Monday, January 18, 2016

Perfect Party Planning for January... on a budget!

Several of my friends are having birthdays or having to attend post-Christmas children's parties ("Let it Goooo, Let it Goooooo") in January and early February - just at the tightest financial time of the year. Of course this lends itself to a fiscal dilemma - trying to make the special day special without breaking the bank.

The other year, we threw a surprise party for a friend's daughter who was 21. Being a steampunk aficionado, we spent an evening working out ways to design and create a themed party for her, while keeping a tight budget. The idea was to have as much as possible for as little as possible - I think the whole party, food included, was meant to be under £100.

The results were amazing, and only involved a little paper, cardboard tubes, glass jars, scissors, twine, glue and good old-fashioned grit. Oh, and a lot of imagination and gold paint spray.

The following tips are perfect for any celebration, especially for a money-saving New Year party.

1) Bunting
To decorate a wall or garden, bunting is ideal as it takes up a lot of space and can transform a plain wall into a perfect party room.

How to
Rather than throw out old cotton or linen sheets, wash them, and cut out small triangles of equal size. Take some soft twine or strong wool, and attach each triangle to the twine, allowing a couple of inches space between each triangle. To attach, simply fold a little bit of the cloth over the twine and either staple or do a running stitch. Alternating colours of cloth makes for a pretty pattern.

2) Teasing tea-lights
Baby food jars can make great ornaments, especially if you want to light up your garden. Tying 20 or so to a tree and filling the garden with twinkling tea lights is a wonderful touch, or dot them around
staircases or mantelpieces to add a bit of seasonal sparkle.

Go home Lantern, you're drunk
Right-side Up
You will need:
Baby food jars
Some thin but strong wire - jewellery wire or picture wire
Some natural foliage from the garden
Some battery-operated tealights

How to:
Clean as many baby food jars as you can. Put a tiny layer of leafage at the bottom of the jar. Use the wire to create a little 'basket handle' around the lip of the jar. Make it as high and hooped as possible. Cover any unsightly knots and ties around the jar with a little (non prickly) foliage. Test the tealight and make sure it can sit reasonably straight on the foliage. Otherwise it gets drunk and falls over, like the wee lantern on the left...

3) Lovely labels
Make food more inviting by creating themed mini menu cards to stick into dishes and sit alongside cakes.

How to:
Print out some coloured paper to match your bunting / colour theme.
Many crafting website offer free print-outs of party paper in myriad colours and patterns, and fix onto a sheet of card.
Any card will do; empty boxes or Christmas cards are perfect, as it helps to recycle and clear up after Christmas.
Choose whichever shape suits you and make a template to trace around as many as you need.
Take a nice pen; gold or silver or black make stand-out descriptions. When the ink dries, use a little sellotape to stick toothpicks onto the back of the card and use to adorn your table.

4) Paper chains get perky
A great way to use up leftover paper is in the making of paper chains.
Whether you use coloured paper, newspaper or shiny metallic paper, the outcome can look swell. We used old photocopied sheet music, copied onto some cream-coloured paper I had leftover from my wedding craft box. The effect was striking.

How to:
Choose your paper scheme cut into even strips
Glue or use double-sided tape on one end and hoop each strip through to complete a chain.

And why stop at chains? We also traced some cogs of different size onto cardboard, traced onto metallic coloured card and created a string of brass-shimmery cogs, fastened with metal paper fasteners.

5) Paper roses
I made roses out of an old, battered version of my favourite book and a copy of the Financial Times - where I met my husband - for my wedding bouquet, and for my bridesmaids.

This was the FIRST time I had ever made the roses - and the FIRST time I had ever done ANY flower arranging. So I guess it was a success!
Me with my bouquet getting ready 
One of my bridesmaid's bouquets

In addition to being lovely wedding bouquets that really will last forever (and cost next-to-nothing to make), I have given out single ones and smaller arrangements. These make magnificent gifts for individuals and a wonderful ornament for the dining table if you are having a family meal or dinner with friends.
Unique and budget wedding or party decoration
You will need
Some 16- gauge green florists' wire
Paper - lots of it
A glue gun
Some thin jewellery wire
Some sparkly beads from broken necklaces
Any stick-on sparkles

How to
These will take time but I PROMISE they will look amazing.
Cut five sizes of petal. The smallest should be as small as the tip of your index finger, the next a little larger, the next larger still and so on until you have some large and broad petals.
Imagine a rose and shape each of your cut out books or coloured paper like a real petal. Slightly curl the tips of the two larger size petals to make them resemble real rose petals.
Start with twisting a small bead onto a piece of wire, and wrapping it around the top of the florist's wire. Imagine this as the stamen of the rose.
Then start to wrap the smallest petals around the wire, using a little hot glue at the bottom of each one to fix it. Use five of each size for each rose.
Start on the second size petals, fixing them around with glue on the bottom of each one, slightly overlapping each one.

By the time you get to the third layer it will start to look like a rose bud. On the last layer, you will need to cut a little bit into the bottom of the petal so that it can wrap around the bottom of the rose better. You can start to shape the petals a little when it is formed. Use a little ribbon or green tissue paper to cover up the messy base of the flower, cutting it like the sepals of a real rose.

It takes about 40 minutes. So it does take time, but these roses last forever. And if you want to go the extra mile, try making these bespoke - perhaps out of photocopies of someone's favourite poems or book. I suggest using a COPY of their favourite book... don't just chop up their limited edition signed by Margaret Atwood. Just a suggestion...

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Helping those in need

More than 13 million people in Cameron's 'All-in-it-together' Britain now live on the poverty line, latest figures from the Trussell Trust have claimed.

According to the charity, in 2014-15 foodbanks fed 1,084,604 people nationwide. Of those helped, 396,997 were children.

My husband and I have seen first-hand the need for foodbanks in our local area. At the beginning of 2015, we set one up in our local church and it has been used nearly every week.

We have people who are homeless coming throughout the week for a meal and for some items to tide them over for the next few weeks until they can return. We have families where both parents have lost their jobs and are unable to get back into work - largely because of inherent ageism that, while illegal, is still prevalent. We have families moving into sheltered accommodation or those struggling with small benefits payments.

As with most foodbanks, we have a once-a-month limit unless it is a family we know are in absolutely desperate need, and will always direct people to Citizen's Advice for debt advice or to the local council foodbanks and help centres.

What we have learned from running the foodbank is the following:

  1. The people with the least money are always the most generous in giving good quality food and items
  2. People who have struggled in the past are more likely to be regular, generous donors
  3. There is always a need for nappies - and in the right size. 
  4. Women using the foodbank need to have feminine hygiene stuff discreetly placed into their bags
  5. It is no point giving a homeless person food that needs to be heated up in an oven. Provide food that can be eaten 'as is'.
  6. Not all families eat bog-standard Western food. Provide plenty of canned vegetables, beans, chickpeas, lentils, rice, etc.
  7. Long-life milk is essential
  8. Don't forget to provide toothpaste and toothbrushes
  9. Always make sure the food has a long shelf life - and use up food in chronological order
  10. Always give the best. Do not give out of date food. Do not give 'basics' food. People in need have no choice but to use what you give them. So give them the best - what they could not afford. 

It has been heartbreaking to hear some of the stories - and to have someone you know well come alongside you and explain in private tones of a huge financial struggle they've kept from other people in the church for months. So when you give, give on the premise that, but for the grace of God, you could be in this situation. 

It is sad that foodbanks have to exist. Terrible to think that from 90,000 users under Labour there are now more than 1m under the Tories having to go to foodbanks. But sadly this is the reality...

Monday, December 21, 2015

DIY Christmas? Why the heck not?

Did you read about the money-saving mother who bought hundreds of presents for her sons? Although she is evidently a savings queen - having bought everything at a discount - one has to wonder whether this devalues the worth of each individual gift.

She claimed to the Daily Mail that her children were not spoiled or treated lavishly throughout the year, and I absolutely agree that she has the right to spend her money as she feels fit. It's her choice, and her Christmas.

Personally, were I to be in the blessed state of motherhood, I would hesitate to give more than 3-5 presents to each child at Christmastime, so that I could make sure they properly understood the value of each item and that each toy would mean more to them. Furthermore, I have seen first-hand that cheaper toys just do not last very long - a friend of mine saw two Christmas toys broken by Boxing Day by her energetic three-year-old.

Therefore my mantra is, and should always be quality, not quantity. Always quality (and if you can get this at a discount, perfect!). I get this from my mother, who always told me that if she were given £200,000 to buy something, she would rather buy one exceptionally nice painting or an antique bookshelf or piano, rather than 20 cheaper, flashy items.

It seems this view is shared by many across the country; surveyed UK adults and discovered that what people really want is a good-quality, long-lasting gift rather than a cornucopia of ... well, crap.

According to those cheeky money-saving elves, investing in quality gifts can prove to be more cost-effective for the receiver, such as soy candles, which last longer than paraffin wax, and eau de parfum instead of eau de toilette.

Darren Williams from said: “Christmas is the time for giving, but why not let your gift keep on giving by saving the receiver money?

“When your loved ones ask you what you want for Christmas, think really hard about what you really enjoy doing, then think about how you can save money without compromising on what you like.

“Or better yet, what causes a hole in your pocket and what product would prevent it?

“Some of the gifts are a little pricey to start with but in the long run you’ll be thanking Santa for saving you cash.”

Here are some of the site's 15 suggestions:

1. Eau de parfum
Always go for eau de parfum not eau de toilette. Parfum is more expensive but will last for double the amount of time and the scent does not fade after a few minutes.

2. Hand blender
Buying a meal deal everyday for lunch adds up to well over £5,000 so why not ask for a hand blender to make your own soups to take to work? You can also use it to make pasta sauces from scratch which saves a fortune compared to shop brought and are much tastier.

3. Filtered water bottle
Buying bottled water to take the gym or have at your desk can add up so ask Santa for a filtered water bottle. You can refill it for free and the filter will remove any hardness from the water, making it taste better and encouraging you to drink more.

4. Salad spinner
Pre-made bags of salad are pricey and have a short shelf life. Instead buy your salad ingredients separately and use your new salad spinner to turn it into the real deal.

5. Soy candles
Soy candles burn 50% longer than paraffin candles so whilst they are more expensive they are hugely cost-effective.

They also topped this off with buying classes for yourself or a friend. This is an excellent idea. Whether it’s mechanics, knitting, cookery or woodworking, you can have loads of fun learning a new skill as well as saving money once you’ve mastered the craft.

In my case, jewellery making and card making classes would be an amazing way to take my wee craft stalls onto the next level, learning more and making more money in return.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Outrageous Predictions for 2016

At this time of the year I am inundated with press releases and marketing material, all predicting 'what will happen next', while assuring us that nobody has a crystal ball.

All these predictions are, of course, mere consensus. Nobody is saying anything too different from the next person and that, quite frankly, is boring. So here are my Outrageous Predictions for 2016. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

1) Yellen will regret raising rates and try to lower them again.
2) Apple will create a TV screen.
3) World supplies of chocolate will melt away.
4) Nigella will show us how to make a cup of tea.
5) Mario Draghi will smile, perhaps, later on in the year.
6) Carney will rush to raise rates to copy the US, only to get blind-sided by Yellen changing her mind
7) Carney and Yellen will be found dead together in a hotel room in Brussels, hand in hand, oranges in their mouths.
8) The price of orange juice will tumble.
9) House prices will go up - again.
10) Photos will emerge of Cameron and Osborne with farmyard animals.
11) Osborne will be caught with an orange in his mouth, self-asphyxiating over his new tax plans to be announced in the 2016 Budget.
12) Farm payrolls will treble.
13) The government will ban Ofsted.
14) Mourinho will seek to take legal action against his Russian employers. He will later be found in Soho, with some strange depletion of Uranium in his bloodwork. And an orange in his mouth.
15) Trading Places will get a remake with Seth Rogan and Tatum Channing. Channing Tatum. Tanning Chatum? Whatever, that fit chap with the 8-pack and strong shoulders you just want to bite.
16) Something, something Kardashian.
17) Something, something Bieber.
18) Ant and Dec finally break up. Queen declares day of national mourning.
19) Katie Holmes says something nice, with which most people agree. Queen declares national holiday.
20) Dismayed by volatile orange juice prices and poor economic data, Americans turn to Trump and he gets voted in.
21) In direct response, Angela Merkel becomes voted in as president of Europe.
22) Aliens invade, but find property prices in the US and UK too high for them. They go to Canada and cause $10CAN worth of damage.
23) Aliens turn out to be Asgardians and the men all look like Thor. Earth women swoon. Everyone plays The Weather Girls for months while their ovaries throb painfully.

24) Aliens seek to migrate across Europe, depleting coffee supplies in cafes everywhere. Mama Merkel announces sweeping, bilateral changes to the Shengen Agreement and Lisbon Treaty. Aliens are shipped off to Syria, where they defeat Isis.
25) Aliens given green cards and free Starbucks for life in gratitude. NHS reports a massive baby boom.
26) Actuarial assumptions start to look better for people's pension arrangements as the demographic trend reverses.
27) All national rail operators agree to add extra carriages and freeze travel price increases for two years. Yeah, Right!
28) FOS carries on as before with no change, despite a mauling from the TSC.
29) Osborne gives Aliens the Isle of Wight in exchange for defeating FOS.
31) Aliens get fined £6m each for SYSC failures and banned for life from operating in any regulated military capacity.
31) Aliens mass-migrate from earth in disgust, taking Boris Johnson with them as one of their own kind.
32) Ant and Dec decide to give it one last chance. They release a cover of 'I got you, Babe'. Cher sues. Everyone is shocked because they thought she was dead.
33) Nobody tunes in to watch non-entities on TV. Real actors and people who have actually achieved something with their lives suddenly get offers of jobs.
34) Jeremy Corbyn turns up in the Commons in a Hermes suit and a tie. Daily Mail journalists simultaneously choke on their oranges.
35) FCA takes over regulation of journalism. All reporters must go to Canary Wharf to get their pencils sharpened. Failure to keep proper notes will be hit with a ban. (This one might actually come true)
36) Jeremy Corbyn buys a home in Hampshire and hires several man-servants to carry him into Westminster each day in a sedan chair. He starts identifying as Cleopatra and is awarded Time's Woman of the Year 2016.
37) Cameron is so dismayed he goes and molests some live farm animals, and is arrested. He is later found trussed up naked like a turkey somewhere near the Brandenburg Gate.
38) Merkel becomes president of the World.
39)  China discovers a seam of oil under its mountains and suddenly becomes the world's main producer - and user - of oil.
40) Russian Oil-y-garchs leave London. Football clubs are forced to close up.
41) North Korea launches a cat into space, which knocks out some major satellite systems. For three weeks, all anyone can use the internet for is to watch live streaming of a cat sleeping 18 hours a day in a spacesuit.
42) Cat seeks American citizenship upon repatriation. Trump refuses asylum and builds a dome around America.
43) Cat becomes big in Japan and gets its own reality TV show.
44) South Korea drops Big Macs across North Korea in a mass show of propaganda. Fuelled by fast food, the people overthrow their leader but have no idea what to do with themselves afterwards.
45) Bob Geldof launches a Concert Campaign to raise money to help North Korea build Subway franchises across the country.
46) Aliens return Boris Johnson to the UK, but thanks to too much probing, he can no longer cycle. Depressed, he sets up a Subway franchise in North Korea and gets fat.
47) Something, something Simon Cowell.
Nice to eat you, to eat you, Nice
48) Bruce Forsyth is unmasked as a 200-year-old vampire.
49) Tom Cruise leaves Scientology to join Boko Haram. He gets lost in the undergrowth and turns feral. Prince Harry is sent to track him down.
50) After a turbulent year, an Alien (looking like Thor) is elected as prime minister of the UK. 98% of the UK's female population turns out to vote him in. He's photographed with his wife, who looks like Sif. Men celebrate everywhere. Daily Heil journalists rise from their graves at the sniff of fresh scandal.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Indebted to you... Top 10 Tips

According to various estimates, nearly 20 per cent - one fifth of the UK population is having to resort to getting into debt to fund their Christmas. They are either going into their overdraft - or beyond it - using a credit card, or going to a loan or payday lender.

Christmas is a time for giving, but it should not be a time to get into debt. No family should ever have to feel that without borrowing, they cannot provide.

I know times are tough, but with careful planning throughout the year, and a little bit of crafty money-saving sparkle, families CAN have a good Christmas without having to face a Red Letter January when the credit card or banking bills come in. No expenditure is worth getting into debt over. Especially payday lenders whose rates of interest can be so punitive.

People of Britain. I implore you. Find the true meaning of Christmas and learn that giving is awesome, but only if you can afford it.

And here are my top ten tips to help you afford it.

1) Start in January
Buy presents in the January sales. Buy decorations, trees, Christmas crackers, Christmas cards and wrapping paper for 50%, 60%, 70% off. Work your way through the year to get little items here and there when you see offers. I appreciate this can be hard when children need the latest 'fad', but for longer-term ideas such as Lego or certain dolls, buy ONLY when you see a deal on - and this is often not in November or December.

2) Bake as much as possible
Buy core ingredients and make and ice your own cakes, Christmas puddings, cupcakes, tray bakes and savoury treats. Pop over to my cooking on a budget blog - TheCrunchMunch - to get ideas and recipes for using up leftovers to create cheese straws, salads, puddings, cookies, etc.
The original outlay on dried fruit, flour and sugar may be high, but you can use these more than once - I can get about five cakes and a Christmas pudding out of one 1kg bag of self-raising flour. Try it.
Bake your own Christmas cookies - either for eating or for decorating the tree. Or both. See my Crunch Munch blog here for a simple, 3-ingredient recipe for peanut butter cookies.

3) Make as much as possible
Even the least artistic person can make their own gift and create decorations.

  • Try making your own cards using scraps of paper, or repurposed Christmas cards from the year before. To find out how, look at my blog on CardMaking
  • Make your own gift tags - they can be as fancy or as plain as you need be.
  • Make your own decorations - use newspapers to create roses - see this picture here - which can be given as presents or used to decorate the room. 
  • Create paper chains out of scraps of brightly coloured paper. 
  • Use scraps of paper to design tree ornaments - you can use newspaper papier-mache to build up on a cut-out star, for example, which can be painted or decorated with cheap glitter glue to make it look pretty.
  • Knit pretty items throughout the year for presents. Try embroidering small gifts, or painting on cheap canvasses from Poundland, or creating a Scrapbook of photo memories for parents or best friends.
  • Buy some cheap sets of plain glass candle holders and decorate with glass paints or stickers to create something bespoke.

Beautiful roses made by yours truly. Photo credit: Instagram - SimoneySunday
4) Reuse, recycle
Always keep wrapping paper for the next year. Try not to tear it all up, fold it neatly and store it. Or you can roll up larger pieces and use the cardboard insides of a toilet roll or kitchen towel to keep it neat.
Keep Christmas cards to cut up for gift tags, or to repurpose for your own Christmas cards.
Cut the ribbons out of your cardigans or blouses to use for small gifts or gift-tags.

5) Make a list
And check it twice. Always get it as early as possible from your nearest and dearest, to give you time to shop around for the best possible price. See if you can use the Black Friday deals to get yourself a good deal online - for example, I got my husband's hair clippers for 50% off and no delivery fee by shopping online and looking at various deals.

6) Use voucher sites
There are many sites you can go to that will show you various deals, coupons and voucher codes that you can either print out and use in-store, or use online to get discounts on your shopping.
Here's a few to get you started:
Always, always shop around to find the best deal, whether in-store or online.

7) Shop around
^ See above. Always do it. Never accept the first price or the first offer you see. Don't get rushed into making a 'bargain' purchase.

8) Holiday planning
If you do go abroad for a holiday, consider using this as a time to get some presents for Christmas (or birthdays or both). I do this regularly when on the annual holiday. There may be some silk clothes or ornaments that can be bought for a song overseas  - and which would cost a lot in the UK. For example, I bought a 100% silk kimono for a friend that cost the equivalent of £5, and when I checked prices on Amazon, I found out that it would have cost me about £68.00 + P&P if I had bought online.

9) Leave items in your basket
Online retailers sometimes will give you a discount price on a particular item if you do not checkout immediately. Of course they do cotton onto this and it does not happen as often as it used to, but several times I have been sent an email offering a 'repriced' item which is cheaper than the original price. However, BEWARE if the item is coming from the US or Europe - changes to the Euro or $USD often mean that the seller could put the price UP on exports. So I would caution that this only works if you are buying from the UK.

10) Take cash, not your card
By only taking cash with you to the shops, this really trains you to buy what you need - and to only buy what you really need. A card is too much temptation. Stop taking it out. I never used to use a credit card when I was broke. 
Yes. I ONLY use it when I HAVE money. I NEVER used a credit card as a student or when I was in a very low-paid job or when I was made redundant. I only used cash for the essential items - and waited for the others, or looked around until I found what I wanted cheaper, elsewhere. This discipline has stood me in great stead and kept me out of debt, even in the hard times where I had to walk 6 miles to work and back one month when I was so broke. 
YES. There was a time when I walked six-seven miles into work and back from CENTRAL LONDON to Streatham (my old place of residence), because I could not afford the bus fare that week. 
People do what they can to survive and by looking after the pennies, the Christmas pounds will look after themselves. 

Please promise me that in 2016, you will have a DEBT FREE CHRISTMAS!

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Mermaid in the Mail

Following on from the Mirror's piece at the end of November, the Daily Mail also called the Mermaid to interview me about my money saving tips for Christmas.

Mermaid at Harrods looking to see what I could buy for 90% off in the January Sales 
This piece is a bit longer - and went into a lot more detail about individual savings, so it is worth having a look at this one.

Of particular interest to me was the hilarious comments at the bottom of the article, including one 'Boring' - which I upvoted, and 'woman saves 50% on her Christmas shop? How is this news, DM?' - which I also upvoted. I love these guys. This is exactly how I would react to such a story too!

The comments are the best bit! Have a look at the Daily Mail article online here or use the URL below:

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Keeping warm and keeping the costs down

Snow joke - keeping warm costs money
We have had a wonderfully warm winter so far, with very few days of wind, rain and bitter temperatures.

Even a light dusting of snow one morning has not diminished the fact that many of us have not had to put our heating on full-blast yet, which is a huge relief for thousands of households up and down the country.

In 2011 I was struck hard by the article about an Army veteran and his wife who committed suicide because they were too poor. They had to live in one room of their house to save on heating costs - and even this proved too much for them.

You can read this tragic tale here 

But with January and February predicted by meteorologists to be a tough one, and with even a White Christmas on the cards - not just the greetings cards - it is worth thinking of ways to keep warm while minimising heating bills.

1) Check your freezer
Yes, you heard me right! In my 2009 book 'Family Meals' - hints and tips on saving money (foreword by the lovely Tony Turnbull), I wrote of an easy way to cut the electricity bills - by sorting out your freezer:
You do not need it to be on full-blast. Turn it down a notch.
De-ice it regularly
Put a layer on the bottom of the freezer. I use kitchen rolls, which are reasonably effective, as this prevents the bottom from freezing up too much.

This not only helps save electricity as your fridge/freezer will use less energy but you will maintain more room inside it to store food and leftovers.

2) Boil your kettle - on full
Yes! Once again, you read that correctly. Knowledge tells us to only boil what we need for one cup. But if you are at home all day, how many times do you boil up just one cup? Four? Five? No. Boil a FULL kettle, once, and store the rest of the hot water in a thermos flask. This will keep hot for hours on end.

3) Leave your oven door open
Once you have cooked your meal, turn the oven off and - making sure no pets or children are around of course - leave the oven door open. If you keep the Kitchen door shut, the residual heat from the oven will help keep the kitchen warm - so you don't need to have the radiators on full blast (or at all) in the kitchen unless absolutely necessary.

4) Check for drafts
Double-glazed windows sometimes leak after a while. It is easy to check the seals are still functioning by simply holding your hand over them. If patio doors or windows are leaking cold air in, then you can make a good bet they are letting warm air out. Fix this with new strips of the black sealing rubber. You can also buy strips of self-adhesive foam draft excluders which are cheap and effective.

5) Cook more at the same time
Instead of using the gas for one meal at a time, cook in bulk and use all the shelves wisely to maximise the space. You can store meals in the fridge or freezer for the next day to reheat in the microwave.

6) Layer up!
This sounds silly but putting an extra thin t-shirt or vest under your clothing can make all the difference  - it keeps your body core nice and warm.

7) Use hot water bottles instead of putting the heating on full-whack.

Look around for cheaper energy deals. Look for suppliers that have good service and good rates and make the switch. It can save you hundreds of pounds in the long-run.

9) Be wise!
I know someone who lived alone in a 3-bed house and she was with Scottish Power. Her bills were £2000 a quarter. She didn't know to time the radiators or to turn down ones she wasn't using, and she never thought to check with the power company to see if her bills were correct. So she was blithely paying through the nose (and complaining about them).

Have you got any power-saving tips to help people's money go further? Let me know in the comments!

tweet me @moorgatemermaid

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mirror, Mirror

So after reading my money-saving tips around Christmas, The Mirror rang and interviewed me about how I became PromotionalCodes' Savviest Christmas Saver.

Well they called me the 'Ultimate Christmas Penny Pincher' but that sounds a little - well - Scroogey. And I am anything but!

However I do consider myself the Queen of Christmas. Annie Claus, take second place!

I have the Power of Christmas! 

You can read the full article, by fellow journalist Julia Rampden here: This bargain hunter is having the luxury Christmas of her dreams for half the price

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 and 10% off all hotels at

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