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'.