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My Efforts to Drive Down Fuel Costs

PetrolBetween work, school runs, shopping, and days out, fuel for the car often seems to be one of the biggest drains on my purse. Now that prices are going up again, my car’s ability to burn money is only getting stronger.

As a result I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep my petrol costs down, and I’ve found a few ways of pulling this off. Some of the most useful tips I can recommend are:

Find the Cheapest Seller

It’s tempting to pop into the nearest petrol station or the most convenient; the one attached to the supermarket where you do your shopping, or the one you pass every day on the way home from work. As long as you’re not using too much petrol to travel out of your way and get to it, however, it is definitely better to pay some attention to prices and go for the cheapest. Signing up to this website for free is a handy way to compare petrol prices within a certain distance of your home. The differences per litre may be a penny or two, but over multiple litres and multiple fill-ups you may be surprised how much it mounts up.

Use Special Offers

Using the petrol station attached to the supermarket where you shop isn’t always a bad thing. Apart from the fact supermarket petrol stations are often competitively priced, there is often an opportunity to take advantage of special offers in order to save. Unfortunately one of the biggest such offers, a discount on fuel with Tesco Clubcard points, ended a while ago. However, there is still a chance to collect loyalty points on fuel purchases with many supermarkets – effectively a discount, if a small one, when you later cash those points in. With the amount of petrol most people buy each year, those points can really build up. Sometimes temporary offers are introduced for loyalty card holders or people who shop and fill up at the same time, such as a loyalty points boost or simple discount, so it is always worth watching for those to appear.

Fuel Cashback Credit Cards

Some credit cards give specific cashback on fuel purchases, and the end result of this is pretty much the same as a discount. The cashback rate is generally only a few percent but, like loyalty points and price differences, this can really mount up over time. However, make sure that you pay back the credit card balance in time to avoid interest, which will easily cancel out the savings and even outweigh them, leaving you worse off. A direct debit to make sure the balance gets repaid each month is definitely the way to go, as it takes human error out of the equation completely.

Why I’m Not Brand Loyal

I may have spoken about my love of loyalty cards in the past, but as far as I am concerned “loyalty” is just part of the name. In fact, I decided long ago to give up any ideas of brand loyalty. The great majority of companies don’t really care about their customers except in a mercenary sense, and I believe that I and my fellow customers are better off if we take the same view of them.

Getting Offers

When it comes to things like energy providers, insurance companies, and so on, switching as soon as a contract ends is one of the most oft-repeated pieces of advice. Personally, I’ve no plans to give up repeating it, because it’s not difficult to do, the savings can be big, and yet a lot of people don’t really bother. Almost none of these companies are interested in rewarding customer loyalty, just in getting new customers. When your contract runs out or comes up for renewal, prices often rise massively because they know a lot of people will just blindly stick with them. It’s far better to take the time to go to another company fishing for new custom and get a brand new introductory discount.

Off-the-Shelf Products

If I’m not loyal to my utility providers and the like, I am certainly not loyal when buying ordinary off-the-shelf products in my weekly shop. I know some people who have developed a fierce loyalty to a Brand A’s version of Product B, and won’t even look at any other brand because they think it won’t be the same. Obviously that’s their choice, but this approach is alien to me. I may like Brand A’s tomato ketchup, for example, but if their competitor Brand B is on special offer and is much cheaper I have no qualms about buying that instead – and probably stocking up a bit. Most branded items or even supermarket own brands are pretty similar in terms of quality, so it’s pretty safe to buy on price as long as you don’t cross clear quality boundaries such as buying a value product instead of a standard. If you have never had the brand before, though, it might be worth trying it before you go so far as to stock up, just to make sure it doesn’t happen to be a brand you actively dislike.

When I Make Exceptions

I don’t make many exceptions to this rule. I may appear to be loyal to certain brands, but it’s usually just because I consistently seem to get the best value out of them. However, sometimes I make an exception because I find a brand is worth a small price increase for the extra quality. For example, this is often the case with items like electronics where buying cheap can easily be false economy (though professional and user reviews are a great way to check whether this is the case before you buy). In terms of everyday items, it is important to note that this doesn’t mean just buying the cheapest version of everything. For example, there are some products where I will happily buy supermarket value brands, and other products where I find that value brands and even some “standard-level” items are simply not worth getting at any price.

The Importance of Being a Complainer

Unhappy CustomerI’ve recently come to appreciate that complaining is something you should always do. Well, it is when you have had a problem with a product or service you have paid good money for at any rate.

Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t be that customer that every business dreads – the one that always complains about any little thing they can find. But if you have had a genuine problem and believe it is valid grounds to complain, then you shouldn’t just let it go. A lot of people simply don’t bother to complain for one reason or another, but there are a couple of very good reasons why you should:

Rectify the Problem

If the product or the service you have received is faulty, not fit for purpose, not as described, or otherwise not up to scratch, then you have essentially lost out on the price you paid for it. Even if it’s not very much, all those times you let something go because there is not enough money in it can really add up. If you complain, then the very least you will get is the situation fixed. This will normally happen in one of three ways:

  1. A Refund: There. You have your money back. You can either spend it elsewhere without paying twice, or let the whole thing go without it leaving you out of pocket.

  2. An Exchange: Now you have what you wanted, and indeed what you should have had in the first place. You did have a problem and had essentially wasted your money, but now the problem has gone and everything is fine.

  3. A Partial Refund: If the product or service you received was not completely useless, you may get some of your money back to compensate you for the fact it wasn’t as it should have been. Now you have essentially got a discount and, once again, everything is probably fine.

Compensation

A lot of companies thrive on repeat business, and many appreciate that it is well worth putting in a bit of extra effort to avoid an unhappy customer and turn them back into happy customers. This is even more true in the days when a simple online review can have a very real impact on a company’s reputation. For this reason, if you have a genuine problem and complain about it, a lot of companies will not only rectify the situation but compensate you for the inconvenience. Vouchers, free products, and cash are not uncommon – all for taking a little effort to complain about a genuine and legitimate problem.

The Joy of Samples

SamplesLately, I’ve been discovering the joy of samples. Actually, there are a few quite different things I’ve been experimenting with that could all come under the term “samples.” Some of the stuff I’ve got out of it has been wonderfully cheap, and some has been completely free!

Sample Sales

Sample sales can be a great way to treat yourself to great things on the cheap. A lot of major and minor fashion brands hold or take part in sample sales, where items that might be ex-display or samples sent to other businesses will be sold off cheaply. Even some of the fancy, normally expensive brands can sell stuff very cheaply indeed at a sample sale – though this varies quite a bit between different brands and sales. If there are any sample sales taking place near you, it could be well worth popping along and see if you can add something to your wardrobe that you wouldn’t normally treat yourself to.

Samples Online

Manufacturers of things like cosmetics and fragrances often create small samples for people to test their wares, or to be used as customer testers in shops. Unused surplus stock of these samples, which are often in much plainer packaging but contain the same product inside, frequently make their way into the hands of bargain outlets who then sell them cheaply online. A great place to find samples is eBay, where such businesses find it easy to shift samples en masse to bargain hunters around the country. I normally have a quick look at the seller’s feedback before going for items in plain packaging, though, just to make sure there aren’t a load of unhappy customers questioning the authenticity of the item.

Latest Free Stuff

I’ve spoken about my love of free stuff before (but then again, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t love free stuff). The website Latest Free Stuff (they have an app as well) lists all the free samples they can find, along with anything else free they manage to dig up. There’s also some things on there to be cautious about, such as short-lived free trials designed to hook you into paid subscriptions, but all the same there are some truly great products you can get for free. The site is thoroughly worth keeping an eye on, as all kinds of companies offer great products for free in the hope that some of the recipients will be so impressed they’ll start adding it to their shopping baskets regularly.

Easy Recipes That Taste More Expensive Than They Are

Feeding a family isn’t usually cheap and it’s a lot of effort, but it has to be done and my partner and I like it to be done well. That’s why we’ve built up a small arsenal of recipes which are dead easy, very cheap, but nice enough hat you would think they must be more complex and expensive A couple of our favourites are:

Tortilla Pizzas

One of the best-loved treats for Tortilla Pizzaa special occasion is ordering a pizza. Shop-bought pizzas are also a nice treat, but not quite on the same level. Homemade pizzas are best of all, but they require messing around with dough or buying comparatively overpriced ready made bases.

Then there’s the tortilla pizza. It’s healthier than most pizzas (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it healthy, but it’s an improvement) and can be very cheap. All you do is use a tortilla wrap as a pizza base. Spread it with tomato puree or any convenient tomato sauce, sprinkle it with cheese, add your choice of topping, and stick in the oven or under the grill. As well as being cheap it takes no time at all, and is ideal for a quick spur-of-the-moment treat when you can’t justify splashing out.

Toad in the Hole

This is one of those traditional family favourites that always goes down well, and it’s a lot simpler than many people give it credit for. It’s just a dish full of Yorkshire pudding batter with some sausages placed inside it (you might want to part-cook them for ten minutes before putting them in the batter), baked for half an hour on 200 degrees/gas mark 6.

Instant Yorkshire Pudding batter will do fine, and makes this a very cheap, quick and easy recipe. Alternatively, making the batter from scratch isn’t difficult or expensive either if you prefer. Just thoroughly mix together half a pint (300ml) milk, four ounces (about 115g) flour and an egg. The cheapest way to buy sausages is usually in large frozen packs. Try putting some dried herbs in the batter or a layer of fried onions under the sausages to make it seam like a particularly fancy toad-in-the-hole with almost no extra cost.

Cucumber Soup

Alright, this one isn’t really a family recipe at all, or even something you’re likely to eat on a normal day. What it definitely is, though, is an easy and very cheap recipe that comes across as something expensive and fancy. This makes it very good for showing off to guests, especially if you’re fond of holding a barbecue in the summer.

Cucumber soup involves no cooking and can be made with very few ingredients – though you can improvise with all sorts of things if you prefer. All you do is peel a couple of medium cucumbers and pop them in a blender with some mint and 75mls cream, sour cream or even yoghurt. Add salt and pepper to taste along with any herbs you might like to include, and blend until smooth. Decant into small glasses, chill, then serve as an ever-so-fancy refreshing starter that cost you very little time or effort.

Family Days Out – Getting Cheaper Entry

FamilyNow the weather’s warming up, it’s time to start thinking about getting the kids out of the house and taking them places. For now, this is just something for the odd weekend. In a couple of months, the summer holidays will arrive and I’ll no doubt be desperate to find places to go and things to do that can keep them entertained.

But many attractions have entry fees that can be quite off-putting, especially for those who were hoping to visit a few places over the coming warmer months. Fortunately, there are a few tricks I like to use to get in cheaper.

Tesco Clubcard Vouchers

You may remember that a little while ago I posted about how I’d discovered the wonders of supermarket loyalty cards. Well one advantage of the Tesco Clubcard is that you can turn your points into day out vouchers for use at a range of attractions, places and activities. Best of all, in most cases you get vouchers that are worth much more than the original points – often four times as much, meaning you can pay a £20 entry fee with just £5 worth of vouchers. If you want to enjoy days out, this is one of the most cost-effective ways of using the points.

Groupon and Wowcher

“Daily deal” sites, most prominently Groupon and Wowcher, often have discounted entry to local attractions and events among their offers. Groupon seems to be better for this than Wowcher in my experience, perhaps because of the fact it has a much bigger focus on offering people local deals. Some of these offers can be far cheaper than the standard price, providing a very cheap way to experience days out around your area. The kind of things you will see include one-off or annual events, historical and heritage attractions, and activity days to name just a few.

Family Tickets and Group Discounts

Sadly, it’s not always possible to access a special offer. If there’s a specific place you really want to go, then you might want to see if there’s any way you can make use of family tickets or group discounts. Suppose you were going somewhere alone with one child, and a family ticket is for two adults and two children. The group doesn’t have to be an actual family to qualify for a family ticket, so see whether a friend would like to bring their child and split the discounted family ticket cost with you. Clubbing together with friends can also potentially unlock other group discount options. Remember also that a family tickets are usually for up to two adults and two children. If you have two adults and one child, you can still qualify and might still find it cheaper than individual costs.

Why I Love Loyalty Cards

Oh why did I take so long to discover the humble loyalty card? Despite my frugal tendencies, I never really paid them much attention. Sometimes I wondered if they were really worthwhile, but it wasn’t until a few months ago I finally decided it was time to find out first hand whether they were any good. And since I’m not one to do things by halves, I instantly signed up for several of them, covering all the shops that get my custom regularly.

So now I have a few months’ experience with loyalty cards, what are the results? In short, I love them. There are two reasons I’ve found them thoroughly worthwhile:

The Points

These are the main draws of loyalty cards. You get points when you shop using your card, usually at a rate of one point per pound spent. These can then be spent in-store instead of money when you have amassed a certain amount.

Some cards work a bit differently. For example, points on the Co-operative membership card are paid out as money instead of used as store credit, with payments made periodically and the value of points depending on the company’s profits. Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, does follow the store credit model but uses the Nectar Card, which is not specific to their stores. This means you can also earn points at certain other retailers and through other avenues like purchasing on eBay.

Considering these points have tiny values I was always sceptical about whether this was really worth the trouble, and this is part of the reason it took me so long to get around to signing up. Honestly, though, it’s surprising how quickly these points can mount up. I’ve already had a small free shop from the supermarket that I buy the bulk of my needs from, and am on my way to having enough points for another.

The Vouchers

Points aren’t the only reward that loyalty card holders get. You will also receive vouchers, either dispensed at the checkout or in the post. Some shops favour giving you vouchers linked to products that you regularly buy, either offering you a discount or giving you bonus points. Others prefer to give you money off your next shop.

Some of the vouchers are for more expensive versions of the things I buy, and these I generally ignore. However, it’s nice to get extra points or money off the things I get every week, like milk or eggs. I also seem to get a voucher giving me either £1 or £1.50 off my next shop once every week. They are subject to a minimum spend (usually just £10) and only valid for a week, but most of the time I have a use for them and this is definitely a nice bonus which could mount up to £50 or £60 in a year.

Better Ways to Save for Your Kids

Child SavingsI always believe that saving for your kids’ future is a useful thing on multiple levels. A lot of people quite rightly do it because even a modest sum put aside in their early years can grow and provide them with a useful start in life when they reach adulthood. However, I always believe that it is even more useful if your kids feel involved in the saving process themselves, as it is a great way to teach them financial responsibility from an early age.

Better Savings

Kids’ savings accounts are tax-free (except in some circumstances) and often benefit from interest rates that are superior to adult accounts. However, many kids have savings in accounts with interest rates which looked good to their parents, who were more familiar with adult accounts, but aren’t as good as they could be. Often, this is down to changes in the market. As with my own savings accounts, I make a point of looking around roughly once a year to see if a better deal is available elsewhere.

Children’s bonds can also be a useful way to save for your kids’ future. In fact, bonds are sometimes a better option for children than adults. Bonds can (but don’t always) offer better interest than savings accounts and are considered very stable as an investment, but the catch is that the money invested is tied up for a few years until the bond reaches maturity. For adults, this can be a big disadvantage, but children won’t usually be accessing their savings until they reach adulthood anyway.

Involving Your Children

I try to ensure my children feel involved with their savings wherever possible. Hopefully, this should help them learn about financial responsibility and how to manage their savings so that, when they turn 18, they will be ready to use the money responsibly.

When choosing or changing an account, I always involve them in the process. I explain what they should be looking for and what the catches to any accounts that don’t seem ideal are. This not only helps them feel involved but actively teaches them how to choose the best bank account.

A lot of children’s accounts send out regular materials targeted at children to help them feel engaged with the savings process. I like these accounts, and think they are a useful way to get kids thinking about how their money can grow. At the same time, I’m careful to ensure they never get fooled by a tempting giveaway that masks a poor interest rate.

Get the Kids’ Christmas Presents for Less

PresentsDecember is now all but upon us, and it brings with it a certain holiday that is quite a big deal to a lot of people.

Most people agree that Christmas is the most expensive time of year, but if they are not parents they don’t know the half of it! Making sure that the kids can wake up on Christmas morning overjoyed at what Father Christmas has brought them is one of the most rewarding parts of being a parent, but it is most definitely not one of the cheapest! There is nothing on Earth that can make Christmas with kids into a cheap affair, but there are a few ways to help contain the cost. In order to get through the season without completely breaking the bank, try the following few steps:

Online Shopping

When looking for bargains these days, one of the most fundamental rules is to use the internet. It’s not 100% guaranteed that items online will be cheaper, but it is very often the case. Online businesses are cheaper to run and can therefore be more competitive with their prices, and most high street chains also have online shops so if they do offer the best price you will probably find it online anyway. Use shopping comparison sites such as Froogle (Google’s shopping search engine) to make the hunt easier. When shopping online, make sure you order in good time to be sure items will be delivered before the big day.

Cashback

It is likely that you will end up buying at least some presents online, so you should seriously consider using a cashback website. Sites such as Top Cashback and Quidco give you a little money back each time you buy something from a supported store, and they support a wide range of online retailers. During such a busy shopping season as Christmas, you might be surprised how much your little bits of cashback will add up, and this will bring down the effective cost of your Christmas shopping.

Be Realistic

Some parents feel under pressure to give their kids the perfect Christmas and buy everything on their list (or at least everything that is practical, realistic and exists outside of their favourite TV show). Do yourself a favour and accept that you should not put yourself under that pressure in the first place. If a child doesn’t get every little thing on their list, they will be far too busy enjoying all the great new toys they did get to be terribly disappointed. Your bank account, meanwhile, will probably look a great deal healthier.

Keep the Kids Entertained for Free This Half Term

It hardly seems a week since the children went back to school, but now half term is here again. This is a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with the kids. The problem is that it’s often difficult to find things to do during that quality time, and many options seem designed to prey on parents’ desperation to keep the kids happy through hefty ticket prices and entry fees. However, there are a number of free things you can do this half term to keep the kids happy. Some of the options on offer include:

A Trip to the Park

ParkIt’s easy to forget just how much some kids like taking a trip to the local park, and if you travel slightly further afield to introduce them to a new park then they can get even more excited. The problem with this method, of course, is that it’s only usually fun for your child. For you, it’s time spent sitting on a bench keeping half an eye on your child until they finally get bored and go home. If boredom is a big problem for you when you take a trip to the park, try arranging to go with some friends who also have children. Having someone to talk to can make a huge difference for the better.

Museums

A lot of small local museums are free, and even some of the big London ones such as the British museum don’t charge an entry fee (though they do appreciate donations). If you want an activity with an educational aspect for half term, this is the ideal solution. Many smaller local museums are dedicated to local history, or to things that are relevant to the area’s history so it can be a great way for children to learn about the past of the places around them. Search engines and specialist websites can help you find museums near you. Be warned, however; entry may be free but there is often a gift shop full of colourful goodies that will probably grab the children’s attention.

Board Games

Sometimes you can squeeze a surprising amount of fun out of just staying home. If you have a stack of dusty board games in the cupboard, it could be time to dust them off. This might not sound like the most exciting option, but once you get started you and your children alike will probably find that you’ve forgotten how much fun simple board games can be. If your children have a competitive streak but can also take losing well, you may want to make things more exciting for them by stringing multiple board games into a competition. Whoever wins the most games wins the contest.