Making room for giving back

Ollie

One of the key tenets of minimalism is the elimination of things that no longer add value, in order to make way for the things that do. When you’re not chasing ‘the next thing’ all the time, you have the chance to reflect on how to live your life.

Last year, one question I asked myself was whether or not I could make some space to give back to the community. Could I add value in someone else’s life?

Pets as Therapy

For some time, I had been aware of the charity Pets as Therapy. Established 35 years ago, Pets as Therapy exists to provide joy, comfort and companionship to people who appreciate being able to engage with a friendly and sociable pet. Usually, the visits are to establishments where a pet isn’t normally present, such as a residential home, nursing home, hospice, school or even a prison.

‘PAT’ Dogs

Around once a term, the ‘PAT Dogs’ (as they are known) visit the library of the university where I work. The students love meeting the dogs (who come in all shapes and sizes) and their visit has become a much-anticipated feature in the academic year calendar.

(I must say that when I was at university, we had a library cat. He was named, appropriately, LC.)

Last summer, I popped over to check out the PAT dogs for myself and talked to their owners. I was curious as to whether or not our loving but impish little Cockapoo might have a suitable temperament to be accepted as a ‘PAT dog’ himself. In fact, the only way to find out was to request an assessment, so we arranged this with the local area
co-ordinator, Kate.

Our assessment

Pets as Therapy protocols require the assessment to be completed away from the family home. This is understandable; if you’re going to be visiting an establishment with your pet, you need to be able to demonstrate that your pooch can behave himself in public.

We agreed to meet at Pets at Home. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Pets at Home is the superstore for all things related to pets. From cat food to guinea pigs, Pets at Home has it all.

Kate took us through a series of assessments, ticking off the criteria on the charity’s application form as we went along. Would Ollie walk nicely to heel? How would he respond to a stranger stroking him (including his tail). Would he react badly to Kate dropping a walking stick behind him?

We spent around 40 minutes in the store. Ollie was good as gold, although the sound of the squeaky toys was almost too much to bear. Seated at my feet, he would lean over slightly, ears alert, straining to hear what was going on. It was as though he was saying, “I would like a squeaky toy!!”

The outcome

One application, two references and some time later, we were accepted to be PAT volunteers. As soon as I heard the news, I was back onto area co-ordinator, Kate, to see if there was an establishment we could visit. There were three, one of which was just a 15 minute walk from our house.

Our nursing home establishment

The establishment Kate suggested was a small nursing home whose PAT dog had sadly died. As a result, the home was awaiting a new volunteer.

I went along (without dog) to find out more and met the nursing home’s activities co-ordinator, Joy. Over a cup of coffee and biscuit (thanks, Chef!), we agreed that Ollie and I would visit for an hour, once a fortnight. Joy explained that I should expect to be known as “Ollie’s mom” and that Ollie might – from time-to-time – be invited as VIP to special events.

Our first visit

For our first visit, there was snow on the ground, as we in the midst of the awful weather wrought by ‘the beast from the East’. Joy had wondered if we might cancel, but we were determined to make it, albeit we had to remove wellies and other winter clothing on arrival, leaving a heap of belongings in the hall.

We had top billing as visitors that morning; Joy had even printed a flyer (with a picture of a little black cockapoo that looked very much like Ollie) to remind people that we were coming.

Top of the bill

Our first gathering in the lounge was really lovely. I have to confess to feeling a bit nervous but our visit brought people together, as residents came down from their rooms to see what all the fuss was about.

Some were too frail to come down that morning, notably Hilda (104 years old!). So, instead, for part of our time, we went and had a chat with people wherever they happened to be. It was so lovely to see the delight on people’s faces when they realised that I had brought Ollie to see them. To my great relief, Ollie wasn’t overwhelmed; he rather enjoying all the attention (especially as this included dog treats that I had brought with us).

Getting into a routine

Now that we are ‘regulars’, we continue to have our morning coffee gathering, but we also make time to pop and visit those who aren’t able to come down to the lounge. To my surprise, we occasionally bump into people we know whose parents are staying at the home for a short period of respite.

As promised, we (Ollie) were special VIP guests at the Easter fair when “Ollie” helped with the raffle and “Ollie’s mom” enjoyed meeting family members who had come to visit residents.

Mission accomplished

Now that I have time to step back and muse on the subject, I ask myself if we are making a difference and achieving our intended aim. I suppose only the residents at the nursing home can answer that. But there’s something else: I always come away feeling that we did the right thing. Being kind to others is one of the best things we can do. It’s said that when you do good, you’ll feel good. I really agree with that.


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My first month with EveryDollar

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I’ve written before that we follow a ‘dual account budgeting‘ approach when it comes to personal finance. This simply means running two current accounts in parallel.

One account is for all regular payments (e.g. our household standing orders and direct debits). The other is for all other “discretionary spending” for other items in the budget that will vary, so which require a higher degree of control.

Simplify your finances

By running two accounts, managing our monthly budget becomes much simpler. The first account is topped up on pay day, then it pretty much runs itself.

This leaves only the second account to manage whose spending categories are reduced to a small sub-set of headings, as follows:

  • Food/groceries
  • Transportation
  • Mobile phones (I’m on a pay-and-go arrangement, not a contract)
  • Lifestyle (costs associated with hobbies, pet care, hairdressing, clothing etc.)

So far, I’ve normally used a spreadsheet to manage our finances. However, as a regular listener to Dave Ramsey’s podcast, I was curious as to whether or not the EveryDollar app would work for us.

What’s different about EveryDollar?

EveryDollar is designed around a zero-based budget. That is, every month you decide (in advance) how you’re going to allocate money to each of your particular spending categories.

The name stems from Dave Ramsey’s approach to budgeting: if you give every dollar a name and tell your cash where to go, you’ll win with money.

In my case, I need an app called ‘EveryPound’ but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it! So, EveryDollar it is!

Creating your budget

When creating your budget, the idea is that you input your income, then allocate your expenditure by category so that the latter totals the former. It’s a bit like a contemporary take on double-entry book keeping: both income and expenditure have to balance.

This allows you to:

  • Pay down debt
  • Allocate money for savings, including a sinking fund
  • Plan for upcoming monthly spending
  • Stick to your budget

I was already creating a zero-based budget with my own spreadsheet, but the EveryDollar app has a simple and visually-appealing user interface, so I decided to run both systems in parallel throughout March/April to see which one I preferred.

What’s a sinking fund?

One option you can select when setting your budget in the app is to establish a sinking fund. This is essentially a mini savings “pot”  for things you know you’ll be paying for at some point in the year. It’s like a virtual piggy bank.

In our case, that’s £125 per month towards the annual service for our family car (plus anything else car-related)/, as well as a fund for Christmas. I trust that £1500 in total will be more than enough for both vehicle and Santa, but we’ll see!

By establishing a sinking fund, you don’t have to raid your emergency fund if, for example, you suddenly need a complete new set of tyres. You can also budget throughout the year for bills such as a your annual travel insurance policy or car insurance (cheaper than paying monthly).

With EveryDollar, I wasn’t sure if I needed to account for the £125 as a transaction (in which case, would this be “income” or an “expense”?). So, I experimented and found that the app just accounted for the £125 going into the ‘fund’; I didn’t have to record it as a transaction at all.

A slice of the cake

Another feature of EveryDollar is that it shows you what proportion of the whole a particular budget heading represents.

So, if you’re nerdy like me and you want to check what percentage of your total budget you’re devoting to a particular category, you can check. The app tells you what proportion of the ‘cake’ you’ve planned to spend, as well as how much you have remaining. That’s esimportant if you’re paying down debt and are intentionally on a tight budget.

By splitting my expenditure across two accounts, it makes it a little more tricky to work out what I’m spending as a proportion of the whole on each category.

I had a mini moment of panic when I saw the percentage apportioned to food and groceries, but when I did the maths (across the two accounts), I was relieved to see that what I’d allocated was less than 10% of the whole.

If you’re curious what Ramsey recommends, you can find a guide on the EveryDollar website.

Linking up your accounts

One thing I can’t do is link up the EveryDollar app’ to our bank account. To do this, you need to pay for EveryDollarPlus (and I don’t believe this would work across the Pond).

Instead, I track my spending by recording a transaction every time one hits my account. This way, I can keep a close eye on that particular category and check what I’ve got left.

A new month

As the new month rolled around, you’d expect me to have done the budget for April. However, I’m waiting until pay day (the third week of the month) to prepare my budget for April/May.

I know that some EveryDollar users are comfortable running their budget to align with the calendar month, but my ‘fiscal month’ is 24th to 23rd. This means my monthly headings are going to lag behind; until 24 April, we’ll still be in “March”. Maybe that’s a good thing. It still feels like winter!

Setting an intention

Of course, one of the aims of the app is modify users’ spending habits. Right now, the jury’s out. So, I’m going to carry on with my comparison of app versus spreadsheet. Let’s see, as the rest of April unfolds.

Do you have a favourite way of managing your budget? Perhaps you use an app like EveryDollar or have tried my dual account budgeting approach. Let me know by replying to the post, below!


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A change of identity

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I’m migrating my MidlandsMinimalist website over to CatherineElizabethGordon.com

I’ll be making some little changes over the next few days, as I switch from the old to new domain name, but things should otherwise remain as they are.

The key focus of the blog remains: Minimalism and simple living are still at the top of my agenda, as well as topics including:

  • Decluttering
  • The minimalist kitchen
  • Digital detox
  • Wellbeing
  • Budgeting
  • Ethical consumerism
  • Sustainable living
  • And more!

With over 1000 followers the blog, now’s a great time to move forward using my own name instead of my original blog title. So, thank you for following! I really appreciate it.

Come over and say hi on Twitter – I’m @CathElizGordon (but you’ll still see me there if you follow @MidsMinimalist) and on Instagram, I’m @catherineelizabethgordon


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Frugal recipes for the week’s end

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Last weekend, we weren’t able to secure a Sunday morning food delivery slot, so we scheduled an order to arrive the following day.

We normally eke out our food stocks on the day immediately before our online shopping arrives. This usually involves doing something creative with eggs; throwing together a pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce; or reverting to baked potatoes.

Last weekend, however, there were two days of seemingly meagre rations: both Saturday and Sunday. Could we survive?

This was where the power of the World Wide Web and a well-stocked spice cupboard came in handy. Being a bit creative, as well as understanding what might go together, meant that we were able to hang on an extra day.

Eking it out meant that we:

  • Saved money
  • Used up what we had (less food waste)
  • Were able to clear out the fridge and defrost the freezer
  • Didn’t waste time doing a top-up shop

Here’s what I made:

Cauliflower curry

Why is it that the humble cauliflower seems always to be one of the few remaining vegetables lurking in the fridge?

I have previously made a cauliflower pizza base several times (but didn’t like it much) and I’ve also done cauliflower rice. Neither appealed on this occasion. What I did have were a few sorry looking potatoes, 2/3 bag of spinach and said cauliflower.

Here’s what I made:

https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/curried-cauli-potatoes-chickpeas-spinach/

Thank you, Jamie!

I really enjoyed this recipe and would make it again. Although I didn’t have a tin of chickpeas to throw in, this didn’t matter. I also needed to cook the dish for longer than the recipe suggested, otherwise the potatoes would have been too firm.

Carrot and lentil soup

This is a recipe I’ve made before, as other recipes often call for one or two carrots, leaving you with a bag of several more.

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/2089/spiced-carrot-and-lentil-soup

This time, however, I decided to lose the spices (they aren’t a favourite when it comes to feeding children) so this is what I cooked instead:

https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/helen-s-lentil-carrot-soup/

Random Ragu

Finally, I concocted my own ‘Random Ragu’ for the meat-eaters in the family. If you know how to cook a basic ragu or have ever made spaghetti bolognese, then you’ll be able to produce Random Ragu by using the same basic principles.

I threw in:

Chopped onion
Mix of fresh and dried herbs

Mix of pork mince and beef mince
Chopped tomatoes
A squirt of tomato puree
A splash of Worcestershire Sauce
About 500ml stock

After softening the onion in a little oil, I added the meat, turning up the heat until it had changed colour.

I then added all the rest of the ingredients, bringing the pot back up to a simmer, before cooking slowly until it was done.

I whizzed about half of the sauce with a stick blender to create a smoother, blended ragu, then returned this to the pot to serve over hot pasta, with some grated grana padano over the top.

I almost forgot pudding!

Rice pudding with lemon zest, made the old fashioned way (not out of a tin) was our frugal pudding.

This just needs short grain pudding rice, sugar, milk, lemon zest… and a whole lot of patience, as you’re tempted to stick a spoon into the pan and taste before it’s ready.

Eke-it-out days

I enjoyed my trial and error day of ‘eke-it-out’ cooking. Perhaps you could have a go yourself?

Do you have any fail-safe standby recipes for eke-it-out days? What are your store-cupboard go-to ingredients? Do share by replying to this post, below!


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An update on going car free

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I recently wrote about my first few days of being car-free, which coincided with somewhat challenging weather conditions and me starting a new job.

Things have settled down a little, so I thought it would be fun to update you on what going car-free has meant to me.

Patience is a virtue

‘Hurry up and wait’ is the order of the day when ‘public’ is your main mode of transport. Sometimes, at the end of a day, you turn up at the interchange, jump on a bus and are home within half an hour. Other days, you wait (and wait…and wait).

You have to learn to be laid-back about punctuality or be prepared set off very early if you’re keen to arrive at your destination on time.

Sometimes, the bus doesn’t turn up at all. “Yes,” says the cheerily responsive person representing the bus company on Twitter: “I can see the bus isn’t operating but I don’t know why…” Patience is definitely a virtue.

Every cloud….

Every cloud has a silver lining. If you have to wait, then it’s a chance to read (even if you’re standing at a bus stop in the snow).

Reading on the bus is an absolute joy. So far, I’ve read a whole novel, courtesy of Warwickshire Libraries’ cleverly-named “Libby” app and am almost through my second. Mind you, it’s important to be able to see out of the window in order not to become travel sick. You don’t want to arrive at your destination feeling a bit queasy.

Book recommendations

Bus-bound book recommendations, in case you’re interested, are:

Alex Hourston: Love after Love (a writer who is new to me; I loved her terrific book but was sad about the ending!)

Lian Moriarty: Truly, Madly, Guilty (utterly magnificent story-telling and so brilliantly crafted – a must read!)

I’m also reading:

Virginia Baily: Early One Morning (a WI reading group book – our novel for the month of April).

Podcasts?

I thought I might also enjoy podcasts while travelling (and it’s clear that people do), but the traffic noise would mean having to turn up the volume higher than would be safe for my ears (and I value my hearing). So, I leave the podcasts for other moment. But I must tell you that I have laughed out load to Fi Glover and Jane Garvey’s Fortunately podcast, so do check it out (Episode 42 is a good place to start).

A trip down memory lane

Travelling by bus takes me back in time. I remember going by double-decker down to the market to buy eggs for my mum when I couldn’t have been more than about 11 years old. The fare (in those days) was, “Two, please!” That was 2 pence!!!

With or without eggs (possibly a hazard!), riding upstairs on a double-decker is as fun as it always was. There’s that sense of perilously careering towards obstacles as the bus hurtles along, the branches from overhanging trees smacking against the sides of the vehicle, as it continues on its journey.

A birds eye view

Just as you take in more of your surroundings when you cycle, so you get a different perspective on the world when you take the bus (especially on the upper deck). You can peek into building plots and see the development take shape, whilst also enjoying a birds eye view of walled gardens that would otherwise be hidden from view.

Baggage and footwear

A word about baggage. Back-packs work where handbags don’t, especially when you’re walking 0.8 miles each way between home and bus stop, carrying a combination of lunch, laptop or heels). Talking of shoes, I soon invested in a pair of Nike trainers. They’re light and super comfy and also double up as jogging shoes when I need to trot between buildings on the university campus where I work. Walking to and from the bus must be making me fitter!

The downside?

This all sounds highly convivial. But, is there a downside?

It’s true that there have been one or two occasions when our family car hasn’t been available when I needed it. Quite soon after I gave up my car, my daughter and I both had dental appointments in different places, which required some carefully timed logistics to make it all work. In this case, I pre-booked a taxi. Whilst this was a little expensive, another bus-bound friend and colleague reminded me that the times when you’ll actually need to get a taxi under those circumstances are few and far between. She was right. We’ve only had to do this once.

What next?

Now that British Summertime is upon us and we’ve put the clocks forward by an hour, I’ll be able to cycle to work again, especially when the weather is warmer. So, I’ll be able to combine my public transport adventures with a little energetic pedal power.

And do I miss the car? Not a bit.


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How to avoid decluttering going too far

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In my most recent Community newsletter, I described an interesting article in the New Zealand Herald which had recently caught my eye.

In anticipation of The Minimalists‘ ‘Less is Now’ tour dates, journalist Chris Schulz had decided to explore if espousing a minimalist lifestyle might make a difference in his life. Did he need stuff that had been lying around in cupboards untouched for years? Of course not. But Schulz’ article does sound a cautionary tale: it is possible to go too far.

Schulz realises that you might get so carried away with decluttering that you potentially let go of items that might be of value in future years. So, here are a few ideas on how to avoid taking your enthusiasm for decluttering going a step too far.

Take it slowly

You’re less likely to relinquish a valued treasure if you take things slowly. Always start with the non-contentious, non-emotive stuff: the easy to declutter. As you peel away the layers, you’ll become increasingly intentional and deliberate about what you keep and what you get rid of. Take your time to decide on the things that may have sentimental value.

Don’t unclutter other people’s stuff

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Don’t unclutter other people’s stuff. You can model decluttering behaviours and will – undoubtedly – inspire those around you. But don’t make decisions about belongings that aren’t yours. For shared items, you can certainly moot the idea of letting go, but this has to be a joint decision.

Create a treasures box

For years, I dragged around a plastic trunk with my so-called treasures inside. Shaped like a treasure chest and in bright primary colours, this storage container was so heavy that we had to heave it into our loft when we move into our current home. I seldom looked inside it.

As part of my final decluttering, I got to grips with exactly what was in that container. What remains is a very small (shoe-box sized) collection of some lovely sentimental items that I will never part with. Our daughter keeps a similar box; again, this is very small.

Become your own curator

Adopt the mindset of a curator. Your home isn’t a museum, but imagine you have the role of the creative lead on a fabulous project. What selected items would mean the most to you? Which items would form a part of an artistic or historical collection were you to create a display about your own life? What has meaning and adds value in your home? What is frankly just a collection of miscellaneous tat? Keep and enjoy the former; declutter the latter.

Consider your loved ones

We all know that grown-up children don’t want their baby boomer parents’ stuff. But is there a particular item you’d like to keep to pass onto your daughter or granddaughter in future years? On my mother’s side of the family, we love a pretty ring. Keeping a ring (or another small piece of jewellery) may be a lovely thing to do; it might give someone pleasure in the future.

Store and save virtually

An image of something will spark a conversation or trigger a memory that you may enjoy in the future. As I’ve said previously, your treasured possessions aren’t memories. But images of items you once owned may suffice if you want to recall a piece of art you created as a teenager or remember something crafted by a loved one.

Bring some of your personality into the workplace

I’ve recently joined a new department to take up a new post within the organisation where I work. I am privileged to have my own office, so this provides an opportunity to display one or two decorative items that wouldn’t otherwise have a place at home.

My maternal grandmother was a prolific craftswoman. Among her creations are a number of small pictures, intricate and beautifully crafted with embroidery. I have had 3 of these little pictures hung on my office wall; they are a talking point for people who come to see me and they provide a little visual reminder of family, as I work at my desk.

Another friend uses her grandmother’s favourite china cup and saucer as a scented candle, which she keeps on her kitchen table.

Stop when you’re not sure what to unclutter next

Unless you are staging your home for sale (when home life takes on an artificial impression of familial perfection), it’s fine to take some time out or to stop altogether. You might take a pause or cease decluttering completely. Good for you. After all, it’s worth harking back to the reasons we started this in the first place – our ‘why’ or purpose. Living with less allows us to be so much more. So, get out there and enjoy! That’s why we do it in the first place.


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Going car free

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Reading about others’ experiences of going car-free is always inspiring.

Advocates of two wheels

In her book, You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too, Tammy Strobel writes about the positive benefits of cycling around her local community. 

More recently, in her article for The New York Times, Elaisha Stokes describes touchingly how her cycling adventures in NYC helped her through a sad and extremely challenging period in her life.

Getting around under one’s own steam

We recently took the decision to go down to one car,  with the idea that I’d be able to use my bicycle a little more regularly. Indeed, there have already been days during the winter months when I’ve cycled to work. It’s not far: 4.88 miles there and a long, uphill 4.88 miles home.

My alternative mode of transport would be the bus for days when neither the weather nor my legs would countenance transport on two wheels. There’s a regular service to and from work, so the bus and cycling seem to be a good combination.

When the ‘beast’ roared

For me, 1 March was the first day in a new job. It was also one of my first car-free days. However, on this particular Thursday, the UK was in the midst of the ‘beast from the east’, a dramatic and unusually severe weather event that plunged the nation into sub-zero temperatures. On top of this, ‘Storm Emma’ clashed with the polar vortex to create widespread disruption across much of the country.

The Met Office recorded plummeting temperatures as low as -15C whilst the snow continued to fall, resulting in significant delays on the roads, with some devastating fatalities and severe disruption for many.

My homeward journey

On this particular day (the joint second coldest March day on record), our cockapoo, Ollie, was in doggie day-care. My plan was to return home from work by bus, alighting earlier than usual to collect him from our dog walker’s home (she lives on the east side of town; we’re on the south side). Ollie and I would then walk the rest of the way home together.

The reality was a little different.

Trudging through the storm

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After alighting the bus, as planned, I descended a steep hill before walking up the other side of the valley to fetch Ollie.  This 10-minute walk was along snow-covered pavements, with the biting wind beginning to pick up, making progress was more challenging than normal.

Following a few brief words of grateful thanks, I grabbed Ollie to catch another bus that was due imminently. This one would take a route across town, dropping us nearer to home. This worked well; the bus arrived within minutes and both pooch and I were somewhat protected from the elements. By this time, the snow was really coming down blizzard-style and the traffic had built up.

Eventually, after proceeding through Kenilworth in very slow-moving traffic, we got off at our usual stop on the south side of town.

We then took our 10-minute walk to our house in what I can only describe as Siberian conditions. The whole trek took just under 2 hours… for a 5-mile journey.

What have I done?!!

This experience forced me to remind myself why we’d made the decision to relinquish our second vehicle:

  • No car payment, road tax, fuel costs, insurance or servicing fees
  • Better for the environment
  • An efficient and cost-effective bus service runs between home and work
  • Cycling to work is fun!
  • We really don’t need two cars, having previously resolved that our teen would take the bus to school for the remainder of her secondary schooling

Day 2

The next day (Friday) proved to be a little more straightforward. There was no doggie daycare to factor in, which made my journey simpler. In spite of the overnight covering of new snow, I jumped on the morning bus at 07:55, arriving in my office at 08:18. That’s more like it!

So, I’m going to carry on. We’re doing this for the right reasons. But it didn’t feel so at the time.

Have you taken the decision to ‘trade down’ in transportation? Perhaps you cycle, use an electric vehicle or have a public transport alternative to a car that works for you? I’d love to know how you get around if you, like me, are now car free!


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