Thursday, 25 April 2013

Thrift Thursday: the penny jar and the fraction

This week I have been up to financial mischief. New ISA opened, new budget in progress, cashback signed up for - and the penny jar emptied and counted out. It feels good to be on top of things, especially looking back on where we were financially five years ago. Making the most of our money and managing our finances on a day to day basis requires us to find ways of thinking about it that make sense to us. This just happens to be one of mine - it might seem a little bizarre, but bear with me.

An experiment for you:

Take any of your financial goals - whether that be clearing your debts or saving for a rainy day. What fraction of your total goal does £1 represent?

Now take your original figure and multiply it by 100, to find the total in pennies. What fraction of your total does 1p represent? A ridiculously small fraction?

For all those long years of paying down the debts, I kept a piece of paper with those fractions on in my purse, so that I would see it every time I spent money. I seem to remember I actually had fractions written down  for all coin denominations. I know that it sounds bonkers, but it brings intangible figures down to earth.  A penny seems so small - hell, a pound seems inconsequential. Yet every extra pound we paid off each month wiped months off of our repayment plan and pounds off of the total interest paid. And now the debts are gone? Every £1 we spend or save represents 1/20,000th of our next financial goal. Every penny, 1/2,000000th.

Many potential impulse buys don't round up or down neatly to a pound, or even reach the pound mark. Many of the financial decisions you make may boil down to 'its only the difference of a few pence/pounds'. Everyone will do their own cost benefit analysis in the moment to decide whether it is worth them worrying about a 7 pence difference in flour prices, but The Demotivator at MSE is eye opening if you struggle to see how the pennies add up over a year. My personal weakness of buying chocolate at work as often as twice a week adds up to £70 a year, for example. Ouch. Buying the middle of the road tinned tomatoes over the premium saves around £20 a year - a few hours wages right there, saved from going into a bolognese that doesn't care for pretty labels much anyway.

The penny jar is an essential financial tool in our house. All of the loose change generated by our day to day transactions goes into the jar. It is mostly pennies, tuppences and five pence pieces, with a few larger denominations thrown in. When the jar reaches the half full mark, we empty it out, bag up as many full coin bags as possible; and take them to the bank. I also think that it is wise in this age of banking insecurity to have some hard currency to hand, however little. I counted out our coins once again this week. 2958 pence in total, or £29.58. Not that much? Actually, that's almost 1/676th of our goal, through passive loose change management.

Strong inflation and low interest rates over the last few years has hammered savers - but then it really depends what you are saving towards. A devalued penny in an emergency fund is better than no penny at all. If you are paying down debt, especially at record low interest rates, then every penny saved and put towards that counts for much more than if you put it in a savings account. Every penny and every pound extra you put towards your debts will reduce the final interest rate you pay and your final debt free date. Incidentally, if your debt interest is calculated daily, don't wait until your jar is half full - pay down small amounts as often as you can, even if that means taking £2 in loose change into the bank once or twice a week. It will save you money and it feels good. Every penny does count.

How do you manage your loose change?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Springtime iced tea

The living is easy in spring! The back door is open and we flow in and out of the house as the mood takes us. Yesterday I managed to get through a lot of housework, cooking and washing up. The weather has been lovely - warm and breezy. I smoked through 5 loads of laundry and I have another two under my belt this today. The first, crisp, line dried bedding of the year will be going on the bed this evening. Bliss.


Spring and summer are months for mooching off of mother nature. No extra energy (money) need be applied to warming the house, drying the laundry...or making tea. The herbs in the back border are springing up with no effort on our part. Yesterday was also Earth Day, time to celebrate its gifts! Our patio is a sun trap that is usually several degrees warmer than the street and yesterday it was warm enough to brew sun tea. I stumbled upon this concept on an American blog a few years back and have since made a few different versions and read lots of different recipes and methods. Always on the lookout for ways to reduce our fuel use and keep our kitchen cool in the summer, neither of these methods require use of the kettle. Also, you get tea!

There are a few hard and fast rules. Consistent direct sun and warm air temperature are required. Alternatively you can brew tea in the fridge if you leave it to steep for long enough - that method is actually considered safer, as lukewarm water left for several hours may be a breeding ground for bacteria. The jar should be cleaned thoroughly to reduce the chances of nasties ending up in your tea. I have made few different versions, but today's is very light. When summer is in full swing I will be making a huge jar that lasts through to the next day. The larger the quantity, the longer it will need in the sun.

* * * * * *
 Springtime Sun Tea - 2 servings

1 pint cold water
1 1/2 tsp loose leaf black tea
2 large sprigs each of fresh mint and lemon balm
Sugar and ice to serve (optional)

Place your tea ingredients into a lidded glass jar and place outside in direct sunlight for at least 4 hours. Alternatively place in the fridge for at least 6 hours, until desired strength is reached. Shaking the jar occasionally speeds up the process.

Place the jar in the fridge until cold. Strain into glasses and serve.  

* * * * * *

This is a very different tea drinking experience to hot tea. Lukewarm and cold brewing draws out different compounds at different rates to boiling water. I hate hate HATE chamomile tea with a passion - or at least I did until I made it in a jar in the fridge. Lovely stuff! I will never ever make iced tea from hot brewed tea again. That method brings out the bitter tannins and roastiness -  this one draws out the delicate summery fruity, floral flavours.

I also happen to know that a tot of whiskey or rum and some soda water doesn't go amiss in this after the kids are tucked up in bed. Ahem. 

Happy St George's Day!

I hope you enjoy this green and pleasant land today. We will be in the garden, doing our bit to make it it a little greener and more pleasant.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The news diet

I stumbled across this summary by Rolf Dobelli of his thoughts on why 'the news' is bad for us,  ironically, whilst catching up on dreadful events unfolding an ocean away in Boston. Dreadful events that I have no personal connection to and can do absolutely nothing to alleviate, yet felt enough of a mix of compassion (good) and morbid intellectual curiosity (not good) towards that I was reading a live blog about it.

An awareness of world events is useful up to a point; and once upon a time that would have meant a morning newspaper of yesterday's news and a 10 minute evening radio bulletin. Now we have 24 hour news channels, online newspapers updated every minute and a plethora of DIY media where anyone can put their experience out there (including me). And sometimes, this is a force for good. Mostly, we don't see the wood for the trees.

Whilst I disagree with many of his assertions, I can't disagree with the thrust of Dobelli's article regarding 'the news' . We haven't had regular access to TV news for several years now - and when I do find myself watching it, I find it overwhelming. Too much graphic detail, so much negativity. Horrible things happen every single day and humans can be complete shits to each other. But I also know that good things happen, every second of everyday, and humans can be awesome. That experience is not reflected back to me in the news. In the wake of Boston, the speculation surrounding the mechanics, the motives and dynamics of the plot and plotters far outweigh the coverage of the people that came together to help. This stuff is bad for our mental heath.

The day we realised the TV aerial on our new house was not wired in changed our lives. We watch less news and instead of mindless channel surfing we watch a handful of shows and films on DVD. We get to choose where we focus our attention - even if I do occasionally get sidetracked by live blogs. I have more time to be a productive kind human. I am taking a break from my remaining news outlets - one week, cold turkey, no 'news'. I have done it before and after a few false starts (it is an almost automatic reaction to check a news website in the morning with my coffee). I suspect that I might enjoy it more this time and extend it for a little longer.

Happily, this gives me more reading time to devote to my favourite blogs - the majority of which catalogue  human adventures in trying to be productive and kind human beings. Keep them coming please :)

Friday, 19 April 2013


Spring has well and truly sprung today. This should have happened sometime in early February, but we have shared the crazy mad weather that the rest of the country has put up with this year. But today, finally - today was a fine day to spend an afternoon on the allotment. In flip flops. The highlight of my week? The moment this morning that I realised that (six weeks late) flip flop season was upon us. 

High on sunshine, we have been so bold as to plant out our squash plants. This is winter squash 'Jaspee de Vendee' from Chase Garden Organic Vegetable Seeds, started off indoors in newspaper pots as Cucurbits don't generally appreciate having their roots disturbed. If a heavy frost should kill them all in the next week, we still have time to get some more going through early May. According to the many enticing stories about this squash I have gathered on the Web, I am to expect a bumper crop of sizable, super sweet and tender squashes that are ideal for desserts. The worst that anyone has said of them so far is that they are a little ugly for a squash - probably not one for glorious autumnal photo montages then.

We didn't bring anything to mark their position and so instead utilised our plot's most abundant resource - stones. Each plant sits in a foot-wide circle(ish) of stones making them noticeable enough that we won't tread on them. This had the pleasing side effect of allowing the watering we gave them to stay put and seep into the soil around them instead of running off in all directions; and it also gives us a nice target area to heap on the compost over the season.

I love squashes and pumpkin. I think it has as much to do with my love of autumn as for their delicious creamy sweet flavour. I love the fact that you can use every part of them from the skin to the seeds. I love the fact that you can put them on a cool shelf and they will carry you through to February. Protection and watering concerns aside, building little stone monuments to honour them seems a perfectly productive use of my time (you know, just in case I am wrong and that there are in fact supernatural pumpkin spirits to placate). These plants will be mollycoddled like no other.

And,  once again - it is flip flop weather, finally. Which means summer is only a month or so away. And then, it will be autumn! Plenty of good things to do and see and eat between now and then, followed hopefully by lots of squash filled baked goods.

What is going on in your garden?

Knitting and TED talks

Knitting time is also usually TV or listening time. I like having something to occupy my mind whilst my hands work. TED talks usually deliver a nice short burst of inspiration, just long enough to fit in a few rows and a cup of tea. There has been a flurry of gardening related talks recently, which is even better. I love this one.

Enjoy :)

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Life is maintenance

In these bodies we will live,
in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love,
you invest your life

- Mumford and Sons 

Why did it take me so long to embrace this? I rallied against the day to day details of life maintenance for so long - and I never did achieve the freedom from ordinariness that I was striving for.

We live in a world of outsourcing. From the cradle to the grave, we have an endless stream of services to take care of us and our loved ones, from the TV babysitter, through nightly dinners of preprepared carrots and ready-seasoned chicken, to the heart specialists that put us back together when we have consumed too much, burnt through too much cortisol and not moved enough. If they fail? We have the undertaker to take care of our dead. The maintenance of humans has been outsourced.

The most frugal among us have so much 'stuff' - and the means to acquire more - that only the wealthiest of households would have had 60 years ago. For all our household conveniences - we have just upped the level of day to day maintenance actually required to run our lives. We don't produce it ourselves much these days - we have a whole country of cheap labour east of here to do that for us. And when we take delivery of it, we do our best to avoid maintaining it - by throwing more money and stuff and time at it.

The things we have, inspite of all our mod cons, seem to require much more maintenance. My great grandmother didn't have wall to wall carpeting, and a worktop food processor complete with 48 hard to clean attachments. She had wood or stone floors and a broom, mop and a rug beater. A knife and a whisk are sufficient food processors if you have to work 40 hours to buy a kitchen aid that you rarely use because you hate to clean it. Her laundry day was hard graft - but I suspect she actually washed a lot less stuff and she wore an apron daily to reduce the number of clothes she got through. We have a hoover, a steam cleaner and biannual use of a carpet washer. All of them are ugly and take up a lot of space. And all of them need to be wiped over and cleaned themselves occasionally. Meanwhile, I still make use of a mop and broom and rug beater for other areas of the house.

It seems the whole of modern life is an attempt to escape the maintenance to get to the fun. But the 'fun' comes at a huge price, if it comes at all. Only the super rich who can outsource everything with no care for money or paid employment have a hope of escaping this. For the rest of us - the adverts lie. And none of us can escape the environmental costs wrought by our increasingly disposable, frantic lives. More stuff, more disposable, cheaply built stuff, is wreaking havoc with our planet and our quality of life. 

Over the last few years I have taken back that which is mine to maintain. I love maintaining my humans and I love the beauty of a garden in full bloom - healthy allotment produce for the win. Laundry is much easier when you love the clothes that you are laundering. Keeping your home tidy is much more enjoyable when you think the furniture is beautiful and the textiles are worth looking after - especially so if you have poured your creativity and time into making them or refurbishing them. None of this has to cost a lot of money. I like doing a little handwashing now and again so a few delicate hand knits only add to my enjoyment of life. I love sweeping and I hate hoovering - guess who won't be having wall to wall carpet in our forever house.

I think this sums up simple living in a nutshell. The motivating values for everyone may be different, but the result is the same - the taking back of the day to day maintenance of our lives and fully embracing it, appreciating it and aligning it with our values as much as is possible - and realising that there is more room for fun and excitement when you spend less time running away from life. Life is maintenace, so you might as well make a life worth maintaining.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

This poem changed my life

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

- Wendell Berry, Manifesto:The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

The whole poem can be read here. I urge you to drop this blog now and go read it.

Sometimes it is hard to put what you want in to words. My vision for my future certainly does not condense into a neat job description complete with handy flowchart of how to get there. The glimpse has flashed in and out of my life for as long as I can remember - infuriatingly flickering at the edge of my vision in careers interviews at school. 'Oh, you change your mind so much! You will want to be something different next week!'. Indeed.

I came across this poem last year and have read it many many times since then. To all intents and purposes it is my ideal job description - that ragbag of ideas and images that have clashed vividly with just about every advised direction I have ever taken. I wonder if I had discovered Wendell Berry when I was 18, would my life have turned out very different?  This poem articulates how I have always wanted to be in the world, but have never had the courage to fully embrace, in the face of others' well meaning opinion . I want to be a mad farmer.

Going through all my old posts gave me plenty of food for thought. All the posts now tagged 'The map chest' are about where we are going what we are doing - our road map as such. What a confused little pup I was back then. I had the vaguest inkling of what it was I wanted, but it was but a glimpse, washing in and out of sight with the tides of life. Simple living, growing things, making things and an innate need to take care of people and planet - all glimpses, but never fully braided together. 

It is all much clearer now. Time to get braiding.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Thrifty thrills in a lean month

So much to do and spend this month, the extra few pounds from the tax allowance increase are going to come in handy. We have actually been putting money away for all of these eventualities over the last year, but that is tucked away in a cash ISA and I would prefer to keep it that way. The interest is nominal, but it is interest. As much as possible will therefore be coming from our wages.

This will be a month of meal planning, batch cooking with religious zeal (something I struggle with) and  finally getting around to eBaying a few things that have been lying around for far too long.

Entertainment - apart from the big events - will be fixing all of those things around the house that we already have the materials for. We are halfway through freshening up the woodwork downstairs with its first lick of paint in (I am guessing) a decade or so.

A few things have been bought. A new pair of almost floor length curtains for £4.50 yesterday that were too good to miss for the living room. The 'old' living room curtains are now up in the cherubs' bedroom. They actually suit that room much bette I spent an hour searching for the cheapest place to buy curtain rings and hooks yesterday, before giving up and just swapping them over with what I had. It turns out there was a surplus of fixings upstairs and a deficit downstairs - which has saved us around £6 or £7.

For Mr Freya's Rainbow, that also means working on the car and fixing up the rust and bubbled paintwork with all of the shihe has accrued

Monday, 8 April 2013

Independence days

I am currently rereading the book Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation by Sharon Astyk. I will write a review at a later date, but it is basically a 'why, what and (very basic) how' of personal food growing, storage and security. The title comes from the writer Carla Emery, whose The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book I will also review at some point (the TL;DR of which will be that that particular book is nothing short of brilliant and I think you should buy it - like, yesterday).

Independence days were the days that Emery managed to feed her family from their own produce, their own pantry, and from local producers. Through the first part of the growing year she tried to sow something every single day. Halfway through the season her focus would switch to preserving something from her garden every day ready for winter. 

It isn't for everyone, but striving for true 'independence days' appeals to me - it suits my temperament, personal ethics and my obsessive love of growing food and being out of doors. In previous years, I have become discouraged at the 'smallness' of our efforts in the face of our annual grocery bill. Our tiny yard and plot seemed like a token shuffle on a long journey to self sufficiency that we will never complete. But that is not the attitude to have is it? As unrealistic as this goal may be at the moment, working towards it gives me some peace and purpose. I hope that one day we make it to an acre, some ducks and space for a root cellar. In the meantime, we do what we can. We have plans for modest food preservation this year, past the ketchup and chutney of past years. I am looking into buying more from local food producers. We are growing some food. 

In fact every day this week, we have managed to sow something. Today it was chervil seeds, yesterday a couple of pots of salad leaves; and in the days before that hyssop, physalis, alpine strawberries, bergamot, achocha and winter squash. Tomatoes have been potted on and moved outside and for the first year ever the aubergines have survived to grow more than two sets of leaves. All good practice for our future farm. In the meantime - who needs acreage when you are having fun?

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Flat Bread

We haven't baked so much bread around these parts in recent months. Our oven was replaced with a fan oven and it doesn't play ball when it comes to baking, or at least, we still haven't learnt how to use it effectively.

But these little beauties - we make these a lot.

When I came to university I came armed with three cookbooks - the first vegetarian cookbook I ever bought, the obligatory 'student' cookbook, and a sketchbook in which I had been collecting recipes, most never tested, since I was fifteen. I still have the sketchbook and I still haven't cooked most of the delights contained therein. There is a recipe however for Swedish Flat Bread, I don't know where I copied it from, but the original is not my own. I have made it many times and it has gradually become more refined - the original makes quite a stodgy tablet of rye bread. What student has rye flour to hand? Gradually, the quantities changed but the good stuff remained and this one has become my own, as much as a recipe ever can be, through use and experimentation and mishap.

A skillet cooked flat bread is the most frugal bread you can make. It is generally unleavened, though I have seen recipes made with yeast or even Bicarbonate of soda. Cooked for mere minutes on the hob, they are frugal in both money and time - and the oven can stay off in the heat of summer.

They seem to be common to all cultures too, made from a diverse variety of grains and with even more diverse spices added. To this basic recipe can be added almost any spice or herb that you want. You can add yoghurt, milk or beer in place of water, or sub in different flours or oils. They can be made into tortilla thin wraps or hearty slabs. I have done all of these things at one time or another, but I always come back to basics:

* * * * * *

Wholemeal Flat Bread (makes 4 large breads)

2 cups wholemeal strong bread flour
1 scant cup water
1/2 tbsp oil (optional)
1/2 tsp salt

Mix the salt, flour and oil together and gradually stir in the water to form a firm, slightly sticky dough.

Knead the dough for 5 minutes on an unfloured surface until it starts to feel soft and smooth. If it is still too sticky knead in a teaspoon or so extra flour.

Now flour your work surface. Split the dough into four and roll out the first ball very thinly into a round the size of your frying pan/skillet.

Cook on an ungreased skillet over medium heat for 1-1 1/2 minutes each side, pricking the surface with a fork to stop air pockets forming.

Repeat with the remaining dough portions.

* * * * * *

We serve these with soups in winter, as they can be made on the hob right alongside the stew. In summer (and spring days like today) they accompany salads, bean pate or cheeses and chutney. Sometimes I go crazy and tear them up into a salad. Regardless, they are best served straight away, but can be refreshed after a day or so by sprinkling with water and rewarming in the pan.

I am in the process of compiling the recipes I really want to pass on to our children - the things we eat regularly and the things that I feel they should be able to cook. This one I think everyone should be able to cook - one of humankind's staple foods, bread, in its simplest form. It is quite tasty, too.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

This guy is awesome

Portsmouth isn't South Central LA (thankfully - I don't like the heat!) but we have food poverty, food deserts and abandoned land just the same. I think this guy has the right idea; and he knows how to spread it:

Friday, 5 April 2013

Seed viability and floating seed.

This is Achocha 'Fat Baby' seed. It was given to me a few weeks ago by a friend who grew it in 2011. It fruited prolifically and she managed to kept quite a bit of seed. These seeds have moved house twice and probably suffered a few other stresses in their journey to me. One rudimentary test for seed viability is to place your seed in a cup of water. If they float, the theory is that air and therefore moisture has got into the seed and it is no longer viable. If they sink, they should germinate.

When I set them in water, all of them rose to the surface. A few hours later they were still floating and I was going to throw them away, but my flighty brain took me from the kitchen for a few hours and they were left to float. 12 hours later, I came down to a jar of water with plump seeds resting on the bottom. Why not give them a chance? 10 days later and we have six plants and a few more on the way.

They will be perfect to scramble along the back fence of the community garden (should we get the go ahead) and I was planning to let them ramble across the shed on the allotment. I was given a few Achocha fruits by the very same friend a few years ago and they were good. They look a little intimidating, pale lime green and covered in soft rubbery spines. Raw I wasn't too fussed about them, but sliced up in a stir fry they were good and I agree with everyone else who says they are a bit like green peppers. They are also low fuss rampant vines that fruit prolifically for very little effort. What's not to like?

I suspect that this seed floating test is a little like 'i before e except after c' - that is, a not particularly useful rule. I will be floating the next few varieties I sow to test this. I am certainly glad I didn't throw this batch out based upon that first day of floating.
Achocha seeds are available from The Real Seed Catalogue (near the bottom of the page).

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ten things

In the process of moving over my old blog posts to this one, I had to read through each one and recategorise them. I spent two hours reading through what amounts to a diary of three of the most turbulent, change filled, exciting years of my life. It was back in 2010 that we really began to knuckle down and think about what we wanted in life, having started the process a few years earlier before the Credit Crunch hit.

When I started blogging back in 2010:

1. We were in debt. We are now in credit to almost double that debt amount and we put a set amount aside without fail each month. We have a budget that covers everything and we mostly stick to it.

2. We regularly used to run out of basics and be caught unawares by short term changes. We now keep a store of three months worth of basics and try to have something to harvest from the garden allotment during the warmer months. This year we hope to make that a year round deal.

3. We had made a couple of batches of beer from kits and a few not great wines. We are now almost self sufficient in beer brewed from grain and fruit wines. Next up - cider!

4. We regularly used to run out of basics and end up buying expensive basics from The Coop. We now keep a store cupboard with a few months worth of essentials and keep our total food budget around £200 each month.

5. We had a small yard that frustrated our limited gardening abilities. We now have that yard, an allotment, our street frontage and a whole community in which to further expand our horticultural skills.

6. I had never made compost. We now have three compost bins and I love dirt as much as life itself.

7. I couldn't spin. I can now spin. I can also follow almost any knitting or crochet pattern, if I am not winging it and making it up as I go along.

8. We had far too much stuff and a messy house. We now have half the amount of stuff and a tidier, more peaceful home - and it is getting better every day. We also seem to get twice as much fun stuff done these days.
9. I was an introverted homebody with few links in my local community. I am now an introverted homebody who is also involved with two different community organizations.

10. My predominant motivation was fear - fear for what the future may bring, of climate change, peak oil and financial Armageddon. I still believe all that is happening, but I do what I do because I LOVE to do it. The future looks pretty rosy when you are harvesting tomatoes, making chutney, knitting your winter socks, planning community gardens and making stew from your stock cupboard. Those things just happen to make us more resilient human beings too.

When I started writing a blog, I also didn't think anyone would actually read it! Thank you all for reading and commenting. I love writing this blog too! And thank you for writing your own wonderful blogs and sharing your projects, successes, failures, fears and dreams too.

*Edited due to ditziness - Yes, I realize I put the food cupboard in there twice... because over the last three years my brain has nodded off a bit too. Because the real number 4 was of course, that we were the hapless, overtired parents of a 20 month old boy. And now of course we are the tired, less hapless parents of a preschooler and a toddler - and lack of sleep does nothing for your blog post editing skills, even if you have the parenting lark mostly covered ; )*


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