How do I look?

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Quiz question of the day:

What’s something we all have, which can inspire both joy and loathing in all of us, but which we can’t live without?

Of course, no prizes for guessing: clothes.

A hotch-potch wardrobe

I’ve been mithering a bit about clothes lately.

In the past year, I’ve bought relatively few things to wear. But, if I’m honest, I feel like I’ve ended up with a ‘hotch potch’ of items. Most I have bought second-hand (and very good purchases they were too). Others were bought in a sale or via a clothing discount store such as HighStreetOutlet. As a result, I’ve maintained my frugal ways, but I never feel particularly stylish. Plus, I’d love to be a little more consistent about what I choose to wear and how I look.

How do I look?

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, I was grateful to have been given a copy of Inger D Kenobi’s How Do I Look: The Year I Stopped Shopping.

This entertaining book is a curious mix of memoir and commentary on fast-fashion,  consumerism and the ridiculous stories we tell ourselves about the clothes we wear (or which call to us from the shop window).

Challenged by a friend to join her in a “shop-stop” year, Kenobi resolved to avoid buying any new clothes for a whole 12 months. The book charts her journey from unintentional clothes buyer to chastened, mindful consumer. Along the way, she provides a number of “Emergency Shopping Guidelines.” These provide a ‘set of rules that will prevent us from making the same stupid shopping mistakes again, and again, and again.’

Emergency Shopping Guidelines

I thought it would be interesting to bring Kenobi’s rules together and to consider them in the light of my not-particularly-well-curated but minimal ‘capsule wardrobe’.

Don’t buy anything you can’t wear tomorrow

Well, I’ve failed at the first hurdle here. We all buy stuff to wear for a special occasion, although I try and avoid this.

In my experience, clothes bought for a particular event don’t always translate into ‘real life’. For my friend, Zoe’s, 50th birthday party in September, I bought a lovely pair of black trousers and floaty shirt to wear over a black camisole. To go with said outfit (which cost all of £11 from the charity shop), I purchased some suedette kitten heels from John Lewis. I wore them for 2.5 hours.

I haven’t worn the clothes since and have already sold the shoes….

Don’t buy anything you don’t need

How often have you gone out to buy a particular item, only to come back with something entirely different?

Here’s where ‘heart’ purchases often trump ‘head’ purchases. I do have the loveliest, seldom-worn but beautifully soft faux-fur jacket. It is absolutely gorgeous. I acquired it a long time ago when looking for something else in my local (now defunct) dress agency. I rarely wear it, but I keep it as something really special, knowing that I won’t wear it tomorrow (see above!) but will enjoy it during the holiday season.

These days, I’m much more inclined to think really hard about anything I buy. I keep a ‘wish list’ in Evernote, which helps me consider – slowly – if a want is also a need.

I also do a lot of research online. It’s easy to forget that there are so many (too many) places where you can buy what you need. A clever search can help you find what you need at the best price, so shop around.

You have to be you. Figure out who you are and dress accordingly

Oh, gosh. Who am I when it comes to what I wear?

Style consultants categorise women into a number of ‘boxes’. Are you an Audrey Hepburn ‘ingénue’ or more ‘sporty’ or ‘natural’ when it comes to your signature style?

Well, I’d love to fall into the ‘glamorous’ category – and really admire others who pull of this look – but that’s really not me.

Over the years, I have – with some considerable enthusiasm – declared myself to be an advocate of a particular brand, in an attempt to simplify and narrow down the available choices.

There was my short-lived (but fun while it lasted) Gudren Sjoden phase. My family pointed out that if you’re going to make this work (it’s quite ‘out there’ when it comes to style and colour), you have to go the whole hog.

There has also been my ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ phase. I am, after all, another Catherine Elizabeth. This clothing personality has been, arguably, my most enduring. I once spent the most I have ever spent on clothes (even more than my wedding dress) when I purchased an LK Bennett suit for an interview. I didn’t get the job, but (at least) I got the suit. Many years later, it’s still my ‘high days and holidays’ outfit when I need something super smart. And I wore it for my current job whose interview took place around a year ago.

My latest obsession is Cos. I love the Scandinavian simplicity and clean lines. I have yet to purchase anything.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

Oh, this is so true. You already know that I previously performed ‘plastic surgery’ on my credit card, so there is no risk that I will ever splurge on something I can’t afford. Indeed, I have spent so little on clothes in the last year that this has not been an issue. But I know it is for some of you.

Recently, a work colleague was describing to my husband that she had lots of clothes on which she had spent so much money, she was embarrassed to admit that she cut off the labels of the unworn items before giving them away. Let’s not be like this.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

I’m all for this and it works really well. Project 333 makes sense on so many levels, especially if you mostly shop at thrift stores (another of Kenobi’s Emergency Shopping Guidelines).

Here’s something I have noticed, however (and Kenobi observed this, too). Clothes worn often do actually wear out. This is where it helps to buy quality over quantity. Less but better is the way forward.

Invest in experiences, not possessions

Yes, yes and yes!

This is where we have to put clothes in their rightful place. Clothes can play a part in our experiences. Love to ski? You’ll need some kit. But they shouldn’t be an end in their own right. Clothes as ‘stuff’ have a negative impact, both on the environment and on our finances. So, let’s see them as a part of our overall day-to-day lives but not to the detriment of other things, which are way more important.

Change your hair, not your clothes

For someone who has limited options when it comes to hair (short, blow-dryed, that’s it), I can’t espouse this guideline. However, lots of women (especially) enjoy experimenting with different hair colours or styles (in her book, Kenobi reveals her expertise in plaiting, braiding and in ‘up-dos’). A colleague of mine rocks a wonderful short wig and looks amazing in it. But that’s not for me.

One of my own

Beware the Diderot effect

Remember those black trousers I bought for Zoe’s party? To wear them again, I would need more tops. This is an example of a phenomenon known as the Diderot Effect. This is where the purchase of one beautiful item leads to dissatisfaction with the other things you already own. In my case, I don’t own anything suitable to go with the trousers, so do I invest or let them go? This is something that Juliet Schor mentions in her book, The Overspent American, about which I wrote a post here.

Stop mithering

Since reading Kenobi’s little book, I’m glad to say that I’ve stopped mithering about clothes. But I think I need to be a bit more intentional – as in other areas of my life – when it comes to what I buy to wear.

And whilst Shakespeare wrote that ‘clothes maketh the man (woman)’, there is another truth that’s worth remembering. There are only some occasions in life when this really matters. How do I look? No-one really cares.


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Why I’m calling it a day with eBay

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When you’re in the early stages of decluttering, it’s very likely you’ll discover lots of near-perfect items (or ‘gently used’ ones), which easily be sold online.

From clothing and accessories to electronics or children’s toys, sites such as eBay can be a brilliant way of moving stuff along to a home where it will be used and enjoyed. Plus, you’ll make a bit of cash in the process.

For my part, I’ve been a member of eBay for almost exactly 15 years. In that time, I’ve sold far more than I’ve bought, although I have purchased a few things. And it’s true that some have been better than others….

My eBay dashboard

My eBay profile tells me that I have 284 ratings and a mint green star. When it comes to gamification, I really don’t care very much what colour it is, but that star suggests I’m doing OK.

Nonetheless, I have made some mistakes over the years. I share them here, so that you can avoid them if you’re considering selling via this channel. If you’re a well-established e-Bayer, read on and enjoy a wry smile or two at my expense!

Mistakes I’ve made

Selling

  • Wrong description  – I once listed a well-used but perfectly decent laptop, believing that the box my husband had given me was the actual box for the device. It wasn’t. Instead, I had used the box of the device that had superseded the one to be sold.Lo and behold, my poor buyer (who was tech-savvy when I am not) realised my mistake and we quickly reached an amicable solution: He kept the machine but we agreed a sensible price for what it actually was versus what I thought I’d sold….
  • Inadequate packaging – If you’re going to send something breakable, make sure you use a lot of packaging. I tried to send an Orla Kiely ceramic bread bin to a buyer.  It should have been triple-wrapped in a wodge of bubble wrap, lovingly encased in several boxes, before being parcelled up in brown paper (taped a gazillion times with sturdy parcel tape). Instead, I sent it with only scant wrapping and a prayer in would arrive in one piece. Of course, it didn’t. 

    I should have been more accomplished at this stage in my eBay career. Needless to say, my buyer was justifiably disappointed and I swiftly provided a full refund. Here’s where you get hit by a ‘double whammy;’ eBay still charged its commission.

  • Accepting a buyer’s plea to have me despatch a bulky and large item by courier was another example of ‘not a terribly good idea’. We owned an electric piano, which was already secondhand when it came to us, but we sold it for a reasonable price on the basis that this would be Collection Only.
    The problem came when I discovered our winning-bidder was in Brighton. Did she realise that Kenilworth to Brighton would be a round-trip of over 300 miles? Our buyer, however, had other ideas. If she paid, would I send the instrument? Reluctantly, I agreed to do it, but there followed a rather chaotic sequence of events.

    First of all, the piano had to be despatched in two large packages. Cue Julie Andrews singing ‘My Favourite Things’. These packages were, indeed, brown paper and tied up with string. They were also extremely heavy, exceeding both the courier’s weight and size guidelines. Still, we (buyer and me) agreed to take the risk.

    Off went the parcels and we waited to see what would happen. By some miracle, some days later – in two separate consignments – the piano arrived at its destination. It turned out my buyer had been a past contestant in the Eurovision Song Contest, so I was bemused to have been able to contribute to her potential future musical adventures.

  • Calculating postage costs can be problematic. You have to be very focussed when it comes to understanding not only weight, but also volume. eBay provides estimates and guidance on this, but you can have some ‘fun’ trying to weigh a bulky item. My usual trick is to balance a large mixing bowl on my kitchen scales, then place the item to be posted on top of that. This way, you can usually view the weight easily. Remember to weigh the item once it has been wrapped; packaging can add to weight and volume.
  • Finally, seeing other stuff to buy when I should have been focussing on the selling has also been a feature of my experience with eBay. This leads me onto Buying.

Buying

  • Getting too attached to an item is a foolhardy thing to do. Some years ago, a “pine” wardrobe – located just up the road – turned out to be a terrible bit of tat (I should have “viewed it, before bidding…). Don’t get into a bidding war. Assess your item, put in your maximum bid and walk away. If you win it, you’ll find out soon enough.

More recently, I bought something whose quality was inadequately described, resulted in a ‘to and fro’ dialogue with the seller to persuade them to accept the item as a return. To me, this felt like a case of obfuscation; the item was in very poor condition and I was dismayed to see this on unpacking it. Happily, I have been able to return it with the (reluctant) agreement of the seller. Let’s hope I get my money back!

  • Clothes can be a mixed blessing when you buy them via eBay. I do advocate second hand but I should point out that there are some caveats associated with this. There are a great many reputable commercials sellers on there (who also sell directly via their own websites) e.g. Carobethany whom you can trust, as well as many super sellers of their own stuff. Look carefully at their feedback if you’re going to buy and only purchase brands whose quality and fit you can rely on.

Taking a rain check

So, to coincide with the change of British weather, I’m taking a raincheck with eBay. For now. Since we all acquire stuff we don’t need, it’s likely I’ll return to it some time in the future. But, for moment, we’ll let the sun set over this useful but rather complex way of letting go of stuff.

What’s your best way to get rid of clutter? Do you simply let go via the charity shop or doorstep collection? Perhaps you prefer a local selling platform such as Facebook? Do please share below. It would be fantastic to know what works for you.


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Things I would tell my 18 year old self about money

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Earlier this week, GirlGuiding UK announced that the organisation would be introducing a new Guides’ badge, aimed at improving the financial literacy of teenagers. You can read about the badge (and other new ones) here.

Since I am not aware of any aspect of the Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum* in school that covers personal finance, I applaud the Guides for taking the initiative.

What would I tell my 18 year old self about money?

The Guides’ news got me thinking about what I’d tell my teenage self about money. I am actually 48 years old now. So, I’m 18+30, not ‘Club 18-30’. Ha!

30 years on from my coming of age, here are a few things I would tell my 18 year old self about money. I only wish I had taught myself these lessons earlier.

Always live on less than you own (and save the rest)

The 80:20 rule probably applies here. If you paid yourself 20% of your income as soon as your salary hit your bank account (and did this consistently from age 18), compound interest would do the rest.

When I spent a year in Switzerland, a fellow au-pair (Michelle) always sent cash back home for her pension. Her fantastic example was definitely one to follow. Michelle, I know you were destined to spend the rest of your life in Canada. If you’re reading this, I’d love to hear from you!

Get a rainy day fund

Grandma wasn’t wrong on this one. We all need an emergency fund and I’ve previously written about this to explain why. If you have debt and you haven’t got a ‘starter emergency fund’ then £1k is what you need while you’re paying down your debt.

If you’re debt free, then 3-6 months of expenses, stashed away in a rainy day fund, should cover most unexpected emergencies. Dear 18 year old self, if you don’t have an emergency fund, then Murphy’s Law will apply: what can go wrong will go wrong.

Yesterday, my mum told me that the source of a mysterious water leak in the parental home has finally been found. You can imagine how mum and dad felt when the kitchen floor had to come up. They’d have felt even worse if they didn’t have an Emergency Fund.

Know the power of compound interest

Interest rates move up and down over time. In my teens, interest rates were incredibly high (trebling at one point to a rate that almost crippled my parents when it came to their mortgage). Having had historically low rates in the UK for many years, borrowers have benefited over savers. Nonetheless, money invested wisely will grow and you’ll benefit from compound interest if you stick with it.

When you get the urge to splurge, distract yourself

Wait to buy whatever it is you think you need. Lie down until the feeling goes away (which it probably will). Control your impulses.

If you shop when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, then HALT! Run a bath, take a nap, call someone on the phone. Go for a walk.

Know your triggers and if you need an accountability partner, find a friend who’ll help you stick to your goals.

In case of emergency, break glass

Make it harder to buy whatever it is you want by making your money a little less accessible. I don’t mean putting your money behind glass (although I have read that some people do this with their starter emergency fund!). I just mean putting it a little more ‘out of reach’.

If cash burns a hole in your pocket, don’t carry cash. Also beware of “wave and pay” – it’s all too easy to flourish that card and up to £30 is gone in an instant.

Be intentional with your purchases

These days, if I do need to buy something, I usually agonise over it (especially when it’s something new and not second-hand). I have to say, I bore my family as I pore over the various options before deciding on whatever it is I need.

My husband has a trick for when you do need to choose something: 1) Find something suitable. 2) Find something equally suitable. 3) Buy the second item you found. Job done!

Oh, and never pay full price. Especially for things like clothes.

Be prepared to walk away

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation here, but I’d suggest that we Brits don’t care for negotiation when it comes to making significant purchases. We find the idea of haggling terribly awkward, even embarrassing. So, we avoid it.

That said, there have been a few times in my life when I have haggled successfully. One such time was the purchase of a new bed. I had a fixed amount to spend and I could not (and would not) go over this.

We found exactly what we wanted; an oak bed frame and memory foam mattress. The price of the two items together exceeded my budget by just under £50. So, I offered the salesman what I had. He wasn’t prepared accept my offer, so with my (then) little girl at my knee, we thanked him and headed for the exit. Just as I was pulling the door open to leave, the salesman was at my side. And we had a deal.

Second-hand is infinitely preferable

Some things must be bought new. Mattresses (see above); car seats (unless you know where they’ve come from); bicycle helmets; and riding hats (to give you a few examples) should really be bought new. However, so much of what we need can be bought second-hand. I’ve written about this extensively, so I won’t labour the point, but I really mean it.

Let go of your sense of entitlement

Just because X has Y doesn’t mean that Y is right for you. You may not be able to afford Y and that’s 100% OK.

In her book, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, Juliet Schor exhorts us to “Beware prosperous referents.”

It may be that your girlfriends are remodelling their kitchens, having extensions built or are driving round in fabulous cars. Good for them. Chances are, they’ve put the home improvements on the mortgage and are paying over the odds for their vehicles through expensive car loans. Suddenly, being like them doesn’t seem such a good idea after all.

Get on a written budget

If you want to manage anything effectively, you can’t just wing it. Imagine you’re managing a project involving myriad stakeholders and various work streams. Chances are you’ll use a Gantt chart or project management tool to help you. So, why wouldn’t you do the same for your money?

My preferred ‘modus operandii’ is my dual account budget spreadsheet. I have tried apps (see My First Month with EveryDollar), but time and time again, I revert to my trusty spreadsheet. I like to see everything in one place and my Excel sheet does this just fine. Let me know if you want a copy of it!

Credit is like sex

Replying to my question on Twitter, “What would you tell your 18 year old self about money?” Tarra Jackson replied: Credit is Like Sex. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And if you do, use protection (a budget).

Great answer, Tarra!

Better still, perform plastic surgery on your credit card. Cheaper than botox, you’ll look a whole lot healthier (financially) if you do this. This way, you can also tell your cash, “You can stay money.”

Don’t move up in house before you’ve decluttered the one you already own

One of the reasons excuses we all give when talking about moving house is that ‘we’ve outgrown our current house.’

Is it that our actual family has grown (so, we really do need more bedrooms)? Or is it that we’ve accumulated so much stuff that we need to take stock, purge and reset for the life we now live?

Only recently did we finally donate a collection of children’s books that might not otherwise have seen the light of day for some considerable time. Apply this logic to a whole house and you might save yourself a significant amount of money by not moving.

A minimalist mindset can help you win with money

Recently, I’ve been working on a short eBook on this theme: I do believe that adopting a minimalist mindset can help you with personal finance. When you stop going after things you don’t need (and let go of anything that no longer adds value), you’ll change your spending habits. And that’s something I’d love to have told my 18 year old self.

One final thing I’d definitely tell my 18 year old self is this: If you didn’t get your Girl Guide Savers badge, join as a helper and help someone else achieve hers.

*Teachers, if I’m wrong, then please do tell me. I really don’t think our 16 year old has had any such education at school, but I’m open to learning that I am mistaken.


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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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