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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