Monday, 31 December 2012

# 138 Farewell 2012

So here we are. The last post of the year. The last day of 2012.

My blog a day didn't quite match up to expectations but I have enjoyed it. I've averaged about 14 hits a day and exceeded my 5000 total hit rate so I must be doing something right. I'm going to carry on in 2013 because 'why not'.

Again, it's unlikely to be a 'blog a day' but I know from the comments I've had and the way I have used it that it has served a purpose.

I was considering migrating everything over to Wordpress. I've already moved my business page over there. But I like this format for a more personal approach. So I'm just going to leave it where it is. I hope that those of you who were reading this year, carry on. And that I gain some new readers as well.

So happy new year everyone. See you in 2013!  

Sunday, 30 December 2012

# 137 Gluttony

And so the annual festive gluttony comes to an end. We're all rolling around from too many mince pies and turkey and promising ourselves never to do it again (until next week anyway) and even more of us have made a new year resolution to get fitter, healthier and cut down on the food and booze.

No doubt Weight Watchers will be inundated with its usual new year numbers who, a couple of months later, will be conspicuous by their absence at meetings. The same goes for gym memberships. By March, the good intentions have worn off.

Will Self wrote an article for BBC News this week on just such a subject. Food is good, of that there is no doubt but it can get terribly out of hand and we do as a nation eat in unnecessarily huge amounts and waste food at a shocking rate. I am disturbed at how food orientated we all are now. Even a visit to a shopping centre will see customers stopping for coffee and cake breaks. What, you couldn't manage two hours of shopping without a snack?

Living on a tight budget has given me a much greater respect for food. Nothing is ever wasted. If too much is cooked, it'll probably be served up the next day and I have learnt to curb my shopping habits and stick to my modest list, bake my own and keep things simple.

It's been several years now since I instilled this way of eating. I've noticed a huge natural decline in my appetite. So much so that when I go home for visits I struggle to manage on the quantity and more often the range of food presented to me. In restaurants 'all you can eat' buffets are wasted on me these days.  And I struggle to process a lot of the convenience foods and preservatives slipped into precooked products.

Resolutions are great, but they tend to be short lived. The key is changing lifestyle habits permanently and that isn't something you can do over night. Our obsession with food is an addiction like any other - smoking, coffee, gambling. You have to reprogramme your brain.

There is nothing wrong with feeling hungry, you won't starve or drop dead and you don't have to cram your cupboards full of every deal you fell for in the supermarket. (something I used to do). We're not going to get snowed in for 3 months and you won't die from skipping the odd meal.

So in 2013, think twice before you reach for that extra biscuit. Did you even need the biscuits? Do you need to eat between meals? Really?

Saturday, 29 December 2012

# 136 Bucket List

One of my most poignant presents this year was a gift from the 'food aid' fairy. Yes we get them most years in my family - a bag of edible treats. But this year it was full of the basics. Gratefully accepted of course, but it made me question just what it was I was doing.

I expected things to be hard. Running your own business, existing on what you can make from commissions is not easy. And I picked a bad time to do it. But do I really need to put myself through this amount of hardship and stress? Is it going to pay off? And why should I punish myself like this when really I could take a back step until things ease up.

I stopped making new year resolutions sometime back. Rules are made to be broken. But I came across the bucket list in a film reference the other day and thought this would be a better way to go about the same process with less rigidity and hopefully remind me that there is more to life than working to barely get by.

So instead I am making up lists of things I want to do before I die, rather than things I have to do in the next 12 months. You can keep track of your own success or use a website like Bucketlist.

My list is small right now but that's because I have an immediate list that needs more attention. More effort towards the business and to find a job to help ease things along.

Because a little bit of me if currently wondering what I am doing this for and whether it will all be worth it in the end.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

# 135 Playing catch up

I have spent most of the last two weeks lying on my back, on a sofa, in my PJ's wishing I could die. Yes, I've been ill and since I don't do ill very often, I also do it badly and without grace.

Christmas was almost cancelled but somehow I was granted an 11th hour reprieve and at 3pm on Christmas Eve I jumped in the car and whizzed off to Kent to see my family. It's going to be a short break however, since I have 10 days of catch up which includes housework, business admin and general getting back to normality. No rest for the wicked it would seem.

I don't know whether it was being ill or the general foisting of Christmas upon us at the ridiculous season of 'summer' but I really wasn't that bothered about the festivities this year. I never got that Christmas feeling at all. And I know I'm not alone in feeling like this. I'm sure it's a combination of incessant advertising morning noon and night, and the general air of recession upon us which hasn't helped. It's hard to feel jolly about Christmas, feasting and presents (well Christmas IS the most materialistic time of year) when you don't have the funds to spend and all around you stores are vying for your money.

I blew my entire December profits on the meagre offerings I could make to friends and family this year and it felt like a real let down. All I can think about now is how I'm going to make it through January, the longest month between paychecks and even longer when you're the business with a niche market.

I don't expect for one minute I am the only one feeling the apprehension of what lies ahead in 2013 and I will think of more positive things to write about over the next few days but for now, it's an overriding thought in my head. It's very hard to switch off.

But for now, back to the turkey sandwiches. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

# 134 War Of The Supermarket Brands

Asda's took a rap for their blatantly stereotypical tv advertising campaign this festive season. I was dumbfounded by their lack of ingenuity. Apparently it came as a response to surveys carried out on their shoppers. Perhaps, but it didn't ring true with everyone. Whilst I did think it was a sexist viewpoint, sadly it is also true in many households. I know it will be in mine.

In case you missed it (and if you did where the hell have you been???), here's the advert in full:

The John Lewis campaign apparently came in tops. I don't like this one either. For no other reason than its sickly sweetness - typical of John Lewis advertising. See it here:

If I had to pick the most skillful campaign I'd go with Tesco. Not because I am a Tesco shopper (which I am) but because it successfully manages to avoid the pitfalls of the other campaigns. They have produced a range of short adverts with a variety of scenarios to cover all their customers. And they all feature well recognised not so Christmassy music. Here's their one for Christmas Day - not a Christmas song in sight.

But top award has to go to Aldi for its sense of humour. Is it me or does this seem suspiciously like a take on the John Lewis advert?

So there you have it. All different approaches. But all with the same motive at the heart of their campaign. To take your money and improve their profits.

But did you change your shopping loyalty based on any of these campaigns?

Sunday, 16 December 2012

# 133 The Benefits Of The System

We have become very used to living in a society where financially if something goes wrong, the State is invariably there to pick up the pieces. But it wasn't always like that.

Before 1908 there were no unemployment benefit, no NHS, no child benefit, no pensions, no National Insurance contributions. If you didn't work, you went without. There was the incentive to work. A job was a job and you were probably grateful for anything you could get. Education was a precious commodity, the key to escaping poverty. Work wasn't always that easy to come by and the levels of illiteracy meant that many jobs were out of reach to working class people. A classless society it was not and if you weren't able to work through illness or infirmity you went without.

Poverty in 1912. And we think we have problems (source)
In December 1942, the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services proposed a series of measures to help those in need of help or in poverty. It recommended that the government should find ways of tackling the five 'giants', Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. It suggested that in order to tackle these problems the government should provide adequate income, health care, education, housing and employment to its people. The report also suggested that people of working age should pay a weekly National Insurance contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed.'

The Universal Child Benefit was devised to give benefits to parents and to encourage married couples to have children. Post war the population needed to be replenished. (Ref Wikipedia).

These systems were great back then. 1942 was post war and the country, still living under rationing, needed something to get it back on its feet. The class divide was huge. The rich were very rich and the poor were dying.  But there were less people, less problems, less immigration, the retired didn't live as long as they do now and practices in medicine meant that if you weren't fit and healthy you stood less of a chance of surviving full stop. 

It's unfortunate that over the decades 'hand-out systems' like ours have been abused, left unchecked and pushed to the limits by an ever escalating population from all over the world. And when your benefits system doesn't give the right incentive to go out and find work something has clearly gone wrong.

Whilst child benefits in 1942 were designed to actively encourage parents to pro-create, this incentive hardly seems necessary today. Unable to support our already burgeoning population thanks to a range of contributory factors from improved living conditions to immigration rules, if anything we should be trying to reduce the population.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith's suggestion that child benefit should be capped at two children seems unlikely to have any effect and probably won't happen anyway, although the incentive behind it - to stop rewarding families for children - makes sense when you consider the origins of the system.

Modern day food banks are becoming a regular sight (source)
Parents often had large families because mortality rates were high and working class families relied on children reaching a working age and contributing to the household income. We don't need any of this now. These days large families are an oddity and often seen as an unnecessary over-indulgence.

Child tax credits have already been capped for higher income families (who are still unable to afford their children despite their higher level incomes) and has caused a storm.

It's no wonder we are in recession. Financially this country is in meltdown. Food banks, soup kitchens and charity support are becoming the norm and the queues each day for this on the spot help are getting longer. Many families are having the make the decision whether to heat their homes or put food on the table.

Have we come full circle? Are we regressing back to a time when many families were in need? Only time will tell how these problems are resolved. But predictions for the end of the recession are bleak and stories of poverty on our own doorsteps seems only set to rise. 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

# 132 Boycott

Starbucks recent promise to voluntarily pay back a chunk of Corporation Tax because of its customers reaction (and subsequent rise in sales at Costa) demonstrates quite clearly that power does lie with the consumer.

Google's Chairman recently announced that it was proud of its tax avoidance scheme. Whilst they are not breaking the law, this scathing comment does nothing for the company's image at a time when all big corporations are being closely watched. Perhaps I should migrate my blog to Wordpress after all.....

If you're a customer of any firm avoiding tax and you're unhappy about it you should think about taking action. After all if your Government won't do it, why shouldn't you?

Boycotting outlets or websites isn't difficult - you just stop shopping with them. It doesn't take long to make a noticeable dent in company profits which is all the voice a customer needs to be heard.

Google,, Boots, Cafe Nero (perhaps Costa will benefit from them too), Topman, Topshop, Vodaphone, Apple and Ebay are all well known brands blatantly taking advantage of convenient loop holes in the law whilst many UK businesses struggle to comply and the average consumer finds themselves squeezed financially at every turn.

If all those big tax dodgers paid their bills and the loop holes were closed, the Government coffers would be far healthier. Think how all those payments would benefit our struggling services and help those people in our community who are vulnerable and losing benefits because of the recession?

Just a thought. 


Friday, 14 December 2012

# 131 The Hoarding Years

I completely understand what NatalieM on was on about when she posted this article. Up until recent times this was me and it was like a millstone round my neck. I have no explanation for it. There is something in-built in my genes that means I have to stockpile. 

Thankfully I seem to have got over my hoarding obsession and am enjoying the downsizing process ready to move house next year.

To be honest for someone of my age and situation I don't have a lot of possessions anyway. But I think that's because I get the moving bug on a fairly regular basis and moving is, to be honest, a pain in the arse. This was a conversation I had with my mother the other night. Apparently she's been tracking my moving schedule and every 4 or 5 years I 'up sticks'. I don't plan it that way, it just happens. It is ironic that it will be 4 years next year when I move again, although I'm not planning on moving town just yet.

I never got quite this bad (source)
But back to NatalieM..... She used a gifted Cath Kidston soap and soap dish as her prime example of hoarding for sentimental reasons. I have done this on many occasions and invariably attach ridiculous sentimentality to inanimate objects. But moving a lot has meant a lot of things have been lost or shed for practical reasons. I regret losing only a few of them. But there's only so much you can do.

I have far less to spend on myself now that I am running my own business and so all the bathroom paraphenalia I've hoarded is now slowly being used up. And the beauty of it is that it's not costing me a thing. Bathroom products are a luxury so I rely on birthdays and Christmas for top ups. I probably had about two years worth. Most of it saw me through my last financially crippling year as an undergraduate student which ended in June and now I am firmly entrenched in the financially crippling status of self employed it's still serving me well.

I banned for the sake of it presents generally some time back. I think it's a terrible waste. So everything is now practical, useful or edible which means there are hoarding limitations and means moving is going to be a far less painful process. 

I just hope no one sends me any housewarming gifts.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

# 130 Cut The Cost Of Christmas

Yes I thought that would catch your eye.
Unnecessary (source)

Christmas is the most financially draining and stressful time of year and the worst bit about it is you'd rather not have spent all that money right? At least some of it will have gone on people you only see a few times a year (if that) and you'll receive at least one present you really didn't want.

Additionally this year the UK's crazy pet owners will spend around £27 million on presents for their animal counterparts. I mean, does your cat really want anything more than a bit of turkey off your plate?

There are plenty of tips on the internet if you know where to look. Martins Money Tips has some here. So here is my contribution minus the Scrooge effect.....

1. Presents are okay but you need to rein it in. I've limited everyone to just one or two gifts this year and they have to give me ideas for things they genuinely want or need. I am not buying anything for the sake of it just to fill present opening space. Make a rule with family and stick to it.

If you're dragged into the whole work Secret Santa malarky, have a rule on how much to spend and make it something the receiver will actually use.  

2. Christmas cards. Do you actually need to send them? They sit on a shelf for a couple of weeks and then they're straight into the bin. Quality ones cost at least £2 a shot so you can easily spend the price of a couple of decent presents on bits of paper that will just be thrown away.

3. Recycle your gift bags. We have an ongoing joke in my family about the same gift bags that come round year after year. Everyone reuses them and passes them on. The next year, they come back again. And so it goes on. Some of our bags have been doing the rounds for 5 or 6 years now and at £4 - 5 a shot that's money you can easily do without spending.

Reuse your gift bags. It will save you money (source)
4. Ditch wrapping paper. For a novelty alternative shred old newspapers, those annoying restaurant menus that come through the letter box and old envelopes and use it all in your gift bags as a filler (you can buy it ready made but why would you do that when you can have it for free?). Again, it's something we spend loads of money on just for it to end up in the bin.

5. Don't decorate inside the house. Unless you're completely anal about Christmas or doing a lot of home entertainment and need to make a show for your materialistic friends there's no need to make your house look like a grotto. Even more so if you're not planning to be home at Christmas anyway. I haven't decorated since about 2002. I always go away for Christmas so it's a pointless exercise as far as I'm concerned. Decorations and trees are a huge waste of money.

WTF???? (source)
6. Get a fake tree. If you really have to - make it fake. Something you can get out year after year. No expense, no needles all over the carpet and you're not killing a real one in the process. 

7. Ditch the outside show. Not only is it expensive to buy outside lights in the first place but the electricity bills must cost a fortune. Despite the recession I have seen lots of houses covered in lights this year. It's also VERY distracting to drivers. I get mesmerised by the bright lights and that's not a good thing on a busy road.

So there you are. I'm sure there a zillion other ideas and if you want to comment and post your money savers please do. I want novelty, funny and practical.

Monday, 10 December 2012

# 129 Don't Look Back in Anger

There is nothing like a nostalgic drama to remind you how much things have changed. Especially when that programme is 'Ashes to Ashes' set in the early 1980s. We remember so many of the small details. And yet it's hard to believe programmes like this hark back to a time 30 years ago. It means you don't have to go far back to realise this country has changed a lot and more drastically than we may have realised possible.

That's not to say all was great back then. We're all guilty of having rose tinted glasses. Back in the 1980s we had Thatcher, strikes, electricity blackouts. Oh joy. Threats to our economy were very real. Perhaps I notice the differences more now because of the impact it has on my lifestyle, my spending and my business.

The Government's Autumn Statement last week reminded me just how tense things are right now. Are you sitting tight and hoping to get through this one relatively unscathed? Because I certainly am. 

I couldn't find a historical graph to show how prices have changed since I was a kid, but I did find one for 1999 . It's alarming to think that house prices have gone up 123% from just over £73,000 to almost £164,000. I was surprised to see the price of a McDonald's Big Mac has only risen by 9p, although I'm pretty sure the quality has dropped by considerably more. The last time I bought one I was sorely disappointed.

This article has a lot of other cool calculation tools for you get an idea just how much the value of money has altered over the years. I found another site for a comparison of price rises from 1960 to 2009. That's only 49 years. It may sound like a long time but a barbie doll has gone up 900% and a 20 pack of cigarettes 2,595%!

What does worry me are Government predictions for how the current recession will run its course. Do I believe them? No. Because here we are, still as bad as ever despite empty promises that things would be easing up by now. It's going to be a hard Christmas for everyone and the next 5 years aren't looking too promising either. Don't pay any attention to the graph below.These are just Government pipe dreams.

I have spotted a few personal benefits from the Autumn Statement though. Cash ISA allowances are going up - the only tax free savings you'll find here. Fuel duty is being held off (although the prices still go up and down at an alarming rate regardless) and of course the personal tax allowance goes up. Hello tax man - can't catch me!

It's not overly inspiring and it's not going to ease the recession but it doesn't look like I'm going to be any worse off even though on a day to day basis I'm not going to be any better off either. What I would like to see is a drop in gas and electricity costs and food prices. But I'm guessing that's just wishful thinking.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

# 128 Why It's Okay to Say You're Awesome (as long as you are)

People who say they are good at what they do or are over confident about their abilities are often frowned upon. It's something that starts at school. Being top of the class didn't get you friends (at least not at my school).

The trick is to be able to say it, mean it and shirk off any disapproving responses from those around you. Presume they are jealous that you are good at something they shall never be.

Saying you are awesome is fine as long as you can justify it. Sometimes, as in a first introduction to new people, it does nothing but cause uncomfortable silences. In some (frankly) it actually pisses me off. Because you can't just say you're awesome for awesome's sake You have to be genuinely good at something or just win at life. Because being good at life is a skill in itself.

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with settling myself into the awesome category yet. In what I do I have skill but there are others far better and far more ground breaking and I won't deny I have my faults and have made my share of cockups in life. I don't win at life. Although I suppose the fact I am still here and relatively sane makes me a winner.

I guess there's always someone better than you at something. Within my immediate circles I am hitting a certain standard but out there in the wider world I am a very, very small fish in a very big ocean. I have a long way to go and I am very much aware of that. But at least I had the balls to start somewhere.

You should always strive to be better at what you do, better read, more worldly, more interesting. Whatever it is that makes you just that little bit more awesome. So be awesome.

Do it.


Friday, 7 December 2012

# 127 The power of the people

This month Starbucks announced it was going to pay off £20m of unpaid corporation tax after it said it was 'shocked by the “emotional” reaction of its customers to the tax row'. Well there's a surprise! Hopefully they will start a trend and other big companies will feel compelled to relook at their current systems. But I suspect it will be the power of their customers that makes the decision for them.

Currently corporation tax is only paid by foreign companies on profits made in the UK but UK based companies have to pay corporation tax on their taxable profits wherever they are earned. Huge loopholes if ever I saw them. This leaves UK businesses vulnerable wherever they are and foreign brands trading here, far too comfortably off. Why should they not contribute to our system?

Starbucks alone made £400m from British consumers last year and didn't have to put a penny into the tax pot. Great for them, not for us. £20m may be a small drop in the ocean to them, but it's more than I've seen any other company do so far. I guess we all have to start somewhere.

Other giants like Google and Amazon are also being watched but there are plenty more out there who need a little nudge in the right direction. They've even got their own festive Christmas carol tribute currently doing the rounds on Facebook:

I had no idea some of these companies were taking advantage of our tax loop holes. Big brands such as Boots, who I thought were British through and through, also take advantage by ditching the UK completely as their base. I don't blame them for taking advantage, but this is a blatant and really should not be allowed. And if the Government won't do anything about it someone else will have to.

Does it make me want to shop elsewhere? Well to be honest such is life at the moment that brand shopping is almost a no go area.. I'm a brand product company's worst nightmare. The only shops I have used out of all of these are Boots and Ebay and as the latter's charges continue to soar I've migrated to Etsy.

The recession is very much driving news headlines at the moment. Big companies seem to be getting away with blatant tax dodging when smaller businesses, entrepreneurs and the average consumer are struggling to survive. The Government pot needs topping up because vulnerable people are losing out. As far as I can see if they won't deal with it, it's down to the consumer to take matters into their own hands.

As in Starbuck's case consumers have shown they have the power to make a company rethink how it does business. If you are angry about corporation tax and shop at any of these companies, just stop going there. If everyone thought like this they'd be hard pushed to stay in business at such a vulnerable time. This is when consumer power really works.

Don't knock it. You can make a difference.

Vote with your purse.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

# 126 When life gives you lemons make lemonade

Some of my posts of late have been depressing reminders of the recession, budgeting and business survival. My apologies.

But life is what you make it and you have to deal with whatever comes your way. There are some things you have to do whether you like it or not.

Making the best of any situation is paramount. And though some people scoff when I say 'things happen for a reason', remember that some choices are just stepping stones to better things.

Next spring I am moving. It would be nice to think I was going to find a place I wanted to settle for a few more years but this one feels like it's going to be short term.

These days I have to think about more than just finding somewhere to live. I have to think business and long term. By upsizing my business to a studio space I can downsize where I live which means (hopefully) cheaper living costs. I don't know if Lincoln can sustain me business wise much longer and I am bearing this in mind. And since I am moving at a time when money is unpredictable I'm playing it safe and moving into a larger houseshare. Safety in numbers.

There are many benefits to going into a houseshare, the obvious one being splitting excessive rental and utility costs into manageable chunks. This time I am almost certainly going to be shacking up with strangers. I don't have a problem with it although it's always a bit of a gamble as to what you're going to get.

There is a fairly large economic divide between the life I live now and the one I come from and I have been struck by the snobbery of certain people around me who seem to think that taking this road demonstrates failure rather than a desire to survive and a pragmatic approach. As there is no other option I think it's pretty admirable of me considering what a change in lifestyle it is going to mean.

When you're at Uni or in your twenties, slumming it is okay. But as you get older you do want your own space and for things to be just so. But we can't always choose and you have to get on with it.

I am really looking forward to moving. It feels like it's time for a change of scenery and I'm going to make the most of it, no matter what happens or how long it's going to be for.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

# 125 How Poor is Poor?

We're all complaining about rising prices and keeping a tight grip on the purse strings as things sink just that little bit further.

Christmas is just around the corner and just another pressure many of us really don't need right now.

Somewhere along the line most of us have felt the pinch and scrimped on the usual luxuries. But how poor is poor?

I was prompted to write this blog by a ridiculous article I read on xojane the other day about a new arts grad budgeting on unemployment. She couldn't afford Dior foundation. Jesus, really??? My heart BLEEDS. You know the last time I bought anything even remotely that expensive makeup wise. Lancome. June 2003.

I chuckled in disbelief when she said that creative grads have to complete weeks, sometimes months, of unpaid internships. Last I heard it was 1 to 2 years for some. Welcome to the real world. Uni doesn't tell you there is no yellow brick road. And why would it? Noone would ever go if they knew the truth.

I don't count having to ditch your favourite overpriced makeup brand as poor. Not by far. I get really sad when I hear in the news how parents are skipping meals so their children don't go hungry in what is being called the biggest squeeze on household budgets in 60 years - that's about the time rationing ended after WWII for those of you who don't know your British history. It's starting to sound like Victorian working class life.

And it's no wonder when food prices have soared 32% in just 6 years. These are working and middle class families in suburbian Britain today. This is real poverty in homes in your town right now. Families are relying on food banks and charity handouts.

Supermarkets are improving their own brands to take advantage of savvy shoppers (source)

These are terrifying statistics. The price of everything is going up except the value of wages and nothing is reining it in. And so people are forced to cut back on everything, even essentials - heating - food - travel. The basics.

The prohibitive costs of the house market mean many couples will never get themselves on the property ladder. Ironically many who want to split can't because they can't afford to live apart.

Last year statistics suggested 18 million Brits would have to put holiday plans on hold. Even holidays at home were too expensive for many. This year even days out with the kids are out of reach for many.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Businesses need to make money, meaning they have to keep shelf prices high, but less and less customers can afford these costs. So instead of putting prices down and making money they sit tight. Some change their selling methods enabling them to lower costs and keep up with the competition. Those that can't go under. And this is happening from small independent shops to huge brands like Comet. But even then efforts to sell stock fast were met with slow sales because their prices still weren't competitive.

Comet's 30% off didn't cut it
We've been in recession for 5 years now. And there is no end in sight. Some predictions suggest we could still be feeling the effects in 10 or even 20 years. Even if it lasts another 5 years, how will it effect you? Can you survive as you are now or will something have to give?

  • One in ten families are skipping meals or relying on charity and hand-outs
  • Mothers are putting their health at risk by eating only every other day
  • Food banks now forced to ration the donations they give to hungry families

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    Saturday, 24 November 2012

    # 124 Myth-busting Christmas

    I may get ticked off for being non-Christmassy but articles like this are well timed retribution. I feel justified for being less than excited about reindeer jumpers and tinsel draped on every available surface from here to everywhere.

    The adverts promise snow even though we've only had a white Christmas four times in 51 years. The myth of happy families is most definitely a myth since 500,000 elderly people will spend Christmas Day alone and Childline receives a staggering 50,000 calls from children and young people over the 12 days of the festivities. And the supermarket adverts have reminded us in no uncertain terms that someone has to do all the work (it's mum apparently, if you believe it).

    I just can't get excited by it. I haven't decorated a house at Christmas since at least 2006 (mostly because I always go away) and the expectation of money spent on gifts just frightens the hell out of me more each year - hence my detestation at the tidal flood of advertising which hits in October. 

    It's all about money, how much you spend and how expensive the gifts are and I'm sure I'm not the only person who at this time of year feels under pressure to meet expectation when funds are low and the only way to cover everything is to get into credit card debt.

    I also dread having to decide who will be let down at Christmas because I have to be somewhere else. I guess that's my fault for living so far from family but I always need to be in more than one place at the same time. It's the same every year and it's been like that for years.

    For some reason this year more than most I am not looking forward to the festive season. It's been an up and down year and I don't really feel like celebrating since there have been more downs than ups and Christmas and New Year herald nothing more than the change of a digit on the calendar.

    So you'll just have to put up with my festive moanings. Hopefully when December arrives and it actually is Christmas I'll start to feel differently. I saw Christmas puds in the shops in August and I was not happy! 

    Thursday, 22 November 2012

    # 123 The Price Of Energy

    We all complain about the price of utilities getting out of hand. And just today I've had a letter from Virgin telling me my monthly bill is going up next year by £2.34 a month. That they didn't give me any indication as to why when I'm pretty sure my service quality hasn't improved makes me wonder just a little bit what it's for.

    So I did a study and looked at my bills for this time last year. I'm always complaining about household expenses going up but what was I actually paying this time last year and do I have the right to moan about it?

    Well yes and no. Surprisingly, the one bill which has gone down is my gas and electricity which I get from British Gas. Over all this has gone down by £15 a month over 12 months. Ironically it's the one bill I seem to have control over. If the gas is too expensive the heating thermostat goes down or sometimes gets turned off altogether. And I always have the opportunity to change my tariff which has helped a lot.

    Virgin has gone up almost £4 and water the same but the Council Tax hasn't changed. These are all bills I don't have any control over since Virgin is our only supplier as is our water company - Anglian Water.

    Over all, my utility bills have gone down £8 over the year which is a welcome surprise. It's not a huge amount, but I wasn't expecting it.

    Food bills may be a different issue. I was trying to stick to my pre summer student budget but I've checked my bills and I'm definitely spending a lot more. A non regular income really cramps your social life and I've opted for entertaining at home and working lunches to keep me from going stir crazy. Some things have definitely gone up but it pays to shop around and avoid branded products. Anything that goes up in value that I can't justify simply doesn't get bought. That and a fairly limited diet keeps costs reined in although at what long term sacrifice I'm not sure.

    Saturday, 17 November 2012

    # 122 Are new business start-ups just holding off the inevitable?

    There has recently been another push to get graduates to take on entrepreneurial roles and start their own businesses. But is this just another Government tactic to keep young jobless graduates with little or no work experience off the dole queues just that little bit longer?

    Yes, it sounds like an exciting opportunity, starting a business you can call your own. Something you are fully in charge of. You'll be your own boss. But it requires more thought than simply registering with the tax man and setting up an office in your own home with a fancy logo. I should know, I am one of this year's new glut of business owners.

    But despite having plenty of work experience, money management skills and having done my research whilst I was at Uni,  if it wasn't for the start up scheme I managed to get enrolled on and the genius idea I had of locking away a chunk of money in a high interest savings account before I became a student, I'd of failed before I'd even started.

    'If your company isn't focusing on a real problem for 
    consumers, then it's time to move on and build 
    something else.'

    New shops on the high street are not an unusual sight these days - something which does surprise me. An endless stream of coffee shops, sandwich bars and run of the mill clothing outlets are born and die with alarming speed. Are these the kinds of businesses we really need? For a new business to be a success in an over-saturated economy it needs to be providing a real service to consumers.

    Finding that niche is key to business success. But even good ideas are struggling financially right now. We are after all, still very much in recession. 1% growth might seem like a triumph for our Government but to the consumer at ground level it means nothing whatsoever. The cost of living continues to rise, salaries remain stagnant and unemployment remains far too high. For businesses this is made harder by extortionate business rates and a lack of financial and motivational assistance to keep things moving along.

    Government cuts last year meant start up schemes there to support new entrepreneurs are now unable to offer their full range of services. Business Link, which once provided free workshops to schemes such as Enterprise Inc, had their funding withdrawn making the range of workshops free to new businesses were greatly reduced.

    No longer an unusual image - the plight of business survival (source)

    Many schemes can only accommodate very limited numbers and funding available through them is hard to get your hands on, if you can find it to start with. Without funding or your own financial back up the chances of being able to support yourself unless you work full or even part time is unlikely.

    The Government has introduced its own schemes such as the 'New Enterprise Allowance' for those signing on. But it comes with some tough rules such as the business has to be able to replace your benefits within 3 - 6 months. And in such austere times this is a big ask. Even in favourable conditions it can take far longer for a business to become successful enough to support itself and a year isn't an unusual timescale to wait for really positive results.

    And with the number of 'zombie companies' (those barely able to pay their outgoings) on the rise, do we really need more business start ups? It's a worrying possibility that there may be hundreds of new start up businesses falling at the first hurdle purely because the time is wrong. And encouraging anyone to invest so much at such a difficult time is surely bad advice.

    Will I still be trading in a year? I hope so otherwise it's a lifetimes ambition shattered into a million pieces. Thankfully it can evolve and I have designed it that way to ensure it has the best chance of survival. I can work from a studio, converted garage or spare bedroom. And if it comes to it I will find other work to support myself. Remaining flexible is essential because who knows what's in store for us financially over the next 12 months.

    Wednesday, 14 November 2012

    # 121 How Can An Athiest Find Meaning In Life

    Death has been a subject of unexpectedly regular talk lately.  Not by choice, it's just happened. Wills, relatives getting older, the realisation that I may have things worth leaving to someone when I'm gone.

    About a month ago I started watching Richard Dawkins 'Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life'. One of his big questions was, 'How can an athiest find meaning in life?' To me this seems like a pretty daft question. Do I need some invisible force giving meaning to my existence? I don't believe we're here to score brownie points for some as yet unproven after life. I'm here for now and that's all I'm here for.

    Religion has never been my bag. To me religion has been the root of some of history's worst episodes - because of course it is in the hands of man.

    Some of the subjects interviewed as part of Dawkins series suggested that you need religion to have direction in life, to have purpose and drive. This I do not understand at all. I have ALWAYS had direction, drive, ambition and aim. I didn't need some invisible force to give me a kick up the backside. I was always self sufficient enough to rely on myself no matter how hard things seemed to be. I guess that's just the way I am. I don't need a crutch or something else to back me up. 

    I've also never needed it to form my moral code. I know the difference between right and wrong and I don't need any illusion of hell or punishment to remind me what is good and bad. What I choose to do is my own business whether it is right or wrong.  I know the difference.

    As Dawkins says, the rules and guidelines of religion were laid down in a different time. Mankind has moved on. And the laws many religions follow just aren't practical in our modern times. Some of them in fact are just down right medieval and, if followed to the letter, can be barbaric. Of course, everything is open to interpretation. In recent years we have seen adaptations of religious law to cater for a broader modern and more open minded population.

    Dawkins discussed a whole set of idealisms, problems and questions that I'm not going to go into here. I just don't have the space and you probably wouldn't want to read it anyway. If you're interested, and you should be, watch the series here, it's very interesting and well worth the time.

    Monday, 12 November 2012

    # 120 If you died tomorrow

    If you died tomorrow what would be your legacy? What would you leave for people to remember you by?

    Would you leave things that you rather people didn't know about? Would your family be able to find everything about you to settle your estate? And would the people you wanted to benefit get what you wanted them to have? Maybe you've thought about less important things such as what would happen to your Facebook account? What about your bank accounts, your will, what direct debits you have?

    How would someone pick up the pieces of your life and put everything in order if you suddenly weren't there to ask?

    It's an unnerving thought but a very real one. It usually happens when parents sit you down and say 'right, so about our will'. My parents did it the first time they went on holiday to America after 9/11.

    My father is ruthlessly organised. Everything was filed and explained and they'd told us how they had divided their estates. It was a terrifying thing to talk about, but it made sense.

    Wills - a scary prospect or just another legal document?

    Consequently a few years ago I started to think the same thing. Several savings accounts, the copyright to an as yet unpublished book and now in the last few months a business, have reminded me that I do have things worth leaving to someone. I wrote my will about three years ago but it badly needs updating. I have financial assets now and I don't want the Government getting its hands on them.

    Once I've done it, it'll be one less thing to worry about and at least you're safe in the knowledge that whatever happens to you, what you leave behind has been dealt with. I'm not going to lie. I need to know what will happen if I suddenly wasn't there anymore.

    At the end of the day, none of us knows when we're going to die. It could be tomorrow. It could be in fifty years.  But I'm not going to worry about that.

    Friday, 9 November 2012

    # 119 Spending power

    Do you worry how your spending habits affect the economy or do you ruthlessly go for the best deal every time? There's no doubt one of the worst enemies of the high street has been the internet. And I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to sniffing out a bargain. Ebay and Amazon are traditionally my first ports of call.

    When I needed a new memory card for my phone I could have gone direct to Samsung or a high street retailer like Argos but I got what I wanted for a third of the price on Ebay.

    This is good for me but what's the knock on effect to the high street who just lost out on a sale? We all know that retailers have traditionally added huge markups to products, particularly those manufactured abroad for a fraction of the price. But they've been getting away with that for years and it's kept them in business. Now their luck has run out.

    When it comes to food shopping it's the supermarket that's winning. We all complain that big retailers like Tescos are moving in and setting up their Express stores in the high streets and taking business from small independent traders. And there are now huge supermarkets in every town. Whilst we might complain about them they offer what smaller high street shops and local interest stores like Coop can't do in lean times, they offer cheap. And sadly cheap is where it's at.

    Six weeks until Christmas and already the sales have begun in earnest. But is it working?
    Supermarkets prey on our conscience for sales. Free range, organic, locally produced are all key phrases used to reel us in, no matter how dubious their interpretation of those words. But if Tescos can offer me two weeks of meat supply for £10, on my budget I'm hardly going to question the origin because it's not as if I have the choice. And they know this. It is what it is. But I do think it's extremely sad that the high street is almost devoid of the sort of shops I went to with my mother as a child - greengrocers, butchers, deli's and the bakers.

    The change in our economy has forced us into making these choices. We've been pushed into a corner. The cost of accommodation, utilities, food and travel have gone up and up and wages haven't adjusted to reflect it. We get less for our money but our money stays the same and we don't have the option to increase our budgets. Only the big stores and online sites can compete with this - safety in numbers. If one store does badly, it is generally picked up by more profitable stores elsewhere because they all contribute to one overall profit margin.

    So do I feel guilty about my purchases choices? If I had the power I would shop with more consideration for local stores. But I don't have that option. I think I will always be a conscientious and careful shopper regardless of my budget because I have learnt to be careful with money, economic around the house and used to running on limited funds. I think once you learn how to live like that it becomes a way of life.

    But it does affect businesses around you. I should know. I'm a business owner and like everyone else, I am feeling the pinch. 

    Thursday, 8 November 2012

    # 118 If you're already excited by Christmas, do not read further

    Blah blah blah
    Nothing annoys me more at this time of year than Christmas advertising. Yes, I am going to be the Grinch for a bit. But this happens EVERY year and I reserve the right to be a bit annoyed until December arrives.

    Not only have we had to put up with it since around the end of August when the first of the Christmas puds started sneaking their way on to supermarket shelves, but TV's thinly veiled no-pressure-there-then, subtle-as-a-house-brick attempts to get you to part with cash you really don't have is horribly transparent. It's pressure we all really don't need right now, so why do we feel so compelled to fall for the hype?

    What happened to the days when Christmas was about being with the people you loved? A good dinner, some shoddy TV viewing and watching the Queens Speech? Not that I ever experienced any of those growing up since kids want want want. Now it's all about quantity not quality. And I abhor that it's about money, going to festive work do's with people you otherwise wouldn't give the time of day for outside the office, secret santa's containing something you really didn't want and starting the sales early.

    Even when I had enough money to fulfill the over ample Christmas lists I'd been given, I still left it as late as possible to face the reality that was CHRISTMAS. Now that money is tight (you wouldn't know we were in recession to look at the high street) I have dug my heels in even further. Cards are limited to direct family only. Presents are reserved only for my nearest and dearest. I do not give begrudgingly but I do expect wishlists of things actually wanted or needed rather than for-the-sake-of-it stocking fillers.

    Most of the people I buy for want for nothing so this rule is hard to follow. In that case, something that is of actual use or provides an experience they wouldn't otherwise have had (we went through a phase of experience days in my family) is just fine. It's a memory. But it is carefully considered.

    For the small people in my line of fire - well I guess I just have to suck it up. Kids after all are hard to impress with feelings of togetherness when there's free stuff to be had.

    I also find choosing between where I want to go for Christmas and where I am expected to be, tricky. Last year was the first in a very long time I knew instantly where I was going. This year, I want to be in one place but am expected to be in another. I always feel bound by a certain duty and I know it will be visited back on me many times over if I don't comply. And I KNOW I am not alone so don't tut at me and call me a party pooper. 

    Is this your family at Christmas? DON'T LIE TO ME!!!!
    Around the beginning of December I start to soften. It's okay that it's nearly Christmas. But don't mention it before then. You won't be met with a happy disposition!

    Monday, 5 November 2012

    # 117 Stop moaning

    I have resisted posting lately, since everything I want to talk about is a moan and I'm sure you don't want to hear that so close to the big happy festive season. Meh!

    Besides which, that's what your Facebook timeline is for. And boy have there been a lot of moaners on there lately. Thank goodness for 'unsubscribe to newsfeed'. My Timeline is a bit of a ghost town now but I'd rather have no news than moan news.

    Instead, happy things on my blog update. Things that are silly, outrageous or just made me laugh. As I've said before I don't want to grow up. Why should I? So here are my childish and amusing interjections of the week.

    # 1 Look what I was given as a present - a Princess Bubblegum keyring. Because Adventure Time is cool!

    # 2 This week I discovered Nyan Cat. Cute and annoying all at once this random union between a cat and a poptart resulting in this cheeky chap with rainbows coming out of his arse, never fails to make me chuckle.


    Sadly the cat which inspired it - Marty - died this month. :(

    # 3. Still on the cat theme - this has to get a look in. This never fails to make me laugh. I DEFY you not to be instantly cheered up by this little dude.

     # 4 From cats to dogs and the amazing photographs taken by Seth Casteel - Underwater Dogs. These fascinate me and the production on them is incredible.

    # 5 Lastly. Check out the amazing Miss Cakehead who makes the most graphic and potentially stomache churning bodily inspired cakes you've ever seen. The attention to detail is incredible but even so the cakes look yummy. But beware if you're easily offended - the chocolate anuses may not be to everyone's liking! Check out her masterpieces here via Wordpress and on her Facebook page. 

    Find more creations like this via Facebook here

    In the immortal words of Loony Toons - 'That's All Folks'.

    Wednesday, 31 October 2012

    # 116 Who Wants To Be A Grown Up

    This week I bought a knitted body warmer from a certain well known high street shop. It had a fleecy hood which seemed appropriate given the near arctic conditions I have had to endure of late (I'm a Southerner) and so it seemed to be a basically practical if slightly dull item.

    I had already decided to buy it but to get the full look I put it on in the mirror of the store and put the hood up. Then I discovered it had ears on it.

    I always steered clear of obvious eared accessories (source)
    That I continued to the check out and bought said item without hesitation reminded me that I have never really grown up. Three years at Uni and now being my own boss have only served to re-enforce this state of mind and general air of irresponsibility. And whilst I am still getting away it, that's fine by me.

    I suppose a lot of it is because I have quite squarely put myself into the position of having no real commitment. My life is my own except perhaps that teensy weensy business that I now manage. But essentially that is it.

    I made a very conscious choice a long time ago to remain child free. I've never been in a fortunate enough position to even consider a mortgage (given the number of times I have moved) and I have pretty much drifted where fate has taken me. I like to live in new places and I will eventually get bored of the same old town.

    Of course that's not to say I haven't had some narrow misses. I've had more than a handful of long term relationships that could have turned into the rest of my life - most of them totally unsuitable and doomed to failure from the start. Perhaps subconsciously that is why I have remained in this semi-permanent teen state. I never felt the urge to settle and circumstances always kept me on my toes.

    I hope that when I reach the age where wearing clothing with ears on and being the proverbial rolling stone become less than dignified or practical, that I will notice it, or someone will tell me in no uncertain terms. But I am hoping I'll be getting away with it for some time yet. I like it and nothing about it worries me. Because I don't particularly want to be a grown up.

    Tuesday, 16 October 2012

    #115 Wuss

    I am a terrible wuss. I'm not afraid to admit it, but it does jar with me when I say it. When they were handing out thrill seeker genes, I definitely missed out on that one.

    I think it's partly because I like to be in control (I don't even like being drunk) and partly because I have a strong sense of self-preservation. I am not a risk taker. I'm too grounded and aware that one wrong move can spell catastrophe. I guess I like being alive.

    Yes, I have made rash decisions and taken risks in a more mundane sense - people, jobs, moving. And to be honest they haven't always worked out. Sometimes they were BAD mistakes. I guess that's the risk you take.

    This year however, I have taken one of my biggest risks, going it alone, setting up my own business. I'm pretty proud of that one. But it comes with a back up plan - a safety net. Because if it didn't that would just be stupid.

    In a more physical sense, the last time I went on a rollercoaster (a kids one I hasten to add) I ended up with what I can only presume was whiplash. I was in agony for several days afterwards with neck and shoulder pain. If I went on a proper rollercoaster, this is what would happen:

    And yes, I'd be the one on the right. That woman on the left is just being cruel. Alternatively I'd probably end up like this girl. Yeah, she looks like she's enjoying it, but wait for it.....

    As for skydiver Felix Baumgartner, well I have nothing but admiration. I'd have passed out from heart failure the moment I stepped out into the unknown. 

    I get what it's about, I understand the buzz that people get from it. But it's not me. I've never been like that. I was the kid that used to pass out in biology lessons. I even fainted once when I was told off by a teacher for being late for a music lesson. Yes I was a wuss.

    To say I have improved with age is an understatement. I can watch the goriest of movies these days and a lot of things that used to scare the crap out of me don't really bother me any more. I love scary movies, especially the psychological variety. But jumping off bridges attached to a piece of elastic? Nah, you can keep it.

    Why???? (Source)

    Tuesday, 2 October 2012

    # 114 Jack the Ripper makes his way to York

    At some point in their life everyone belongs to a club. Mine was Jack the Ripper. It became a fascination when I was 12 and it's been a part of my life more or less ever since.

    My early days were spent with researchers, writers and theorists in London, attending the first club that was set up for it - the 'Cloak and Dagger Club' founded by Mark Galloway in 1994, and writing articles for the magazine which grew out of it - 'Ripperologist'.

    Later on I became an organiser of the already established official conferences, first in 2003 in Liverpool, then Brighton in 2005 and Wolverhampton in 2007. Our attendee numbers surpassed 100 delegates proving that interest in the subject just doesn't end. Each location had some connection to the case and we drew people from all over the world to a weekend long package of lectures and visits. In the alternate years US members organised their own version, three of which I managed to get to in New Jersey and Baltimore.

    Since 2007 life in the world of 'Ripperology' has continued. There have been two conferences in London and the club continues to meet. But for several reasons I took a back step and I've been out of the loop for 6 years now.

    Last weekend saw the first full weekend conference in that time. It took place in York, hosted by a new organisational team spearheaded by Colin and Ricky Cobb and Adam Wood. Somehow I managed to achieve the status of co-organiser and although I wasn't intrumental in helping to set up this event, it was interesting to take part as a delegate and see how things went.

    I've been really impressed and inspired. More than 60 people turned out to make the event a huge success. We were graced with some truly fascinating speakers from those interested in the case history itself, to authors, theorists and those with a more formal interest in the subject such as profiler Laura Richards, who up until 2007 worked for Scotland Yard and has profiled on some very famous modern murder cases.

    We were also treated to an open top bus tour of York, a medieval style banquet and enough food to sink the Titanic! It's not all formal lectures you see.

    Thanks to our speakers John Bennett, Robert Anderson, Robert Smith, Trevor Bond, Trevor Marriott, Lindsey Siviter, Neal Storey, Rob House, Martin Fido and Laura Richards for a huge range of fascinating talks from suspect cases to the latest criminal profiling.

    Our conference speakers
    Top row: Robert Anderson, Trevor Marriott, John Bennett, Lindsey Siviter, Neal Storey
    Bottom row: Rob House, Trevor Bond, Martin Fido, Laura Richards

    As the weekend progressed it became clear that my role as delegate wasn't going to remain that way for long. At the end of the conference the 125th anniversary event next year had been announced (see below) and I had been persuaded to rejoined the team. It's exciting and I'm looking forward to working with some great people on what is going to be a truly massive London conference. So get it into your diaries!

    Huge thanks to Ricky and Colin Cobb who took on the mantle of official organisers to keep the conference alive. To Adam Wood for being there 'still' as one of the original organisers and providing his technical skill for the presentations which are always so highly polished. To Jenni and Neal Shelden for their assistance and contribution to the weekend's organisation and printed material. And to everyone who turned out. Because without the delegates it would never be the success it is.

    If you are interested in finding out more about next year's conference join the Facebook group here. Hopefully we will see some of you there next year.

    Monday, 24 September 2012

    # 113 Slut Walk 2013 and why it bothers me

    There are things about the feminist movement that really annoy the hell out of me. I am not a feminist. I never have been, likely I never will be. I am what I am, I have my own philosophy and I don't ram it down anyone else's throat. Recent events have reminded me of that and have not endeared me to the movement whatsoever.

    'Slut Walk 2013' which apparently happened last weekend in London was a protest march for women who believe that they deserve the right to walk around dressed as provocatively as they like and not risk getting attacked, beaten or raped.

    In the beautiful world of equal rights, modern living and with the help of our fabulous criminal system this would be okay. But you know what, it isn't, for a million reasons. Partly it is because humans are humans and violence, domination, old world values and sex are driving forces in our nature. If you don't believe me SWITCH ON THE TV AND WATCH THE NEWS.

    Secondly, whilst you might think you deserve that right in a western society, western society is full of non western people. If you walked around like that in any Muslim country, more fool you. If you do it here in London the chances are you may walk into someone who does not operate under western values. It might be one of these because this is how evil the world can be.

    I understand what the organisers and protesters of 'Slut Walk' are TRYING to say, but I am hugely concerned about the message that this sends to young girls and women who think they are invincible. I'm talking about 17 year old girls who look 14, who wander around town on their own at 3 in the morning in very small dresses and EXPECT not to get raped and are convinced it won't ever happen to them because as far as they are concerned it's their right. It may be in theory. But you try telling that to the next sexual pervert you happen to find wandering around looking for someone just like you. 

    I am not under any circumstances saying they deserve it. Far from it. But we live in 2012 and never has it been a more dangerous time to live in.

    I have never dressed provocatively because I have ALWAYS felt vulnerable out on my own or out at night. This is not because I have ever been attacked or raped because I haven't. But because I am fully aware of how dangerous mankind can be and how unpredictable it is. I know how easy it is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and how in the heat of the moment, no matter what your rights may be on paper or how determined you might be, you might become another statistic.