Monday, March 20, 2017

Online Food Shopping: Yea or Nay?

Well, that was a first!  This afternoon I had a phone interview with a researcher from the BBC for the show Right on the Money.  The researcher, Hannah, asked me questions regarding saving money by shopping for groceries online. I was so excited to share my thoughts on online food shopping with someone from the BBC!
"So, Lauren, what are your thoughts on online food shopping?" you may be wondering.  Shopping online can be a great way to save money.  So, how do I decide whether to shop online or in store?  I only shop online if I have a voucher code for money off my shop.  There are plenty of offers for your first online shop; for example, you can receive £18 off when you spend £60.  That's a good savings, if you're going to spend £60 on your shop anyways.  I'll touch on this minimum spend consideration in a bit.
So let's say I decide to go ahead with making an online food order.  When I shop for food online, I start by using the comparison website mysupermarket.co.uk.  This site allows me to compare prices on all of the items I'm planning to purchase, not only within the store I'd like to purchase from but also against other stores and also makes suggestions for comparable items that are cheaper.  I have also set up "Price Alerts" to notify me by email when a product I've chosen goes on sale at any of the stores on its website.  I won't go into specifics about using MySupermarket.co.uk in this blog, but I'll revisit this soon.

Once I have added all of the items I'd like to my shopping basket, I can then send the order to the shop's website from which I'm ordering.  Then I'm asked to choose a delivery slot.  Occasionally I can find a voucher code for free delivery, but most of the time I have to pay for delivery. However, there's a way to save here, too.  Prices for delivery can start at £1 for later evening delivery slots to £7 for more "prime" morning delivery slots, according to one shop's website.  Having my groceries delivered to my house for a £1 probably saves on the cost of fuel to and from the shop, but probably not if I spent £7 for delivery. Some grocery stores even offer collection for free from their shops, saving you time on walking around the shop and standing in a queue at the checkouts.

So what are the advantages to online shopping if you've adopted a money-saving mindset?
1) You aren't tempted by the offers on the end of the aisles/ on the plinths.  The items at the end of the aisles are marketed in such a way that they almost make you panic if you don't put them in your trolley or feel guilty for passing them up.  Often they aren't a great deal, either; they're just being promoted.
2) If you are incapacitated or have young children who make grocery shopping a challenge, online delivery may make life easier for you since the groceries show up at your door.
3) Offers are easy to find so you can see all items in a category that are on offer in a glance so you can make a quick decision.
4) You're able to know exactly how much the items in your basket add up to before you checkout.   At a normal shop, you likely don't know how much your shop will come to before it's time to pay and you're not likely to ask to have anything removed once your items have been scanned if you've spent more than you intended.

However, I find there are more disadvantages to online grocery shopping than advantages, such as:
1) You have to plan ahead for the groceries you will need tomorrow or later in the week and can't receive the food deliveries the same day, so you may need to pop to the shop anyway to get items you need before your delivery is due.
2) You aren't in charge of the exact items you pick.  For instance, if I were to order 4 bananas online, the online shopper at the shop doesn't know that I prefer medium-sized, yellow bananas, not large, green bananas.
3) You may not get the best use before date of a product, although most online shoppers are trained to pick the best date, but they may not always be careful with their selection.
4) You won't be delivered any reduced items. This one's a biggie for me since, as I'm sure you already know, I love to buy reduced items when I can, especially meat which I can freeze.
5) There's usually a minimum spend required for online shops.  So, if I don't plan to spend that amount of money, then you're somewhat pressured into buying items you weren't planning on just to reach that minimum spend threshold.  Obviously, this goes against the money-saving mindset.

The last comment I made to Hannah was that no matter whether I shop in store or online, I can't stress enough the importance of "knowing your prices".  Knowing what a good price is will always help you to save money (I'd love to expand on this in another blog post).

To summarize, if I have a money-off voucher to use, can book free or £1 delivery slot and don't need the items today or early tomorrow, then purchasing my food online may be a great choice. However, as I can mostly stick to my shopping list (except for adding a few reduced items to my trolley), I can still go to the shop while saving money on my grocery bill.

If I have missed any advantages or disadvantages to shopping online or any other tips you've found to shopping online, please leave a message on the blog or on the Finding the Pennies Facebook page. Thanks!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Bad Hair Fortnight

Ok, I'll admit straight from the get go that I made a money mistake, actually TWO money mistakes, when I recently went to get my hair cut.  After not having my hair cut about 5 months, I finally made an appointment at a nice salon I've been to a few times before.

This is my Before Do.
I spent about 2 months deliberating about where to get my hair cut. I repeatedly considered 3 choices:

#1) at the nice salon where I'd pay the most money, but it'd be in a nice atmosphere, with a massage chair while my hair was washed and a nice coffee and biscuit. Oh, and the scalp massage always feel so nice while the stylist washes my hair.

#2) at the small salon at the gym I go to. I went to her in September, nothing really wrong with my experience there, except it wasn't at the nicer salon, but at the gym I go to 4-5 times a week.  I just wanted to walk in different doors and not be in the gym atmosphere!  But still, I think I got a nice coffee.  This salon is also sort of expensive.

#3) at the home salon of a friend from playgroup.  Although this was the most affordable option I was considering, I simply wanted to feel pampered since I don't go to salons very often, nor do I go for massages, manicures, facials or anything like that.

When I called to make the appointment, I was given the option of two stylists, one for £30 and one for £38. I made it a point to explain that I wanted the stylist to make recommendations for my shorter hair style, because I wasn't entirely sure of the new hair style I wanted.  The lady on the other end of the phone explained that everyone in the salon should be able to do this, but I still chose the more expensive stylist because I thought she'd have the most experience and, thus, give me a better-looking new hair style.

So, two weeks ago I walked through the doors of the nice salon. I got my hair washed but the massage chair wasn't turned on. Bummer.  I should have asked for it to be turned on.  I drank my nice coffee while my hair was cut.  Although I thought I explained pretty well what I wanted, the stylist didn't cut my hair short enough nor graduated or angled. She was about to finish my off my hair, but I hesitantly said that my hair wasn't as short as I had expected it to be.  She seemed frustrated, told me that she'd shorten my hair but she'd have to switch the next client to another stylist. "That's fine, do what you need to", I thought, "but I want my hair to be shorter."

My hair looked pretty nice when she finished putting some waves into my hair with a flat iron, but when I went to pay, I was slightly dismayed when I told it would be £45.  "Didn't the lady on the phone say it'd be £38? Oh, well, never mind," I thought.

I walked out the salon pretty happy, but saw my reflection in the shop window I was walking past.  My hair didn't look like I had explained at all!  The next morning, after washing and blow drying my hair, I thought my hair looked... well... boring. Like just a straight bob.  I am sure I asked for a graduated/angled bob with layers!

This is how my hair looked after my first appointment, but in the evening, so the waves had fallen out a bit.

After talking about my hair with a few friends - one even commented that my hair didn't look like it had been cut by a professional at all - they all encouraged me to ring the salon again to make another appointment. I've never done this before!  I really lacked the confidence to do this, but finally got up enough courage to write an email on Monday.  Wednesday came around and still no reply. So I rang the salon... 3 times... no answer!  I rang back earlier today and explained the situation. I also questioned being charged £45 for my hair cut.  "Your appointment took longer than an hour because your hair was long and wanted a complete restyle and your stylist's next client had to be moved, so we had to charge an extra £7." WHAT?!?!  How is it my fault that the stylist didn't cut my hair short enough the first time around?!  Isn't a hair cut, a hair cut?? "Ok, whatever," I thought.  She still hadn't offered another appointment, so I didn't debate this extra charge with her.

The lady begrudingly offered me an appointment for Friday afternoon.  The now more confident me had asked, "Just to clarify, I won't be charged again, will I?"  I returned to the salon, could tell straight away that they weren't happy to see me again and started to explain to the same stylist I had before exactly what I wanted... again.  I didn't think I'd have to show her a picture because she's a professional and should be able to make suggestions for my hair, but I did anyway. She said, "At least you brought a picture with you this time."  Huh?! I just sat silent although I was seething inside.  I couldn't wait for her to finish. We chit chatted a bit and she cut off more hair all around.  Man, I didn't want it shorter, just taken up at an angle in the back!  I thanked the stylist for her time and walked out.

Here's the "After" cut.


Needless to say, I will NEVER walk in that salon again.  I know it took a lot of explaining to get to the "Lessons Learned", but here's a few big things I've learned:

#1: The amount spent on a hair cut may not reflect outcome.  You may pay less on a hair cut and get a fantastic cut or, like me, you may pay more and not walk out with a less-than-fantastic hair cut.  Although I know that I will likely go to my friend I've been to before next time, I should have asked around for recommendations for stylists.

#2: I should have contended the extra £7 charge for "my" going over time.  The extra charge wasn't discussed with me nor was it my fault that the appointment went over my allotted time.  When I arrived at my appointment, we discussed my shorter cut, so it wasn't a surprise to the stylist that I wanted a new cut and that it may take a while.

#3: If you're completely restyling your hair, take a photo or two of the style you like.  I didn't think I'd need to do this with an expensive, experienced stylist, but I guess it's very helpful.

Please let me know if you have any other additional tips to finding a stylist, understanding pricing at a salon and translating an idea for a hair cut to a stylist.

Friday, March 3, 2017

It's a Brownie Kind of Day

It's Friday. A cold, wet, dull kind of day.  The perfect kind of day for brownies!  Don't you just love the fudgy, gooeyness of a chocolate brownie?  I love the crunchy edge and the thin, crispy top. Simply yum!

My brownie recipe is inexpensive, simple and uses pretty basic ingredients. Plus, they can be whipped up in about 10-15 minutes - prep time, that is.  I love to use my KitchenAid mixer whenever I can - I feel like Ina Garten or Ree Drummond when I'm using it.  Just look at the ribbons of gooey brownie batter cascading from the whisk!   By the way,  my homemade vanilla maturing away just to the left of the mixer (check out my blog about this here).

My brownie recipe isn't mine at all - it's simply from my Betty Crocker cookbook (but here's the link to the online version).

Betty Crocker Ultimate Brownies
Serves 16 (or 2 or 1!!!)

Ingredients
2/3 cup (151g) butter or margarine (I use butter)
oz unsweetened baking chocolate, cut into pieces (I use inexpensive dark chocolate from the chocolate aisle)
1 3/4 cups sugar
teaspoons vanilla
eggs
cup Gold Medal™ all-purpose flour (a.k.a. plain flour)
cup chopped walnuts (totally optional)
Directions
  • 1 Heat oven to 350°F (180°C, or 160°C for fan ovens). Grease bottom and sides of 9-inch square pan. (I line the bottom with baking paper so the brownies will pop out of the pan easily once they're baked.) In 1-quart (small) saucepan, melt butter and chocolate over low heat, stirring constantly. Cool slightly (while you do the next step).
  • 2 In medium bowl, beat sugar, vanilla and eggs with electric mixer on high speed 5 minutes (or until the eggs and sugar have lightened in color which is about 3 minutes, but the longer the better). Beat in chocolate mixture on low speed. Beat in flour just until blended. Stir in walnuts, if using. Spread in pan.
  • 3 Bake 40 to 45 minutes or just until brownies begin to pull away from sides of pan. Cool completely in pan on cooling rack, about 2 hours. For brownies, cut into 4 rows by 4 rows.
Unfortunately, though, I won't be having any of these brownies... ok, maybe one... tomorrow.  One batch (in the bag) is going to the builders and volunteers who are helping with a DIY SOS build in Telford this week. DIY SOS is a show on BBC 1 that recruits local tradesmen to renovate homes so that sick or disabled family members can live better lives at home.  I'm excited to have the opportunity to help in a very, very small way.  The other batch is going with us tomorrow when we visit our long-time friends.  These brownies are so easy to make that they can be enjoyed any day of the week... like today!

Monday, February 20, 2017

We Made Money with Baby Oleg!

 

Ssshhh!!! Don't tell my girls... but the Baby Oleg dressed as Olaf they've been cooing over on TV... we've just sold it on eBaby for £24!  Yep.  Sorry, girls, what you don't know can't hurt you... and as if you need another cuddly toy!

We comparison shopped and purchased this year's car insurance through comparethemarket.com.  I am not necessarily endorsing this website, but it is very smart to use comparison website when it's time to purchase new insurance.  For a limited time comparethemarket.com is giving customers who purchase insurance through their site the choice of either a Baby Ayana dressed as Elsa or a Baby Oleg dressed as Olaf.

We chose the Baby Oleg because at the time, Baby Olegs dressed as Olaf were selling for more on eBay than Baby Ayanas.  Baby Oleg did take a few weeks to arrive, but when he did, my husband immediately listed him on eBay without the girls ever knowing.  A week later someone out there bought Baby Oleg for £24!  That £24 is going directly into our "Home Expenditures" category on our budget, since that really needs a boost at the moment after we bought our older daughter her new bed.

Not only did we get the best-priced car insurance saving £94.09 over last year's and Baby Oleg that made us £24, we also get the Meerkat Movies app that gives us a voucher code for 2 for 1 cinema tickets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Hey, if you don't mind going mid-week to the cinema, it's a cheaper way of going out to the movies!  We used this twice in the last couple of months (we bought insurance through comparethemarket.com sometime last year, too) saving about £10 per visit to the cinema.

I actually didn't start out this blog post with the intention of talking so much about comparethemarket.com.  My intention was to show you that sometimes there are ways to think outside the box when it comes to making and saving money.  Twenty-four pounds isn't a huge amount of money, but it has helped to boost our "House Expenditure" category on our budget and hasn't added to the stuffed animal/cuddly toy mountain in our girls' rooms.  Another way we thought about selling Baby Oleg is by asking ourselves how much we would pay for Baby Oleg at the toy shop... if at all.  I definitely wouldn't buy him for £24, but if we had kept him, that would have been £24 lost. 

I'd love to challenge you to think about the money-making items in your house.  Is there anything collecting dust, something that you don't love or your children no longer love that could make a few "bucks"/"quid" by selling?  We are currently in the process of slowly de-cluttering our house... and it feels soooo good!  Please leave a comment if you've sold something in a similar unconventional way as we sold Baby Oleg.  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Love Is in the Air! (Or Whatever.)

Love is in the air, but how best do you express your love to your loved one?!  With a stuffed sloth, of course!  NOT!!!  Seriously, if my husband were to spend any amount of money on this stuffed sloth to say "I love you" on Valentine's Day or not, I wouldn't be happy.  I'm trying to understand how anyone would seriously think this would make a great gift... or the sloth key ring, sign or mug.  Seriously?!?!

Ok, I'm finished having a mini rant... almost.  Everywhere I turn there are advertisements for Valentine's meals for two at restaurants, say "I love you" with expensive jewelry, overpriced gifts at the supermarket such as ceramic popcorn buckets for a date night at home, and overpriced bouquets of red roses (that will die within a week).  I'm not trying to completely offend everyone who chooses to express their love to their loved one with gifts, but what I want to point out two things.  First, as my husband loves to point out, he doesn't need a holiday to tell me he loves me; he tells me this every day and in many ways.  Second, what if your loved one doesn't hear "I love you" with gifts, like me?

You may be wondering, "Lauren, what do you mean that you don't hear "I love you" with gifts?"  The very popular book The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman explains that there are 5 ways in which people express love to and accept love from their loved ones, not necessarily with a gift (although that is one of the love languages): words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. In short, words of affirmation are those such as, "Honey, thank you for washing the dishes", "You are such a wonderful husband." Quality time is simply spending time with your loved one without distractions, such as a quiet meal together, taking a walk, a catch up over a cup of coffee. Receiving gifts is just that, receiving a gift, but it doesn't have to be pricey, just thoughtful. Acts of service is simply doing something for your loved one, such as completing a job for your loved one that he or she has asked you to do or that you know he or she doesn't particularly love to do.  Physical touch also doesn't need much explanation and, yes, men tend to have this as one of their love languages.

Oh, and you likely have two love languages in which you can most identify with.  "What's yours, Lauren?" Acts of service and quality time.  I feel very loved and appreciated when someone does something for me and when I simply spend time with my friends and family.  Gifts are fine, they're ok, sure.  Thanks very much... ok... next.  Because of this, I'm not the best gift giver, which is why I completely stress out when it's someone's birthday or Christmas.
                               
I find it imporant to recognise my loved one's love languages when I accept their expression of love.  My mom loves to send cards for every occasion, and I love that she loves to do that, and I know she is saying "I love you" with that card.  But I also know that she'd rather tell me that she loves me in person but can't always because she's thousands of miles away.  A dear friend of mine lives in Ottawa, Canada and loves to receive and give gifts and I know that.  However, luckily my husband doesn't love to receive gifts... and he definitely doesn't love to give gifts!  He, like me, feels loved by quality time.

If you're sweating over how to express your love on Valentine's Day in a couple of days just keep in mind that your gift doesn't have to cost a lot.  It doesn't have to cost anything!  Make breakfast or dinner for your family. Draw a bath for your wife.  Watch your husband's favourite movie with him (oh no! maybe I shouldn't have suggested this one!).

I've been trying to think about how to sort-of celebrate Valentine's Day with my family.  I've decided to simply have a nice meal with my husband and daughters on Tuesday.  I may give them a Lindor truffle or two... which is one of my favourite gifts ever... and they love them, too.  My husband made heart biscuits this weekend with the girls (I know, I was shocked, too!)... and that's perfect: quality time with the girls (I was at work), act of service because they had been asking to make cookies and almost free.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Use Jars to Help Save Money

I love to use jars to organise every day items such as coffee, marshmallows, rice, seeds, pens, markers, cotton buds.  Simple products simply look prettier and more organised in a jar.  Of course we're more attracted to products in pretty packaging than less expensive products in plainer packaging and marketers know this!  They whack up the price of products just because it's in more attractive packaging, not necessarily because the product the package contains is worth the extra amount.  Did you know that a huge part (perhaps around a third) of the price of an item we pay for is simply for the packaging?

Watch the Vlog about this here:

As a part of my money-saving mindset, rather than keeping products in their original packaging, I purchase and empty less expensive items into jars to make them appear more appealing.  For instance, I save about 80p by buying Sainsbury's Basics raisins/sultanas compared to the normal store brand raisins.  When we have hot chocolate at home, my kids love to put the mini marshmallows on by themselves; it's nicer to have a jar of marshmallows on the table, than a crumpled, hard-to-stick-your-hands-into package of marshmallows.

I don't pay directly for any of my jars, rather I clean out jars from pasta sauces and condiments by putting them in the dishwasher and letting them dry completely.  If the label or all of the glue from the label doesn't come off in the dishwasher, peel off the label and rub vegetable oil over the glue.  With a little elbow grease, washing up liquid (dish soap) and an old tooth brush, the residue should come off.
When I fill a jar with an item that has cooking instructions, I simply cut out the cooking instructions from the package and stick it inside with the item, such as the red lentils.

Another benefit of having items put in jars is that it's simply easier to find in the cupboards hopefully resulting in being able to find items when you need them rather than having to re-purchase them when you do your shop.

Items that can be stored or organised in jars aren't limited to food stuffs nor do they even have to be put in the cupboard or pantry.  Since they look pretty, if you're limited on drawer space, like me, then using jars can be an attractive way to display other items, like I do my pens, markers and scissors.  Of course, they need to be kept out of the reach of children just in case.


I'd love to know what you use jars for.  Please leave a comment on the blog below or on the Finding the Pennies Facebook page.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Slow Cook a Whole Chicken


Part of my money-saving mindset is, not only getting the most from every penny spent, but also getting the most from everything that I've bought.  One of the ways I do this is by cooking a whole large chicken in my slow cooker.  And it's seriously quick and simple to do.  The meat falls off the bone when it's finished and is juicy and tender.  Two added bonuses: no meat goes to waste and less energy is used than if you were to roast the chicken in the oven. Ca-ching!

Remember the reduced large chicken I bought a couple weeks ago? It went in the freezer the day I bought it and came out to thaw the day before it went in the slow cooker.

First I place 3 small upturned dipping bowls in a large 6.5L slow cooker. This will prop the chicken off the bottom of the slow cooker to allow the chicken juices to sit below the chicken during the cooking. If you don't have small bowls, simply ball up some aluminum foil and use this instead.  Another option is to put carrots and onions on the bottom to slow cook with the chicken (check out some other websites), I just haven't tried this yet.
Next, place your chicken on top of the bowls or foil breast-side down/back-side up.  This allows the juices from the dark meat in the back to baste the drier white meat in the breasts.

If you wash your chicken before roasting it, please don't.  From what I read and understand on other websites, this can spread bacteria and salmonella around your sink and kitchen, and it's simply not necessary to do so.  So package to slow cooker (or oven).  Then I sprinkle some salt and pepper on top of the bird.
Put the lid on.  You don't need to add any water to the bottom of the slow cooker either. Oh, and make sure to turn it on! (Not that I've ever forgotten... ahem!)
Allow the chicken to cook on low for 7-8 hours or on high for about 5 hours.  I prefer to cook it on low for 8 hours; the one time I tried to cook it on high for 5 hours, the meat wasn't quite as tender and juicy as when I cooked it on low for a longer time.
This is the finshed product.  Perhaps the one downside of cooking a chicken - or any meat - in the slow cooker is that it doesn't brown like it does in the oven. You aren't going to get that perfectly goldened bird.  I simply serve the meat directly onto plates for dinner.  If you do want to brown the skin of the chicken, you can place it on a baking tray and brown it under the broiler for a few minutes. I'm just not that bothered.

Now that you have that wonderful meat, serve it as you would with veg and side dishes.  We like ours with barbecue sauce.  With our family of 4, there is always leftover chicken.  We usually end up using it for chicken wraps for the next evening's meal, but as others suggested on the Finding the Pennies Facebook page  leftover chicken can be used in chicken and vegetable pie, chicken salad and chicken soup. I'm sure there are many, many more uses.

Ok, I'm not finished.  At the bottom of the slow cooker you're left with glorious, golden chicken stock.  Once the slow cooker has cooled (after dinner for us) I strain the juices through a sieve and put it in the fridge. As the liquid cools in the fridge, the fat left in the juices, rises and solidifies on top.  I skim this off and throw it away.  I almost feel guilty throwing away perfectly good chicken fat, but I simply don't know what I can do with it!  I'll have to ask my friend. If she has ideas for me, I'll be sure to pass them along.  I take the jelly-like chicken stock, tip it into a freezer bag, label it and stick it in the freezer for the next time I'm making soup.  I wish I had taken a picture of this step, but I forgot. Sorry :o(

I hope this has inspired you to try to slow cook a chicken. It's definitely worth doing and is something I do at least once a month.  Enjoy!