Wednesday, 18 May 2011


As in metaphorical carrots - and sticks. Delicious orange crunchy carrots are also good and we should talk about them someday - but today I want to talk about metaphorical carrots.

Sticks are all well and good. The big stick in our case was a fear that we wouldn't be able to provide for our baby son during what we thought would be hard times, labouring as we were under a pile of debt. As a result we began to budget, live a lot more frugally and organized our finances to pay off the debt as quickly and cheaply as possible. In time it was possible to re frame that initial impetus into something resembling a carrot - living within our means has bought us a much more interesting, productive life in many ways. Home cooked food, brewing, DIY, thrifting, handicrafts, gardening and the knowledge that there is cash left in our accounts come the week before payday all make for a much more satisfying life than one lived on the never-never. The fruits of our labours became goals in themselves. We had made the transition from living frugally out of sheer necessity, to making it an enjoyable way to live.

The initial motivating  fear remains and resurfaces every so often - when we have overstretched ourselves, or forgotten a bill payment was due, or know we have to find money for a big purchase. It rises irrationally when we still have money to spare but can't afford to make an overpayment on debt - a completely irrational fear for someone who two years ago didn't even have a budget for debt overpayment, or anything else for that matter. Still, I tend to go a little berserk at these times and start devising ways that we can live on stale bread crusts and sell our remaining possessions to make ends meet, until someone (usually the person having their ear bent at the time) lends me a little perspective on matters.

Since we decided on a vague plan of action for the future that I could feel enthusiastic about - moving to Norfolk - the carrots have multiplied. I have had to rewrite the budget this week having missed out a glaringly obvious expense on the original; and my first reaction was not fear of financial doom, or recourse to my stale crust recipe collection, but sheer annoyance that we would have less money to put aside towards our move in a few years. Then came the fear of doom, but that was fleeting and besides the point. Now that I have a long term goal to work towards, an alternative to just plodding on as I am forever, I have a renewed enthusiasm for all things frugal.

This has been a week of tracking all of our spending down to the last penny. We have baked and eaten bread almost every day with gusto, soaked pulses and dug out half used packets from the back of the cupboard for frugal meals, religiously switched off appliances at the wall and I have earmarked large swathes of my remaining craft stash for various money saving baby projects for The Girl (even going so far as to break out needle and thread once again, which is never my natural inclination). Every little money saving action feels like a gallop in the right direction; and I am making the most of it whilst my energy levels and enthusiasm hold up. At the same time, I have to remind myself not to go to far with the all austerity - the goal is to get to Norfolk in five years and continue to live a good life in a new setting with new activities, not to put off living until we get there.

So, I would be interested to know, what motivates you to live frugally and manage your resources - carrots, sticks or something in between? Do you ever take it too far?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Frugal fun

I have had a week off from work, which for once coincided with family visiting - which in turn, for once, coincided with another week of fine weather. Usually we end up spending a small fortune when we visit people or they visit us, possibly because we feel like kill joys if we say no. A steady stream of eating out, coffee and cake, small gifts and visiting various attractions that are usually less entertaining than the blurb suggests gradually eats away at our budget and leaves us short for the rest of the month. This was not a month however for overspending our budget and we explained the situation with as positive a spin as we could.

Sometimes (funnily enough, usually always coinciding with time away from my paid employment) I manage to get my act together, make a plan and stick to it. A few hours work resulted in our contribution to a delicious and frugal picnic lunch, all made from scratch (mayonnaise and all, including the first salad pickings from the garden). In a word, I am...smug.

We ate the picnic lunch in the garden of the holiday cottage and then paddled in the sea at a lovely sandy beach in Sussex. We tried to engage toddlers in a sandcastle building project that was blatantly more fun for us adults than it was for them. We went to the woods for a barbeque that didn't get rained off.  We have spent a fair amount of time driving around beautiful countryside, just as the hedgerows are in full bloom and the spring babies are out in the fields. We had cream tea in a quaint little tearoom followed by (slightly wistful)  window shopping around an equally quaint town.

In short, I have spent more time gadding about in nature than I normally would being city bound - and I realize I need to make an effort to get out more to green leafy places. I have eaten more strawberries and whipped cream in one week than I normally do in a whole year. All very frugal, all very relaxed, all great fun; which is just how I remember my childhood holidays to be.

What frugal fun have you had this week?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

It rained

I feel I can actually take full credit for the heavens opening up. On Friday I decided to felt the jumper and coat I had been debating the fate of for months. Apparently no offering to the rain gods  is quite as effective as putting heavy felted wool garments on the line to dry - that night it poured. I should say no offering except of course the smell of charred meat, because the barbecue I was due to attend on Saturday also ended in a washout. An hour before I was due to leave work to go to said shindig, the heavens opened and tropical amounts of rain fell. I aquaplaned in flip flops across the courtyard to the car and we crawled straight back home through standing water.

I am not complaining at all (granted, pulled pork and homemade burgers would have been a lovely end to my working day) - the lack of rain over the last few weeks has been worrisome, a sign of things to come perhaps? The rains will bring relief to those who have been battling wild fires across the country and to those farmers who have had to irrigate early. On a personal note, I have loved lying in bed listening to the thunder and waiting for the odd flash of lightning, knowing that the allotment isn't wilting without my attention. It is interesting that I grew up in one of the driest counties in the country - and am now intending to go back there - and yet a few weeks without rain now makes me distinctly uneasy.

Everything in the garden looks green and perky too. My efforts with a watering can during the dry spell just weren't good enough; and what was really needed was a sustained thorough soaking over a few days. The honeysuckle is finally budding (after three years of waiting), very happy in its new pot against the south facing wall. The salad has rocketed over the last few days and is ready to be picked. The herb bed has really taken off this year too - including the tarragon, which I had assumed had been lost to the snow and ice last winter, that finally poked its head through the soil this week. The water butt has had a chance to recoup its losses from the last few weeks, in preparation for what could be a long hot summer - or a complete washout (this is Britain after all) - but its best to be prepared.

Friday, 6 May 2011


I finally bottled the 3 gallons of rhubarb wine that have been calling out for my attention for the past three months - I am a starter of projects, not necessarily a finisher. Once I had begun, of course, it wasn't so bad. I think it's the washing and sterilizing of the bottles that I usually find so tedious, though I now do them in small batches, standing them upright in a large brewing bucket of sterilizing solution, which makes the job much easier (and uses less water) than when I used to fill the bathtub, desperately trying to remove all of the trapped air bubbles.

After that is done, the sound of wine swooshing through a siphon and swirling into bottles is very soothing, as is the squeaky pop the cork makes as it slides into position  (once you overcome the sense of impending doom that quite rightfully accompanies leaning all of your weight onto a fragile glass bottle neck, of course).

The whole process is almost as soothing, in fact, as the sound of wine glugging out of bottles into glasses - but that will be a few months yet. In the meantime 'Rhubarb 2011' no longer needs my attention. What to ferment next?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Where to go, what to do, who to be? A goal

In so many ways I have reached a level of contentment in my life that I didn't think was possible given the direction I took. Aged 25, still living in the UK, with a 'husband' (for want of a better word - though as yet no contracts have been signed or expensive receptions thrown), a toddler and another child on the way, working  part time in a job that really is just a job, on a relatively low income, no prestige, no glory. Not the conditions for contentment - a career, adventure, international travel, lots of money, passionate love affairs (and quite probably eventual infamy, 'cause I am that sort of girl) - I predicted as a teenager. I used to change my mind a lot about where, who and what I wanted to be - which might explain why I have arrived so far from any of my visions, such was the meandering path I took. All in all I have ended up in a good place. I know enough about myself to make where I am a comfortable place to be, whilst at the same time being able to see where things could be made so much better.

This state of contentment has crept up on me over the last year, sometime after I quit the misery inducing navel gazing and stressing about what I should be doing with my life and just got on with actually living it. I started writing this blog to motivate me and to record my progress - which it did - and we got on with the business of decluttering our lives. We have paid off thousands of pounds worth of debt. I have given up a few hobbies that no longer fulfilled me and replaced them with activities that do. Our house is mostly decluttered and vaguely tidy on 3 out of every 7 days. Progress indeed, but the biggest changes were internal - ridding my mind of the chatter that caused me to stumble at every turn was harder work. Even then, giving up giving a crap what other people thought (or even what I thought they thought) was the easy part as it turned out - I can take the most snide criticism these days and still usually enjoy the rest of my day. But letting go of all of the conflicting visions that I have held for myself over the years is a lot harder, which might explain why I had such a seemingly irrational attachment to that desk.

Yesterday we made the decision that our goal for the next five years would be to move to the county of my childhood, Norfolk, and try to build a good life.  The details will be thrashed out in the next few years but it is exciting to have a direction to strike out in finally, a new reason to be living the way we do. We have discussed at length over the years where we should go when we are done with Portsmouth - home or abroad, city, town or country - an almost infinite range of exciting possibilities - and the end result of years of deliberation is that I will be returning to my roots.

Norfolk is one of the most beautiful places in the UK, has a great climate and offers us a range of options as to small city/town/village/hovel living, all of which would allow us to lead a wonderful, simple, outdoorsy lifestyle if we design it right. Going home makes a lot of sense, but up until now I wasn't able to admit it. When I left, I had no real thoughts of ever returning, fond as I was of the place. I went away, failed at everything I set out to do and eventually came to make my peace with that. All of the visions that no longer fit have been let go of and returning to my roots doesn't feel so much a failure, but an opportunity to create something new and exciting. Today is a good day.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Letting go and making do

I have always been a sucker for stationery. My favorite time of year was always September - the start of the new school year, the time of fresh exercise books, brand new pencil sets and tins - in essence, a chance to turn over a new leaf. I have a truly deep attachment to writing papers and implements and objects that aspire to 'organize' stuff - files, labels, highlighter pens and journals. Long after I left university, the obsession with fresh notepads and office notions continued, to the extent that you could probably run Whitehall from my dining room, so well stocked is it for bureaucracy.

I estimate that we have got rid of around one third of our possessions since late last summer, which is when the decluttering began in earnest. We have made a fair number of journeys to car boot sales, the recycling centre, charity shops and friends houses with stuff that we no longer needed. Things that I never thought I would let go of - books, craft equipment, personal mementos - have gone without a pang of regret. Today was the day to purge the 'office' - the scattered corners of the dining room that host the computer, books and stationery. The purge that I thought I would struggle with more than any other.

The first item on the agenda:

I bought this old teacher's desk for a song a few years back and spent two days stripping it of horrible yellowed varnish. I sanded and oiled; and I thought that it would be my forever desk. It fitted perfectly in our flat. I had plans to eventually re-oil or paint it and line the drawers with brightly coloured paper. I had plans that the top of it would always be uncluttered, bar some beautiful items of stationery. I had plans that great things would be written from this desk- university assignments, journal entries, letters, perhaps one day a blog.

Fast forward a year or two and we had moved into a small terraced house. The forever desk has sat awkwardly in a corner of the dining room, at right angles to an alcove it is infuriatingly millimeters too big to fit in to, a tangle of cables trailing across the top and down the sides (and across the dining room for that matter), the drawers barely opening before they hit a wall. The only thing to be written from this desk, apart from this blog, was the occasional bill payment. All of this of course was a recipe for clutter, frustration and down right ugliness, not to mention backache as our dining chairs were too short for the height of the desk.

Enter this much despised oak dining table:

I have hated this table with unswerving passion since the day we inherited it from family, but it was only last year that we felt we could let it go - though luckily it never made it from the garage to the car boot sale. It didn't fit anywhere in any room and wherever it was, it was too tempting a spot for dumping clutter on. Today it came back from the garage to temporarily serve as a desk. Because it sits in another alcove, right next to the Internet connection and plug sockets, there are no wires across the desk or floor. The flap comes out for extra work room and folds back down. Our dining chairs are the right height to use at the desk without crippling us. I love having a desk next to the window instead of a dingy corner. I don't despise this table any more. This table rocks. This table is in fact my new forever desk.

The lack of storage underneath the new desk is not a problem. My new improved stationery store is one third the size it was this morning. I no longer feel the need to keep 3 boxes of paper clips, 2 pads of graph paper, a second hole punch, a tub of drawing pins (we don't even have a noticeboard), a wad of report files, 3 set squares or 3 different 50 packs of envelopes - amongst many other things. I know I don't need these things, because I haven't needed them since the day two years ago they were stuffed into the old desk's unopenable drawers never to be retrieved until today. My new stationery store is a small shelf in a sideboard, cut down to size with a little bit of everything that we might need to run a household, not a government. The worst part of the decluttering is done and it really wasn't so bad.


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