Fed up with your December birthday? Then change it

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My birthday cards don’t have to compete with Christmas cards anymore

For years my Christmas-time birthday was a huge disappointment.  As a child it was over-shadowed by the seasonal festivities and couldn’t help but be just another strain on the family finances at the most expensive time of the year.  Aunts and uncles would buy me ‘joint’ gifts for birthday and Christmas, assuring me they had spent extra.  As every December-birthday person knows, even if they had spent more, nothing beats having two specific gifts for birthday and Christmas and that this isn’t something that June-birthday children have to contend with.  As a child I never had a party on my actual birthday, it was too near the festivities, no one had time and who wants to eat birthday cake at Christmas.  As an adult the lovely Mr BOTRA and my son and daughter-in-law have made a fuss of me and ensured the day was special and spending time with these three people is wonderful and should be enough … but I always wanted what everyone else had, a celebration with my friends.  On my birthday these friends were either with their family, busy at some other Christmas event or away for the festive period.  The only way to get everyone together was to celebrate outside the Christmas period, so when I was 40 I arranged the party for January.  It still took me a few years after that birthday to realise that this was the way to go and it was 2011 when I decided I wasn’t putting up with this unsatisfactory situation any longer and I moved my birthday to November.

There were friends who protested that it couldn’t be done, a few who still forget the new date, but honestly, I haven’t regretted moving my birthday to the preceding month for one minute.  Now, my birthday isn’t shoe-horned in to the Christmas festivities, my birthday cards don’t have to compete for space with the Christmas cards and my friends are available for a celebration.  It is this latter result that is the most important to me, I get to bring everyone I care about together for one celebration and that makes me happy.  It isn’t about presents and cards, for me it has always been about wanting to be with the people I love.

Over the past few years I have celebrated my birthday with friends in various ways.  We have played crazy golf, been for walks, had ‘posh’ afternoon tea, visited an art gallery and been out for meals.  At last I get to experience what other people with birthdays in any other month except December take for granted, a birthday spent with my family and friends.

And what of my birth-date?  This day still exists, of course I have to use it for paperwork and forms but really it is now just any other day.  The recollection that it is the anniversary of my birth might pass through my mind at some point during the day but it is no longer my birthday, that is the November date that I chose.  Moving my birthday was one of the best things I ever did and I am not moving it back.

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Data roaming on ferries – don’t get caught out

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The Portuguese coast near Porto Covo

I thought using my phone for data and calls in Europe was a simple transaction nowadays.  I have a contract with a fair amount of data, calls and texts and I can use this just as I would at home in the UK.  This makes so many things easier as we travel around Europe, we can google for local veggie restaurants, check the opening times of attractions and the weather and call home and we thank the EU for this convenience on a daily basis.  But, on our recent trip to Spain and Portugal I found that on a ferry using your mobile phone gets more complicated and expensive mistakes can easily be made.

I was surprised to find I had a data signal on my mobile phone as we sailed out of Bilbao but naively assumed that connections had improved so much they could now reach out to the Bay of Biscay.  I had switched my phone on to pick up the ship’s wi-fi but as I had a data signal I decided I didn’t need to go through the rigmarole of signing in to that.  Then a text message pinged up telling me I had spent £4+ on data outside my allowance, then another text with a higher amount, then another and so on.  There was no explanation as to how I had gone over my data allowance and I spent a few frantic minutes checking my phone account to see if I could clarify what I had done but as the text messages mounted up I [sensibly] switched the phone off for the rest of the ferry journey.

I switched my phone on again as we docked in to Portsmouth.  The last text message I had received informed me I had spent £34+ on data outside my allowance.  I checked my data usage again and couldn’t see how I had spent that, my data usage was well within the gigabytes I pay for on my contract.

I rang Three, my phone operator, as Mr BOTRA drove us away from the south coast to see what this £34 additional charge was about.  The operator very efficiently informed me that with data roaming switched on [as it is quite safely all over Europe] when on a ferry or cruise ship my phone will automatically seek any connections.  When the phone can’t find a two, three or four G network it will seek out a satellite marine mobile provider via the ship; this was the first I had heard about marine mobile.  It seems these marine mobile providers are outside a normal data allowance contract and so are charged separately and those on Britanny Ferries that we were travelling on are very expensive charges [although they do warn you about these charges on their website].

It is some consolation that these data roaming charges, as this article suggests, have caught other people out as well as me, with some ending up with bills much more than the £34 I now had to pay.

Fortunately my story of ignorance has a happy ending for a frugal traveller as Three, noting that I have been a loyal customer for many years, refunded the £34 I owed for the few minutes my telephone was connected to the marine mobile satellite.  They did this without me having to ask [I was still in shock] and quickly, so Three deserve a big thank you.

Next time I will just keep my phone switched off on a ferry and relax and enjoy the view.

 

 

Being a good Ebay seller: My top tips

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Bags packed at the West Somerset Railway

I would certainly not claim to be the best Ebay seller there is but I have a lot of experience.  My current score on Ebay is 1,484 transactions and I have 100% positive feedback.  I have been an Ebay member since 2004 and 981 of these feedback ratings are for items I sold on to someone.  When we were down-sizing I sold all our surplus stuff on Ebay and when a relative died I sold the contents of their house, including a few hundred ornaments, 175 pictures, loads of furniture and a dozen tea sets on Ebay.

Friends have got to know about my expertise as an Ebay seller and occasionally I sell something for a friend and more often I have been asked for tips on how to be a successful seller, so here are my top tips:

Is it worth selling? – Ask yourself, is this something you would like to buy yourself, is it in good enough condition to sell, is it useful for parts or is it so unusual someone might just want it?  Just because you no longer want an item it doesn’t mean it isn’t useful to someone else but check it for damage as disappointed buyers will leave negative feedback.

Photographs – Take time over your photographs, think about the background, the lighting and the arrangement.  This is your shop window and you should make it look as attractive as possible or as informative as possible.  With tech items it is worth photographing the detail, model numbers etc and if an item has some damage a clear photograph of this can help to show you are honest and sell the item.

Use the whole word-count in your item title – Ebay will tell you that items with longer titles sell better, so give as much information as you can fit in the title.  Make sure you include the size or model number, if relevant, in your title so that browsing buyers can pick yours out from the list.

Do your research – Find out how much the sort of items you are selling might sell for on Ebay by checking out the completed listings in the advanced search settings.  Sometimes things are listed at high prices but they never sell.  These completed listings will help inform where to start an auction or what price to ask.  Your research should also reveal as much as you can about an item.  When I started selling my relative’s ornaments I knew nothing about Italian figurines but I quickly learnt.  If you have receipts for an item these may provide additional detail.

Descriptions – Put in as much detail as you can in the description.  Always include actual measurements [I have lost count of how many Ebay sellers I have had to contact regarding the measurements of an item] but cover yourself by telling buyers these measurements are approximate.  Be honest about any damage on the item and don’t sell anything you wouldn’t want to buy yourself.  Tell buyers how old an item is and how much it has been used.  We sold our high quality back-packing tent on Ebay and although I said how much it had been used and how long we had owned it I still got a very good price for it.  I think it helps buyers to feel confident by telling them why you are selling; for example I might say I am having another clear out or a spring clean or I have lost weight and this item no longer fits me or that my interests have changed.  It is also helpful to tell potential buyers if your item is from a smoke and pet-free home.

Posting and packing – Consider whether an item can be posted or if it is only suitable for collection.  Home collection can be inconvenient for you [as you have to be in] and limits your number of buyers plus someone will always ask if you can post something to them.  If possible always offer a postage option but this will mean you need to ensure you have suitable packing materials and with delicate items you can’t skimp on these.  Make sure you check the postage cost as the Royal Mail charge on size as well as weight.  When I was selling the hundreds of fragile china ornaments we bought double-wall boxes, bubble wrap and packing chips in bulk and I packed each item with care, this packaging took time and cost money and was reflected in the packing charges.  Despite travelling across the world everything arrived in one piece.  At other times I keep packaging from parcels I receive and recycle these keeping costs down.  All that said, I offered many of the 175 pictures from the walls of my relatives home and some of the bric-a-brac as themed lots of around eight to ten pictures [all the cherub pictures, all the floral ones etc] and people collected these.  These lots were attractive to dealers and I arranged a number of collections on the same day and displayed other items I hadn’t listed on Ebay and managed to sell a number of these to buyers.  Buyers like free postage and packing and this can make sense for buy-it-now sales, although of course you have to add the cost of P&P in to your listed price.

Auction or Buy-it-Now – Ebay has got much smarter at recommending whether you should offer an item on buy-it-now or auction [although it isn’t always right].  In general I find that unusual technical or collector items are best as an auction as guessing the price these will reach can be difficult and they sometimes fetch more than you expected.  I often get asked if I will change an auction to buy-it-now and I am willing to do this if there are no bids and they are offering what seems a fair price.  I do often have to tell potential buyers that I am not prepared to end an item that someone is already bidding on just so that they can buy it immediately.  Also be aware; some buyers may ask for a buy-it-now option and then not actually buy it.  Buyers need to know that as soon as you have changed an auction to buy-it-now anyone can buy the item; sometimes buyers are not quick enough and miss out.  I have had good success with the best offer option on buy-it-now auctions.  I have accepted fair offers or suggested a counter offer when something has been listed for a few days and I can see there is little interest.

Length of your auction – This has to fit in with you, so that you can post an item as soon after it has been paid for as you can, but it also needs to reflect the type of item it is.  Something unusual is better left on for ten-days, for example the rare tank regiment drinking glasses I sold were not something that is offered on Ebay everyday and it took time for everyone interested to find them.  Other items are more common place and can be listed for just a few days.  Ending auction items during the day on weekdays can limit working buyers from bidding and ending auctions early on Sunday morning isn’t always wise but as you might be selling to people in different time-zones [see below] this is complicated.

Posting abroad – It is worth considering posting abroad for collectors and unusual items.  Many of the ornaments I sold in 2014 went to Russia but others went to Italy, the Netherlands, the USA and Australia; collectors of particular items can live anywhere.

Questions – I often get asked questions about an item and I strive to answer these as quickly as possible and as accurately as possible.  Sometimes these questions are about something that I should have included in the listing and I will then publish the question on the listing for other buyers to see.  Answering these questions clearly and efficiently demonstrates that you are a reliable Ebay seller and helps to give a buyer confidence in you.

Communication – I always write a personal post card and place it in each parcel I send to an Ebay buyer, I might tell them a story about the item they are buying or just express gratitude for their business and hope they enjoy using the item.  Many buyers appreciate this and mention it in my feedback.  Using Ebay’s messaging I also tell buyers that I have received their payment and when I am posting their item and the method of postage so that they know when to expect it.  I always post items when I say I will as reliability is important.  I leave feedback after I have posted an item and I politely ask buyers to consider leaving feedback for me.

Happy Ebay selling and I am sure I have missed all sorts of stuff out of these tips so if you have any questions just ask!

 

Reducing plastic #3 Mints, toiletries & cleaning

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Since those awful photographs of the beach at Henderson Island covered in millions of pieces of plastic and the news that a dead whale was found off the coast of Norway with 30 plastic bags in its stomach, reducing your use of plastic has become more news worthy and a variety of papers and magazines are giving tips on how to reduce your plastic footprint.

These tips vary from refusing drinking straws in a bar to buying a wooden toothbrush and are all valid and help the planet and got me thinking about toiletries and single-use plastic.  I have been aware for some time that this is a major use of plastic in our household.  While moving on to solid shampoo has been fairly pain-free, I have failed to persuade Mr BOTRA to use a bar of soap for his shaving and instead he is trialling Lush’s shaving cream which still comes in a plastic tub which they will take back for recycling.  We have never used liquid soap, preferring a simple bar of soap at the bathroom sink and have now moved on to a bar of soap, rather than a plastic bottle of shower gel, in the shower.

Spurred on by the top tips, I bought bamboo toothbrushes from an Ebay store and also a wooden wash-up brush.  I don’t use much in the way of cosmetics, just lip salve which Lush package in metal tins and body lotion / moisturiser.  My favourite body lotion is Le Petit Marseillais olive and amande cream that comes in a metal tin.  It isn’t expensive and is available in French supermarkets and I stock up on this every time we are in France.

So far so painless.  Reducing our use of single-use plastic is a slow process with small steps.

Moving on to tackling our cleaning products, we were at Port Sunlight on the Wirral recently and came away, as many do, with a cardboard pack of two bars of Sunlight soap.  This has proved to be a great soap for all types of cleaning, including general cleaning of work surfaces and laundry.

One of my weaknesses is mints.  I can’t really contemplate a journey in our campervan without having mints on hand to suck.  These have always been tic-tacs; these tiny mints are perfect for a small treat but they are packaged in a plastic box.  This had to change and I began the search for suitable vegetarian replacements.  In Treasure Island Sweets I found tins of  Barkley’s Mints.  The mints taste great, come in a handy tin, wrapped in paper, so far so good but unfortunately each tin arrived wrapped in plastic!  The small steps continue.

 

 

 

Are you a retired spendophobic?

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After years of constant saving, practicing our own version of frugality, checking how the stash of money is growing, reviewing this against the amount we need to take early retirement and counting the days until we can give up the day jobs, how does it now feel to be spenders rather than savers?  Apart from my [very] ad hoc income from travel writing and the low return on our savings, our household now has no income.  We are relying completely on the money we have saved until our pensions start to roll in [the first is still three years away and it isn’t until 2024 that we will have sufficient pension income to cover our living costs].  Spending this money is what we were working towards after all and last November I wrote about looking forward to spending all the money.  How does that reality feel?  Having spent years living well within our income, what is it like having little income and watching our capital dwindle?  Have we become spendophobics or even spendoholics?

Some people are wary of spending beyond their income in their retirement.  They have become so used to living within their means, that is their income, it can be hard to adjust to spending those savings.  These people do not dip in to the savings they have accumulated for that retirement and become spendophobics and don’t necessarily have the retirement they would have wanted.

Well folks that isn’t us!  It seems that having that money in the bank doesn’t define us and we are not scared of spending it; retirement in our 50s is exactly what we were saving the money for.  Our years of frugality have made this a habit and we still practice caution in our spending, regularly checking that we are within our budget of £27,000 for this year [although it has been a funny sort of year up to now we are well within target].  Each month we transfer our ‘spending’ money in to our bank account as if it were income and this helps us budget.  Those frugal years have helped us to be careful spenders in our retirement but our outlook and plans mean that we are now spending the money on enjoying that retirement and we don’t suffer from ‘spendophobia’  [of course, we have no choice, with no pension income we have to spend our savings].  We have a plan [a spreadsheet of course] for how those savings will gradually disappear to almost zero by 2024 [the contingency money might remain if we have no emergencies and if I am honest I do sort of hope there might be a bit left as I think our budget is generous].  I am finding that watching that plan work through is as satisfying as I found seeing those savings build up.  We were conscientious savers and now we have become conscientious spenders.

We have been clear about what makes us happy and what we want to do with our retirement.  Much of that happiness involves travelling in our campervan.  This is so much fun and gives us so much pleasure [the recent incident has really highlighted this] and we don’t intend to miss out on our dreams just to keep more money in the bank and leave our son with a big inheritance.  We know that life is short and are only too aware that in twenty years time [if we are lucky enough to live that long] we might not want to travel in the same sort of way [but we might] and so we are spending the money now while we are fit and able, not hanging on to it like a comfort blanket.

Apologies for the over-use of parentheses in this post!  My normal writing style will / might resume next time.

 

 

 

Suede and nubuck brush reviewed

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It is a fact of life [in the UK] that our walking shoes get muddy.  Cleaning our walking shoes isn’t the favourite job of either of us but it helps if you have the right tools for the job. I recently needed to replace the simple suede brush we had as the bristles were wearing down.  I found this Kiwi Suede and Nubuck brush in the supermarket and despite it costing more than I expected I decided to see if it was better than the brush I was replacing, as it claimed to have more and better features.

This Kiwi brush is plastic and retails at around £3.  Kiwi recommend that the shorter rubber bristles are used for nubuck, the longer bristles can be used for removing soil in crevices and the shaped plastic edge can clean seams.

I found it didn’t work quite like Kiwi proposed.  After walks on sticky chalk soils and the thick clay of the Yorkshire coast our shoes were heavy with mud.  After each trip we left them to dry for a few days and then tackled the cleaning.  The longer bristles worked the same as any suede brush and got a lot of the dried mud off the shoes, along the seams, the sides of the soul and the top.  The difficult bit of cleaning walking shoes and one where I hoped this tool might help is the grip pattern on the sole.  For walking shoes to provide good traction a complicated grip pattern is designed by manufacturers, with many narrow crevices that get packed full of mud that dries to almost concrete.  In addition small stones lodge in these crevices and need removing.  Suede brushes cannot shift this mud easily and I usually end up seeking out a twig or a metal skewer to clean out the sole.  Instead I tried using the curved plastic edge of the Kiwi brush.  This did tackle these areas quite effectively but after only using the tool twice for our four shoes the plastic edge is showing significant wear; Kiwi don’t claim that this is what the plastic edges are designed for but if the plastic used was tougher it would work well for cleaning the soles of our walking shoes.

As this tool will be worn out very soon I will go back to an ordinary suede brush and a metal skewer to remove the soil from the grip on the soles of our walking shoes, as I really can’t justify the expense and waste of resources involved in buying a new plastic brush every six months.

 

 

Losing face over tyre valves

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Our campervan in the lovely coastal village of Burghead

I not only write travel articles for MMM I also read it from cover-to-cover.  Consequently, when I read the advice from Terry Acreman regarding fitting high-pressure tyre valves to your motorhome (August 2016), I marked the page and promised to do something about it when we had time.   The weeks passed by and the valves remained on the list, until we eventually had time to tackle this.  I contacted Tyresave, as recommended, and purchase five high-pressure tyre valves [one for the spare] and then booked our Renault Master in to National Tyres in Manchester for the fitting.  The appointed day was sunny and as Manchester city centre is just a 15 minute stroll along the canal from National Tyres we thought we would combine the valve-fitting with a leisurely coffee and a visit to a photography exhibition we wanted to see.

We hadn’t even licked the cappuccino froth from our lips when the phone rang; it was National Tyres to say they couldn’t find the wheel brace.  This wasn’t surprising as it is under the bed; feeling it was too complicated to explain, Mr BOTRA volunteered to walk back while I made a start on the exhibition.  About 20 minutes later, while I was unhurriedly admiring the photographs, my phone rang again.  Having arrived and retrieved the wheel brace, Mr BOTRA was on his way back to the exhibition and the tyre fitter was now ringing to say that the first tyre was off and he could see our ‘van was already fitted with good quality high-pressure tyre valves!

Re-united we both returned along the [now very familiar] canal to pick up the ‘van feeling somewhat shame-faced that we hadn’t realised what sort of valves Renault fit on their ‘vans.  The National Tyre’s fitter was very cheery about the whole thing and, to make us feel better, explained that they had only recently started seeing vans fitted with these valves.  National Tyres didn’t charge us anything and Tyresave took the valves back with a generous refund so only our self-respect was lost.