Monday, 16 June 2008

Living in a COMAH site

I was uncluttering in the kitchen the other day and worked around to the back of the cupboard where Bill had stuck some cleaning supplies I’d not seen before. Thinking there were similar items under the kitchen sink, an area I managed to avoid going for years when I was working, I pulled those out. I knew there were other cleaning and polishing supplies in the bureau and still more in another cupboard.

The collection covered the whole kitchen table. We had products I never knew existed and wouldn’t have considered buying, never mind using. Bill explained that it was the accumulation of products from his mother’s two moves, to a flat near us, then into a residential home; but I think he has a cleaning product fetish, I do. I grouped them by use and put one of each commonly used products under the kitchen sink; the remaining lifetime supply is in another cupboard from which we can ‘shop’ when we run out.

We have on hand the following miracle products:

  • kettle de-scaler
  • uPVC frame & furniture cleaneran
  • dish soap
  • carpet mousse/shampoo stain remover
  • crème cleaner for enamel, porcelain and fiberglass
  • laundry products, including liquid detergent, 2 types of soap for delicate items, 6 stain removers, fabric softener, water repellent spray and colour run remover
  • 4 kinds of glass cleaner
  • oven degreaser and caustic oven cleaner
  • 3 cans and 1 gel for air freshening
  • 4 types of metal or jewelry cleaner
  • 3 types of furniture polish & sugar soap (whatever that does)
  • all purpose cleaners, one lemon scented and one that kills MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus)
  • plug hole / pipe cleaner
  • freezer defroster
  • mystery bottle (went in the bin, which was probably illegal)
  • all purpose cloths - a lifetime supply
  • silver cleaning cloths

Collected all together I worrie we were in danger of being regulated under the Control of Major Accident and Hazard (COMAH) legislation. I’m trying to remember who will be visiting us first: the Environment Agency, the Health & Safety Executive or the Local Authority. Better get out my yellow safety tabard and hard hat then.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Relief at Last

I have very good news:

  • My taxes are finished
  • I didn't end up owing anyone anything (I try to be grateful about this, but part of me fusses at having to spend hours on paperwork to demonstrate that I don't owe anything)
  • The guy at the 'little' job rang me yesterday and asked if I could come in and meet his boss
  • I seem to be showing a few minor signs of being more organised (we'll see how long it lasts)

I'm into another form of morning reading. For years and years it was meditation books, then for a long time it was novels. The last week or so, I've been catching up with The Simple Dollar blog on various topics, most recently reading all his posts where he reviews personal productivity/development books. I'm a real sucker for buying these things and so many aren't that useful. His reviews have narrowed my wish list considerably and I feel I've learned a ton of great stuff. There are a lot of his posts that don't apply to me, but I like his site so well, I'm working my way through the archives topic by topic. He lives in Iowa and this was how I learned that some friends were potentially getting drowned. Fortunately they seem to only be getting very wet, but life in an RV in the midst of torrential rains has to be challenging -- noisy at the very least.

Well, I'm back to reviewing my Getting Things Done list. We have company coming for dinner tomorrow and there are preparations to make.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Wise Counsel

I went to the beauty college yesterday to have my haircut tidied up a bit. I did say it was only passable, though they were all quite complimentary about what I had accomplished. Well, they would be, wouldn't they?

While the woman was working on my hair, the instructor was watching. Another student came up to ask advice from the instructor about her practical and written exams which are coming up, this being the end of the school year. Apparently their were problems between the student and another instructor. I noticed the young girl looked quite helpless about the whole thing, though she did seem to recognise she was being given some solutions to the situation.

The lady standing behind me made some suggestions and then admonished the student: "Don't let someone else determine your future for you." I thought it was a sterling thing to say to the girl and the thought has stayed with me the past 24 hours. Who knew beauty college instructors had such wisdom to impart?

Sunday, 8 June 2008

A Little Less Blog and a Little More Action

As a non-resident citizen, my tax filing date is 2 months later than a resident US citizen. So, being the procrastinator that I am, this is what is taxing (mmm, sorry) my brain just now, so my blog posts have slowed a bit.

In a tax year you choose to claim the foreign tax credit, the overall domestic loss is the domestic loss for that tax year to the extent it offsets foreign source taxable income for that tax year or for any preceding tax year (in which you chose to claim the foreign tax credit) because of a carryback. If you do not choose to claim the foreign tax credit for a tax year, the overall domestic loss is the domestic loss for that tax year to the extent it offsets foreign source taxable income for any preceding tax year (in which you chose to claim the foreign tax credit) because of a carryback.


Some paragraphs I can understand if I read them slowly 3 or 4 times, others just continue wafting around over my head. And if reading the Instruction Forms are fun, the tax treaty of 2001 and its technical explanation are even better.

Yesterday the weather was glorious, half of it anyhow – the maximum allowable allocation of good weather here, and I spent a couple of hours putting more seeds in the garden. But now I'm back at the grindstone.

I am really looking forward to completing these tax returns (US, Oklahoma, Utah); it’s always such a relief to be done. I am promising myself that I will start reading these instructions earlier or find some textbooks or something so it’s not so daunting again next year, especially if I find myself making a different kind of investment; they always require a new form and 3 sets of instructions. When I’m next in the US I shall look for some books for dummies or idiots as well. Maybe then I'll understand it the first time I read it...

Financial Education

I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad a couple of years ago. It was interesting enough but I can’t say I learned a huge amount I found immediately useful; I might go back and read it again sometime to see if that has changed, but I doubt I'll ever be the wheeler-dealer type he describes..

One idea it did put forward that struck a chord with me though was about the lack of financial education in our schools. I gather it’s much the same, if not even worse, here in the UK as in the US. We are taught to do mathematics, but not how money works; English, but not the language of finance; history, but not the impact of history on the financial affairs of the average person.

Well, perhaps a bit of the last. I remember learning that during the Depression people were really poor because there were no jobs because the stock market had crashed. What I took away from that was that the stock market was too risky to put money in. I never questioned that millions of people do all the time and that many of the wealthiest people in the world are very much involved in investing in the stock market. For a very long time I was certain I would never be one of those people, right up until they came up with 401(k) and 457(k) plans.

I would have been right that investing wasn’t for someone heavily in debt, which I was for a short time due to inheriting other people’s responsibilities. I would have been right that it wasn’t for someone without an emergency fund, which I often was in my 20’s. This wasn’t because I didn’t save, but because I handed that entire savings over to my husband every year to fund our annual driving vacation. Looking back I think I probably should have expected a bit of change at the end of the holiday, but either it didn’t occur to me or it wasn’t worth the trouble I would have got to have asked him for it. I can’t believe I actually did that year on year for nearly a decade. But that is the past…

There wasn’t anything much mentioned in my home economics class. I remember a cooking lesson or two, a lecture about nutrition and spending ages sewing and ripping out the simplest apron ever designed, but no mention of money. Mom taught me a little – what little I would let her. I remember getting my first credit card from Sears. It was a little scary spending money without writing a check; it just seemed so easy I was sure it was dangerous. That wasn’t far wrong you know! She encouraged me to have a little spending spree – run up a bit of debt, but then to very carefully pay it back down. She said it was important to establish a good credit rating and she was right. By my standards today I’m sure I gave up far too much money in interest – I aim to pay nought these days – but I always did treat my credit cards with a great deal of caution. Beyond that, she provided a sterling example of financial management. I remember her balancing the checkbook every month; making grocery lists and sticking to them; making meals from scratch; paying bills on time and when she couldn’t, talking with the creditors; saving up for the little things she wanted, like pieces for her silver coffee service or concrete squares to extend the patio in the back yard.

The first bit of financial education I can remember was attending a free seminar by Charles Givens (or perhaps one of his staff, I don’t recall). The aim of that of course was to get you to subscribe to his newsletter or whatever, which I did not, but I took copious notes of the lecture. I remember working my way down the list of suggestions, using every one I felt I could manage – even then the lack of a financial education was limiting. The main things I remember using were not insuring the car comprehensively once it has value dropped below a certain point and canceling the lender-required mortgage insurance once I had a sufficiently large equity in my house.

I have off and on sought to educate myself financially. One decision that wasn’t too hard was to have a 15 instead of a 30 year mortgage on the first house I bought, the one in Salt Lake City. It meant the payments were a little uncomfortable for a while, but I’d been pushing my comfort zone for the last 18 months to save up the down payment and I knew my income was going to increase regularly, so I bit the bullet. I couldn’t think of a single other decision I could make that would save $44,000.

Once I moved across to the UK and found that an accountant wanted 1200 pounds to prepare my tax returns, I decided to do it myself. I’m still having to learn something new each year and it’s almost always what I consider bad news and this makes my tax preparation one of the most difficult things I do. I have at times given up and got help, particularly when I discovered I’d not paid UK tax on my US rental income for years and years, and payment was required, with penalties and interest.

So what do I wish I’d learned earlier and still want to know? What do I think should be taught in school

 Basically, how to find a career that is right for you and even better, ways to keep your options open to diversify as well as advancing in that first career

 Smart money management and the benefits thereof

 Recognising the aim of advertising – how not to be brainwashed

 Financial management beyond debt avoidance and simple savings accounts, ie, investments

 Tax preparation and record keeping

The sad stories about the financial problems people get themselves into being spendthrifts aren’t just sad for them; I can’t help but wonder if the whole sub-prime mortgage market could have been avoided if a young person’s education included a bit more financial savvy. There will always be people who are stupid with money, but perhaps there would be fewer with a bit more specific information provided at an early age.

So I’m still working to learn how things work, even in this last half of life. My aim at this point is to make what money I have work it’s hardest for me and, if I end up taking on further employment, to make sure it’s something I can happily chose to do.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Frugal Habits - Old and New

When I quit work I was completely debt free, had rent income from two houses in the US and a substantial amount of cash – just over 3 years’ living expenses – in savings in the UK and about the same over in the US. I was light-years beyond fed up with my employer and felt that my very sanity was as stake, so I sacked the job and called it retirement; and it still is retirement from that line of work.

Then I found the Inland Revenue wanted still more money, and the extensive repairs on one of my rental houses were not actually finished, and the accountants still wanted more money. The UK savings dwindled to about a third of what it was and the exchange rate on the dollar decreased to 50 pence. A death in the family required a last-minute and expensive visit across to the US. The price of necessities like heat, food and petrol rose before my very eyes.

Nonetheless, I was determined that I would have at least what Brits called a ‘gap year’. This is usually something UK students might do before going off to university, but increasingly adults are giving this to themselves and calling it a ‘career break’. I wanted the time to rest and re-cooperate, also the luxury of using my energy to execute my ideas instead of an employer’s. I’d always intended to ratchet up my frugal practices as part of that energy expenditure, but the unexpected expenses were further motivation for me to do so: I wanted to have my gap year AND still have some savings left at the end of it. Ultimately my aim was to see if I could live happily within the rental income of the one house, and that seems to be showing itself as entirely possible, at least so far.

It helps a lot that I find a frugal lifestyle relatively easy and more than a little fun. Between reading The Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life (the one by Joe Dominguez and Vickie Robin, not the one by Alvin Hall, though his book is also very good), I developed an awareness that (a) money was what I got in exchange for the hours of my life that I worked, (b) spending money on junk was therefore spending the hours of my life on junk and (c) finding creative ways to not spend money was actually very satisfying.

These days I do a lot of simple, easy things to be frugal, such as:

Stay busy at home. It’s easier not to spend money if I'm doing things at home and not out and about looking at things I could buy or working up a need for food or drink. There are more things to do at home than I will ever get done and working down the list is both useful and frugal.

Use up what I have. Apparently I have in the past bought far more shampoo than I really needed at the time! Some of the surplus is due to keeping a gym bag (for when I cycled to work) and a travel bag (for both business travel and holidays) stocked in addition to my running bag and the home supply. I am just now – 9 months later – down to two small bottles of shampoo, one at home and one in the running bag. I believe my hair conditioner supply will easily last another six months. I have practically a life time supply of soap, in part due to Bill’s mother moving into a care home and the multitude of soap gifts she received in the past. Since I use a lipstick brush to finish off all the lipstick in the tube, and I rarely wear eye make up anymore, I probably have a near life time supply of those cosmetics as well.

Go to the library. I use the library at least several times a month; it meets most all of my reading ‘needs’. Unfortunately, Brits aren’t big on self-improvement books, which I enjoy reading, so I still do have books that I want to buy at some point. These turn up on my wish lists, but if Bill doesn’t agree that I need to improve (bless him), then I have to break down and buy them myself – on Ebay or second-hand on Amazon where ever possible.

Wear all my clothes. All my life I've heard people say they ‘have nothing to wear’ when in fact they have a whole closet crammed full. Decades ago I developed the habit of planning my work clothes on a Sunday afternoon. I would take the first hanging item from the left side of the closet and work my way to the right to find the coordinating pieces for Monday’s outfit. The next item hanging on the left would be worn on Tuesday with other items, and so on. Careful shopping meant I could find quite a few different combinations . When I hung clothes back up in the closet they went in on the right side of the rail. I would hang a scarf on a hanger as a divider to see when I’d worked all the way through the rack. I could skip an item once or twice if the weather wasn’t quite right or I wanted something a bit more confidence-inspiring, but more than 3 times skipped meant I had to consider whether I was going to keep that item of clothing. Out of season or special occasion clothes are kept separately. This system means that I wear all my clothes on a fairly regular basis. I don’t get tired of them, because I don’t wear the same thing very often and so it’s easy not to go buy clothes I don’t need.

Re-use or re-purpose what I have. I use my plastic grocery bags to line the trash bins; milk, egg and mushroom cartons for seed trays; old clothes for craft fabric; laundry soap boxes (decorated with gift wrap or wall paper and ribbon) for magazine or other paper holders; plastic milk bottles for watering cans; egg cartons for jewelry and crafts storage; bits of odd yarn to knit potholders; big laundry soap bottles (from Bill’s work) for plant pots; clear glass jars for storing sewing notions; margarine cartons for storing leftover foods; large envelopes as wrapping paper for posting items; small envelopes to write ‘to do’ lists or other notes (as opposed to the practice of developing health care and other British government policy on the back of used envelopes). I’m sure most people do this sort of re-purposing to some extent, but I try to take it as far as I can. At times I start with ‘I need a… – what do I already have?’; at others it's ‘I have this…what might I do with it?’

Use those gift certificates. I’m bad about not using gift certificates I get in a timely manner, mainly because I’m not in the habit of shopping as entertainment, but also because they are often in denominations smaller than the whole price of what I would want to buy. Fortunately they don’t tend to expire. I’ve been uncovering these certificates and keeping them on hand for when I need to buy something. I will be comparing prices less those certificates in future.

Craft with what I have. It’s really easy to walk into a fabric or a craft store and spend a small fortune. I did that not too long ago and though I don’t regret it, I’m determined not to do it again for a while. I have a modest stash of fabric, but a sizable stash of zippers, thread and buttons, old clothes, hangers, etc. In short, a huge amount of materials that I can use to satisfy my crafting urges. I’m working my way through organizing all those supplies and capturing ideas for what I can do with them, not to mention looking through my craft magazines and library books. The same thinking process for re-using items works for generating craft projects. I plan to make most of my Christmas presents, something I've long wanted to do.

Walk. Whenever I walk or cycle for transport I feel I’m doing some brilliantly complex multi-tasking: I’m (a) traveling to my destination; (b) getting some exercise; (c) being environmentally friendly; (d) if I choose a pretty route, enjoying nature; (e) exposing myself to potentially meeting new people (dogs, cats, flowers, money, gloves, umbrellas…) I just assume that I will walk to any place within a mile of my house unless there are really pressing reasons why I need to drive. This is much easier now that we have summer, or an approximate facsimile thereof.

Make bread. I started to say this is only frugal because Bill bought me a bread-making machine years ago, but given the high cost of the truly inferior bread available at supermarkets I would probably chose to make bread by hand if I had to. As it is, the machine is still holding up though we may need to find some replacement bits before long. I bought a book of bread machine recipes, but found that some of the more unusual flours are difficult to find here, so we stick more or less to a universal version of a tried and true recipe. It calls for half the flour to be ‘strong white’ but the other half can be a mixture of things like oatmeal, brown flour, corn meal or wheat germ. I opt as much as possible to use oatmeal, because I like the texture it gives and because it’s a very cheap and healthy whole grain. We enjoy excellent quality homemade bread for about half the cost per loaf as the store bought loaves. The tough end crusts get processed into bread crumbs, used to make stuffing or recipes like salmon puff. One of my birthday presents was The Vegeterranean which has some other interesting ideas for bits of bread (but probably not low-fat…).

Use the Internet. In a recent interview with Amy Dacyczyn, editor of the Tightwad Gazette, she admitted that her originally published opinion about computers and Internet access was now out-of-date. She listed the many money saving uses the Internet provides, but I would say it mainly provides me with a huge amount of entertainment. Local phone calls in the US don’t cost, but they do here in the UK. My conversations are held via email. I don’t spend much on postage for the same reason. I can’t remember the last time I bought a magazine. I used to have a real weakness for them but I find the many weblogs and even websites for women’s magazine fill this niche neatly. And of course, I get to write and ‘publish’ this blog!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Watched Plants Never Grow

What a wet, miserable day! I'm trying to be pleased on behalf of my garden, but I'm actually rather impatient that it isn't farther along. Does the principle of watched kettles and pots apply to watched plants, do you think? It's possible I should have started sooner. I didn't think the weather would support the plants any sooner, but I won't know until next year. Must remember to make some notes about when things are planted, so I can compare next year.

You might remember that I was attempting Square Foot Gardening. Unfortunately I don't think will allow me to show you my Excel spread sheet of squares. However, starting from the row closest to the wall at the back of this picture are ( ) squares planted with:

  • nasturiums (2)
  • runner beans (2)
  • dwarf beans (1)
  • lettuce (8) I'm not that big on lettuce, preferring spinach, but we had the seeds already...
  • daylilies (3)
  • California poppies (4)
  • marigolds and alyssium (3)
  • cucumber (1)
  • courgette (1) This box was labelled cucumber, but it doesn't look like the other one, it looks like a courgette (AKA zucchini)
  • leeks (3)
  • spinach (6)
  • broccoli (14) That's seven plants given 2 SF each - Bill's suggestion.
  • strawberry (1) The only left over from the last garden planting
  • parsnips (7)
I believe I have about 40 more squares to plant. Some of those will be left until autumn for cane fruits. Bill thinks he can manage a small glass enclosure against the back wall (on the right) and I might put more pepper plants there.

We've been watching Jamie Oliver's series "Jamie at Home" (free from the library). Has Jamie Oliver made it in the States? I think he started out as The Naked Chef, but he's successful (or maybe just chubby) enough, he keeps his clothes on these days. This series shows him cooking incredible meals from the fresh food in his garden (or someone's garden, anyhow).

That's one of the ways I know I'm really old now: cooking and gardening shows actually hold my attention.