Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Farty Pants

Another week. another birthday. That's how it goes around here in the spring with April a particularly popular month for family birthdays.

Daughter's birthday card for Son made me smile because I remembered that last year I blogged about his birthday sleepover and the entertainment a certain whoopee cushion provided. (Click here to read about it!) One year older, and farts haven't lost their entertainment value.

It also got me thinking about baked beans.

Here in the UK we love them. We're the world leaders in baked bean production and consumption. They're our most popular item to take on holiday. 

I know this to be true. When I was a student, one of my fellow first years lived on baked beans for the entire year. Alternating from plain one day to the kind that comes with (so-called) sausages the next. Husband would love it if I introduced that kind of regime here.

We don't eat them every day but they're a versatile and important part of our frugal diet:

  • on toast for breakfast
  • on toast for lunch
  • on toast for supper
Accessorised with marmite on the toast, grated cheese on top or a splash of Worcester sauce, according to taste. One of my colleagues likes vinegar on hers.

Or you could have them:

  • with a jacket potato
  • in a sausage casserole 
  • in a general spicy beany stewy thing to have with pasta or rice
Naturally I googled baked beans and climate change before I wrote this blog post. As you do. I missed out on it when it was reported earlier this month so this may be old news to some of you, but baked beans were recently discussed in the House of Lords. George Osborne's father-in-law questioned whether we should reduce our baked bean consumption in order to reduce methane emissions! (Read the Daily Mail article here.)

For the moment we're sticking with our current levels of baked bean intake. After all,

Beans, beans, they're good for your heart...

(Just ignore the second line, The more you eat, the more you fart.)

Baked beans - do you love 'em or hate 'em? Any favourite baked bean recipes? Are you eating less baked beans in order to combat climate change?

Monday, 28 April 2014

Welcoming a guest from the Babysitting Co-op 101!

In general I don't accept guest blog posts on here. Usually the people who email asking for a gig haven't bothered to research the kind of things I blog about and are proposing something that is completely unrelated to Shoestring life, or they can't string a sentence together in their email which doesn't bode well for an entire blog post.

Rachel Terry's request caught my attention though. Rachel is the author of Babysitting Co-op 101 in the US (athough I'm sure the principles would work in the UK too). 

I've never been a member of a babysitting circle or co-op, and my kids are past the age where I need much babysitting, but it sounds a fantastic money-saving idea. From my understanding, UK babysitting circles are usually for evening childcare only so I like the Co-op 101's model of providing reliable childcare during the day too.

Before I hand over to Rachel, let me thank her for sharing her ideas here. If you have any queries or comments for Rachel I'm sure she'll come back to answer them. And if you want to read the blog post that I wrote for her (on money saving tips for the parents of young children), click here to head over to her blog and check it out! 

Welcome Rachel!

It’s quiz time, everyone. Don’t worry. It’s just one simple question.

1.      When you have young children at home, there is never enough…
a.       Time
b.      Money
c.       Adult Conversation
d.      All of the Above

You got the answer right no matter which answer you chose, but if you chose (D), I’m with you. I’m thrilled to be a guest poster today to help parents learn that there’s a solution to “All of the Above” issues, and that is to form a babysitting co-op.

What is a babysitting co-op?

Simply put, a babysitting co-op is a formalized babysitting program, consisting of parents who know one another. These parents come together to provide their babysitting services for free in a systematic and structured venue. That means that you’re fairly compensated for your time, and you can count on set days and times when babysitting is available to you.

What could you do if you had free babysitting at your disposal? You could avoid spending money on babysitting for one thing. You could go to your doctor’s appointments without begging favors from your friends or bringing your kids along. You could finally have time to pursue a hobby or tackle big household projects. And you could develop stronger relationships with other like-minded parents in your community.

How does it work?

Basically, you organize your co-op around a ticket currency (or app currency if you lose small things). Tickets represent time that is broken up into half-hour and one-hour segments. Co-op parents choose babysitting shifts when they are available to watch other children, and each parent has access to the calendar so they know who is available during certain times.

You call and make your reservation when you need a sitter, and then you compensate the sitter with tickets, which she can then spend on babysitting as well.

Good for Kids, Too

There’s something very comforting to children about knowing that many adults in the community care about their well-being. Through involvement in a babysitting co-op, your kids will make new friends and get to know other adults as well. These relationships can last well past the days when you need the co-op for last-minute babysitting during the day.

For more information about how to start a babysitting co-op in your area, visit our blog, find a copy of our book Babysitting Co-op 101, or contact us. Babysitting co-ops have helped us to save money, find more time, and make friends in our communities, and we hope for the same for you. 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

(Frugal) Gifts Galore!

What a resourceful bunch my fabulous frugal friends and family are. Just the kind of presents to make an old frugalista very happy!

Two tomato plants (including a yellow cherry tomato)

Land cress seeds (never grown this but can't wait)

A candle in a tea cup. Blue and white china, my favourite. (I've been saving up old candle wax to do this myself. I've even got as far as buying some wick. And an old spotty tea cup. So this will spur me on. Anyone ever tried making candles out of old candle wax?)

A re-gift. Victoria Hislop's The Thread (originally given to my Mum, who recommends it)

David Lodge's The Art of Fiction (no re-gifting or frugal catch to this one - maybe the giver thinks I should try my hand at writing fiction as it came with a note: "By now, you must have blogged a number of words equivalent to a full-length novel!")

Some home recorded DVDs of programmes that I'll enjoy about local railways and canals, and children's literature.

Organic Medjool dates. Yum.

Homegrown flowers.

Abel and Cole Veg Box Companion recipe book (another re-gift from my brother. A recipe book that looks right up my street!)

Chocolates. (And the advantage of having a birthday on Easter day is that you can save your birthday treats until everyone else is fed up of chocolate, then eat them all yourself).

6 baby Lobelia plants that will cheer up some of my flower pots.

A summery pale green scarf. (I'm the queen of the scarf after all. All frugalistas know that you don't spend money on new outfits. You just perk up the old ones with a scarf from your extensive collection, which naturally consists only of gift scarves or charity shop scarves.)

A generous £15 cheque (to spend on more books, scarves, seeds, plants, dates or chocolate...?)

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Friday, 18 April 2014

Food Waste Friday - Not Hot Cross Buns

It's not often that we have serious food waste these days. Today, however, I had to admit defeat and throw out a whole tin of what started life as homemade hot cross buns and finished as burnt, crispy things

Daughter has had a whole 6 week module of bread baking in DT at school (who needs a River Cottage baking day...)

For the most part it has been a gastronomic delight and we have looked forward to her return from school on a Wednesday - soft fluffy rolls, an olive oily garlic and rosemary focaccia, pizza and cinnamonny chelsea buns.

On the last Wednesday of term we waited eagerly for Daughter's return. Part of the ritual involves her serving her wares invitingly and calling us to the dining room table. The hot cross buns with their sugary glaze glistened on the plate deliciously...but were as hard as rocks. I think I bravely chewed my way through a whole bun. Others weren't so gracious.

We're never deterred by baking disasters here, so I thinly sliced all the buns up and baked them on a really slow heat, envisioning delicious raisin biscotti. It was not to be - this process rendered them even less edible. In a fortnight where the main expense for one of us has been extensive dental work, and where another has had a visit to the orthodontist, only the extremely foolhardy would have made an attempt on these jaw-breaking Easter treats.

To the chickens they must go.

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it. This week you can find Food Waste Friday hosted by 

Monday, 14 April 2014

A day out in Bristol!

You'll know by now that one of my favourite frugal ways of hoodwinking my children into thinking they're getting an action-packed, quality, fun day out is to drag them on a walk and feed them a picnic. If you plan it cleverly so there is something interesting to see along the way, then there's a chance that they might genuinely find it more exciting than sitting at home watching nonsense on Youtube.

Earlier in the year, Daughter was studying the slave trade in history. The film 12 Years a Slave had just been released, so slavery was, quite rightly, big news. 

The time was ripe for another Everyday Life on a Shoestring trip to Bristol. 

In the summer, Bristol was home to multitudes of Gromits, and we went hunting for them. This time we covered much of the same ground, but looked at Bristol through different eyes.

We found a Bristol Slavery Trail at the Victoria County History website and printed it out to take with us. The kids weren't fooled - they knew this was an educational trip, but were prepared to go along with it as long as I absolutely promised to try and look 'normal', not to wave the map around, and not to sound like a tour guide. I didn't take too much notice. This is too huge a part of Bristol's history to be hushed up. And Bristol is the birth city of both my children so they need to know about it. I might have pointed that out to them. More than once.

I won't come over all 'tour guide' and bore you with the entire trail but there are a few photos below.

To put the trail in context, Bristol was an important port and for much of the 1700s was second in size and importance to London. Much of the city's wealth depended on the slave trade and also the goods produced by slaves on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Queen Square, popular with rich merchants and slave traders.
Home to the first American consulate in the UK.

King Street
In King Street, we found out that archaeologists have found manillas (traditional African brass bangles moulded into a bracelet or C shape that were then used in the slave trade. A slave's price would sometimes be expressed in manillas) in the houses and gardens here.

The pubs in King Street were also places where crews would be recruited for slaving voyages. The Theatre Royal, also located here, was sponsored by wealthy families involved in the slave trade and earliest performances at the theatre included plays about slavery.

Corn Street, where many merchants did business and
where one of the first banks outside of London was sited.

The Wills Memorial Building, donated
to the University of Bristol in 1903,
paid for by profits from the tobacco trade.

Pero's Bridge, named after a black man
brought to Bristol as the slave and servant of a
Bristol plantation owner.

What did we learn? 

  • That many of Bristol's most attractive and most impressive buildings were connected to the slave trade in some way - often owned by wealthy merchants or ship owners.
  • There had been Quaker ship owners but by the 1760s the Quakers campaigned against the trade.
  • St Mary Redcliffe Church was enlarged and enhanced by its 'wealthy' congregation (and we know where that wealth came from).
  • Press gangs would round up drunks or those that could not run away to force them into a sailor's life.
  • Life at sea was dangerous -  a quarter of all crews were expected to die - and this was one argument put forward to end slavery.
  • There was a large sugar refining industry in Bristol but it was hazardous - 11 refineries burnt down between 1670 and 1859.
  • Is it right that Bristol's concert hall, a school and almshouses are named after Edward Colston, who was a successful local man and supporter of local charities, but who made his money through the slave trade?
The subject material means that this was an interesting rather than a 'fun' day out. We thought we knew Bristol well, but it made us look at familiar buildings in a different way. The children found it hard to understand why it took so long for the slave trade to be abolished. And although the slave trade story from this era of history ended, in other ways the story, sadly, continues. What about human trafficking in the modern world and child slavery in connection with some of the luxury products that we enjoy today? 

Many thanks to the Victoria County History website and the University of London for the facts included in this blog post!

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Onya bags re-giveaway result...

There were 12 commenters on the giveaway blog post. The comments included Dar who blogs at An Exacting Life . She didn't want to be entered because she is already using reusable produce bags! What a fantastic reason not to enter.

So that left 11 entries.

This time I used a Random Number generator to choose a winner, which selected the 
number 10. The tenth commenter was:

*drum roll*


Lizzi, if you email me your address via the blog email, ( I will post you your Onya bags!


Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Energy Challenge

Time off work for the Easter holidays means more time to engage with the Guardian Live Better's latest challenge - this month the focus is on energy. 

In the light of the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report this is topical. The report shows that the effects of climate change are already with us. Temperatures are up and polar ice is melting. Meanwhile emissions are accelerating rather than slowing and governments are not meeting the necessary targets for reducing CO2 emissions. Scary stuff.

As the Guardian Live Better's infographic - (click here) shows (and it really is worth a look), fossil fuels make up 87% of the world's energy usage. We can't carry on like this.

With that in mind, there was never a better time to review our own energy usage. Especially as doing the right thing environmentally when it comes to energy will save money too. Eco + Frugal. We like it. 

How are we doing? In the grand scheme of things I really don't know. Although we might call ourselves frugal, and aspire to simplicity, it cannot be argued otherwise: we are living a fully first world lifestyle with computers, phones, appliances, central heating and a car. 

Using the Guardian's guidelines, I set off round the house on what you could loosely call a mini audit. 

First off, the boiler. This has been in the house since we moved in 11 years ago. Although it calls itself a Fuelsaver, I doubt very much that this is the case. The timer is kaput and so we put the hot water and central heating on manually. (It's not worth getting it fixed as a new boiler is on the wish list).

Although we didn't use the central heating much this year and it hasn't been on at all for several weeks now, we do heat water daily, and the boiler gets left on for far longer than it needs to be (people forget to turn it off). 

This is definitely one target for the energy challenge. Work out a system for making sure the boiler is on minimally. (And start investigating new boilers).

As for the rest of the kitchen, we have the second hand gas cooker (blogged about here), a fridge freezer, a toaster, a washing machine, a bread maker and a slow cooker (which I have learnt from the Guardian live blog and My Make Do and Mend Year's energy race, is a great energy saver) and we use all of them a lot.

Second target for our challenge is to use the slow cooker and the hob more, and the oven less.

Reading the My Make Do and Mend energy race round up also reminded me that I should make more use of my steamer.

The kitchen raises one energy conundrum though. We don't have a microwave. In general we are trying to reduce our consuming and our reliance on plugged-in/battery appliances. Plus we only have a small kitchen. I kind of like the space that not having a microwave gives me. But they are really good energy savers. Should I rush out and buy one? Is this one consumer product it's worth consuming?

Next stop is the dining room. The table, chairs and dresser are all blameless but this room is also home to the computer. Probably some room for improvement there when it comes to turning things off properly at night. We also know that the sanded original floor boards in this room look lovely and are great when it comes to sweeping up cat food and crumbs but could really do with more insulation.

On a positive note the room faces south, so it's a good place for drying clothes indoors (or sprawling out in the sun, if you are a cat!) Oh yes that's another positive; we don't have a tumble dryer. Even this winter, it's still been possible to get washing on the line sometimes, and right now it's line drying heaven!

Can't resist the sun

View from my landing window - washing and all
From the dining room it's into the hall. The uPVC door and windows allow a lot of light in, but also let warm air out. Last year we put up some (secondhand of course) lined curtains to try and counteract this.

Unplanned selfie in the hall mirror 
whilst photographing the curtains.

Also in the hall we have a prime example of one of our radiators backed with foil. Not a pretty sight but there's nothing in the Guardian's energy challenge about dust reduction. (Although maybe there should be! Doesn't dust on refrigerator coils reduce efficiency?) 

The only other room downstairs is the living room. Here we've put in a woodburner, and when it's on this will heat a small amount of water for drinks and hot water bottles. Wood burners are considered a low carbon source of heat. ("The carbon dioxide emitted when wood is burned is the same amount that was absorbed over the months and years that the plant was growing. The process is sustainable as long as new plants continue to grow in place of those used for fuel. There are some carbon emissions caused by the cultivation, manufacture and transportation of the fuel, but as long as the fuel is sourced locally, these are much lower than the emissions from fossil fuels." Source: The Energy Saving Trust.) 

The wood burner was bought on eBay and self-installed, to cut down costs (by Husband with his anarchic attitude to regulations and measurements...(it's our house and we'll burn it down if we want to)...however there is a working carbon monoxide detector in the room so don't worry...)

There are also lots of snuggly blankets for keeping warm.

Upstairs we have three bedrooms. Over the years some of the windows have lost their seal so here's evidence of some draught proofing. (Also by Husband...this time with an anarchic attitude to's parcel tape - ugly but it does the job.)

Elsewhere upstairs more blankets and bedspreads for extra warmth during the winter.

And although I would never suggest to those living in fuel poverty, that all they need to do is put on an extra jumper (unlike David Cameron), wearing lots of layers helps. Son's pictured below in his woolly. Strangely he likes to wear shorts all year round too. Like the walking monk, maybe he adapts to the environment...

Other things we've done are turn the thermostat down, insulate the loft and get cavity wall insulation. I blogged about light bulbs recently - we have got low energy light bulbs throughout the house (although not LEDs). We haven't got solar panels, although we have dabbled with the idea. and were inspired, when Judy (who blogs at Ration the Future) wrote about her solar panel installation here, to maybe think about it again). 

In an ideal world we'd be car-free but at the moment we have a Toyota Yaris and we would struggle to live without it. We try not to use it for local journeys and lift share to work and when ferrying kids around to after-school activities.

If you've made it this far with this tour of the Everyday Life on a Shoestring household, then here are my conclusions.

In the long term there's some BIG stuff we could do, like address the cranky old boiler situation and investigate solar power (if not installing panels, then at least we should think  getting our energy from a green energy supplier).

But we also need to keep up with all the SMALL stuff; turning things off, filling up the kettle with only the amount required, etc. In the UK, households account for 27% of annual emissions (according to the Guardian) so every little that all of us do will really help. Don't ever think that you can't make a difference.

In between the big and the small, is the microwave dilemma. Yes or no?

(And looking at my house with fresh eyes, I think maybe I want something prettier than parcel tape sealing my windows...)

What are you doing to reduce your energy use and what more do you think we could do? 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Revisiting our bin / Onya bags pre-Easter re-give away...

Recently someone asked me about the state of our bin. Not exactly in those words, but that was what they were getting at. Knowing that we had taken part in the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust Slim Your Bin project last year, they wondered if we had managed to stay slim or whether we'd put any weight back on (waste wise)...

If you weren't around here last year, the project aimed to get participating households to reduce their waste, and by the end we had halved our domestic waste*. This outcome surprised us as we would have labelled ourselves diligent recyclers. (If you click on the Waste category on the right hand side of the blog, you'll find the blog posts that I wrote whilst we were doing the project, which include lots of waste reducing tips and photos of our trip to our local recycling centre and landfill).

I would love to say that after taking part in the project we all lived happily zero wastily ever after but that's not true.

Just how are we doing one year on? I haven't weighed my bin recently (which is what we did at the start and finish of the Slim Your Bin project) but if we had to produce an Annual Report, I think it would read something like this:

Green cleaning

We're still using vinegar, citric acid and bicarbonate of soda for most of our needs, for most of the time.  I love Jo's recipe for a Gumption type cleaning paste, which makes a great bicarb cleaner. After seriously overstocking ingredients for a green cleaning workshop last summer, I have been able to top up my DIY washing powder whenever it runs low.

The only hiccup with the green cleaning (apart from the fact that our house could always use more cleaning generally) has been a major and ongoing black mould problem in various rooms this damp winter, which, in the end had to be tackled with bleach. From what I understand, although bleach itself breaks down into chlorides quite rapidly, it's the production of bleach that is more of an environmental issue (click here for Lucy Siegle's article on this topic).

Food Waste

The Food Waste situation is also generally much, much improved. We buy less and waste less. We eat up leftovers rather than letting them fester in the fridge. We freeze stuff. And when there is food waste it is composted or fed to the chickens.


Ah, the decluttering. This will always be my Achilles' heel! Part of the focus of the Slim Your Bin project was on 'green' decluttering; disposing of stuff responsibly. For a while I even boldly wrote about my efforts in Tidy Friday blog posts, a thrilling round-up of our weekly food waste and decluttering efforts, but I'm afraid I kind of fizzled out with the decluttering part.

The good news is that through doing the project we now have an in-depth understanding of what can be recycled and reused, and we know how to make a bit of cash out of our clutter. The bad news is that we are not very successful at putting our knowledge into practice. We're not consigning stuff to the wheelie bin, but could definitely do with an (environmentally responsible) big spring clean and clear out. 


This is another area in which we struggle. I find it really hard to avoid unnecessary or non recyclable food packaging completely. Although we use our Onya bags, avoid excess packaging where we can (we're still avoiding those Tetrapak fruit juice cartons), reuse packaging for things like putting packed lunches in or for storing leftovers, and recycle stretchy plastic, I'd love to cut down more. I'm sure that this accounts for most of our fortnightly wheelie bin content.

If you're wondering what Onya bags are then take a look at the Onya weigh bags below. Super thin and light tulle, these are bags that you can use for packing your own produce. There are five bags that scrunch into a cute carry pouch that can attach to your keys. Onya kindly gave me some to review and giveaway last year. Sadly the lucky winner never came forward to claim their prize, so in the name of spring cleaning and decluttering my home, I'm putting them up for a re-giveaway! Details at the end of this blogpost.


To sum up, for the most part we have stuck to our waste minimising habits, although it's difficult to stop the packaging pounds from creeping back on. I also think we need to be careful that we don't end up with a house full of clutter that's waiting to be recycled/sold/charity shopped!

If you would like to enter the Onya bags giveaway then:

1) Visit the Onya website
2) Come back and leave a comment telling me about your favourite Onya product (this will be hard as there are loads of planet-friendly goodies over there)
3) I'll let the giveaway run for a week, so the deadline will be 10pm BST, Thursday 10 April 2014
4) The bags are light to post, so this giveaway is open to all readers, UK and international.
5) Don't forget to come back after the 10th April to check whether you have won!

* Technically when we weighed our bin at the end of the project, it was heavier than it ought to have been due to containing a soiled disposable nappy from my visiting niece. One year on, I'm rewriting history and removing the rogue nappy from the equation to give the 50% reduction. I reckon that kind of creative accounting goes on in many Annual Reports...