A Quick Catch Up


Despite an exceptionally mild December here in Bedfordshire, my productive time at the Smallest Smallholding has been severely limited for almost the entire month. But due to no fault of my own. In early December, I managed to get shingles.

For those of you unacquainted with this condition, it’s the chicken pox virus, but the adult edition. If you’ve had chicken pox, the virus lays dormant in your body for the rest of your life. Occasionally – usually when your immune system has already taken a battering, or you’re stressed, or for perhaps no reason whatsoever – it rears its ugly head and comes back with a vengeance. It attacks the nerves in one of the nerve bands around your torso causing a dull background ache peppered with electrifying flashes of what I called MEGA PAIN, whilst the rash develops and fills with blood and generally just feels flippin’ horrible.

In my case, it began with extremely sore ribs. I felt as thought I’d been kicked and battered and bruised for almost a week, before a rash suddenly appeared one Sunday afternoon. A quick trip to the pharmacist rang some alarm bells and she sent me straight off to the out of hours doctor. The rash was still spreading but luckily I’d caught it early, so could get some anti viral treatment. “It’ll get worse before it gets better,” the doctor warned me. He was right.

So for three weeks I muddled on with this infernal virus, feeling tired and sore, sometimes in a lot of pain, and just generally fed up. My workload was relatively heavy before the Christmas period so I didn’t feel as if I could take a few days off. I felt like I was coping OK, with the various painkillers and anti-inflammatories. But it’s only now, in the break between Christmas and New Year, that I think it’s catching up with me. I’m finally off the strong painkillers, but the pain from my stupid joints and crap back has returned and I’m so, so tired. I sleep and sleep and sleep and wake up feeling as though I’ve been on a long night out.

I think being trapped indoors has been a major factor. It’s been windy and the weather has been shitty, so between my shingles recovery and this meteorological madness, there have not been many opportunities for me to just get outside and blow the cobwebs away.

Until today.

Off the painkillers. Blue skies. A slight breeze. Bright sunshine. Cold, crisp and clear. Hello Smallest Smallholding, I’ve missed you.

I Can’t Be Self-Sufficient With a Black Hole of Debt

Rich and I have made a pact to try to not put the central heating on until November 1st. At least, that’s our first goal. So I’ve been collecting offcuts of wood from various DIY projects, cuttings from the apple, damson and cherry tree, and cut up our old shed and fencing… all to supply our little fire in the living room (trying to keep use of coal down to a minimum).

The problem is that open fires are so inefficient with their energy consumption/heat output compared to log burning stoves. That is the dream – a little log burning stove that we fuel from our own little patch… but so many other things to save up before we can even think about having one installed. The aim with keeping the heating off is to make a small contribution to ‘saving the planet’, and all that jazz, but to also save on our heating bills (whatever the government says, they’ve increased every year and it’s a massive outgoing).

I don’t usually write about my finances any more on my blog. I made an executive decision a few years ago to not talk about my financial situation here; this was for a number of reasons, but mostly because people in my life would read my blog and ultimately, I felt as though I would be judged. In fact, I was judged. But today I’m going to make an exception to my own rule. I just had to fork out a rather large sum on getting my car to pass it’s MOT re-test, and it’s left me really quite short for the rest of the month. It wouldn’t be an issue, if it wasn’t for my personal debt.

Although things are much better now – my work life is much happier, so much more fulfilling and much better paid – the fact is that since before my student days, I have accrued a lot of debt. And it hangs around my neck like an albatross. It’s like a big black hole that sucks away your hard-earned cash, never to be seen again. So much of my pay packet goes into that black hole of debt, and it just feels so futile sometimes. It’s mostly my own fault. As a student, I couldn’t work due to time constraints and chronic back problems (I couldn’t even get a job decorating Christmas trees because of my back, they didn’t want to know), so with food bills, fuel bills, transport costs, printing costs, materials costs for the degree, and general living costs, my stupidly small student loan went nowhere, and the credit card company rubbed their hands together in glee.

Getting a job after uni was hard, despite my collection of A-grade A-Levels, and my degree. I was working to live a lot of the time, and when I got my corporate hell full-time job, my back was so bad that there were some weeks where I couldn’t walk properly, couldn’t push a door open without being in huge amounts of pain. All so just enough money would arrive into my bank account to cover the bills, but not a lot else. But we needed to replace electrical appliances, we never thought that vet bills would amount to so much when we got our chickens and the stray cats kept arriving at our door.  I could barely pay my tax and national insurance, and I was sometimes just plain careless with my spending. My friends also live far and wide, and seeing them ultimately becomes a costly experience. I was afraid I would miss out by not seeing them, but the reality is, I can’t always afford to do it. In the past, I would run out of money barely a third of the way through the month and blindly put the rest on my credit card, blocking out all thoughts of what my statement would like the next time it arrived. And yet, they kept giving me more credit, and the APR would creep up and up and up. Not particularly “self-sufficient”, as has been my aim for the past seven years or so.

So here I am, 13 years after leaving school and leaving home, with this ball and chain of debt that hoovers up large numbers out of my bank account every month. These days, maybe because I’m older and wiser, and maybe because I’ve been forced to think about things such as saving up for a mortgage, I have faced my finances. I know what the score is. And I know that I have to work really hard to keep chipping away at my debt, because when it’s gone, my life will be so much better. I’ve kept a spreadsheet of my debt for about 2 years now, and it’s not gone down. But I’m determined to make it happen.

The first way that I shall do this is to work more; my back problems have meant that full-time work has never really been an option, but my current job is flexible (REJOICE! REJOICE!) and so I am able to control my hours, my breaks and manage my rubbish joints and back so much more. It has been a God-send. I can now work more than I’ve ever been able to work in the past. The second thing I have done, is remove all but one credit card from my wallet, and leave one for emergencies. I have successfully not spent on the card with the biggest debt for well over a year now. The interest on that card is appalling, and I’ll be damned if I give HSBC Mastercard a penny more than I currently owe. I’ve not put anything on a credit card for almost 4 months, and this is my new aim. If I ain’t earned it, I ain’t spending it.

The third thing that I am going to do, is cut down my food bills. I have said this incessantly over the years, but never really taken proper action. I will set a budget for groceries and for cat food and rabbit food, and stick to it. Maybe take out a set amount of cash every week and just have to make it last.  And I’ll have to do my research and find lots of yummy recipes on a budget. Being vegan, I don’t buy expensive things like meat and cheese, so this – in theory – should be relatively easy, especially since I love things like stews, curries and soups… all of which are usually pretty cheap to make in bulk. Takeaways will not be a weekly occurrence.

I will also try to grow the more expensive food on my own patch. Now that I am working harder on producing my own compost, my yields should be higher. I’m not sure what constitutes ‘more expensive food’ from my shopping list yet, but I’ll have to sit down with the shopping receipts and have a think. Peppers, possibly? The bunches of flat leaf parsley we buy for the rabbits? Maybe it’s the organic carrots that we buy and eat like they’re going out of fashion. On the flip side, my homegrown potatoes and garlic have been fab this year and saved us a few pennies at least, and somehow growing my own makes me more inclined to use every available scrap of food I produce, and keep waste reduced to a minimum. Rich and I collected a month’s worth of shopping receipts to break down what we spend where, and how we can reduce our outgoings, but I haven’t looked at the numbers properly. Must. Make. Time.

Next on the list is what I call superfluous spending; I am also going to have to budget for things like Birthdays and Christmas. I love giving presents, but ultimately over the years I’ve been a bit too generous for my circumstances. So this year for Christmas, I’m not only starting early to spread out the overall cost of buying gifts, but I’m setting a budget per person, and sticking to it without feeling guilty. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the “bigger is better” mindset, worrying that you’ve bought less than you might receive from something else, but my plan is to buy something within budget from a charity, so there’s a three-fold benefit. 1 – the receiver gets a nice gift! 2 – I don’t break the bank. 3 – the charity benefits. So far I have bought a few things from the Turkish Animal Rescue Organisation monthly auctions, and intend to buy my Christmas cards from another Romanian dog charity. It will take some research to sort out my gift list, but I have time.

And lastly – the fuel bills. We’ve already re-jigged the hot water so that it only comes on for certain periods in the morning. It used to come on at least four times in the day, and we didn’t always use it, so of course it was a waste of energy. The heating is off until the first of November at least, and we’re repairing the windows and making some draft excluders to help keep the heat in. And I imagine in a few weeks, I’ll have become very well acquainted with my hot water bottle and thermal socks again…

All together, I hope that in time, I will be able to put more money into paying off the debt and getting back on an even keel again. I just can’t keep going on like this. I have a lot of saving to catch up on for adult things like mortgages (can’t even think about pensions right now), and giving copious sums of my hard-earned money away on credit card interest is just plain depressing. I can’t move forward with this ball and chain of debt.

So can you help me out? Any other ‘green’ ideas of how I can save money?

A Job for a Rainy Day…

Grow Your Own Cabbages

The last three weeks or so have largely been dominated by work projects – I’ve been working extra hours and in between trying to keep on top of things at home. But after my appraisal last week – it went really well, but I set myself a target of NOT spreading out my hours over 7 days a week – I make an executive decision to not work today. It might be be a particularly progressive attitude, but there’s a large part of me that believes that Sunday IS a day of rest, and a day of reflection, and just taking the time to count your blessings. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get my laptop out for at least a couple of hours on a Sunday, but here I am, Sunday evening, and I haven’t done a jot of work all day.

But it’s not like I’ve sat around all day, staring wistfully out of windows whilst reflecting on all the things I should be thankful for. A fortnight ago, I had been down to the local market to buy some plug plants from Bruce, our local plant nursery owner, but I literally hadn’t found a spare couple of hours to get them in. Finally free for a day to do what I please without feeling guilty for not getting in enough work hours for the day, I found time to don a pair of wellies and get out in the pissy drizzle to plant in my plugs. Admittedly, it had been so long since I’d planted any sort of brassica that I had to do a bit of gemming up…

After weeding the beds, I transferred some of the drier top levels of compost into our new compost bins, and finally dig down to some of the really good stuff. I thought I’d have to dig to the bottom of the heap to get to that black gold, but there it was, just a foot or so down, crumbly, moist and packed with nutrients. And free! I think had I bought the equivalent in compost bags I would have spent a good £10 or £15. And the best bit is there’s TONNES of the stuff left… (feeling rather smug). Thanks go to my bunny composting machines (their litter tray hay, newspaper and poop = AMAZING compost), my hens (RIP) for their poop and their bedding straw, copious amounts of mowing and my uber-weedy flower borders.

So with our homemade compost dug in, and the pissy weather getting persistently more pissy and windy, I set about speedily planting in a few rows of purple sprouting broccoli, spring cabbages, and Musselburgh leeks – all the time trying to stop our new cat (a stray tom who has made our house home) from jumping all over the freshly dug soil. We’ve now covered most of the newly-planted brassicas with a fleece polytunnel (after cat attempted to stand ON TOP of the tunnel) and used the remnants of the old chicken run to cover the rest (our woodpigeons and carrion crows are nothing if not persistent), and really, it’s fingers crossed from now until next Spring. In my few years as a smallest smallholder, I’ve manage to produce one fine specimen of a cabbage. The rest were either neglected, never made it past the plug plant stage, left uncovered and devoured by cabbage white caterpillars or decimated by white fly. Not a great track record, so even a 30% yield from this lot will be a stunning success as far as I’m concerned.

Picasso Potatoes

By the time I’d finished planting in, the rain was really driving down. I did a quick sweep of bird feeder re-filling, dugs up some huge Picasso potatoes (it seems all they needed was a few more weeks, and boom! Huge spuds), and picked a handful of raspberries and wild blackberries. It seems I need to officially welcome Autumn in with an apple and berry crumble and custard tonight. So I shall happily oblige.