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.