Thursday, 30 April 2009

Weekend Away: Buddhist Retreat

Tomorrow I'm going away for the weekend with a (female) friend. She has booked us into a Buddhist retreat in the Lake District for a weekend of relaxation. The centre is open to anyone and although there is a program of meditation classes running over the two days, we can do as much or as little as we want. Neither my friend nor I are Buddhists but we are looking forward to the peaceful atmosphere and the tranquil gardens surrounding the house. The gardens lead down to a beach, so I'm really hoping to be able to talk a walk there - there's something very relaxing about walking along a deserted beach.

I'm so looking forward to the two days away from ringing phones, blaring televisions, and the relentlessness of normal life. The Teenager-in-waiting is also going away for the weekend with her best friend's family, so I hoping she gets good weather as they're going to be camping in a field somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Small Daughter is going to her Dad's for the weekend - so we're all set!

I hope you all have a fabulous May Day weekend.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Harry High Pants No-No List

The lovely and very talented Sunday has spurred me on to compile a list of things that might put you off a man. Well, not so much men but potential boyfriends.

My previous post illustrated how shallow I am when I took a sartorial dislike to White Sock Man. Fortunately, almost everyone who commented (save dear patient Yummy Mummy) said the exact same thing: white socks on a man are a no-no. A crime against fashion. Unless he's wearing trainers and about to go out for a run that is. And as Grumpyoldwoman correctly points out, the only thing worse is white socks with sandals!

Sunday also contributed her latest off-putter (if that's not in the English dictionary it should be). She went out on a first date with a man who, when it came to paying the bill, produced a discount voucher. Hmmm.....I don't mind discount vouchers, but that's the sort of thing you might use with a friend but on a first date? Yep, I agree that is an off-putter.

She also pointed out her aversion to The Man Bag. Surely only David Beckham can get away (just) with wearing one of these? Which reminds me, don't go to Germany if you hate man bags - they are very popular there and have been for years. I lived there over 20 years ago and man bags were very much the norm.

Audi, who has a very keen sense of style, also had some suggestions. How about men who wear sweats in public? I'm thinking this means tracksuits and/or jogging bottoms? Absolutely! This is just lazy dressing in my book, and one of my own personal pet hates is men who wear football shirts as casual wear. Why do men wear these hideous things? If I met a man wearing one and he wasn't going to/coming back from a football match, then that would be a real warning sign. Audi also hates men wearing Crocs. So say all of us! Why, why, why?

I also offer for your consideration the following:

Men with soft hands. Yes, you read that correctly. Soft hands on a man are so wrong. Many years ago I took an interest in a friend of a friend who was funny and intelligent. I was really taking a like to him until our hands touched (can't remember why) and his hands were softer than mine. Noooooo! Call me petty, but it turned me off in an instant.

And finally, men wearing wooden beads. For goodness sake! Look at this photo at the very attractive Richard Hammond who has spoiled his whole look with those flippin' beads. NO!

Clearly, the fact that I've been single for so long doesn't make me any less picky. And they say beggars can't be choosers?

Of course, I know many of you are married but cast your mind back to your single days.....what were your red flags when it came to men? Obviously I'll take it as read that you avoided bigots, misogynists, racists, bullys and cheats. But what about the little things, or maybe not so little things that you were just unable to overlook? Go on, tell all. You're amongst friends...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Well, what would you have done?

I've spent the last few days at an education conference and found it both interesting and exhausting. I met a lot of new contacts, put several names to faces and came away feeling I had learned from the experience. Although I wouldn't go as far as putting it on my list of Fun Things To Do During the Easter Break.

Btw, this is a photo from the conference and if you look very carefully you can just pick me out. Yep, that's me up there in the top left hand corner....dark hair, face partly obscured by a booklet!

On the first day I was finding my way to the conference hall and feeling a bit lost as I hadn't met up with anyone I knew. So I was relieved to see a familiar face - a woman I had met at a recent conference in Leeds where we had spent most of the two days sitting together and chatting during lunches, breaks, etc.

As I greeted her quite enthusiastically (Oh, I'm so glad to see someone I actually know...How are you?.... where are you sitting?.... are you on your own too? ) I noticed a strange look come over her face. She looked at me and said "Have we met before?" Erm....yes, we have. At Leeds? Still no sign of recognition. She looked over my shoulder and said hello to someone she really did know. I took this as my cue to slowly slink into the background. Well, what would you have done?

Yesterday I sat at a large shared table for lunch and was joined by a man who immediately introduced himself. He was really friendly and interested in my opinions on the conference. We chatted for an enjoyable half hour or so before he asked if I would like a coffee, as he was going to get one for himself. As he stood up to get the coffees I noticed he was wearing white socks. If I tell you that the socks put me off him, what does that tell you about me?

a) I'm waaaayy too picky;
b) I'm spot on. No man in his right mind wears white socks with black shoes.
c) This is one of the reasons I've been single for 6 years.

I know, I know. Give it to me straight.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Queen

We in the UK are currently experiencing Obama-love. It is affecting all sort of people from Gordon Brown to the Queen. Really.

Yesterday there was a photocall of The Queen and Prince Philip with the Obamas. Now, is it me or has the Queen shrunk? Michelle Obama looks positively amazonian in comparison. And what about the Prince Philip, I thought he was supposed to be tall? President Obama towers over the lot of them. And what a good looking couple they make? That's Michelle and Barack, not Liz and Phil.

And then, shock horror, Michelle Obama did something that is firmly against Royal protocol. She put her arm around the Queen. Yes, she did! And not only did the Queen not freeze her out with a glare, or have her hauled off to the Tower , she reciprocated! Unbelievable! Never been known before in the history of everything royal. When the Australian Prime Minister put his arm around Liz a few years ago there was acres of news coverage about it, how inappropriate it was, etc, etc. It would seem the Obamas are a different class altogether.

Next, there was news coverage of Gordon Brown and Obama talking to the press. Gordon Brown spent most of the time gazing adoringly at the superstar that is Obama, desperately hoping to catch some of his magic.

And what's more, not only does Obama look like a president he sounds like one too. He managed to do something that George W. Bush could only dream of, he answered questions from the press and was really impressive. We rarely see coverage of the President speaking spontaneously or off the cuff, most of what we see is formal broadcasts but here we saw just how good he is. He must be the most charismatic and impressive President since JFK, surely?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Being a Single Parent Part 3: The Art of Assembling Flatpack Furniture

One of the main things I have learned since becoming a single parent is how to manage my money better. At the time when my husband left 6 years ago I had been the main earner in the home for several years, so I knew we could manage on my salary. What I didn't account for was that working such long hours to earn this good salary suddenly became much more difficult for a number of reasons.

First of all, I didn't get to see my girls as much as I would have liked and this had been an issue for a while before becoming a single parent, but as I was the main earner it was necessary for me to keep going. Secondly, finding extra childcare solutions was becoming costly and difficult. Instead of my now-ex husband picking the girls up from school or even taking them in the morning if I had an early start, it became more and more difficult to find ways of having them cared for by people I both trusted and could afford.

Finally, I was completely exhausted! Working full-time, caring for my two small girls (then aged 3 and 6) and running a home was just getting to be too much for me. Accepting that you can't Do It All is hard for someone who is used to being in control. But something had to give, and it took me a while to accept that things just couldn't continue as they were. My lovely girls, who had been so devastated by their Daddy moving out, had always been my first priority but here I was in a situation where I hardly saw them and was letting other people take care of them. So I decided that it had to stop.

Along with all the emotional fallout from the breakdown of our marriage, and the physical exhaustion of trying to keep everything going, I made a tough decision but one which I still stand by. I decided to ask for voluntary redundancy at work and take a career break to decide which way to go.

I had a small financial settlement which kept body and soul together for the next few months while I looked at my options. In the meantime I decided to volunteer at my girls' primary school and helped teachers out with lessons, listening to children read and photocopying. Lots of photocopying. But I really enjoyed it.

After 6 months I learned about a job for a part-time teaching assistant at another local school. I applied and amazed myself by getting the job. I've been there for 4 years now and it has been - for the most part - the happiest time of my working life. I love working with children and helping them to learn. Not only that but the hours are convenient, it's a local job so the commute is only 8 minutes door to door, and I get 13 weeks holiday a year. Yeah thirteen, count 'em.

Of course there is a downside. The wages are low, and for the first 3 years of being a single mum I didn't receive a penny of maintenance from my ex-husband, so as you can imagine, money was very tight. I'd always thought I was pretty good managing money, and was usually able to keep within a budget but this was something else. This was a change of gear, a lifestyle change and one I had to embrace - fast.

I was now earning a quarter of what I was earning previously, and had no second income from a partner to supplement it. I claimed some Working Tax Credits and Child Tax Credit (which is always worth checking out - you would be surprised how many people would qualify for them).

I started working out monthly budgets for essentials, and being brutally realistic about it. There was only so much money to go round and I had to make it work. And I did make it work, but I had to adopt some new money stretching habits to do so. Such as:

I worked out a monthly budget and stuck to it. Sounds so simple but it can be very hard to start off with. I made shopping lists and kept to them. I was always looking for special offers and discounts. Whenever I was tempted to buy something that was non-essential I asked myself these questions: Do I really need it? Will it mean forgoing something more necessary if I buy it? What would happen if I didn't buy it? More often than not I would walk away with my money still intact. Most impulse buys are non-essential, and you can usually figure out a way of living without it. The real problem is when you have to decide between putting petrol in the car and buying a new pair of school shoes for your daughter, and believe me I've been there.

I bought a set of screwdrivers! Seriously. I have a fully stocked toolbox with screwdrivers, hammers, a wrench and all sorts of spanners. And I'm not afraid to use them! It means I can do the odd little job around the house without paying exorbitant fees to someone else, and it also teaches my girls that women can do manual things too, in addition to saving the world.

The Teenager-in-waiting is now a dab hand at using a screwdriver and an allan key due to the numerous flat-pack items we have assembled over the years. Even though flat-pack is a pain in the backside, it's far cheaper than buying assembled furniture. It's also strangely satisfying to start with a few pieces of wood, a bag of screws and an instruction sheet and finish up with a functional piece of furniture. Don't be put off by it, it's worth it in the end!

I looked for cheaper ways of doing things. For instance, I had been longing to have a feature wall in my bedroom and had been storing some beautiful Laura Ashley wallpaper under my bed for two years for that very reason. I just couldn't justify paying a decorator to do it (and I can't wallpaper - I've tried, I can paint whatever you like but I can't hang paper). A few months ago I noticed that one of my friendly neighbours had a team of decorators in, so I had a quick word with one of the men. What would he charge to do this quick job for me? In the end he said he would do it during the two hours he had to wait for the paint to dry in my neighbour's house, and would only charge me £30. Bargain!

I learned to haggle . Now, I like a good haggle but I can imagine that some people would shy away from it. But if you have the cash for something, you can often get a good deal. I've haggled on electrical goods, carpets, furniture and even theatre tickets would you believe? I asked for their Single Parent concession, they didn't have one but gave me a discount anyway.

I did my research. Before I buy any household goods, shoes, books, or any major items I do some research. This is a buyers' market and once you have acknowledged that you only need to buy the things that suit your budget and meet your needs, then you can take your time looking for the right deal. I recently decided to buy a new TV but took 2 months looking for the best deal. After checking out different shops and websites I eventually found what I wanted online, and asked for free delivery - and got it.

All of these things worked for me, and although things are a little easier now these are still good rules for when I have too much month left at the end of my money.

For tips on healthy eating on limited budget: The Frugal Cook
For general money saving tips on almost everything:
For discount voucher codes look at:
For 50 money saving ideas try: