On a budget: Do you need a car?

I’ve decided that if I don’t have an essay on Monday, it should be due to working on the book. Therefore, I will replace essays with book excerpts whenever there isn’t an essay available.

From the book in progress, “On A Budget: The good housekeeper’s guide to economizing.” I really need a cover for this, by the way, so I’ll be working on something watercolour-ey soon!

The previous excerpts were on supermarket grocery shopping, time management, mending clothing, cooking, vouchers and coupons, staycations and children’s clothes. This one is from the start of the chapter “Transport”.

1.- Cars or alternatives?

Even if you’re hellbent on avoiding owning a motorized vehicle any time in the near future (and I don’t blame you, by the way), it’s worth seriously considering the advantages and expenses of owning a car. So even if you’ll skip ahead to the public transport section after this, at least give this first section a little time and thought. It’s important to bear in mind that when you compare a car to other forms of transport you’re not only considering paying-off the cost of the vehicle, but you’ve also got to factor-in fuel, maintenance and other consumables such as air-fresheners and de-icer, that you would not use if you didn’t have a car. Therefore, the total yearly cost of the car is the car’s price, plus the fuel you used from first owning it until disposing of it, plus all its maintenance, plus insurance, plus MOTS, plus all the accessories, minus the amount you can get when you sell it on (as a vehicle or as scrap) or part-exchange, divided by the number of years you own it. As a formula:

Cost of car = (price you paid for the vehicle + [yearly fuel cost X number of years you ran it for] + total maintenance costs + total accessory cost + [yearly legal paperwork X number of years you paid for] – amount it’s worth at the end) ÷ the number of years you used the car for transportation.

Worked out like this, it’s easy to see how sports cars become more of a lifestyle than an economic mode of transport.

However, when considering running a car we don’t need to think of it in terms of how much we will spend on it as much as how much we need to spend on it.

For example, good tyres that last twelve months and eighteen thousand miles are probably worth £80. However, if you are at either extreme and either burn through tyres or just drive fifty miles a week then you’re better off with something you can cheaply replace. Likewise, a very high end vehicle will always need better tyres than an older or less powerful one. This holds true for most parts: bar antiques, older and less expensive cars will be easier to maintain and find parts for than newer, pricier models. It is, however, worth noting that with very old cars you may however be restricted to pattern parts that may no longer carry a guarantee, so maybe think it over twice before you buy yourself a bargain fix-er-upper.

Also, a car is going to cost a certain amount per mile. In terms of fuel this means that many short hops will wind up costing more than a few longer drives. In terms of maintenance this means that travelling largely on B-roads is likely to wear more on the breaks than travelling largely on motorways. And, the other way around, spending a lot of time on motorways will soon leave you with slicks, but shorter drives on well-maintained A-road will usually damage them less. You need to consider how many miles you will be travelling and what sort of speeds and terrain you’re likely to encounter.

If you’re considering getting a car for urban travel you may want to reconsider entirely. Most modern cities are as cramped as termite mounds and far less organized. For starters the traffic is continually stopping and starting. What makes your drive to work take twice as long and feel five times as stressful is also taxing on the engine and very fuel-expensive. Everything from the gearbox and brakes to belts and fans degrades faster in the hot, dirty environment of the city where you are continually in traffic-jams, changing speeds and suddenly stopping. Due to how cramped cities are and how much of a rush everyone is in your chances of almost killing a cyclist or of getting caught in an accident are far higher than anywhere else. Even the motorways aren’t as dangerous as a busy city-centre. This also increases your chances of a breakdown, which means you either accept the added cost of breakdown cover or you take your chances and risk being vehicle-less for a number of days.

Finally, wherever you live, if the longest trip you make is around 5miles, there is little excuse for owning a car. Unless there is no public transport, no taxis and you can’t ride a bicycle, there are often cheaper, more feasible and more reasonable alternatives. The only exception to all of this is if you need to use your car as a sort of glorified shopping trolley: a small vehicle that makes it easier to carry your shopping home. If you’ll largely be using your car to transport groceries, small goods and fragiles, then you need to consider an entirely different sort of car. Look for something no larger than a Beetle or a Renault 5 (often called super-minis). Look for a small bore petrol engine with very low fuel consumption. This is the cheapest way of running a small vehicle for your shopping and other transportation needs. Just don’t abuse it. These cars are not to be used more than once a day and definitely not to be taken cross-country once a month. They won’t carry you for many total miles or at much speed and won’t tackle country roads or motorways very well at all. They work best in cities and within the boundaries of villages for very short distances at a time. Keep them for their intended purpose, use alternative transport when you need to do anything else and these little cars should last you a very long time.

Now that you’ve assessed the cost of a car it’s best to realize that almost every single alternative is cheaper than owning a car. Public transport, bikes, carpooling, everything bar possibly some train services and flights. However, bear in mind that cars are primarily convenience vehicles. You will rarely find the convenience of a car anywhere else than a car itself. When thinking of a car as a practical vehicle, you need to consider two sides: firstly it’s net cost and the amount extra you’re paying, secondly it’s value to you and how much that makes it worth. After all, if it costs you £10/week more than public transport and you feel the time it saves is worth £10 or more, then all’s well and good. To make this assessment a little easier, I will list the conveniences and inconveniences of driving and you can then consider how much value you place on each.

Conveniences:

1: You manage your own schedule compared to public transport or carpools.

2: You save time compared to some public transport, walking or cycling.

3: You can carry more things with you compared to most alternative transport and have your car pre-packed.

4: You have your own space in which to relax and enjoy the journey.

Inconveniences:

1: You need to spend your time focused on driving rather than working on emails or reading, like you could on most public transport.

2: Driving in rush-hour can be a very stressful experience.

3: You are wholly responsible for anything at all going wrong.

So consider the value each point adds or detracts from your life and compare that value to the extra monetary cost of running a car.

As a final point, if you’re largely considering the car for speed and control, wish to use it for things such as going to work or small shops and will generally carry only one or two people, most commuter motorcycles can do the same job and are usually cheaper, faster and easier to keep in a city than any car.

And remember, if you’re trying to cut down on costs, it’s generally inexcusable to buy a large, sporty or otherwise gas-guzzling vehicle unless you run a delivery service or have six children and three dogs.

On A Budget: Kids’ Clothes.

From the book in progress, “On A Budget: The good housekeeper’s guide to economizing.”

The previous excerpts were on supermarket grocery shopping, time management, mending clothing, cooking, vouchers and coupons and staycations. This one is from the chapter “Clothes”.

Buying clothing for children can get pretty expensive. They grow out of everything incredibly quickly in the first few years of life, then they need school clothing, dress clothing and “I want that” clothing and, to boot, they wreck everything within days of getting it. I’m sure that every parent has gone through buying both very cheap and very easy-to-clean items, to minimize cost, but there are various other methods that parents (and messy adults) can employ to get the most clothing for the money they spend.

Avoid Unnecessary Clothes.

First of all, needless to say, is to avoid unnecessary clothes. Everybody thinks they do, but with children it’s harder.

First Unnecessary Clothing Category: a child under the age of five doesn’t need designer or fashionable clothing. You may WANT them to wear it, but a child of that age is not going through the mental processes or peer-pressure that lead to a love of fashion. Not yet. If you want to buy your child the latest and best, that’s up to you. But bear in mind that they will grow out of it quickly, it will need replacing frequently, it may never be used again in the family, the child doesn’t care if it looks trendy and, besides, babies and small children look adorable in everything. Ever seen a baby in Crocs or a sleeveless vest? Still cute.

Second Unnecessary Clothing Category: in the same vein, shoes on a child that isn’t walking serve one purpose and one alone: keeping the feet warm and clean. They do not have to have solid soles (in fact, it’s healthier for children to first learn to walk barefoot or in socks, not in solid shoes), be made out of leather or anything of the sort. Sandals for babies make no sense to me. If it’s so warm that the shoes can have holes in them and the baby isn’t walking yet, there’s no reason to put shoes on.

Third Unnecessary Clothing Category: too many of the same thing. When you first have a child you will need to go a bit overboard with the number of clothes it uses, especially if you have a weekly or twice-weekly laundry schedule. Small babies… let’s just say they “produce” a lot of nasty stuff and get it all over them (and you). But it’s important not to keep buying the same number of clothes when they get bigger. A two-month-old baby in a household that does laundry twice a week may need at least 14-20 tops, because it will soil at least two a day to a degree where you have to put it in the laundry. But slightly older children have fewer and fewer accidents and their staining of their clothes is more down to paint or ketchup, which, unlike poop, can be put in the laundry at the end of the day and not immediately. And, as children grow so quickly, you will find yourself replacing 20 tops every time they grow, until you notice that, between the ages of three and four you got them 40 tops and there are still 5 new with tags on and 15 they hardly wore at all, all of which are now too tiny.

Fourth Unnecessary Clothing Category: accessories with no practical function. This can get very hard as the child gets older and wants more things, but it’s important to remember that having a few hundred pairs of clip-on earrings your daughter no longer wears is an expense you could really do without. Try and balance it out by getting the odd nicer or more practical item, like a little handbag or a cute watch.

If you avoid all of these and stick to the right number of tops, bottoms and underwear to last them until they next grow, don’t get designer items, start buying solid shoes when the child is actually walking and keep accessories simple and functional, you’ll be well on your way to saving a lot of money on baby items.

Hand-Me-Downs.

If you’ve already had one child of the same gender or stuck to gender-neutral clothing, then your new baby or younger child could benefit from using the old clothes of the previous child. Again, because children grow out of clothes so quickly and are changed so often when young, the clothes are rarely particularly damaged. As long as they aren’t stained or torn, they’re likely fine for wearing again. This practice becomes harder as the child gets older and wears a certain item of clothing for longer, but is a very practical way of getting your money’s worth out of baby clothes. For this reason, it may actually be better to buy gender-neutral clothes until the child wants to wear something else, so as to make the most use of them.

Adjustable Clothes.

Another way of saving money during the stages when a baby grows very fast is to buy adjustable clothes. Some items of clothing are hard to do this with, but skirts, onesies, pajamas and coats are good examples of clothes you can easily adjust that aren’t uncomfortable for the child. Adjustable clothing often just includes extra fabric and buttons at different heights, making it easy to size-up when needed. You can buy pretty much any clothes as adjustable ones today, but, if the cost dissuades you, try getting the clothing three sizes up and converting it to make it adjustable for all three sizes. You can also always do the traditional thing and get clothes that are a bit big or elasticated so that the child can grow into them. The ideal is to skip a few clothing sizes each time; so from 0-4 months the child can wear the same clothes, rather than one set of 0-2 and one of 0-4 and from 1-3 years old the child can wear two sizes rather than three or four.

Waterproof Everything.

This is especially important for older babies and toddlers. They will get food, sick and ink on anything you let them near. It is believed that the common toddler, in the absence of something sticky, will start producing a sticky substance from glands under its skin to make everything sticky anyway. The best way to avoid a transfer of sticky and staining items from a child onto its clothes is to make these clothes as easy to clean as possible. Get t-shirts with big, elaborate acrylic designs on them, as these wipe clean easily. Encourage the wearing of small raincoats when painting or drawing and bibs when eating. Make sure the child owns waterproof trousers and wellies for playing in the garden. If necessary, get a waterproof coating kit and coat their most frequently used clothes. Anything to make it so you can just wipe their clothes clean, rather than hand-scrub, use them only for romping or throwing them away.

Make or Customize Your Own.

The final option is to customize children’s clothes the same way you do your own. If they get a tear, stick a patch or badge or button on it. If they get a huge ink stain, try tie-dye. If they shred the cuffs, replace them.

It’s also very easy and reasonably cheap to make your own baby and toddler clothes, due to their size. You can get printable patterns online that fit standard A4 printer paper and use old clothes, blankets and small scraps of cloth to make gorgeous baby clothes. They’re also quicker to make, again, due to their size.

You can even get the children involved when they’re older, having them pick their own designs to paint over stains on their t-shirts and help glue down animal-shaped patches over tears. They’ll love it, so it would help with the inevitable problem of children becoming bored when you need to mend their clothes. It could also dissuade older children from staining or tearing their clothes if they’re involved in the cleaning or mending of them.

On A Budget: Easy Holidays.

From the book in progress, “On A Budget: The good housekeeper’s guide to economizing.”

The previous excerpts were on supermarket grocery shopping, time management, mending clothing, cooking and vouchers and coupons. This one is from the chapter “Holidays”.

2.- Staying at home, revisiting old favourites and exploring.

These are the options we first consider when we want to holiday on a budget. They’re often considered boring or difficult and can sometimes work out more expensive than a holiday abroad if they aren’t done right. So first we’ll address the issue of entertainment and then we will cover the costs.

To make the most of a staycation, as they’re sometimes called, we need to first consider what it is that we get out of a holiday abroad. If you go abroad for the entertainment of a big city, then think of the big cities in your own country that you have access to. If you go for a country retreat, then consider the countryside in your own country. Next we consider what we like doing. If we enjoy clubs and restaurants, then we need somewhere with vibrant nightlife. If we enjoy hikes and trails, then we need somewhere with mountains or at least hills. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re likely to find an equivalent that is nearer and cheaper. Make a list of places you’d like to go.

The next thing to ask ourselves is whether there is any way to make the accommodation easier. You may have a friend or a relative living in the sort of place you want to visit. Or you may have found a voucher for a hotel chain online. Anything to help you narrow down your list to something specific for this holiday.

Now you’ve found a few places where you can do what you intend to do and can stay cheaply, the final stage is to fill in the days. You may go to Cardiff for the nightlife, but what will you do during the day? Where do you want to eat or spend your afternoons? You may go to Cairngorm’s National Park to enjoy a country getaway, but what exactly do you plan on doing when you’re there? By filling-in the holiday you make it more complete, you add things for any other people you’re going on holiday with and you can start to already make plans to have fun without spending an arm and a leg.

Of course, you can work off your same list for several years if needs be, as you will likely uncover many new places to explore in your own country. This way we can make the most of our research, rather than returning to our usual holiday habits next year. It also makes for a more interesting holiday than going to the same place abroad every year, so the excitement of novelty should be enough to motivate you to carry on exploring your list.

The other option for years to come is to revisit some of your favourites. Say you spent a week in London, or a weekend visiting National Trust buildings. If you enjoyed that exact stay, you could repeat it again. Go to the same places, find ways of making them cheaper or easier and explore them some more. This is something people often do when going abroad but rarely get the most out of, as it’s hard to solidly explore a place when you’re relying on tour-guides, anglophone areas and maps to introduce you to new things. For example, I know many people who always go to the same place in France or Spain or Italy for their holidays. Same hotel, same restaurants, same activities. They’ve made it into a habit and don’t seem to enjoy it as much any more. And to boot it costs them a small fortune to go there! Meanwhile, Jon and I sometimes revisit places we’ve been before, but make sure that there’s something new to see, something we missed or that we haven’t been there for long enough so we can find it exciting again.

But the most important aspect is the exploring. Without exploring, anything can become dull, especially if it’s a repeat visit. Think of the difference between staying at a B&B for a few days, seeing a museum and going for a walk twice, and going to the same village twice, but staying at the B&B, seeing the museum and going for a walk the first time and eating at a local restaurant, going fishing and seeing an art exhibition the second time. Even if that isn’t exactly your cup of tea, I’m sure you can see how the double-visit that’s exactly the same would get boring, whereas the two different visits help you make the most of a place.

Likewise, whilst visiting major monuments and going to well-known events the first time you go somewhere is always good, doing it repeatedly gets expensive and boring. When visiting Cardiff, seeing the Christmas market, a rugby match, eating in some of the Asian restaurants and participating in the night life may be a good way to go for your first visit. After all, to visit a place and not experience what it’s known for could be a regrettable experience, especially if some of those things are things you usually enjoy anyway. However, the cost of Christmas shopping, stadium tickets, well-known restaurant food and clubbing every night will burn a hole in your wallet. Once you’ve experienced all of them, exploring can help you make the most of a place.

The easiest way to get to know a place in greater depth and explore is to think of it as a home from home. Go shopping for fruits and vegetables to snack on, visit local pubs and inns, check out museums and art galleries of all classes, go to shows and events, join a course for a few days. Treat it as though you lived there part time. This opens up many more possibilities that you may not have even considered in your home town. For example, if you rarely have time to go to a music event, why not go during your visit to a different town? Or if you’ve always been interested in taking an art course or going hiking, then, again, do it whilst you’re on holiday. There is more to everywhere than the tourist attractions and by enjoying every aspect of a place you can make the most of it.

Book Excerpt.

From the book in progress, “On A Budget: The good housekeeper’s guide to economizing.”

The previous excerpts were on supermarket grocery shopping, time management, mending clothing and cooking. This one is on online vouchers and coupons, from the chapter “Internet”.

Almost everyone is aware of vouchers and coupons. And anyone who’s shopped on a supermarket’s website or watched “Extreme Couponing” knows that these vouchers and coupons can be found online if you have the time and the inclination. The problem with this is that both of these give the wrong impression. Supermarket vouchers make it seem as though coupons are largely for things you don’t use or need and shows like “Extreme Couponing” make it look like you need to be ridiculously obsessive to do well with coupons. Neither of these impressions is correct. Couponing can be fun, simple and produce useful items at the end of the day.

So, to make it easy, the first step is to find coupons. Most of these are printable, so you just have to save and print any useful vouchers and take them with you when you go shopping. Most social networking sites have groups of couponers and voucher-finders you can follow to get all the news on the latest deals. This also provides the benefit of discussing how to access any hard-to-find vouchers, as well as what ones are more useful and what places won’t accept certain vouchers. However, if you don’t use social media much, these groups may not be particularly useful.

Another way to find them is to keep an eye on websites that track vouchers and offers. An easy way of finding these is just to search for something along the lines of “uk vouchers”. These websites link you directly to where the voucher is, or give you a code to use when next shopping. Just be aware that sometimes vouchers expire and the website doesn’t edit the voucher to tell you this.

Sometimes, the retailer will give you vouchers directly, as you find with supermarkets. So going onto your favourite coffee shop’s website to have a look around can’t hurt. You get to read about the coffee shop, see any current offers and there may be a voucher or two available.

A similar technique is to write a short letter or email to the company complimenting them on the quality of their product or service. This sometimes results in them sending you a voucher so you can enjoy an amount of their product or service for free.

Finally, shops also offer vouchers in their magazines. If you normally buy a gossip magazine, a cooking magazine or are looking at getting a catalogue, it can be good to switch onto your local supermarket’s magazine. A lot of them offer free pamphlets and magazines also, or at a discount with a certain purchase.

It’s also worth having a look through any magazines or newspapers you already buy or subscribe to. Some health magazines will have vouchers for specific supermarkets or brands. The RSPB magazine has discount vouchers for RSPB products and advertisements for bird and garden related companies that offer you a discount or a freebie if you mention the offer in the RSPB magazine. Newspapers often have a vouchers, discounts or freebies section, where, if you collect a couple of days worth of cutouts, you can get a free or heavily discounted product. It’s usually more worthwhile to look for vouchers and discount codes in magazines with a certain focus, as you’re more likely to be interested in bird feed if you subscribe to the RSPB magazine than to be interested in a brand of shampoo if you subscribe to a newspaper. However, it’s always worthwhile to find out where the vouchers and discounts in your regular newspapers are, just in case there’s something you’re interested in, someone you know is interested in or that you could sell.

Next, is the issue of how to sort and store your vouchers. The best place to keep them will be an agenda, a memo board, a fridge door, a wallet or a diary; somewhere where you look on a daily basis before you go shopping or when you’re making a plan for the day. I keep mine pinned to a cork board in my kitchen, because it’s where I keep important phone-numbers, is in a very visible place, in a room I use every day (also the room I go into when making a shopping-list) and right next-to my calendar. You will want to keep them somewhere that you visit just as frequently. Don’t get an agenda or a diary specifically for your vouchers, at least not until you’re used to it. In my experience, getting a new folder or agenda or calendar for them usually means they’re entirely forgotten. However, if you keep important memos on the fridge door, then you’re highly likely to find your vouchers there. How you store them is also important. Most retailers won’t accept a damaged voucher, so you’ll want to cut it out with quite an extra margin, maybe a cm border after the cutout line. This way if you pin them or they peek out of your agenda, the edge that is scuffed or has a hole in it won’t be the actual voucher. Another thing to consider, especially if you’re keeping them on the fridge door, in a highly messy room or have pets, children or out of control adults, you will want to put them in a transparent plastic sleeve, like the ones you get in ringbinders. This way you can see what vouchers are, where they are and keep them clean and safe.

How you sort them is a matter of some debate. Many people sort them by expiry date, but I find this to be more awkward than it’s worth. For starters, if your voucher is pinned to the day it expires, it’s more likely you’ll only see it when it’s too late to use. On the other hand, if you just bunch them all together you’ll find it harder to throw away the expired ones and to find the ones you need on a particular shop. I find it more useful to sort them by shop and by the date you’ll use them. If you stop by a certain shop or supermarket daily, then keep the vouchers you can use there always on you. If only shop at another one weekly or monthly then you’ll want to collect all the vouchers you intend on using whilst there and make sure you go to the shops before ANY of them expire. To make sure you remember them, pin them to a calendar sheet or diary page on the day when you’re going, or pin them to a memo-board or the fridge with a note saying what day they’ll be used. That way, you’ll always use them up or take them with you when you’re going to the appropriate shop. Whenever you get a voucher, think of where and when you’ll use it (“Pet-store; next Tuesday.”) and put it with the other vouchers for the right day and shop.

Now that we know where to get coupons and how to store and sort them, the question is: how do we spend them? Here are some answers geared towards making the most of your coupons and not losing out or getting things you could otherwise get cheaper.

1: Is the product as cheap as it could be?

Sometimes, just because a product is discounted doesn’t mean it’s good enough. As an example, my fiance and I are happy to get value brand mouthwash and soaps from pound stores. This means that, even with a £1 voucher, a lot of the more expensive brands aren’t worth it. However, when multiple vouchers or offers are combined, you can often get the expensive brand at a reasonable price. For example, we had one voucher for £1 off a certain brand of kitchen towels, we also had a voucher for 50p off it. Combined with a discount that was running, a product that would normally cost £3 cost us 50p.

2: Can I multi-coupon or combine it with another offer?

As in the example above, sometimes a voucher is only good if you can use it at a time when an offer is running or use it alongside another voucher or coupon. Almost all coupons say that you can’t do this. However, many supermarkets and stores simply view them as an IOU or a form of alternative currency from the manufacturer. In other words, whilst some stores stick to one coupon per item and one item per coupon, others will not scrutinize them or have a system that will tell them “This person already had a discount on that sweetcorn!” If you’re unsure, get the products, try and apply the coupons and, where the coupons aren’t accepted, return any more expensive items at the till.

3: Is this a product I’ll use?

Sometimes, the product on offer is one you don’t normally buy. Here we apply the same tactics for working out what we need to do as we apply with supermarket discounts and offers. For example, we had a voucher for 50p off brand-name face-wipes. This would have been useful if we used the wipes often, the voucher made them cheaper than the cheapest brand or if there had been another voucher or offer available, to make it incredibly cheap. It’s not like we WOULDN’T use it, if we could get it cheap enough. There are plenty of uses for face-wipes. However, it would still have cost over £2 for a small pack and, at that price, we’d be better off getting the value brand. On the other hand, the kitchen towels in question 1, whilst we didn’t normally get them, were a fairly unique product at such a price that they were worth getting. Not only was there no alternative, but, after the vouchers, they were cheaper than the closest alternative products.