Friday, 30 March 2012

Frugal Friday: The 50 30 20 Rule

Have you heard of the 50 30 20 rule for budgeting? It's a simple way to calculate (and categorise) your spending. If you're not familiar with setting yourself a budget and sticking to it, this is an easy way to start. I'm not sure where it originates from but it's been doing the rounds for a while now.

Start with your after-tax income. 50% of this should be allocated to needs, 30% to wants, and 20% to savings. Did I mention that this is super simple? Oh, wait, there's a catch...

Wants versus needs:
Not everyone understands the difference between needs and wants. Needs are things you really cannot survive without. Shelter? Check. Food? Check. Mobile Phone? Nope. That's a want. You can tell me as many times as you like that you neeeeed your iphone but seriously, it's not essential to your survival. So be honest with yourself - there are very few items that belong in the needs category. This is the part of budgeting that a lot of people find hard to cope with. If you're used to buying yourself whatever you want, it can be a shock to the system to look at your spending realistically and cut out some of those "must have" items that you don't need at all.  

The average salary in my beautiful city is $80,000:
Which according to the Australian Tax Office website, is approximately $62,250 after tax.
That works out as:
$31,125 budgeted for needs (housing, groceries, medical costs, electricity, bare minimum of clothing, etc)
$18,675 budgeted for wants (new clothes, expensive haircuts, mobile phone, dining out, books, baking tins, wool for craft projects - whichever luxuries you love!)
$12,450 saved in a separate account for future financial goals and emergencies.

A note on debt:
Many frugal bloggers advocate the use of the 20% savings to pay down debt. I agree to a point, but if you've gotten yourself into a bad debt situation by giving in to your wants, I believe the best way out is to reallocate some of the 30% wants category towards paying down debt. If you've created the crappy situation, it's time to man up and get yourself out of it. I've been in that situation, and it felt great to finally get rid of that debt and start my new, responsible financial lifestyle.

My own budget:
I don't follow the 50 30 20 rule exactly. I'm happy to spend less than 30% on my wants, because whatever I shovel into my savings account will eventually get spent on wants or needs anyway. For example, I've been "saving" like crazy lately, but some of that money will get spent on my new dental braces and a holiday this year, and in the longer term, I'll be putting it towards all sorts of things Future Sophie will need or want - a larger car, a family home, an emergency fund to buffer myself against life's ups and downs. My budget is roughly 45% savings, 45% needs, 10% wants. That works for me. But I'm in a privileged position, in that my housing costs are well below average. Which brings me to my final point...

Here's the bad news:
Shelter, as mentioned above, is in the needs category. In Australia, we don't have widespread access to affordable housing. The median house price in Perth is hovering around the $460,000 mark, which is expensive considering that the average income in Perth is just under $80,000. What's my point? On an $80,000 income, take home pay after tax is $2,395 a fortnight. Given that financial advisers generally agree that spending more than 30% of your take-home income on housing means that you're officially in financial distress, let's say that a reasonable rent or mortgage payment on a take-home salary of $2,395 a fortnight is $718.50. Great. Except that the median rent in Perth is now heading above $820 a fortnight, and the mortgage payment on that $460,000 median house price? That's $1,568.00. (Check out the mortgage calculator on this site if you'd like to see mortgage payments based on loan amounts - this is a very addictive tool!). So while I'm a strong advocate for trying to keep your fixed costs as low as possible, you have to be realistic about your situation and what will work for you.

Extra credit:
The MSN Smart Spending website is worth a read - the articles are about American finance and economics, but much of the advice is relevant to Australians too. I've found some of my favourite finance blogs by seeing the bloggers featured on Smart Spending.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Craft: Knitted Pig a.k.a the "Pig-Mouse"

Pig-mice are small, mouse sized pigs who make their homes in bookshelves. I spotted this one between the knitting and cooking section.

 And again by the science fiction.

The pattern is from Spud and Chloe. It's actually an extremely cute flying pig. I've made the pattern three times and my attempts always come out slightly mousey - not that that's a bad thing exactly. Even when knitted in a more pig like colour, the effect is the same. I think it's the placement of the legs that make my pigs have pointy noises and therefore mouseyness! Regardless of whether it's a pig, a mouse or something in between, the results are still cute and it's a very easy pattern that can be made in a day if you're dedicated. Pig-mice make good last minute presents too.

Who wouldn't want to spy one of these little guys on their bookshelf??

My Current Project: Baby Blanket

I've finished the baby blanket for my colleague, Aleesha, just in time (it's her last day tomorrow!).

This is a terrible photo, but I hope you can see how soft and muted the colours are. I'm very pleased with how the colour scheme worked out.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Craft: Knitted Turtle

This is my newest friend, Sheldon the turtle. Poor Sheldon is a little bewildered by the outside world.

There are tasty things to eat out there...
... but things can go horribly wrong!
It's much better to stay safe inside with his friends.

The pattern comes from Ruth Homrighaus and is available for free on Knitty. This is one of the more challenging toy patterns I've made. Sheldon and his shell are two separate pieces. The shell can theoretically be taken off and washed separately, but I'm not confident that this will work for my Sheldon and he'll be happier if I don't try!

The pattern is fairly simple to follow until it comes to joining the parts of the shell together. If you're like me and tend to rush into a pattern without reading to the end first, you might find yourself having trouble with this step too. It took me several reads to realise that when crocheting around the shell attachment panel, the aim is to create four opening for the legs to poke through. You don't need to create an opening for the neck like I originally thought. This is done when you join the panel to the shell itself. And don't be tempted to skip the I-cord because this really brings Sheldon together and stops the shell from having slightly pointy corners.
I'd recommend this pattern to anyone who's mastered the basics of knitted toy construction. There are several techniques (I-cord and crochet) that would possibly make Sheldon a challenge for a beginner.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Frugal Fridays: Why I Choose A (Relatively) Frugal Lifestyle

I’m planning to discuss frugality with you on Fridays. I love alliteration! But more to the point, living within my means is very important to me. It's part of having everything - because you can't have everything when you can't pay your bills.

I know a lot of people hear me say that I believe in being frugal and think I’m saying that I’m a cheapskate. Being frugal is not the same thing as being cheap. Frugality means living without waste. Being frugal means spending wisely. Sometimes this does mean spending less than you previously have, but what it mostly means (to me) is spending in ways that are meaningful to you, and managing your money so it's just one part of your wonderful life instead of the issue that dominates it.

I choose a frugal attitude for a few reasons I find compelling:

I believe in leading a sustainable lifestyle.
Take a moment to think about how many packages of paper towels you buy in a year: they’re all in landfill right now. Doesn’t that worry you? For me, spending wisely and considering whole-of-life costs for my purchases is frequently aligned with making sustainable choices. When I look at whole-of-life costs for my purchases, it’s incredible how often the option that costs less over its lifetime is also by far more sustainable. When you waste less of your financial resources and waste less of the world’s finite physical resources, you deserve a gold star.

I don’t want to be a sucker.
We all know at least one person who is constantly complaining about being broke – or who manages their financial situation so poorly that you use them as an anecdote. That’s not going to be me. And if that’s you, it’s time to stop being a sucker. Do you WANT to be the sucker who’s trying to figure out how to pay your overdue bills because it’s ‘too hard’ to budget and manage your money wisely? I don’t. I'm not the girl who spends her entire pay on a single outfit (or a single night of partying!) and then has to live on packet noodles for a fortnight. Because that girl - and I apologise in advance if that's you - she's an idiot.

It’s liberating to ‘break up’ with consumerism.
When your self-worth is tied up in having the latest, best, shiniest whatever-it-is, you’re trapped. You’re only as cool as your new gadget or your designer outfit. You feel the pressure to keep up with the purchases of everyone around you. Unless you have unlimited money, you simply can’t keep up with the latest trends and fads – so why not set yourself free from that prison? When I broke up with consumerism, it was a light bulb moment for me. Loving what you already have gives you freedom. Feeling content with your life is a wonderful feeling.

I have big plans.
My life right now is awesome. I have a stable, well-paid job, I’m studying at a post-graduate level, and I live with my Perfect Boyfriend in his cool little apartment. That’s a great life! But you know what? I have so many plans for what I want to do with the next fifty years. I want to buy a house and turn it into my dream home. I want kids. I want to read every book on the surface of the planet, learn how to decorate cakes professionally, crochet toys, go on adventures, build a garden from scratch, own a big slobbery dog, and generally have a lot of fun. I love my life now, but I also love the life I know I'm going to have. So why would I steal from my own future self by getting into unnecessary debt or spending every cent I earn instead of saving? I’ll need that money later on. Which brings me to my next point…
Money brings opportunities.
If it’s three days until payday and you only have $5, your opportunities are limited. But if you budget and save, you have money at hand when opportunities arise. Say you buy your lunch at work every day, which in Perth means spending $50 a week. If you had that $50 in your bank account, when your friend called you to see if you wanted to go see a movie, you could have said yes. That’s a choice you didn’t have before. If you let that $50 build up into $300 over a period of six weeks, you could have bought that new suit you’d been coveting that suddenly got slashed to half price instead of watching someone buy the last one in your size, because uh oh, you don’t have the cash and your cards are maxed out. If you save that $50 for a whole year, you have an emergency fund of $2600 so that when your car breaks down, you aren’t choosing between walking six kilometres to work every day and asking your dodgy uncle for a mob loan to pay for your repairs. Money allows you to take advantage of opportunities. Being broke is a synonym for having no options.

Money isn’t everything.
When you start spending wisely and meaningfully, it forces you to make conscious choices about what matters most to you. It puts money in its place. You’ll focus on what you really want in life – not on what you want to buy. When spending money and then subsequently running out of money is your modus operandi, you're too busy stressing out about your financial situation to enjoy life. And there are a lot of things in this world to enjoy, many of which cost nothing at all.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

My Current Craft Project: Baby Blanket

At the moment I'm working on a blanket for a lovely colleague of mine who's fast approaching the birth of her first baby.

I'm using Paton's Big Baby yarn, in 4ply, with a 4mm crochet hook. This creates a very light blanket - which is perfect because it's a bit too warm for heavy blankets here even in winter.

This blanket will effectively be one giant granny square. This is much faster than crocheting individual squares and joining them later - that method of making a blanket is a pain in my opinion.

My colleague knows that her baby is a little girl (eeeee!) but because I suspect she'll be inundated with pink presents, this blanket will be a repeating pattern of pink, white, yellow, white, blue, white, pink, etc.

Now, it's back to crocheting or I'll have no chance of getting this project finished in time.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Macaron Fail: Vanilla Macarons

For my first foray into macaron baking, I decided to use this recipe from Taste.

Unfortunately, it REALLY didn't work for me. At all. It was definitely a macaron fail!

The mixture seemed very runny to me. I don't know much about macarons, but I do know a few things about cookies, and it seemed to me that a mixture that's practically liquid isn't going to bake into an actual cookie.

I followed the instructions to the letter. What I wound up with was this:

And left behind on the baking tray:


Next time, I'm going to try another recipe, one with fewer wet ingredients and/or more dry ones. The internets suggest that baking the macarons at an even lower heat for even longer might also help avoid this issue.

I don't think it's fair for a recipe to be a total failure when you follow it exactly.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Mini Sundried Tomato and Fetta Quiches

800g either shortcrust or puff pastry
5 eggs
2 cups of milk
220g fetta (preferably Danish, because it's extra creamy)
180g sundried tomatoes
A small amount of cooking butter - maybe 50g

Makes 36.

I have some awesome shallow baking pans I use for mini quiches, party pies and pumpkin scones. I have no idea what the official name for a tray like that is. They look like this:

If you don't own trays like this, you can use cupcake pans or anything similar, but keep in mind that because each quiche will be larger than mine, you'll have fewer.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and rub the trays with an ample amount of butter.

Cut pastry to fit the trays you're using - for my cool little trays, an egg ring cuts pastry into exactly the right size to line the trays.

Cube fetta to approximately 1cm pieces, and slice sundried tomatoes. Sundried tomatoes can be hard to handle because they're usually preserved in oil, so I would recommend drying them on some paper towel before trying to slice them up.

Place a few cubes of fetta and a few slices of sundried tomato in each quiche shell. It should look like this:

Whisk eggs and milk together and either spoon or pour into quiche shells. Don't overfill them or you'll have a mess on your hands!

Bake for about twenty minutes. The pastry should be golden brown and the quiche should be solid - test with a fork or cake-tester.

These are perfect for picnics and parties.

If you're using frozen pastry sheets, 4 sheets will be the right quantity and they'll be easiest to use when they're semi-frozen.
The more butter you use on your trays, the less likely you are to have the pastry stick to the tray which will ruin your quiches.
These quiches freeze and re-heat well. When reheating, make sure you keep the oven very low - about 100 degrees celsius. You can make the quiches weeks before a party and heat them on the day so they taste perfectly fresh.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Product Road Test: Donna Hay Macaron Mix

I've been meaning to try out a macaron recipe for a while now, but it can be daunting when you read so many baking blogs where experienced macaron makers (macaroners?) warn you that even with a lot of effort and a strict adherence to the recipe you're using, you can still fail so easily.

So I took the easy way out. I tried out the Donna Hay Almond and Chocolate packet mix:

It worked well for me. At first glance the instructions were complicated (by packet mix standards), but once I got stuck into it, they were easy to follow. Certainly a lot easier than the recipes I'd been reading for how to make macarons from scratch.

My one real issue was that the packet stated that one tablespoon of mix was appropriate for each cookie - and that really didn't come to 24 cookies / 12 sandwiches. It was more like 6 sandwiches in total, which doesn't feel like enough of a payout for an $8 packet mix and a half an hour of effort. Yes, I'm lazy. If I use this mix again I'll only use a teaspoon per cookie.

As you can see, the macarons turned out pretty well. Some of them came out a little ugly (like the poor one in the back in that photo), but some had the perfect dome, the ruffled "foot" and that amazing chewy macaron taste.

Would I make them again? I'm not sure. It feels like cheating to offer guests beautiful macarons when you made them from a packet mix. They did, however, give me a beautiful afternoon tea to enjoy on the balcony.

Friday, 2 March 2012

How To: Party Like Phryne Fisher

ABC screened the first episode of the adaption of the Phryne Fisher books - which they've retitled Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries - last Friday (you can watch it here on iview if you missed it).

Ever since reading my first Phryne Fisher book at age fourteen or so, I've wished I could be Phryne.

Of course she's rich and beautiful, which are excellent attributes for a lady detective, but I think what makes her stand out against other heroines is that she's so capable. She drives a Hispano-Suiza at high speed, pilots light aircraft, isn't afraid to shoot villains and does it all without relying on anyone to rescue her. You can't picture Sookie Stackhouse or Stephanie Plum holding their own in the same situations (much as I like them both and continue to read their adventures).

I also love the 1920s Melbourne setting. From a distance of eight or nine decades, everything about the 1920s seems magical. Which is precisely why it's a great theme for a party.

Costumes and characters:
It's very easy to throw together a 1920s costume. While velvet, fur and period lace are wonderful, if you're short on time or cash, all you really need is a plain dress that you can pair with a large headpiece featuring feathers and rhinestones. Jewelled headbands are everywhere at the moment! Seek out art deco jewellery like the earrings below and wear a fringed shawl. If you have a bob then you already have the perfect 1920s haircut. Bright red lipstick is essential.

Of course, if you're after authenticity, embodying a stereotypical character from the 1920s is even better than simply wearing a costume. Being a 'bright young thing' or jazz musician would work, but if you're feeling imaginative try being a communist, a Freudian or an Egyptomaniac. What about a silent movie star or a struggling artist obsessed with surrealism?

Jazz, jazz, and more jazz. Make a playlist of Gershwin soundtracks, Cole Porter, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.

It's not the 1920s without cocktails. Unusual Historicals and Phoenix Magazine both provide instructions on making 1920s cocktails.
My favourite mixed drink for a 1920s party is a simple gin, champagne and pineapple punch - yum!
1 cup gin (tanqueray or bombay sapphire if you have style)
2 cups pineapple juice
2 cups lemonade
2 cups ice cubes
Topped up with champagne in a large punch bowl.
I can't guarantee the authenticity of that mix, but it tastes great and it's not too 'out there' if you're not comfortable with strong cocktails.
I'd also like to try mixing a jug of Aviation or Southside cocktails.

Other entertainment / props:
Play silent films on your TV (with the sound down so that the dramatic score doesn't compete with your jazz soundtrack). I'd try Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin for a start, or any movie featuring Greta Garbo or Rudolph Valentino.
Buy a mah-jong set on ebay and encourage your guests to give it a go.
Display surrealist art works.
Dance the Charleston! I'm sure watching videos on youtube can't make you an expert, but after a few cocktails the enthusiasm increases and you stop feeling so self-conscious ;-)

Me? I'll be watching Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries tonight and wondering how hard it would be to get my pilot's license, and whether there's a shop somewhere that sells authentic 1920s outfits for lady pilots...