Sunday, 26 April 2009

Spring sunshine

The days are lovely at the moment and it has encouraged me to get our garden into gear.

Unfortunately, the FH has been "under the weather" with some kind of stomach bug since last Sunday, so he is not able to get out and about to enjoy the sunshine. I am hoping that he will be on the mend this week. He always takes longer than normal people to get better as he has a compromised immune system since he takes a lot of immunosuppressant drugs since he had a heart transplant 10 years ago. He is OK in himself, just spending time in the bathroom!!!

The YFG had to stay at home on Friday as her sickness continued until 10pm, and we are not allowed to send kids back to school until 24 hours have passed since the last bout of it. She was OK on Friday and felt much better, but it did her good to have a rest. We did go to gymnastics on Friday and Saturday - we couldn't miss the Saturday session in particular as a photographer came from the local paper to snap shots of the girls who won medals in the competition a few weeks ago. We'll be looking out for the paper to come this week with some anticipation - and they have new competition leotards as well, so it would be lovely if they print a colour photo!

Today we slept in, and didn't make it to church. After gym yesterday I was too tired to do the shopping, so we went to Sainsbury's today and stocked up. The girls and I have had some veg stir fry and smoked salmon (the very cheapest trimmings, I promise!) for lunch and since then, we have had the new neighbour and her 18 month old daughter round to see the rabbits and chickens, hung out some washing and now another boy is here, playing on the computer with the EFG. He'll have to go soon as we have some chores to get done before supper, and then it will be full steam ahead into school mode for tomorrow - for me as well, as we start the interviewing process at 9am for the three candidates at school.

I have been shocked and saddened this week to learn of yet another neighbour in financial difficulties, and it has prompted me to wonder whether it is possible to help these people and if so, how one would do it? Obviously I would not offer actual monetary aid, but I wonder sometimes whether there is a need for some kind of housewife-ly (that isn't a word, but it is what I mean!) guidance towards the stewardship of money and making it go further and do more. The lady told me that when the mortgage rate was high, all their money went on paying the mortgage and they had to use their credit cards to "live". This has unfortunately meant that now the mortgage rate has come down, they are no better off as the interest rates on the credit cards are sky high and they have big balances to pay off. Consequently they are still struggling. Although we can see from hindsight that this was not a wise thing to do at the time, I don't for one minute think that they are the only people to have used this strategy to cope, for whatever reason.

I have heard the opinion passed that we are lucky that we don't have a mortgage, but we wouldn't get one nowadays! Our income is low in comparison to others, at less than £20K a year. We live in a house that we bought for £215K five years ago, so it isn't worth any more than that now, although it was valued at £250K a few years ago, before that so-called "bubble" burst. We own two old cars - one we have had for ten years, and one we have had for about 7, both bought second hand. They are both estate cars - we bought the first for £8K from Network Q, so it has cost us roughly £800 a year but the other one was a bigger bargain as the FH bought it from a colleague for £1000, and it is a trouper! I see no reason to buy a brand new car, and would never do so. There are other cars in driveways on streets up and down the country which are newer, flashier, and have hundreds more gadgets, but you know what - I'd rather sleep at night, knowing that mine is paid for and can't be repossessed.

I read somewhere about the secret millionaires of this world; you would pass them on the street, they buy good quality items which last, they don't follow fashion, they are frugal (like the Queen!) and careful with their money. They don't "look" rich, because they are not ostentatious with their wealth. We are a million miles away from being millionaires (pardon the pun) but we are living in a similar way, and probably taking it a step further because we sometimes "look" poor to those who judge by appearances.

Appearances are deceptive, and this family this week that shocked me with their own revelation about their financial problems are not people who would look as if they are in trouble. Just goes to show that you just can't tell.

To make a contribution to helping other families, our family top ten tips for managing money:

1. Keep good records of every penny spent by all members of the family - from the odd packet of crisps at the newsagents to the supermarket shop to the phone bill and the car tax - EVERY penny has to be accounted for to know where it is going.

2. Plan. Know when the bigger/annual amounts need to be paid and put money aside each month towards them. We take our big/annual payments (house insurances, car-related payments for tax and insurance, heating oil, etc), add them up and divide by 12, add another £10 a month and pay that much into a separate account. The money is then there when it is needed and doesn't come as a big surprise! You can also do this for Christmas/birthday funds.

3. Meal planning. One of the major things we spend money on regularly is food - so it makes sense to be in control. It doesn't mean deciding what you want to eat this week and then going out to buy it, though. We operate the pantry principle which basically means buying what is the best value for money and then making meals from that. It also means that we don't ever buy takeaway because we are too tired/can't be bothered/"don't know" what to cook!

4. Stockpiling When items that we use regularly go on special offer, we buy them - a lot of them! Whatever it is, if we have room to keep it, we buy as much as we can store or we can afford to buy. Obviously, this works best for dry foods, tinned food, frozen items and cleaning/paper goods. It is a good idea to assign a little money each time you go shopping for these kinds of items, as it will save you money in the long run. You do need to keep track of what you have got, and rotate your stock to keep the things fresh.

5. Accept everything you are offered because if you don't, people stop offering! You may be lucky, as we are, to occasionally receive surplus garden produce from relatives and friends. Some of it goes in the freezer and some is re-gifted to others, who we know will also appreciate it. Of course, to keep life going round, it is good to be able to offer things ourselves as well, as we do with eggs and outgrown clothes, and some garden produce.

6. Save up, save, and save! We save up for new purchases that we need to make rather than buying on HP or credit arrangements, or loans. HP, credit and loans cost money in the long run in one way or another generally and I prefer not to go there. It is a discipline thing as well, as I would be concerned that I would be lured into more such purchases and then it would be a slippery slope - so know your boundaries and stick to them. The second "Save" is just that - we put aside a proportion of our income into savings each month. Some months it is more than others, but there is always a little moved over into savings. That provides us with an emergency cushion against all sorts of disasters, and gives us a feeling of security. And the third "Save" is about saving things - rescuing them - repurposing or recycling. Don't throw away something which could still have a use and could usefully prevent us from having to spend money. We save all sorts of things: loo roll inner tubes for planting beans, margerine tubs for freezing portions of food, vegetable peelings for the compost heap, etc. Don't go mad in this department and get yourself overrun with rubbish!

7. Educate the children because if we don't bring up our children to behave responsibly in a financial sense, no one else will. Our children understand that there is a pretty much fixed amount of money each month, and they know that there are priorities for that income. A new DS game is very low down on that list! They buy their own games with money given to them for Easter, birthdays, etc, or they earn it. There are always things that they can do on top of their normal jobs if they want to earn money. They don't get pocket money - no one ever gave me money for doing nothing! If something is important to them, they are keen and happy to contribute to the cost of the purchase - after all, if it is not important enough for them to work for it, why should I? The FGs are both careful with their money, and we do require that they save half of all they are given, so they think about what they want, and will often delay buying something to think about it a bit longer!

8. Mums, stay home with the kids or at least do a job which doesn't involve childcare. I have never been employed in a 9-5 job since I had the girls, always having preferred the flexibility of self-employment. I know that this one is not an option for everyone, but it can help the family finances as often the second job costs as much as it brings in when travel, childcare, clothing, convenience foods, help in the house perhaps, etc are all factored in. A mum or dad at home can do a lot to save money for the family - and that contribution can mean as much to the family finances as actually bringing in a wage packet.

9. Don't follow fashion of any kind! Know what you like and stick to it. Be brave and be different. A thrifty friend of ours back in Scotland painted all the rooms in her house white - white walls everywhere and white woodwork and doors. Then she had one carpet laid throughout the bungalow, in a semi-neutral colour pattern, and she just accessorised each room slightly differently, and she had a charming, welcoming and restful home. Similarly with clothing, one friend here always wears jeans - Monday to Friday she wears jeans when she is out and about, and her at-home uniform is grey joggers and a matching grey fleece. It sounds boring, but it saves her a fortune and who sees what she is wearing at home anyway!? It is timeless and classic, and it is easy to care for. I chuckle to myself when I see high-fashion in the playground at the school; most of us are very practical mums here, people like me who may just have rushed to the school straight from the garden, the dog-groomer who has nipped up to the school in between clients, the gardener in her wellies back from the horticultural college where she teaches, the stables owner, for example - this is real life that most of us are living, and we don't need that kind of day-to-day attire. Keep it real for your life situation.

10. Dare to be different in all kinds of ways. Shop once a month, walk everywhere, grow veggies, keep chickens and quail, drive old cars, holiday on the Costa del Cromer, but above all, have fun with your families doing it! That is not a cop out number 10 - that is really the crux of the matter. Daring to stand up to the waves of easy credit, pressure to go to work in a career, put kids into childcare, buy takeaways or Macdonalds because it is what "everyone" does.......well, I think that people are beginning to realise that there must be another way, and we are already some way down that path. It's not always an easy path, but we sleep well at night and we have some fantastic times with our families.

Gosh, I'd better shut up now!

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