Bonus!

2012.12.20.bonusBack in August when I started my new job, the biggest bonus was that my employer was actually willing to sponsor me for a work visa. Those of you who’ve attempted to live in a country other than your native one will understand what a tremendous bonus this is.

Of course, because I work for a small, government-funded programme, I realised that pay increases and bonuses would not be in my future. But that’s OK because I enjoy the job—and I make enough to live on so I don’t need a salary increase. (Though I’d happily take!)

So with that in mind, the last thing I expected to receive today was a bonus. But it seems that someone felt we all deserved a little something extra so they dipped into their own pocket to deliver everyone a generous gift certificate to the local shopping centre. (Please note that this was given with private funds, not government money—no tax money was used for this gift.)

Anyhow, just this morning I stood there looking at my latest accumulation of spare change and I told myself that I would use it to purchase a new tablet in the new year—as soon as there was enough of it. Well, it seems to me that this unexpected bonus could be used to help me get there a little bit faster, which means that between the £60 I had in coins and the £100 on the gift card, it’s time to start researching my next gadget!

Of course, by the time I finally get around to cashing in the coins, I’ll have enough for an even better gadget. I can’t wait!

Downgraded

2012.11.30.downgradedRemember when I told you that I moved into a lovely new flat? And how I went on about how massive the place is?

Well, massive is great in the summer, but in the cold of the winter it means heating a lot of space. Which on its own isn’t bad, but when you’re sleeping in a cavernous bedroom with high(ish) ceilings and loads of space, it means that it takes a bit to heat up.

And that got me thinking: Why do I need to spend all of that money heating up the largest bedroom in the flat when it’s just little ol’ me. Wouldn’t it make more sense to move into the small bedroom?

OK, the large bedroom has a double bed where the small one only has a twin but, again, it’s just little ol’ me and I tend not to toss and turn so a twin bed is plenty big enough.

With this in mind, last night I switched the radiator off in the large room and on in the small one, then snuggled into the twin bed and went to sleep.

And I was toasty warm the whole night through. No, I was a bit too warm. Which meant that I didn’t need to use the second duvet. It was so very nice!

So, I have downgraded my sleeping arrangements for the winter. Or maybe in a sense it’s an upgrade since it’s a warmer and more comfortable sleeping situation.

Oh! And that means that I now have a spare double bedroom for guests. So if any married (or otherwise coupled) friends want to visit, there’s loads of space! Don’t worry—I’ll turn the radiator back on for you!

Yellow-sticker snacks

If you asked me what I thought of Marks and Spenser Food Halls 10 years ago, I’d have turned my nose up and tsked a bit about the up-market feel to the place: the perfectly-parcelled apples, the ready-meals designed for two; and own-brand packaged poncy treats. Actually, I think I would have given the same response just one year ago.

But then I found myself living in Stirling without a car and the most convenient place for groceries—unless I’m having them delivered—is M&S. And do you know what? I’ve found that (whilst still poncy and up-market) the food is a fair price (if you’re not buying ready-meals) and you can actually feed yourself from their small, city centre shops without much hassle. (Though you also lack a bit of variety, but that’s what grocery deliveries are for!)

More importantly, I’ve learned that M&S yellow stickers are amazing! Near the end of the trading day (the shop closes at 6 p.m.) they start marking down fresh foods marked with a best-by date of that day. But we all know that it’s still good for a day or two (most of the time) and even then you can pop it in the freezer.

I’ve found myself popping in on my way home from work—just to see what kind of yummies have yellow stickers! I now have a fine selection of salmon pâté and nibbles in the freezer for my efforts.

And now, I have a delicious selection of goodies for tomorrow’s road trip to England—two packs of sushi, a pack of prawns with chilli sauce, and two bottles of fresh juice. £6.50 worth of food for £2.80! I do love a good bargain!

(So, now that you know I’m heading out for a wee road trip, don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for a couple of days. And let’s hope it’s because I’m having fun with my in-laws, and not because I’ve gotten sick from eating discount sushi after its best-by date!)

August under budget

At the start of August, I shared with you my plans to develop a strict grocery budget of £200 per month. And now I’m pleased to say I’ve come in under budget by £20! The best part about it, however, is that I’ve still eaten really well. No, wait. The best part is that I’m starting September with a freezer full of food leftover from August, meaning I’m on track for another under-budget month!

And not only did I eat really well, but I shared several of my meals with others because I love to have people over for dinner! And as I look at all the food that’s still in the cupboards and freezer, I can see how I could stretch it to feed a family of four on about the same budget. Of course, if I put beer, wine, and spirits on a different budget line, I’d be able to feed a family of four without worries.

Some of the things I did to keep my budget down was to shop about an hour before Marks & Spencer’s Food Hall closed, then I’d seek out the coveted ‘yellow discount’ stickers so that I could design cheap meals. I also worked really hard to use up leftovers right away, which meant cooking up pots of soup or pasta dishes that went directly into the freezer. It really did make a difference on the amount of food waste I created, too. And happily, it made for some pretty good throw-together concoctions!

So, what happens with the leftover £20? Well, £10 will go into my savings account and £10 will get added to my September entertainment budget. And who knows, maybe I’ll have an even bigger savings at the end of this month!

Tasty tortillas

Today we’re going to have a wee cooking lesson. But it’s also a lesson in budgeting and in ridding ourselves of un-needed preservatives. And as the topic of tortillas has come up a few times in the last week, that’s what we’re going to play with today.

First, let’s look at the nutritional side of things, using Old El Paso flour tortillas as our guide. The back of the pack claims the following ingredients: Wheat Flour, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Stabiliser: Glycerol, Salt, Raising Agents: E450a, E500, Dextrose, Emulsifier: E471, Preservative: E202, Flour Treatment Agent: E920.

[Note for American readers: ‘E Numbers’ are how preservatives and additives are labelled in the EU/UK. Find out more here.]

Now, compare those ingredients to my recipe: Flour, water, olive oil, baking powder, and salt.

(Do you see where I’m going here?)

Then, let’s look at the cost. A pack of tortillas will cost you anywhere from £1.20-£3.00 in the UK and, what, about $1.00-$4.00 in the States, depending on the brand and the number/size in the pack. After you add up the cost of a 5-pound bag of flour, 16-ounce (or so) bottle of olive oil, and the negligible cost of salt and baking powder,  you’re looking at less-than £1.00 ($1.00) for a batch of 8-10 tortillas. And yes, I realise that time and electricity/gas for cooking plays into this, too, but I still think homemade is a bargain!

But, more importantly, homemade just tastes better. The texture and the flavour are a vast improvement over store-bought. And you can use whole wheat and/or gluten-free flours if you want.

So, on to the next part: A wee how-to video to show you just how easy it is! (And because I haven’t made a video in a while.) Recipe will follow the video.

Tasty Tortillas

  • 3 cups plain flour (375 g)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup water (8 oz / 250 ml)
Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, you’re ready to make some tortillas!
  • Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and oil
  • Add water a bit at a time and mix with hands until it forms a nice, doughy ball (you may not need all of the water!)
  • Form into large ball and let sit (covered with towel) for 15 minutes
  • Divide into 8-10 smaller balls
  • Flour work space
  • Roll each ball flat with rolling pin (or a wine bottle!)
  • Cook on very hot, un-greased pan or griddle for a few seconds on each side—just enough to get pretty little brown spots

These can be enjoyed as a taco wrap, or for a bread substitute for almost any kind of sandwich. I like to spread them with cream cheese or salmon pate and enjoy with a few olives. Yummy!

Cheap eats

I like setting budgets for myself because it keeps me accountable to, well, me. And, because I used to have to budget every penny or risk bounced checks, I’m pretty good at it. Better, because I like to come in under budget, it makes me spend less!

For the last year I’ve had a loose budget of £200 (approximately $310 US) per month to spend on groceries. Sometimes I’d go over that, but most times I would be under. But I’ve never been consistent with it. So, I’m going to start holding myself accountable, which means you get to read about my grocery budget from time-to-time!

Budget: £200 per month

In addition to food-based groceries, the following items will be included in the total:

  • Loo roll and cleaning products—but not personal care products
  • Wine, beer, and spirits
  • Lunches bought at work
  • Take-aways or delivery meals
  • Delivery or taxi charges to get the groceries home

Dinner or drinks out with friends do not count as they are in the entertainment budget and any money left over from one month cannot be rolled into the next month. Instead, remaining monies will be split between savings and my entertainment budget.

The idea is that a strict budget will force me to eat healthier—and wiser. I will be forced to think about my meals and plan them out a bit. I will be encouraged to take lunches to the office (often made from yummy leftovers) and I will make things that I like but that I’m generally too lazy to make.

Oh! And it means that I will get to talk about my homemade this-and-that a bit more. Maybe I’ll even get to share some more recipes with you. Or ‘how to’ YouTube videos! Yes, that will be fun!

And since you’re here, I can share with you that, so far, I’ve £68 for the month of August. Which is scary since it’s only the first week, but that included lots of staple items—including a bottle of vodka for my RyanCentric Martinis. Well, that is if you can call vodka a staple.

Stay tuned to find out if I’ve managed to stay within budget for the month! (If you care.)

Spent pennies

As you may know, I like to save all of my ‘spare’ change so that I can cash it in for something fun and frivolous. So when I am out shopping, I never give the cashier exact change, I keep those jingly-jangly coins to feed my coin jar! (And if you’ve ever wondered, that’s where the pennies I pinch from the pavement end up, too!)

Anyhow, after nearly a year of collecting, I cashed in £94 worth of coins today. (That’s about $148, if you wondered.) And there’s still about £15 left in the jar as a starter fund, since there weren’t enough to bag up in all the right denominations*.

After heading to the bank to deposit the coins, I made my way to Falkirk so that I could spend my money! (That was the first £3.50 of my money spent!)

The rest of the money was spent as follows:

A new paper cutter for making my swirl cards: £19.99 (sub-total: £23.49)

Three bottles of Washington State wines from Chateau Ste Michelle: £9.99×3=£29.97 (sub-total: £53.46)

Two pretty new dresses from the 50% off sale rack: £20 and £21 (sub-total: £94.46)

OK! You got me: I went 46p over budget. But I’m going to let that slide since the dresses aren’t really frivolous. They are a practical purchase and will be put to use starting once this week’s holiday is over. (Are you starting to feel a theme to my sometimes-cryptic posts?)

Oh! And you could also argue that the paper cutter isn’t frivolous, since I hope to put that to use for making and selling cards.

The wine, however, is purely for fun.

* In the UK they use little plastic baggies for coins instead of the paper rolls we use in the States. It makes it harder to keep them tidy, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to bag than it is to roll! 

Gadget Girl

Yep, that’s me: Gadget Girl. OK, I admit that I’m not the most gadgety of all gadget girls, but I’m certainly the first place contender in my little bit of the world. And I would guess that if I had the income to support it, I would probably be a contender for the world as a whole. Because gadgets are just cool.

My first gadget was a calculator watch that I got for Christmas 1983. I remember the year because I remember going back to school in January 1984 and showing it to my 4th grade teacher, Mrs Vetter—who quickly informed me it couldn’t be used for maths tests. Oh, but it was awesome! It had an alarm clock and a small address book. I wore it all the time. In fact, I wore it so much that I remember taking if off for baths and it being rather slimy and manky underneath. It was disgusting, really.

I don’t recall how it broke—or when—but I remember always wishing I had another watch as cool as it was. Though my next digital watch was pretty neat-o with its blue glow button thingy to see the time in the dark. Again, my insistence to wear it all the time meant it got pretty icky pretty quickly. (Seriously, who wears a watch to bed?)

Anyhow, about a year or so after that first calculator watch, I got my first Walkman. I would use it when I walked around delivering newspapers—and I’d sing along. It was great! And a year or so after that, I got my first electric typewriter. In fact, I used that typewriter to make up little notes to deliver with my papers when I first took over a new route—little notes introducing myself and giving my customers my name and number in case they had any problems or questions. (Yeah, I was am a geek.)

Over the years, my gadget collection grew and I slowly became an early adopter—and a vocal gadget advocate! And, do you know what? I feel good when I have the best gadget in the room. I know it’s silly and a bit vain, but I really do get an amazing ego boost when my gadgets are better than those of everyone around me.

Sadly, since leaving my job last year in favour of being an unemployed student has meant that I’ve been neglecting my gadgety ways. But that all changed today when I picked up a brand new phone. Yay!

Yes, boys and girls, I am now the proud owner of a beautiful, blue Samsung Galaxy S3. It’s the latest-and-greatest Android phone on the market and I own one!

It took me a while to take the plunge because it required a two-year contract and my visa expires on November 11, but I am throwing caution to the wind and will just hope and pray that I get a job that allows me to extend that visa for the entire length of my phone contract—and more! Otherwise, I guess I have to pay a bit of money to cancel the contract. And I hate parting with money so—come on, job!

So, not a bad way to start the second day of my holidays! And now I have something to play with when I’m on the train to Inverness on Sunday.

Happy Gadget Day, everyone!

(And not that I’m a geek or anything, but you’ll maybe notice that I have HAL as the wallpaper on one of my laptops!)

Pinching pennies

As I walked to the bus stop today, I stooped to pick up a two pence coin. It took two seconds—tops. But it made me smile for several moments. It also got me thinking more about the stigma some people put on the act (art?) of picking up loose coins found on the ground.

Then I started to think about the money I’ve found recently and I smiled even more as I realised just how fast it adds up. Then I started to do more maths. My initial calculations were based on a one-second retrieval rate which would equate to a time value of £36 per hour. (I’m not the only penny pincher who thought this was a fair rate, though I also found an argument for the paltry value of £2.40 based on a 15-second retrieval rate.)

However, I had a re-think and decided to give a two-second average retrieval rate because sometimes you do need to step out of your way for collection. So, I propose that picking up pennies found on the ground has a time value of £18 per hour.

And that’s assuming you only ever find pennies. But I quite often find silver coins, too. (Evidence: 11¢ find; Nickel find.) And sometimes, I even find paper money! So a two-second stoop-and-scoop can be far more profitable!

But for the maths, let’s stick to pennies and the two-second pick-up rate. If we accept the £18 per hour value and attribute that to a full-time job, you’d be on an annual salary of around £37,400.

Which makes me wonder: Why is there such a stigma to picking up pennies? I mean £37,400 is nothing to sneeze at when you realise that the 2011 median income was £26,200 (USA 2010 median: $26,364).

[Note: If you’re picking up American or Canadian pennies, the maths are the same; just swap out the £ symbol for a $ symbol.]

How about you? Are you a penny pincher? Do you smirk with glee at those little bits of glimmering money? Or maybe you’re not driven by the monetary reward. In that case, maybe you can think of pennies as a small gift from the universe. Or maybe coin-hunting can be that kooky way to bond with your family. Or if you’d rather, you can just walk past the coin and let someone like me pick it up. That would be OK, too!

Random thoughts: Last of the big spenders

Random thoughts—Week 5: List the top 12 things you can buy with your last $20.

This challenge all comes down to interpretation. So, here’s how I’m interpreting it: My assumptions for the list are that all of my basic needs are being met (food, shelter, clothing) and that it’s my last $20 until my next budgeted allowance.

My list will be 12 $20 items, instead of 12 items that total $20. For items linked from UK sites, the cost will be £12 to account for the exchange rate. Also, for the purpose of this list, I will not include sales tax (or shipping) in the final price. Oh! And the mythical purchases will be fun things, because all of my other bills have been sorted already. So, here goes!

  1. Electronic butterfly in a jar
  2. Hand-made leather journal
  3. Silver plated Champagne stopper
  4. Basic whisky glasses
  5. Owl crystal necklace
  6. Eight sticks of sealing wax (green, of course!)
  7. Eucalyptus and spearmint bubble bath from Bath and Body Works
  8. A pretty tulip skirt (the red one!)
  9. A set of John Lewis martini glasses
  10. Heart-patterned tights
  11. Running hat with a hole for my ponytail
  12. A pretty butterfly Alice band

Phew! That was harder than it seemed. Mostly because most of my splurge ‘wants’ are either really cheap or really expensive! But it was fun, and now I guess I have a bit of a wish list going for myself!

I wonder what next week’s random topic will be …

Poor man’s casserole

Growing up, I loved it when I was informed that we were having Poor Man’s Casserole for dinner. It was such a basic meal, but it was rather stodgy and really yummy. It never would have been named as a favourite food, but it never would have been on my ‘don’t like’ list either.

So, when I looked in the cupboards and realised that I had everything I needed to make the dish for tonight’s dinner, I was excited at the prospect of enjoying a meal from childhood. But I’ve renamed it to fit my circumstances better. Instead of Poor Man’s Casserole, I’m calling it Starving Student’s Stodge. Because, well, I’m a starving student on a budget. And I like stodge.

For your own budgeting purposes, the meal can be made for less than £5 (if you buy the cheap beef and generic/store brand beans) and will serve 4-6 people. So, around £1 per serving. Of course, I splurged on better quality beef with a lower fat content, so mine was a bit more than that. (Yes, no matter how tight my budget, I always opt for the better cuts of meat!)

Wanna make it at home? Here’s how!

Starving Student’s Stodge

  • 2-3 raw potatoes
  • 1 small sliced onion
  • 1 pound ground beef (UK: Minced beef)
  • 2 tins pork-n-beans (UK: Baked beans)
  • Salt and pepper as desired

Layer sliced, raw potatoes on the bottom of a casserole dish; place sliced onion on top. Press ground beef (uncooked) over potatoes and onion. Salt and pepper as desired (I omit these). Pour beans over beef. Cover and bake in 350°f (175°c) oven for 1.5 hours.

My parents also added a tin of condensed tomato soup on top, but I omit that part. Also, I’ve considered layering some fresh tomatoes, peppers, or mushrooms in with the onion, but I’m not that posh!

Random thoughts: Simple pleasures

Random thoughts—Week 3: List 31 simple pleasures; pick one and write about it.

Last year I was challenged to write a list of 30 things that made me smile and I imagine that this list may include a few duplicates, but I will try to keep those to a minimum.

  1. Finding coins as I’m walking down the road
  2. Unexpected postcards (heck, even expected postcards!)
  3. Lunch with friends
  4. Internet chats and phone calls with my nieces and nephews
  5. Dirty Martinis
  6. Seeing children skipping down the road
  7. Skipping down the road (yes, even as a full-grown woman, I do that sometimes!)
  8. Hearing a favourite song on the radio
  9. Watching a favourite movie on television
  10. Long soaks in a hot bath
  11. Finding my favourite [whatever] on sale
  12. Smells that rekindle a happy memory
  13. Running
  14. A well-cooked steak (that would be medium-rare, thank you!)
  15. Riding on carousels
  16. Playing on swing sets
  17. The feeling of the sun on my face
  18. Flirtatious encounters with cute boys (even when I know I’ll never see them again)
  19. A quiet night in with some jazz, red wine, candle light, and a good book
  20. Sleeping in on a Saturday morning after a long week at work (or school)
  21. Finding a ‘new’ vintage handbag that I love—and can afford!
  22. Watching (and listening to) a massive rain storm—complete with thunder and lightning
  23. Seeing my friends happy and giddy with excitement
  24. Waking up dreading going to work, only to realise it’s the weekend
  25. Walking barefoot in the grass or on a sandy beach
  26. Gravy style popcorn
  27. Picnics in the park
  28. Finishing a craft project
  29. Weekend city breaks to fantastic places
  30. Finding an out-of-the-way pub that sells great beer—but that no one knows about!
  31. Hugs and kisses from family and friends

Now, I know that I’m meant to write about just one of these things, but it would seem that I had a fantastic opportunity to combine a few in one. So, here’s a wee story about something that happened when I was in Cambridge this weekend:

I woke up early to go for a run on Saturday (No 13). And after the run, I had a bit of time to waste waiting for my running partner (who’d gone off for a longer trek!). So, as I waited, I found myself (literally) skipping (No 7) over to the playground where I plopped myself down on a swing (No 16). And as I swung, I noticed some shiny things on the ground below. Sure enough, those shiny things were coins—33 pence worth of them (No 1)!

Of course, the weekend also included Nos: 3, 12, 17, 23, 29, 30, and 31. And loads of other simple pleasures that didn’t make the list.

Oh! And be sure to check out Rebecca’s blog to see what she wrote for her topic this week!

Splashing out

Today I finally broke down and bought a new set of sauce pans. They are light-weight, cheap aluminium pans but, despite that, they are considerably better than the pans that my flat was furnished with. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing since I first moved in, but I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of spending my limited budget on something that was more of a want than a need.

But the problem is that the pans I had were so cheap they didn’t work well. I know, I know: A bad cook always blames their tools. But sometimes, sub-standard tools do make a negative impact! And because the pans were such rubbish, I dared not cook certain foods.

So, the way I see it is that these pans are an investment in my future nutritional health. Yes, really. As strange as that sounds, these pans really will help me cook more!

In fact, one of the pans is in service now, cooking up a batch of basmati rice, to be served with baked salmon and peas.

Maybe this little splash out of cash will help me fix my poor diet!

And don’t forget to enter my anniversary competition. I’ve really enjoyed the entries so far and would love to be entertained with a few more! (Today’s your last chance, so don’t be shy!)

Coats and cupcakes

When I was in town earlier in the week, I saw a nice light-weight coat that I really liked in a charity shop. But when I tried it on, I wasn’t quite certain about it. I mean, it looked nice and it fit, but it’s the same colouring as my wool coat, so I wavered. In the end, I put it back on the rack and walked away.

But I’ve been thinking about it and decided it would be OK to have another black and white coat. It was a different cut, after all, and would look much nicer with dresses than my wool coat. Plus that, it was only £10 so it wasn’t a massive commitment.

So, I went to town today determined to get the coat if it was still there. And it was still there. Only it wasn’t £10, it was £4.99. Which means I saved £5.01 in addition to supporting a good cause!

And when you save a bit of money, it’s OK to celebrate with a little treat. So when I stopped by the Farmers’ Market on the way back to my flat, I splurged £1.90 on a pretty pink Valentine’s cupcake from Milis Cakes. (I’ve already eaten it though, so I guess it was just a pretty pink cupcake.)

Oh! I also picked up a nice roast from one of the local farmer stalls for tomorrow’s dinner. And that means that I have everything I need for a Sunday roast, which will qualify for the Dark Days Challenge. And that means that if you check back tomorrow, you can read about my yummy dinner.

(Or you could invite yourself over to help eat my dinner. There’s more than enough to share!)

And, yes, that really is the cupcake I bought. It was as yummy as it looks. I also got a carrot cupcake for tomorrow’s dessert. I wonder if it will last that long…

Cheap [or free] booze

I used to buy expensive booze. I had a collection of fine wines and expensive whiskies. I had top-shelf Cognacs and the best small batch Bourbons. And I wouldn’t have thought twice about opening a $40 bottle of wine for no reason other than I wanted a glass of wine.

But I couldn’t take it all with me, so I slowly worked through my collection before I moved. And I gave the rest to my aunt and my neighbours. (And took a couple of bottles to my folks’ house too, I think.)

And now I find myself in a different booze situation all together.

First of all, I’m in a small apartment that doesn’t have the space for wine storage—not when you like to really collect fine wines at least! But more depressingly, I can’t afford it even if I could store it.

So, I’ve found myself drinking cheap booze again. I’ve found myself choosing wines based on price, not on label/vineyard. And I only buy wine that’s on sale. (I can normally get a ‘nice enough’ bottle on a half price sale, but even that’s not what I’d consider good wine.)

In fact, all but one bottle of wine are screw tops! I know that nice wines are using screw tops these days, but the majority of Washington State wines (which are top-class, premium wines that beat out any Old World wine you can imagine!) have corks.

Oh! And I’ve even stooped to purchasing store brand stuff! Which isn’t necessarily bad but Sainsbury’s vodka has nothing on Grey Goose!

But, thankfully, I’ve got some nice stuff that I’ve gotten for Christmas gifts. (Must send that thank you note to Canada soon!) And thanks to friends and family, I even have three (well, two and a bit) bottles of nice Scotch, too.

It’s not that I’m a raging alcoholic or anything, it’s just that I’ve realised recently that my snobbery when it comes to drink has gone to the wayside in favour of my frugal (and poor) ways.

But my birthday is coming up. And I like Remy Martin and Caol Ila. You know, if you wondered …

Cheers!

One down

Well, today marks the end of my first semester as a postgraduate student. It’s been a crazy and hectic journey to get to this point, but I got here and I’m alive to tell the story!

I admit that there was a time I worried that I would never even start on my master’s degree. Paul’s death shook me to the core and even though I know that this is what he would want for me, I just couldn’t find the motivation to apply to schools. And even then, I didn’t know how I would pay for it. But, I applied and I got accepted and I figured out a way to pay for it all. And even though it means I am living on a very tight budget, this is a very positive step.

The school year got off to a good start, but then a few weeks ago the stress of the holidays and a low platelet count, Paul’s would-be birthday, and a couple other personal conflicts distracted me. Yes, I got myself into such an emotional state that I actually began to doubt my abilities and wondered if this whole adventure was a mistake.

In fact, at the height of my turmoil, I had two major essays to write for two different modules. One was 50 percent of my overall mark—the other was 100 percent of my grade for that module. With each paper, I turned them in with regret. I honestly feared that I may have failed—or came near to failure.

I got the grade for the first paper late last week with a very good mark. In fact, I double checked because I didn’t think I read it correctly. And since I also had an exam for that module (which would be the remaining 50 percent of my grade) that mark made me less apprehensive about the exam.

The other paper was marked and ready for collection yesterday, but I opted to pick it up today after my exam (the one mentioned above). In fact, I decided to pick it up after the exam because I was so worried that the mark would completely deflate me and that it would affect my ability to sit the exam.

But at the last moment I decided to pick up the paper before the exam. And I was so, so, so, so pleased to see that I got a mark of distinction. Yes! On a paper that I was certain would be below average or even—dare I say?—a failure mark. A distinction. Really. And let me just say that I beamed. It was such a moment of joy for me that all of my worries and fears about the pending exam went away. All of the sudden, nothing else mattered. I was smart—and I had a marked essay to prove it!

In the end, I think I did pretty well on my exam. I didn’t ace it, but I didn’t fail it. And that’s OK. Because I got great marks on all my papers (a distinction on one, if you didn’t catch that earlier) and I am feeling confident about my abilities once again.

So, my first semester is done. Teaching resumes for spring semester in mid-February then my dissertation is due in August. I’m excited about the winter break, but I’m more excited about next semester and my dissertation. In fact, you can guarantee that I will be doing some reading for next semester over the break. And I’ve already started to give some real thought to that dissertation.

And all of this means that, in about a year’s time, you might get to read about my excitement of completing my first semester as a PhD student.

(Oh, and did I mention that I got a distinction on one of my essays today?)

Making do; Part 2

Back in November I talked about the practice of ‘making do’ in my efforts to host a Thanksgiving dinner for friends. I was really pleased that all of that making do worked out, especially since I’ve found myself needing to make do again. But this time, making do had nothing to do with food. Instead, I found myself having to make do with what I had to wrapping parcels.

For years, I collected used gift bags and tissue paper, bows and ribbons, and even wrapping paper and boxes. I had it all neatly organised so that I could easily wrap up gifts for family and friends. I had such a selection of stuff that I almost always found the right size bag, box, or used bit of paper for everything. But when I moved, I passed on my collection to my baby sister, Royann. And that means there isn’t an awe-inspiring collection of wrapping supplies tucked away in the hall closet. (I hope she appreciates the time it took me to amass such a collection, and I hope she’s using the supplies whilst continuing to replenish them with her own reclaimed materials!)

Then yesterday I found myself looking at purchasing wrapping paper, shipping boxes, and bubble wrap for sending parcels home for Christmas. And I have to admit that as I stood there looking at the available stock in the shops made me sad as I recalled (once again) all of the stuff (i.e.: clutter) I had to leave behind when I ventured out for this new future of mine.

So I went home empty-handed. No, really. I went home with nothing because the idea of having to buy those things broke my heart. When I got home, however, I started to look at what I had. I had printer paper and coloured pencils, so I would make wrapping paper. (I didn’t.) I had a few boxes from things I bought when I moved into my flat—but they were all either too big or too small. And I had some wrapping paper from a lovely housewarming gift that Rebecca gave me.

Ah! And I had scissors and a bag filled with plastic bags (from before I got my re-usable ones). And with that, I got to work.

It seems that the gifts I bought for my nieces and nephews were small enough to be placed in envelopes with their Christmas cards and there was just enough of that wrapping paper from Rebecca for the gifts I got for my folks and my lovely [former] foster daughter. Then, I found a used (but usable) padded envelope that was large enough for my foster daughter’s gift to fit in. But I was having trouble finding a box for the stuff for my nieces, nephews, and parents (it was all being shipped to the folks’ place to save on costs).

But wait! Who needs a box to be the ‘right’ size when you have scissors? It seemed to me that there was a box that could be the perfect size—if I cut it down a bit. And padding? Well, since the nieces and nephews’ gifts aren’t breakable, they got to help provide protection for the folks’ gifts, along with some crumpled plastic bags (which I know the folks will recycle on my behalf).

And that’s it. I had to buy some packing tape, but that’s something I can’t really re-use anyhow.

Of course, now I need to figure out how I will wrap the rest of my gifts. But since they didn’t need to go to the post office for international shipping, I can give myself a few days to scrounge around. And there is still that printer paper and coloured pencils if all else fails!

Delivered

I am one of those weird people who enjoys grocery shopping. I start in the produce section and take great effort to select the best fresh fruits and vegetables. Then I wander up and down every aisle—with my list in hand—looking for great bargains. Most trips see me grabbing a few items not on the list, but items that are on sale and that I use regularly. And since I’m shopping with a list that’s based on a pre-determined menu, I end up with loads of great food that will actually make for some great meals when I get home.

Oh wait! I lied! I rarely go up and down every aisle. I avoid the one with the sodas and shelf-stable juices because I don’t really drink those things. And I avoid the one with the crisps (that’s chips to translate to American) because I am a weak woman when it comes to savoury snacks.

But I digress… (That happens often, doesn’t it?)

I learned when I lived in Edinburgh that grocery shopping without a car is not fun. Or rather, the shopping bit is fun but the part where you have to get the stuff home kind of sucks. Especially if you live in a top floor flat! So I did this thing where I would walk to the store (a mile+ away) then I’d take a taxi home for about 5. But I still had to lug everything upstairs to my 2nd floor flat (that’s the 3rd floor in America).

And then I discovered Tesco delivery!

When I moved to Stirling I decided that I would have my groceries delivered again. Only it took me a while to get everything sorted—mostly because I needed a new bank card since the one I had wasn’t working for online payments. But my new card came in the post over the weekend and I put it to the test!

And, well, it seems to have worked! I placed an order yesterday afternoon and took the first delivery spot they had this morning—which meant that by 9:30 I had my groceries delivered and put away!

The cool thing about this is that it took way less time than shopping myself, I didn’t have to lug everything up the stairs to my 3rd floor flat (that’s the 4th floor in America), the delivery fee was half the cost of a taxi ride home, and I didn’t end up with impulse buys that I really didn’t need—which means I saved money in the end!

So, what’s on the menu for this week? Well, there will be a feta-asparagus-potato-tomato bake thingy this evening, a Caesar salad tomorrow, baked chicken with mushroom risotto the next day, pasta with fresh tomatoes and artichoke hearts the day after that, and maybe a baked potato with a fresh salad the day after that. And plenty of fresh fruit, granola, and yoghurt for breakfast all week, too.

But I didn’t buy any wine this time, so if you’re going to invite yourself around for one of these fabulous meals, you’ll need to bring a bottle to share!

And the survey says

I am excited to report that I earned £40 an hour today! Of course, I only did 15 minutes worth of work. But still, that makes me £10 richer. Yay!

How did I do it? Well, I agreed to participate in a survey. You see, when I’m not in a hurry (and it’s not raining) I am happy to help market researchers in their quest to create better products. I figure that it may help me get the things I really want to buy in shops, but I also know that you get paid for them more often than not! (That is also why I always open my junk mail!)

Of course, I can’t tell you much more than what I’ve already said because I signed a confidentiality waiver. But I can tell you that I gave my opinion on a brand of products from a type of product that I use. I can tell you that it took about 15 minutes. And I can also tell you that it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. In fact, I really enjoy seeing how researchers frame their questions and lay out their surveys. (Yeah I know—I’m a geek!)

So next time you’ve got some time to spare, stop and answer a few questions. After all, it might make a difference to the products you use (or would use ‘if only they would’…). And when you’re done, you can use the money for a nice cup of coffee and a cake! Or splash out and buy a really nice bottle of red nail polish!

Good ol’ goulash

I love goulash. Growing up, I was always happy to see it on the dinner table. Later, as a grown-up, I loved going to my folks’ house and seeing leftover goulash in the fridge—and eating it! But I realised that I’ve never actually made it myself. I guess it was one of those meals that was never prepared when it was my turn to help in the kitchen.

So, when I decided I wanted to make goulash, I had to stop and think about what was in it. I knew it was simple, but wondered if I could replicate it.

I don’t know if I used all the same stuff my folks use, but it seemed to taste like theirs so I’m calling it a success.

Just Goulash

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 4 (or so) cups cooked macaroni pasta
  • ½ chopped onion
  • Chopped garlic
  • Oregano
  • Fresh ground pepper

Whilst the pasta cooks, brown the ground beef then add garlic and onions to sauté. Add tin of tomatoes (do not drain), oregano, and pepper to the meat and heat through. Add cooked and drained pasta to pan and mix together. Serve and enjoy!

The entire thing cost about £4 to make, and provided tonight’s dinner plus three portions for the freezer. So, £1 per serving. Unless you include the glass of wine I had with it, which was from a £5 bottle (actually, an £8 bottle that was on an incredible sale!). Figuring four meals per bottle of wine (I’m a light weight!) that means £1.25 per glass, bringing the total cost for tonight’s dinner up to £2.25. That’s pretty good, especially when I think about the limited food budget I have at the moment.

Of course, the best thing about budget meals at home is that when I go out to dinner (like I’ll do tomorrow) I don’t feel guilty! (Yay!)

If the shoe fits

I’ve been experimenting with footwear since my return to Scotland. Yep, it’s heels for this redneck, if you can believe it.

I admit, it’s a bit tricky at times because I still wobble a bit (and that’s with fairly short and chunky heels!) but I’m getting better and I almost feel like a semi-pro! But the biggest bonus is that I feel good! I know it sounds silly, but the dress code here tends to be a bit smarter than the homeland for everyday wear, and I feel good when I am dressed up that little bit more.

But that’s not the point, so I’ll move on now.

The point is that my feet are suffering! They don’t hurt but they are suffering. You see, I’ve always worn sensible, well-fitting shoes without heels. And that meant that I’ve always had pretty feet. Well, not so much as a child because I insisted on wearing shoes that were too small because I didn’t like shoe shopping. Not that I like it anymore now. But I digress. Again…

Back to the point: The bottoms of my feet are starting to get a couple of spots with not-so-soft skin. And I need to figure out how to fix that, whilst still wearing pretty shoes. And since I can’t afford professional pedicures at the moment, I’ll need to figure out how to fix it on my own.

For starters, I am using a heavy lotion before I go to bed, covering my feet with socks as I sleep so as to not get the bedding all lotion-y. I am also spending a bit more time making sure my toenails are trimmed nicely.

But the biggest solution, I imagine, is going to be finding the right shoes and the right inserts. And that, sadly, means shoe shopping. (I think I know someone who can help with that!)

Of course, the other solution would be to return to my redneck roots and just wear casual trainers everywhere.

Budgeting

Before I graduated from university money was tight. My adult life, until shortly before I got married, was spent not spending money. No, really. Money was so tight that a $5 banking error could have meant complete destruction. I relied on the good will (and good cooking) of family and friends to pad out my grocery budget (I rarely turned down a free meal!). On more than one occasion, I had to call the power company to get my electricity turned back on. I had to cancel my phone. I didn’t have cable TV. I didn’t own a car for a while.

Or, to put it another way, I lived on such a meagre income that there wasn’t even enough money to make a budget, let alone live by one!

But the lessons I learned about pinching pennies and denying myself luxuries like haircuts, clothes, and shoes meant that when I finally had a healthy income, I had more money than I knew what to do with. And that meant that my savings account grew, and that my spending increased. Oh yes, I had disposable income. And I used it!

And when I decided to quit my job and return to Scotland for graduate school, I used those early penny pinching skills to pad out my savings account. Of course, now I’m back in scarily familiar territory again: I’m poor! I have no income and I have a limited budget. So, once again, I have to pinch pennies and deny myself luxuries.

Thankfully, I’m prepared. For nearly two years I’ve prepared myself emotionally and financially for this adventure. But I fear that no amount of preparation will stave off the fears I have about things not working out the way I want them to.

I am constantly fearful that I’ve done the maths wrong or that I’m kidding myself about how much things will cost. I am also aware that, with no income, the money I spend will not be replenished and I fear that watching my bank balance decrease over the next several months will cause me to be a little over cautious with my money. Yes, I fear that I will start denying myself too many things, in an effort to hold on to as much of my money as I can!

All of that said, I am not broke. I can afford this adventure. And if everything does go wrong, I have the option of moving back to my parents with my tail between my legs.

And so, I’ve managed to work out a new budget for the next year. And I’ve done it in part by looking at emotional triggers. Like I knew that living in a squalid rat trap would make me sad, so I’ve put a bit more money towards my housing budget than I originally planned. And I know that I like some of the finer foods, so I’ve increased my food budget so that I can have fresh salmon and quality steaks for dinner from time-to-time.

But those higher budgets mean that I have to sacrifice a bit elsewhere. I will have to scrimp on things like weekend city breaks. My clothing budget has been slashed (not that it was ever that high in the first place). My booze budget is almost gone—no more fine wines, premium beers, expensive Scotch (sorry, whisky), or fine Cognacs.

It’s not really a complaint. I mean, I’m the one who chose this path. I’m the one who made the decision to give up her middle class lifestyle. I’m the one who decided to take this adventure out of the dreaming stage and into reality. And I’m mostly excited about it. I just need to re-learn what it’s like to be on a strict budget. And I need to try not to let it make me sad!

As I said, I’m not really broke nor will I be forced to eat rotting food ‘salvaged’ from back-alley Dumpsters. It’s just that I can’t decide—on a whim—to buy the latest-and-greatest gadget or that really pretty green dress that’s not even on the sale rack.  And I will be looking for occasional work to help my budget—and to allow me splurges from time-to-time. [I’ll put in a quick plug for my freelance gig. You know, just in case you have someone to recommend me to!]

So, now that I’m just over a week away from moving into my new flat, I need to really remember to stick to that new budget! And that’s where you come in! I’d love to hear any great ideas for living on a budget—including ideas for entertainment and home decorating. And great ideas for recipes for cheap food that looks and tastes expensive!

Yeah, I’m looking forward to having a proper income again so that I can splurge on things like name brand shampoo!

A nickel for my thoughts

As I walked to my car after work today, I noticed a nickel lying on the sidewalk and smiled as I swooped down to pick it up without missing a step. I mean, it’s only a nickel and most people wouldn’t have bothered, but as I’ve blogged before about my willingness to stop for coins, it shouldn’t be surprising to know that I’ve done it again.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about my future a bit—both the excitement and the insecurities! And since I’ve found it helps me to write about these things, you get to read a few of them! (But I’ll start with the bad and end with the good. Yay!)

The insecurities:

  • I’m [still] afraid about the financial side of my decisions. Going from middle class to starving student is going to be devastating!
  • I worry about what my social life will be like—and if the friendships I’ve forged with Paul’s friends since his death will survive once I’m there full time.
  • I wonder if I’m actually smart enough to do the whole postgraduate and doctoral studies thing.

I know that these things seem silly, but I live in near isolation and 95 percent of my non-work communications are electronic these days which just adds to my insanity which feeds my insecurities!

The excitement:

  • I am really looking forward to having a chance at a fresh start for this crummy little life I’m living. I’m convinced that it’s the step I need to find the joy I’ve lost.
  • I’m really excited about having a new partner in crime and am certain that (despite the doubts noted above) my social life will be better than it ever has been once I move.
  • I am very eager to begin my studies and am looking forward to being in a learning environment again. (That nickel from the intro paragraph has been added to my coin stash as part of my tuition fund.)

I wish I could say that the excitement always balances out the insecurities, but if I’m honest I’m getting more and more anxious, nervous, frightened, and insecure as I get closer to this great new adventure. I keep telling myself I’m being silly, but as you probably know fears and whatifs just take over sometimes!

But—Hey!—I am 5¢ closer to my £10,600 ($17,200) tuition bill now!

11¢

It was dark, rainy, and wet when I walked out of the office a little after 5 this evening. But that didn’t stop me from spotting a dime and a penny on the sidewalk in front of me. I had to look twice because it was so hard to see, but that was certainly 11¢ laying there.

I felt no shame as I bent down in my business casual work outfit to pick up what seems to most as worthless. And I felt no shame as my eyes darted around to see if there were more precious coins laying about in search of someone to love them. (I didn’t see any, but will pay close attention on my way into the office tomorrow when I have the light of day to aid my search.)

Why would a woman with a comfortable (though modest) income bother to pick up such a pittance? Because I’m cheap. Because I’m frugal. Because I hate waste. Because I like money. And—most importantly—because I can’t actually afford to go to graduate school so I need save every penny I can. Even if it’s a penny scrounged from a puddle of water outside my office door.

Yay! I’m 11¢ closer to my £10,000+ tuition bill!