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.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Spotted in the office - A rare glimpse of a skilled POMPer

Today at work I noticed someone with what could be considered quite an enviable skill within the office environment - the Perambulation Of Major Purpose, or POMP. For this to be performed well needs either raw talent (very rare) or several years of practice.

The aim of the POMP is to travel by foot (usually in an indoor environment although it can be used outdoors on occasion) in such a manner that gives the impression one is on their way to perform a task of some importance, perhaps attending a meeting with an agenda of more than 2 pages in length, or to provide assistance to one or more person of much lesser knowledge and skill than oneself.

There are many elements to the POMP, and each must be done to a sufficiently high standard in order to carry it off well. The practitioner is much likely to be headed to the coffee machine or a secluded stairwell in which to return a phone call from a recruitment company but if performed correctly most observers will assume their journey is for a much more vital purpose and essential to the continued wellbeing of the company. The benefits of this are many, for example not only will the perceived importance of the POMPer rise but they are much less likely to be interrupted in their travels, thus preventing them from having to come up with any explanation as to where they are really headed.

Interesting Fact: Allegedly a very small percentage of POMPers can perform this walk so well that they are actually able to avoid being accosted by people in town centres holding clipboards but I have yet to witness this myself in person.

The POMPer I observed today clearly has natural talent, and has probably also spent many years perfecting the skill as they are a mid level manager with a suitably vague job title, and therefore have a more more vested interest in giving the impression of importance whilst actually achieving very little. Whilst in reality they were probably headed to the coffee machine, to a casual observer they would appear to be on their way to a rather important meeting and would arrive just in time, to sighs of relief from the other attendees that they had managed to make time in their busy schedule to attend and offer much needed contribution to an otherwise pointless two hours spent sitting round a shiny table.

Anyway, on to the actual POMP itself, I managed to observe for a good 15 seconds before said POMPer swept round a corner.

The walk was impressive. The speed was spot on - just fast enough to be going somewhere that arrival time mattered a great deal to the welfare of the company, but not too fast, this would be a fatal error that would just look like they were badly organised and running late. Walking too slowly would be an even worse mistake - giving the impression of apathy and a complete lack of interest in general. The risk of being interrupted and pulled into an impromptu meeting about something they knew nothing about would be very high.
The gait was generally tall and straight, although an almost imperceptible hunch indicated an unwillingness to be approached. By far the most impressive feature though was the facial expression, determined and thoughtful, as if already half way through solving some problem they were on their way to assist with. Again a hard skill to perfect - get it wrong and you either look constipated, scared or confused. Or at worst a combination of all three. Combine this with a slightly higher speed than required and you can see why this should only be practiced in private until the walk can be performed at an acceptable level.

All in all a real treat to see. If you also work in an office environment, or even happen to just be visiting one at some point be sure to keep an eye out, you too may just end up being lucky enough to spot a skilled POMPer performing this rarely seen art.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Back after a long break

So, I'm back after quite a while - have decided to give the whole blogging thing a new attempt.

In an attempt to give this blog a central theme, I've decided to mostly concentrate on sharing useful information for people on consumer and personal finance issues. These are two areas that interest me a lot, and I often find I'm able to help people out with my knowledge of these subjects so it's probably worth sharing online too.

So a bit of background is probably in order.

A few years ago, after doing the whole having a baby, buying a house and getting married thing we realised we'd managed to get into quite a lot of debt. This was due in part to the ease at which debt was available back then (we're talking around the period 2003-2008) and also due ot our complete lack of understanding on how debt works. A few rather stupid decisions later and suddenly we found ourselves in a meeting with the bank manager watching our cash card being cut up in front of us.
NOTE: Not our credit card, but our cash card. The thing we used to pay for things like food and nappies.

Luckily for us my parents helped bail us out to an extent and after managing to sell our small flat at the top of the housing boom just before the prices crashed we ended up in a much better situation - renting but paying less per month than we had been paying on our mortgage (and 2 secured loans) and just about managing to pay all the bills every month. However there were a couple more close calls and it was only after spending time on the rather excellent MoneySavingExpert website that had what is referred to on that site as my 'lightbulb' moment. Hopefully this needs no explanation. Suffice to say since then a healthy paranoia of every getting even close to that situation again has helped keep us out of financial trouble and after a few hard years  we're now at the point where I'm able to put a small amount of my salary into a savings account each month and have even started looking at investing some. We still have debts, but they're manageable and will all be paid off in the next 3 years (most are fixed term loans).

In this time I've learnt a great deal about how debt (and people's attitudes towards it) works, and consumer rights in general. A lot of this information is out there but quite often not easy to find, and certainly not readily promoted. For example how many of you knew that if you wear a uniform to work you may well be able to claim money back form the tax office for cleaning costs?

I noted with great delight recently that finally finance is a topic that will soon be taught in schools as part of the curriculum, I only wish it had been when I was at school.

So anyway, enough about the background and back to my most current update.

I'm currently reading "Be a Free Range Human" (affiliate link here if you don't mind me earning from your click) and dreaming about ditching the whole 9-5 thing for something a bit more interesting. Quite an inspiring book, although of course the real proof will be when I quit my job to bugger off round the world doing what I really love and getting paid handsome quantities of money for it.

Back in the present, have had to find an accountant to cope with the whole child benefit self-assessment thing, whilst I'm usually fairly confident dealing with such matters myself a tax return is something I'd rather pay someone else to do\take responsibility for than risk messing it up.

Since moving counties I lost the allotment so the last year was spent digging up random square feet along the edge of the lawn in our current garden and throwing a few seeds in to see what would grow well. Due to the wetter than average summer not a lot went well, although apathy on my part may have also had something to do with it. Another thing to add to my "will try harder this year" list.

I found it's possible to dent an empty drinks can with a Nurofen syringe (yes the innocent-looking plastic one that comes with the bottle) from a couple of feet if filled with a few drops of water and pushed hard enough - I'm now a bit gentler about how I use them to administer medicine into the kiddies mouths.

I keep promising myself I'll try and make my own cheese this year having bought an ancient food press from a charity shop for £1.50. But Mrs Cornflake needs convincing first that experiments involving dairy products and mould can be performed in the house.

The only person brave enough so far to try the homemade blackberry wine (now approaching 2 year vintage I believe) had already drunk several cans of Stella and therefore their appraisal was considered largely invalid, however complimentary it was. Might be quite good for cooking purposes though...