Burning Desire For FIRE

Financial-Independence-Retire-Early(er). Achieved the first two letters of FIRE, now onto the rest!

Category: Consumerism (page 1 of 4)

Having a stockpile. Sin or sensible?

Panic buying fence paint and potting mix at Bunnings.

With all that’s been going on around the place with people panic-buying toilet paper and the like, I thought I’d share my views on having a stockpile of food and non-perishables around the house. I’ve had a stockpile for the last 2 decades and I find it a really useful and economical way to run my household.

Going back 20 or so years, (in the time before Aldi), I started building a supply of food and other things when things were on special. I was living on a single parents pension of around 18K/year with 4 small boys to feed, so money was incredibly tight. Over the course of a year or so, I gradually built up the supplies in my pantry so that in the end, I was pretty much buying as much as I could when something was on special.

In other words, we were eating most of our food at a discount. When baked beans, for example, were half price, I’d buy 10 or 20 of them, depending on how much leeway was in that week’s budget. Then we’d gradually eat them down until the next time when they were on sale, when I’d buy the same amount again.

Short-term, this was a more expensive way to run the household, but I’ve rarely been a short-term thinker. Over the course of a year, I’d easily save a few hundred dollars on meat, groceries, pet food and cleaning products. I was so poor that a few hundred dollars made a HUGE difference to our quality of life. The stockpile was worth doing.

When Aldi came to our neighbourhood, it was different. They had no ‘specials’ as such, but their prices were so much lower that I gladly started shopping with them.

And I still kept a stockpile. Why?

I realised that liked having reserves of food and other staples around. I liked not having to run to the shops every time I ran out of an ingredient, because I almost always had a replacement in the back cupboard. It gave me a sense of security and comfort in the fact that if something unexpected happened, I knew I could look after my boys and that we wouldn’t have to go shopping if people were out there acting crazy.

When ‘The Walking Dead’ came along, I christened my stockpile ‘The Zombie Apocalypse Cupboard’ and that’s its name today. Hearing the supermarkets run on a “just in time” policy of stocking their shelves cemented the idea that having a small stash of necessities wasn’t a bad idea.

So, seeing as I’m a bit of a prepper, how has the Jones household been acting in this time of Coronavirus?

I’ve so far been ahead of the wave. I’m a teacher and sooner or later it appears that Australia will have to close the schools down. The only question is when. I fully expect to have to self-isolate at some stage, given that I work in a school with nearly 2,500 kids and 200 teachers. That’s a lot of bodies that the virus would love to inhabit! Given all of that, it made sense to me to get ahead of the game and make sure that we had everything we’d need if we couldn’t leave our house for a while.

Years ago I read an article about the people of Sarajevo when they were caught in the middle of a war zone. It included a list of all the things they most prized. The number one item? Toilet paper, closely followed by matches and perfume. I’ve never forgotten that, so the Zombie Apocalypse cupboard has a dedicated shelf to the old bog rolls. Back in early February, when stories started to surface about this new virus but it was long before any panic-buying, I quietly stocked up on loo paper.

Then, in the next week or two, I bought a few extra tinned and packaged goods. Things like tuna, chickpeas, pineapple chunks (for pizza) and paracetamol. Grain-free dry dog food and the raw meat patties I feed Poppy, Jeff and Scout were also on the list. Dishwasher tablets, aluminium foil and baking paper came soon after that.

By the time I noticed toilet paper shelves were starting to empty pretty rapidly, I was feeling like our food situation was ok. But what would I do with my time if I had to self-isolate for at least 2 weeks? Remote -teaching my students would take up a bit of time. But there’d still be extra hours to fill…

Reading is my #1 passion. I have at least 15 books piled up beside my bed and a huge number waiting to be read on my kindle app. I have Netflix and Foxtel, so the tv viewing and book reading situations will be fine. But what about other things?

While everyone in the last week has been going crazy in the supermarkets, I’ve been at Spotlight quietly buying quilting supplies and at Bunnings buying fence paint for my new front fence, along with decking oil and potting mix.

Stockpiling doesn’t have to be just about the food. I’ve brought the paint buying forward a month or so, but now it’s done.

Though it hasn’t been all fun and games.

Two days ago, David26 and I went to Costco. It was a Tuesday morning, 10 minutes before opening time. David26 was worried about his girlfriend Izzy’s family and wanted to buy a few staples for them. Against my better judgement I agreed to take him.

The premier of Victoria had issued a state of emergency the day before. S**t was starting to get REAL.

It was incredible. When we arrived, there were easily 1,000 people ahead of us in the queue. It snaked around the carpark. David26 and I looked at each other.

“Well, we’re here now,” I said. “We probably won’t be able to get toilet paper for them, but we can get other things. And while we’re here, we need a 3L bottle of milk and I could always top up the dogs’ grain-free food. Then, if we’re isolating ourselves at home, the dogs’ll definitely be ok.”

It took us 25 minutes to even get to the front door. By the time we got there the signs were up saying ‘NO MORE TOILET PAPER.” By the time we reached the front of the queue, it was almost twice as long as when we got there.

Mini road-rage spats, with honking horns, were happening in the car park. Just as we reached the front, a police van quietly drove through and parked on the corner, clearly to keep an eye on things. Anyone trying to push into the queue was quickly told where to go… and by that I mean down to the end of the queue, not to go straight to hell!!!

Once we were inside, those massive Costco trolleys were racing around in all directions. People with a wild look in their eyes were grabbing everything they could lay their hands on. There was a limit rule of 2 cans of Glen-20 per membership, but at the cash registers I saw quite a few people who, like David26 and I, had come in a pair, trying to argue that they should be able to take 4 cans. No one got away with it though.

As we were waiting to pay, I whispered to David26, “If this is what it’s like on a Tuesday, imagine what the end of the week will be like if the news doesn’t get better? Not sure I’d want to be here then.”

So, what with my normal preparedness and yesterday’s Costco run, I guess I’ve seen both sides. So which is best?

If you’re an adrenaline junkie who likes to pit themselves against the odds, then yes! Leave everything till the last minute and go out and take your chances.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a sin to be prepared. You don’t want to be THAT guy who has 4,000 rolls of toilet paper lining his garage, but I think it makes sense to have a place set aside for things that you regularly eat/use as a back-up. When things are going wrong, the fewer people who are out on the streets competing for things, the better.

If any (or all of us) gets the virus and feels sick, it’s a comfort to know that we have everything we need to look after ourselves well within reach. By having the Zombie Apocalypse cupboard, we’ve eliminated that anxiety from our lives. If Tom28 has to come home if he has no work and can’t pay his rent, there’s food enough to cover him.

Having a stockpile of the basics eliminates that awful fear of not being able to provide for my family. Twenty-two years ago when I left my husband, I had $60 in cash, 4 small boys and no job. I did a Scarlet O’Hara and vowed that, as God is my witness, these boys will not suffer for what I’ve done. I would provide for them, no matter what.

Having a stockpile is, for me, an essential cushion against misfortune. Or a pandemic. So if you don’t have one at the moment, how do you build one up?

DON’T do what all the frenzied shoppers at Costco are doing. Going by the overloaded trolleys we saw, there are going to be lots of people with a massive credit card bill to pay in the next month. Obviously in this time of Coronavirus, buy what you need to get you through, but as for a stockpile for the future?

Do what I did when I was young and poor. Do it gradually.

Buy extra of the things that you’ll eat when they’re on special. If money is tight, buy an extra one. If you have a few more dollars free, buy multiples. Store them in a line in your pantry/zombie apocalypse cupboard. This is so you can keep track of use-by dates.

If you happen to buy more of a particular item before you’ve used up everything in that particular item in your stockpile, PUT THE NEW CANS/PACKETS AT THE BACK AND MOVE THE OLDER THINGS TO THE FRONT.

This is called rotating your stock. It may not be a sin to have a stockpile but it’s certainly a very bad thing to waste time, money and shelf space on food that you have to throw out because you didn’t use it in a timely fashion.

I’ve read that some people mark their stockpile items with a permanent marker of the date they bought them. Me? Nah. But if that idea floats your boat, go for it.

Over time, as various items come on sale or you have a few extra dollars and can buy a few extra things, your stockpile will build up. It’s a beautiful thing.

Only buy what you and your family like to eat and make sure you rotate your stock. This way, there’s no waste and you always have stores available in case something unexpected happens. It’s the most immediate way to provide a safety net for the ones you love. Having a paid-off house comes second.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on stockpiling. I’m proud to say that my two boys who are living on their own also saw which way the wind was blowing and stocked up on a few non-perishables before the supermarkets got crazy.

I normally don’t ask for comments, but I’m curious as to what you all think. I’ve laid out my history and why I’ve always had a store of food and such in the cupboards. Are you like me? Or do you have another way of navigating the world?

Buy practical souvenirs, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

Jeffrey while I was packing. Not sure if he was trying to prevent me or hoping to come too!

I have a rule when I go on holidays. Any souvenirs I buy tend to be useful. I bought an olive oil container in San Gimignano. A spatula in Pyongyang. Christmas tree decorations all over Europe.

So what did I buy on my getaway this week to Bowral?

My stylish yet affordable shopping trolley.

I’m so pleased with this one. I now have a shopping trolley, just like a nanna!!! Living around the corner from Aldi, as I do, I usually load myself up with a few bags and walk to get my groceries. Those bags can get heavy on the walk home.

So yesterday, I looked at my zombie apocalypse cupboard and realised I needed to panic-buy wine. A woman cannot live on toilet paper alone. So I took it out for a spin. It worked a treat. I’m very happy with this one.

But what else did I buy as a souvenir?

A helicopter ride.

I spent $250 on a helicopter ride.

And before you mention the rule about practical souvenirs – in my book this IS practical. I’ve never been in a helicopter before and now I know that I won’t die wondering what it’s like.

Just before lift-off.

When I’m walking the dogs on my Backyard Beach, we get quite a few small planes and helicopters above, following the line of the bay. I thought it’d be nice to create a memory that I’d think of every time I see a helicopter.

Lovely clear morning – Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again!

There’d been torrential rain two days before, so it all looks beautiful and green, but you can see that the dams in the paddocks are nowhere near full. The farmers could still do with a lot more rain.

I had the headphones on and we could hear the chatter from air traffic control, as well as the conversation from the people in the cabin. (Three of us.) You could hear the sound of the rotor blades but it wasn’t too loud.

The day was already quite warm. The only air-con was a little flap in the door next to me, which I could push open or shut. I left it open and the breeze was beautiful.

The border between Victoria and New South Wales.

I drove over this river the day before.

Two memories for the price of one.

Bowral has a way famous antique/junk market called Dirty Jane’s. I whiled away a couple of hours here and walked away with my rusty bird on a swing for a mere $25. I’m always on the look-out for quirky garden art. The reason I bought this was that the bird looked just like the fried baby pigeons that I saw at a food market in Beijing. Two holiday memories for the price of one!

And in case you’re wondering – no, I didn’t eat one. When I travel I rarely say no to experiences, but I couldn’t face crunching away on a baby bird. Or a skewer of scorpions, some of which were still moving. Fortunately, there was nothing like that on the menu in Bowral!

On the way up I stayed overnight in Albury. In both towns I walked through every art gallery I could find. The Milk Factory was the best one I found in Bowral, but I struck gold when I found the Albury library’s gallery. They had a huge exhibition of Lynley Dodd’s work. You know – ‘Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy‘?

When I walked in, a tour was just starting. Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! So I joined it and followed them around. By the way, did you know that in New Zealand a ‘dairy’ is like a corner shop or milk bar? Puts a whole different view on things.

Of course, being Scout’s mum, I had to take a photo of the dachshund!

In keeping with my new view on exercise, I kept the car driving to a minimum. Well, aside from the whole 753 kms/ 468 miles to get there in the first place.

I walked all around the town centre in Albury and discovered their lovely little botanical gardens. Galleries and gardens are free, people! While I was in Bowral for 3 nights, I didn’t get into my car at all. I walked everywhere, which would’ve been unheard of on previous holidays.

In fact, on my last full day there, I didn’t leave the room until 5 PM, when I walked into town to buy some sushi for dinner. I packed my sewing machine and the half-assembled quilt top that I’m making for my sister-in-law and I vowed that I wasn’t leaving town until I’d finished it.

Yes. I didn’t choose the thug life; the thug life chose me.

Success! I finished it 15 minutes before ‘Survivor’ started! Now all I have to do is assemble and quilt it.

When I planned this holiday, I decided I was going to go to galleries, eat out at restaurants and go for bushwalks. When I took the helicopter ride, I decided that I’d cut out the restaurants. The only meal I had in one was when I met up with a blog reader and her Other Half who took me to an American-style diner in a neighbouring town.

Blogmeets are always good. You all know each other from your writing and so there’s no initial awkwardness when meeting up for the first time.

I bought a delicious sourdough loaf from an artisanal bakery and some dips from Woolworths. They were my breakfasts and dinners for a couple of days. It was DELICIOUS! I’ve always wanted to go to a Turkish restaurant and just order dips and bread and now I feel I’ve finally done it.

That’s a huge advantage of travelling as a single. If I feel like eating sourdough and dip for 2 days, I can.

I also gave myself a treat to look forward to. I always have one bottle of perfume on the go at any one time and I totally use it up before opening another one. For the past year or so I’ve been using a perfume that Mum and Dad gave me after a Bali trip. It’s ok… but it doesn’t fill me with joy when I spray it on every morning. But it’s just a few squirts away from being used up, so I bought my FAVOURITE perfume.

This is what I took away with me. It was lovely to unwrap it the first morning I was away and use it.

Mmmmm Mmmmm!

Sometimes looking forward to something is a gift you can give to yourself.

The same height as the birds.

So, as I sit on the couch before I go back to work for the first time in a week, how do I feel?

The alarm at 6 was a rude awakening. I don’t really want to go in, even though I know I’ll have a good time when I get there. With all the talk of coronavirus, going to a school packed with 2,300 kids and 200 staff is starting to seem slightly reckless.

Still, it’s just the one day, then I’ll have the weekend. And I can always simply close my eyes and remember when I was flying with the birds…

Don’t put the cart before the horse!

Who wouldn’t want one of these to get free water with?

Being a bit of a greenie, one of the jobs I wanted to get done around the house before I retire was to put in another rainwater tank, this time in the front yard. Using rainwater to water my gardens would surely help to ‘retire-proof’ my future self by lowering my water bills and giving me more money to use gallivanting around Europe and the UK. It was a good plan. What could possibly go wrong?

I have a paved patch of ground about one and a half metres from the house which would fit a slimline water tank admirably. I surprised myself by being practical and grabbing a tape measure to accurately measure the dimensions at my disposal, then I spent DAYS looking at all the different websites of what was on offer. Finally, I ordered a 3,200L steel water tank for 2K.

Phew! Done. All that was left was for me to get a plumber to install it. What could possibly go wrong?

The sort of tank I was looking at.

Maybe I should’ve asked that question before I ordered the tank.

The plumber came out to give me a quote. Incidentally, working part-time has the unexpected benefit that I can actually be at home when tradies come. Anyway, he walked around, grabbed a camera on a long coil of cord to look down the stormwater drain, he sprayed paint on the grass to mark where the outflow would have to be dug to, then he went away to tot up the quote.

I went inside and spoke to Ryan25. “He’s talking about having to do a lot of digging,” I said. “It might cost as much to put the water tank in as it did to pay for the darned thing in the first place.”

Soon after came a knock at the door and I went out to hear how much this project was going to set me back.

That plumber when he’s at home.

Six Thousand One Hundred Dollars.

Yep. It was going to cost 3 times what the tank cost just to get it installed, plumbed and connected to the pump. Yikes!

I was pretty definite about how I wouldn’t be going ahead with this job. From memory, I think my initial reaction was, “WHAT?!? No. No no no!” I got another quote and it was pretty much the same.

So guess who now has to get a refund from the water tank company? How I wish that I’d sussed out whether it was easily and affordably do-able before I’d actually shelled out 2K to buy the tank in the first place. What an idiot!

A sudsy sort of Christmas.

Home-made soap drying in the laundry.

Sshhh! Don’t tell my workmates, but they’re getting hand-made soap for Christmas. A couple of months ago I made up a couple of batches of this soap, mixed through some oats that I’d chopped up in the thermomix and let the rustic-shaped bars cure in the laundry, hardening up so they’ll be suitable to be used straight away.

Last week I asked the woman who runs the school canteen how many women work there. On Friday I dropped off 10 cakes of soap for them. It’s only fair. Twice a week I pick up all of the veggie scraps from them, so they deserve to get a little something for helping my garden out all year.

I probably spent a little under $20 to buy the materials, so that (and my time) was the only cost for nearly 40 presents. It’s something that’s a little bit different to the usual chocolates or candy-canes-sticky-taped-to-a-card and people seem to appreciate them.

You may have noticed that to the side of the soaps on the rack, are jars full of bean seeds. People who have been following along to the blog for a while may remember that when I put in the hideously expensive wicking beds last year, the landscaper put in horribly poor soil. Just about every plant I put into the beds died a slow and yellowy death, aside from my peas, beans and tromboncino zucchinis.

A little while ago I put together some seed packets of the Lazy Housewife and Purple King beans and gave them away to anyone at work who wanted some, particularly the people who’d given me compost materials. After all, they helped contribute! I told them to save a couple of beans, dry them out and then they’ll be able to plant next year’s bean crop. Essentially, I’ve just given them free beans for the rest of their lives.

And who doesn’t want to grow something called ‘Lazy Housewife’?

The secret to success.

How a skier built up her herd of cows over time.

I saw this on Twitter a little while ago and it tickled my fancy. I loved how she took what the organisers of the skiing event obviously thought of as a novelty prize and used it as the basis of a thriving herd of cows today. Can you imagine the chagrin of the organisers as she blithely took them at their word and walked off with ‘their’ cow??

Obviously, one cow (even a pregnant cow) does not a herd make. But over time, it’s possible to build something from nothing if you keep quietly focussed and take strategic steps towards a goal, just putting one foot in front of the other.

There’s nothing stopping any of us from building our own equivalent of Ms Vonn’s herd of cattle. No matter who you are or where you’re starting from, there’s always room for a goal to be set and to be worked towards.

Picture me, back when I’d just left my husband. I had a starting position of $60 cash, with the added bonus of 4 boys under 5 to feed and water as well. I guess I started with my own little herd of humans! My overarching goal was always to keep a roof over those boys’ heads. But my first goal?

To scrape together 1K for what I called a “Buffer Zone” but which I now call an Emergency Fund. I wrote about how I learned very quickly that having cash between us and a hostile world was a very good thing, and when I was forced to cash it in, the first priority was to get it built back up again.

It’s easy to write about building up 1K in a cash stache nowadays, but back then it wasn’t easy to do. It took months of scrimping and scraping to get that 1K put away safely. It required many small decisions about what to buy and what not to buy; what had to be paid for now and what we could wait to get. It took me putting one foot in front of the other and slowly advancing towards that goal.

Poppy on my bed.

Even though this is a FIRE blog, I’d be stupid to suggest that every single goal worth aiming for has to be financial. We have to enjoy our lives along the path to being financially free, after all. Poppy is pictured above on my string quilt. This quilt is a totally unique creation that I initially started with the aim of using up tiny scraps of fabric instead of throwing them out. I wanted to turn them into something useable.

The concept itself was simple. I sewed strips of fabric together into 5″ square blocks. Some blocks have only 4 or 5 strips in them. Some have way more, which means that this was definitely not a quick job! The smallest strip is, I think, a quarter of an inch wide.

That quilt took me 9 months to complete. I put together square upon square upon square, sewing other quilts in the meantime and using scraps from those to keep putting this one together. It seemed as if it would never be finished, but finally, I got out a tape measure, worked out the dimensions of how big a Queen-sized quilt would be, then *shudder* did the Maths to see how many squares I’d need.

The answer was 396.

That quilt is on my bed to this day. It looks amazing and it’s hard to remember all of the many patient hours I spent at the sewing machine with tiny scraps of fabric, sewing together all of those 5″ squares. By themselves, each scrap of fabric is an inconsequential piece of nothing. But placed together, they represent a goal achieved.

Massed dancing in Pyongyang North Korea, April 2018.
So much fun!
Massed dancing in Pyongyang, North Korea in April 2018. It was so much fun to join in with them all and it was such an amazing spectacle!

On my way towards financial independence, I’ve set many goals and achieved them. Some were financial, though I’d argue that the underlying goal pushing me to achieve these ones was always a deep desire to provide security for my family. Others were more lifestyle goals, such as my Europe and North Korean trips.

For years, my Big Fat Hairy Audacious goal was to become mortgage-free. It took me 17 years, but I did it. But 17 years is a long time. Did I get bored and want to go nuts and spend my money on wine, men and song? You bet I sometimes did. But I kept making many small decisions about where I’d put my money. Every thousand that came off the mortgage made me smile, even though, especially in the early days, those days were very far apart.

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other and, seemingly overnight, that mortgage was gone and the boys and I had a secure base. After all, that 17 years would have passed whether or not I fulfilled that goal. May as well get things done while that time is passing, hey?

Today I’m focussing on getting The Best House in Melbourne ready for Future Frogdancer to live her best life in retirement. Instead of saving and investing money, as I did earlier on, I’m now looking deeply at what gives me the most pleasure and satisfaction in life, then I’m looking at spending my money in the ways that will continue to bring contentment and happiness to my life going forward.

I’m only buying things that have value to me. So upgrading my lovely little 2014 VW Golf is definitely off the table, while paying for self-watering veggie beds, a secure front fence to keep my dogs in and putting a huge verandah out the back to entertain my family on important birthdays and Christmases are things that are definitely happening.

Poppy, Jeff and Scout.
Next year I’m dropping back to part-time work so I can take these 3 to the dog beach more often. I never thought I’d reach the stage where time means more than money, but here we are…

Whether the goal has been a savings/investment goal such as reaching a specific number or getting an emergency fund topped up, or whether it’s a lifestyle goal such as the ones I’m organising right now, the way to reach those seemingly different goals has always been the same.

Figure out what you want.

Then find out how to get there. Break it down into smaller steps.

Then keep putting one foot in front of the other, step after step, until you reach it.

You can do this.

Poppy and Scout at the dog beach.
See? Here we are. So what do YOU want to achieve?

Poverty leaves a mark.

Peas in a bowl.
A bowl of ‘free’ peas that grew from the pea straw mulch. We’ve been eating ‘free’ peas for over 2 months.

It’s no secret that financially nowadays, I’m doing ok. Working is a choice, not a necessity, which is why next year I’m dropping back to part-time. Two of the boys have moved out, which means I only have 2 on my hands, but they’re adults so apart from feeding and housing them, they run their own lives. Money isn’t tight anymore… and yet I still cling to my economies. Why is that?

Three years ago I moved into The Best House in Melbourne. After waiting 18 months for my geo-arbitrage plan to come to fruition, the money came through and I installed some gorgeous landscaping in the back yard, including some wicking veggie beds. When the soil the landscaper used turned out to be awful, I had a thought. Why not bring home the veggie scraps from work? The canteen services 2,400 kids and 200 teachers, while the Food Tech rooms throw out heaps of scraps. Compost galore – for free!

A year later, the system is still going strong. I have a little container on my desk that teachers put their scraps in, (you wouldn’t believe how many bananas they go through each day!); the Food Tech room leaves a bag of scraps for me most days, but the real bonanza is the canteen every Wednesday and Friday.

Yesterday I was chatting with the manager as I lifted out the garbage bag from the bin and popped in a fresh one for next week.

“I asked the timetabler if I could work Wednesdays and Fridays next year so I can keep picking up the scraps and it looks like I’ve got them,” I said.

“That’s great,” Tania replied. “Actually, I’m a bit surprised that you’re still doing this. Isn’t it a hassle?”

Wicking beds overflowing with plants.
Some of these plants are what has grown from last year’s plants – self-sown. Some are from the pea straw. Most have grown from the compost materials I brought home from school.

“Sometimes,” I said. Then I went on to say something about organic fertiliser or some such thing, to make me sound legit, like a real tree-hugger.

But really??

I want free fertiliser. Why would I pass up the chance to improve my garden’s soil for free, even if – yes – sometimes it IS a PIA to race down there and then drag it to the car during lunchtimes. Do you know how many bags of compost I would’ve had to buy over the past year to equal what the school scraps + the compost tumblers + time have produced???

Well, I don’t know either, but it would have been a lot of bags bought and a LOT of money spent.

As I was carrying that heavy garbage full of veggie scraps back along the street towards my car, I was thinking about that little conversation. She’s right. Doing this twice a week every week IS a hassle. As soon as I get home I have to deal with the compost, either putting it in the tumbling compost bins or bringing it inside and pulverising some of it in the thermomix for the worms. Sometimes, after school when I get back to the car, it smells a little… fruit cocktail-ish, especially in summer.

This would be more than enough to turn most people off, but not me. Now that I know this resource is here, it’d be such a waste not to use it.

I walked and thought. Maybe people who haven’t had to struggle very much are quicker to let inconvenient things go? I remembered back to the days when the kids were small. They’d go and stay with their father every two weeks, and at the end of the weekend sometimes they’d come home with a box of fruit and veggies from the fruit shop he owned.

Child support was erratic in those days. Money was tight. If those boys came through the door with a box of free food I made sure we used EVERY scrap of it. Anything that got thrown out was like me throwing away money. Child support money. I wasn’t in a position to do that.

Rosemary in a pot.
I grow herbs, like this Rosemary. I cut and dry it sometimes, so I have both fresh and dried whenever I need it. Herbs are ridiculously expensive – grow your own if you can.

Sometimes leftover food gets put into the staff common room. Unused loaves of bread from a fund-raising sausage sizzle, lemons from someone’s tree, a box of tomatoes… that sort of thing. If they’re placed on the tables, they’re free game for anyone who wants them.

It’s astonishing to me how those items can sit there for hours without being snapped up. People, even the young teachers with massive mortgages and/or young kids, won’t pick up a loaf of free bread or a handful of tomatoes to make a pasta sauce for dinner with. I don’t understand it. They’ll let perfectly good food sit there and potentially go to waste because… I don’t know… maybe they don’t want to be seen walking back to their desks with a loaf of yesterday’s bread?

Three days ago someone left a big box piled with potatoes on the table. I walked into the common room to fill up my water bottle and thought, “Great! Both boys are home for dinner tonight,’ so I took 3 potatoes. All good.

The next morning I walked in and there were still some potatoes in the box. Really?? They were the oddly shaped ones; the ones where you’d have to put a little bit of effort into peeling them to get all the skin off. But they were still fine. I waited until recess, then said loudly, “Well, if no one else wants them, I’ll take them!” and I scooped them up.

As I was on my way to my desk, someone said, “It’s great you’re using them for your compost.” I smiled and nodded, but inside I was thinking, ‘Are you crazy? This is another free serve of potatoes for dinner!’

Spice rack.
The dried herbs end up here.

Now, I’m no different from the rest of the staff in many ways. We are all middle-class, we all live within an hour’s drive of the school, we’re all tertiary educated, we’ve all travelled overseas. Of course, I’m astonishingly good-looking, but so are some of the others.

I think the real difference when it comes to things like this is that most of them haven’t been on the bare bones of their ar**s financially. Like I said at the beginning of this post, financially I’m doing ok now. But the years and years of being totally responsible for the well-being of the 4 boys when I was on the sole parents’ pension and with child support at (usually) $20/month have left their mark.

I had a ridiculously small amount of money to manage each fortnight. The mortgage had to be paid, then the bills and then what was leftover was spread among groceries, clothing – little boys grow fast! – and everything else. I owned one credit card, but I paid it off each month. I knew that if I strayed too far into debt I could lose the house and then the boys and I would be even more vulnerable than we were.

Every dollar was important.

When my aunt asked me if I’d like to pick up the unsold bread at a bakery in East Brighton every Tuesday night, I leapt at it. We kept going back to that bakery for the next 15 years. Every Tuesday we’d put 3 laundry baskets in the back of the station wagon and we’d pick up whatever hadn’t sold that day. That shop saved my family thousands of dollars over the time we went there.

Baskets of bread, pies, sausage rolls, bagels, hot cross buns, Boston buns – you name it, it was there. The best rye bread I’ve ever tasted, to this day. The boys and I would go in the back door of the shop and we’d load up the baskets. One basket was for us. I’d put in enough bread to last us a week ( I had a huge freezer) and enough pies and baked goods for dinner that night. One basket would be for friends, while the third one (once I was back at school) was filled with morning tea items to take to work the following day to put in the common room.

Later, when I had the chooks, I’d bring home bread and the unwanted pies and pasties to feed them for a day. It made the chicken feed last that little bit longer.

Feeding my family this unwanted bread definitely tipped the balance of my finances towards the black. It was an absolute life-line that I’ll always be so grateful for. Was it a hassle to drive 2 suburbs away every Tuesday night to do this. YES. It was NEVER convenient. But I did it every week because it was free food and it saved my family from some desperate times.

Me with some bread.
Me, back in 2014, with a laundry basketful of bread in the background.

Is it any wonder now that when I see a box of lemons on the table in the common room, I’ll take a couple? Or when the sausage sizzle bread is piled up, I’ll grab a loaf? Poverty leaves a mark on you, deep inside. On the outside, I’m the same as everyone else at work. But I think about money a little differently.

To me, there’s no shame in taking a loaf of free bread or a handful of potatoes in front of everyone in the room. Why would there be? Free food (or free compost) is a way of eking out my resources just a little bit longer.

Past Frogdancer had to do that as a way of ensuring the boys survived and thrived. Learning how to satisfy our all of our needs and some of our wants wasn’t easy and there were many tears shed and scary moments endured along the way.

As for Present Frogdancer? Because of Past Frogdancer’s efforts, I’m doing ok. But she and I are both agreed – if something is going for free and you can use it, it’s criminally wasteful not to take it and be grateful.

Even if it’s a hassle.

How to be a wonderful Santa with very little money.

Santa in front of a Christmas tree.
Actual photo of me late on Christmas Eve.

This post is very important to me. As a single Mum with 4 little boys and VERY little money, Christmas was always a time when I was on my toes. I wanted it to be a magical morning, with Santa presents that brought joy and delight, because the window of time for that Santa magic is small and very precious. Just because I chose to leave my husband with $60 cash in my hand and 4 boys under 5 under my arm, why should that mean that the boys should miss out?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had this problem. Fortunately, there are ways around this to deliver a magical Santa reveal every single year without ruining the family finances every December. The huge advantage that Christmas has over other, more mundane ’emergencies’ is that it happens at the same time every year. Grab any calendar… there it is on December 25. So it can be organised and planned for.

I’m a teacher by trade. English and DRAMA. The Drama teacher hat always comes to the fore at Christmas. What’s one of the best moments whenever people go to the theatre? It’s that moment of anticipation when the house lights go down and the curtain is about to open. The audience’s attention is at its peak, waiting for the magic of being transported to another time and space.

Kids are like this on Christmas morning. Why do you think they wake at 5 AM and race breathlessly down to wherever Santa leaves his gifts at your place? Yes, some of it is pure greed, but most of it is because something crazily wonderful has happened overnight – something has been magically produced out of nothing.

That first moment when they see their pile of gifts – that’s what I call ‘the REVEAL.’ It’s all-important. It’s pure theatre. And I always wanted that first reaction to be “WOW.”

I love Christmas! Always have. To me, Christmas is a time for family and, back when the boys were small, a time to spoil the kids. I love it so much that part of the custody arrangements when my marriage broke up was that I would have the boys every Christmas Day, while my ex-husband would have them every Easter Sunday.

When my oldest was 5, I left the marriage and stayed at home with the boys until my youngest started school. This meant that money was tight during those years. Child support was often only $20/month and the boys and I were dependent on Centrelink payments of around $350/week. I had to pay the mortgage, food, bills and everything else out of this. Fortunately, I was brought up by frugal parents so I had lots of training! But it meant that things like Christmas had to be planned with military precision.

At my place, Santa would leave the presents for each kid in the lounge room, on chairs or on the floor. Each pile of gifts was covered by a blanket, with a label on each pile with a name. The routine was that the kids had to come and wake me up first, then we’d all go into the lounge room together and they’d stand by their particular blanket. Then, on a “ready, set go!”, they’d lift off the blanket and the REVEAL would happen. This routine was a deliberate decision on my part to build the anticipation further and have the energy of the room at fever-pitch. It was always exciting.

Afterwards, I’d have the boys stand together and call out loud, “Thank you, Father Christmas!” When, one by one, the boys started to know the truth, they’d look at me while calling out this – a private way they’d thank me while still keeping the magic going for the younger ones.

Anyway, I’ve set the scene for how the Santa REVEAL was done at my place. Here are the ways that I worked to make that particular December morning a hit for my boys on very little money.

Kids are visual creatures. 

Little kids aren’t very bright. If they get a pile of gifts from Santa, they’re wildly excited. This doesn’t mean that every item has to be brand-new, designer and expensive. What you (as Santa’s helper) are aiming for is the thrill of the REVEAL – when the covering is lifted off their gifts and they see it all for the first time. This allows you, as the official shopper for Santa, to spend strategically. 

What I aimed for, particularly when the kids were small and still believed, was to have a lot of colour and lots of items for their eyes to take in as the blanket came off. A central ‘show-stopper” item that the kid was really hoping to get, but surrounding it – lots of other, more minor things that look impressive in colour and number, but cost very little.

No more than 2 “Show stopper” presents per child. Usually, just one, or none if the child is very young. Spend your money in a way to get more bang for your buck.

Sure, I wanted Christmas to be impressive, but I wasn’t made of money! Plus, with 4 kids, that money had to stretch as far as possible. The boys didn’t need a roomful of expensive gifts from Santa – they’d be getting presents from my family, their father and their father’s family. The REVEAL from Santa is the most important, of course, but their entire Christmas experience didn’t hinge on just this. 

So I’d listen. And I’d arrange to buy one or two brand-new things that the boys were desperate to own. When kids are young, you can buy these things at the July sales, because toys are toys. Kids are easy to plan for when they’re in pre-school to middle primary school. But later I learned to delay buying the “show-stopper” gifts until December. Teenagers are so unpredictable and there’s always a new game or album or something released just before Christmas that turns out suddenly to be the “must-have.”

When kids are very young, these “show stopper” gifts are most impressive when they’re physically large. A dolls house, a trike… things like that. Little kids equate size with value. Funnily enough, as the boys got older their “show stopper” presents started to shrink in size. A particularly coveted console game or CD/DVD used to be VERY successful at our place. Zelda and the Ocarina of Time for the N64, for example, was physically unimpressive but was greeted with hoots of joy.

And now I have that ocarina music in my head. The boys played that game for hundreds of hours. Safe to say that show-stopper gift was a success.

Shop around for “filler” gifts – the more of these, the better. Don’t pay retail prices for these if at all possible.

Garage sales are your friends. Here in Australia, we’re so lucky we have Christmas in summer, because spring cleaning happens and people get rid of the toys their kids are sick of. These toys are PRIME filler material. Their kids may be sick of them but they’re brand-new entertainment for your kids.

Every fortnight, when A had the kids for his access weekend, I’d go and hit the garage sales in my neighbourhood to look for filler gifts for Christmas. I’d start as soon as Spring began because you never know what you’ll find. Fortunately, most toys for little kids are pretty generic – if you buy cars, dolls and lego, you’re good to go, so these things can be bought months in advance and you know they’ll be successful.

I have boys, so anything round and designed to be thrown or kicked was always a hit. Tennis balls, usually second hand, along with bats or cricket stumps, also found at garage sales and op shops. Aussie rules footballs, especially for Tom, were also a good filler item. Sheet music for David, guitar strings for Ryan and quirky fun things for Evan were all things I’d keep my eyes open for and snap up if I came across them at a good price. You know your children – cater to their interests.

I also used to use filler space to buy things for Christmas that I would have been buying anyway. I like the boys to look nice for Christmas Day with my family, so Santa would always bring new clothes for them to wear. Some years the clothes would be brand new, other times they were gently worn clothes that still looked new, depending on my finances. The boys didn’t care either way.

Bathers were another frequent filler, seeing as how Christmas is in summer, along with artsy things like textas and pencils that they’d need for school the next year. Clearly, these weren’t as exciting for the boys as the toys, but they bulked up the piles of presents every year and helped them to look more impressive. Remember, it’s all in the REVEAL.

Start some Christmas traditions that cost next to nothing. 

You know those little bags of gold coins that appear at every supermarket and dollar store checkout in December? The chocolate inside is cheap, but kids love the glint of the gold and the feel of holding treasure. These bags only cost a dollar or two each. Every year they’d have a bag of coins in their pile of Santa gifts.

I’d buy a packet of those little Kellogs mini breakfast cereal packets and the kids would have a couple of mini cereals to have for breakfast on Christmas morning – along with the chocolate coins, of course. I never bought those mini cereals at any other time of the year – far too expensive – so the boys were convinced that this was a Santa thing and looked forward to seeing which breakfast they’d be getting this year.

When the kids grew older a tradition started where they’d be the ones to assemble the Christmas tree. We have a large fake one – being frugal I didn’t want the added expense of buying a real tree year after year – and the boys put it all together and place the decorations on it. Over time, the Christmas tree decorations become treasured memories for them. “Oh! Here’s the aeroplane! I like this one!” or “Has anyone seen the bird that sits on the top of the tree? I want to do it this year.”

One of the most enduring traditions – and by that I mean that we still do this – is something that I first bought as a filler present in poverty-stricken desperation. I bought some little jars of bubble mix as a bit of fun for them. That first Christmas, we went out into the backyard and started blowing bubbles. The dogs went nuts jumping and trying to catch them and we had so much fun. It was a much greater hit than I thought it would be, so the next year I tried it again. The dogs, and later, the cats would come out with us and they’d jump to try and catch the bubbles and we’d laugh and chill in the sun. The house next door to us was a rental and when there were kids living there, the boys would blow bubbles over the fence at them and the neighbour kids would race to pop them first.

Poppy, Jeff and Scout will be chasing bubbles for a while on Christmas morning – it’s fun and costs next to nothing. It’s a corny little throwback to when the kids were little and we enjoy it.

Finally, enlist the older kids into keeping the magic alive for the younger ones.

I had a pretty good run with Santa. Tom, my oldest, was 9 years old before he asked the question one day. Now, just between you and me, Tom9 was a blabbermouth, so I knew he’d be the weak link in the chain of silence, so I whisked him away down to the bottom of the garden under the old fig tree.

I said, “Do you really want to know?” He looked at me as if to say, ‘I’m not an idiot – just by saying that you’re confirming that Santa isn’t real.’

So I smiled and said, “Yes, you’re right. Father Christmas isn’t real.”

He nodded, then said, “So who does it?”

I looked him dead in the eye and said, “I do. Santa is me.”

His mouth dropped open. He looked stunned. He said, No WAY. You can’t afford it!!!”

I laughed and laughed. “Christmas is special. It’s magical. I make sure I can afford it.”

He gave me a huge hug, then looked stricken. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ve been telling the boys to ask Santa for all the expensive things they want, so you don’t have to buy them…”

OMG. How gorgeous is that?? What a beautiful little boy.

I thanked him for looking out for me like that, then we switched into the “you had many years of enjoying the magic, so now you join the grown-up world to preserve the magic for your brothers” talk. I was a bit nervous about it. Like I said, Tom9 was a bit of a blabbermouth, but he came through for the boys and Santa beautifully.

He loved the idea of being more grown-up than the others. He’d write Christmas lists with them and let me know what they were hankering for. he’d help hustle the kids off to bed on Christmas Eve so I’d have time to set up the presents. He’d stay up a little later than the others, so he’d get to bite the carrot we’d leave out for Rudolph and eat the snack for Santa, while I’d drink Santa’s glass of Shiraz.

One by one, the boys found out the truth, but never from their older brothers. Evan was the last one. From memory, he was Evan7 or Evan8 when a nasty little kid told him Santa wasn’t real on Christmas Eve!!!!! I was furious when he asked me about it as I was putting him to bed that night. What a time for him to have doubt put into his mind!

What was I to do? He had been all geared up for a visit from Santa and was so excited. I looked at his little eyes and saw hope there – hope that the kid had lied to him. He was so little… but my parenting style has always been that if a kid is old enough to ask a question, then they’re old enough for the answer.

I made a split decision and broke my rule, opening my eyes wide and saying, “Of course he’s real. How else could all of those presents get there?” He smiled, relieved, and snuggled down to sleep and I tip-toed away, feeling like a heel but wanting him to have just one more Christmas morning of magic.

Just after Easter he asked me again. This time I came clean and when he asked why I’d lied to him before, I told him why, saying that I wanted him to have one last magical Christmas. He thought about it for a second, then nodded and simply said, “Thanks.”

Then he looked up at me and said, “Don’t tell me the Easter Bunny isn’t real either?!?” And like that the magic was gone.

Christmas now has a different kind of magic for our family. The traditions and routines have evolved now that we are a family of adults. Christmas is still hugely important but now we all buy gifts for each other. My extended family has a Kris Kringle where we buy for only one person (price limit of $50) and the boys have the same price limit for each of our nuclear family. Three of them are still students so this is a big expense for them of $250 – 3 brothers, 1 mother and 1 Kris Kringle… but like I did back in the day, they save up for it throughout the year and enjoy the plotting and planning to get gifts that suit the recipients down to the ground.

Christmas is as important to them as it is for me and we put a lot of effort into the presents we organise. We look forward to getting together with Mum and Dad, my sister Kate and her family and of course, each other. The boys still come over every year to assemble my Christmas tree – now with added decorations from my travels in Europe, China and North Korea – and those still at home will blow some bubbles for the pets on Christmas morning.

For those going through a financially challenged Christmas, I hope that I’ve helped with some strategies. The funny thing is – some of the things that I introduced to make Christmas affordable are the very things that are now cherished family traditions! It’s very possible to have a wonderful Christmas with your kids on limited funds. It’s all about a little bit of forward thinking and – of course – the REVEAL!

Locking in the profits.

I’m going to do something that I never thought I’d do. I’m going to pull some profits out of my investments and spend them on some projects around the house. In other words, I’ve decided to harvest some profits and lock them in.

Again, this was something that I never thought I’d do. I’m still working, so income is flowing in to pay for my day-to-day needs. That sweet sweet compounding is doing its thing with my investments and I was sure that I’d continue to let them ride. But then something happened.

I arrived home a week or two ago and it was raining. As I got out of the car and turned towards the house something caught my eye. A steady stream of water coming from the left front corner of the guttering. It fell in a straight line right onto the wooden supports of the verandah.

Crap.

I glanced across at the other corner and sure enough, the same thing was happening, but fortunately, this one was falling onto the brick paving. But the wooden balustrade near both corners was needing to be replaced. I was going to wait, but suddenly this looked like I might now have a rotting verandah on my hands.

It seems like it should be an easy fix – just replace the guttering. Done, right?

But look at this shot. The yuccas at the front of the house have grown up past the roof and are dangerous. The leaves are thick and very pointy and sharp at the ends and the previous owner intelligently planted them next to walkways. A couple of times when I was on the way to the recycling bin, I’ve narrowly missed being poked in the eye. So removing the yuccas has been on my list of Things To Get Done for a while now and the guttering can’t be replaced while the yuccas are there.

So it should be easy. Cut down the yuccas, then replace the guttering, right?

But…

If I cut the yuccas down, our big front windows would then be open to the street. Any stray marauder strolling by would be able to see straight through into my bedroom and our living room. Not exactly ideal. So do I put up some sheer curtains for day-time? Or do I put up a tall fence?

I already have a front fence, but it’s rusting. I’m very close to the beach. The dogs bark at every dog that walks past, so it’s been on my list of Things To Get Done, but in some dark, misty future, aeons from now. But that is going to change, it seems.

Our electric gate is broken, so we’ve been opening and closing it by hand for about a year now. If I get a new fence – a non-see-through one – I’d have to replace the gate as well.

It’s a cascading list of repairs and replacements. So! It all starts at the front fence.

Once I get the new fence, I’ll be able to call an arborist to cut down the yuccas and grind out the stumps. THEN I can replace the guttering and fix any wooden bits of the verandah and balustrading, without worrying that the carpenter will get his eyes poked out.

It’s so annoying. I had a really good plan in place to keep my investments in place and to keep a wage coming in to pay for retirement-proofing the house and so far the plan is working. But the good part about biting the bullet and getting all of these things done now is that once they’re done – they’re done. I can cross them off my list and keep moving forward.

My investments have done really well over the last couple of years, so in effect, I’ll be locking in the profits when I withdraw them and use them on the house. Of course, I’ll be losing any future compounding on those dollars, which is a shame, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that if I delay this water problem until I save up the money to deal with it, I’ll just be giving myself a bigger, more expensive problem down the track.

Ah well. At least Future Frogdancer will be able to walk out onto her front verandah without risking life and limb (or eyes, when I think of the yuccas.) It ruffles me that I’m changing my plans, but I think that the situation warrants it.

Any thoughts?

All it takes is a little bit of foresight.

Is it weird to love a spice rack so much?

Three years ago, when we moved from our little 1950’s weatherboard house to The Best House in Melbourne, I spent up big. I’m a naturally frugal person and I knew that if I waited until we’d developed the block that the old house stood on and sold the units, I’d probably be used to things in The Best House in Melbourne and I wouldn’t change them.

I decided that while I was excited about the new house, I should Get Things Done while I was still in “new house mode”.

I moved things around in the kitchen, massively remodelled the laundry and did a few things in the garden. One of the best things I did though, was spend nearly $300 on a spice rack. You can see it above, hanging from the back of the pantry door, next to the automatic light that my brother-in-law put in for me. (Incidentally, that light is also one of the best things I’ve ever spent money on.)

Ever since I bought the Skinnymixer’s recipe book ‘A Little Taste of India’, I’ve used a lot of spices in my cooking. Having them all together, alphabetised and ready for action, has been fantastic. The jars are clear plastic, so I can see at a glance when a herb or spice is getting low.

One of my rosemary plants in a wicking box.

I grow quite a few herbs in my garden, but sometimes it’s handy to have the dried version on hand. The easy way would be to simply throw a packet of dried rosemary or oregano into my shopping trolley the next time I was at the supermarket. Or, with a little bit of foresight, I could harvest some cuttings and make it myself.

It’s not hard. It’s literally a 5-minute job, but you need to do it a few weeks in advance.

I looked at the rosemary container and saw that it was getting low. I grabbed the scissors, went out to the side deck and hacked away at one of the rosemary plants. I lay the cuttings down on a couple of cake coolers, making sure that the cuttings weren’t too close together so air could circulate around them, then I walked away and left them for a couple of weeks.

Yesterday I came home from work, looked at the rosemary cuttings and saw that they were dried. I stripped the leaves from the stems, put them into the thermomix and speed 10’d them for a few seconds.

Done! By doing this I saved myself a couple of dollars, but that wasn’t why I decided to put this post together.

If you look at the bottom you’ll see where the old rosemary was and where the new rosemary begins.

By looking at the jar, I could see that we’d soon be needing to top up on dried rosemary. It was obviously going to happen. If I ignored it and let the jar run out, I’d more than likely be forced into buying a packet the next time I was out shopping.

But by using foresight and giving myself the time to pick the rosemary and spend two weeks drying it, I was able to use the materials I have to their best ability. I was able to allocate time and resources in the best way possible to utilise their benefit to me.

In a small way, this mirrors working towards Financial Independence.

Let’s face it, it takes foresight to begin preparing for financial security, let along retirement. Most people bury their heads in the sand for decades before starting to get their finances together.

Let me put my hand up for that one. When I first started this blog, I wrote a post on my second-biggest financial mistake. That post describes the way I showed my kids about the power of compounding, (and it won the first Rockstar Rumble, which makes me feel slightly better!), but the fact remains that I cashed in my superannuation of 30K back in 1991. If I’d left it alone and never added another thing to it, it’d be worth over 200K today and I’d more than likely be retired now.

I didn’t think far enough ahead. I was an idiot. All I needed was a little bit of foresight.

If I could say anything to people younger than me, people in my children’s generation, I’d say to them that they all know that old age is coming. Yes, it’s in some dark, misty future but, like Christmas, it IS coming. Future You will be so grateful if you make it a habit – starting from now – to throw a little bit of money their way.

Take it from me – if I had an extra 200K from Past Frogdancer Jones, I’d be very happy. It would almost certainly change the choices that I’ve made about going part-time next year. If I feel that way, I can bet my bottom dollar that Future You would feel the same way too.

The best thing about the power of compounding is that if you start young, you don’t need to throw enormous gobs of money towards Future You. Little amounts squirrelled away regularly will mount up over the decades to become substantial. Life-changing.

It only takes a little bit of foresight to give Future You the enormous gift of being able to have choices. By utilising your resources and time in this way, your life, decades in the future, will be so much easier.

I can guarantee that Future You will be so totally grateful to Present You. Start harvesting those financial cuttings – the future has a habit of arriving much more quickly than we dream of!

Poppy in the herb garden. This is Past Frogdancer Jones’ future.

My chilly ankles Winter Challenge.

Why I don’t buy many things online.

Unlike most of the people I work with in The Danger Zone, (our section of the staffroom), I don’t buy clothes and shoes online as a rule. Sure, the convenience is good and you get the fun of unwrapping the parcel and showing what you bought to the rest of us, because of course, we use the school’s address for deliveries. But what do you do if you don’t like the thing you ordered, or it’s too big, too small or just slightly the wrong colour?

That’s what turns me off going clothes shopping online.

But even Frogdancer Jones can be seduced by the words of others. I was on BookFace 6 months ago and someone was raving about Scarletto shoes, saying that they look good but feel like she’s wearing her comfy old slippers. What could be more seductive than that??? Imagine going to work all day in your comfy old slippers? I leapt across to the website and began flicking through what was on offer.

As it happened, I needed some flat shoes for work. I was looking for Ballerina-style shoes that I could wear with anything – I’m low maintenance like that – and I was hoping there’d be some black ones.

The shoes on the site were more exxy than I was used to, but there was a “Sale” page. No black ballerinas, but there were these black and white ones half price – $60. Hmmm… Not want I wanted but maybe I could accept these as a compromise?

I ordered them. If they measured up and were as comfy as that unknown woman said, then I’d go back and buy the full-priced black ones.

When they arrived I was taken aback at first. They were a lot shinier than I’m used to. I’m a leather shoe person and these were… not. Still, I guess I could put up with shiny feet. They have leather insoles so it wasn’t as if my poor feet would be encased in plastic all day. I began wearing them.

After only two days at work with the black and whites, I came home and kicked them off. As I turned to leave my room, something caught my eye. A big white patch at the heel of the right shoe. I bent down, frowning. A couple of the black spots had peeled off.

I was totally unimpressed. I looked closer. There were a few other spots with the edges starting to peel upwards.

Well wasn’t that lovely? Clearly, they realised there was a problem with this particular design and so instead of pulling it from sale entirely, they flogged them off on the ‘Sale’ page.

I was furious. Both with them and with me. WHY had I broken my rule about shopping online for clothes? I’d only worn them twice, so that means I’d paid $30/wear. That’s outrageously expensive!

I jumped online and checked their returns policy.

Of course, this only applies to shoes that were full-price and unworn. How very convenient for them.

I knew I could contact them and get into a debate about faulty shoes, then have to find packaging to send them back and find time to get to the post office… but could I be bothered with it? But the alternative was to keep these now unusable shoes that started off so cheap and ended up so expensive.

But hang on – were they so unusable?

I looked at my ugg boots that I’d bought in China over 6 years ago. They were mid-calf length, black leather on the outside with proper soles and real sheepskin inside. They’d been my slippers all that time, but now the soles were starting to come loose and they were looking a bit shabby.

On an impulse, I binned them and swapped the black and white ballerinas into the “comfy slipper” category that the unknown woman on BookFace had claimed they were. (She was correct, by the way. They may look like they have a skin disease but they’re very comfortable.) This was going to be my Winter Challenge!

So how did my winter go with my frugal slipper choice?

I won’t lie; I missed the comfort of sheepskin on my feet on winter mornings. My ankles were cold. Nights after school, when I’ve walked the dogs and kicked off my shoes, I wanted the warmth and softness of my old ugg boots to encase my tired feet. But I’ve gritted my teeth and stuck to my guns. I live in a temperate climate where snow never comes. One winter wearing ballerina shoes won’t kill me.

But it did make me slightly uncomfortable. And you know? I think that’s not a bad thing.

I could have driven to the ugg boot warehouse near my home after work any day and bought a new pair of boots to wear as slippers. Lord knows, these days I can afford it. But something inside me feels that if I caved in and did that, I’d be negating all the lessons that were hard-won when I was utterly poverty-stricken, back when the boys were babies.

In those days I had to live with the consequences of my decisions, both in life and in spending. If I bought something on impulse (like I did with these shoes) I had to live with it, often for years. I had absolutely NO spare money to replace things if I made a mistake.

The shirt I bought in a sale from Target, for example. It was only $5. WHAT a bargain!!! Red and white… I didn’t love it. I barely liked it. “Meh,” I said to myself. “It’s only $5. It’ll do for a year.” Nearly 10 years later, I finally binned that thing. Yes, I wore it over that time and felt not-so-good about how I looked every time I pulled it on. But for most of that time, I seriously didn’t have enough money to comfortably replace it. Boys’ needs, the bills and the mortgage took precedence.

The year of the brakes and heating oil that I wrote about in my About page. That was a tough one. I was weighing literally every cent. Would I have even contemplated spending sixty whole dollars on a pair of shoes?? Never in a million years. So how could I casually throw that amount of money away now?

So. I lasted the winter. It was far easier living through this 2019 winter than the 1998 (I think) winter of the brakes and heating oil because, in the big scheme of things, slightly chilly ankles in a house with ducted heating isn’t a patch on living in a house all winter with no heating.

My full-time wage from teaching means that I take home roughly $1/minute of teaching time. My price/wear of these shoes has plummeted, which makes me happy. Why?

If I’m thinking of buying something that isn’t a necessity, I work out how much face-to-face teaching time that item will cost me… and then I think of my least favourite class for that year. (Hello 8K English.) If I’ve put in an hour of putting up with 8K’s shenanigans to only get $30 per wear out of a pair of shoes, that’s definitely not a good use of my time. Change that to an hour of putting up with 8K equaling less than a dollar per wear, then I’ve got a lot more value for my time.

Anyway, these are the games I play. I feel like I can now discard the shoes whenever I feel like it. Every now and then I find more black spots on the floor that the shoes have shed, which reminds me to stick to my guns about not trusting online shopping for clothing and also to not buy anything at all that I don’t totally love.

Sometime this summer I’ll drop into the ugg boot outlet and buy a new pair of mid-calf boots with proper soles and I’ll be so happy.

It’s good to have something to look forward to!

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