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.

 

 

Spain & Portugal: What did a two months campervan trip cost?

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The river Tormes in Salamanca

We loved touring around Spain and Portugal and highly recommend it.  If you’re planning your own trip to these or many other European countries these costs might be a useful guide, although WARNING – everyone’s trip is their own and everyone’s spending is different.  We are not uber-frugal campers and anyone could do this trip cheaper [even we could if we tried] but this is our trip, it isn’t all about money and we set out to enjoy it in our own way.  So below are a few notes on our spending.

  1. Of the 66 nights we were away only seven of these were spent free-camping, the rest of the time we were on campsites [although we stayed on low-cost camperstops and ACSI sites].
  2. In Portugal we had coffee and cake in a cafe almost everyday because it is cheap enough and the cakes are fantastic [hence the €434 spent in cafes] but we are vegetarian and so had very few evening meals out in restaurants as Portugal isn’t always ready for vegetarians.
  3. We did drink wine or beer every night but we did try some very cheap [and very good] red wine [the lowest we tried was 1.89].
  4. As you can see, we paid to get in to some attractions as we travelled, budget travellers could skip these.
  5. Other spending includes an occasional washing machine, presents for loved ones at home, bike spares, some clothes and a few household replacement items.
  • Diesel – €523
  • Food [supermarkets etc] – €864
  • Cafes & restaurants – €434
  • Campsites – €931
  • Bus fares, taxis etc – €48
  • Entrance fees to attractions – €174
  • Other spending – €146
  • TOTAL SPENDING – €3,120

Interestingly, this amount is more or less the same as we would have spent had we stayed at home [and while away we’ve not been using gas, electric or water in the flat] so the only additional cost to our normal spending has been the ferry.  Portsmouth to Bilbao is an expensive route at £730 but it does take you straight to Spain and I feel that this amount represents better value when spread out over a two month trip.

We have been generous with our budget and expected higher spending than this on our trips away so our annual spending for our first year of retirement is still looking good at the moment despite additional spending following the incident.

 

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.

 

 

 

Nothing compares to a campervan

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The ‘van at Croxden Abbey

It is now over nine weeks since ‘the incident’ and without a campervan we have been forced to try other accommodation ideas for our holidays.  What this period of exile from our ‘van has done is not only reinforce our love of the campervan lifestyle it has also made me realise how much having a van is a part of me and without it the knowledge that something is missing from my life pervades everything.  None of the options we have tried, youth hostels, self-catering cottage, tent and hotel, compared to the sense of freedom we get from travelling in the ‘van.  These different holidays had to be booked and organised beforehand and none of them were as relaxing as being in our own campervan.  Below is the types of accommodation we have tried and how I found them.

Youth Hostels – We used to do lots of youth hosteling with the YHA and I worked at Buttermere youth hostel for a summer season in the 1990s, so we gave this budget option a try for our first break.  Youth Hostels have the big advantage of having a kitchen so we could have home-cooking and remain frugal.  The YHA website allows you to book a series of hostels and at between £29 and £39 a night for a room for two this is a good budget option.  The kitchens can get busy at meal times but they are sociable places; as we had found in the past, youth hostels are great places to meet and chat to other people.  The downside of this is that you can’t find your own space and when I wanted some peace and quiet to sit comfortably chilling and reading my book there wasn’t anywhere to go.  Although we had sole use of a room the bunk beds meant that they were not great for lazing around.  Youth hostels are also often closed during the day time.

Self-catering cottage – This is much less of a budget option, although you can save a lot on eating out as home-cooking is still an option.  We paid £370 for a luxurious cottage for five nights on the edge of the Lake District.  We had our own space, could come and go as we pleased and had everything we needed to hand.  This was a relaxing and enjoyable holiday that came closest to being as good as the campervan.

Camping in a tent – The weather was warm so we set off with a borrowed tent to camp in the Peak District for a couple of nights.  I love being on campsites and so this holiday ticked the box for relaxing on the site watching the world go by.  I was less keen on having to run to the toilets first thing in the morning and we were ill prepared with no relaxing chairs or a table.  With better equipment and in good weather this is a pleasant option, costs the same as staying on a site in the ‘van and we could cook our meals, although the equipment we had was limited … but in the rain it would be dismal.

Hotel –  We paid £90 for a night bed and breakfast in a comfortable hotel in the Yorkshire Dales.  Of course, we have stayed in hotels before and generally agree that they are okay for a night or so but after that we yearn for home cooking.  In the evening we ate at the local Indian restaurant for £40 for the two of us.  For me this makes hotels feel like an expensive option that doesn’t suit us for long holidays.

 

 

 

 

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.