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Looking good on a budget

As the times they are a-changing, how about some help with looking chic on a budget?

Since times are tight and we all need a little help to look good, I thought I'd trawl Amazon and see what's out there for those of us who have a beer income but champagne fashion tastes.

I can't recommend any of these books personally, but they all look worth a punt. Maybe I should write my own...

How to be a budget fashionista, by Kathryn Finney. 

I'm sure most of us are familiar with Kathryn's blog, The Budget Fashionista, which is always worth a visit. This book is very definitely for the American reader, dealing as it does with outlet malls, shopping at Sears and other things that Europeans aren't familiar with, but it gets nearly five stars on Amazon, so current readers are clearly very happy with it. 

Closet smarts, by Emily Neal

Written by an image consultant, this book, which also gets four and a half stars on Amazon, is all about going shopping in your own closet - something I'm a big fan of. We all know those horrible stats about how few of our clothes we wear (about 30 per cent), and one reason is that we buy stuff that doesn't go with our other stuff. In theory, after reading this book, you should be able to make your existing clothes work better for you without spending a fortune on new things. 

Secondhand Chic by Christa Weil

"Pointers not just on finding great buys in consignment, thrift, vintage, and resale shops, but for quality shopping in general," according to one ecstatic reviewer. This book covers how to get great clothes second-hand, including how to buy online. Again, aimed at the American reader. 

Any or all of these books might be a good stocking filler for the fashionista in your life - even if it's yourself. 




Fashion sales soar despite the downturn

As the economy tanks, British women are still buying clothes

It looks like nothing can stop the British woman's love of fashion.

As the economic downturn continues, fashion sales - to the surprise of many - are apparently rising. 

Economists think it's because people can't afford larger items, such as a washing machine or a fridge, so instead, we girls are treating ourselves to something to wear instead. Twenty quid on a top is going to go a lot further than £200 towards a washing machine, after all.

It's interesting in general to see what's selling and what isn't in this time of economic crisis. The head of Waitrose, for instance, yesterday said that the company's 'Better than going out' range of high-end ready meals is selling in shedloads. Presumably the people who would once eat out on a Friday night are now eating in instead, but pushing the boat out ever so slightly. Hard on the restaurateurs, of course, among whom we number some of our friends.

Another area that is selling well, according to Thornton's, is chocolates. Well, who wouldn't want some choccies when they're feeling blue?  And again, a few quid in Thornton's will go a lot further to cheering you up than spending it on a holiday - or even in Starbucks, where a latte costs half the national debt. 

I notice too, from telly advertising, that kitchens are for sale at 40 per cent discounts. I think that might be tempting for a lot of people who now find themselves in negative equity and decide, instead of moving, to do up their existing place instead. Let's not forget that the last DIY boom came because of exactly the same problem back in the 1990s - when you're stuck in a house you don't like much, you may as well change it to suit you.


Budget cooking - the slow cooker

A slow cooker is a great way to produce delicious food as well as save money.

With belts tightening all over the place, one way to cut food prices while still eating well which I'd seriously recommend is a slow cooker.

A lot of people bought slow cookers back in the 1970s. They were usually brown ceramic, very heavy and difficult to clean, and many were only used a few times before they were put away in the garage. If you still have one of these, get it out - they're by far the best type and knock the modern competition into a cocked hat, IMHO. 

If, however, you have to settle for one of the modern ones, get one that will cook on as low a wattage as possible. The whole point of a slow cooker is that it should cook slowly - somewhere around 50w to 100w is ideal. Many of the more modern versions cook at 250w and if you get this, you're really just buying yourself an extra conventional oven. What you want is a cooker that does a good stew in something like 8 to 12 hours rather than 3 to 4, so you can leave it on while you're at work, or overnight. 

Why slow cook?

1. Because it's delicious. Slow-cooked food retains all of its flavour and texture compared with oven cooking or stovetop cooking.

2. Because it's very cheap, costing only the same as burning an incandescent lightbulb.

3. Because it's virtually idiot-proof. Pretty much anything you put in there comes out tasting good. 

4. Because it's no-maintenance. You can leave it alone while you're out or asleep, and food can't catch, burn, or overcook (all that happens if you go over the maximum time with a roast, for instance, is that the meat falls apart - it won't end up blackened to a crisp). 

5. Because it enables you make full use of tough cuts of meat such as brisket or old-fashioned meats such as mutton. Meat near the bone is actually far more flavoursome than white meat such as chicken breast, but we have lost the art of cooking it.

6. Because it enables you to easily reduce your meat consumption without noticing it. 

General tips

Slow cooking results in highly flavoured food, where all the flavours intermingle, so it is one very useful way to reduce the amount of meat you use - you can really stretch recipes without compromising quality. My DH is a natural carnivore, for instance, but I am able to serve something like half or a quarter of the meat we used to consume by substituting with vegetables such as potatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans and root veg. These pick up the flavour of the meat and become truly delicious. 

Because slow cooking retains the texture of the food very well it is also now the main way I cook soft vegetables such as courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, squash and marrow. It is an excellent way to cook dishes such as stews, curries and chillis, and also works for soups, creme caramel and even producing stock. If you are interesting in making preserves, the first steps towards jam or chutney can be done overnight in a slow cooker without supervision, leaving you only with the bottling stage. And finally, you can even roast a chicken in one, while you're out at work with no danger of overcooking or causing a fire. 

I use my slow cooker about every other day and usually make enough for two meals. I have two types. One is a 20-year old Tower Compact Slo-Cooker, where the ceramic pot is integral to the machine and can't be taken out for washing. This makes it fiddly to clean, but the food it produces is absolutely superb because the lid is very heavy and no flavour evaporates. The other is a Morphy Richards metal one with a separate base and a glass lid. This allows you to use the top section on the stovetop, then transfer it to the base for slow-cooking. Although the flavour is not quite as good, it is much easier to use, so in practice I use it more often. 

How to cook

I usually slow cook overnight. For some reason, 15 minutes preparing a meal before bedtime seems to take less time than 15 minutes at any other time, so I generally prepare the food at the end of the evening. I cook overnight, switch the machine off in the morning and then the food's ready whenever we're hungry (I understand that some machines are programmable, so you can set them to auto switch off, which is probably a useful feature). 

Slow cooking does require a bit of practice, but there are some basic things to remember:

* No flavour evaporates, so go easy on the herbs and spices. 

* No water evaporates, so you don't need as much liquid as usual. 

* Dice vegetables into small pieces so that they cook all the way through.This takes a bit of getting used to and different veg behave in different ways. Turnip and potato need smaller dice than carrot or parsnip, for instance. If you're used to roasting veg, use this as a guideline.

* Meat cooks more quickly than veg, so you can use larger pieces, or place it on top of a base layer of veg (it cooks in the steam).

* Don't keep taking the top off to check progress. The whole point of slow cooking is to create a water seal around the lid, so don't keep breaking it. 

Getting started

If you buy a new slow cooker, it will come with a recipe book, but you can also find them at places like Amazon. To get you started, though, here is a recipe that I made a couple of nights ago. 

Chilli con (not much) carne

Serves 4


2 onions, thinly sliced

2 carrots, sliced

1 swede, diced

good thick slice of white cabbage, shredded thickly

200g of beef mince

4 tablespoons of cooked red kidney beans

olive oil

1tsp salt

1tsp pimienton (smoked red pepper powder)

sprinkle of cayenne pepper (according to taste)

red wine and water


Brown and drain the mince.

Fry the onion in oil until it takes colour, adding the salt to bring out the juices.

Add the other ingredients (except spices) and stir until well mixed.

Add water or wine to about halfway up the dish.

Add the spices and give another stir.

Slowcook 8 to 12 hours on low. 

Serve warm, with crusty bread and a sprinkling of cheese





Look stylish on a budget - part six, maintenance

Maintaining a groomed appearance means taking care of your clothes - especially important if you're on a budget.

Nine-tenths of a finished appearance is to do with grooming, not with what you're actually wearing. Your hair, nails, teeth and skin are all more important than your clothes, but if you're dressing on a tight budget, you still need to take care of your garments. Sadly, the last 10 or 15 years of cheap clothing has meant many women have forgotten how to mend a tear, change a button or darn a sock, but these might all be lessons we have to re-learn. Here are a few tips on maintenance.

* Treat everything you own as if it cost 10 times the price. No matter how much it actually set you back, treat your clothing with respect.

* Deal with stains immediately - products such as Stain Devils or Vanish are very useful. Don't give stains time to set.

* Iron garments that require it, using starch or silicone spray if need be. It's well worth the time and trouble to pep up a white shirt, for instance.

* Hang up your clothes rather than dropping them on the floor at night. You'd think this one would be obvious, but so many women don't bother.

* Don't pack things tightly into the wardrobe so they get creased - buy extra racks if you need them, or get rid of something instead.

* Keep your footwear in shoe trees, and out of season, store them in boxes.

* Put mothballs in the pockets of coats when you store them.

* Never put clothing away dirty - it's asking for a moth infestation. 

* Tape down your clothes with parcel tape before leaving the house, or keep a clothing brush handy. Fluff can completely ruin an outfit.

* Keep a mending pile and one Sunday per month, fix loose buttons, hanging threads and dragging hems so that all your clothes are in wearable condition. 

* Change when you get home. For instance, don't go straight to the sink or the cooker as soon as you get in. Hang up your workwear on a proper hanger and brush it down - stand a dish of vinegar underneath if you've been in a smoky or smelly atmosphere. Over your house clothes, wear an apron when you're doing dirty work - don't ruin your casual clothes with grease splashes and stains. Pension off your old jeans for gardening and make sure you have one outfit dedicated to filthy work such as hair dyeing or painting the house. 

* Keep your sweat and skin oils off the necklines of tailored garments by religiously wearing a scarf. This is particularly crucial with leather or suede. 

* If money is tight, avoid clothes that need dry cleaning. It's horrendous for the environment and bad for your pocket too. Underwear, shirts, blouses and knitwear should all be machine washable, along with as many of your skirts, dresses and trousers as possible. Jackets and coats tend to be dry clean only, but try to keep it to once per garment per year. 

* Wash on 30 degrees or zero to save electricity bills. Modern wash powders are designed to work at low temperatures. Even better, use soapnuts.

* Use the economy programme on your washing machine. This tends to take longer, as it works by soaking. Or if you have a top-loader, soak your clothes then put them through the fastest wash cycle. 

* Line-dry rather than tumble-dry. Not only will it cost less, it results in less wear and tear on the garment. 

* Ironing ramps up your electricity bill, so consider buying clothes in fabrics that don't need ironing. I wear mainly jeans, skirts in moleskin or suedette, long-sleeved cotton jersey tees and knitwear, and I barely pick up an iron from one year's end to the next. 

* Change the buttons for better ones. Nothing peps up a garment faster.  I buy good buttons whenever I can find them, usually vintage.

* If you wear skirts long enough to cover the tops of your boots, you can save a lot of money on tights throughout the year as less of them will be visible if snagged. But keep a bottle of clear nail varnish in your desk drawer in case disaster strikes.

* If you buy a suit as two separate pieces, buy two bottoms with it - trousers or skirts. The bottom half always wears out faster than the jacket. 


Look stylish on a budget - part five

If you're on a budget, you need to think laterally about where to buy from

When you're on a budget or a reduced income, you need to be disciplined about your clothes purchases. Here, let's look at how and where to buy. 

How to buy

* Set a budget and stick to it. My personal spending budget is £15 a month, but that has to cover ALL my personal expenditure, not just clothes. I do allow myself to have new clothes - mainly knickers and socks - as part of the weekly food shop, but something else has to be sacrificed. 

* Buy only twice a year, during the sales. This is what British aristos do - believe me, they don't pay full price for ANYTHING. My friend Peter (now a merchant banker) used to shop twice a year at Harrods - his undies were worn to a thread by the time he replaced them, but at least they were Zegna, as he was all too keen to remind me. He also bought cashmere at fantastic discounts every Christmas until he had a beautiful collection. Overall, I reckon he spent far less money than I did, but he was much better dressed. 

* Use those sales to stock up on well-cut basics such as good tees, jeans, footwear, bags and belts, rather than fashion items. When you're on a budget, your 'backbone' clothes are what really count and they should be as distant from fashion as possible - not OLD-fashioned, but NON-fashion. 

* If you want to try a new fashion colour or texture, try it first in an accessory rather than a garment - you'll echo the trend without breaking the bank. This autumn, for instance, tartan is a trend - a tartan bag might be just the thing. 

* If you do want to buy a fashion garment, at the start of each season go around and make notes on all the current collections. Work out what the style statement is and buy ONE THING that echoes it (this year, for instance, it might be a charcoal grey, knee-length cableknit cardigan, a version of which appeared in every ready to wear catwalk collection). If you buy at the start of the season, you'll get plenty of wear out of it before the trend moves on. 

Be warned - this approach will not make you popular - I got some serious sniping from shop assistants when I used to do it in London, but it's your right as a consumer. My advice, if you can only buy one thing, focus on your top half.

Where to buy

If you're used to shopping in boutiques and named stores for your clothes, learn to think a little laterally. 

* Buy on Ebay. If you hate the idea of buying second-hand (and I'd advise anyone on a budget to be less squeamish), look for items that are [B]NWT ([brand] new with tags) or [B]NWOT ([brand] new without tags). Look for vendors with at least 90 per cent positive feedback, and pay via Paypal. 

* Buy in charity shops. If you have a good eye, you can dress very well here. My Yves St Laurent, Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes, Burberry, Benny Ong and Jeanne Lanvin clothes are all from charity shops. 

* Buy vintage. There's no better way to get statement clothes or to build a unique look to go on top of everyday basics. About a third of my wardrobe is vintage, including nearly all of my jackets and coats, and many of them cost peanuts.

* Buy from other outlets: army surplus stores (overalls, thermal underwear, shirts); ship's chandlers (waterproofs, wellies, great knitwear); country outfitters (shooting jackets, viyella shirts, hats, scarves and boots); sportswear shops (hard-wearing tees, polo-collar shirts, fleeces). 

* Stores such as Target, Lidl and Walmart (Asda) sell perfectly good basics such as tees, non-label jeans, knickers and socks on top of which you can ring the changes with more expensive, more individualistic items. 

Tomorrow: maintenance


Look stylish on a budget - part four

You can keep to a tight budget for clothes and still look great, provided you buy the right things. Here, let's look at the specific qualities you need in your clothes.

Being stylish doesn't mean having a huge wardrobe and it doesn't mean having a huge budget either. Here's how to make what you buy really count.

Look stylish on a budget - part two

You can look very stylish on a budget, but it takes application and practice

In part two of this series on dressing on a budget, let's look at making the most of what you already have.

Look stylish on a budget - part one

Style is attainable at any age and even on a modest income

Looking stylish takes persistence, application and flair, but you don't need a large budget.

Thrift becomes chic again

Shopping at discount supermarkets is becoming hip in the UK

If British shoppers are deserting the high-end supermarkets, more power to them.

Champagne tastes and a beer income

My dad always accused me of having champagne tastes and a beer income, but what's the problem with that?

No matter what your clothing budget, you can have beautiful clothes if you focus on fabric, cut and finish.