Buying presents on Boots points


I don't buy much from Boots, because I reckon many of the products can be found cheaper elsewhere.
However, if I do shop at Boots, I always use my Boots Advantage card, as it's a pretty generous loyalty scheme. I won't buy stuff there just for the points, but it's often a good bet for my contact lens fluid, and we rely on the very helpful pharmacist and his team here in Hadleigh.
Anyway, I hoard Advantage Points during the year, and then spend them on Christmas presents. Currently, Boots are selling photo frames for half price, so I nabbed a couple on points, and avoided delivery charges by requesting Click and Collect to our nearest branch. Normally, the frames I chose would cost £24 but I got them entirely free.
I'll use them to frame prints of the glossy family photo that ran with my Sunday Times article on heating oil. It's so rare to have any photos of all four of us together, let alone one where we're all looking at the camera at the same time!


Ingredients for butternut squash and pepper soup. It's a goodie.


Using up leftovers


We had a pretty good week for managing to use up leftovers.
I made chicken stew last Sunday with mounds of mashed potato, so my husband could take in an extra portion for a packed lunch the next day. We also finished off some leftover rice with a stir fry another night. So long as you get the rice into the fridge quickly, and make sure it's piping hot when you reheat it, it should be absolutely fine.
Now the weather is turning colder, I used a couple of cut-price yellow-stickered peppers to make butternut squash and pepper soup, which is one of my favourites.
I wrote up the recipe for an article in the Mirror last year, if you'd ever like to try it.


Box of chocs and a sachet of drinking chocolate for £1.95? Don't mind if I do.


Buying Christmas chocolates for less


Believe it or not, I don't think being frugal is all about deprivation.
As you can tell from the blog title, I'm all about making much more from less. I do believe that the most important things in life aren't things at all, and try not to define myself in terms of money and possessions.
However, if I'm going to spend money, I like to make the most of it.
Which brings me to chocolate. Sure, I use value range chocolate for cooking. But as a Christmas treat, I'm rather partial to a box of Hotel Chocolat chocs.
In particular, I like to get a £22.95 box when it's £6.95 as an introductory offer to the tasting club. I signed up by clicking through TopCashback, the cashback website*, so fingers crossed I might yet get £5 cashback too. (Post explaining cashback websites here).
If so, that box of chocolates and the free sample of salted caramel drinking chocolate will end up costing £1.95.
Just make sure to cancel the membership before getting sent extra boxes, if you want to avoid any extra expense.


Anyone else have any frugal triumphs to celebrate in the run up to Christmas? Any little luxuries you like getting for less?


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!