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Debt claims another British family

Can society learn anything from the terrible murder-suicide in Hampshire this week?

Firstly let us allow the fact that there is no excuse for a man to kill his wife and children, but I do wonder if it's something we're going to be seeing more of. In today's very materialistic society, people seem unable in the UK to live within their means, and with temptation so close at hand, many people are only a few weeks away from disaster.

The saddest thing in this most recent case is that the couple both had jobs - they had not been hit by a sudden crisis, such as job loss or illness. Why could they not work through it together? It is so terribly sad. 

The materialistic urge seems so horribly prevalent in the UK. Here in rural France, for instance, most of we Brits own our modest properties outright and would never dream of taking out a loan to buy something other than a necessity. Even then, we would tend to pick the cheapest thing we could find and settle for what we could get.  

But I was talking to a close friend in the UK the other day who was spitting nails that the bank would only loan her £30,000 to undertake a loft conversion. "I need at least £40k," she said. "And it will add £100k to the house..." (ah, the house as an investment again, rather than as a place to live...)

I feel so dismayed by this kind of attitude that it's difficult for me to know what to say. She already has a mortgage on her own flat, plus two mortgages on BTL properties, and no work. Yet her solution to the problem is to throw at it yet more money that she hasn't got.

She is annoyed that the bank wanted to look at her outgoings, to calculate what she could afford to repay, and yet that is precisely how French banks operate - very sensibly - and it's a system I'm used to, after so many years living in Continental Europe. I think the loans available in the UK are utter madness - I had no idea until the Credit Crunch that such a thing as self-certification even existed. 

The DH and I have watched with mounting horror this past 14 years as the overspending in the UK got worse and worse. My unemployed, benefit-claiming, working-on-the-black relatives all have credit cards, bank loans, new three-piece suites and wide-screen televisions - items that we ourselves cannot afford.

One of my blue-collar relatives is currently refurnishing his house and I can't help noticing that he's buying everything new. He's entitled to, of course - it's his money. But I wonder if it even occured to him to buy second-hand, as I would do. Another, unemployed, has just landed a super little council house but is whingeing because it hasn't got fast enough broadband access. 

When, precisely, did the British get so bloody picky about everything? Here, with our financial situation improving at last, we are grateful to be able to afford steak and chips at the local bar once a month - we hadn't eaten out for two years until recently. What we did NOT do when things got really and truly tight, as they did in the past two years, was go around spending money we hadn't got.

The murder-suicide in Hampshire is a terrible tragedy, especially as it involved two infants, so let us only hope that society can learn some little thing from it: that children should be taught financial management and budgeting, for instance; or that bank lending should be tightly controlled; or even better, that values such as thrift and frugality should once again be valued in society, instead of keeping up with the Joneses.

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Good riddance to bad rubbish

I have given up my credit card, thanks to Barclaycard's inability to distinguish its arse from its elbow

So, I no longer have a credit card.

It wasn't exactly my choice, I must admit. But after my nth call to Barclaycard to request a lower rate than the 24.9 per cent APR I was paying, and their nth refusal to change it, I cancelled it altogether. 

I am furious, so forgive the following rant because I am absolutely blue with fury. 

What, exactly, does Barclaycard consider to be a good customer? One who has been a client for 25 years? One who owns her house outright and her car outright? Who has no loans or mortgages? Who periodically pays off her balance entirely, always pays off the minimum each month and who pays by direct debit so she can never miss a payment?

And yet they couldn't wait to get rid of me. To say that I am beside myself with rage would be an understatement.

The issue is that, clearly, I don't fit into one of their little pigeonholes, so I am no use to them. I don't have a monthly salary, being freelance, and I don't have high outgoings. That is the kind of client the banks really want, so they can pull you in, fling you over a barrel and keep you there indefinitely. They are scumbags. No wonder the world economy is in such a mess. Over the years I've gotten well sick of banks phoning me up trying to get me to take out a loan, or a mortgage, or a remortgage for an extension I don't need or a car I don't want.  

Back in the UK I have a friend, C, who with her partner runs an electrical goods shop, selling televisions etc. She has been amazed these past 10 years at the people who are buying the equipment - unemployed people, people on income support, people from the local council estate. The Waynes and Waynettas of the kingdom, or what we British call 'Chavs'.

"It's all on tick (credit) Trish," she told me, gobsmacked. "You know - WE can't afford these things, these plasma-screen TVs and stuff - we just have an old colour telly. But all these people have credit cards and they come in here and they drop thousands..."

Myself and C, who was a nursing matron for many years, come from the same kind of background. Our parents weren't wealthy. They were modest, hard-working people (we too lived on the council estate), but in those days credit - 'the tick' - was frowned upon.

My parents regarded it as little better than the pawnshop and what we couldn't afford to buy, including our television, we rented. We bought almost nothing new - not cars, not furniture, not even clothes. "If you can't buy it from your savings, then you can't afford it," was their mantra, and over the years I have come to agree with them.

The truth is that the credit card exists to fill the gap between the person you are and the person you'd like to be - and God help you if that gap is too wide. 

Time was when, blithe about my employment prospects, I'd run up large amounts on the credit card (though never more than a couple of grand) and just for things I wanted, rather than needed. But over the years I noticed the APR getting higher and I switched to using the card only for overseas purchases where I couldn't use a debit card (Paypal, Amazon.com etc). But this is not the kind of client the credit companies want - the careful, organised shopper. They are simply not making enough money out of me.

So, now that credit stream is closed to me, and it looks like I won't be buying from overseas any more (though luckily I can use a debit card on Amazon.co.uk).

Oh la. If that's the way they want it. No-one has a right to credit, but all I wanted was a reasonable rate - the kind of rate that they offer their new customers. And if they can't offer me that, then screw them - I'll manage without.  

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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

INGREDIENTS

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

METHOD

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

 

 


 

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When the credit crunch starts to bite

When people stop using their tumble dryers, you know the credit crunch is starting to hurt.

A friend popped round to see me the other day. She's one of those people who comes and goes with the season, she and her husband spending some of their time in Britain, some in France and some - though increasingly little, what with petrol prices the way they are - at their house in Spain.

Despite having been solidly middle class most of their lives, in retirement they are feeling the pinch. And the sign? She's buying a clothes horse. 

Oddly enough, I'd had the self-same conversation with my sister only hours earlier. She too was looking for a clothes horse - evidently something of a rare beast now in the UK, where people are expected to use tumble dryers. Since clothes horses are ubiquitous in my neck of the woods, where virtually no-one owns a tumble dryer, I advised her to wait until she visits me next month and take one home with her.

It is the size of their last electricity bill that has inspired both of these women to stop using the tumble dryer, as I myself did two years ago after a whopping 500 euro bill. "I bet 200 of that is the tumble dryer," I said, and so it proved to be. A shame, because I did, and do, like the softness that tumble drying gives to your clothes and the ease of washing the bedding, drying it and getting it back on the bed in a single day.

However, as we all know, tumble dryers are the children of Satan. They are bad for the planet - I got no sympathy from friends when I gave mine up, as they'd thought me a decadent cow for having one at all. They consume a vast amount of electricity and they also destroy your clothes - just look at what's in the lint trap: that's your clothes disintegrating. My clothes now show far less damage for NOT being tumble dried (and interestingly, in cotton things, less shrinkage too). 

An American friend, Linda, would be horrified. She can't get over the way the French hang their washing OUTSIDE on lines to dry, where people can SEE it - to her, a sign of complete hillbillydom. Well, I guess that's a cultural thing - she's probably changing her tune now that the bills are rocketing. 

I dry my clothes on two flat dryers that open out like big ironing boards and which are great for reblocking sweaters etc (I don't have a washing line outside). In summer, they just stand outside the door, hopefully in the sun, while in winter I have a different routine. I put a washload on when we light the woodburner each evening, then just before we go to bed, I empty the washer and put the clothes out on the rack to dry overnight in front of the stove. That way, you use up the excess heat and you don't have wet washing cluttering up the house during the day.  

The smell of it is comforting somehow - I grew up in a house with only a coal stove and no central heating, so it's the smell of childhood, I guess. And at least I have the satisfaction of single-handedly saving the planet. 

Watch out for an article on economising later in the week. 

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How much is your life worth?

Should your life's worth really be calculated in monetary value?

I got a fun press release from Lifesworth this morning.

Apparently, in the UK at least, you're 'worth' the most at the age of 46.

They're talking in terms of personal possessions, of course, not your real worth (don't get me started...). The average mid-life Brit apparently owns about £40k's worth of goods and chattels - more than you ever have in your life before or afterwards. Interestingly, though, that same average Brit also believes their personal possessions amount to about £28k and underinsures them accordingly.

This, of course, is Lifesworth's objective - to get you to up your insurance premiums, but I must confess the idea of being 'worth' £40k made me laugh out loud. I doubt I am 'worth' half this now, and it's very definitely by design.

Over the years, I've come to the belief that people are at their most free and creative when they're not burdened by possessions. Sure, it's great to own things, but once you've got them, you have to worry about them. Clean them, dust them, store them, take care of them, insure them. Is this really a good idea? Better to have plates you can afford to break, clothes you can afford to ruin without there being any heartache involved. Then you don't have to work so hard to support a lifestyle. Maybe you can just have a life instead.

The DH and I, some 10 years ago, were forcibly relieved of much of our burden of possessions by a burglary. After the initial relief that no-one was hurt (the house was empty at the time), came the absolute fury about what had been taken - our wedding presents to each other, the Victorian writing box my parents gave me when I was 16, Steve's favourite watch, the World War II marching compass I'd bought him in six instalments, his entire collection of aviation memorabilia, my late father's clock. There were also our computers, all of our coats, the throws off the sofas, the curtain tie-backs - a strange assortment of finds. It was Christmas, and they had gone shopping in our house. 

A wealthy friend patted me on the head and said: "Trish, they're only things," which only incensed me more because a: his parents subbed his lifestyle and he'd never had to work, and b: many of them were things that I had bought and paid for, worked many hours at a job I hated in order to own. They were MINE, for God's sake.  

And then I thought again. Why exactly was I working all these awful hours in horrible jobs just in order to buy stuff? None of it was necessary stuff - it was pretty, it was nice to have, but it wasn't the roof over my head, it wasn't food on the table. In the grand scheme of things, it didn't make a difference. Sure, it's nice to be surrounded by pretty things, but it's not necessary to fulfilment.

Some of the items had sentimental value, but this too is an imaginary construct. I didn't drop dead for the loss of any of them. And the truth may be something else, too. Every time I looked at that clock I remembered that my mother wouldn't give it to me when dad died but had made me pay £200 for it. Whenever I looked at the writing box, I was chastened by the split it had picked up when I placed it too close to a radiator. Steve had bought his favourite watch the same day as a near-identical one for his ex-wife, which coloured my view of it somewhat. 

A couple of years went by and although we sometimes winced when we thought of what had been taken, we found we didn't need to replace much, other than the work computers. When we did buy, we hit on a strategy of buying only things we could use, not things that were purely ornamental. And gradually, gradually, we began to divest.

I can't remember now what went first, but every year that goes by, we have sloughed off more of our belongings, and every year we feel better for it. We've got rid of clothes, books we'll never read again, ripped all our CDs into I-Tunes and chucked the discs, put item after item of furniture into the local depot vente. The house feels bigger, emptier, more spacious. There is less cleaning to do, less maneouvring around things. Both our lives and our souls free freer for it, and I hope, in time, to get to a stage where nothing I own has ANY monetary value at all. 

I wonder where this would put me on the Lifesworth scale? Probably a complete loser. But I frankly I have no truck with a society where a person's worth is calculated by what they own and not by what they contribute. If the latter was calculated, where on this scale would the average lawyer, PR executive or stockbroker be? A damn sight further down than the lowly-paid nurse or cleaner or ambulance driver.

If you want to calculate your worth on Lifesworth, click here (only relevant to UK residents).

Average age and value of possessions in the UK
20 - £24,548
30 - £34,823
40 - £40,125
50 - £40,454
60 - £35,810
70 - £26,192

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101 ways to save money

Froggybank has a new listing of 101 ways people can save money in the economic downturn

Moneybank thumbnail For 101 tips on saving money in the credit crunch, it's worth visiting this website