Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Christmas Cards for the Cash-Strapped

Students! Welcome to a world where you have plenty of time but no money. Enjoy it because we who have more jobs and an income have no time - and would relish the opportunity to swap with you!

However had I known then as a student what I know now - such as how to make sweets and jewellery and cards and jams, and create cheap/free presents for people, I might have made both better use of my time and of what little dosh I had left after the books were bought and the rent paid and the budget brand food was purchased ... barely covering one shelf of the fridge.

So here are my tips for crafting your own Christmas card toppers, using scraps of wrapping paper, coloured paper from the inside of envelopes (or reuse marketing material as you see I've done here) some thin card (from a tissue box), those colour palette cards from a home hardware store and some puffy sticky pads from the pound store.

With these, and some blank cards (you can buy a bulk pack of 50 from Argos for about £5 if you do not want to make your own out of coloured card), you can create some amazing cards that can be sold to your friends for a small profit or given to friends and family at birthdays, weddings, Christmas and other occasions.

The cumulative savings will be incredible and the recipient will be extra thrilled to receive a professional-looking home made card from you.

Now I confess, I made this Christmas Card while on a train. Therefore the photos are not great and my space was limited. However, perhaps this would be a good way to while away a couple of hours as you travel up to uni and back, if you are a science student and therefore do not have free time, unlike we English Lit grads.

So here's how!

You will need:

  • Some wrapping paper
  • Old cardboard (ie tissue box)
  • Sticky foam pads (double sided). You can buy a roll or sheet of this in most dollar/pound stores
  • Some colourful scrap paper - the one I used here was from a flyer that John Lewis put through our letterbox - recycle, reuse, save the environment AND money
  • Colour palette cards from a DIY store
  • Scissors
  • Stick of glue
  • Ribbon to decorate. I use those ribbons found on chocolate boxes or bath gift sets or in clothing; I cut them out when I buy the top/dress and store the ribbons in a box.
How to:
  • Cut around the shapes on the wrapping paper carefully.
  • Stick them all on the card, making the most of all the space available.
  • When dry, cut them all out, like this: 
That is a lot of coverage! 
Layer a smaller one on top of a larger one with an eye for the colours; for example either a matching pattern or a complimentary colour. Use the foam pads to create a 3-D lift effect, like this:
Card-making on a train? How peculiar!
Then layer these on top of a contrasting colour palette card, and cut this equally around the edges, leaving a decent space of c. 5mm to 1cm Trim the corners if you like (this also helps to cover up any slightly un-straight cutting).

Then layer this on top of your scrap paper/rectangle of wrapping paper to match the colours of your main card topper. Trim the edges again if you like, as here, and then glue onto your card.

Voila... A handmade card-topper, and it will have cost you barely anything. Maybe add any rhinestone stickers or ribbons to finish it off, if you have any.

Here's one I made on the train. It ain't perfect - I chose an awkward shape - but it can be as complicated or as simple as you like. And it will look awesome to your friends and family.

The finished product - happy days!
The more of these you make, the better you will get - and you will get asked to make cards for all occasions (for money, too, which is amazeballs).

Have fun, students! I'd like to see your creations
. Tag me on Instagram at @simoneysunday

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Coding and Saving

The other day I met with a senior spokesman from the Money Advice Service, who said, during the conversation, that as people generally find it hard to budget but like to spend, it is right to focus on helping people to spend wisely, joyfully and responsibly.

His view was that this would enable people to start making some savings each week that, over time, will go towards helping them have a more secure financial future, or pay off debt.

I agree with this actually. It is too easy to tell people 'stop spending'. You might as well try to reverse the ferromagnetic fields that keep the world spinning around. People like to have things. Nobody likes going without. So it is important to find different ways of budgeting and spending. Ways to reduce the food bill without reducing the number of items.

For example, I have recently employed the following:

Swapping my £10:00 a time fresh chicken for £4.50 frozen chicken. Both British, both from Tesco, both good quality, but a saving of £5.50 a time. I always freeze the chicken anyway to make it last longer so why was I paying for fresh?

Lingering at the Amazon till. I know, I know, tax investigations and drone technology aside, I am grateful for the computery cornucopia that is Amazon. You can get deals ... and if you leave your items in the basket without checking out, then log off, you will find that a week or so later, there is a 'price change' in your favour - sometimes £4 to £5 worth of savings by waiting with a full basket instead of buying immediately.

Voucher codes. I have always used these and printed off coupons for half price dinners or discounts on items I want at the till in supermarkets. However this time I trialled a use of PromotionalCodes.

This is basically a site that aggregates online retailers, keeps note of all the available discounts by said retailers. It provides codes to users to put in at the checkout to get additional discounts on goods. I have been wary of such things in the past because sometimes individual retailers still offer better deals to 'loyal' customers. For example mum gets Hotter discounts in the post which I found to be as good if not better than the ones via the site. However, PromotionalCodes can also obtain exclusive discount codes that you cannot get elsewhere; for example earlier this year, it had exclusive £20 off anything at AO.com and 10% off all hotels at lowcostholidays.com.

Therefore, like physical shopping centres, virtual ones need to be browsed. I found two very good deals through PromotionalCodes. One was from chocolatier Thorntons. While deals were available directly, the code I used for a discounted 'tea for two' set ensured that I paid no postage and packaging - saving me nearly £6.00. So not only half price but free delivery. I was not sure of the 'use by' dates however as you cannot check this online. I had intended this for a Christmas present for a young couple we know. It was fingers crossed for a 2016 use by date on everything, not a 2015.

Sadly one item was dated December 2015 but the rest were well 2016 so I shall buy its replacement and give my friends the set, and use the other one myself. No waste, no harm. But Thorntons should make it clear to buyers that all items need to have a long shelf life, or give people buying online the option to check the date before they buy.

The second item was a set of iridescent wine glasses in variegated colours. This was from Scotts of Stow - which does have sales from time to time. Again mum gets this catalogue so I had a frame of reference. But while Scotts was offering 10% off these glasses, the code I got through PromotionalCodes meant that I received a total price that was nearly £10.00 off the total - a 20% discount in total. As these were for an anniversary gift for friends of ours, and they read my blog, I won't give actual numbers!

Verdict so far
For Christmas and other occasional presents, this is a very good site. For those exclusive offers or discounts on delivery charge, I would recommend people to try it out.

However always shop around. Sometimes retailers themselves offer better discounts to their own loyal customers than they will offer through aggregation sites such as VoucherCodes or PromotionalCodes. That said, for time-strapped people such as myself, having something all in one place, like Amazon, really makes a difference.

If I can save time and money and get organised weeks ahead of Christmas, then this has to be a good thing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015



Very soon.

Actually not very soon. 114 days as at time of posting this article.

However I am excited. I LOVE Christmas and everything about it. Except the shopping - which is why I already have done 70 per cent of all my shopping for this coming Christmas. 

One of the Mermaid's former Christmas Trees
Rightly, many people may mock me for being super-organised when the sun has barely set on summer. 

However - given that the sun barely shone this summer, and given the fact I am now wearing black tights, which means the one month of bare legs is officially over for the whole of the UK, it is worth providing you with some of my personal money-saving tips for Christmas. 

According to research from the Halifax, there are 17 weeks to go until Christmas. 

Their study provides some interesting facts and figures to which the money-savvy should pay heed. 


From now to 24 December, you will need to start saving around £28 a week (£120 a month) to cover the full cost of Christmas.

This is because, according to the Halifax: 
  • The average person spent £469 on Christmas in 2014, including all spending on gifts, food, drink and socialising. 
  • One in four Christmas spenders admitted that they had spent more than they did the previous year to the tune of £110. 
  • Some 29% agreed that they had overspent over Christmas 2014.
I, however, did NOT overspend. I always ensure we have an indulgent Christmas without a financial headache. And here are my money-saving tips.

1) Points cards
Boots, Sainsbury's, WH Smith and all those stores that offer you points are of course only doing one thing: ensuring your loyalty to the brand. However, it is worth you making the most of the points you can get so that you can spend them at Christmas. If you combine it with other savings ideas, you can make a decent packet on each card throughout the calendar year.

For example, O2 customers can now use Boots to get their meal deals for £1 on a Monday. So not only can you get a cheap lunch, if you use your points card at the till, you can get 4 points on this. Make the most of special offers on things you need - deodorants, hair products, etc whenever there is a special 'bonus points' weekend and you will find the points do build up.

Nectar points can be gained on certain Train company operators, EDF energy, certain attractions and petrol. Make sure you have registered your card with these various additional Nectar points providers and you will see the points build up.

For example, last year I had saved £70 worth of points at Boots and £45 at Sainsbury's. I bought a shed load of 3-for-2 gift items from Boots (some of which I still have) on my card, and deducted £40 off my Christmas shop at Sainsbury's, taking the food bill down to about £60.

2) Make your own cards
I make my own cards. Over the years people have provided me with so much card craft material I could set up my own shop. However, I find that making a couple of cards a week - sometimes more - can not only be cost-saving but theraputic in the extreme. 

You can check out some of my creations on my facebook site here: OriginalShimmeringDesigns

However to do this cheaply all you need is some white/cream cards and envelopes (you can buy a box of 50 from Amazon at a good price) and you're set. Simply use the colourful insides of envelopes or scraps of paper to create folded Christmas Tree shapes. Use old buttons to create baubles or snowmen. I also cut out those annoying ribbons inside clothes (except dresses) and use these for decorating cards. It's simple and cheap and unique. 

3) Buy what you need, not what you see
Make a proper list of what you really need. Do you need two jars of mincemeat or will it end up sitting in the fridge? Do you need to buy two large bags of carrots? How many people really do eat the satsumas - and given how much chocolate you get given, do you really need to buy additional chocolate?

By creating a proper list and keeping to it - perhaps only taking enough cash out to cover your shop, rather than bringing the credit or debit card - you will find that not only do you save money, but you also do not have to waste food.

4) Buy when you can, not when you have to
I HATE and LOATHE shopping at Christmas. It is too much stress. So when I see a deal during the year or a discount on some lovely items, I buy them. I often like to trawl the January sales for this. I'll see some gorgeous candlesticks and think 'oooh, I know who would like these', or I will go to a sample sale and get a massive discount on some high-end goods from Aspinal or Smythson. I will then put these into my Present Cupboard, ear-marked for friends and family throughout the year for birthdays and Christmas. 

This means I rarely, ever, buy gifts at full price, and I can get some top-end stuff during the year for less than I would pay at Christmas time. I am therefore never, ever stressed out in December about getting the shopping done - and surprise birthdays throughout the year? Well, they never surprise me.
One of my first Christmas Creations from 2009
5) Cook your own
It is amazing how few people will cook their own cakes. It is such a wonderful way to create something that the whole family will love - and can get involved in. I always make my own cakes and puddings - and believe me, soaking fruit and nuts in alcohol for nearly a year and storing it, well-covered, in the fridge makes for a woozily boozy pudding come 25th December. If you can manage NOT to have a cheeky mouthful or two 'just to test it' throughout the year.  

The melting ice-caps upset this poor penguin family
The whole family can have fun decorating it, as well. It does not have to look professional, you're not trying to 'wow' anyone. Mine often look like a one-armed colourblind child has had a go with a garden trowel and some felt-tip pens. People eat it all the same. 

Another basic attempt at icing. Keep it simple (c2013)
Try your hand at gingerbread cookies - so easy! Christmas cakes, chocolate brownies, apple strudels, puddings, and get the household involved. It saves so much money in the long-run to bake your own and use up food you already have, rather than buy expensive, pre-packaged, preservative-laden comestibles.

6) Make your own gifts
One year when I was leading the choir I realised I had to give them all a thank-you present for participation. This was 28 people, all of whom had received a Chocolate Orange the year before. I was not prepared to spend £28 on Chocolate Oranges from Poundland. So I decided to make gingerbread men. Gingerbread Angels and Men, I should say, and decorate these myself. I tied a set of three up into clear plastic bags, one chocolate dipped, one plain, one iced and decorated, added a curly bit of red ribbon and a hand-made tag, and voila! The whole thing cost me £8 for the ingredients (I already had the cutters).

Gingerbread fury
Other cute gift ideas: make jewellery; try your hand at creating your own jam/jelly and putting it into pretty jars, with 'personalised' labels. You can buy pretty china tea cups and saucers from charity stores, cleaning them thoroughly and then putting a little bag of marshmallows, a stirring stick, some chocolate powder sachets, into them and decorating with a bow; embroidering small Christmassy images and putting these into little frames... all these things could be used to lower the cost and raise the Christmas Spirit.

7) Don't throw away the decorations!
Never throw away Christmas decorations. I see people giving their decs to charity in January or throwing them out. WHY? You'll only need to buy more again 10 years down the line due to breakage or wear and tear. I pack my decorations away carefully each January and mark the boxes according to colour/theme. This means I rarely ever have to buy decorations (although I do love them and get tempted by pretty shiny things). 

Also what is wrong with making things yourself? Cutting up old books that have fallen to pieces, or old sheet music makes for a unique and rather charming paper chain material. Lacquering some starry shapes made from aforementioned paper (or using a papier mache technique to layer the paper) means you can have some beautiful tree hanging decorations once dried. A bit of glitter glue, a piece of ribbon - it does not have to look cheap to be cheap. You can make beautiful, stylish ornaments that would cost £8 a pop in Next or House of Fraser on your own table. 

For example, I like to make paper roses out of old books and a bit of green florist's wire. How about these little charmers for a Christmas gift or decorating idea? I actually sell these for £5 a pop at craft fairs, and if someone commissions me to do something bespoke - for example their wife's favourite book - then I will do that for them ahead of the fair. It's always good to be unique.
Home-made Christmas Roses (all pics SimoneySunday)
7) Save a little, and often
I tell people that if they even put aside £10 a month for the whole year, they'd have £120 to spend at Christmas. If this were put into a decent savings account there would be some compound interest building up on this as well, even considering how low interest rates are at the moment.

While I admit £120 + interest does not meet the Halifax's revelation that we spent £469 last year, it can make the difference between falling into the overdraft or relying on the credit card too much at what should be a lovely time spent with our loved ones. 

And let's face it, every little (to coin a phrase from a supermarket I have not name-checked here in this blog) helps...

Monday, August 24, 2015

Holding your nerve

"If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings 
And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn long after they are gone, 
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'"
                                         Rudyard Kipling, IF

The markets have not reacted well to China's recent tumbles. So far, for eight consecutive days, the UK stock market has fallen.

According to Hargreaves Lansdown, the FTSE All share has fallen by 7 per cent since last Monday (10th August), which equates to around £160bn wiped off the value of UK-listed companies.

Alastair McCaig, Market Analyst at online trader IG, has called it a blood bath. He said: "The collapse in Asian markets has triggered a sea of red on European equity markets as bears dominate the day’s trading.

"Shanghai wipes out 2015 gains; Asian panic scares off the bulls; and traders’ screens are drenched in a sea of red."

FTSE 100 as at 24 August. Source: Interactive Data/Hargreaves Lansdown

Brokers and traders may well be worried. I am not. True, my Isa is down £199. My largest holding - a global, dividend-paying portfolio, has been a disappointment after a year of fairly good returns. Obviously my Gold fund has gone down (I never expected it to provide a return - it is my 'insurance' mechanism). Also sadly my investment in an investment trust that had outperformed for 25 years has had a dismal 18 months.

These three things have really taken a battering from the #GreatFallofChina over the past few weeks. Consequently, this is the first time since I set up my S&S Isa two years ago that it dipped into negative territory.

The only stunners are Woodford's investment trust, Saga shares, my US investment index tracker and the Alliance Trust Sustainable Future Global Growth fund, an ethical fund which has not had a single bad week since I bought it over a year ago. 

Interestingly Saga had such a bad year I almost ditched it, but I held my nerve. Pension Freedoms are here, I thought. Saga will benefit from these. Well that was my perception. It proved wisdom.

I was also laughed at by some colleagues for considering investing in TSB before it listed. 'My broker says the shares will be no good', one said. But I perceived a market of investors keen on a new entrant into the banking market. So I bought them and made double my money on them when I sold them a few months after the launch. He wasn't laughing then. In fact, my tiny Isa has outperformed his at every level - and yet people trust men's financial opinions more than they trust mermaids. Odd, that. 

Two years ago I sold out of a China investment trust simply because I read that the country's growth estimates had fallen from 10 per cent to 7.5 per cent and then to 7 per cent. There was so much positive noise from the market about China despite this that I got worried. You don't see downward GDP revisions without some knock-on effects down the line. So I ignored the hype and I bought into the US market because it was a) depressed and everyone was saying it was not the place to be and b) as far as I am concerned, it is the most mature economy with some solid, cash-rich companies. I also understand the US stock market more than I understand how the Chinese stock market works.

My investing decisions are as scientific as that. I read everything I can, everything that comes my way, I think around it and I act. So far, this has proved to be a wise move. So I am not worried by this latest hiccup. I am disappointed but not scared. 

Here's why the latest tumble is keeping this mermaid pretty sanguine:

1) I am young (ish). My Isa was only designed to provide a bit extra in the event of having surprise quadruplets; failing that, I'm saving it as a bulwark for my pension. I am not set to retire for 30 years and a lot can happen in that time. I am not going to buy and sell on the turn of a market. I will sell when I need the money, and when I'm in the black, not the red. I also have to be in the black enough to cover the trading costs and make money. So why would I sell now? 

2) Things always go in cycles. I've seen two cycles in China in my working life. Now it looks like Brazil is the next BRIC to go down. So I avoid fads - these wheels turn more quickly than slow grinders like the UK or the US. I like my big slow old American industrial-sized wheels. 

3) Use Gold wisely. I don't keep it to make money. I keep it as an insurance against the direction of the US dollar/US stock market. So why would I sell it at a loss when I am using it as a hedge? 

4) Ethical funds. Nobody likes them. Everybody mocks them. So I bought one to see if it would indeed perform differently to the rest of the market. It did. I suspect I am a little contrarian around the edges. 

That said, my stocks and shares Isa is very small. It is not my main source of income, it's not something I would dip into for a rainy day. I have a very long-term plan for a long-term goal and I am not about to have my future finances shaped by short-term decisions and knee-jerk reactions. Markets cannot spook me. Of course, having surprise quadruplets would shake me immensely. But I think that's a story for another day.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Students - are you financially ready?

Many of my friends' children and the young people in my youth group have received their A-level results this summer.

They have all gotten into the Uni or College of their choice - congratulations guys! 

However although they are relishing the prospect of no longer having a bed time or having to eat their greens, little do they know that with adulthood comes responsibility - for their money, their belongings and their financial wellbeing.

Oh yes, lads and laddesses. Your bank account is now your domain, and yours alone. So consider your savings, and protecting your lovely, shiny new belongings. 

A study from Sainsbury's Bank has revealed that students own approximately £3000 worth of possessions in their university accommodation. This makes you a prime target for thieves in some areas, or a disaster waiting to happen.

To wit: in 1995, we watched from an open window in a mate's house, as my mate was on the phone to an ambivalent police force, some students moving into a house just up the road. There was a red van parked around the corner, and as soon as the students were moving in with their enormous boxy TVs and laptops the size of a small car, thieves were running in behind them through the open front door, and taking their belongings into the red van.

Also in 1995, Andre the French Dude's room was turned completely upside-down, and all his belongings were covered in papier mache. I may or may not have had a hand in this. These were the heady days of Tetley Hall in Headingley. Ah.... memories. Anyway the redecoration also included his massive Enigma-style computer, which never completely recovered, nor could the disk drive forgive and forget.

Stolen from Bryony's webpage, her room (note the bottles... ahem)
For a view of one of the rooms, my friend the Rev Bryony Taylor took this pic (left) of her room at Tetley Hall back in the 1990s. Yes, it was before digital cameras were invented, yes I'm old. Get over it ... 

Nowadays there are a lot more electrical items sitting in student accommodation, and a whopping third of students say their possessions aren’t covered by home insurance.

According to Sainsbury's Home Insurance, only 10% of students living away from home have cover on their parents’ home insurance policy.

With 92% of students owning laptops and smartphones, this could be a costly item to replace if there is no appropriate cover. Furthermore, the vast majority (85% of students) say they have a physical collection of books; and the typical value of a student’s bookshelf is now £181.

SO, students - before I write a post about great ways to save for a fun three-four years at uni, please please make sure your parents have checked their home insurance policy to see if Uni accommodation and halls of residence are covered.

If not, conveniently, many providers, including Sainsbury’s Bank, offer protection for student home contents as part of its regular home insurance cover.

ItemPercentage of students who own thisAverage value
Stereo/music system & speakers / headphones
iPad or other tablet
iPod or similar
Sports equipment
Games console
Electronic items - other
Musical instrument e.g guitar
Mobile phone (other)
Desktop PC
Source: Sainsbury's Bank

Protect Baby Boomers

Baby boomers have it all, don't they? Gold-plated DB pensions, no mortgages, second properties even in some cases. They have cash in the bank and nice things at home. Or so you would think. But in fact, financial crime has been rising among this Boom set - in the form of stealing from their own parents and elderly relatives.

Shocking, no? But research from accountancy KPMG has found that crown court cases relating to fraud against family members rose to £2.1m in the first half of this year, up from £400,000 the previous June.

A massive 80 percent of this was against the over 65s, with the majority of this being carried out against the very elderly by their own baby-boomer children and relatives.

In one case, a woman approaching her 60s stole her own father's care home fees after being granted power of attorney. Another man stole his frail mother's £600,000 savings because he was not going to be the main recipient in her will.

True the credit crunch has affected a lot of people. Baby boomers are having to support children and in some cases, grandchildren because of school and university fees, redundancies and an ever-rising deposit needed to get onto the housing ladder.

But this is no excuse for theft, theft from the very people who went without themselves in order that their children, born at the tail end of WW2, might have a better chance in life. Such shameful behaviour must be brought to light and more support must be given to people in their later years, to protect them and their finances from predators.

Friday, July 24, 2015

STOP belittling the 'SAHM'

Get the tea ready Mabel, the guests are here. Pic Credit: SimoneySunday
I do not have children (yet) but I already feel the strain of working full time, five days a week (and freelancing Saturdays), as well as various activities and voluntary work throughout the week. This makes it difficult to cook, clean and launder and make sure that something, somewhere in the home is not falling down or getting smothered in dust.

Although I cook every night, I do not always load the dishwasher or wash up afterwards. I might not clean my windows for months. Ironing is a pile I like to play Jenga with. If I struggle with just a husband and a cat, how much more must home-makers struggle to juggle child-raising, cleaning, tidying, budgeting and part-time or home working?

While I have heard comments from (non-married people, generally), saying 'they have it easy' and 'I'd like to lounge around all day watching Jeremy Kyle' in relation to SAHMs and SAHDs, I disagree. I think they do an amazing job.

They deserve a medal! Or actually £19,000 at the minimum - according to Liverpool Victoria (LV= as it is now known).

The life and pension provider recently carried out a survey which found that homemakers work an average of 56 hours a week, not including childcare duties.

Although one in three breadwinners feel stay-at-home role is ‘easy’ (HA! I wonder how many of my SAHM friends would think it's 'easy'??!), the average British household would have to find £364 a week (£19,000 a year, based on the minimum wage) to pay for extra help if the homemaker became ill or injured.

In fact, LV= discovered that the average housewife or househusband has a working week that is 17 hours longer than their at-work partner, if we exclude travel time.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the average number of hours worked by full-time employees a week was 39.2 in 2014 (Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, ONS, 2014). This is 16.8 hours a week less than LV's research, which was carried out by pollsters Opinium.

LV= found that full time homemakers spend an average of 56 hours a week covering essential household duties such as cooking and laundry.

What’s more, on average homemakers with children face an additional six hours a day providing childcare.

While cooking (1h 47m), cleaning (1h 45m) and laundry (1h 30m) are the most time-consuming chores, ‘keeping house’ also includes wider tasks such as shopping for essentials (1h 23m), mentoring children with homework (1h 8m), gardening (1h 4m), transporting family members (56m) and other tasks including house admin, including paying bills, managing finances and home improvements (1h 41m).

I'm quite dizzy just thinking about it. But LV= is not just highlighting the importance of SAHMs or SAHD to the overall working of the household.

It is highlighting the fact that most people do not have even £19,000 savings set aside in case of a financial emergency.

People do not even have proper life cover. Yes most people who work for a large or medium sized employer will have some form of life assurance - 3x or 4x salary is a general rule (don't tell the Merman) - but this is only in the event of death. What about unemployment or illness? The State will not support people any longer.

Therefore, it is worth checking out what else your employer offers. It may be that you can have an additional income or critical illness policy through the workplace, though this would be a benefit in kind. Some policies can allow the working partner to take out additional cover for their SAHM or SAHD.

Other life and protection providers could cover individuals against critical illness, injury and inability to work for just £10 a month.

The Seven Families Campaign has been drawing attention to the difference that it can make to everyday people to have proper life cover and critical illness and income protection in place, whether it is because the working partner gets made redundant, or the SAHP (Stay at home Parent) has become too ill to continue making the household function.

It is never too late to start thinking about getting a form of income protection or critical illness cover. Most advisers will be able to direct people in the right direction; at the very least, there are plenty of information sites available online, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Money Advice Service and Seven Families that can help you work out your protection needs.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We're all going on a ... lunchbreak holiday

Today was a little different for the small-yet-perfectly-formed @FANewsdesk team.

We news reporters, we few, we happy few, descended on our local council estate to sit under a cat-infested tree.

It wasn't sunny. It wasn't hot. It wasn't Costa del Sol.

But it was Southwark, it was outside, it was lunchtime and there were cats.

Thus began our very own #LunchBreakHoliday, courtesy of the lovely folk at TravelSupermarket. To see the campaign itself, click here.

Actually the story began a few weeks before, when I was asked if we could participate in a competition to hold a special picnic lunch with our team, send in our photos and a blog and see if we could win anything.

With our employer being strict about us not receiving incentives, we were able to participate, but would not have been able to accept a prize. That fact did not stop us from trying. After all, how often does one get to have a picnic in their lunchbreak, in the middle of the City of London, surrounded by high-rise buildings?

TravelSupermarket sent us a goody box with cute metal lunchboxes, a picnic blanket, a frisbee and some inflatable beach balls. Secreted within the little tins were two £5 cards for Pret a Manger. Fabulous!

The plans were laid and the sandwiches were made (or visa versa). The previous evening, I decided to go all Martha Stewart and I made peanut butter cookies. Thirty of them. Thirty between four people, three of whom, including myself, were supposed to be on a diet.

And here they are:

UtterPeanutNutterCookies. Pic: Simoney Sunday
For the recipe, head over to my other budget food blog - TheCrunchMunch.

I packed a large beach bag with yellow napkins, cut sandwiches, cans of cola, paper plates and plastic champagne glasses (because that's how we roll), and off we went up the road.

The local estate is known as 'The Cat Place' because of the many varieties of semi-domestic cat it boasts.

Here are some of the feature creatures you can see in this picnic palace, which is actually quite pleasant, with its benches and statues and little gardens all awash with coloured geraniums and begonias.

We call this one 'Sad Kitty' because he refuses our love and our tuna sandwiches

And these three cuddle-craving critters:
LtoR: Simba, Garfie and (foreground) Muffin
Yep it's a veritable safari down in Southwark.

Mmmm cookies. I mean Salad.
Although the sun was not shining, and it threatened rain, we still managed to brighten up our day with some delectable salads from Pret a Manger - including a fruit salad - and some merry japes. There may have also been some crisps - well that's a form of potato salad, I guess. Don't judge us.

MMMMMM crisps. I mean, salad. Er...
Here's the team deliberately not posing in any way, shape or form:

Don't mind if I do!
Well, we may not have been eligible for a prize, and we may not have had the most luxurious of surroundings, but for a tiny team to all be able to get out of the office for an hour, have some fun and games and relax a bit, I think we had a good time.

At the very least, we fulfilled the criteria: a picnic during a working day. It certainly beats our usual stick-to-a-rota-and-don't-take-too-long panic in the newsroom kind of a lunch.

Thanks, TravelSupermarket! 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Banishing the dietary blues

Tim Horton's delicious Oreo donut... mmm
All week I have endeavoured to keep my calorie content under 1000 while still having treats and varying my diet. I have also been getting off one stop early and walking home, as well as endeavouring to go for a little 10-15m walk at lunchtime. Largely, this has been a success.

There have been aberrations from this path of comestible austerity. I had a long weekend of feasting as a result of a birthday; albeit I did keep portions small and tried not to snack. Snacking is a problem. I have snacked in the evenings post-dinner, not much, but it has happened. Biscuits usually. Digestives. It is hard for me to turn down a few with a cup of tea. So I have hidden them in a cupboard.

One day, the train I needed was cancelled so I did the household shopping instead, resulting in me not getting off a stop earlier. That day I also felt weak and starved, so I had a piece of pie, mash AND bread and butter pudding for dinner. While everything was home-made, including the bread, this was still a carb and fat overload at 8pm - not good for weight loss.

Despite this one-week crash diet and more activity I do not feel I have lost anything. I still feel bloated and unfit. I hope that by giving up crisps and cake and cutting down on caffeine, portion sizes and bread that I will have lost some pounds this week. But I have not checked out the scales. I do not think weighing one's self daily is mentally or emotionally healthy, despite the temptation to do so. However I have in my mind a target.

I AM targeting an overall one-month weight loss of 20 pounds - roughly five pounds a week. This would get me back to the weight I was before I got engaged (and started embarking on eating out more). I even had to have two people squeeze my stomach and boobs into my wedding dress as I had not lost the additional pounds before the wedding. Well, the night before I did have a pizza ....

There are so many 'diet and exercise' books out there, website, adverts, etcetera. But
I do not see the point of these. This is a billion, no trillion-dollar industry and the only pounds I would shift would be from my bank account. Want to lose weight? Just use up more calories than you eat. Swim a couple of times a week (booked in my diary me going swimming before work twice next week). Eat fewer heavy, processed carbs. Lay off the bread and cheese. Walk a little more. Get up from the desk and move around at lunchtime if you can. Legally, you can. Walk up 100 stairs a day to the fifth floor instead of taking the lift. In any event, walk down the stairs. No crisps. No pancakes. No cheese. Or digestives. Seriously, how good is mature, creamy cheddar on a digestive? I absolutely love that combo. Mmmmm .... No! Stop it. No cheese or digestives.

Do I feel positive? Yes I do. I believe I can achieve my goal. I am working towards a healthier, less bloated, more-of-my-nice-clothes-fit-me-again me. Am I going to need help? Well yea.... I am. None of these scary diet pills or threatening personal trainer or bashing my body into submission. My body is a temple and food offerings are required (not Digestives). That said I am going to indulge in some spa therapies such as wraps and heat treatments on my saddle bags before my holiday. I managed to get a great 75% off deal on a course of six, which should help my side-buns get me back into my holiday clothes.

This is not all vanity, although I will grant that 80% of my need to slim down is vanity. Another 10% is fear... Fear of being a middle-aged woman in the workplace not being able to cut it with the young ones.

But 10% is medical. At my age, it is twice as hard to shift the jelly rolls and I have been told by my gynaecologist that based on my GP history, I am at the biggest BMI I have been since my GP records began (not too surprising given my records began when I was 12). She did suggest that if my body was struggling to cope with the extra weight on my small frame, this could be a factor in our so far unsuccessful attempts at becoming natural parents. So anything that can help - exercise, treatments, dieting, hiding the digestives - well this is all to the good and I will jump at the chance to get back into that little Figure-hugging Karen Millen dress for our 2nd wedding anniversary celebration.

Onwards and upwards? Well, not upwards, the weight needs to go down not up. Onwards and downwards, then, and let the good times no longer roll around over the tops of my barely buttoned-up jeans.*

*Until I get to Canada and eat lobster thermidor and Dairy Queen and Tim Horton's timbit donuts and my friend Helen's amazing salsa dip and her raisin bread...


Sent from my iPad

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Why I would buy a 2018 Greek Bond

The thing about financial journalists is that we've always been here before. No matter what it is, how mad it is or how bad it is, we've got an analogous situation secreted somewhere in our memory that presents itself just at the time the world seems to be going to pot.

This has been the predominant thought in my mind, like a tiny migraine fairy kicking my frontal lobe, every time I read about Greece.

We have been here before. We had the Russian default and the collapse of the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. We had the Latin American crisis. We have had a generation of Japanese children born without knowing what a rate rise is. We had the dot-com crash and the 'Sick Man of Europe' to contend with in the Noughties (that was Germany, by the way). Further back we had Black Monday in the 80s, and the India crisis in the 1970s. Throughout the decades and centuries, we have had Germany, Argentina, France, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus and a host of others defaulting on debt repayments and/or in a sovereign default situation.

Today the yield on a two-year Greek government bond rose to more than 50 per cent, up from 10 per cent in January. Back then, the world was trying to digest the news that Greece was en-route to achieving a primary budget surplus - excluding debt repayments - of €3.3bn. This was roughly equal to 3 per cent of GDP, with a minor budget deficit of €338m; equating to 0.2 per cent of GDP.

However the failure to repay the first installment of the IMF's loan - which demanded 1.6bn Euros, then its people issuing a resolute NO to the tough measures imposed by other creditors - of whom Germany is the largest - has resulted in another 'crisis' situation.

Will there be a Grexit? What will happen if Greece goes back to the Drachma? I cannot get a consensus from any expert. It will be the first time any country has left the Euro, so nobody really knows what will happen. I've seen release after release from every sort of company from foreign exchange to travel insurance to investment companies. None of them seem to know what effect this will have, but all speak of immediate woes - caps on bank withdrawals, haircuts on pensions, further pin-pricks in the proverbial bond bubble, investors possibly ditching Greece for Japan (yes, James Mackintosh highlighted in the FT on 30th July that this could be a consideration. Curious, non?).

According to Bloomberg, although the ECB has raised the pressure on Greek banks to tighten access to emergency credit - in other words, preventing the Greeks from getting their money out before the government imposes blanket and deep haircuts to individual accounts - there has already been an injection of £69bn into the economy over the recent months.

The only way that the banks in Greece can tap into this emergency aid is through collateral - such as government bonds - but while one jokes about the "free money" on a 50%-plus government bond, there is far too little cushion to protect investors. The return, they believe, is not worth the risk. And 2017 is an awfully long way away.

Two years in fact.

Two years.

A lot can happen in that time. Two years ago today, I was single, swimming around the internet to my heart's content, wagging my own tail where I wanted. Today I am a respectable mermaid.

Two years ago, we were in a similar crisis situation. Cyprus had to be bailed out. Cyprus was on the brink of collapse. Pensioners could not get their money out. Cypriots faced haircuts on their bank accounts. It had to appeal to the ESM for funding, as well as the IMF, which has so far disbursed about €742.4m to shore up Cyprus.

The fear then was that this tiny nation might cause a ripple effect among Eurozone nations who were just about recovering. The UK prime minister made several strident comments about bailouts, and called on Europe to protect the several hundred British pensioners who bought a home in the sun.

According to Bloomberg, Cyprus just about dodged the bullet of a "disorderly sovereign default and unprecedented exit from the euro" by agreeing to shrink its banking system in exchange for €10bn of aid. The Cyprus Popular Bank, 84 per cent owned by the government, was forced to shut down. Elderly Cypriots told of poverty as their pensions were cut. Food flew off the shelves on the island. Young people told of rising unemployment.

Cyprus Popular Bank. Image: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Then in June 2013, Cyprus's debt ratings were downgraded to "default" after it announced it would delay paying back E1bn ($1.3bn; £860m) of bonds. There were serious worries going into the summer about whether it could pay.

Two years later, I am sitting here reading a report from the IMF about the organised repayment structure of Cyprus.

The acting chairman of the IMF, David Lipton, has this to say: "Cyprus's Fund-supported reform programme continues to produce positive results. Economic and fiscal outcomes have been better than expected, with growth turning positive in the first quarter of 2015 and public finances exceeding targets.

"Liquidity and solvency in the banking system have improved, allowing the elimination of external payment restrictions."

While there is still low employment and the need to ensure ongoing financial stability, two years have proved well for Cyprus. Yes, Cyprus still has problems, Yes it is far smaller than Greece, its bailout fund was far smaller and yes it still needs work on effecting its economic recovery.

Of course, the parallels with Greece do not extend to the depth of the distress in Greece, the protracted poverty of its citizens and its bizzare tax system that has allowed the wealthiest to shelter their tax dues, while the modest earners have been wound up in so much red tape they are scarred for life.

Greece has a stridently socialist government; Cyprus was more moderate. Greece has a history of independence; Cyprus has been a little bit of a geographical whore, welcoming anyone from Crusaders to the Turks to the Brits. Greece has never given us 10 points in Eurovision; Cyprus always gives us 10 points.

Ok that last bit doesn't bear any relation to economic stability.

But in the grand scheme of things, although the world has a great love for the Hellenic Republic, its people, its culture and its history - heck I even married one - the effect of a Greek departure will, like Cyprus, be no more than a short-term shock.

According to Bank of America/ML research, the entire MSCI market cap weighting of Greece in the global index is lower than that of one company - the US furniture store Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Greece does not export cars, petroleum, gold or financial services. It exports ideas, intelligence, talent - sadly so for Greece and wonderfully so for the rest of us - and many parts thrive mostly on tourism.

OPEC will not have to hike oil prices if Greece leaves the Eurozone. The oil we get from the Hellenic Republic cannot go in our cars. Well, it should not go in our cars. I've never tried to be honest. Perhaps it does work.

Markets will get all nervous in July and then, like they always do in August, settle down into a mumbling state while bankers, their wives and their mistresses jet off to some foreign clime, while the rest of us mug it down here with gelato and baring our pasty white feet in the park. In public.

By the time September comes around the fear that the markets had already anticipated will have become a reality. This is good news. Why? Because fear is unknown. Markets do not like the unknown. At least when you know something you can price it in properly. So by then any effect of another, restructured, more fairly implemented debt package for a Eurozone Greece, or a loan restructuring plan underpinned by the EEF for a Euro-free Greece, will have already been priced in. Greece, says Morningstar, is a Black Sheep, not a Black Swan. It will not cause contagion.

Economists will be on a clearer footing to make even more wild predictions or sage warnings. Analysts will be able to see the wood for the terrible puns on 'Drama/Drachma' and start looking at the longer-term. Fund managers will pick through the debris to find the golden nugget companies that are going to be long-term winners. Investor sentiment will improve. Politicians will stop calling each other terrorists. The Germans will shut up (well maybe that won't happen) and perhaps stop being Europe's Money Police.

In two years' time, the current speculation and hyperbole over Greece will have diminished into 'how we are dealing with this situation'. Pensioners will get their money. People will start seeing more investment into improving the business workforce and reduce unemployment. There will be more food on people's plates.

It will be a long while off before Greece and her wonderful people recover from this traumatic time. I think it will take longer than two years before the IMF produces a paper such as the one it has written on Cyprus. In my estimation we can expect to see this sort of positive structural and financial reforms by the end of 2018.

Do not underestimate the emotional and physical effect this large-scale Monopoly played by Germany and its Eurozone allies have had on Greece. Old people have been pushed to suicide, families left wrenched apart by stress. Young graduates cannot afford to eat every day. Parents go to the food bank to feed their children. Little businesses have closed; shops have shut their doors for the last time. The elderly are left sitting, waiting for a pitiful amount of money to see them through the month. The hopes of Generation Y have been burned at the stake of Eurozone aggression.

This Instagram picture sums it all up, taken by someone in a bank in Athens over the past week.

But from the embers of this turbulence, a new order will rise. Greece has been here before. It will survive. Europe has been here before. It will be restored. The world has been here before. And each time it comes back a little wiser, a little stronger.

Will I buy a 2017 Greek bond? No. I couldn't anyway - I'm not an institution with the wealth needed to pick up some sovereign debt. But I would buy a 2018 Greek Bond. If my NS&I comes in next month, that is exactly what I will do. Because I will be turning to everyone and saying 'I told you so'.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

There's no place like gnome

Hey, how YOU doin?
We journalists get a lot of strange press releases. Mostly they are only odd because they have nothing to do with our line of work.

For example, for three years in a row, the DeutschePost service used to send me emails, in German, outlining new franking machines and ways to mark up commercial post cost-effectively. As interesting as this was, and helpful in expanding my knowledge of German with phrases and vocabulary that nobody, anywhere, outside of the postal service would ever use, it was quite annoying to get ambushed at 9am on a Monday morning by unsolicited and useless information.

But every now and then we get little gems that do have some relevance to our industry, but which seem to have been the brainchild of a slightly twisted genius PR, who is doing a sterling job in trying to make cynical journalists read their company news.

And this one certainly caught my eye. It was about protection. We cover protection. So I was already interested. I saw it was about home insurance - well, I thought, we don't cover home insurance but it is important to read around the subject matter, as it could have an angle for us.

So I opened it, to receive the warning:


I read it again. I was sure it had said 'home'.

But no. It definitely said 'gnome'. Now I don't know about you but my preference when it comes to garden gnomes is to take a heavy object - a baseball bat, say, or next-doors very ugly dog - and smash these ornaments out of existence. I just don't see the attraction. Garden ornaments such as slender metal herons poised by a pond, or a nice stone sundial, that I can cope with. A gnome, no. They're basically weird, staring albino smurfs that look, from several angles, like ceramic sexual predators. There's no place for a gnome in my home.

And yet here it was in black and white. People are stealing garden gnomes from houses (probably these folk should be thanked and given a mention in the New Year's Honours List) and leaving the gnome-owner out of pocket.

Apparently, in 2014, there were 11,000 incidents of loss or damage to UK gardens, and people were vastly under-insured.

Of this, 5,400 were burglaries. Now why anyone would want to steal this sort of thing is beyond my ken, but they do, and for some reason, people are upset.

Basically, this is how I see all gnomes. 

Some 10 per cent of all home insurance products do not cover your garden, so if someone steals your pot or pots (as appropriate), or pushes Matthew Henderson into the Easton's fish pond, ruining his trainers, their pond and killing all the fish, this is not covered on the home insurance policy. Of course, this is purely hypothetical and bears absolutely no resemblance to any real person or event.*

According to data from John Lewis Home Insurance, people will have to cough up, on average, £1,169 to fix the damage to property and possessions in the garden. For those who put a lot of time and effort into making their outside space pretty, that is a hefty sum to pay.

I do feel sorry for people who have invested time and energy and money into making themselves a beautiful green space, only to see things 'disappear'.

My friend's mother had a little stone Westie stolen from her lawn - a memorial of her little dog - and it was rumoured to have reappeared half a mile down the road in the 'garden' of a traveller camp. Luckily her son is also a police officer and word got out that it was his mother's stone dog that had gone missing. The dog was returned one night, none the worse for its experience.

Another friend had just bought £20,000 worth of beautiful bushes (they cost a lot to grow and maintain to a certain level before purchase), and several of these went missing before he had a chance to install them. I never asked whether his insurance covered the theft, but as he's about as financially literate as a mountain goat, I doubt it.

So what can you do to protect yourself? Well of course you can make sure that your insurance does cover such scurrilous lawn raids.

However, John Brady, head of insurance at John Lewis Home Insurance, also gives these top tips on keeping your garden secure this summer:

● Fix a good quality lock or padlock on the door of the shed, as well as any garden gates.
● Lock belongings in the shed overnight after use (barbecues, bicycles etc.), items left in the garden may not be covered for theft.
● Install automatic security lighting in the garden.
● A prickly hedge around the garden can help to deter intruders.

If all else fails, perhaps you should invest in a gnome. I've heard some of them can be pretty mean.

*This is exactly what happened and I am totally guilty.