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Frugal valentines doesn't have to be a dead squib

Heart shaped hands
It's coming up to the middle of February and every man knows what this means. Time to drudge down to the best restaurant in town and empty your wallet all over an ungrateful sommelier who will then bring you the cheapest wine they have yet charge you the earth. Or is this just my idea of what the Valentine's sheeple seem to be doing next to the candle and flowers in every restaurant in town come the 14th of the month.

I have to say I have been known to fall into the lazy chocolate and flowers brigade and especially this year with my wife 8 months pregnant I don't think we'll be having too much of a romantic getaway as others may have.

Yet we will still love each other and not just on this day but on every day of the week/ month / year decade and hopefully for most of the century to come.

What I'm trying to say is that you don't have to show your love by buying things for your significant other, there are many other ways too. This sometimes gets forgotten in this crazy world of overpriced phones and under valued devotion.

So here are some other ideas for bringing down the cost (there probably will be some element of cost) of V day whilst showing your partner that your love is more important than shiny trinkets and red flowers.

COOK - to me the way to my heart is definitely clich├ęd and full of fat. But I do love a good potato dauphinoise, and really what's not to like cheese, potato, garlic, cream = yum. Recipe here, this is usually a side dish but I'd be quite happy eating it just with salt and pepper!

TIME - spend time with each other and I don't mean watching tv. Get out and about, walking is a great way to stir conversation, going to the pub can go one of two ways either its chocker due to everyone going on there v day routine or it's dead and the owner wants to shut early. Of course it's always a good idea to get the kids into bed early and have some quiet time alone, but this doesn't have to be limited to valentines.

WORK - not go to work, work at making something, grow some flowers, grow some vegetables, use your talents to paint a picture or write a poem. They love you because of who you are, use those things they love to show your devotion.

WINE - who doesn't like a little social lubrication and if your drinking at home maybe combining it with some COOKing you can get a good deal. Most bottles of red around £5 are pretty decent these days and sell for around £15-20 in a restaurant.

Seems pretty simple but so many people don't seem to put the thought in, like so many things in life!

What will you be doing for Valentines?

Kids can be a motivator or a demotivator: you choose

Not me - far too cute!
I'm soon to be a father for the second time and I'm very excited. Looking at this from a career perspective is a little less exciting.

As this will be my second I'm well aware of the lack of sleep that is soon to start, this will obviously have a knock on effect on my time at work. I will be less awake during the day and probably more irritable (recently giving up coffee won't help either!), not that this is anything unusual for me.

I'll also be having 2 weeks of leave when the baby's born. This will be significant for two reasons.

1. Financially I'll be losing my normal pay and having it replaced with paternity pay. This is a very useful service the government provides however the payment made will be £139 per week for me. This is the equivalent of around £7 grand a year. A pretty paltry sum. This won't be a large hardship for us as we've been saving hard all year. This will simply put us in the position of having to dip into these savings rather than being able to increase them further. Remember folks SAVE ALL THE TIME.

2. The 2 weeks off will be significant for me in my career as well. As I work in finance 2 weeks out, especially near the end of the month is the busiest time. Not working during this time will not only put my colleagues under significant pressure to not only do their own jobs but also cover mine, but may turn some of my hard work putting people on my side around. Especially if they don't know the reason for my absence.

So what can I do about these two things.

1. As I mentioned we've been saving hard for this, an occasion like this doesn't quite come around every year, but it is also not unexpected. Having a cash buffer put aside for these things can help put your mind at ease just when you need it most. Struggling for cash at times like this would be something I would not be looking forward to.

2. To mitigate any loss in standing at work I have been trying to build up a plan of action with my manager, distributing the different tasks to those most proficient and training them where necessary. Unfortunately my absence may coincide with a couple of other people leaving the company  for new jobs. This isn't the best timing as it will disrupt the norm even further. I've also not so subtly dropped into conversations with my key stakeholders that at some point in the near future I'll be off work due to a fantastic new addition to the family.

Hopefully these actions will help mitigate the large part of any disruption. Of course once I've returned to work I'll have to try hard to catch up. I simply hope they won't push too hard too soon, otherwise I may snap at a few of them. I'm not good when I'm tired.

When success does not equal happiness

As time goes by I meet various new people as you do.

At the moment I seem to be meeting a lot more new people at work than I do socially. Maybe my social life is in the gutter (I blame the kids!).

Recently I seem to have put myself in the position where I'm meeting more managers and directors than previous. These higher ups that I meet seem to have a fair few things in common.

What are they you are thinking, some kind of major work ethic to ensure they grind there way upwards at all time, a magnificent network of colleagues who help them manage the endless workload or some kind of pomodoro-esque productivity system that makes them only have to work one day a week? Well probably but they don't seem to want to share this with me.

What they have shared with me so far is their rigourous and unending hatred for all of human kind. It would seem that they are all clearly scoiopaths let loose by the state or maybe not diagnosed as yet. Willy nilly throwing around deadlines that only seem to help themselves ensure they maintain their own salaries and bonus levels. Whilst caring not for anyone they trample on their way to new found glories.

So what are we the people meant to do about this. Well there are a couple of things, ensuring we all have a proper FU fund. Making sure we are saving ALL the time, this means every month even if it's as little as £1 and of course sticking it to the man whenever possible.

We can play along with the games these higher ups and hopefully when we get to their level change the system to make it easier for the next guy / smash the system up from within!

In the mean time lets keep on ticking off those savings targets and looking forward to that happy day in the not so distant future where we can walk away happy knowing we have changed things for the better.

False Economies

With turmoil apparently back in the stock market (although I think more of a minor blip, let's see).

A dip in form

After reading an article over at bbc news they proposed that this was simply a correction and that the American stock market was simply correcting the over valued entities within it.

This got me thinking about valuations, people are always talking about buying quality products that will last you a long time.

However like with these recent stock corrections how do we know when we're buying something that's not going to blow up in our face.

With stocks we can do research digging through reports on individual companies at the companies house website. This can be incredibly tedious as there are various filing reports that have different levels of helpfulness from the annual report through to when the company was opened.

If you want to download any of this information it costs you £1 a pop, Not a cheap business. It may be wiser to use an aggregation site such as www.duedil.com this pay for service I've been using professionally for many years. Just to let you know I've never paid for it's services as they used to give them all away for free as long as you were registered. More recently they have restricted access to more and more of the information and put it behind the pay wall. Disappointing for me as I don't like paying for things when I don't have to!

I've also heard good things about iii's and morningstar's investor tools although I've not used them myself.

When buying products we can always read reviews. This however will only get you so far. Buying bin bags that don't break can be useful. But reducing the amount of waste you produce by buying less things that you have to throw away (this includes packaging! the bane of my life).

Then there's the designer problem, there seems to be brand power at work everywhere I go at the moment. From getting petrol at BP to doing the weekly shop at tesco, we're being pushed into staying with a particular shop because it makes us feel like we are getting a better experience.

Now I can agree that picking up a can of beans from the pallet in aldi isn't as nice as picking it from a shelf in Sainsbury's but I'm still picking a bleeding can of beans off a shelf. Surely this is what it all boils down to whether a company can make you so comfortable that you couldn't think it possible to go to one of it's cheaper competitors.

Until of course they push it a little too far and either increase the price so much that you then it becomes uncomfortable for you to shop, or external circumstances do this for them, (see Tesco in the recent recession). This could also happen as instead of increasing prices to create a better profit the company decides to reduce the quality of experience they are giving. This has the same affect as once the consumer realises the experience is no longer worth the premium price tag they then look for alternatives.

Don't even get me started on designer clothing.

The one thing that has propelled my earning potential

There's one thing that's made the biggest difference when it comes to my current earnings.

It's not my ruggedly handsome good looks (although it was nice of you to think so).

You could say that working hard has paid it's part, especially in the first couple of years of my career but it has not been the biggest factor.

To quantify it I would say working hard whilst at work has contributed around 10% of what I earn. However hard work matters little if it's not being noticed and matters even less if it's being noticed but by the wrong person.

Let's give an example of this.

 You've asked your boss for more responsibility, good for you! What you didn't realise is now you have to do your current job and the new work as well. So you start working late. Ok, this is bad, but surely you tell yourself this is only for the short term to show your boss what you've got in the tank and then they will give you the promotion you deserve and you can take that money to the bank sucker! So who else is there seeing you work late? Well there's the janitor and a few other colleagues who all look tired and caffeine dependent.

This goes on for a few weeks until you hand a piece of work into your boss. A few days later he calls you into a meeting, as they're a nice person they wanted to tell you privately that the big promotion has gone to Sally in purchasing as they've noticed a decline in your work and to be honest you look tired and that's not the look the higher ups want to see.

Epic fail. The strategy you used, working longer/ harder back fired, you worked yourself into a hole and lost the promotion because of it.

So whats the main reason I've been able to triple my earnings in only a few short years?

Studying has probably brought me the biggest rewards. Joining a relevant chartered institute has really propelled my career forward.

It's brought me respect - people recognise this qualification as being one difficult to gain, they presume I worked hard to get it (I did!).

A lot of my peers have a similar qualification, this brings familiarity, they believe that I must be like them, people like people who are similar to themselves.

They know I'm willing to work hard for a long time. As above it was a battle to complete the requirements for this qualification with lots of exams spanning almost 2 years which was the fast track route it normally takes 3-4 years.

Whilst I admit it was hard going, it is the most rewarding thing I could have done at the time.

Looking back I wish I had done it earlier in my career and I could reap the rewards for a lot longer.

Other than that I can't put my self down I worked hard and chose the right option and it worked out well for me.

What things have you done to boost your career? What have I not done that I should have done by now?

Distractions from saving: Parenting

Run towards the rabbits!
They come in all shapes and sizes. I've often thought of myself as somewhat lazy, especially in my teens and early twenties.

But a lot of that has changed, it's had to.

I've surprised myself what can be done in an hour, from tidying the house to researching and buying a new kitchen white good online. All when the pressure is on. The clock is ticking. The pressure of a toddlers nap time, with him possibly waking at any second.

When this first started it was a struggle. The first ten weeks of being a dad were the hardest I've ever lived through. Little to no sleep every night, when I did sleep it was broken between bottle feeds and nappy changes or both.

Then after the 3-4 hour at best sleep I still had to continue normal life, at the time this was a 40 hour week at a job that although I enjoyed was not particularly fulfilling or paid what I'm worth.

However it did keep money flowing in, which unfortunately I wasn't able to save a lot of. Going from 2 full-time salaries to one plus maternity leave salary was a bit of a shock. If we hadn't planned in advance, this could have led to a lot more stress.

Luckily I had thought this far ahead, we had a plan. But I no longer had any time to track how well this plan was going. You see I usually track my financial progress diligently, down to the pound. So what could I do.

I had to let my child take over my life. Family must always come first. So I tried to survive. My wife was a rock throughout all this time. I really don't know how single parents manage. We only have one and this was tough.

Although tough isn't the proper word, it was torture. Relative to my life beforehand life now is torture. However I've got Stockholm syndrome baaad!

A few tips I've picked up to help through this tough time:

  • Realising this isn't forever, yes it's going to be a long time, but if you're not ready for a long term commitment, parenting probably isn't for you
  • SLEEP - you need to sleep, whenever and for any amount of time. Seriously, this is very important, this ticking time bomb of a crying machine is going to wake up any second. If you don't sleep now, you never will. Ever tried going a day without sleep, how about two days? How about a week of only 4-5 hours a night, how about 10 weeks of broken sleep.
  • Eat well, even if you're sleeping all you can, you're still going to be knackered, if you add poor nutrition this will only make things worse. Home cooking is the key, over cook every time you have time, freeze the leftovers to eat when there's no time (which will be most of the time), doing this before the baby arrives gives you a stock pile. As I said early the first 3 months are the toughest. Be good to future you and stock that freezer hard!
  • Ask for help. This is one thing I've always struggled with, I always feel I should be the strong one, this is my default setting, so I don't realise when I need to ask for help. Don't make the same mistake I did, accept all offers of help. If family and friends want to come over and let you sleep LET THEM, if they don't offer, ask them to come over!!
  • Don't worry. All your priorities are going to change, remember those cool holidays you used to go on? Yeah they're gone now. Remember how your house used to be tidy all the time? Not any more! Don't worry about it. It's cool, yes you could spend that hour between your child going to sleep and waking for a feed to tidy up, or you could grab some sleep or have a bit of time for yourself. I know which I'd rather do.
  • Look after your partner. Being male I've greatly had the easier part of the deal. It's still a rough ride though. Look after them as they will for you. Without my partner I couldn't have done this, without me she would have struggled too.
  • Get a dishwasher, as I said time is of the essence. Washing up for me has always felt a waste of time. Getting the dishwasher was although a mild one off cost (along with ongoing electric and water bills) such a great time saving. For extra frugal points live minimally and only have a few items to clean, this will mean you have to clean after every meal, but it should only take two minutes if you can do it straight away (hint: I never can).
  • To go with the don't worry. If you're currently frugal you may be upset to see that your savings rate either reduces or worse your savings get plundered. If you've planned ahead this isn't necessarily going to be a long term thing, you will probably be able to get back on the savings horse when you're a bit more of a normal human again (when the kids about 18 months old)
There are plenty of others but I think, this will cover the first time parent. I'm sure there are plenty I've missed / forgotten, what are your favourite tips? Please drop me a line in the comments :)

Thinking about money

Good advice for designing bridges (and life in general)
From observations on people who seem to make the most of their money and those who don't and from personal experience there seems to be two ways to spend your time thinking about your money.

The first is to be thinking about it all the time, worrying you don't have enough, constantly moving it hither to thither trying to maintain a balance in the right account at the right time for bills to come out. Sound a pain? It is. I've been here, it's made worse by not knowing where you are, not knowing what your outgoings are, even worse if you don't know what your incomings are!

The other is the holistic approach, simplified accounts that you can leave to do there own work, and hopefully work for you. You don't have to think about it, so you can spend more time making money!

How do you get from one to the other. Well let's look into what makes the second option work.

Do your research:

This comes in several things - you need to know what's coming in and when! You need to know what's going out and when too!  This is called cashflow. Positive cashflow and everything's gravy, negative and you'll be stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Theres various ways to get to this, sift through your old bank statements, keep a spending diary (including Direct debits!), have a wall chart with different colours, try them all and whichever works for you carry on, this is one of the key steps to getting anywhere with money. A spreadsheet like this can help.

Research the accounts you can have, high interest (I don't think so!), savings, ISA, etc. I say can have for two reasons, you want to simplify as much as possible. try and have at most 3 current accounts, then savings, then ISAs (the savings and ISA accounts can be unlimited as you will need to switch to get rates, however closing an ISA is a bit more complicated due to losing out on tax free money so try not to do that). Then if your really down at the moment your credit score may be affected, which may limit which accounts you can open anyway.

So you have your money ins and outs plan, you have the right accounts for you. So you now know that everything's going to be cool right? Wrong.

There's one last things you need,

To stick to the plan, easier said than done - any cash plan is just that a plan, it can only go smoothly if you don't have unexpected expenses - I don't mean things outside of your control you should try and build an emergency fund to smooth those ripples - I mean don't go out on payday and spend all your money, I know it seems like the easiest thing to not do. But it isn't you need to be the responsible adult that you are and start letting those pennies sit idly by. Bored? Go to the library - free, do not go to the pub - if it's not in your plan.