Long live cheap shower gel

For the past two years, we have tried to live as frugally as possible.  Some people might think we’re absolutely crazy in our thriftiness, but it has served us well.  Recently, I reflected that one of the things we have saved money on is shower gel.  Yes, shower gel.  I know some would laugh about a blog post extolling the merits of saving money on shower gel, but here it is.

Most of my friends, relatives and acquaintances would buy their favourite brand of shower gel without thinking twice about it.  They trust the brand name, they love the various fragrances, they don’t mind paying for the expensive advertising.

However, they miss the whole point of saving money.  We buy the generic shower gel, price ranging from 6p to 13p a bottle.  But don’t let the price fool you.  The soap does lather up.  It does its job more than adequately.  In addition, everyone in our family has sensitive skin – we all suffer from some allergy or another – yet, none of us have broken out in rashes using cheap shower gel.  Sure, you won’t find variety in fragrances, but is that very important?  Fragrances can cause allergic reactions.  No, it does not leave us feeling like we have baby-soft skin, but we still feel clean.

Get discounts on utility bills with direct deposit

Living within your means can be very difficult if your means are already limited.  Furthermore, if you have bills that are paid quarterly, it can sometimes be hard to plan ahead when you have emergencies.  We’ve found that if we know in advance what our utilities payments are, it helps us to plan better.To this end, we decided to approach the utilities companies with options for monthly payments.  Some are more willing than others to set up monthly payments.  I guess they find it a hassle to chase you up monthly rather than quarterly.  However, if you tell them that you want to do monthly direct deposits, they would be much more receptive.  The direct deposits would be automatic and they wouldn’t have to worry about bills.  Nevertheless, they would probably have to keep checking to make sure your monthly payments do not need adjustment for changes in your usage.

The direct deposits make life a lot simpler for you as well, because you don’t have to remember to pay your bills in time.  Because of this convenience on both sides, some utility companies offer discounts for this.  Another bonus when you are already financially strapped.

Shared ownership and rent-to-buy with HomeBuy scheme

When I hear news about the housing market, it triggers a Pavlovian response in me.  Having rented for the past 7 years, I want to be able to own my own home again.  But how will I be able to do this?

As I’ve mentioned previously, we don’t even have a credit history, so we’ll need to establish that before we can even think about qualifying for a mortgage.  I’ve only been working for 3 months, so my employment history is also sketchy.  I’ve looked into renting to buy and shared ownership and wonder if this may be the way for us.

In the US, there are so many opportunities to “Rent to Buy”, but it’s not readily available in the UK.  Rent to buy in the US is open to everyone, but there are restrictions in the UK.  Apparently, the only way to do so in the UK is through the government’s HomeBuy scheme.

This program is run by the local housing associations.  It is open to everyone, but priority goes to social tenants and key workers.  Certain restrictions do apply.  For example, your household income must not exceed 60,000 GBP.  Key workers are those employed by certain organisations who have priority with the HomeBuy scheme, such as the NHS, education, police, etc.  In order to be considered for this program, you need to apply with your local housing authority.  They will inform you when there is a property available that matches your requirements.  Most homes are new builds, but some are existing council homes.

The HomeBuy scheme has several options.  It allows you to either buy into a shared ownership or rent-to-buy. 

In the shared ownership, you buy a certain percentage share of the house, usually 25-50%, which means you need to obtain a mortgage based on a smaller amount; therefore, your down payment and monthly mortgage would be smaller.  You are responsible for obtaining this mortgage.  While paying your mortgage, the housing association also charge you rent for the remaining portion, but this amount is relatively small, and perhaps a nominal service charge.  As your circumstances change, you may be able to buy further shares on the property in the future, perhaps reaching the full value of the house.

Some housing associations allow you to “try before you buy”.  That is, they allow you a certain period to rent the property, then buy it if you like it later.  It is expected that you buy into it after the trial, but if it does not work out, you are probably expected to move on.  Some give discounted rent for a certain period, such as a year, allowing you to accumulate enough savings to buy into the shared ownership.  Renting to buy gives you the flexibility of not needing an upfront down payment.

Reasons that you may want to join this scheme include the desire to own a home, the need to upgrade to a larger home as your family grows, or to get reduced rent.  You need to be able to show that without this scheme, you would not be able to get onto the housing ladder.  That is, you are unable to enter the open market.  However, you also need to show good financial standing – the ability to pay rent and all other bills.  If you are in arrears, you will need to attend to them before trying to apply for the program.  Also, keep in mind that if you are not already living in a certain location, you may find it difficult to buy or rent into the area unless you are a key worker or you have recently transferred work into that area.

Different housing associations will have different programs, but the essentials are as above.  Not all available homes are available to everyone – some exist only for certain groups of people.  Housing associations have a very limited number of homes.  I looked into what’s available in our county and only 3 came up, none of which are nearby.

But there are other obstacles.  First of all, if you want to buy, you need to be able to have access to at least 3500 GBP, the amount necessary to pay for all the applicable fees of buying a home.  You will still need to come up with a small down payment and to apply for a mortgage.  There is no guarantee on getting a mortgage in these current market conditions.  Rent to buy sounds appealing but I know that new builds have very small rooms and we are a growing family.  And, although my income falls into eligibility, there is the possibility that it may increase or if my husband gets a job, our total income may exceed the eligibility requirements.  What happens to our application then?  Or, if we are already in a shared ownership, how would that affect it?

Why is credit rating important?

We are in need of another car again.  And we don’t have the money to get another one yet.  We’ve considered getting a personal or car loan but the interest rates are too high.  Plus, our bank is not likely to give us a loan because we do not have a very long and active history with them.  In addition, we do not own our own home.  In short, we do not have sufficient credit history.

This lack of good credit rating means that the best we can hope for is financing with high interests.  I saw an ad in a paper recently claiming how easy it was to get a loan through some group – “Don’t you wish all loans were this easy to understand?” it stated.  It showed how much you would pay back if you borrowed a certain amount.  Since the amount they published was relatively small, the figure did not seem overwhelming.  But in big lettering, it said the interest rate was 78.6%!  Who would be crazy enough to go for that?  Even in our dire straits, we would not consider loan sharks, even those generous enough to take only 78.6% and not 1000%.

It has come home to us that having a good credit rating is essential for getting on in this world.  But, life itself has been so difficult that it is hard to have good credit rating.  We do not have enough money to buy a house, so it will be a long time before we reach that stage.  We don’t carry credit cards because credit card debt got us into a lot of trouble in the past.  Yet, you can’t build a credit history without a credit card.

Without good credit rating, banks don’t want to help you.  If banks don’t help you, you can never get the good credit rating.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The only advantage to not having a good credit rating is that people are less likely to want your identity.

Train cheaper than bus, sometimes

It never used to be the case, but it seems that for short distances the train is cheaper than the bus. Recently, I had to travel in to Haywards Heath from Burgess Hill. The local bus company charge GBP 3.70 for an adult return fare, and children travel for GBP 2.40 each. I went ahead and took the bus on this occasion, but when I arrived home I thought I should check the train fare table to see what it would have cost to go via train. I was quite surprised. For an off peak journey, children travelled for GBP 1.00 each and adult tickets were just GBP 2.70. So for two adults and two children we saved GBP 4.80, or about 50%. This can amount to a very significant saving if you make the journey regularly.

For longer journeys, particularly those between popular destinations, I have found the train very expensive. However, for short runs it does seem more economical than the bus, or even the car if you are willing to forsake a little convenience.

Travelling via train and bus with PlusBus

I’m a regular train traveller and recently discovered PlusBus.  It’s an economical way to travel via bus in addition to train.  It was great because I had to take a side trip one day, which meant I was unable to use my regular train route.

PlusBus is available at various towns across England. For around 2-3 GBP, you can travel via bus all day around that town.  There is no catch; however, there are stipulations.  First of all, you must have a valid train ticket.  The town you are visiting must be en route on that train ticket.  For example, if you are travelling from London to Brighton or from Brighton to London, you may buy a PlusBus pass for Brighton.  However, you cannot buy a PlusBus for Brighton if your train travel only includes the Brighton area. 

PlusBus is accepted as bus fare on all participating buses.  In some towns, PlusBus may also be used on the trams.  You may wish to check that the bus you want is a participating bus, though most buses in participating towns will be included.

You must buy the PlusBus tickets at the railway station or bus station prior to travelling on the bus.  You cannot buy it on the bus itself.  You will be expected to show proof of a railway ticket.  Children pay half the adult rates, and Railcard holders save one-third off the adult rate.

PlusBus tickets are available as singles, day return, period return (when the outgoing and return are on different days), or even season tickets, if you expect to use it for more than just one day.

Travelling via public transport may be relatively slow and inefficient, making you rather dependent on timetables and various other conditions, but in the end, it may be less hassle for bigger towns.  With the PlusBus, you also won’t have to spend much money.  For more information on PlusBus, you can check out their website at www.plusbus.info

Getting a refund on your tax disc

If you are getting rid of your car and you’ve already paid your taxes on it, you can get a refund on the unused portion of the tax.  However, you need to do this as soon as possible.  We found this out too late and lost two months’ worth of taxes when we left our car on the drive for over a month.

If your car is no longer roadworthy and you are keeping it off public road until such time as you will actually have sold or given it to a scrappage company, you should declare a SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification).  This lets the DVLA know that you do not intend to drive it.

At the same time or later, you can apply for a refund for the tax you have already paid.  However, you cannot apply for a refund if the vehicle has been taxed within 21 days.  You will need to complete the V14 form, “Application for a refund of vehicle tax”.  It is the same form where you declare a SORN.

You can also claim a refund if your car has been scrapped, exported, stolen, sold or transferred, or if you changed the class of car ot a nil value tax class (such as “Disabled”).  However, you will need to turn in the tax disc in order to get a refund.  If it has been scrapped, you need a “Certificate of Destruction – your questions answered” (INF156). If it is sold, transferred or exported, you will need to return the V5C (Registration Certificate) with the relevant sections filled in.  If it is stolen, you will need to report it to the police, who will inform the DVLA.  Similarly, if you change it to a nil value tax class, you will need to do this before applying for the refund.

Some things to keep in mind: 1) in order to get a full refund for each full calendar month left on the tax disc, you need to return the form to the DVLA before the first day of the month you want the refund from; 2) you will not be refunded if you have less than a calendar month left on the tax disc; 3) if you bought a 6-month tax disc, there is a 10% surcharge that will not be refunded; 4) you should receive a refund within 30 working days – if not, contact DVLA; 5) you cannot drive the car or keep it on public roads if you receive a refund (no tax disc) unless you tax it again.

Free WiFi in Uckfield

If you are mobile near Uckfield in East Sussex and need to jump on the Internet then we’ve found the connection in the local Costa Coffee in the main street is very reliable. In fact, we prefer this Costa to the one in neighbouring Haywards Heath largely because it seems more spacious and less noisy. The Internet connection is quite fast and reliable.

Across the street from Costa is the public library which also has free Internet and reliable computers. Just behind the library, there is a large car park offering free parking.

Chicken Dinner for Under a Pound

I’ve spoken before about Morrison’s supermarket and some of the ways they can help when trying to live on a tight budget. However, last week I discovered another.

I popped in to our local Morrison’s at 8:30pm, a half hour before closing time, for a loaf of bread. I got the loaf and then headed round store to see what special offers they had going that week. As I got to the cooked meats section, I noticed the lady behind the counter bagging up cooked chicken pieces, however there were no customers in sight. I hesitated to see where the chicken pieces were going and eventually she priced them at 99p and placed them on the top of the counter. When she had bagged up all the remaining chicken from the hot plates (amounting to about 7 or 8 bags) there was a storewide announcement across the Tannoy system inviting customers to pick up a bagful of cooked chicken for 99p. I grabbed a bag and headed off home. The bag had seven chicken pieces (drumsticks and thighs).

At the time, I thought this might be a one-off opportunity and I had just gotten lucky. However, I have been back on a few occasions since and this seems to happen regularly. Sometimes, remaining fresh made bread is also sold off for a pittance. A great way to pick up a cheap dinner!

Get discounts when you buy foods close to expiration date

Those who enjoy finding ways to cut corners have probably already discovered this method – buy foods on a short date.  Yes, especially now, when they are discussing changing the “Best by” and “Use by” dating system.

Many supermarkets have a scheme in place, where they offer foods on a short date at incredible discounts.  This is to clear their shelves and prevent waste.  Nevertheless, they may still end up throwing out a lot of good food just because they are now “expired”.  As a result of lobbying, there is talk that they will do away with expiration dates and increase education on home storage in order to keep foods fresh and safe.  The use of the dating system was for health and safety issues, but it has gone overboard.

It’s not the first time that people have stepped forward to proclaim that a “Best by” date does not mean that the food goes bad after that.  It is just a recommendation on freshness and flavour.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to have eaten food past their so-called expiration date and I did not get sick from it.  That’s not to say I always take the risk.  There is an element of common sense in all this.  If the food looks bad, smells bad or tastes bad, don’t eat it.

Similarly, if you buy meat on a short date and it is starting to brown, think twice before you buy.  Check to see whether there would be sufficient meat left if you cut out the “bad” areas.  It may be worth the discount.  Remember that some foods may be frozen, so freezing it before the “best by” date still keeps it fresh.  Bread is a good example of this.  There are people out there who already have this down to an art.  Like the guy who claims to have witnessed a man buying a pack of 6 scones & 2 packs of kippers for only 15p.  Now, there’s a bargain-hunter.

But, if the government plans to make changes to the “Best by”, “Use by” and “Expires” dating system, we may see an end to the discounts on foods with short dates.  So, it’s best to take advantage of that now.