This weekend, inspired by the budget, and a significant amount of time spent listening to all things financial on Radio 4, I’m having a money theme. Yesterday we talked savings and investments for families, and today I’ve written a little Slummy single mummy guide to saving money on family holidays – some top tips from the woman who, for about ten years, was too cheap to even own a passport.

Don’t do it – According to one survey, nearly 40% of us stayed home last summer, so the ultimate money saving holiday tip? Simply don’t go. You’ll save hundreds if not thousands of pounds in travel, accommodation and family travel insurance, have far less washing to do at the end of it, and probably feel a lot more relaxed than if you attempt to introduce small children to the delights of European architecture in sweltering heat. Believe me, I have tried, all they care about is when they can have a lolly.

They say a change is as good as a rest. They lie.

Stay in the UK – I was perhaps being a tad hyper-cynical with my last suggestion, as I do actually like going on holiday, I just don’t see the point of dragging small kids thousands of miles, knowing they’ll complain the whole way there about ‘feeling sick’ or being bored, when we have such a wealth of beautiful countryside and interesting cities in the UK. Staying in the UK means you cut out the hassle of foreign travel, save money on flights, and have a bit extra to spend on treating the family.

If you’re worried about looking cheap, tell the other parents at school you’re doing it on environmental grounds.

Camping for wimps – Hotels cost a bomb, and even caravans can set you back a fair bit, but seriously, who wants to spend a week with kids in a tent? Not me. I do like the idea of camping though, so for a low-cost, self-catering, back-to-nature option, we’ve spent several of our summer holidays in yurts. As a single parent, you can bring the cost down even further by bunking up with another single parent friend and splitting the bill. This year we’ll be spending a whole week yurting on the Cornish coast for just £300. Bargainorama.

Shop around – given that there are about 27 million price comparison websites nowadays, you really have no excuse for paying full price for anything, whether it be flights or flip-flops. It may feel like a bit of a faff, but shopping around really can save you loads. Just think of it as every few pounds you save meaning one extra gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

Don’t risk it – I have a very simple approach to insurance. If I could afford the consequences should anything go wrong, I don’t bother. With foreign travel though, you really don’t want to risk it. Think about how often you intend to travel during the year to work out whether a single trip or annual travel insurance gives you the best value for money, and if you’re travelling in Europe, don’t forget to apply for your European Health Insurance Card.

And there you go, that’s my indispensable family travel guide. Do let me know if you have any destination recommendations or holiday money saving tips.

This is also my entry for the BritMums Piggy Bank Tales competition, sponsored by Virgin Money

Follow:

A little while ago I ran a competition, where I asked you what topics you’d like to see covered on the blog. Funnily enough, (anyone would think we were in a recession or that it was budget weekend or something), lots of you said you’d like to read about money. Or, more specifically, how to save it.

To prove that I take you all terribly seriously, I decided to have a bit of a finance themed weekend. I spoke to Scottish Friendly, who specialise in child and family investments, to find out how you can make the most of your money with a Junior Individual Savings Account, junior ISA or ‘JISA’.

The JISA, which replaced the Child Trust Fund when it was discontinued in November last year, is basically a tax effective way to save or invest for your kids, whether you’re looking just to put aside a little something, or wanting to save or invest towards something specific, like university.*

If you are thinking about getting a JISA on behalf of your child, you’ll need to know exactly how it works if you want to get the very best value for money, so here’s a run down of the basics:

  • Savings or investment: The JISA is available in two types: ‘Cash’ or ‘Stocks and Shares’. A Cash JISA works like a regular savings account: money put in is secure and generates interest. A ‘Stocks and Shares’ JISA is an investment account – money contributed is invested in the stock market. Bear in mind, like any investment product, the value of shares can rise and fall on a daily basis and your original investment is not guaranteed. It’s a bit more exciting though isn’t it? You can wear red braces and read the FT and make thoughtful noises, like you know what it all means. A child may hold both a Cash and Stocks and Shares JISA at the same time, up to the current annual limit of £3,600.
  • Tax protection: This is the best bit. Returns generated by interest or investment in both the Cash and Stocks and Shares JISAs are exempt from income and capital gains. Tax treatment depends on individual circumstances and tax law may change in the future.
  • Contributions: Once the JISA is set up by a parent or guardian, anyone may deposit money in a child’s JISA, so rather than overwhelming small children with birthday and Christmas gifts, why not get all those generous spinster aunts and Godparents to pop some money in their JISA instead? Compound interest – the gift that keeps on giving…

*Haha! You’ll never be able to save up that much surely??

Tomorrow I’m continuing the theme, and talking low-cost holidays for families. Then on Monday I’ll go back to being less dull.

Follow:

Looking to shift a bit of weight? Have a read of my Skinny Sprinkles review to see if this product could help you…

I’m one of those people who love eating. I love the taste of food, I love how it feels in my mouth and I love how it makes me feel. To me, eating isn’t just a survival thing, it’s a total pleasure. I often think that if I could have one wish, I’d choose to be able to eat and drink whatever I wanted and it never have any adverse effect on my weight or health. Sod world peace.

Which is all well and good, except eating does make you fat. There’s no escaping that, and eating at my normal rate, which is me being fairly restrained, seems to equate to putting on about half a stone every year. Half a stone may not seem like much, but add that up and it means that by the time I’m 50 I’ll have put on eight stone. Not pretty.

Now generally I don’t buy into the whole dieting culture, and I certainly don’t think women need to be thin to be sexy or desirable or feel good about themselves, but I also don’t particular want to be a heffalump when I retire, so when I was asked if I’d like to review Skinny Sprinkles, I thought I might as well give it a go, and see if I could shed some of 2011’s excess.

I was slightly worried at first that I’d signed up for one of those diet regimes where you eat nothing but shakes, but thankfully Skinny Sprinkles are snack replacements, rather than meal replacements, designed purely to control your appetite between meals and your portion sizes, rather than turning you into a starving, caffeinated lunatic.

When they arrived, I got rather excited by the idea of having three ‘smoothies’ a day as a treat, and after I’d made up the first one, (paying careful attention to the instructions, and not simply opening the sachet and sprinkling the powder into my mouth*), I began sipping my tasty snack. This was a big mistake. These ‘smoothies’ are not delicious. They taste a bit like soluble paracetamol with strawberry pips in. I would recommend stirring them really fast until everything is floating nicely, and then gulping it down in one. [Update – Skinny Sprinkles have improved their recipe since I wrote this – check out my later Skinny Sprinkles review for more info.]

Still, they are a diet aid, not a Mars Bar, and actually the fact that they were a tad gruesome worked in their favour. If I did find myself wanting something else to eat, I just remembered the smoothie, and asked myself ‘do I really want to have drunk that for nothing?’

I’m being a bit melodramatic, and they did grow on me after a while to be honest – I just needed to get into the right frame of mind, and not expect them to be an actual replacement, enjoyment wise, for three chocolate Hobnobs.

How do they work then? Well, here’s the science…

“Glucomannan is scientifically proven by the EFSA to aid weight reduction as part of a calorie controlled diet and is a water-soluble dietary fibre from the root of the Konjac plant. By delaying the absorption of glucose by the stomach, it slows down the digestive process and absorbs up to 200 times its weight in water – swelling when it mixes with water in your stomach – making you feel fuller.”

They also contain caffeine in the form of guarana and green tea for an extra pick me up, although I did check, and a whole day’s worth of sachets contains less caffeine than one fresh coffee, so you’re not going to be bouncing off the ceiling or anything.

And you know what? They actually worked. Whether it was the sachets themselves, the boost it gave to my willpower, or a combination of the two, I don’t know, but at the end of a week I had lost four whole pounds!

The downside I’d say is the cost. At £29.95 for a week’s supply, this certainly isn’t a cheap long-term solution, but I reckon for just a couple of weeks a year, if it means that for the other 50 I can eat my usual amount of cake for breakfast, then it’s not a bad investment at all.

Have you tried Skinny Sprinkles? Why not leave your own Skinny Sprinkles review in the comments and let me know what you think!

*This was an actual warning. Who would do that??

PS I am currently on the short list for the ‘Style’ award in the Brilliance in Blogging Awards. Please take half a minute to cast your vote and tick the Slummy single mummy box.

Follow:

I was going to write something today about being rubbish at netball, but then I only went and scored a bloody hat trick didn’t I?? And I was only Goal Shoot for ten minutes.

I think it was a fluke though, and the moral of the story still stands.

At the beginning of this year I started playing netball. I was always hopeless at sports at school, so don’t know why I imagined I’d be any better 18 years and two children later. For some reason though, I thought the fact that I am now a grown up woman, running her own business and able to hold a conversation without blushing would make a difference.

It doesn’t.

I am still rubbish. (Apart from the hat trick. Did I mention that?)

I have decided though that being rubbish is OK.

That may seem like an obvious statement to make, but personally, I find it really hard to do, let alone enjoy, things I think I am ‘bad’ at. I tend to believe that if I’m no good at something, there’s either no point in doing it, or that the people I am doing it with won’t like me.

I know it’s silly and possibly a little pathetic – I certainly don’t dislike people just because they aren’t the best at things. If anything, I like them more because I’m not intimidated by them, or worried about showing myself up. You’d think too that I’d have learnt after years of getting all the answers right at school, but being virtually friendless, that no one likes a smartarse.

In my mind, not being good at something means people won’t respect me, which is why playing netball is so good for me. Imagine the episode of Friends where they are playing football for the Geller Cup, and everyone keeps telling Rachel to ‘go long’. Quite often I feel like that. ‘Here!’ I shout, and my team-mate will look at me, standing in a massive space, wince a bit, and instead throw the ball to the player half way down the court, who is being marked by three people.

This is OK.

*mild panic attack*

No really, it is.  Not being the best isn’t the end of the world. Not knowing the answer to something doesn’t make you an idiot. Missing the goal won’t make people hate you.

It’s a lesson I need to learn, even if it’s probably about 25 years too late – on court or off, it’s OK to sometimes drop the ball.

Follow:

This week I am starting a New Thing, so bear with me while I set the scene. I promise that next week I won’t blather on. It’s a thing that you can get involved in though, so do pay attention.

Inspired by a column in Mslexia magazine, I’m starting a new regular slot called ‘A Week in Tweets’. Every Tuesday I’m going to post my week in tweet form, so no more than 140 characters for each day, and I’d love it if you would do the same and come and share them.

They can be real events or completely made up, I don’t mind, as it’s a great creative writing exercise – the writing process is all about the editing after all, and the 140 character limit is a fantastic way to boil your writing time to it’s basics. Some weeks I might have a theme, sometimes they’ll be funny (hopefully), and sometimes they might be sad. This week though, as it’s new, I’m easing myself in gently with some general twittering that I think sums up my week.

Monday – Just entered a competition to win £50 worth of sweets. I think I need to focus a bit more. And perhaps eat some lunch.

Tuesday – Played at being in charge at @TheSteadyTable. Managed to remember names. Distracted though by cake cabinet.

Wednesday – Just tried the new chocolate Philadelphia. Feel a bit uncomfortable, like I’ve just eaten cheesecake on toast.

Thursday – Very excited about the Greek salad downstairs. (Not any kind of euphemism, although it sounds vaguely dirty).

Friday – End of working week. No excuse now for hiding in attic office drinking tea. :-(

Saturday – Overcame fear of wild horses by imagining worst case scenario – self crushed savagely underhoof. #powerofnegativethinking

Sunday – Woken up with lovely Mother’s Day cup of tea in bed. At 7.09am. *frowns*

I’d really love it if you joined it, but there’s no pressure, I shall do it regardless. If you do fancy taking part, I’ve even made a badge, which you can add to your own blog. It took me about 27 hours to work out how to do all of this, so please try to look impressed, even if you don’t want it.

Follow:

A while ago I asked the question ‘does it matter what women wear‘? and Clare from The Potty Diaries, who I am now going to think of as my roving Russian reporter, said that yes, in Moscow it definitely DID matter. In fact, it matters very much.

I was intrigued, as I’ve heard from friends that Russian women are quite something, so Clare has very kindly written us a fascinating post from actual Moscow. How cool is that? Please leave Clare lots of lovely comments so she’ll come back again another day.

‘Yes, sure.  Write me something about women in Moscow’ said Slummy Single Mummy on Twitter when I offered her a guest post.

Oh god.  Do I have to?

Well actually, yes I do, because I offered and so – bolstered by copious supplies of camomile tea and a half empty tin of condensed milk (can you tell that I am somewhat out of my comfort zone?) – here goes.

Russian women – or rather, Muscovite women – are just like the rest of us.

Cue long, expectant, pause.

Oh, alright, just kidding.

Russian women are nothing like the rest of us.  They have much better shoes, for starters.  And much shorter skirts.  Perhaps a little less (for which read ‘no’) body hair.  And fewer boundaries about what it is acceptable to do to get what they want and to where they want to go.  And I would go as far as to say that ‘sisterhood’ is even less considered an important attribute here, than it is elsewhere.

Mind you, why would they be like the rest of us? They’ve grown up in a society where femininity (aka ‘Sex’ obviously, but I’m going to stick with ‘femininity’ to spare your blushes) is a currency to be utilised to it’s full extent in a world where nothing is certain.  Remember, the other currency – the Rouble – has proved less reliable than femininity, crashing twice during the 1990’s, devaluing people’s savings and pensions and leaving previously comfortably-off people with next-to-nothing. That’s not some 1930’s anecdote from school history lessons; it’s within living memory for the majority of the population here. So nowadays, most people’s main aim in life is to make as much money as they can, as fast as they can, in almost any way they can, and then get the hell out of Russia to raise and educate their children somewhere else.   A country with a strong currency, preferably.

And whilst I don’t want to launch into a full-on sociological thesis here, it seems to me that this –  along with the small matter of how 70 years of Communist repression affected the individual and his/her hopes and dreams – impacts strongly on how women here are, and how they present themselves.

When I first visited Moscow in the mid-90’s, I was astounded by how good-looking many of the women and girls were.  They were, quite frankly, intimidatingly gorgeous – and they knew it.  After a while I began to work out that yes, there were some seriously good gene pools going on here, no doubt about it, but there was more to it than that.  Russian women identify early on what their main physical attribute is, be it beautiful hair, a fantastic figure, great legs, and maximise that.  So, if they have beautiful hair, they grow it.  A fantastic figure? Show it off.  Great legs?  Let’s invest in short skirts and sky-high heels then.

Some things have changed in the 17 years since my first visit (the impact that the advent of fast-food culture and the hugely increased numbers of cars have had is depressingly obvious – although still less so than in many more ‘Western’ societies) but what hasn’t is the Muscovite women’s determination to make the best of themselves.

And neither has their complete and utter incomprehension of why the rest of us wouldn’t bother…

Follow:

Yesterday I was tagged in a meme by Yummy Mummy Really.

That sounds kind of painful, but it’s not some weird sexual practice or anything, it just means that now I have some questions to answer. I get tagged in memes about as often as I get the ball passed to me in netball, (I’m not very good), so it’s rather exciting.

The theme is motherhood, and as I only have a few more hours to wait for my annual cup of tea in bed, and what I can only assume are home-baked treats, as I was barred from the kitchen for several hours yesterday, the timing is just about perfect.

Here goes…

Describe motherhood in three words

Exhausting, amazing, exhausting.

Does your experience differ from your mother’s?  How?

Of course – she didn’t blog unashamedly about her kids did she? My mother didn’t have the luxury of childcare vouchers, or tax credits, or quite such a general acceptance of the idea that although it’s bloody hard work, it IS alright to work full-time and be a mother. We just have to remember to put some of our earnings aside for our kids’ therapy when they grow up.

What’s the hardest thing about being a mum?

For me it’s the relentlessness of it. There isn’t one thing that’s particularly horrendous, but it never stops. Yes you might get the odd day or even week off, but you’re still a parent, even if they aren’t in the same room.

There are always limits or boundaries, things you can’t do, places you can’t go. You can’t just decide to spontaneously go away for the weekend, or go on a drugs binge or anything, not that I would, but sometimes you feel it would be nice to have the option at least.

You have to try to stay in the moment, because if you think to yourself  ‘Oh, it’s OK, I can do that in 18 years’, you might go a bit nuts.

What’s the best thing?

The best thing is seeing them laugh at something, or do well at something, or be really proud of something they have achieved, and knowing that I’ve had a little something to do with that. It makes me feel a bit smug in a way I really like. I like it when they are thoughtful too, and do something kind for me, or each other, or other people. That makes me a bit squidgy inside.

My daughters also both have a fantastic sense of humour. They’re so sharp – too sharp sometimes – but I love that they make me laugh. It’s always nice having a bit of company around the house too. And someone to take the recycling out on a Thursday night.

How has it changed you?

To be honest, I don’t think it has changed me. I was only 16 when I was pregnant first time around and so I’ve never been a grown-up and not been a mother too. I don’t know what I’d be like if I didn’t have children.

What do you hope for your children?

All I want is for them to be happy and content. I hope that they appreciate just how wide their horizons really are, and that they make the most of all the opportunities they are given. I hope they recognise their own unique abilities and skills and aren’t afraid to push themselves.

What do you fear for them?

That they will end up in jobs or relationships that don’t challenge them, and that they get no satisfaction from. I fear them getting bored with life.

What makes it all worthwhile?

The child benefit.

The next bit is the tricky bit, where I have to pick five people to tag, so they can carry on the fun. Nothing bad will happen if they don’t of course, it’s not like one of those weird chain letters where if you break it your dog dies, but still, if you fancy it, do have a go.

I’m tagging Emma at Me, The Man & The Baby, Kat at 3 Bedroom Bungalow, Claire at Being a Mummy, Luschka at Diary of a First Child and Heather at Young and Younger.

Happy Mother’s Day ladies!

Follow:

One garage near me has been branching out recently. Bond Motor Services in Bristol don’t just do car repairs and sales, they also do guitars. Cars and guitars. Get it? It even rhymes. Genius.

I think this is pretty cool idea, although I do worry that I’d end up taking my car there for a service and ‘accidentally’ trading it in for a Fender. I can picture the scene now…

“How did the car get on in its MOT darling?” says boyfriend, and owner of said car.

“Oh yes, fine, no problem,” I say, trying to act casual, hoping he won’t notice the guitar case on my back…

I thought this was such a good idea though, that it got me thinking about other things that could be paired up. There are some obvious ones, like books and coffee, retro video games and personal stylist services, but there must be plenty of other gaps in the market. Thinking about it as I walked home from school this morning, I came up with a couple of my own.

Au pairs and affairs

This is a nanny agency with a difference. Not only can you source highly trained and experienced child care providers, but there is then a Tracey Cox style flirt coach on hand, with all the techniques you need as a middle-aged, chubby, slightly jaded parent to appear wildly alluring, in a casual around-the-house sort of way, to a 20-year-old, bronzed and toned Swedish nanny.

I was then thinking as an extra spin-off, you could have a private detective agency on the side, to help the other partner catch their spouse in the act of cheating. Then maybe a firm of family lawyers. The possibilities are endless.

Pets and regrets

You’ve reach that point in your family life where you need to inject something new, but you can’t afford a holiday and you really can’t be bothered to have another child. What do you do? You pop along to your local pet shop and get a cat! It seems like a brilliant idea at the time, as do children, and you imagine spending cosy evenings with your new bundle of fluffiness sat contentedly on your lap, gazing up adoringly at you while you watch Masterchef. Again, a bit like planning for a baby.

Only neither work out quite as you imagine do they? Instead what happens is you come home from work one day to find your sweet new kitten has ripped your very expensive sofa to shreds. It’s at this point that you go back to the pet shop, and make use of their furniture reupholstery service.

These are just a couple of the myriad potentially ground-breaking money making ideas that pop into my head on a daily basis, but can you do better? Which two products or services would you combine into one? Mr Shev, this is definitely one for you. Go on, do me proud…

Follow:

I got cross in the car today.

I was listening to the radio, and had one of those ‘God, am I getting old and prudish?’ moments, like when I had my anti-porn rant. In fact, I got nearly as cross as I do at the Eminem song where, despite the fact that he’s repeatedly violent towards her, Rihanna apparently ‘likes the way it hurts, and loves the way he lies’. What a fantastic role model she is.

The song was called ‘Down For Whatever’, (read ‘Up For Anything’), by Kelly Rowland, and includes the lines:

I’m down for whatever, I’m down for whatever, when it comes to you I could make love on the floor.

It was a dance version, so I’m imagining gangs of drunken, barely dressed teenage girls, dancing and falling over. It gets better. She goes on to sing:

Say the word, I’ll do anything, I can’t say no to you.

Is it me or is that just a bit rapey? And then:

There’s no place I wouldn’t go. Tonight I’ll take it anywhere.

Nice.

Now I’m really not a prude, and I’m more than happy to be open and experimental in a trusting relationship, but really, is this the kind of ethos we want to be instilling in our young clubbers?

A quick bit of research shows I’m not alone in being concerned about the potential harm of such widely heard and sexually explicit and misogynistic lyrics. One study for example showed the impact of sexual-aggressive song lyrics on aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviour – male participants who heard misogynist song lyrics recalled more negative attributes of women and reported more feelings of vengeance than when they heard neutral song lyrics.

And don’t even get me started on the videos. Is this really music and art, or merely soft-porn, peddling the idea of women as submissive sexual objects who invite abuse and violence?

Am I over-reacting and simply showing my age, or is it really not OK to be glamourising the idea of not being able to say no to ‘taking it anywhere’?

Follow:

Women love shopping. That’s a fact isn’t it? Particularly for shoes and bags, so the legend goes.

Which means I must be a man trapped in a woman’s body, because I actually don’t like shopping at all, especially not for shoes. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that shoe shopping is one of my Worst Things. After making packed lunches and remembering INSET days.

I’d love to be able to do it online and save the hassle, but shoes and clothes never fit me properly, so it’s a waste of time. Finding handbags online is easy though, handbags I can do, which is why I said ‘yes please, thank you very much’ when Zalando asked me to choose a bag and review their online shopping experience. If you’re looking for eco bags, check out jute bags online.

If like me you don’t relish the idea of having to actually get up off the sofa and go from shop to shop, trying to pick out something that, when you catch sight of yourself in the unflattering changing room mirrors, doesn’t make you want to be sick a bit in your mouth, then Zalando could be the place for you. They’ve a massive range of clothing, as well as loads of gorgeous women’s accessories, and the ordering process was extremely smooth.

The only thing I found a little bit annoying was that the images were quite small, and you had to click through to each individual product page to see them properly. Perhaps a larger image could pop up when you hover over something? Other than that though, it was all very easy and stress free. After some serious browsing, cup of tea in hand, I chose a bag.

Then all I had to do was sit back and wait. A couple of emails kept me informed of my parcel’s progress and, as promised, 3-5 working days later I was eagerly tearing open the box and deciding which of my many notebooks I was going to carry around in my new bag. I do like getting parcels. And buying notebooks.

The packaging was excellent, the bag was in perfect condition, and it was delivered by courier, so I didn’t have that annoying ‘Royal Mail red card even though I was home’ scenario. All in all a very smooth and stress free shopping experience – thanks Zalando!

I am currently on the short list for the ‘Style’ award in the Brilliance in Blogging Awards. Please take half a minute to cast your vote and tick the Slummy single mummy box.

Follow:

I’ve always loved Argos. They’re one of those brands you grow up with aren’t they?

The Argos love started at a young age, getting excited around September time, cutting pictures out of the catalogue to make my Christmas list. Then in my late teens and early twenties, when I first moved out on my own, I would spend happy hours at home picking out my ‘dream crockery’. I always have been easily amused.

Now though, you can buy clothes at Argos! Who’d have thought it! Girls clothing, boys clothing, men, women, dogs…*

Anyway, on to the important part – would you like to win £50 to spend on clothes at Argos? Course you would! All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this post, telling me which animal you’d most like to see wearing clothes, and what you’d like to see them in.

*I put the dog bit in as a joke, but when I checked you can actually buy clothes for dogs from Argos. I should have known really.

The competition will close on 21st March, after which a winner will be chosen at random. Featured on ThePrizeFinder – UK Competitions and Loquax Competitions

This competition is now closed.

PS I am currently on the short list for the ‘Style’ award in the Brilliance in Blogging Awards. Please take half a minute to cast your vote and tick the Slummy single mummy box.

Follow:

Struggling for Mother’s Day gift ideas? Fret ye not, Belle has put together a video tutorial for you, inspired by this one from Tesco Magazine, almost live from the kitchen of our Sandy Balls lodge…

She’s a natural isn’t she?

What will you be getting this Mother’s Day? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get an apple like me.

Follow: