Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Coffee Machine Ownership On The Rise - Does This Mean We're More Frugal Than We Used To Be?

Did you catch this article yesterday?

Aussies are getting more cup for their buck, saving up to $800 a year on cafe-quality coffees with the rise in popularity of affordable at-home machines.

I find the increase in ownership of coffee machines (especially pod based machines, like the Nespresso system) fascinating.

I'd love to believe it represents a growing awareness of how all those little luxury purchases affect the bottom line. I wish I could say it shows that Australians are finally learning to live within our means.

But honestly? I think that it's just one of the new, exciting toys that everyone wants to own right now. To me, a coffee machine in the kitchen represents lifestyle inflation. Five years ago it was ipods, this year it's Nespresso machines. If I don't see an article about increasing ownership of e-readers, and whether it represents a new frugal and / or minimalist zeitgeist, within the next two years I'll be very disappointed.

I'm not telling you that you shouldn't buy a coffee machine. Perfect Boyfriend bought one (for 60% of its retail price!!) a few months back and I love it.

But what I hope the folks running into Nespresso shops with their credit cards understand is: your coffee machine is only saving you money if you're actually saving more money. Has your savings figure gone up since you bought one? Has it changed your spending habits?

It could be true that Australians are becoming more frugal. However I tend to think that there will always be a section of the community who will live within their means, another section who will buy the new exciting toy no matter how much debt they have, and a whole other section who spends big bucks when times are good, and cuts back when that paycheck isn't looking so great anymore. I suspect that those people are currently cutting costs at about the same rate the big miners are cutting jobs in Perth.

Friday, 12 October 2012

I can see clearly now the rain has gone... Wait, nope, it's just my new glasses.

When I was about twenty, years of school and uni finally took their toll on my eyes. I started getting headaches and having trouble reading the slides in lectures... Yep, I needed glasses.

I think I spent about $400 on that first pair of glasses, and I didn't even really like them all that much.

I've learnt a lot since then. Some of what I've learnt is even about buying glasses without spending a whole week's pay. That's what I'm sharing here.

Your eye tests are free.
Medicare will pay for you to have an eye test every two years. Some optometrists will waive the cost of your eye test even if medicare doesn't cover it (i.e. if you've already had a test in the last two years), because they want you to buy your frames from them.

Your employer may partially cover your costs.
This is the case for almost all public servants and a great deal of employees in the private sector. If you work at a computer, usually all you need is a note from your optometrist stating that you require glasses for screen work, and your receipts. Chat to your HR team for more information.

Your health insurance will cover more of the costs at some stores than others.
I looked into it and my health fund offers special deals at Specsavers stores. Some quick maths made it clear that this was my cheapest option. When I visited the Specsavers shop, they were more than happy to check for me exactly what my fund would cover. I chose one pair of awesome frames and one of very stylish sunglasses - $339 in total - but all I paid was $89. I cannot recommend enough that you work out where your insurance dollar counts the most.

Yes, these are actually my new glasses. Are they not beautiful?


It's almost always cheaper to have your old frames updated.
This means that optometrists try to steer you away from it (hint: they're in this business for the excellent profit margin). It costs about $100 at most optometrists to update your current glasses. If you love your frames, there's no need to adjust to a new style when you can have them remade with your new prescription. Speaking of which...

Optometrists HAVE to provide a written prescription if you ask... But they won't offer.
Without your prescription, you can't buy glasses anywhere else. This is what they want. Get your prescription and you suddenly have more options for where you buy your frames.

Don't be afraid to buy glasses online.
All you need is your prescription and your "pupillary distance" (this gets measured as part of your eye test, but you may need to ask for it specifically). I've bought several pairs online and it's always worked out well. I've used Optical4Less and despite the slightly dodgy website and not-so-great English, the glasses were great. It's an excellent site if you don't have health insurance and you need to buy glasses as cheaply as possible. The frames I bought never broke or scratched, though I admit they didn't have that designer look. I've also used SelectSpecs for designer frames. That's where I bought the Burberry frames I'm wearing right now - I tried them on in an optometrist where they would cost $450. I bought them for $149 online. Is it any wonder Australians are turning to internet shopping to save cash? Both sites provided exactly what was promised, with excellent customer service.

I spent more than I had to...
Because my job is reasonably conservative, I'm getting my current black Burberry frames updated so I can wear them to work most days and save the brilliant, colourful frames above for casual wear. I feel lucky to be able to afford this luxury - as one of my favourite heroines, Aurora Teagarden, says, having several pairs of frames is one of the best parts of being rich. For me, it's one of my favourite splurges. Even so, my new frames, new sunglasses and new lenses for my current frames will cost me... $188 ALL UP. That's still half of what I paid for that very first pair years ago. And if I'd chosen frugality over style, I could have paid nothing at all out of pocket.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Choc Chip Cookies

So have I mentioned than when I met Perfect Boyfriend, I was completely overwhelmed by all his food allergies?

He can't have eggs, citrus, peanut or MSG. Peanut is the worst allergy, but it's egg that's presented me with the biggest problem, because I love to bake.

Luckily for both of us, I've developed a knack for creating egg free recipes. Someday I'd love to publish a cookbook of egg free recipes, because I can tell you now that there are basically NO decent egg free recipes for baked goods out there!

This recipe is one of the first I fine-tuned, and it's remained a favourite in our house. The cookies are rich, chewy and delicious. Best of all, they're so easy to make.


Ingredients:
300g self raising flour
250g brown sugar
250g cooking butter
500g choc chips

Preheat oven to 180C. Line baking trays with baking paper.

Soften butter either by leaving it out of the fridge or by cutting it into small cubes and heating in the microwave on high for 20 seconds. (Any longer than this and it could melt, which is not ideal).

Sift flour and sugar into a large bowl. Use your (clean!) hands to rub in the butter. Once butter, sugar and flour are combined, mix in choc chips with your hands.

Shape into small balls and space 3cm apart on baking trays.

Bake for approximately ten minutes or until pale golden and crunchy around the edges.

Tips:
  • Because these cookies do not contain egg, they spread out more than normal cookies, and don't rise as much. You will need to give them more space than you normally would.
  • Cook slightly longer for a crunchier cookie, or if you like yours chewy and soft, remove from the oven as soon as they start to turn golden.
  • The cookie "base" (flour, sugar, butter) can be combined with all different kinds of flavours. Try substituting a few tablespoons of the flour for cocoa if you're keen on a chocolate cookie.
  • I like to use a mix of white, milk and dark choc chips, but anything works.
  • These freeze very well and thaw quickly. Store in airtight plastic containers and leave cookies out of the freezer for about five minutes when it's time to eat them.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Crochet Penguin

Yesterday I finished making this super cute penguin pattern from All About Ami. I started this ages ago when Sophie started hers (published in her last post), but I've been seriously distracted by the launch of Guild Wars 2 and have sadly abandoned my crafty pursuits for the last few months. Hopefully finishing the penguin will keep me motivated for a while.



I'm really happy with my penguin. He looks super snugly with his over-sized scarf. I had to change the size of the body as I started to run out of blue yarn. I kept the sizes of the arms and scarf that same (because I had forgotten that I changed the body size!). I think it works though.

This is a great pattern and I recommend having a look at All About Ami; the blog has some really cute patterns. She's even got a pattern for Link which I really have to try some time!  

Thursday, 30 August 2012

A Penguin for Penelope

We welcomed my new niece, Penelope Joy, into the world a month ago. She's super cute and she actually sleeps - who knew that some babies actually sleep? I would never have guessed it.

I wanted to make something special for her. I've been crocheting baby rugs for a few years now, but I decided it was time to go all out: it was time to learn how to crochet a toy.

Happily, I had Emily to teach me the stitches I needed, and to explain how to follow patterns. I don't know how I would have done it without her! She even found me an easy pattern to try: gorgeous Snuggles the Penguin from All About Ami. There are a few toy patterns on this blog that are definitely on the to-do list now :-)


My penguin isn't perfect, but I think he's pretty great for a first timer!

I changed the pattern a little bit by using a 4mm hook and 8ply yarn, instead of a 2mm hook and 4ply yarn. The penguin feels like a good size and weight to me - after all, there'll be a baby chewing on him and throwing him around the nursery soon enough, so he needs to have a little bit of heft to him.


My favourite childhood toys were all crocheted by my Grandma, and it makes me so happy that I can now crochet toys for my nieces and nephews.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Rockpool Salted Butter Caramels

I was recently lucky enough to be taken to Rockpool for a big family dinner... Yum. It was a great meal (and needless to say, great company) but at over $100 a head, it wouldn't be a regular event for me. I ordered the salted butter caramels for dessert and they were AMAZING! I loved them and immediately wanted to try making them myself.

One quick search later, and I had my hands on the recipe courtesy of Trissalicious. (This blog also has a lot of original recipes that I'd like to try at some stage).


This recipe was the final prompt to buy a sugar thermometer, which I've been meaning to do for years. Boy, am I glad I did. I've tried out the recipe three times now (half-batches each time, in case of massive culinary failure) and it's worked well each time. An $8 thermometer was well worth the money.

 
 
The trouble with cooking delicious caramel (and watching that thermometer closely) is that it smells great, but you can't taste it along the way unless you want to burn your tongue. Which I don't. 
 
 

When I ordered the caramels for dessert at Rockpool it cost $8 for about ten pieces, and the half-batches I've made have each produced over 50 pieces, for a total cost of about $4 - $5 per half-batch. Each time I've cooked them it's taken about half an hour, plus another half an hour to cut and wrap the caramels individually. So it's a relatively cheap and easy recipe, but the final product has a huge wow factor. I suspect that these will be added to my go-to list for homemade presents.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Butterfly Themed Baby Shower

I'm so excited because my big sister Katy is due to have a little girl in a few weeks time... I bet she's going to be gorgeous!
I teamed up with two of Katy's very talented and dedicated friends to throw her a pretty awesome baby shower last weekend (even if I do say so myself!).


We chose a butterfly theme (the amazing Jo picked up on my sister's love of butterfly themed decorations, so the credit goes to her). In the photo above you can see butterfly cupcake picks in the tasty lemon cupcakes Jo made, a display of melting moments I baked, and table decorations by Miriam. She chose flowers that would work with our colour scheme, and arranged them beautifully. She also decorated candle holders with paper to match the rest of the decorations - perfect!


This is (as you can tell) the drinks table, arranged under a butterfly banner and some very sweet butterfly wall stickers. Jo found both of those on Etsy. We served champage with hibiscus flowers in syrup, pink lemonade and english breakfast tea.


The only non-pretty food was my baked savouries! Sigh. I should have put more effort into their presentation. You can see party pies and vegetarian curry puffs, with a tray of mini quiches over on the left. I didn't make the quiches - you can tell because they look better than my savouries. However, what I do like in this photo is that you can see the butterfly foils placed on the serviettes :-) And to be fair, my savouries still tasted great even if they weren't all that pretty.



Miriam is about to become a new Mum, she works long hours in a demanding job, and she still managed to find time to bake three kinds of macarons. How?? She's promised to teach me how to make macarons - mine have always failed. In this photo you can see the sweet food labels Miriam made with little paper butterflies. I wish I had her creativity.


And finally, scones with whipped caramel butter, homemade strawberry jam, and cream. Yum.

Having three people team up to host an event makes it so much easier. Best of all, Katy really loved the shower and her friends had a relaxed, fun time.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

If You're Only Going to Read One Personal Finance Article This Week...

It should be this one.

Justine Davies explains the predicament parents find themselves in when juggling financial pressure with the desire to - crazy suggestion - actually spend time with their children:

Being a primary carer is a role that’s at odds with current economic reality, whereby it really does take two incomes to afford a house, a car and the running expenses of day-to-day life.
 Read it!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Happy Financial New Year!

I've decided to stop beating myself up about falling off the frugal wagon. You know what? I didn't actually spend THAT much more than I should have (I think my budget slipped by $20 - $30 a week) and I was still saving as much as I should - one of the many benefits of "paying yourself first".

What I've also realised is that I need to be more realistic in my expectations of my own behaviour. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect, which is an impossible goal. No one's perfect (even Perfect Boyfriend has been known to make the occassional mistake). I'm working full time in a demanding job with a high level of responsibility and stress, I'm studying at a post-graduate level part time, and I'm honouring my commitments to my beloved family. Heck, I'm even slowly building up my fitness again after being ill and injured this past twelve to eighteen months. I'm doing pretty well! So if I'm saving somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of my income, I can forgive myself an infrequent takeaway or coffee.

Moving on.

It's the first day of the new financial year!

What does this mean?

You get to submit your tax return anytime from now onwards... So you'll probably have a refund (yay!), but if you're unlucky or you've left those finances to flounder this year, possibly a bill.

What else? Well, you have a brand new financial year in which you can achieve those financial goals you've been daydreaming about.

When you're setting financial goals, you need to focus on what it's realistic to achieve based on your income and financial commitments. You need to set a date by which you will have achieved this goal. And you need a plan for how you'll get from "this is what I want to do!" to "wow, I did it".

I have two financial goals for this financial year: pay off my student debt, and contribute $13,000 minimum to my savings.

Student debt in Australia is not all that awful. It doesn't even qualify as a "bad debt" according to most people. Why? We used to have free university education, and when the government at the time scrapped that, very real concerns were raised that only the rich would be able to pay for degrees. So the government set up a system whereby it provides interest free loans for the majority of university students, and the repayments are based on a percentage of your income once you're working full time.

Any Americans reading this right now are probably thinking huh? Interest free loans? Yep, I get the impression we're very lucky with this system. Loans are indexed by the rate of inflation (usually 3%) each year, and the repayment scheme is generous. It's taken out of your pay before it even gets to you, just like our tax contributions. I currently earn slightly more than the average income in Australia, and I only pay $250 a fortnight towards my student debt. If you don't earn above a certain amount each year, you don't have to make any repayments at all. Some people never have to pay off their debt, because their degrees lead to low-earning professions.

However, I'd rather not have this debt at all. For a start, while the loan is only increasing at the rate of inflation, that money would look great in my savings account gaining compound interest.

My debt is currently $10,500, so if I keep paying it off automatically, it'll take almost two years at the current contribution rate. Instead, I'm going to save up the $4000 extra I'll need to pay it off, I'll have to ready and waiting by next May so that the payment can be transferred prior to 1 June (indexation date). I'm not making the voluntary payment any earlier than that because I'd like it to gather dust - I mean, 4.5% interest - in my savings account instead of sitting in government coffers, earning someone else that interest. As mentioned, by paying it off in full prior to 1 June my debt won't be raised in line with inflation, so there's no downside to keeping the cash where it'll work harder for me. I don't have a separate plan to save this money - it'll just be included in my normal fortnightly savings each payday.

Speaking of which...

This financial year I'm going to save at least $13,000, which is $500 from each pay. The due date for this figure is June 2013 (i.e. the end of the next financial year). This is realistic with my budget (which I'll be posting about soon). I will achieve this via automatic transfers from my spending account to my savings account each payday. I may even exceed this goal - we'll see! This is my "long term savings", which is only a portion of the total amount I save each fortnight.

Have you set any goals for the financial new year?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Red Velvet Cupcakes

When I first heard about red velvet cupcakes I really didn't see their appeal. It takes a lot of food colouring to make cake red... although the examples I'd seen on the internet did look rich and delicious. Despite some reservations I decided to try them because I'd heard that red velvet cake goes well with cream cheese frosting and cream cheese frosting is the best. I used this recipe from taste.com.



The recipe didn't turn out a red as some of the ones I'd seen and I used a whole (small) bottle of colouring. My theory is that I baked them a little too long and the outside became browner than desired. They were very red on the inside however. I took the cakes to work and unfortunately they were gone before I could take a picture of a bitten one. At least they were a success at the morning tea!


This was probably the most successful batch of cupcakes I've made, but I think that had more to do with the buttermilk used in the batter and the cream cheese frosting than the red food colouring. I think most people at morning tea thought they were chocolate cup cakes... oh well! They all said the icing was delicious :-)

Sunday, 10 June 2012

"Spur of the Moment" Pumpkin Soup

One of the first things I start craving when the weather gets cold is pumpkin soup and the other day, while standing in the middle of a busy supermarket, I decided I that I had to have some. The only trouble was I didn't have a recipe with me and could only half remember what goes in it. I decided to try anyway and this is what I bought:

2 x Kent pumpkin halves (I chose Kent pumpkin because it tends to cooks faster than other varieties)
1 x red onion
Garlic cloves
Liquid vegetable stock (four cups)
Butter
Cream
Bread

To make the soup I cubed the pumpkin and roasted it for twenty minutes with several garlic cloves. Meanwhile, the red onion was cut up and cooked gently with a little butter in a large stock pot. Once the pumpkin was roasted, I added it to the pot along with half the garlic cloves. I added the four cups of stock and let simmer for about ten minutes. Once the soup had reduced, I blended it with a stick mixer until it was smooth and bright orange. To finish, I added a little cream and salt and pepper.

To go with the soup I made (half) homemade garlic bread. Using the remaining garlic cloves, I made a quick garlic butter which was applied liberally to a par baked roll. The roll was baked for ten minutes and severed hot. 

Here is the result; thick, creamy and just the way I like it. I'm already planning to might it again!




Monday, 4 June 2012

The Frugal Sisterhood and some financial reading

Yesterday I exchanged unwanted goods with my sister. It seems to me such a great example of frugal living: I had window boxes I needed to get rid of, she wanted window boxes to plant flowers outside a bedroom. She had yarn she was never going to use from a short-lived foray into knitting, I use yarn up fairly quickly because I crochet baby rugs for my friends and family. My new pile of yarn is going to make some excellent presents :-)


This is the kind of everyday exchange that characterises my relationship with my big sister, and I'm grateful. We're both still learning how to live within our means and it's easier when there's somebody in your life who understands exactly what you're doing and why.

The only downside is that spending time with my big sister is making me miss my middle sister, who recently moved across the country to Melbourne.

Anyway. On a less personal note, it's been an interesting long weekend for financial news and opinion:
I am absolutely horrified to see that withholding financial support is now classed as domestic abuse. Don't get me wrong: I think there are definitely situations in which withholding money could be abuse. But as a blanket definition? No, no, no. Choosing to have someone in your life should not automatically mean that they are legally entitled to your money and can shout "abuse!" if you don't bankroll them. It's up to each couple to figure out how to handle money in their relationship.

The generations column at News.Com evaluated renting and buying. There are no surprises in this article, but it's a good summary of both options and it's worth reading if you're in two minds about it.

Childcare costs are up an average of 11 per cent. Jeez. Thinking of having children and working? Make sure you include these costs in your calculations - I really doubt that minimum wage earners could come out ahead if they're paying for childcare, housing, school etc.

I love this article about the definition of productivity and whether working longer and harder always means you're more productive. It's rare to see an opinion piece that implies Australians could be working too much, even though my anecdotal experience is that most of us do feel we're working too hard, for too many hours, and not enjoying life enough.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Vanilla Bean Scones with Whipped Caramel Butter

On the weekend I baked vanilla bean scones with whipped caramel butter as a treat for Perfect Boyfriend and one of his brothers. They were making the most of the new xbox by having a games afternoon, but I braved the testosterone-laden atmosphere and insisted that they sit down to have high tea with me.


Both recipes come from the Afternoon Tea cookbook by Australian Woman's Weekly, and the vanilla bean scones recipe is available online here.

I can't find the recipe for the whipped caramel butter online, but I'm sure one tiny recipe won't get me into copyright trouble:
150g soft butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or you can use vanilla bean paste, as I did).
Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl and beat until creamy.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Off the Frugal Rails

I've been off the rails lately: the frugal rails.

I guess I've been pretty stressed, and it's showing up in my spending habits.

How? A lot of lunches bought during the work day instead of bringing lunch from home, giant flat whites bought at the coffee shop almost every day, purchases that I haven't thought through properly (I bought black jeans instead of blue! At least they're still fit for purpose as it were), a t-shirt I didn't even really want for a concert that I'd already spent far too much on a ticket for, and countless convenience meals after work with Perfect Boyfriend.

Thing is, my life is only going to be more stressful for at least the next few months. I started in a new role today, though not a new job as such, and it looks like I'll be far busier than I was in the old role. Given that I was already a tad busier than I can handle, this means I'll be working long hours and I'll be short on "life organisation" time. That's what I call the time you spend cleaning your house, making your own lunches and organising free or cheap dates with your special one. These things take time! Added to my actual work workload will be my uni workload, and my obligations to loved ones, including hosting two baby showers in the next little while.

So what am I going to do to get back on the horse?
  • Remind myself of my budget, which allows plenty of room for discretionary or fun spending. I don't need to spend more than that on fun or convenience.
  • Keep tracking every dollar I spend. I've been doing this for a few years now, and sure everyone tells me that I'm a dag for doing it, but it keeps me on the straight and narrow most of the time.
  • Make up big batches of food on the weekends (when I have time) to help get me through the working week. I recently made a lasagne so large it divided easily into 14 portions, and they'll reheat beautifully from the freezer on cold nights when I'm exhausted after work. I have vegetable quiche in the oven right now, which will provide me with at least eight work lunches.
  • Make sure that if I'm going to spend money on a meal I haven't cooked myself, I make it count. Delicious iku sushi with Emily before our lecture on Tuesday nights? Awesome. Coffee with my lovely friend on Wednesday afternoon? Done. But a slighty disgusting, unsatisfying lunch from the cafe downstairs from my office, eaten at my desk while I reply to emails? So not worth it.
  • Kick the coffee habit (again). I don't need it and I don't think it actually adds value to my life. It just wastes money and adds to the waistline.
  • Make sure that I spend lots of time with Perfect Boyfriend that involves spending little or no money. Cooking for each other and watching DVDs is a great date in my book - possibly because we both love to cook - but just as special are all the little ways we can spend time together. I walked him home from work tonight! And it was great. Other plans? Picnics, long walks around the river and afternoon teas with our families.
  • Avoid the shops. Full stop.
Does anyone have good tips for me on how to break the spending cycle?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Wearing a Jumper Instead of Turning on the Heater: Condescending or Common Sense?

I was reading the news online at work today (yep, I'm naughty) and I was horrified to come across this article.
People should wear jumpers, use blankets, play board games and walk more to save on energy bills this winter, a Federal Government website says.  
But the suggestions are "very condescending" and overlook the cost of living struggles of many Victorian families, organisations that help the vulnerable say.

The article goes on to quote a charity as stating that most families on low incomes are already doing everything they can to lower their energy bills, which I would agree with. Once you start chatting to people who honestly don't have a single dollar to spare, you find out how frugal some folks really are.

What I have a problem with is the concept that advising others to wear a jumper and turn off the TV is condescending. To me, it seems like this is common sense. I may choose to continue to watch TV or use the computer despite the energy usage, but I know that if I was serious about receiving the lowest electricity bill possible I would turn the idiot box off. Heck, if I was so poor that I didn't think I could pay the power bill when it arrived, I'd probably go to bed at 7pm to avoid using the lights or indeed any electricity at all.

Maybe I'm alone in thinking this is common sense? Or maybe I spend too much time in the frugal mindset.

Anyway. It's started getting cold even here in sunny Perth, so I've started wearing warmer clothes in the evening. Some nights I even change into my flannelet jammies as soon as I get home from work - Perfect Boyfriend is a lucky man! If I start feeling too cold, I jump on the exercise bike for five or ten minutes until I'm toasty again. During Winter I like to cook in the oven anyway, and that tends to take the edge off the cold in my little home. Homemade lasagne or apple crumble goes down a treat on a chilly night!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Saving Money On Home Decorating

I decided some time ago (about when some of the old vertical blinds started to go mouldy) that buying some new window dressings for my home, the Bake Lair, was going to be a priority. But when I asked around with some of my friends who've used professional window dressing companies... Well. I had three windows that needed blinds, and there was no way I was paying $1000 or more for the three. It represented a "convenience charge" to me - those companies get away with charging so much because they measure the windows, they supply the blinds, they cut them, they install them. It's a lazy tax, and like everyone else I'll pay for the convenience in some situations... but not this one.

I decided there had to be a cheaper way.
First up, I tried to figure out an easy solution. Ready to hang blinds that you can install yourself are great - unless your windows aren't standard sizes. I spoke to a certain hardware chain about having blinds cut to size. Summary: expensive, poor quality products, and they were going to ship them all the way to the Eastern States to be cut. Nope. I tried a curtain shop: reasonably priced but poor quality product, and they weren't even in stock. But here's where the curtain shop earned a place in my heart forever: they gave me the card of a woman who professionally cuts blinds to size.

I did find timber venetians that were sturdy and had a beautiful finish, but not at a specialist curtain or renovations store. I found them at Spotlight. Better still, Spotlight has sales on regularly where the price of blinds are slashed, so instead of $159 per window they cost $99 per window. Cost so far? $297.
My Dad and I took a road trip out to the woman who cuts blinds (I really can't make that into a proper job title!) and she cut the two sets of blinds that needed to be cut to fit, reduced the length of one set, and did some tricky cutting magic to make the set for the kitchen fit properly around the tile splashback... For $65. Bargain! I gave her $70 and she threw in the right kind of drill bit and screws, and plenty of advice on installing them.
We borrowed a drill, and my Dad and Perfect Boyfriend spent a grand total of an hour and a half installing them.
Total cost: $367.


You can see how great they look in the kitchen!
So sometimes there's not an easy way to save on what you want to renovate in your home, or you don't have the specific DIY skills required - even my Dad, who can do just about anything, wasn't game to cut the blinds. You can still find a way to save.

One thing I learnt from this experience was that small operators sometimes charge a lot less for the services you need. If you shop around, buy on sale, enlist the expertise of people who can undertake some of the DIY for you, borrow the equipment, and only pay for the services you really can't source another way, you can save a bundle.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Decadent Brownies - No Egg, Of Course

Emily gave me a brownie recipe some time ago which I've converted into an egg-free recipe with the help of my old friend, plain yoghurt. I've also adapted it slightly because I'm too lazy to faff around with plain flour and baking soda if I can help it! This is an extremely chocolately recipe. It definitely qualifies as chocolate overload.



Yep, that's chocolatey!

Ingredients:
2 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup cocoa
125g butter, melted
200g natural, plain yoghurt
1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
2 cups self raising flour
250g dark choc chips

Pre-heat oven to 160 degrees celcius. Any recipe that replaces egg with yoghurt will need to be cooked at a lower temperature than an eggy version, and for a longer time. Why? No idea, but that's the magic of baking for you.

Sift sugar and cocoa into a large bowl. Pour in melted butter and stir well. Add yoghurt and stir. Once yoghurt is mixed in, add vanilla and mix well - you may need to beat it slightly at this stage. Add flour and beat. Fold choc chips through the mixture.

Pour mix into a ceramic baking tray (20cm by 20cm works well) lined with non-stick baking paper. Bake for at least half an hour before testing with a skewer. Once brownie is set through, remove from oven and allow to cool completely before decorating and cutting.

Tips
  • The brownies keep well for almost a week, and undecorated or iced will freeze and thaw well.
  • Nuts in place of the choc chips would be delicious - walnuts, maybe?
  • Because I live with a chocolate addict, my brownies are iced with Betty Crocker chocolate frosting and topped with tiny, colourful chocolate bits. But they would be great simply dusted with icing sugar, or dripping with a dark chocolate ganache.
  • This makes a huge batch, so it would be worth halving it if you're not making them for a party.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mother's Day Madeleines

I bought this cookbook some time ago.


It's great. There are maybe a handful of recipes I'm unlikely to try out, but other than that, it's all gold. I'm planning to slowly work my way through and learn some traditional baking skills.

For a novice cook, this is a perfect start to baking cakes, biscuits and other treats. The instructions are easy to follow and there are detailed guides to tricky techniques. There aren't too many hard-to-find ingredients, either.

It was Mother's Day yesterday and we had lunch with Perfect Boyfriend's perfect mother. (No exaggeration, she really is wonderful). This raised the question of what I should bake and bring. When someone is cooking you a meal (or hosting you for any social occasion, for that matter) you must bring something whether it's a bottle of wine or dessert. I know that's an old-fashioned rule but good manners never go out of style.

After reading the cookbook back to front a few times I decided that madeleines were the way to go. They were so easy to make! And they turned out just right. The only issue I had was that they became a little too sticky the next day so I'd recommend baking them on the day you're serving them. Which is easy, because they only take ten minutes to mix up the batter and ten minutes in the oven. I have a silicone madeleine pan which I used for the first time, and they popped out of the pan straight from the oven.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Saving on sickness

I have the flu.

But it's not as bad as it could be. Why? My frugal habits.

I have a first aid kit which is stocked with painkillers, bandaids, bandages, throat lozenges and strapping tape for when I break a toe once or twice a year. And guess what? They all cost me a LOT less than they would if I had to go to my nearest chemist to buy them now. Buying these necessities when they're not necessary saves you money. It also saves you from having to venture out into the world when all you want to do is stay snuggled under your blanket for the next three days.

I always have a well stocked pantry. While I must admit to begging Perfect Boyfriend to get me some rainbow paddlepops while he was out last night, already having plenty of easy to prepare, tasty and nutritious food in the house helps no end. When I make large batches of meals and store some individual portions in the freezer, I'm insuring myself against just this kind of situation. You're not going to be up to cooking when you're sick. It's far better to reheat some frozen mushroom risotto (mmm) than to have to starve, eat nothing but the dry crackers you've found hidden in the cupboard when you have a sore throat, or survive on takeaway while your body is desperate for some decent nutrition.



I take care of myself. I must admit, this is a fairly new thing for me. I used to work too much, take too much on in my personal life, and generally just run myself ragged. My health has suffered a lot as a result. Now? I get eight hours of sleep most nights, I eat three nutritious meals most days (nobody's perfect) and when I get sick, I go to the doctor. This way, the severity and duration of my flu is not nearly as bad as it would have been if I caught it after a weekend of hard partying, no sleep, a twelve hour day at work and a Mars Bar for lunch. Taking care of yourself is the best. I wish I'd figured this out sooner.

I've signed up to automatically receive my medicare refunds. Medicare now allows you to sign up with your bank details and they'll send you the refund on medical bills automatically. While I still have to pay the full amount on the day I see my doctor, within the next few days I have a 50% refund sitting in my account. Confession: back when you had no other option but to line up at a medicare storefront and hand over your receipts to get your refund, I didn't always bother. For a start, those medicare offices are only open during, you guessed it, office hours. If you haven't already signed up for automatic refunds check it out here.


Friday, 4 May 2012

Fun money - why you need to give it a special place in your budget

I know that some people can manage never ever to spend money on non-necessities. They do exist, and many of them write personal finance blogs about how you don't NEED anything other than basic food, shelter, and medical care, so you therefore shouldn't really be spending on anything outside those categories.

That's not me.

In my budget, there's always room for fun stuff. I'm lucky enough that the amount that gets paid into my account (my salary) is higher than the amount that's going to come straight back out (mortgage, bills, groceries, and a generous chunk of savings). When I write up my little budget every fortnight, there's a set amount allocated to "discretionary spending". You might call yours fun money, mad money or even your allowance. Whatever you call it, it's your you money.

While I spend plenty of this money on lots of fun things every fortnight like a coffee with friends, a packet of lemon sherbets, the occasional dinner out and even "stuff" like books and DVDS, generally I don't spend it all. I let some of it accumulate in my account. Then when I want to spend a larger chunk than I would normally allocate to fun in the budget, I've already saved up my discretionary funds for whatever it is I want. Like the Star Wars Xbox I bought this week - it's awesome! And I had the *cough* $550 *cough* all ready and waiting to pay for it, out of my very own fun money. That's what it's there for.


Why do I think fun money is so important?
  • I'm not willing to completely give up my social life / leaving the house, and while there are loads of ways to have fun without spending money, sometimes you have to spend a little money to have a lot of fun. And that's okay.
  • I like buying presents. Today, for example, Perfect Boyfriend wasn't feeling well so I picked up some of his favourite English chocolate as a surprise. I like that part of my personality, and with a fun money fund, I can indulge it.
  • I think I would, quite simply, go CRAZY if I never got to spend some money spontaneously / on things I just want. You need a little freedom and spontaneity in your life occasionally.
  • I'm not perfect, and neither are you. If you're covering all your necessities and saving towards your future, why can't you buy some things you want along the way? To me, getting to spend a small proportion of my income on nice clothes, books and yarn (oh, the yarn) helps keep me on track with saving forty five per cent of my income.
Han Solo loves fun money so much, he's breaking out in a song and dance routine that both horrifies and delights me.


Happy International Star Wars Day!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Anzac Cookies

I made these Anzac cookies last week when I had a few friends coming around for dinner. I love cooking for my loved ones, but it's never anything fancy! I make Mum-food - the kind of food you can imagine a kind, slightly nutty middle-aged mother making. Instead it's a mostly kind, very nutty young nerd cooking these meals, but at least I'll be really great at baking by the time I am a middle-aged Mum. Right?


This recipe was passed on to me by one of my aunts - a very good aunt, in fact - who found it in the 1943 Willow Cookbook. Yep, 1943. Turns out in those days, the ingredients for baking must have been a lot less varied and interesting. I base this on the slightly disturbing lack of specificity in the recipe: it just says "flour" and "sugar", not which kinds! It took a little bit of trial and error but eventually I figured out how to make the recipe work.

Ingredients:
1 cup plain flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup dessicated coconut
90g butter
1 tablespoon golden syrup
1 teaspoon bicarb soda / baking soda
2 tablespoons boiling water

Sift flour and sugar into large bowl, mix in oats and coconut. Melt butter and add to boiling water. Mix golden syrup and bicarb soda into the butter mix.

Combine wet and dry ingredients, mix well.

Use about one teaspoon of mix for each cookie, drop onto baking paper on tray and bake for about ten minutes or until golden brown.

These are definitely the chewy kind of Anzac cookies. They have a sweet, almost nutty flavour and the oats and coconut give them a more interesting texture than most cookies.

The mix makes about fifty cookies so it's great when you have a whole heap of people coming over, or if you're bringing them to a party. It's too many to just have in the house (trust me, you won't be able to stop yourself from eating them all) but they do freeze well.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Cinnamon Cookies

I really wanted to use my cookie cutters today... But not on a boring old recipe I've made over and over. I needed a new cookie recipe! A quick search on Taste turned up these Honey and Cinnamon Christmas Trees, which looked perfect.

Unfortunately my dough was too soft to be a "roll and cut" style of cookie. I wonder if there should have been more flour in my mixture? Anyway, I decided they would be very cute baked as round, plump cookies with icing drizzled on top.


They taste pretty great, too! I modified the recipe slightly by substituting golden syrup for honey (because golden syrup is wonderful), increasing the amount of cinnamon to one full teaspoon and adding in about a quarter of a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste. The icing is just icing sugar, water and a tiny bit of food colouring.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Gardening Without Breaking the Bank

If I could have a massive garden that took hours and hours of work and cost me an absolute packet, I would. But I've adjusted to my circumstances. A small balcony that gets almost no sunlight is all the space I have to work with, and the Sophie-wages wouldn't cover the kind of gardening spending habit I'd love to have (hello, acres of roses). Between full time work and post-graduate study, I probably don't have time to maintain a massive and exotic garden just now anyway.

My limited experience creating and maintaining my balcony garden has taught me a few things about what to do and what NOT to do if you don't want to waste time, energy and money but you want great results.

Learn the limitations of your space.
As stated above, my balcony gets very little sunlight. Your garden space might get hot sun all day, or no sun at all. It might have sandy soil or rich, dark dirt. You might live in a dry area or one with plenty of rainfall. Think about these factors: they matter.

Choose plants that match your space.
Boy, did I get this wrong. I killed miniature roses, petunias, pansies, gerberas, tomatoes, salad leaves, all kinds of herbs, portulacas, cordylines, flax, and about twenty other kinds of plants before I realised that my choices were all wrong for my space. I wasted about $300 on plants that were never going to survive in the environment I had available. Some day I'll have a wonderful vegetable patch, herb garden and more rose bushes than you could imagine, but it's not going to happen on my balcony. Now I grow ficus, calanchoes, rhea, philodendrons, and even a small umbrella tree, amongst other things.

Phone a friend.
Unless you're already a gardening expert, there's bound to be someone in your life who knows more about plants than you do. I finally caved in and asked my Dad for help after several rounds of "oh gosh all my plants are dead" and he was a huge help! If you don't have someone to ask, ask the internets. Googling "shade tolerant plants" is a fantastic way to find endless resources on your particular gardening issue.

Start small.
Don't go out and buy enough plants for your whole garden. You have no guarantee that you'll still be interested in gardening a month or a year from now, or that the plants you pick will be right for your space (even if you've done your research). It's a bit like borrowing your neighbour's dog for a week to teach your kids about the responsibility of pet ownership. If you can keep your first selection of plants alive for more than three months, it's time to buy a few more. Take it slow. Nature will still be there once you're sure you won't forget to water the roses.

Don't buy at the usual places.
Large plastic pots with good drainage cost about $20 each from Bunnings, or $3.50 each from the Reject Shop. Plants are far cheaper bought from wholesale nurseries, market gardens and community plant sales than from a retail nursery.

Get creative.
I bought the wrong kind of pots initially - no drainage! One of my aunts took one look at the pots and asked why I didn't just use a hammer and nail to knock drainage holes in the bottom of the pots. Duh. I use stools and mini-shelves I already owned to stand pots on at different heights for the look I was after on my balcony. Think outside the square and your garden will be even more unique.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Saving on Groceries

I've recently cut my weekly grocery bill from $250 to $150... Which is still relatively high for a two-person household! I've got some work to do to get it lower, but I thought I'd share the ways I've cut it down by 40% so far.

I cook. A lot.
It's much cheaper to cook a meal at home than to buy take-away. Everyone knows that. We always cooked most of the meals we eat, but I've upped the ante lately. It would be rare for us to have take-away more than once a fortnight at the very most now. I cook tasty, reasonably nutritious meals at home, and I think it's improving our health as well as the grocery bill.

I plan every meal for the week,  without exception.
This requires a little bit of work - but I enjoy it! I plan breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for two people for the whole week. This means that you won't be running out of food and running out to a fast food place / the supermarket as a result. Or, much more of an issue for me, buying twice as much food as you really need because you overestimate how much you'll eat.

I audit the pantry.
A tidy pantry is an absolute must unless you want to spend a fortune on ingredients you already have on hand, or fail to buy them because you haven't realised that the packet of icing sugar in the back of the cupboard is two years past its use-by date. Before I write the menu for the next week I check what we have and I often base meals around what we have available.
I only shop once a week.
Every time you go to the supermarket, you pick up a few things that aren't on your list. The less frequently you shop, the fewer "extras" you'll be buying.

I make more things from "scratch" at home.
Okay, tipping some bread mix into the bread maker isn't really cooking from scratch, is it? But I get the same super fresh, delicious loaf of multigrain bread as I'd buy at the bakery for $5 minimum... And it's only cost me $2 for the breadmix and yeast, plus minimal costs for water and electricity. I could buy bread cheaper than that, but it wouldn't be anywhere near the same quality. I make pizza dough in the bread maker too - it tastes better than shop-bought pizza bases and it's cheaper. At Christmas time I used the bread maker to make jam for my family. I haven't discovered all the functions yet but that machine has well and truly won a place in my heart.

We cook large batches.
I only have a relatively small fridge and freezer, but even so it's possible to cook meals in large batches and freeze them for later. Chilli con carne? That can be burritos one week, quesadillas the next and tacos the week after that. Perfect Boyfriend's bolognese sauce can keep me happy for weeks with small serves dragged out of the freezer and warmed for dinner on a cold night.

I only buy what I'll actually eat.
This has been a real issue for me in the past. I eat something once and love it, so I think I'll suddenly start eating it every day. Nope. It just goes to waste.

I need very few cleaning products now that I'm on board the Enjo train.
I'm sure I'll discuss this in greater detail in another post, but if you've been buying as many bottles of shower cleaner as I used to, you'll understand that not buying cleaning chemicals or paper towels is fantastic for the wallet. I wish I'd invested in long-life cleaning materials sooner.

None of these improvements has resulted in a lower standard of living in my little household- if anything, it's been the opposite. And I feel great about not wasting as much food as I once did.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Tonight's Dinner: Bacon, Zucchini and Asparagus Pasta

I'm always on the lookout for tasty and easy dinners. One of my recent finds is this bacon, zucchini and asparagus pasta

It's not exactly healthy, but it does contain a lot of vegetables and makes good leftovers for lunch the next day.
 

Zucchini is currently my favourite vegetable, I can't get enough of it! The secret ingredient in this recipe however is the anchovies. I know anchovies are an acquired taste, but they are amazing in something like this. They melt away and leave an intense salty flavour that soaks into the vegetables. Yum!


The sauce will taste very strong before the pasta is added. The lemon juice and cream cheese help to balance the anchovies. 


The pasta is definitely worth trying if you like anchovies. If you don't, the pasta is probably (almost) as good without them. 

Hmmm I really need to work on my food photography... and iron my tea towels apparently!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Hot Cross Buns and Easter Fudge

Easter was fairly quiet this year giving me a chance to spend some quality time in the kitchen.

After reading Sophie's post I was inspired to give hot cross buns a go. I used a recipe from Taste.com, which was easy enough to follow. I've never attempted to bake anything with yeast before, but it was surprisingly simple. Mix yeast, sugar and milk, wait ten minutes... Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, knead dough, wait two hours... form buns and put into baking tray, wait another hour... Simple enough, but with LOTS of waiting.

Still, the wait was worth it. Seeing how much the buns had risen was very rewarding.


Taking them out of the oven and eating them was even better!

I had the same problem as Sophie with the crosses however. According to my baker brother, it's because I was using the wrong flour. He recommended rice flour. I will have to investigate this next time.

In between waiting for the hot cross buns to rise, I also made Easter fudge. Fudge at Easter is a tradition in my family. My Nana makes it, my Mum makes it and as of this year, I make it. My family prefers a crumbly fudge (which I think is called Scottish tablet ) but my previous attempts to make it have not gone well. It requires a level of precision that I don't seem to have and can easily burn. So instead I make cheat's fudge. I've unfortunately lost the original recipe and I can no longer find it on the internet... luckily it's easy enough to remember.

Add two blocks of chocolate (I used dark chocolate but you can use a mix of milk and dark), a can of condensed milk, about 30 grams of butter and a pinch of salt to a pot.


Stir until melted and combined, then remove from heat. Add tasty extras like macadamias, pistachios, dried fruit, etc. Pour into a lined baking tray. Allow to cool slightly and then refrigerate for at least three hours.


This fudge has a smooth, creamy texture which is quite different from traditional fudge. The results seem like they require a lot more effort then they really do - especially when you dress it up like this.


If you have a sweet tooth, this recipe is definitely worth a try!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Frugal Coffee Drinking

An exceptionally frugal colleague of mine asked me this week: is it cheaper to drink coffee made in a plunger, or coffee in those little instant sachets you just add hot water to?

I don’t think he realised what he had unleashed until I provided him with the following breakdown.
 
Our office provides boiling water, milk, sugar, and poor quality instant coffee powder. So theoretically we could drink coffee all day for free - except that the free coffee powder is disgusting. That’s option one: free, disgusting coffee.
 
Another option is to buy a jar of decent quality instant coffee powder and use it instead of the gross stuff. A 200g jar of Nescafe Gold costs $16.69 and contains 117 servings, so that’s 14.26 cents per cup of coffee.


Or you could buy ground coffee and a plunger. A single serve plunger will cost you anywhere from $10 up. Let’s assume you’re reasonably savvy and buy it at that price. A 200g package of ground coffee costs $6.93 and contains approximately 40 servings, so each cup of coffee costs you 17.33 cents plus your capital outlay of $10 for the plunger.



My frugal colleague uses ground coffee in a plunger some of the time, but he also uses instant sachets for cappuccinos on other days. They cost 63 cents each, so I was able to give him the quick answer that the plunger-made coffee was cheaper than the sachets.



There’s a more luxurious option: buy yourself a coffee machine and a thermos, and bring your hot coffee into work. Let’s say you’re lazy like me, so the only way you’re going to use a coffee machine is if it’s easy – this limits your choice to the machines that turn tiny alfoil sachets into coffee. I don’t understand this process, so I assume it’s some kind of magic involving tiny alchemist barista elves. I’ve been looking at buying a Nespresso Pixie as a present for someone, and it seems like the best price is about $300. A good quality thermos costs $20. The Nespresso capsules cost between 68 and 75 cents each. You’ll be using your own milk for this scenario, and 250ml of milk will cost you about 41 cents. So this option requires a capital outlay of $320 plus a cost per cup of at least $1.09. This is relatively expensive in terms of "homemade" coffee, but cheaper than buying a barista-made cup by a wide margin.



Of course you could always do what I did for years, and treat yourself to a café coffee each morning. The café at the foot of my office building provides a discount to local workers, so a regular sized flat white sets you back $3 instead of $4.50 (or more) at other cafes. The staff all learnt my name within a few weeks of the building opening, which I LOVE but I also think is probably a ploy to inspire brand loyalty. It works - if I'm buying a coffee during my work day, there's no way I'm going anywhere other than that Coffee Club outlet. I used to think it was just fine to spend $3 on a cup of coffee every day. Then it occurred to me to start looking at my expenses as annual costs rather than daily, weekly or monthly expenditure. Assuming you get four weeks of annual leave, you work about 240 days a year. That $3 cup of coffee just turned into a $720 annual fee.



Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s always worth spending less money than you could on life’s little luxuries. Some days I really want that flat white, so I buy one, and I don’t feel guilty. But your everyday habits involving small amounts of cash add up in the long term. That’s why it’s a good exercise to look at your budget and expenditure across the year, not just that pay period. You might love coffee enough to spend $720 a year just for that morning cup on work days. I don’t. I love it enough to bring my own jar of instant coffee into work and drink that most days (that’s a $34.22 a year habit) and only buy barista coffees when I really, really want one. Because if that means I spend $500 less a year on coffee, that’s $500 a year I could spend on clothes, books, eating out at fancy restaurants, or paying down the mortgage. Or if you’re digging your way out of poverty, it’s $500 towards your emergency fund or paid off your credit card debt.

I would also think about the other factors here – are you really going to bother making a cup of coffee at home each day and carrying it in to your office in a thermos, or is that too hard for you? I don’t know that I’d bother to do it. Do you feel like the break from staring at the computer screen for fifteen minutes is worth the cost of the coffee you buy on that trip to the café? I know a lot of people cherish that coffee buying break, so it's worth it to them. If every cent you earned was committed to other areas, you’d be willing to drink that gross free coffee to avoid overdrafts on your bank account, but otherwise the point of mindful spending isn’t always to spend as little as possible. It’s that you know how much your coffee costs so you can choose whether or not it’s worth the money to you.

Keep in mind that my costings are based on only one cup a day, and having an office that provides everything you need for your coffee - except that its coffee powder will make your eyes water, and not in a good way.

Luckily my colleague was very patient with me while I gave him a full cost analysis of his coffee options.