But my pictures from the last week or so show that I've also found time for a few other things. See if you can spot a theme.
Round up of Uber Frugal January in a few days!
This is my view a lot of the time. Tea (of course). Bags of plaster littering the kitchen. And my trusty decorating suit (as worn by 'scene of crime' officers, apparently). This suit has lasted through months of plastering and painting, but is finally on its last legs and I have ordered some Proper Overalls which (I hope) will give the impression that I know what I'm doing.
A lot of the DIY time this week as been taken sorting out these teensy internal windows. They look fine from the landing, but the view from the other room was, er, rather less finished.
There was also the small matter of the hole that they replaced.
Oh dear. Still, it looks a lot better now, even if it's not *quite* finished (depending on who you talk to).
This is the spare room, which has never been a bedroom as long as we've lived here, but I hope will do a passable impression of one for our house-selling photos. The light in there is lovely at certain times of day. Once this wall is sorted out, it'll be time to paint the floorboards, and then we can start moving furniture in.
There's also been a fair bit going on in the rest of the house - re-sealing round the bath (don't ask), and today I'm painting the kitchen ceiling, which I confess is not my favourite job so far.
But my pictures from the last week or so show that I've also found time for a few other things. See if you can spot a theme.
Yep, home made scones, home made heart-shaped carrot cake muffins, home made bread with home made damson jam, and a sneaky breakfast at the Women's Institute cafe yesterday, Uber Frugal January be damned (actually, it cost £3.05 for two cups of tea, two slices of toast, a piece of cake, and a flapjack, which seems pretty frugal to me).
So January, it seems, has been a mix of DIY and tea and cake. Not a bad combination (although less of the DIY in the future please, my enthusiasm is wearing rather thin).
Round up of Uber Frugal January in a few days!
I've started cycling again. I used to cycle a lot, when I lived somewhere flatter and didn't own a car, but convenience and idleness caught up with me and cycling became mostly something I did for fun, not for transport.
Not any more though! My bike has been retrieved from the cellar, panniers retrieved from the box they were packed in, and I'm now cycling to work every day, as well as further away places at the weekend.
All this cycling has prompted me to think more about how I travel around, which fits nicely with the Uber Frugal January theme of questioning all of your expenses.
Cycling: panniers are the key
Right now, cycling to work feels ridiculous - it's less than two miles away so it takes me ten minutes to get there, and longer to cycle home than to walk as it's so uphill. But I'm hoping I'll be fitter soon, and I'm planning to add more miles to the journey home once the evenings start getting lighter.
For me, panniers are the key to cycling. Without them, you have to use a rucksack, which makes for hot, sweaty cycling and squashed chocolate brownies (in my experience). With them, you can carry many things in comfort and safety. Mine are lovely, they're enormous, and waterproof, and easily to remove. They weren't cheap (about £50 I think) but so far they've lasted fifteen years and are still going strong.
This bike folds in half, which is (in my opinion) a useless feature as it then takes up far more space. But the handlebars and pedals fold in too - very useful for storing in a hallway without bits sticking out to trip you up.
I also have a 'proper' folding bike - a Brompton. This was expensive (about £600 I think, although now the cheapest seem to be £950) but again, it's lasted about seventeen years and I adore it. It folds up so small you can take it on the train without booking in advance, and you can even get it onto a bus. Perfect for my old bike-train-bike commute, and for slinging in the car to take on holidays (we have one each). Peter bought me a pannier to go on the front a couple of years ago and now it is the very pinnacle of bicycling perfection.
I will say something about hills and traffic, as those are the reasons that people seem to give for not cycling more often. I've used hills as an excuse myself plenty of times but it is just that - an excuse. Yes, I have to get off and push sometimes, but the more I cycle, the fitter I get, and I can now get all the way home from work without getting off, which two weeks ago seemed like it would never happen. Learn how to use those gears and get cycling!
As for traffic, yes, it can be daunting. But the routes I drive are rarely the routes I cycle. I use cycle lanes where I can, quieter roads when I can't, make sure I'm lit up like a Christmas tree (no Stealth Cycling) and most importantly, I remain vigilant. I make eye contact with people turning out of side roads (to make sure they've noticed me) and I am always prepared to slow down if in a car is being unpredictable.
Walking: sensible shoes and bags at all times
My bicycling enthusiasm has only recently been rekindled, in part because I've been conned into entering a 62 mile bike race in March. Before that, I walked (and drove, but we'll get to that in a minute). I love walking. I'll happily walk from one side of the city to another to meet a friend for a cup of tea (and often do).
I'll walk to work in whatever shoes I'm wearing, but for longer walks, comfy shoes are best. And for walking, a rucksack (although now I think about it, panniers around the waist might not be a bad idea). Preferably no carrier bags dangling from wrists, and if I'm going to be longer than an hour, I find it best to have a drink and snack as it's very easy to pop into a shop for a bar of chocolate when you're walking.
Walking is slower than cycling, but I often natter on the phone, listen to a podcast, or take picture of my own feet. You can look around more when you're walking, and I've seen many parts of the city I never would have seen from a car.
For both cycling and walking you need to plan ahead. Cycling needs a bike pump, spare tyre, a few tools (or someone at home with a car who can rescue you), panniers, lights, reflective jacket. Walking needs less preparation, but for both you need enough time. I've had to run before now, and with a rucksack and walking boots it's not pleasant. You don't want to be cycling in a rush either.
But I find that there is usually time if you pay attention, it's just a matter of getting into the right habits, and factoring in the benefits of fresh air, exercise and general wellbeing you get alongside.
I live in a large city, so there are plenty of buses. They're great for getting into town and back, but across town usually requires two, and at that point I often either walk or get in the car. Our local bus now charges £1.80 for a single journey to town (just over two miles) so I've usually walked in and got the bus home, although these days I'm cycling both ways which makes it free. We also have trams here, but sadly I rarely need to be anywhere along the route.
I love trains though, and managed a train commute for nearly six years without too much fussing.
The main thing I love about trains is that you can do other things while you're travelling - very difficult on a bike or while driving.
They're not automatically the frugal option though, but it's always worth checking. It doesn't necessarily follow that because you have a car, it's never worth considering public transport. In my old job, I commuted to another city 60 miles away. Yes, I could have driven - but it was on small, windy roads so would have taken an hour and a half, I would have had to pay for parking, and it would have meant leaving Peter with no car, as we only have one. The train cost £20 a day (I travelled two days a week) but I could read (or sleep, it was quite early) on the train, and walking or cycling to or from the stations at each end (about 2 miles each way in each city) gave me plenty of fresh air and exercise.
For longer train journeys, I've always managed to get tickets cheaper than the 'standard' price by booking in advance, travelling at odd times, or committing to a specific train. I usually use the Red Spotted Hanky website and always check the fabulously-named Tickety Split site to see if it's worth buying separate tickets for different stages of the journey.
We have one car between the two of us. It's thirteen years old (although we've only had it for three years) and we found it through Gumtree. It does around 45 miles per gallon, and so far (touch wood) hasn't had anything go too wrong. We deliberately bought one that was (just about) big enough to sleep in the back of. It's a bit cramped with two of us, so I wouldn't want to stay in it for more than one night, but I've been away in it on my own for several days and it's been fine, and it's great for sleeping outside friend's houses after parties, or a cheap night away in another city.
I've fallen into the habit of hopping into the car for small journeys over the last few years - even to the local shops, which are only ten minutes walk away. I usually justify this because I'm running late, or I'm in the middle of something and don't want to take half an hour out.
But Uber Frugal January is making me question those justifications and see what I can do to get rid of them. Planning ahead always helps - if I know we're running low on milk, I can get some while I'm out anyway, instead of having to make an emergency dash when we run out. If I allow plenty of time to get ready, I can be on time, rather than having to take the car because I'm late. This is working so far this month, and I've barely got in the car except for longer journeys or to ferry large pieces of wood or furniture (I don't yet have a bike trailer...).
Still, we spend roughly £60 a month on diesel, and even though that includes days out and trips to see family, neither of us drive to work so this still seems quite high.
I like being able to get about under my own steam, and I prefer it when I create enough time and space to be able to cycle and walk to places. I've never been reliant on a car to get to work and I'd like to keep it that way if possible although there may be some compromise if we move somewhere rural. We'll see.
Up til now I've always made decisions about where to live and work as if I didn't have a car, so the addition of one is a bonus to be used for longer trips, rather than a necessity. I've still found it far too easy to hop in for short trips though and that's something I've started to change this month.
More bicycling, I say!
I'I have a confession. Before we even got to the end of the first week of Uber Frugal January, I'd met friends in cafes twice.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Outrageous! This is not frugal behaviour At All! You're right, of course, and I'm not going to make excuses, but sometimes you have to spend something, and on those occasions I like to make sure I'm getting the best deal I can.
Good value tea and cake
On my first cafe trip, for example, I could have had a super-duper deluxe parsnip and maple syrup cake, or a giant scone, or an enormous piece of victoria sponge, but instead I chose a 50p oat cookie, and very nice it was too. For lunch my friend and I had the cheapest thing on the menu - Welsh rarebit for £3 each. Our morning out, which lasted well into the afternoon, cost £6.30 for tea, enormous biscuit, lunch, and parking. Not too shabby at all.
My second cafe trip was to Waitrose, and I have a My Waitrose card which means a free cup of tea when you buy something else in the cafe. I believe that even a 25p banana counts as 'something else' but on this occasion I bought my friend a cup of tea, making mine free (or making both 90p each I suppose).
Slightly less interesting: household appliances
This week we also had to replace our vacuum cleaner. We've ruined two cheap ones in the last year or so, hoovering up plaster dust and DIY rubbish and goodness knows what else. Peter is confident that he can repair at least one of them, so if he manages we'll keep that for DIY, but in the meantime I wanted a new one. I'm not particularly houseproud, but even I like to vacuum more than once a month.
After a bit of investigation, thanks to a suggestion from a friend, we looked on Gumtree. We've bought loads of stuff from there, but it just didn't occur to me to look for a vacuum cleaner, so I was delighted when I found a second hand, refurbished Dyson for £30. My floors have never been so clean! And cheaper than our 'cheap' new ones were. Second hand pretty much always wins for me.
Gumtree is my new favourite thing (apart from Freegle, of course - I did check that first...). Our microwave came from Freegle too - always worth a check when something breaks.
Even less interesting: utilities and insurance (yawn)
This month we've also had to renew the house insurance (yes, it's been a thrilling month). Each year I (reluctantly - it really isn't very interesting) follow these instructions from Money Saving Expert. It usually takes about an hour, including finding last year's paperwork, remembering if we've bought anything expensive (usually not), and entering details in various comparison sites (handily, these usually save your details from one year to the next so you just need to check them).
The first time I did this, after the insurance had been automatically renewing with the same company for years, we reduced our annual payment by £650. This year I didn't manage to find anything cheaper than our renewal quote but it's always worth checking. We'll do the same for car insurance - I've always found a cheaper deal for that.
I had to check the gas and electricity deal this month too, as we had a fixed price deal which had come to an end (see, I told you, January has been a hoot from start to finish). There are instructions for comparing suppliers here, which I've done in the past, and you can compare only green electricity suppliers here.
This year we chose to stay with the same supplier - we have a smart meter, and I don't want to faff about changing that (and risking the gas being shut off - again - by someone who doesn't understand that ancient boilers don't have to meet current safety requirements). We're also very happy with our current supplier, Ovo, who have a 100% green electricity tarrif, and pay 3% interest on credit balances, which is higher than our savings account.
Phew, need a cuppa now
I confess that I do find price comparison, particularly of insurance, extraordinarily tedious, and I was most vexed this year when it didn't even yield a saving. But really, what else would I have been doing with that hour? Poking around the internet looking at nothing-in-particular, I imagine. Well worth a bit of concentration, I reckon.
Do you compare prices or buy second hand? What's your favourite bargain?
I went back to work this week after a fortnight off, and while I'm enjoying the work itself, I'm not enjoying being shut in an office (even a light and airy one) for most of my daylight hours. Flicking back through my camera, my photos from the last couple of weeks are of outside (although I admit the sunrise above was taken through the bedroom window).
It's too cold to linger outside for long, but a brief spell always reminds me that this season isn't only sticks and drizzle. We stayed with some friends in Wales for new year, and I would happily have stared at their view for weeks on end.
It reminded me how important a nice view is in our house search. Right now we can see the houses on the other side of the street. There's more of a view from the attic, of course, but that's not where we spend most of our time. And that sunrise, while beautiful, was taken while standing on the bed, leaning out of the skylight - not the most relaxing place to have a cup of tea.
I think I'd be happy even if all I could see was my own garden. Just a bit of greenery to gaze on.
In the absence of such delightful views from my own living room, a friend and I found ourselves in the cafe at Idle Valley nature reserve last week. Their cafe overlooks a lake, and I could sit and stare at it all day.
As it happens we did stay for a good while, as it was rather chilly outside, and a nice elderly man in a tweed hat was regaling us with tales of his decades living abroad. But eventually he went back to his wife and, deciding we couldn't spend the entire day in the cafe (it is Uber Frugal January, after all), we wrapped up and walked around the lake.
The scenery isn't spectacular there, but it still looks good in the winter light with no leaves on the trees.
Closer to home, the local botanical gardens are looking rather more sculptural than usual.
I walked across town to meet a friend (in another cafe, oh dear - I will confess all at the end of the month). For once I was early, so I meandered through the gardens instead of taking the shorter route.
I often meet friends there in the summer, but never think to walk through in the winter.
Inside is cosy and warm, and it's far too easy to doze off under a blanket, but being outside makes me feel awake. And it reminds me that yes, it's cold, but spring will come soon enough.
Have you been outside this week? What's it like where you live?
Uber frugal January is off to a good start, and today I thought I'd talk about food.
I like food, but I'm not any kind of gourmet chef. I'm not even a particularly good cook. I'm enthusiastic though, and capable of knocking together an edible meal from whatever's at hand, which comes in handy. Recently we've fallen into bad habits of buying a (supermarket) pizza on the way home from work, eating porridge for tea, and ordering a takeaway once a week - and these are all things I want to tackle this month.
But there's nothing to eat!
Like many people I imagine, we fall into the trap of having cupboards full of food, but wailing 'we have nothing to eat!' What we mean, of course, is that we have nothing that we can stuff into our mouths right now without having to cook or prepare it in any way, but that's not the same as not having any food, so one of our tasks for Uber Frugal January is to inventory our food stash and make some inroads into, you know, eating it.
Our cupboards could be described as 'higgledy piggledy' at best (and I don't intend to sort them out any time soon), but this is what we currently have:
Fresh fruit and veg
satsumas | onions | potatoes | garlic | carrots | parsnips | a few sprouts | mushrooms
Milk (not enough!) | natural yogurt | blue cheese | 8 eggs
In the freezer
green beans | mixed peppers | home made pizza dough | leftover rice | breadcrumbs | home made scone dough | six portions of home made soup | small amount of brie | grated cheddar
one tomato soup | one tomatoes | one baked beans
Pasta | long grain rice | arborio rice | egg noodles | spaghetti
porridge | red lentils | green lentils | yellow split peas | dried broth/barley mix | dried black eyed beans | self raising flour | plain flour | yeast | vegetable oil | sultanas | gravy granules | hot chocolate powder | tea bags (of course!) | coffee
2 packets reduced curry sauce | marmite | tomato puree | herbs, spices and condiments
Plenty of ingredients, but no snacks. We don't tend to buy ready-prepared stuff in our weekly shop, which means that if we're tired and lacking in inspiration, there's nothing 'easy' to eat - everything has to be made from scratch. Which is why we all-too-often end up with a pizza.
Being organised is the key to frugal eating
The trick, of course, is to be more organised. While I've been off this week I've made soup for lunch, and put a portion of each of them in the freezer for work lunches next week.
We also made a meal plan for the first time this week, and went shopping with a list. We never do this, and it's been quite a relief to not have to think creatively about every meal - we have a list of meals and I know we have the ingredients for them all.
We kept it simple to start with, although maybe we'll be more adventurous later.
We do struggle with snacks, so I'm currently experimenting with biscuits and baking. If anyone knows a failsafe way not immediately eat every single biscuit you just baked please do let me know. This week I made those squirrel biscuits you see above (simple, cheap recipe here) and these surprisingly tasty chocolate biscuits, which were meant to be a present for my dad (after we ate his original Christmas present), but I'm not seeing him until tomorrow, so there may have to be some more experimental baking before then.
This biscuits are my new favourite recipe - quick, only four ingredients, and you don't have to roll them out (so no cleaning flour from all the surfaces), you just blob them onto the tray and squash them with a fork. They came with the added bonus of using up some 15-year-old cocoa powder I found at the back of the cupboard in a tin (from before packaging had to have Best Before Dates printed on it).
We're also experimenting with making our own popcorn, and I've discovered that it's a brilliant snack to take on a journey or for a day out. I did try just sprinkling spices (or parmesan) on it but I think it needs a little melted butter or oil first to help the flavours stick - just shake it all round in the bag. Some good flavouring selections in the comments of this post.
What we spend (and where we spend it)
We do our main shopping at Aldi, and I was pleased to see this week that they are now the highest paying supermarket in the UK. They also sell a lot of British food, which I prefer to buy where possible. Smaller shopping trips tend to be in local convenience-style supermarkets, which are expensive (although they do reduce their fruit and veg at night so we sometimes snag a bargain). I would like to shop at the local greengrocers more this year though.
We usually spend roughly £120 a month for our weekly 'big' shop, and then another £80 or so buying bits and pieces on the way home from work. Not completely outrageous for two of us, I would like to get back to doing more of our own cooking, and since our meals tend to be based around lentils and beans, we could knock a bit off that total at least.
Our shopping this week cost just under £25, and we've topped up with milk twice since then (we drink a lot of tea). We'll probably shop again on Monday night, and in next week's meal plan we'll make a conscious effort to use some of those stored things that have been hanging around for a while.
Are you joining in with Uber Frugal January? What do your food cupboards look like?
Happy New Year!
I thought I'd start the year off with a look back at last year - then we can move on to looking forwards. I have some exciting plans for 2017, hope you do too!
In January, I started my new job, and pondered how we'd likely be moving house in the first half of 2016. Hmm - now aiming for the first half of 2017... I looked back at 2015, and finally got round to making my third blog book (for 2011 - got a bit of catching up to do).
In February, we started decorating the house in earnest (much of 2015 was taken up with packing things into small boxes), and finally emptied the spare room (it's not been empty since - but an update coming soon!) I also hopped across the channel to visit my friend in Belgium for a weekend.
March was a waffly month. We had a weekend at the seaside, spring arrived, and I tried to find bubbles of peace in an increasingly chaotic house.
I had some time off work, which I spent running, cycling, and we wandered the countryside in search of a nice place to live, heading south, and east this time. The sun came out, I visited family, and pondered the nature of self-reliance after trying to get to grips with some particularly rotten decorating jobs. I did some wandering round town, and started knitting a pair of socks.
I was still off work for the first week of April, so did some more cycling, and we wandered looking for a new place to live again - north this time. I pottered about at home, we had the downstairs windows replaced, and I waffled on about DIY (again) and self-sufficiency. I did some more waffling about running (again), and we finished laying the landing floorboards, which led to new levels of floorboard-appreciation.
In May I pondered getting older, me and my sister did a triathlon (her first!), we abandoned the DIY and went wandering about the Peak District, and I did a whole load of plastering.
In June, I accepted (temporarily) that we wouldn't be moving house any time soon. I finished my sock, and did a half marathon with my sister. We visited our friend Fay in Scotland, and, inspired by her garden, I spent a lot of time in ours, sitting about and playing with the compost. I also got uncharacteristically political (don't worry, it doesn't happen often) and my sister and I did another race around Sheffield with a friend.
In July I went to Norway for work, and made good progress with the plastering, finishing both by the bed and the bathroom. I hopped across to visit my sister at the seaside, and my mum came to help with the gardening.
In August, we went to visit our friends in the Welsh hills (we just stayed with them for new year as well), and had quite a few little jaunts here and there too. I started keeping track of what I was reading, and the garden was looking increasingly lush. In contrast, the house was looking increasingly dire, and we declared that Everything Will Be Finished by the end of September...
In September I finally finished my second sock, did some more reading, and waffled on about how much I love cafes. I did some visiting, some running, an update about the garden - and we didn't finish the house.
I was quiet in October, as work got busy. Apparently I spent a lot of time in cafes though, did quite a bit of running, and appreciated the changing seasons.
In November I spent a lot of time in the woods, and we had our first frost. We sneaked off to the seaside for the weekend (again), I did a lot more reading, and waffled on about being thrifty (a nice precursor to Uber Frugal January).
Demember came around quickly. We got all cosy, and finally felt like we were getting somewhere with the house, especially after my sister came to help us paint. I didn't feel remotely ready for Christmas, but it came round anyway. I did a spot of walking, and some cycling, and made preparations to join in with Uber Frugal January. I ended the year with a teensy bit of greenery poking through in the garden. A good ending.
So there we are - 2016, a year of decorating and DIY, but also running, cycling, cafes, cake, a bit of knitting, a bit of reading, a bit of visiting. Pretty much like most years...