6 ways to cut your household bills

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the old adage “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”. For one, I prefer to advocate big savings over little ones. Major changes like down-sizing your home, relocating to a cheaper part of the country, or swapping your car for a pushbike, will make much more difference to your bank balance and your overall wellbeing than a string of minor life tweaks. The way I see it, choosing NOT to go on a £3,000 luxury holiday is like getting 3 years worth of FREE energy, or 10 years car insurance!

But – and it’s a big but – the sheer practice of habitually making successive small enhancements to your routine and to your budget, like changing your energy supplier or turning down your thermostat by one degree, is an amazing discipline to have. It helps you adopt an ‘always-on’ 100% frugal consciousness and keeps you at arm’s length from life’s constant stream of rampant consumerism.

I’ve shortlisted my 6 favourite bill-trimmers, none of which are as dramatic as moving home or selling the gas-guzzler! They’re all super-easy to implement and can collectively save you a nice little chunk of cash, every day.

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1. Buy tube heaters

The cheapest way I’ve found to heat a room. Leave one of these on as long as you like and it’ll keep a room warm for as little as 4p an hour. Much cheaper than electric convector heaters or halogens. One tube heater alone is not going to heat the whole house, or give you a roaring glow in the depths of winter, but they are perfect for those chilly spring and autumn months, or when you just need to keep one room nice and cosy. Hide them under the sofa if you don’t like the aesthetic appearance – I know some people find them visually offensive.

2. Get a wood-burner – and pick your fuel carefully

Ahhh, our new energy bill saviour. We’ve forked out £1200 to have a Firefox 8.1 woodburner installed but it’s paying back handsomely. We have a small-ish 2-bed cottage and it warms the whole house in no time. We have it going all day in the winter months when we’re both at home and light a small fire of an evening when outside temperatures are more in the region of 5-10C. I find coal is the cheaper fuel to run overall while wood is useful for getting the heat going quickly or for shorter periods. Having both options – ie, a multi-fuel stove – is important. Based on initial estimates I’d say our gas bill will be around 30% lower. And as we both work from home self-employed we can claim a portion of it back on our tax return forms.

3. Buy in bulk, make in bulk

Discovering Muscle Food was a watershed moment for me. We get 3 months’ worth of high-quality meat for around £60. Package it up and stick it in the freezer on the day of delivery and you’ll notice your weekly shop from then on is a damn sight cheaper. It also helps you plan meals better, which means less waste and gets you seeking out interesting new recipes. (“Hmm… What could I do with those chicken breasts tonight?”)

Similarly, you can buy big bags of rice, pasta, oil, flour, potatoes, frozen veg – the staples we all need – at exceptionally low prices. Sign up for supermarket alerts and voucher codes and you’ll soon see that you can also get great deals when bulk-buying luxury items like sauces, cheese, or even wine.

4. Create your own cleaning products

Big-brand cleaning products can cost a fortune. I shudder to think we live in an age where there’s a fashion for lemon-tinged bleach and rose-thorned purifiers. Insane. You don’t need any of this stuff. You can make all your own liquids, lotions and potions for pennies.

Vinegar and a few drops of essential oils in a spray bottle is all you need for your everyday household cleaner. Hydrogen peroxide can be a good, cheap alternative to carpet stain remover. For a powerful non-toxic oven cleaner you could try mixing up some borax, vinegar, baking soda and boiling water. (Note – before creating your own, please research the portions and mixture methods carefully.)

5. Re-sell your energy

If you generate your own energy through solar panels you can cut your bills by around 25-50% and sell any surplus energy back to the grid. The initial outlay is still quite high, which is why I’ve not yet done this one myself but the the costs are coming down all the time and the resale prices are going up so a 15-year break-even point, as it is now, should tumble to 5-10 years reasonably soon.

6. Live by day, sleep by night

Rise with the larks! Enjoy the world in daylight when its warmer, more colourful and altogether more beautiful. And when night comes, bunker in under a blanket and go to bed early during those long dark winter months. Get your house working to the same routine too. Turn off all your power-points when you turn in for the night.

Wonga is evil and its senior employees are Satan’s minions 

I know a guy on the board at Wonga. He’s a good, solid businessman; an experienced blue-chip director with an impressive corporate track record. So why on earth is he at Wonga? I’ve been asking myself this every time I’ve seen him squirm in the media trying desperately to defend the operating model he presides over.

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I wish him no harm. He’s a good bloke – as much as I know of him. But I don’t get it and can’t help but think he is an integral part of the destructive and downright evil industry of which Wonga is the undisputed front runner. So I must admit I was delighted to read that the famous payday lender has been fined £30m and is considering an entire rebrand to relaunch the business following a catastrophic array of commercial disasters.

What Wonga do is plain wrong. Luring poverty-line families into spiralling, crippling debt with cheery, comical advertising and enough small print to drown a cat is an act of malice. What kind of sick people actually want to do that?

Crumbs of discomfort

I don’t care that they’ve been functioning within the law – thankfully the law is at last changing and taking a firm grip around the neck of Wonga and other like-minded (or mindless) loan firms – the truth is, you need a heart of stone to execute a business idea like that. Time and time again. And grow a huge business that is dependent on mis-communication, deceit, trickery and the financial desperation of millions of people.

I believe those that choose to work for them are therefore little better too. Now note I said “choose” to work there. Don’t get me wrong. Many people need any job they can get and I wouldn’t expect someone seeking out a £16k call centre job to help support their family and keep them in clothes and housing to turn down a job offer from the likes of Wonga. Needs must. But let’s go back to my man on the board…

Big bucks

This is a guy who was earning £400k in his previous role – I worked at the same company at the time, though sadly I was on only a fraction of his earnings. He amassed the same again in benefits, bonuses and pension payments. He left that job to go to Wonga, receiving a similar package.

He is clearly a commercial heavyweight. He could have walked into a whole host of great and glamorous roles. So why “choose” Wonga?

A former colleague suggested to me he had aspirations to clean up the business, turn it around and shape it into something sparkly, worthy and new. I don’t buy that at all. You can’t polish a turd, as the saying goes. In the core proposition of aggressive lending there are no ethics, or vague degrees of godliness.

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Cleaning job

I work in a part of the financial services arena that is far more stringently regulated and for a new innovative company that is honest, transparent and on the side of the customer. We face enormous pressure and interference at times from the governance of the industry regulator, the FCA.

It astonishes me that they are remotely concerned with triple checking the education logs of our ground level staff when there are issues like Wonga to confront. It’s akin to the age-old gripe of policemen pounding out needless paperwork for a petty theft when they could be pounding the streets hunting muggers and murderers.

As for the future of the industry, I hope the FCA moves a damn sight quicker than it normally does and stamps out the treacherous practices that still persist – for good. They are polluting and infecting the heart of our nation. And I would love to see high profile senior execs and board leaders from the financial industry – and beyond – make a public stand against such businesses to heap pressure on the government and the governance body to act once and for all.

Killing the kids: Does cheap food cause obesity?

It’s a common household scene: You’ve just picked the kids up from school. You’re knackered from working your ass off all day and they’re running around like headless chickens, crawling up the wall and demanding “what’s for tea?”

You want to give them a healthy, balanced diet. Fish, fresh vegetables and rice. But you know that’s going to go down like a lead balloon. And quite frankly, you can do without the hassle after the day you’ve just had.

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Easy street

So you go for the soft option, the far more pleasant episode, which is to grab something quick, easy and kid-friendly from the freezer. Pizza, or chicken nuggets. Micro-chips on the side. Ketchup-a-go-go. And chocolate ice cream for afters.

They’re happy. You’re happy. And that’s great. But what happens when your child starts plumping up at an early age? Do you put it down to ‘puppy fat’ or simply a growth phase they’re going through? Or do you revolutionise your weekly food shop and radically revamp the family’s eating habits?

Fat facts

The facts and figures about child obesity are well-versed. It’s become a weekly column filler for most national newspapers in recent years. And no wonder when you consider some of the findings from the multiple strands of research rattling about:

  • The percentage of children aged 6–11 in the US who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period.
  • Childhood obesity in developed countries has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
  • In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

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Defining the fine lines

Overweight is described as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors. Obesity is having excess body fat.

Quite simply, being overweight or obese is the result of ‘caloric imbalance’. That means too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed. It’s affected by various genetic, behavioural and environmental factors. But how do you control it? And who’s to blame for this crazy escalation in obesity rates?

Charity begins at home

An interesting report out recently highlighted that parents are failing to spot the early signs of obesity in their own kids. You have to wonder why that is. Do they see them as perfect specimens, the untarnished produce of their own loins that could never possibly have any kind of defect? I doubt it. I’d hazard a guess that applies to a very small percentage.

So what is it? Do parents see the signs but not know how to confront it? I’d say a large proportion are in that very predicament. I mean, it’s not easy, right? You don’t want to suggest to your child, who may be going through various growing pains, self-doubts and schooling issues as it is, that they are physically unattractive. That’s the way it will be perceived. The inherent health dangers will be a secondary concern to them – at best.

Fractional health service

Another cause, I would argue, is that there are actually many families out there who don’t have the budget and the lifestyle to create a healthy, balanced family diet.

The counter-argument is that every parent should have the foresight, will and energy to seek out fresh, healthy produce and that such produce is very affordable if you only make the effort to find the right markets and farm shops. I get the first part. I categorically do not concur with the second.

healthy kid

Supermarkets in a lot of regions these days put astronomical prices on good quality, healthy food items and cut their profits on things like booze and sub-standard ready-meals as a loss-leader.

Meal deals

I bought a papaya in Sainsburys the other day. I was astonished at the price. One papaya. £2. Mixed with a few other fruit items and layered in natural yoghurt, that dessert worked out at nearly £3.50 per portion.

At the same time a bag of brilliant green spinach cost me £1.80. If I want nice lean chicken to go with it it’ll set me back nearly £3 a portion. Plus £1 each or more for a few stems of asparagus. Before you know it the main meal is coming in at more than a fiver each. Fruit juice on top of that to wash it down and you’re fast approaching £10 for a decent, organic and succulent evening meal. And it takes time to prepare.

If you’re on a tight budget that’s simply not affordable. So no wonder vast armies of UK households look for bargains and end up with 2-for-1 jumbo-sized bags of chips, big boxes of 30%-free mini sausages and 20-packet sacks of monster munch on special offer.

Turning the corner

The issue is cultural. It’s widespread and reflective of the economic times we live in. It’s easy to blame parents. It’s harder to look within the fabric of our society and the global financial markets that have engendered such poverty in the modern era.

There are signs that we have reached a plateau in child obesity rates. Earlier this year researchers examined trends in child and adolescent rates of overweight and obesity using electronic GP records from 1994 to 2013.

The data shows there was a significant increase in child and adolescent overweight and obesity rates every year during the first decade from 1994 to 2003. But overall, annual rates did not increase significantly during the second decade, 2004 to 2013.

The fact this coincides with an escape from the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis may not be… well, coincidental.