Having lived in more than 20 rented flats/houses, I have recently found myself taking a more serious peak at buying options and what I could get for the little money I could hope to get a mortgage for.  I am now thinking about all the pros and cons of home ownership versus renting.  I am more in favour of renting than I ever have been but I have just found a flat for sale that I actually really like and being as it’s in Folkestone, it’s sort of affordable.

However, one of the great things about renting is that you don’t need to set aside a what-if fund for emergency plumbing, repairs, etc.  This, I believe, is how I have afforded to go on holidays and travels fairly often.  It also means I don’t have to be the one responsible for letting in builders, boiler people, decorators etc, as the maintenance of the property is the responsibility of the owner.  This is a huge plus, particularly as I’m self-employed and to wait in for such people would require an unpaid day off work.

On the other hand, if you have your own property, letting in builders is great if it means you’re doing decorating or making changes to your home that you have chosen to have.  But I go back to the expense thing and that’s why I usually rent places that I don’t feel a pressing need to freshen up or change!  But I do like the idea of doing out your home exactly how you want it.  So long as you do actually get on and make the changes rather than, as I’m prone to do, faffing and dithering.

Also, a huge bug bear of mine is carpets.  I hate old, grubby and/or stained carpets.  My current flat at least has good quality, neutral-coloured carpets but there are stains all over them and I hate that.  I don’t wear shoes anywhere I live and I have tables and mats for drinks.  In other words, I make a real effort to minimise stains on carpets.  I have no idea what or how all the stains on my carpets came from but they bother me immensely.  I want brand new, plush carpets, the quality, design and colour of my choosing.

I used to rent furnished flats but I got fed up with skanky furniture so I now have my own mis-matched furniture.  However, to move into a bought property would mean I’d most likely have to buy a cooker (five or six rings, yes, please), white goods and, something I’ve always wanted, a separate stand-up shower.  It’s been a long time since I’ve rented somewhere with a stand up shower.  I am so over bath showers!

I used an online mortgage checker thing on a £150,000 mortgage at a rate of 5% interest over 25 years.  People always tell me how much money I’m throwing away by renting.  But over the 25 year loan period, I would have paid £113,000 in interest.  Ouch.  Plus all the insurance, moving costs, any service charges, repairs, kitchen appliances … it’s certainly not a drastically cheaper option, plus the monthly repayments on that would be £877, which is way more than I pay in rent.  Another ouch.  I always had in mind that I’m ok about renting as long as I can afford to rent somewhere nicer than I could afford to buy.  Up to now, that’s about right and I have lived in some really cool places, from a three-storey house situated right on the beach to a two-storey flat with a wall of window and a swimming pool right outside my door.

Plus, maybe the biggest repellent is the thought of being a lot more tied to where you live.  I do hate moving so much but I do like living in different areas and changing my environment.  I think it’s outrageous you can’t spend at least a couple of nights test-living in your potential home purchase.  Some of the flats I’ve moved into seemed nice on viewings but on moving in I discovered all kinds of issues.  So moved out again after six months or a year.  However, as I have endured DJs living both above and below (fortunately not at the same time!), I am adamant that I would try to ascertain the hobbies or job of people living in the same building or block.  I don’t think I’m quite ready for a detached house, that seems far too grown up, though a garden would be lovely.

I have no definitive conclusions to draw, there are pros and cons to both, but somebody pointed out that if I don’t have a mortgage by the age of 40, as most mortgages are on a 25-year payment plan, I will find it more difficult to get one.  This bothers me.  But at least I have a few years to get my head around the idea and it would be really nice to move somewhere and not wonder when the next move will be!



{06/06/2012}   Tipping

I have huge issues about tipping, both the concept and the amount.  It all came to a bit of a tipping head a few months ago when I had to get a £110 taxi from the airport home, having pre-paid the fare.  What to do?

I am under the belief that tipping is a consideration for taxis, restaurant staff, hairdressers, take-away deliveries and chamber maids (is that the right job title?).  There are probably more.  I pretty much always tip the former three, sometimes the latter two.  But why is it custom to tip in these circumstances, based at least in part on their relatively low incomes, when there are so, so many other customer facing staff whose salaries are on a par?

I think standards of service in the UK are generally poor, though particularly in restaurants this is often the fault of places being understaffed. I object massively to the increasingly popular system of adding a discretionary tip to a food bill.  A friend and I once had dinner at the St Pancras Grand, a treat.  Fortunately we weren’t catching a train because the service was atrocious.  In the end, having wondered repeatedly what had happened to our main course, the manager informed us that they were busy because of a large group.  Er, hello, just because there’s a large group in your large restaurant does not mean one of your tables of two can be ignored.  It was a while ago and I can’t remember how long we waited but I know I we passed the one-hour (adding times between each course) mark.  When the bill was finally produced, after we stood up, coats on, and walked to the server area, fed up of waiting, the discretionary tip was part of the bill, 12.5 % I believe.  It caused no end of trouble to have that deducted off the bill.  I am the customer, I decide how good the service is and if/how much to tip.  Isn’t that how it works in the tipping capital of the world, the US: you pay according to the service you get.

As for my £110 taxi fare, where no money needed to have changed hands, I spent the duration of the journey thinking about what to do.  In the end, I gave the taxi driver £10.  He chatted the whole way (actually a good thing as I had been on a late night flight, was tired and didn’t want to sleep) and was interesting (lots of local Folkestone gossip!).  He even offered to detour to a 24-hour shop so I could get milk and any other breakfast stuff.

However, a tip is kind of an extra thank you for your service.  But if your job is to drive, wait tables, cut hair, etc, why should there be an expectation of a little something extra.  In my job, I provide a service, at times it is apparent that I am exhausted and suffering, yet I neither expect nor get a tip.  I see people at supermarket check outs at busy times, they look tired and are working hard, why shouldn’t they get a tip?  Is it because you spend longer with a hairdresser or waitress, thus you become a little familiar with them, that a tip is appropriate?

I had a discussion with some friends the other day about whether to put in a tip for the person who was about to deliver our take-away.  We were divided.  Someone pointed out, “But it’s his job”.  True.  But that also applies to waitresses, etc.

I do not like the American philosophy whereby a member of waiting staff is paid a pitifully low wage with the knowledge that their salary will be boosted by tips.  I pay to eat in the restaurant, why should I be expected to pay part of someone’s salary in addition to that?  It is a nice gesture, a thank you for being attentive.  But if I spend a long time in a clothes shop trying to find something that fits, I might spend a long time with a sales assistant, but no one would expect me to tip.  Would they?  I used to work in a hotel restaurant over university holidays.  We were paid roughly minimum wage and worked hard.  Knowing you get tips as a waitress, I was every so excited about the prospect of extra cash.  In that hotel, most evening diners were residents and signed for their meals as part of their hotel bill.  If they were going to tip they would usually add it to their room bill.  The hotel got that money not us.  Nowadays, I think that has changed, ie the restaurant staff get a share of the tips added to, for example, credit card transactions.  But I will always leave cash tips.

A final issue I want to bring up about tipping in restaurants is whether the kitchen staff get a share of the tip.  I think the tip should be for the person you have interacted with throughout your meal, I have no idea who prepared my meal.  I know a lot of restaurants have a tip kitty which is divided amongst staff, or maybe that’s how credit card tips are allocated?  If I leave a tip for the waiting staff, it is because they have been nice, or whatever.  If that then gets shared out, where do you draw the line?  Does a waiter get the same share as a sous chef or washer upper?  Oh, it all annoys me hugely.

I wish I felt like I could tip if I wanted to, if the service were exceptional, but I wish I wouldn’t be made to feel stingy and unwelcome if I didn’t tip.  So I’ve come full circle and have merely confirmed that I hate the system of tipping, which I knew before I started writing this!

Between April and December I regularly think about doing my tax return, it is a burdonsome niggle.  Last year I sent my tax return off in May, but still had jolts of, “Agh, I’ve got to do my tax … oh, I’ve done it” for the rest of the year.  I hate sorting receipts and paperwork, I mean really, really hate doing it.  I also don’t enjoy discovering that my annual earnings have been going down each year for the past few years.  Can someone (me) learn to be organised with money and financial paperwork, having displayed no obvious signs of having such tendencies?
I have a pile of receipts from the past year, relevant paperwork largely in the same area and a “special” book for writing receipt info in (I tried Excel but it wasn’t without issues and I’m sure it took a lot longer than my pen and paper approach).  As I think about it, I feel quite stressed.  Every year, after spending either a day (if I have a whole free day ahead of me, littered with tea breaks and all diversions that present themselves) or a series of days surrounded by papers and an air of chaos, I get it all sent out (I have an accountant to make it easier for me, but it’s this stage that I find the worst, but being self-employed and renting accommodation having an accountant is almost necessary – does that sound like an excuse?!).  I then create a system for receipts, bank statements, etc, and for up to three months I am organised.  Then suddenly it stops, well I stop.  Oh, I’m getting myself all wound up now just thinking about it.
Believe it or not, with my trusty “To Do List notebook” filling fast, I am very organised.  It’s just over my own finances that I am a disaster.  I used to be a credit controller and took unexpected delight in sorting out other people’s finances, it’s just my own I can’t deal with.  It often niggles me that I suspect my financial paperwork carnage is a reflection of my irresponsible attitude towards money.  I don’t have debts, not even a mortgage, but earning potentially vastly different amounts each month means I spend what I earn, but it takes me a few months to adjust to meagre or non-existent salary months.  Sometimes, the thought of addressing my spending and seeing outgoings v incomings, horrifies me.  I like to know enough not to go overdrawn, but no more.  How, how, how do you change the financial habits of a lifetime?  All this came to a head when I thought about buying a car that would render me £450 a month worse off for four years.  No, no, no.  Big no.
I have never had a regular monthly salary and I am wondering if this would be key to saving and being a more responsible spender.  My first jobs were temp jobs, then EFL teaching (paid per day’s work but with overtime, unpaid days off, etc, etc, that wasn’t regular) and then this crazily paid job.  Turning 37 I have had a vague acknowledgment that I am nearer 40 than 30.  By the time I’m 40 I want to have savings and be more in touch with my spending.  I might even think about getting a pension!
A month today will be the last blog entry for me in my six-month challenge.  I should make that last post a recap of things I’ve said I’ll do, etc, over the previous six months.  My tax return WILL be done and sent by then and a new, effective system of financial organisation will be in place.  Yikes!  That scares me almost as much as the day of impending horror, of being surrounded by receipts and invoices and bank statements …

Owing to my recent car quest, “Car Chris” and I have spent a lot of time in industrial parks. After one distressing McDonald’s lunch, we went out of our way to go to a Pizza Express, the only other outlet we could find. Our two pizzas, two soft drinks and one dessert cost £35. Today, as a thank you, we detoured to The Granville, Lower Hardres, near Canterbury and had two starters, two mains, two (free – explanation to follow) desserts, a pint of beer, a soft drink and two espressos for £35. Their being the same price prompted a discussion on value for money, etc.

If anyone ever fancies a realistically priced, way above average meal in a rural pub, complete with central fireplace, The Granville would be hard to beat. It is a sister pub/restaurant to my beloved Sportsman in Seasalter, near Whitstable (one Michelin star). It was almost embarrassing handing over the same amount of money for that meal as the Pizza Express chain meal.

Pizza Express serve good pizzas, you know you will get a decent meal, it just seems overpriced. We both ordered from a lunch set menu today. There were maybe four or five choices for starters and mains and three ish for dessert. I had fat, juicy, fresh mussels in herby wine. Exceptionally good and the kind of fresh that makes you wonder how fresh mussels you have eaten previously have been. Chris had a Chinese style crispy pork salad. Also delicious. He had pollock with a generous selection of vegetables, a mussel tartare and roast potatoes. He had finished it before I had even got around to asking to try some! I ordered coq au vin, a favourite dish of mine and one I rarely see on menus. It wasn’t the stewy dish I usually have, rather slow cooked chicken, mushrooms in a meaty winey sauce, a fat bacony rasher on top, wonderfully creamy yet still potatoey mash and long stem broccoli. Wonderful and a perfect sized portion.

Two courses: £12.95. Three courses should have been £15.95 but as we arrived in the midst of a lunch time rush, thus ending up waiting too long, the chef sent us a message, apologising for and explaining the delay and offering us free desserts as compensation. Yes, we did wait quite a long time but we both appreciated first an update then the chef’s message and free puds! They were great. We both had delightfully tangy blackcurrant with silky, dense white chocolate cheesecake on a non-soggy biscuit base. Mmmm, all exceptionally good.

This was not intended as a review, though it has ended up a bit like one; my point really was something I’ve said before in this blog, namely how hard it is to know whT your money will get you in terms of meals out. Somewhere like Pizza Express isn’t a bargain option, but at least you know you will get a decent meal. At a pub, you never know, likewise non-chain restaurants. But sometimes you find somewhere that serves good quality, fresh food in a lovely environment for the same price as soggy fish and chops in an over-priced pub or restaurant. Today’s £35 was handed over easily and I have now found somewhere to eat that’s a c20-25 minute drive away from home. I would rather pay the petrol and not drink alcohol to go there than walk to a, say, Pizza Express. Go there (book if it’s not a week day) and enjoy British produce at its best.

Over the years, it’s became a bit of a favourite topic, how I would spend my Lotto millions. I am clearly unconvinced of a big win as my new favourite Lotto related topic is how dreadful it would be to win.
Most people wouldn’t expect you to hand over cash if you had earned your fortune or inherited money, but winning it seems to make it fair game. I have a lot of very good friends, I don’t think they would ask me for money. But my suspicion is people I barely know, long lost relatives, etc, would be the biggest problem. Not that I’d go public, I just think people would find out based on my new address and fleet of vehicles for one thing!
But then there are your friends. There are a few I can think of now who I know could really, really do with the money. But if I gave it to the needy, why shouldn’t those in a comfortable financial situation also get money. Why do I feel that the money should be shared to an extent? Is it guilt or is it a desire to help friends?
As for my spending, yes I would go mad. I would have a selection of homes, the most important ones to me being in central London and by the sea. I would buy a brand new car and motorbike for the first time in my life and I would have bespoke clothing. So quite early on it would be apparent I had come into money. I would hate, hate, hate having to explain it to friends because I strongly believe it would change the dynamic of friendships I hold dear. My suggesting a meal out, to a restaurant I would have gone to pre-Lotto-win, would leave me uncomfortable because I would know that everyone with me would know that my paying for the whole meal would be the equivalent of me now handing over £1 to cover a shortfall, for example, in a parking ticket. But it would be weird to have that knowledge hanging over everyone and I wouldn’t like the feeling of paying all the time. Likewise holidays and anything you have to pay for.
I would use the money to finally open up my cafe so I would end up working harder than I do now. What about people I know who don’t have work and would like work? Could I/should I help them out? Maybe start companies and new enterprises. But you really should never work with friends. So again, back to the issues of a much changed dynamic.
These would be things that would stress me enormously and would largely ruin the joy of being able to afford all the things I could possibly want. I have considered not telling people and living a similar lifestyle to now. Maybe I could buy myself a reasonable sized house and say I inherited it, buy a slightly better car (I could swap my new Maserati badges for my worn out BMW ones, surely no one would notice it was a Maserati disguised as a BMW?!) and be subtle with purchases. But this would fail on two levels, firstly because I should be able to spend my money as I wish and secondly, worst, I would be living a lie.
My conclusion is that I do not want to win millions, but I need to win enough money that I can start my cafe, buy a house and have one truly decadent holiday. Ah, yes, that would be perfect. Half a million? That should do it nicely, thank you very much.

{22/01/2012}   Charity Scrooge

I may be laying myself open to Scrooge comments by saying this but I hate giving to charity. Charity chuggers ambushing me on the street get a harsh scowl from me, I give a wide berth to people with collection buckets and charity post goes straight into the bin. Not only that, it makes me angry. And feeling guilty.

However, I have donated a lot of stuff to charity shops (and I don’t give them flea market fodder, I will only give what I consider easily resaleable clothes, books and bric a brac). I occasionally sponsor friends. I always “buy” a poppy and I occasionally “buy” a badge/flower/ribbon from charity boxes by tills in shops.

When I put my head down and charge through supermarket entrances that are flanked by collectors, I feel a mix of annoyance and guilt. I suspect the latter pulls in a fair bit of money from some people. I do feel bad every time I am forced to ignore or say no to a charity collector. I also feel bad when friends I am with give money but I don’t.

I do want to give money to good causes and, yes, I do choose charity shops that have/do/could affect me and those I know. When a friend’s young son was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, I did a massive wardrobe and stuff clear-out and took six bin bags to a related charity. Yet I still feel bad that on an almost daily basis, I refuse to hand over cash to collectors.

Maybe I like to think that if I gave to one then I’d feel I’d have to give to them all. I suspect that’s not it. I can afford to donate a bit of money to a charity. I just don’t like being made to feel it’s an obligation. I guess I buy poppies and other badges occasionally because I like the concept of buying something. But that isn’t exactly a charitable mentality. I am confident I don’t buy such things to wear as a look-at-me-I-donate-to-charity type statement. But why do I feel comfort in getting something tangible for my donation, for sponsoring friends doing challenging activities (marathons, long walks and triathlons of late) and giving things away that can be sold to generate money? I really don’t know, but if anyone has any suggestions, I’d find that interesting.

I would like to do something physically challenging and get sponsorship. But I’d hate, hate, hate asking my friends to sponsor me and I’m self-employed so don’t have the opportunity to also raise money through my company. I also think that doing something I’d love to do (I’m thinking an arctic trek, walking across the US, something really big) seems strangely selfish. Maybe on that basis I should do something like a marathon because I hate running, I hate crowds and the thought of all that training to do something that fills me with dread and loathing would make it even more of a challenge … so my sponsors would feel they were getting value for money. Hmm, I seem to be placing a lot of emphasis in getting a tangible or visible return on my money, again not in the true spirit of charity.

I am trying to think of things charities could do that would make me more inclined to donate cash for no return other than knowing my money is helping someone or something. There have been a lot of adverts on television asking for donations for charities helping with, for example, famine in Africa and saying how £3 can make a difference. That helps. But I would like to see a programme or video or something that takes my donation and tracks its progress to the point I can see how it has been spent. So maybe I just don’t trust the workings of charities, which sounds awful. But I don’t know that it’s entirely unreasonable to wonder how my £5 in a charity bucket helps the people or research it’s intended for.

I don’t know the answers or why I think how I do but I do wish I could find a way to use my time and energy to promoting and helping with charity work in a way that satisfied my many reservations about charity. For now I will continue having regular clear-outs and taking the clothes etc to charity shops and running away from chuggers and collection buckets.

et cetera