Saturday, 19 October 2013

Quick Update

Yes I am still around. But life has got even more hectic if that was at all possible.

We've pulled our eldest daughter out of school and are now home schooling, mainly due to issues with the school themselves. She's a lot happier already and it's going well so far. Will post a more in depth post baout this once we've settled into a bit more of a routine.

We're probably moving house soon to avoid extensive travel costs if she does go back into the education system for secondary school. And moving from our small town into the city close by will probably be a better situation for the wife, who doesn't drive.

As part of the home ed we've decided to let the eldest have her own blog, this covers a few aspects of the curriculum and also gives her some freedom of expression which should be good for her. She's very into fashion design so I expect this will be the basis of most of the posts but I hope she also writes about her experiences of home education.

That's it from me for a little while. I'm off to design an assignment for her to help learn Scratch (a free kids programming language of sorts - see http://www.scratch.mit.edu for more info.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Bargain of the week - 2 pairs of glasses for £23

This has to be the bargain of the week. There is an offer in the rather excellent weekly email from MoneySavingExpert. com website (the people in the forum and advice on the site were instrumental in me getting myself out of severe debt issues a few years ago) where you can get 2 pairs of prescription glasses for £23 using a combination of an existing offer on the glasses direct website and a discount code in the email -
http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/cheap-glasses-discounts?utm_source=MSE_Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_term=18-Jun-13&utm_campaign=deals&utm_content=92
Now you may be thinking that either you haven't had an eye test for years or you had one within the last 2 years (the length of time they're valid for)  but lost it. Well you have 2 options.  Firstly if you go back to an opticians where you had a test done in the last 2 years they have to provide another copy of the prescription free of charge.  Otherwise it happens that Boots are providing vouchers online for £10 eye tests,  just Google for "Boots eye test voucher"  or something similar -  you should find it. Print the voucher,  take it along to your eye test and only pay a tenner.  If you need glasses you've then got 2 pairs and an up to date prescription for the grand total of £33.
You can use the offer with 2 separate prescriptions as well if you like,  although to get 2 tests for a tenner each you'll need to print 2 vouchers and pay for each test separately.
And having looked at the glasses covered by the offer there are some ratger nice looking ones,  you can even have tint added for another £10 and you have a pair of prescription shades.
Needless to say,  as the offer ends on 24th June,  the wife and I have hastily booked eye tests on Saturday.  If we need new glasses and end up using the offer I'll let you know how it goes....

Sunday, 9 June 2013

First harvest

Well, admittedly 250g of small gooseberries isn't exactly a harvest, and it feels like a bit of a cheat as it's from a fruit bush that I inherited with the plot, but it's still progress. As well as planting 20 strawberry plants yesterday we thinned out the gooseberries to let the remaining ones have some more growing room. Late last night, deliberating what to do with the small tub of hard green fruit, I decided I probably had just enough to make one jar of jam. The theory being that if it worked well and was considered edible by at least half the household then I wouldn't be wasting food and effort making a much bigger batch once the rest of the fruit was ready.

Realising halfway through the process that I didn't actually have any jam jars I resorted to pouring it into a tupperware container, as it only needs to last a few days so a few people can try some. Also added about half a teaspoon of ginger, as a taste test showed it could do with something extra and I'd seen ginger and gooseberry jam mentioned a few times when searching for recipes.

I have to say the results this morning are quite impressive - despite the slightly off-putting dull green colour there's a lovely flavour and it set really well. As gooseberries don't need any additional pectin the recipe and method is very simple. I'll repost here.

Ingredients:

Gooseberries, with tops and tails removed, any dodgy lookign ones removed and washed.
Granulated sugar, the same weight as the gooseberries
Water, half the number of grams you have in fruit, in ml seems to be a good formula. So for my 250g fruit I used 125ml of water. The less scientific measurement is apparently 'until they aren't quite covered in the pan'.

I also added about a 3rd of a teaspoon of ginger, the paste type in a jar in this case. It goes well, but depending on your personal taste you may want to leave it out. I think it would be easy to add too much and overpower the taste of the gooseberries (mine seems close to this point), so it may be worth making a small sample first to get an idea of how much works for you.

Method:

Place a saucer into the fridge or freezer (for the setting test).
Put fruit and water into a suitable pan for jam making. Simmer for 10-15 mins till the fruit is soft (in my case they actually went very squidgy after about 5 mins but then most of them were touching the bottom of the pan as I had so few).
Add the sugar - some people recommend warming it gently first to aid dissolving and therefore avoid a grainy texture in the finished prodcut but I had no problem with it added at room temp. Stir well and boil for around 10 minutes then do a setting test.

A setting test involves putting a spponful of the jam mixture onto your chilled saucer, then putting it in the fridge for 5 minutes. If after that time the jam wrinkles when poked it's ready.

Once setting point has been reached pour mixture into jars (I won't put the instructions for sterilising etc here, they're easily found online).

Very easy, and in this case a way to get something that isn't easily bought in the shops - both gooseberries and their jam are quite hard to find these days which is shame considering the flavour.

Looking forwards to making a bigger batch, and also there are a lot of raspberry canes on the plot so raspberry jam is also definitely on the todo list :)

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Gardens and guitars

So some brief updates on what's been going on. Sorry for the long gap between posts but it's been truly manic over the last couple of months.

So, after a patient wait of 2 years (we moved from another county where I had an allotment and had to give it up when we moved) I have been offered an allotment close to where we live! It's a big one, and although having only recently been given up by the previous plotholder (due to them moving rather than neglect on their part) it's looking a little overgrown. This plus the sheer size, plus the time of year, means I've got to get a serious hussle on if I'm to get it into shape and get some things growing in time to be harvested this year. Lovely site though and rather cheap at £24 for the year :)
Pics to follow shortly I'm sure.

Bought an acoustic guitar at a boot fair a couple of weeks ago. I used to play quite a lot, not gigging standard by any means by I just used to enjoy playing songs I liked and messing around with it.

Off to the Chelsea Flower Show next Friday - I've always wanted to go and finally decided to this year. With my Mum rather than the wife (who isn't really a big gardening fan).

I have a photo shoot booked in a couple of weeks time (taking them not posing). A while ago I got into photography and started working with the odd model, by financial and spare time contraints (read: second child) put an early end to it. I'm not planning to make a job out of it or anything - I simply don't have the time with the full time job, family (and now allotment). But I'd like to do a few shoots now and then and focus on doing the kind of stuff I like (no not THAT sort).

On the investments side I've taken a punt on some AIM shares recently in companies that look promising, my main investments are in lower risk funds but I felt like living a little more dangerously, mostly 'penny shares' in low value companies with potential. One is a mining company and one a holdings company, mostly in European property, so we'll see how they pan out over the next few months. I'm glad I pulled out of gold before the 12th April crash, I won't pretend it was an inspired decision as pretty much everyone was predicting the fall, but I'm glad in this case most people were right. I've left a small bit of silver floating around, other than that I think I'll be leaving metals alone for a little while.

That's it for now, I'm off to refresh my memory on crop rotation and chords :)

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

It's been a hectic year so far

Is it just me or is this year absolutely flying past? Looking back at plans I made in January for things to do by the end of the year I've going to be lucky to fit them all in.

Have definitely decided to go ahead with the motorbike licence, it's something I've always wanted to do and the office move to somewhere with limited parking has helped seal the decision. I think I'll wait till there's less snow on the ground though - we aren't moving until October so I've got plenty of time to do the licence, find a bike and get some experience during the "summer" months.

I think I've managed to get the balance of salary and company benefits so that I'm pretty much on the threshold for starting to have to pay back child benefit. A lot of people say that someone on a salary this high shouldn't need it but due to high payments for debt maintence (some of it due our own stupidity admittedly) having to pay back most or all of it would make a big difference. Luckily some of the debts will finish next April, and so from then on we'll probably opt out of having child benefit altogether.

NOTE: The below relates only to the tax system in the UK.

One thing I've found which hasn't been as well known is that if the person claiming child benefit doesn't work, and then opts out either because their partner will earn over 60k or just because they want to save the hassle of self assessment, is National Insurance credits. HMRC have said in this situation they will still add credits but it's worth checking that they do as it's hard to get them added retrospectively after a certain amount of time.

Basically National Insurance contributions or credits determine how much state pension you're entitled to when you retire. You have to have 30 qualifying years for a full state pension although as long as you have even 1 year you will get something.

A qualifying year is a year during which you either paid a certain amount of NI or were given a certain amount of NI credits from HMRC. These credits are normally paid for people not working and paying NI contributions, but they won't necessarily know you need them. The most common way that they know to credit you is if you claim certain benefits, e.g. Job Seekers Allowance, Child Benefit etc.

You can apply online for a NI statement of account (this link takes you to the section on the HMRC website) going back as long as you need from HMRC for free. It's worth doing this just to check it's all up to date, especially if you've had gaps in your working history and after stopping a claim for Child Benefit if you plan to do this. It also tells you how many years you have left to get up to full pension entitlement, and what to do if you have any incomplete years.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Still here...

So just a quick note to say I'm still here but incredibly busy - will provide a proper update soon. As it's near tax year end work and personal finance is all very hectic!

As our company is moving to a new office later this year and I won;t have a parking space all of the time I'm currently looking into doing my motorbike licence (something I've always wanted to do anyway). Having downloaded an app to test my theory test knowledge (I'm far too old to have had to do the one for my car licence) I'm pleasantly surprised about how many questions there are about first aid and other 'common sense'.

More to follow shortly...

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Kindle capers

Having just got off the phone after spending a good hour talking to a techie at Amazon, I have to say I'm impressed with my experience of their customer service.

A second hand Kindle I'd bought off a friend a while ago for my wife (so I could actually get mine back and do some reading of my own) had decided it didn't want to download books any more. After a few minutes of fruitless Googling I decided to take the plunge and actually call the customer service number, a decision helped by the fact it was a freephone number (toll free in American).

To my pleasant surprise my call was answered within a minute, and although the (clearly basic 1st line support) lady on the other end of the phone wasn;t initially able to help with her suggestions of restarting it several times I was promised a call back within 45 minutes later by a technical support person.

After an admittedly slightly late 50 minutes I did indeed receive my call back. This person (like the first, actually able to speak in fluent English) was clearly using their brain rather than just blindly following a script and within half a hour after trying a software update and variations on the restart theme determined that the software had crashed somewhere during the registration process and rendered the device in need of replacement.

Expecting a charge for this (although after the initial 12 month warranty expires faulty goods are still covered under the Sale of Goods Act for a while but have to bear in mind I wasn't actually the person who originally bought it) I was very surprised when I was informed they would replace it free of charge within a week.

So, although I have now had to temporarily surrender my own beloved Kindle back to my wife so that she can keep up to date with the latest James Patterson novel, I think that's a small price to pay and I've been left wondering if I'm either very lucky or one of many happy customers of Amazon's customer service. Either way quite a positive result I feel.