Author Archive

Dream of being debt-free? You’re invited to our #dfwbloggers party…

Join our help-clear-your-debts 'party' every Friday

Join our help-clear-your-debts 'party' every Friday

Inspired by our huge, fantastic community of Debt-Free Wannabes, we hold a motivational, help-clear-your-debts "party" every Friday evening from 8.30pm on our forum Twitter account – @MSE_Forum.

It’s all about MoneySaving the fun and supportive way. We talk about tips and ideas on how to pay off your debts, share success stories, celebrate when someone’s cleared their debts (let us know!) and discuss anything else that keeps you motivated. It’s not about telling the world how much you owe (unless you want to, of course).  

Past conversations include slow cooker bargains, Saturday night "fakeaways" (home-made Chinese, curries and more for under a fiver), and even games you can play with dice for free and educational kids’ entertainment!

It’ll be great to talk to you – the more the merrier.  Of course, it’s all free, so it’s a very cheap Friday night in while saving money too!

Why should I do it?

If that hasn’t motivated you already, read our fabulously inspiring Debt-Free Roll of Honour. We started it several years ago, and it’s become the holy grail of MoneySaving – where our fantastic forumites come to shout out loud and proud when they’ve finally cleared their debt.

We’d love to see you join it!

I don’t use Twitter, it sounds fiddly

It’s not at all – here’s how you do it:

  • Read the past tweets to see the discussions we’ve had. They’ve been really inspiring, especially when people who have cleared their debts told us their stories.
  • Then if you’d like to join in on Friday, log into Twitter at 8.30pm and click the #dfwbloggers link above.
  • To reply to @MSE_Forum and other Debt-free Wannabes on Twitter, just type what you want to say, remembering to include the #dfwbloggers hashtag in your tweet.
  • As Twitter limits you to 140 characters you may need to write more than one tweet, but that’s fine!

Do I need to be an MSE Forum user?

No, not at all.

We’d love you to join the forum so you can create your own Debt-Free Diary and join in with other Debt-Free Wannabe Challenges, to save even more money and pay your debts off more quickly. But it’s not essential.

It’s called #dfwbloggers, do I have to be a blogger?

Nope, it’s just the name we gave it. All you need to be is somebody trying to clear their debts. If you do have a debt-free or MoneySaving blog, or a Debt-Free Diary on our forum, we’d love to see it – but it’s not essential.

Will you be joining in with our Debt Free Wannabe Twitter party on Friday? Please let us know your opinions in the discussion below or in the forum.

Saving money on kids’ parties? It’s child’s play…

I've gleaned some great party tips from our and others' kids' birthday parties

I've gleaned some great party tips from our and others' kids' birthday parties

In my relatively short time as a parent, I’ve gleaned some great party tips from our and others’ kids’ birthday parties. As MoneySavingExpert.com’s about sharing MoneySaving ideas to help as many people as possible, I thought I’d tell you mine.

So here are my top tips for cutting costs, but to still have a great time:

1. Share parties

My three-year-old is having her first birthday party in December, and it’s a joint one with another friend. Getting together with other kids’ parents if their children were born around the same time as yours is an obvious way to save costs.

Why pay out for a hall or another venue for just one child when several can share it and the parents can split the cost? My daughter once went to a joint party for seven children! They shared a massive cake and entertainment, and it was great fun for all. It meant the children with birthdays were able to have a party their parents may not otherwise have been able to afford.

2. Have a party in your home or garden

This is likely to be the cheapest option if you’re only inviting a few kids. Although on the flipside, beware – it could turn out pretty expensive if your TV gets broken or blackcurrant squash is spilled on your cream carpet!

3. Use a community or school hall

As well as having a three-year-old, I’ve also got a six-year-old and so we’ve been to a lot of parties in community or village halls. If you’re happy to do all the running around, providing food and cleaning up afterwards, halls with kitchens are great. 

We hear a lot about communities dying out because their facilities aren’t being used, so I think this is the perfect way to keep them alive and village facilities funded.

Some ingenious parents I know hired our school’s hall on a weekday afternoon straight after school. The kids simply went from school to the party. As well as being cheap to hire (£30-ish), it saved other parents from having to make supper on a school night, and of course it helped raise funds for the school.

4. Book the party before their birthday

This may sound obvious, but strategic booking can help cut costs, even if it’s just a few pounds. My daughter’s party, for example, is at a soft play centre a few days before her actual fourth birthday. This is because the centre allows one adult in free for each child of three or under, which means I can get in for free rather than paying £2.50 if she was four.

Planning in advance also means you can properly budget for the day.

5. Use Costco for cakes

If you’re a member of wholesaler Costco and are planning a big party, you may save buying a huge cake from there, rather than heading to your local supermarket to buy a couple of cakes.

The party for seven children I’ve already mentioned had a cake from Costco. If you haven’t seen one of these before, these aren’t your ordinary-sized cakes you see in supermarkets. They’re massive, enough to feed about 30 children (depending on how hungry and big they are, of course!)

6. Want to book an entertainer? Word of mouth goes a long way

If you’re getting an entertainer, you don’t want to spend your hard-earned cash on someone you’ve not seen before or may not be any good. So ask other parents who they rated and then try and get the best deal you can.

We’ve seen one magician/ventriloquist so many times now I know his routine off by heart. But the kids think he’s great.

7. Party bags – just a few little bits will go a long way

The pressure of providing great party bags can be high. But there’s no need to spend a fortune. If it’s a young kids’ party, you won’t need much, just a few small goodies like bubble mixture, little notepads, boxes of raisins or small sweets in a small plastic party bag – pound shops and supermarket value ranges are great for these.

It’s also worth buying the party bags before you decide what to put in them, so you know how much you can fit in – otherwise you may end up buying more than you need – plus remember you’ll need room for a piece of birthday cake.

More top tips

For more top tips on cutting costs on anything from birthday parties, to Christmas and anniversaries, see our Special Occasions forum board (it’s currently renamed the Christmas board).

If you’re a parent with party tips to share, you can do so in our Great Cheap Kids’ Party Hunt forum thread. I particularly like the idea of asking to visit your local fire station. The kids have fun and get an important lesson on fire safety.

There are also lots of tricks to pare down costs and ideas for free days out in our 50+ Family MoneySaving and Baby Checklist guides, as well as in our Days Out Deals and Free Museums and Galleries guides.

Do you have an ideas for cutting the cost of children’s parties? Please share your thoughts in the discussion below, or in the forum.

How I buy posh nosh for less

'I wait for half price salmon offers'

'I wait for half price salmon offers'

I’ve been feeding my kids salmon since they were babies.

Now that bombshell’s been dropped, before you click away thinking you’ve got the wrong website, remember MoneySavingExpert.com isn’t simply about being thrifty or frugal (of course, there’s the good old Old Style MoneySaving Board for that).

The site’s ethos is about cutting bills without cutting back (see Martin’s blogs We don’t hate banks – busting this and other myths and Things people assume I think but I don’t).

Like most parents, I want to give my kids the best possible start in life. I reckon the Omega 3 in oily fish does a good a job in the brain power stakes. 

Being half-Japanese, the kids also love sushi and other standard Japanese foods which people in the UK may consider "posh". So the challenge is to find it here, but for less.

So how do I get it?

Ordinary supermarkets

I wait for half-price salmon offers, then stock up. They usually have fairly long use-by dates, so they keep well in the fridge.

Of course, the reduced section scrum at 3pm on a Sunday can be great for cut-price fresh fish. I try to check tuna steaks are a nice deep shiny red, though, after my other half turned his nose up at my efforts in the past.

We make sticky rice in our rice cooker at home. For this you need short grain rice, which can work out quite pricey in Asian supermarkets.  Buy ordinary pudding rice, from the desserts aisle in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. It’s around 90p-£1 for a 500g packet, roughly half the cost.

Discount supermarkets

Some Japanese food, such as sushi, is made with caviar. In the UK at least, that’s about as posh as you can get and is hugely expensive. I don’t like it, but my husband goes mad for it. So when we found you could get it cheap in Aldi, he was in his element.  

Use the local Asian supermarket

We try to stock up at our nearest every couple of months. The one we go to sells large freezer packs of the more unusual fish you can’t get in ordinary supermarkets.

Plus, while prawns, squid and scallops are available in ordinary supermarkets, they tend to be much smaller – so they shrink to almost nothing when you cook them. Asian supermarkets are also great for larger packs of tofu (needed for miso soup), which cost roughly the same as the small packs you get in ordinary supermarkets.

Try before you buy at Costco

I think meat and fish at Costco are pretty good quality for the price. If you’re unsure, I’ve noticed weekends, when it’s busier, tend to be good for free sampling.

When I go, I keep my eyes peeled and I try before I buy. You need to keep an open mind, know what you want and don’t fall for the patter.  I’ve rarely bought coffee, tea or cakes after sampling them, but I once tried scallops that were double the size you’d get elsewhere. They were really tasty and cost only slightly more, and I’ve bought them a few times since.

Amazon sells food

I’ve been aware of it for a while and have checked out the prices. So far I’ve not found any ingredients I need on sale for less there, but its prices can go up and down depending on demand. So I keep my eye on it and will pounce if I spot a bargain I need.

Grow your own

Spring onions are a staple of many Asian diets, yet they’re so easy to grow. They grow upwards out of the ground and quite close together so they don’t need much soil – mine are just in a longish trough, with a little compost in. 

I’ve also grown Swiss chard and fennel, which make great Jamie Oliver-style "posh nosh" sauces (see Digging deep and saving money too). Plus Swiss chard is like rhubarb, it keeps growing back each year – a great MoneySaver if ever I heard one.

Have you spotted a cheap source of posh nosh? Let us know on the forum, or below.

Something fishy about the Sainsbury’s free fish deal

Sainsbury's fishy deal

Sainsbury's fishy deal

A curious press release landed in MSE inboxes on Thursday offering what seemed to be an interesting catch.

Sainsbury’s said it was offering free fish to customers on Friday. But when I went to check if the deal was worth netting this morning, I was left disappointed.

The offer read: "Sainsbury’s is set to give away over seven tonnes of lesser known British fish (including lemon sole, mussels, Cornish sardines, coley fillets and Loch trout fillets)."

It added: "When a customer goes to one of Sainsbury’s fresh fish counters and asks for one of the big five species (cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns), they can try a lesser-known alternative free."

We double-checked with the press office that it was genuinely free fish, getting this response: "When somebody goes in and asks for one of the big five, they’ll be offered an alternative for free.

"It’s then up to the customer whether or not they want to buy the fish they originally asked – they’re under no obligation. It’s in all stores that have a fish counter, while stocks last."

My fishing trip

So first thing this morning I headed off on a fishing expedition to Sainsbury’s. Once the counter was free, I blatantly dived straight in and asked for salmon, and then the free fish.

Sadly, the fishmonger said I needed to buy one of the fish to get one of a range of other fish free.

As I knew differently (or so I thought) I queried this, pointing out the sign on the counter reading: “Ask for a FREE SAMPLE of one of our five alternative species to take home." Another member of staff had also heard and came over to explain again that I needed to buy one to get the other.

No amount of angling did the trick and I didn’t get somefin for nothing today.

So now I’m down £3 on a piece of Scottish salmon, with a bag of mussels thrown in.

Luckily my three-year-old loves “sammy sam sam” and my six-year-old likes mussels, so all’s not lost.

Have you tried this deal? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or in forum discussion.

My new-build tips and tricks

My lovely new-build home

My lovely new-build

My home is the second new-build me and my family have owned in 11 years. 

Of course, buying a new-build isn’t for everyone, and some prefer older properties.

But I thought I’d share some of my experiences — and mistakes — to help those who are thinking of choosing a new-build, especially with the recent launch of the NewBuy Guarantee scheme.

Hopefully these tips can help you.

  • Check house-builders’ websites before you visit show homes. We spent time checking out house-builders’ websites first and found one gave a £10 M&S voucher if you made an appointment first.
  • Don’t rush in. The sales office may be there, but we found you couldn’t reserve until plots were released. Once they were released, prices changed every few weeks, so continually checked websites and price lists.
  • Check out the moving-in incentives. Often developers offered incentives to entice customers. Ones we saw were free carpets, turf (not always included), stamp duty paid or part exchange. You couldn’t have them all, so we worked out which were more valuable to us.
  • Haggle, haggle, haggle. In our experience, until you’ve reserved, haggling is key. On our first, as new-build newbies, we only haggled for a dishwasher, only to find our neighbours had their stamp duty paid. We learned from that.
  • To part-ex or not to part-ex? By part-exchanging your house, the house-builder agrees to buy it for a set figure. When we did it most recently it paid the estate agent fees, including the Energy Performance Certificate. But we didn’t just accept the first amount offered. We wanted £5,000 more, held fast, showed it examples of similar houses priced closer to what we wanted, and got it. It finally sold for £5,000 less than we got.
  • New-builds can be more energy-efficient. We find more environmentally-friendly building controls mean newer houses can be a lot cheaper to heat. Our previous house, bought 10 years ago, had a C energy rating. This one is a B.
  • We found asking for an overlap worked. We asked to complete (get the keys to your new house) on the Friday but to give them the keys to our old home on the following Monday. They gave us 10 days, so we did the flooring in the new house, moved the furniture in, then tidied up the old one before giving the keys back.
  • Pay for upgrades or do it yourself? Paying the house-builder to tile the bathroom floor turned out to be a good move for us. New houses need to settle, and cracks can happen. Getting ours laid for us meant they replaced them when then cracked.
  • Getting things thrown in. Just being nice to people can get some really unexpected results. I really wanted to get my veggie patch ready quickly. The estate wasn’t finished, so the builders were still on site. Knowing individual bags of compost would cost a shedload, I asked if they could get me some at trade price, which I’d pay. Guess who got a ton sack of compost delivered straight into the garage?

Please share any experiences you have in the comment section below, or in the MSE forum.

My MoneySaving mobile dilemma: contract or pay-as-you-go?

My MoneySaving mobile dilemma

My MoneySaving mobile dilemma

I’ve had a pay-as-you-go mobile for some time now. But with so many new all-singing, all-dancing phones available, it’s easy to be tempted into buying a new contract phone.

So I have a bit of a dilemma – stick with what I’ve got or take the plunge into high phone-bill territory?

I’m lucky enough to get mobile hand-me-downs from my husband, who gets a new contract phone each year. So I’ve rarely bought myself a new one or paid for a contract.

This is why:

  • I can easily email people by computer, and I rarely use my phone for outgoing calls.
  • When I call, they only last a few minutes as I’m working or feeding the kids.
  • I save longer calls for my landline, which I have to use a certain number of times a quarter for the £30 BT line installation offer.
  • I keep texts to a minimum as I can easily email instead.
  • I’m not the type of phone user who texts or rings someone if I’m seeing them in a couple of hours – unless it’s “we’re out of milk, can you bring some home”.

Until recently, my mobile bills have only been around £2 to £5 a month.

But now my eldest has started school and as her social life is busier than mine, I find I need to text a lot more often.

So in the last few months I’ve started a mental list of pros and cons for getting a new phone. Should I fork out much more per month for a snazzy new phone with all the bells and whistles?

Pros of spending on new phone

  • Wouldn’t have to ring my other half to ask him to do a price comparison when I’m in the supermarket (he invariably doesn’t use MSE’s Megashopbot – grrr).
  • I don’t have to stop myself texting someone if I just felt like it.

Cons

  • Contracts are fixed monthly sums, while pay-as-you-go may be a lot less.
    I may not use my landline enough so may get charged extra under my current deal (that ends in May, though).
  • I want to pay off my mortgage in 13 years.

So what’s the decision?

MoneySaving has won out over convenience. For the time being, I’m sticking with my trusted pay-as-you-go.

You can leave your feedback and suggestions in the comments section below or on the MSE forum.

Digging deep – and saving money too

My super mutant ninja parsnips

My super mutant ninja parsnips

Many of the MSE Team have their own areas of special interest when it comes to MoneySaving. MSE Jenny’s our resident eBay guru (see Saviour from eBay zombiedom) and MSE Penny’s the fashion queen (From the catwalk to Primark).

A bunch of us (if you’ll pardon the pun) have enthusiastically embraced ‘grow your own’ as part of our MoneySaving arsenal.

Now the growing season’s starting again, some are more likely to be discussing plant food tablets in Poundland (they have water gel crystals too, usually £5ish in garden centres and DIY stores) than the latest iPad tablet.

MSE Becca’s growing parsley, chives, tomatoes, courgettes and mixed salad in pots using every available space, and strawberry plants grown from runners donated by MSE Wendy last year.

No, Wendy didn’t donate an Olympic athlete, they’re the shoots that grow from your plants. Pop the nobbly bit in the soil to grow roots and, hey presto, you have a new one completely free.

And it was MSE Wendy who inspired me to try to grow garlic for the first time last year after seeing her fantastic home-grown, home-made garlic plait.

After last year’s bumper crop of super mutant ninja parsnips, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, rhubarb, garlic, onions, Swiss chard and a pumpkin, I took advantage of recent nice weather to get some of this year’s veggies growing. Tomatoes, radishes, spring onions and potatoes have been optimistically sown and planted, although they’ll have to be protected from the cold.

You may be thinking you don’t have room… but as that world-renowned celebrity gardener, Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans, recently said (I’m paraphrasing), not using land you own to grow your own is a waste. Just look at his mushrooms.

I’ll be squeezing edible plants into every nook and cranny I can find. Last year’s best tomatoes came from plants we found growing in our front garden and just left there to carry on merrily growing.

They grew bigger and produced more fruit than the ones I carefully tended to in my back garden, so I’m tempted to chuck a couple of seeds on there this year and see what happens.

So, given this is a MoneySaving site, I should discuss how much it saves, at least in some part.

What’s a good value for money crop? The obvious answer is something you’d normally buy a lot of, but which is expensive in the supermarkets. Tomatoes are a no-brainer, especially the speciality types. But carrots and onions tend to take up a lot of room for something that’s relatively cheap to buy if you don’t have much growing space.

For time and MoneySaving I like anything that you just plant once and it grows every year – perennials like rhubarb or asparagus. Although I still haven’t practiced what I preach and planted my asparagus yet.

Of course, we have a fantastic Green-Fingered Forum board here on MSE where gardeners swap tips and ideas on what’s cheaper to grow than buy in the supermarket.

How much can you save? If you’re completely new to it, the initial outlay for compost, equipment, canes, trellis, etc can be large. How much you spend depends on how big a growing area you have. For example, on containers, bags or a veggie patch.

Here, sites such as Freecycle and Freegle are your friends (see the Freecycle guide).

Again, at the risk of sounding like a Poundland advert, it really is a gardener’s paradise in my book. You should find shelves full of vegetable seed multi-packs and onion and garlic sets. (They grow bigger if you plant them in the autumn but it’s still not too late, my new veggie patch produced some mammoth onions last year that I only started off in February.)

Poundstretcher is another good source of gardening bargains. I’ve found trellis less than half the price of DIY stores and garden centres.

Plus don’t forget the cheaper supermarkets. Aldi has a very good range of vegetable seeds starting at 49p, when you’d be looking at around £3 elsewhere. Lidl regularly has ‘gardening events’.

If you’re still unsure how worthwhile it is for you, as well as our Gardening board above, I’d hugely recommend reading Real Men Sow for inspiration.

So once you’ve grown them, what then? Quiches are a great way of using what you have. All sorts of veggies can go in or with them and are pretty straightforward to make. Especially if you cheat and use shop-bought pastry.

I’m a huge fan of the slow cooker, though, which more often than not turns out restaurant-quality food. Spend just 20-30 minutes preparing your ingredients in the morning before the school run, whack it in the slow cooker, leave it 8-12 hours and hey presto – supper’s done. But I digress.

It’s not something widely known by non-slow cooker users, but they’re perfect for making chutneys. So guess where last year’s tomatoes went?

I could waffle on about slow cookers, but that’s for another time…

You can leave your feedback and suggestions in the comments section below or on the MSE forum.

Uncle Martin vs Uncle Mick

My two-year old daughter’s like most two-year olds, never happier than when she’s pulling toys and books off shelves and cupboards and leaving the place looking like a hurricane’s ripped through it.

It’s normally books like Peppa Pig, Spot the Dog and Meg & Mog that she picks but every now and then down comes my copy of The Money Diet.

I usually point out that it’s Uncle Martin’s book.

However, her godfather is a very much loved Uncle Mick. She regularly wanders around the house saying “Uncle Mick” and asking to see him. (I’m pretty sure it’s not just because Uncle Mick and Auntie Isobel have two of the cutest, friendliest, lickable dogs around – yes they lick her and she licks them back!).

She’s obviously met Martin, when she was younger, and does watch him on TV now and then – she even copied him parrot fashion when he was on GMTV a few days ago, saying “numbers”.

So when she pulled The Money Diet down today and I said “that’s Uncle Martin’s book”, she said “yes, that’s right, Uncle Mick’s book”!

 

Sorry Martin!