In an effort to free up space in our small flat I have been steadily working my way through the receipts and bills we have for almost everything we have ever bought. Some of these receipts tell stories and have bought on a spell of reminiscing. The hand-written receipt for the wool rug [which we still have] from 1984 when shopping was a slower and more civilised experience will always remind me of the two of us, in our early 20s, sitting and drinking tea in china cups with the elderly shop owner before deciding on the rug to buy. The receipt for my backpacking rucksack from 1981, when Karrimor gave a lifetime guarantee, and which [of course] I still have, reminds me of all the pre-campervan trips when I carried that rucksack across Europe and Scotland. When I needed new walking boots recently it was great to be able to look back and see that my old boots had lasted 13 years. The receipts also remind me of previous DIY projects; it seems in 2007 Anthony was busy building us a new PC and past extravagance like my lovely Pearl Izumi cycling jacket which cost £85!
All these receipts have been scanned, organised in folders, triple saved and the paper shredded. In Greater Manchester we can recycle shredded paper reasonably safe in the knowledge that no one will take the time to piece the shredded paper back together to steal our identity. A few years ago it was reported that in Germany former DDR Stasi files are being re-assembled after they were shredded when the Berlin wall fell, let us hope our receipts are pulped in to toilet paper before anyone can do this.
This industrial-scale shredding has [not surprisingly] put a strain on our home shredder [strangely there is no sign of the receipt for this to know how long we have had the shredder or what we paid for it] and last week it moaned and complained and then stopped. I spent an hour clearing out its blades to coax it back to life but it only had one further spurt of life before it gave up the ghost.
The rule I have set is that new purchases have to be considered for one month to be sure we really need them but in a month I would be drowning under the pile of shredding. And so I broke the rule and a new shredder was purchased.
It is spring and Mr BOTRA and I find our thoughts turning to Scotland.
Most years since before many of you were born (1981 was our first joint trip) we have enjoyed a trip to Scotland at this time of year. On these numerous trips we have stayed in tents, in luxurious castles and occasionally in damp, cold and decidedly scruffy houses. Some years we have also visited Scotland in summer, autumn and / or winter but it is the spring holiday that has been consistent.
So for me Scotland is primarily a land of yellow gorse bushes, blossom on the trees, wood anemones flowering in birch woodland and patches of snow on the hills. On these springtime trips we are always sure we will get weather, it is just hard to predict exactly what and we tend to pack for every season. We have had days when we have worn shorts [although not too many of these] and days of heavy snowfall. We have chipped ice off the tent and watched the rain scurry across a bay, followed by a rainbow.
We now mix and match with a wonderful combination of the campervan and staying with friends in a large house. We get the perfect mixture of freedom to do our own thing and peace and quiet and time with old friends enjoying good food, excellent company and the chance to share a dram in a lovely Scottish country house.
Self-catering in a large house [there can be up to 17 of us] works out cheaper than self-catering as a couple and in Scotland no-cost camping in the ‘van is possible and this keeps the holiday within our annual holiday budget.
I had a plan; a fairly foolish idea when I work for a charity in a dynamic sector that is reliant on public sector funding in austerity Britain.
Nevertheless, I can’t help planning. My plan was to finish work from my three-day a week admin post in about eleven months time in 2017. In this plan I would get a card signed by my lovely co-workers all wishing me well and I would then retire in to the happy land of financial independence. This wasn’t a plan I had shared with my employer and now I hear that a company reorganisation is in the pipeline for the summer and I am feeling out of control.
This reorganisation means that I will be moved from my friendly and relaxed office that is just 10 minutes walk from home [the best commute ever] to a new [and windowless] office where I will be the ‘new girl’ who has had to cycle for 30 minutes through the chaos that is Greater Manchester traffic. In the new office everyone else is at the other end of the corporate spectrum to me; instead of turning up in my scruffy hiking gear, putting the radio on and just getting on with my job at my own pace, I will be expected to wear business clothes, get involved in office politics and become part of the corporate machine.
Some background. I gave up senior management roles some years ago when we took our 50-year-old gap year. I took on a role that I can easily achieve with my skills so that I don’t have the stress and responsibility that goes with a senior position; although this means we have less money, it also means I have head space for other projects and being so near to home I wasn’t wasting time commuting. Working three days a week also means that I have time to devote to my other work as a motorhome travel writer.
As far as financial independence goes, the money for our retirement in 2017 is in the bank [hurrah] and a little bit more besides. By next March the plan says we will have both enough saved and sufficient pensions to [hopefully] get us through whatever post-retirement throws at us.
I am lucky that our financial independence gives me is the freedom to walk earlier than I planned if I don’t like what I am offered by my company and Mr BOTRA supports me in this, although resigning will mean we eat in to our emergency savings that help him to feel secure. I am therefore trying to take back control and have a negotiating position and a fall back position. I am hoping I can get agreement to work from home [no nice colleagues to chat to but no pressure to corporately-conform either]. If this Plan B is allowed I can go back to Plan A and carry on working for a few more months. [Hope you are you following this?] If this negotiating position fails, I will offer to reduce my hours [thus saving the company money] so that the longer commute doesn’t eat in to my non-corporate working time … so I have a Plan B and a Plan C.
Wherever we park our campervan is our home, it is self-contained and we carry everything we need to be comfortable. At present, with work restrictions, we generally spend about 70 nights a year in our motorhome. To do this while continuing to save for our retirement we are always looking at ways to save so when the new Brit Stops guide arrived recently we started planning free nights away in the ‘van.
The Brit Stops scheme is a simple system [always the best ones]. Farm shops, pubs and food producers agree to host one or more motorhomes to park at their venue for a night for no charge. For the cost of £30 for the guide, a motorhomer has a list of 640 places where they can park up for free. This is modelled on the French Passion scheme that is popular across France.
Using Brit Stops we get to stay in some beautiful places and sometimes discover a new local food or drink. We might stay at a farm shops and buy some cheese, or a café and relax over their breakfast the next morning or we might enjoy a pint of local beer in a country pub. Brit Stops also allow us to be spontaneous as we don’t have to book a pitch many months before. No sooner have we spotted a forecast for a spell of fine weather for the weekend and we can be on our way (although some Brit Stops do like motorhomers to ring ahead).
The beauty of Brit Stops for us is that we get the opportunity to buy good quality local food created with care by a small business which beats the mass-produced offerings in the supermarket any day. Camp sites can be quite expensive in the UK and the Brit Stop guide can help us save money on our holidays (meaning we can take more]. In any year, once we have stayed two nights on a Brit Stops the guide has paid for itself, so we feel good, and we can support local businesses with some of the money we have saved, so we feel even better.
The number of places to stay has grown dramatically since Brit Stop started in 2011. It took us a few years [and the ownership of a slightly bigger van] until we got the Brit Stop bug in 2015. This happened when we were staying on a Caravan Club Certified Location that charged £15 for just a hook up on an uneven field where they hadn’t even bothered to cut the grass. Down the road was a Brit Stop where ‘vans could park for free with views overlooking the canal; no competition, as they say.
According to the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) in the UK we have spent £6.2billion in the last five years on stuff we don’t need and rarely use. If you thought that each of these impulse purchases added another day or two to your working life would you still buy that exercise machine, that electronic soup maker or that juicer that languishes at the back of a cupboard? For me, having a goal to retire early helps to put a brake on the impulse to buy. But everyone has to work it out for themselves and there are some interesting purchases listed here that are regretted and are now languishing in someone’s attic.
Of course, if you use your juicer every day, after exercising in your spare room and filling your soup maker then these products weren’t a wasted impulse buy for you … but we all have at least one guilty secret don’t we? Even Mr BOTRA and I bought a rowing machine some years ago that was soon listed on Ebay. Our insulated cafetiere and lovely milk pan [pictured above] by contrast was a well thought out purchase [for us] as it means that we can make good coffee in our ‘van that hasn’t become tepid before it is ready to drink [thus saving money in cafes].
Psychology Today considers there are reasons why we impulse buy; it might be that we love shopping or we don’t want to miss a bargain; because we are offered three for two or we have delusions that this new thingamajig will save us time or money or make us a better person. What it comes down to is that humans often make an emotional decision about an economic activity. Psychology Today also offers techniques for avoiding impulse buying. The NEST article ends optimistically, suggesting that individuals learn from their impulse buying mistakes and all those regretted purchases are certainly the backbone of Ebay.
Mr BOTRA and I have had an expensive month [even though February is so short] and I am certainly not going to lecture anyone on their own purchasing choices. But our shopping wasn’t done impulsively. I follow a simple process to avoid wasting money; I write down what I think I want to buy [I don’t do this for groceries you understand], consider it for at least four weeks and finally decide if it is something we still need rather than want. For us, walking boots and warm winter coats have all worn out recently and we opted to buy quality replacements that make a bigger hole in the budget but will [hopefully] last longer. We have also made two recent purchases that will result in long-term savings. The first is thermal vests; as I get older I become more of a wimp that craves the sunshine and warmth of summer; comfy and cosy thermals should keep the chills at bay and the heating bills down. Secondly, after many months of deliberation, we have bought hair clippers that will save money on hair cutting and soon pay for themselves.
Back in the day (before Mr BOTRA and I went on our twelve month trip in the campervan around Southern Europe) we had a daily ritual of emptying our pockets, purses and wallets of any small change, from 50p downwards and putting it in a piggy bank. Every couple of months the piggy bank would feel heavy enough and we would spend an hour of a wet Sunday afternoon counting the change into neat piles, putting it in plastic coin bags and depositing it in the bank later that week. In a year we would accumulate about £250 just from the change in our pockets.
In those days we kept this money separate from our other savings and twice a year in January and August we would spent the small-change-savings in the Rohan sale. Rohan sell travel and outdoor clothing that is high quality, easy to wash and quick to dry, doesn’t require ironing and of course looks great. Part of the plan for the twelve month trip away in a small campervan was to maximise the space and practicality of the trip by taking only clothing that fitted those criteria. We didn’t take Rohan gear exclusively but they were a large part of our wardrobe and still are.
Using the savings from our small change to buy what is (for us) fairly expensive clothing was an excellent way of making this affordable, allowing us to have a bi-annual treat and taking us towards our goal of a quick-drying, iron-free wardrobe. For two people who don’t really enjoy shopping, these trips to the Rohan shop were anticipated with excitement and were all the more enjoyable for being funded by our pennies.
This seemed such a great way to treat ourselves without feeling guilty about using our savings. Our treat was technical clothing but yours might be anything; eating out, theatre tickets, computer games, books, holidays, music or tickets for rock concerts. The key to success with this seemed to be the discipline of only spending what we have saved and buying something for both of us.
Today we spend our days mostly wearing technical outdoor gear and have been able to completely do away with the ironing ritual. The outdoor clothing we have is mostly of such a high quality that I am confident some of it will see me out for the next 30 years of my life.
Nowadays we no longer need to buy any clothing or really feel a need for any expensive treats but we have kept the ritual of emptying our purses of change every evening. The amount has reduced in the last few years as more of our spending is using plastic, rather than cash, but it still adds up to about £120 a year and this currently is added in to our fund for financial independence, rather than being earmarked for specific spending. Perhaps when we finish work and are living off our savings we might once again use our small change savings for some sort of treat.
To get even a mention on this blog products have to be exceptionally good value; that is they are either really cheap or they hit all corners of the BOTRA-trinity of being affordable, high quality and long-lasting. The wonderful Leather Genie shoe polish pushes these buttons and works better than any shoe cleaning product we have every used before.
When it comes to shoe cleaning Mr BOTRA and I don’t generally get over-excited but we have found this fantastic product saves us both money and time … a win-win in anyone’s books.
We found this super merchandise in an unlikely place. We were strolling around the Caravan and Motorhome Show in Manchester last year, admiring ‘vans we couldn’t afford / didn’t need and looking at accessories we didn’t want when we spotted a shoe cleaning stall. As usual my shoes needed some TLC and so I stopped to see what the fuss was about. In just a few minutes the salesperson bought my shamefully scruffy walking shoes up to such a lovely shine I was astonished. And yet, we don’t make snap purchasing decisions in the BOTRA household and so we had to do a few circuits of the venue mulling over the spending of £13 before we returned to the stall and came away with our very own pot of Leather Genie.
Leather Genie uses jo joba oil to give a shine to your leather, be it shoes, furniture or clothing. The polish is quickly applied with a sponge in a no-mess fashion and shining your shoes takes only a minute or two and gives a grease-free lustre to leather in any colour.
No one would call me a smartly-dressed individual, my preferred look is comfy walking gear and that includes my shoes. That said, I don’t like to waste money and throw shoes away just because they are scuffed. I had a pair of burgundy leather shoes whose soles still had plenty of wear but which all sorts of cleaning products had failed to bring back to any sort of sheen and even I had become too ashamed to wear them for anything beyond going out to the bins. A quick rub with the Leather Genie and these shoes were once again presentable, now that is a result.
I am not an enthusiastic shoe cleaner, as you can probably guess, and generally grab a pair of shoes just before I head through the door and as I put them on realise how shabby they look. Because the Leather Genie is colourless and smells pleasant it is possible to quickly shine up my shoes without getting messy black / brown polish over my clothes and still get out of the house on time; this may not be glamorous but it is pretty cool.
We have had our tub of this magical shoe cleaning polish for over twelve months now and it looks like it will last a few more years, so £13 from the family budget well spent.
This magnificent sign over a German bakery suggests that bread gives life meaning and this is a sentiment I heartily agree with.
When we returned from our twelve months of travelling around southern Europe in our campervan Mr BOTRA and I had a dilemma regarding bread. Although there were many things we enjoyed about being back home, we got no enjoyment from eating sliced English bread that had no taste or substance; we had become accustomed to having a bakery within walking distance of any campsite that sold a range of tasty local loaves and rolls. It seemed in urban Salford the only options for bread were a supermarket or chain bakery and in both the bread was flavourless and insubstantial and didn’t hit the spot at all.
Don’t get me wrong, there are good traditional bakeries in Greater Manchester but these sit alongside a deli, a specialist cheese shop and an independent wine seller in the more expensive parts of the city and were a bus ride away, so didn’t tick any frugal boxes. One of the downsides of living in the cheap end of town is the limitations of the local shops.
So what to do to get our daily bread? When we lived in a larger house with a normal-size kitchen I baked bread regularly but in our diminutive kitchen finding the space to knead dough and leave it proving over a few hours is challenging … so my answer was to buy a bread maker. I was apprehensive about the outlay for something we might not use and to save money bought a compact Morphy Richards model that was half the price of the most popular model; however, I needn’t have worried, I have been using this bread maker at least twice a week for almost six years now and it hasn’t missed a beat (touch wood) and just the paddle and baking tin have been replaced. This bread maker makes a decent loaf that is flavourful with a good crust in three hours. Morphy Richards no longer make the model we bought but I would certainly consider their bread makers when / if we have to replace our bread maker.
Of course, Salford has changed in the last few years following the creation of media city and many Eastern Europeans moving here. I do now supplement our home-made bread with excellent Polish rye bread from the nearby Polski Sklep [an advantage to living in the unfashionable part of town) and we now have a Booths supermarket down the road where we can buy reasonable bread. Of course, the frugal woman in me knows that it continues to be cheaper to make my own.
We have spent our adult lives determined not to be defined by our possessions. We have dressed in charity shop bargain finds and always been a few years behind the fashion; we’ve camped and self-catered rather than had luxury holidays; we’ve managed with bicycles and no car and we’ve always lived in housing that is at the cheap end of the scale. I know we now own a pretty new camper van but I don’t feel a need to justify this, it will last us years and doing without a camper van would be like sawing an arm off (… okay I realise I have just justified the owning of the ‘van right there).
At our time of life (in our 50s) we have a bunch of friends who own big houses full of expensive furniture, carry designer handbags and take holidays to exotic far-flung locations, fortunately they are prepared to be friends with such a thrifty couple. When we first down-sized and moved to our small flat in the cheapest end of Salford (and Salford itself is the cheap end of Greater Manchester) we felt too ashamed to invite visitors round; what would they think of our frugal housing choice, how would they judge us? After seven years living in our tiny home we are now more comfortable with the choice we made as it is clear that the decision is paying off and we are near to our goal of financial independence and early retirement. We are mortgage-free, own a small flat that is inexpensive to heat and maintain and live in a development that has good security; useful for a couple who are always away in their camper van.
There are times when our choice is more difficult to deal with than others and particularly when it is our turn to host book group. This involves entertaining and feeding ten people and we do it by squashing them around our dining table using an array of cheap folding chairs. At first we were embarrassed that everyone has to shuffle around when one of the group wants to use the bathroom and that there is only comfy chair space for five, discouraging relaxing and chatting into the night (as we are getting too old to sit on the floor). Now we are just grateful that our very good friends are willing to put up with this discomfort and visit and they don’t complain or judge us.
I am happy that we have lovely friends who accept our decisions, even though they are very different from their own and this helps us to feel comfortable living in the cheap end of town.
We are often asked how two low-paid public sector workers managed to afford a new campervan. There is no mystery to this, we didn’t find a lucky money tree, win the lottery or rob a bank, the answer is that we saved our money to achieve our dream.
This (and perhaps my love of the west coast of Scotland) is why I feel a connection to the Deacon Blue song Dignity. If you don’t know this song, you can hear Deacon Blue version here. I became reacquainted with this beautiful song when the singer-songwriter Karine Polwart played her own version of this 1987 hit at a gig last year, after playing it at the National Theatre of Scotland Blabbermouth event in 2014. This was a twelve hour celebration of Scottish music and spoken word on the eve of the Scottish referendum and you can see her playing it in this video.
The song is about a man who works for the council and is mocked by local children but who has a dream; over the years he saves his money to achieve his goal. The song reminds us that no one is who they might seem at first glance and celebrates the hopes and dreams of those who work in humble but essential jobs.
I had dreamt about owning a campervan since I was 13-years old and although there were many years when this and a twelve month gap year in a van seemed unachievable and impractical Mr BOTRA and I got there eventually and the adventures are told on my first blog. Now we are saving for early retirement because for us there is no dignity in working until we drop.
There’s a man I meet
Walks up our street
He’s a worker for the council
Has been twenty years
And he takes no lip off nobody
And litter off the gutter
Puts it in a bag
And never thinks to mutter
And he packs his lunch in a Sunblest bag
The children call him Bogie
He never lets on
But I know ’cause he once told me
He let me know a secret
About the money in his kitty
He’s gonna buy a dinghy
Gonna call her Dignity
And I’ll sail her up the west coast
Through villages and towns
I’ll be on my holidays
They’ll be doing their rounds
They’ll ask me how I got her I’ll say
I saved my money
They’ll say isn’t she pretty
That ship called Dignity
And I’m telling this story
In a faraway scene
Sipping down Raki
And reading Maynard Keynes
And I’m thinking about home
And all that means
And a place in the winter
Set it up (repeat)
And I’m thinking about home
And I’m thinking about faith
And I’m thinking about work
And I’m thinking
How good it would be
To be here some day
On a ship called Dignity
A ship called Dignity