Aims for the rest of 2017!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

We're now at June, halfway through the year, and if I'd made New Years Resolutions then now would be the time that I'd be reviewing them and wondering how the wheels managed to fall off so quickly.

I had no energy or thoughts of resolutions on 1 January as we had only bought our house a few weeks earlier, and my brain was filled with plans for bathroom refurbishment, furniture buying, and general decorating. So now seems like a good time to look back at the past six months, and look forward to the next six, and work out what I'd like to do between now and December.

Continue mortgage overpayments
Yes with the year halfway through we’re creeping ever closer to my aim to drop under £155k owed on our house before January. Last month's overpayment was a little on the small side, a week off work at the end of April meant that I didn’t has as many work expenses to claim back in the first week of May. But June’s overpayment is already looking quite healthy, so we might be on target without too much difficulty!
Next time I'm in Rome I might know Italian!

Improve my abysmal Italian
You might have seen from my Twitter feed recently that I’ve become a little bit addicted to, a website that lets you tune in to radio stations around the world. I love it because all the green dots scattered across the world are radio stations, with small dots for single radio channels, and larger ones for a cluster of stations that you can tune in to. 

When I started using it I had fun bouncing around the world, listening to stations in France, Denmark, Russia, China, Japan and Malaysia, before finishing up with half an hour of Israeli music. But since then I’ve settled in to listening to Italian radio. I tend to bounce around a few stations based in Rome, but there’s also Radio Day, which is a station based in Frosinone, the province my great-grandfather is from. However my Italian (despite my ancestry) is extremely poor. I can count to ten, ask for a table at a restaurant, and say please and thank you (the absolutely basics when you’re on holiday). I keep finding myself listening to adverts and news sections without knowing what’s going on (although that doesn’t bother me with the adverts quite so much). 

So I’ve decided to try and improve my Italian for the next six months. I’ve signed up to DuoLingo with the aim to practise for ten minutes a day, every day. If I actually manage to maintain this for the next six months then I’ll be shocked but pleased XD

Plan for Christmas better
I know I’m not the only one who thinks about this. My birthday is exactly six weeks before Christmas, so I normally don’t worry about it until my birthday has been and gone. Last year that really didn’t work as we completed our house purchase in early December, so I had to buy a lot of last-minute gifts for family and friends as I just hadn’t had the time or energy to think about it.

This year I’m planning on being at least slightly more organised. I’d like to have a list of what I’m buying people by the end of October, and then I can buy bits and pieces in the following weeks. This is also the first year we’ve been in the house for Christmas and our first year as a married couple, so me and my husband need to work out what we want to do for the day (difficult as he doesn’t celebrate Christmas and doesn’t really see the point of it). 

Walk more
Getting in to the swing of a much longer commute, and all the problems that go with it, has taken me longer than I thought it would. After a week of lots of driving, coupled with my husband having train problems, and the need to dedicate time to the wedding and decorating the house, overall my weekends tend to involve only leaving the house to buy food. A day out over the bank holiday weekend reminded me that it's good to get out of the house for something other than essentials (work and food). I have a book of walks around Essex that I dug out and had a look, and I've now identified a few walks in the area that are three miles or more and will be good to do in the future. Now I just need to get the energy for them, and encourage husband to come with me!

Mortgage Overpayment - May 2017

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The end of the month means overpayment time for our mortgage! After April's bumper overpayment I knew that May was going to look measly in comparison, but I've really taken my eye off the ball this month, and haven't found other sources to replace the large Quidco payments that won't be coming in any more.

May's overpayment is £66.97, which although it's not as good as I would like, is still just over my target of overpaying £60 a month. I didn't have a great deal of success with eBay this month, but I did count up my 20p and copper penny jars, which gave me £12 in total.

I also got a tiny payment from Amazon for eBook sales back in March. I published two eBooks on women in history back in 2014, and every so often I get a few sales that give me a little trickle of pennies from Amazon. May's payout was £0.76, which I think mostly came from March as it was Women's History Month and there's always a little spike in activity then.

The rest of the money was made up of our basic overpayment (£30) and my expenses from April, which were paid in the middle of May.

So although it wasn't well over the odds, I'm still pleased that we're just over target, and hopefully in June I'll get back in to my money saving mojo and get a bit closer to the magical £100!

Charity Shop Haul - May 2017

Saturday, 3 June 2017

I've been a devotee of charity shops for months now, as they were my primary source of crockery for our wedding. One thing I've said to my husband is that now we've had the wedding, I'm looking forward to it consuming less of my daily life. Even thought we were only having a small wedding, the need to find as much of our crockery in charity shops as possible, meant that I was just going in and out of them to look at the bric-a-brac shelves, before moving on to the next one. I was also trying to save as much money towards it as possible, so if I wasn't buying something for the wedding, I felt that it was wasted money.

But now I can go in to a charity shop and look for things that aren't teapots and cups! I'm also enjoying the loosening of the purse strings, although not too much since we still have to buy a lot of things for the house. May was my first month of being able to buy things, and I'm quite happy with my little haul for the month!

I got a really lovely blue long-sleeved top from a Cancer Research UK shop. The material is super soft, and it's from Marks and Spencers so it's really good quality, although thankfully this top doesn't like like it's aimed at the over-sixties XD It'll be good for either work or home, but it's a little thin so I may not get away with it in the winter unless I layer it with both a vest underneath and a tunic over the top.

I also spotted a few skirts that I liked, but if I wasn't overawed with them then I didn't buy them. I've come to regret letting one of them go though as the material was lovely and soft, and I'm sure I would have found something to wear with it if I had tried, so I think I need to be a little bolder about buying such things when I see them!

I've been struggling to get through my history reads recently, and I think it's because I need to wind my brain down a little bit. Sometimes when work is busy and life is hectic, you just need some easy-read to fiction to distract you from everything else.

I'm always a bit "meh" about historical fiction, as I tend to dislike the lack of proper context, or just all-out poor use of history (you can probably guess which author in particular I'm thinking of here). Nowadays I tend to by historical fiction set in the Georgian period as it's a point of history I know very little about, and so I find very little to annoy me in books XD So "How to Marry a Marquis" seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and I then added to it with "Mrs Fytton's Country Life" and "The Runaway Princess", neither of which are historical but both of which seem to come under the heading of "easy fiction". However I have yet to read any of these, as I also bought "What Would Mary Berry Do?" by Claire Sandy, and it was so good that I read it in two and a half days!

Despite aiming to get just fiction books I couldn't help but also purchase "Princesses: The Daughters of George III" as the hardback copy was only £5 in Oxfam. I read a really good biography of George III and his family last year, and I've wanted to read more on his daughters for a while now, so I'm hoping this will prove to be an equally interesting book.

Anything Else?
I was hoping to be able to buy a DVD or two that we could save to one side for a future date night, but despite lots of searching I couldn't find any that I wanted to buy. I'm a bit picky with films, and I tend to find that the ones in charity shops are not brilliant films anyway (otherwise people would keep the DVD to watch again!) I also kept my eye out for any kitchenwares (cake tins and storage pots being the two main ones) but again, nothing really caught my eye.

But that's okay, I don't want to go mad in my first month of buying, we'll see what June brings!

Lace Handkerchief - Something Borrowed

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

In the final part of my mini wedding series, I want to talk about my "something borrowed". After deciding on my something old, something new, and something blue, my borrowed became a little more difficult. I was thinking of borrowing a piece of jewellery, but the neckline of my dress was already fairly high, and I don't really know anyone who wears a lot of bracelets.
Photo by Maria Carrington Photography

In the end my in-laws helped me, without me even mentioning it to them. My mother-in-law carried a special piece of her new husband's family history down the aisle, and they decided to pass it on to me. This beautiful lace handkerchief was a gift to my father-in-law's mother. She married her husband in the 1940s, at the height of World War 2. As a sailor my father-in-law's father was shipped off to various parts of the world during the course of the war, and at one point he was sent to Belgium, leaving behind his now-pregnant wife.

When news came that his wife had given birth to a son, my father-in-law, the young husband decided to buy his wife a beautiful Belgian lace handkerchief from Bruges. I have no idea how he managed to keep it from getting mucky or damaged in the following weeks, but at some point he was allowed home to visit his wife and new baby son, and give her his beautiful present.

It became a treasured family heirloom, and when my mother-in-law married in to the family it was given to her to use as her "something borrowed". It's been carefully stored away ever since, taken on every house move in the following years, until our wedding led to my mother-in-law retrieving it from it's safe place. I was very touched when they asked me to carry it as my something borrowed, and had it tucked away safely in my dress when I walked down the aisle to my new husband. Although that happy couple from the 1940s weren't able to be there on our special day, a little piece of their family history was. One day I hope it'll be passed down to another bride coming in to the family.

Engagement Ring - Something Old

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Following on from my recent wedding posts on my Something Blue and Something New, today I've written about my Something Old! I've mentioned before that the old rhyme "Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue" took a while to return to my head. This led to a small amount of panic on my part when I realised I'd forgotten it, but in the end my something old was the easiest choice, as I went for my beautiful engagement ring. 
Big hand, little hand, engagement ring!

Me and my now-husband had quite a time finding it. He was living in Leigh-on-Sea at the time, so during one of my weekend visits to see him we decided to book out a Saturday morning to go ring shopping. There’s two very nice jewellers in Leigh itself, and if they failed then we could get the train to Southend and continue our search there. My OH had originally considered getting a ring custom made and had researched stones for it, but in the end he was so worried about getting the “wrong” ring that he insisted he needed my help.

The shops we visited in Leigh had some very nice rings, but nothing that really jumped out at me. So we went on to Southend, and spent a good few hours wandering around. We visited the big chain shops, we popped in to little pawn shops and independent jewellers. There were plenty of nice rings, but none that I could really see as being my engagement ring.

I think we were at the point of giving up and trying again somewhere else at some other weekend when we went down a side road and found another shop. As we stood looking in the window one particular ring jumped out at me. It was labelled as an “antique”, and looked so pretty in the window that I had to go in and try it on. My main fear was that it would be too small, as I’d read online that it’s quite difficult to increase ring size, but happily it fit fine (slightly too big, as I’d later find out, but I’d rather have the size reduced than increased!)

I’ve since worked out that the ring probably dates from the 1920s as I’ve found similar ones on Etsy marked as such. When I eventually took it to a jeweller in Cambridge they asked me if it was a family heirloom as they thought it was an old ring (it also turned out that some of the stones were damaged, so I have to be careful with it!), and although I don’t know the history of it, it was lovely to have a genuinely old ring as my “something old” to wear down the aisle!

Wedding Dress- Something New

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Isn't the wedding dress the main thing that people focus on when talking about weddings with the prospective bride? I'm pretty sure the two main questions I was asked in the run-up to mine were "Have you picked a date? Have you bought your dress?" in that specific order. For me I figured that my dress would be the easiest "something new" that I'd be able to think of, so it held a little extra symbolism for me as I walked down the aisle.

Photo by Maria Carrington Photography
If you've planned your wedding over the course of two years and saved up enough money for it, then spend when you want on your dress! For me though it was a case of necessity, I needed to find a dress for under £300. I didn't even bother trying to make appointments in any of the bridal shops around Cambridge and Essex, because I knew that a budget of £300 would raise eyebrows and a "Nope, can't be done" comment. Instead I looked to the high street, where some well-known names cater to those of us who have a more modest budget requirement for their bridal gown.

Sadly BHS went bankrupt while I was doing my search, I had actually identified a dress on their website that I was mentally placing as "second option" since I liked it, but wasn't sure it would suit me. At only £150 it would have been well under my planned budget and I could have put the money to something else, but it wasn't to be. (Incidentally, has anyone pointed out to M&S that they've now got a potential market to move in to, I bet they'd do some lovely simple dresses that were quite affordable!)
Photo by Maria Carrington Photography

I had a look at Debenhams, who have a whole wedding section that covers brides, grooms and bridesmaids clothing! But although there were some very nice dresses on their site, including modern styles and vintage styles, there just wasn't anything in particular that jumped out at me.

Last but not least there was Monsoon! When it comes to regular clothing they are a bit on the pricey side, but I'd been told that they did nice wedding dresses that wouldn't break the budget, so I decided to give them a look.

It ended up being quite a difficult choice as there were several that I liked! In the end I bought the gorgeous "Carlotta" bridal dress, and managed to find a 10% discount code online that meant I saved a little bit as it only just fell within the £300 budget. Because I'd bought it from a shop it looked a bit difficult to get it adjusted as I needed, in the end my mother-in-law had to rush to the rescue with needle and thread to stop me tripping over it! But I absolutely loved the dress, I got a lot of lovely compliments about it, and I really wish I had an excuse to wear it all over again!

Wedding Shoes - Something Blue

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue! With only a few weeks to go until my wedding these words finally popped in to my head, and I realised that I was might struggle to fill all the requirements!

In the end my something old and something new were relatively easy, and will be covered in future blog posts. But it was something borrowed and something blue that were the real problems. My future in-laws solved "something borrowed" for me, I carried a little piece of my fiance's family history down the aisle with me on my wedding day, before returning it to my mother-in-law.

Photo by Maria Carrington Photography
So that just left something blue. I'd been planning on buying blue converse for some time and using
those as my something blue. But the problem with being a woman of average height (I'm slightly over 5 foot 5) is that my wedding dress was a bit too long, and I couldn't get it altered as I didn't buy it from a proper wedding shop. That meant I had to bite the bullet, give up on my idea of being a Converse bride, and get some shoes to make me a little taller, and hopefully lift up the hem of my dress a bit.

The only problem was actually finding them. I'm not the best shopper, especially when it comes to shoes. I wear hiking boots most of the time, with my dark red converse when the boots aren't feasible, or smart black flats when I'm taking part in an event at work. I didn't really know where to look, and with time starting to run out I took to Facebook in a call for help! A friend on there pointed me towards Irregular Choice, who do some really amazing shoes, but sadly a lot of them were out of my budget, and also looked a little impossible for me to actually walk in.

A Google browse introduced me to Ruby Shoo, and after a long browse I finally thought I'd found the ones I wanted. But when I went to buy them they only had them in one rather large size, they were last season's shoes and were no longer being sold!

eBay then came to the rescue! Not only did I manage to find the ones I wanted in my size, but I got them a bit cheaper than others listed because the seller had spelled the company as "Ruby Shoes", they weren't coming up on an eBay search but were showing via Google shopping!
I'm not one for heels and these are definitely higher than I'm used to at the best of times! My work colleagues thought it was great fun to see me tottering around the office in them as I learned to walk (slowly and carefully) in high heels, and learned how to hold myself standing up so my feet would hurt less. I even wore them in the kitchen while I did the cooking.

But after a week and a half of practising I knew I wouldn't be able to manage the whole wedding in them, I just wasn't used to it, and eleven days wasn't enough for me to get used to them.

I got my blue converse too, and had two something blues on my wedding day! What was your something blue?

Why we're overpaying our mortgage

Sunday, 14 May 2017

You may have noticed from some of my posts that since buying our first home back in December, me and my husband have been overpaying our mortgage. We deliberately built a £30 monthly overpayment in to our budget when we were originally planning a mortgage, and this is then topped up by cashback from Quidco, counting up money from penny jars, setting aside my expenses from work, or selling stuff we don’t use or need on eBay. My aim is to be able to double that £30 every month, and so far I’ve managed to hit that target consistently!

Telling people we’re overpaying generally leads to them going “Oh that’s a good idea!” followed by a pause and then “…but why when interest rates are so low?” It’s a good question, I certainly don’t know anyone offline that’s doing this as regularly, but it’s something we were both keen on doing for a variety of reasons.

1. We both hate debt

I still have a student loan, because like many students who graduated in 2008 I found it very difficult to get a well-paid job straight off the bat. Instead I found myself as the proud owner of two degrees and a job as a cashier in a supermarket, followed by various part-time contracts and an attempt at self-employment until I landed my first full-time role at the age of 24. But I don’t like being in debt, and neither does my husband. Having a debt of £160,000 is quite scary when you think about it, and given the uncertainty in the economy (especially with Brexit) we’d like to pay off extra while we can, before interest rates start going up!

2. Reducing the LTV

We found it difficult to get a mortgage in the first place because my current role is a contract. Admittedly at two years and with guaranteed full-time work it’s better than a zero-hours role, but it’s technically temporary nonetheless. We had a decent deposit saved up by my OH, which gave us an LTV of 85% (LTV is Loan to Value ratio, so how much you’re borrowing compared to the value of the house. We had a 15% deposit, so our LTV was 85%). This really helped us get a good mortgage rate despite my contract situation, and taught us a valuable lesson about how important a decent deposit can be. We have a 5 year fixed rate, by the time we’re due to re-mortgage I’ll probably have a stint of maternity leave which will have affected my earning potential, and given the risks to the economy we suspect that rules about mortgages will be significantly tighter. So reducing our LTV will hopefully help us in the long run, and might also make it easier to move up a step on the ladder when the time comes for us to find a bigger house.

3. It’s seriously addictive

I have a spread sheet that tracks, among other things, the daily amount of interest earned, the total amount we’ve paid per month, and the amount we owe to the bank. It’s set up for the next 5 years with our standard monthly payment, and then I can type in how much we’ve overpaid in a particular month and it will recalculate everything. I’m not going to lie, it’s really addictive. As soon as I send my expenses form in to work I make a note of the total, then when I go home I type it in to the spread sheet to see the effect. Same with filling up a bag of change, or getting a notification from Quidco that we can cashout.

The effect so far has only encouraged me to keep going. When we first got our mortgage we were earning £12.01 a day in interest. We would have hit £155,000 owed in May 2018, and would have dropped under £150,000 in September 2019. You'd think that we would need to be overpaying hundreds of pounds every month to make a difference.

So far (it’s only May after all, and we made our first overpayment in January) we’ve overpaid by £490.88. We’re now due to fall under the £155k mark in February 2018 (although my aim is to hit it by December), and will be below £150k in July 2018. Our daily interest rate is currently £11.88 (still a huge amount per day I know!), and will fall below £11.50 a day in October 2018.

It just goes to show that you don’t need thousands in the bank to pay off your mortgage, just small regular payments can make a big difference!

Mortgage Overpayment - April 2017

Friday, 5 May 2017

Yes, it's true, despite spending April getting married and then going on honeymoon, we managed to make a mortgage overpayment at the end of the month! 
Who lives in a house like this? XD

Actually we managed to hit a new record in April as we overpaid £206.26!! Quite a bit more than I was anticipating, I thought we'd be lucky to hit £100 this month as all our energy and attention was going on the wedding. I was even eyeing up my change jars early in the month as I was sure I'd need to have a count up just to be able to send off a reasonable amount.

However Quidco once again stepped in to save my metaphorical bacon. I received a payout of just over £21 for buying our buildings insurance through them back in November. You need to have buildings insurance when you exchange contracts on your house purchase, this payment had been pending for a while and it was nice to finally get it.

Then out of nowhere I received confirmation that my cashback for signing up with our broadband provider had arrived, a whole £100! I'd nearly forgotten to go through Quidco in the first place. If I'd missed out on this then I would have been quite annoyed. Normally it takes months for cashback to be paid, so getting this in around 6 weeks is extremely quick and was a very pleasant surprise!

I also had a healthy expenses payment of just over £43 from work, I had to buy some special envelopes for some bits we were posting out so that helped bump that up too.

I don't have any big payments left pending in Quidco, just smaller amounts from Argos and Currys from buying bits and pieces for the house, which are mostly due in May and June. I think my next expenses payment will be smaller too as I've been off work for a week. But my penny jar is looking very full, so May might be a good time to count it up and pay it in!

Wedding - One Week Later!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

This time last week I was getting ready for my wedding! My Other Half proposed to me last May on a holiday to Rome, and my desire to get married on his next birthday (our anniversary sadly fell on a week day) meant that we had just under a year to plan and arrange everything (and save up for it).

We decided to get married at the Great Dunmow Maltings as it was a nice small venue (we only had 40 people we wanted to invite), very affordable, and they were very flexible about what we could do for catering. Plus we could have the ceremony and the reception in the same venue, which was an added bonus since we had guests with small children who wouldn't want to shuffle them in to car seats for a short drive somewhere else.

My Mum suggested that we have an afternoon tea for the reception. Me and Jon aren't big party/dance people (and I don't drink) so having a long evening dinner and dancing thing really wasn't something we wanted to go with. Plus we have quite a few family members and friends with dietary requirements (gluten free and dairy free being the two main ones), so being able to let them pick and choose what they wanted to eat was the easiest way to ensure that they felt welcome, and wouldn't feel that they had to say "no thank you" to our invitation. My Mum did an amazing job sorting out all the food, including spending weeks testing different gluten-free scone recipes (my Dad is now a bit sick of the sight of scones), and baking them and cakes in the run-up to the event. My in-laws sourced all the drinks, and did a great job as everyone managed to find something they wanted, from a nice glass of bubbly through to a selection of soft drinks for the non-drinkers.

The afternoon tea thing also gave us the opportunity to spend a lot of time sourcing vintage china. Between both families we've been through charity shops, junk shops and eBay collecting all manner of pieces. My mother-in-law even found a lovely teapot (not vintage but still gorgeous) with a lavender pattern while she and my father-in-law were on holiday in Canada! She managed to get it home in her suitcase without damaging it, and it's now sitting happily on my kitchen shelf.

We also wanted to source some handmade items where our budget allowed. In the end the four things we managed to get were our wedding rings (mine from Nikki Stark Jewellery and Jon's from Grow With The Grain), the boutonnieres from Alana Phoenix & Co, and our dried confetti flowers from Shelsley Herbs & Flowers, who was brilliant and posted them by special delivery when we bought them a bit too close to our wedding date! Being a former Etsy seller myself, it was great to be able to get a few things from small creative businesses, and every shop was lovely to deal with.

Our lovely photographer was Maria Carrington, who was great to work with as she's seen lots of weddings and was a very calming presence. I don't have the photos from her yet, so she'll get her own little post in a few weeks once we've seen the shots and picked a few to show on here!

We generally had an absolutely fantastic day. It was lovely to have so many people we loved be able to share it with us, despite some of the distances there were to travel! We'd recommend every single business that I've linked to on here, as they all helped make our special day one to remember!

Mortgage Overpayment - March 2017

Monday, 17 April 2017

Given that we're now well in to April this post is a little late. But that's not because it's bad news! Actually March was very good for overpaying, in total we managed to throw an extra £129.50 at the mortgage!

A big chunk of this was from Quidco as I got a hefty cashback payout from taking out my breakdown cover with the AA through them. Not being particularly technically minded I find it quite reassuring to know that if I lose a tyre then I just have to make one phonecall and competent help will be on the way. The money was actually meant to be confirmed in February but ended up being delayed, so it was nice to get it in March instead.

Another sizable donation was from my work expenses. My OP in April is already going to be be quite large thanks to extra expenses, but in March I had to buy a very large box of teabags as well as a lot of milk, I tend to be the first person getting through the door in the morning so I generally need milk for my tea before anyone else.

I'm already collecting together the figures for April, and let's just say that if the months continues as it started then I'll be very happy with the overpayment at the end of it!

Review: Jack's Gelato in Cambridge

Friday, 14 April 2017

Last year I made a terrible mistake. Despite my colleague telling me how good they were, I never bought anything from “6” ice cream shop on Bene’t Street in Cambridge. Then they closed down, and winter was spent passing by an empty shop, wishing I’d got round to trying it.

Lovely simple design for the cups
So it was wonderful to walk past the same building at lunch time on Tuesday and find that a new ice cream business has taken over the space! Jack’s Gelato is well-known around Cambridge, he’s normally found serving ice cream through portable freezers around the streets of the city, as well as at festivals and fairs. Now he’s got a new shop, and it’s officially opened, complete with an actual ice cream machine at the counter so in the future you can watch it being made!

Since I was passing by I decided to have a look at the sign outside. Different flavours are on offer each day (you can see a list each day on his Twitter account), and I had to stop when my eyes caught sight of the words “Mint Choc Chip”, “Burnt Sugar and Salt”, and…”Chocolate Orange Sorbet”!

The problem I normally have with chocolate ice cream is that while it’s delicious, it generally makes me feel a bit sick about halfway through the first scoop. Great for making sure you don’t overindulge, but it generally means I have to steer clear of chocolate, otherwise I feel like I’m wasting my money. On last year’s trip to Rome I stuck firmly with hazelnut ice cream and lemon sorbet, rather than risk feeling ill while I was trying to stare at tourist attractions.

However the sound of chocolate orange sorbet was just far too tempting for me to give it a miss, so I got a small pot. The guy behind the counter (who wasn’t Jack) was very chatty and friendly, and happy to answer my questions about the new shop. I was warned that the sorbet was still very soft as it had only recently been made, but sorbet is a bit softer than ice cream anyway, and it wasn’t dreadfully hot so I knew it would last.
So delicious I could eat it all day!

Chocolate orange tends to be a bit of a marmite flavour, people either love it or hate. I’ll happily eat a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, but my other half wouldn’t (he’s the same with chocolate mint though). I think it’s because it’s very easy to get the orange side of it wrong, either it doesn’t taste of orange at all, or there’s too much and it overpowers the chocolate.

In this case though the balance was perfect. The chocolate looked dark and tasted very chocolatey, but had none of the bitterness of very dark chocolate. Likewise the orange was a lovely note within the chocolate, it was noticeable but not excessive, and because the orange was adding the extra sweetness to the sorbet it wasn’t overly sugary, so I didn’t feel sick after eating it! In fact I couldn’t eat it fast enough, I overloaded my tiny spoon a few times and felt highly disappointed when I reached the end of the pot. I'd give this six stars out of five, were I operating a star rating on this blog.

If you’ve never been to the kind of live event that Jack has been catering to before now, then you MUST get down to his new shop. Take a big spoon with you, you’re going to need it!

Recipe - Chicken and Parma Ham Pasta

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Following on from the success of my chicken and chorizo pasta recipe, I tried another new recipe that my Mum sent me! This time it's chicken and Parma ham pasta sauce, deliciously creamy and fantastic with tagliatelle, I instantly wanted to cook up a second batch! 

The only problem with it is that, unlike the chorizo recipe, this won't really freeze well, so isn't suitable for batch cooking. However it is quite quick to put together on a weekday evening.

Chicken breast - One per person, cut in to smallish pieces.
Small pack of parma ham, it's quite salty so you won't need it all!
Small pot double cream.
Tarragon (dried or fresh is fine)
A lemon (or a quarter of one if that's all you've got lurking in the fridge)
1/4 to 1/2 a pint of chicken stock (1/4 is suitable for 2 people, 1/2 would be better if you're cooking for a larger audience)
Butter and olive oil

Cook cook cook
1. Melt some butter in a frying pan, and cook the chicken in it.
2. Remove from the chicken from the pan and set to one side.
3. Add a drop of olive oil to the pan, and tear the Parma ham into strips straight in to the pan (or cut it in to pieces while the chicken is cooking). Stir around until lightly crispy. 
4. Add the chicken to the pan with the Parma ham, and pour in the chicken stock and a few generous pinches of tarragon (depending on your taste)
5. Simmer for 10 minutes.
6. Pour in some double cream and a squeeze of lemon juice, and stir until it's all mixed in with the stock. The sauce should be a lovely dark cream colour.
7. Taste it and add more cream or stock if you need it or need a bit more sauce, or some extra tarragon if you're not getting the flavour.
8. Serve with linguine or spaghetti, pastas which go well with nice creamy sauces.

The first time I cooked this it took me a little longer than expected. I think that second time round I'd be able to get it done in less than 30 minutes, great for a quick mid-week dinner!

Recipe - Chicken and Chorizo Pasta

Sunday, 26 March 2017

If you follow my Instagram then you might have spotted my delicious chicken and chorizo penne pasta dinner the other night! This recipe is one I got from my Mum, so there's a very real possibility that it's already out there online on a proper cooking website. However it's so delicious and so quick to make that I had to share it on here. Thanks to me and OH having a long commute from the new home, having recipes that are quick to put together and don't need loads of attention are a life saver!
Chicken and chorizo pasta!

This pasta sauce is delicious, only needs a few ingredients, and can be chucked in to a pan and left to cook while you sort out other things around the house.

Chicken breast, 1 per person, cut in to chunks
Chorizo diced or cut in to slices, depending on how you prefer it. I use a LOT of chorizo as I love it, but you can use a smaller quantity if it's not your thing.
Carton of tomato passata
Tomato puree

Put the chorizo in a saucepan and fry gently to release the oil (you don't need olive oil, chorizo is naturally oily).
After a few minutes of frying add the chicken and let it cook with the chorizo.
Once the chicken chunks are cooked through pour in the tomato passata and tablespoon of tomato puree.
Give everything a good stir, put the lid on the pan, and leave it to simmer for a minimum of 20 minutes. The joy of this is that you can leave it for longer if you need or want. Passata is quite runny so you have a lot of liquid, and if you keep the lid on with a low simmer then it shouldn't dry out.

Once you've cooked it you can cook your pasta, and serve! This also freezes really nicely you can double up the ingredients and put the leftovers in the freezer for another day!

Mortgage Overpayment - Feb 2017

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

We've only had our mortgage for a few months, but one thing we agreed about early on was that we wanted to overpay it as soon as possible. We started repaying the mortgage in January, and made our first overpayment at the end of the month. Yesterday was the last day in February, so it was the ideal time to make our second overpayment!

Our overpayments consist of a flat £30 payment that we worked in to our budget. To that we add little extras we get over the course of the month. This can include cashback from Quidco, bags of loose change we count up, my monthly expenses claim from work for buying things for the office, money saved from spending less than budgeted, and money from having a clearout on eBay. I also check my current account regularly and round down the amount I have in the bank to the nearest £5 or £10. So if I had £37.20 then I'd move £2.20 to go to overpayments, leaving £35 in my account.

In February our overpayment was £64.14! I have a really great spreadsheet where I can track the impact that our payments are making. This is a great motivational tool, it took a good 40 minutes following very detailed instructions to set up properly, but it was worth the time.

The spreadsheet means that we can set ourselves goals that push us a little further, but which are realistic. For example we realised that if we overpaid by £60 a month (so if we managed to double our baseline £30 a month) then we would have paid off £5000 by February 2018. That was enough to push us to go a bit further and try to hit £5000 by end of 2017. 

On the other hand it's a bit of an eye-opener, we are currently paying over £11 a day in interest! We're on a pretty good rate too, but seeing that number really made us realise how much was going straight back to the bank. No wonder they consider mortgages to be easy money made!

We'll see how much we manage to save in March - my change jar is looking quite heavy!

What to do on completion day!

Sunday, 19 February 2017

If you’re buying a house then completion day is the most exciting part of the entire process. This is the day when you officially become the owner of the house and get your keys! You can start painting, move your furniture in, and start planning exactly how you want it. But there's a few things you should be prepared to sort out first…

Get the locks changed
How many people did your vendors give their keys to? Both sets of parents so there were plenty of spares available? The decorator who painted the hallway 3 years ago? A lodger that stayed for three months, and their replacement? There could be a dozen copies of your front door, back door, shed padlock and garage keys scattered around, and you have no idea who has them.

Therefore when it comes to completion day you should make sure you have the phone number of a local locksmith who can come round and change the locks for you. I phoned someone who was able to come out for “emergencies”, but I had to wait 2 hours before he could get there. Since this was our first time buying I had no idea what time completion would be sorted by, otherwise I would have booked someone to come out for a specific time.

If you know you can get to the house quite quickly, and you know you’ll have completed by early afternoon, then you can phone around and book for the locks to be changed later that day. We paid around £150 for two locks to be changed, which from what I’d read elsewhere is pretty average in terms of cost, and was well worth it for peace of mind.

Read your meters
Before you start firing up the boiler and switching on all the lights, take meter readings. The main two are gas and electricity, but if your new home has a water meter (they’re becoming increasingly common) then you’ll need to check that as well. The quickest, easiest way to do this is to get your phone out and take a couple of snaps of the meters. That way you have a visible record of the numbers, and you can submit the readings a few days later without feeling like you need to rush.

Your property information form from the vendors should state who the current provider is. You can then phone them, submit the readings, and then you have the option to change supplier over the coming weeks. Our vendors were landlords who’d held the place at arm’s length, so our form didn’t indicate who the energy provider was. “Luckily” for us there was a pile of post waiting on the doorstep, including a collection of demands relating to an unpaid bill from the energy provider, so we instantly knew who to contact with our readings. If you don't know, and don't have an unpaid bill waiting for you, there are phone numbers online that you can call to find out who the supplier is.

Be prepared to clean
Even if your vendors are lovely people and you’ve developed a decent rapport with them, chances are you’ll still want to clean the place when you get in. This could be giving the bathroom a scrub, wiping round the kitchen before you set up the kettle, or running around with a hoover. In our case the house clearance people our vendors had hired had decided to dismantle a wardrobe in the master bedroom, and had left thousands of fragments of MDF scattered across the carpet.

You should also be prepared to clean simply because your vendors don't HAVE to clean before they hand the keys over. As long as they don't cause damage to the house (for example, smashing all the windows or knocking chunks of plaster out of all the walls) you can't legally demand that they leave the place spotless. They'll be in a rush to get to their new place, just as you're in a rush to get in. Make yourself a box of essential cleaning products (washing up liquid, Dettol, toilet cleaner, sponges, cloths and Marigolds) to keep in the car, along with your hoover if you have space. Then if the place isn't quite how you'd like it you have all the things you need on hand and easily accessible.

We hoovered up the MDF fragments. After we'd picked up 12 screws and 5 nails.

This is the most important part! Get a takeaway and pop open the bubbly, or put the kettle one. You’re in, the house is yours, and you can start doing all that decorating you’ve been planning for the past few months!

Why you should cut up your old carpet!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Just before the weekend we got the news we'd been waiting for - our bathroom renovation was complete! Our plumber has done an amazing job transforming the bathroom from "Peach with a hint of mould" to "Gorgeous clean tiles and amazing bath", and in less than three weeks!
More on that later (including the before and after photos). Once the plumber had shown us how to use the underfloor heating and handed over a pile of paperwork (and returned the key) we got down to the main work for the weekend - painting! We had to paint some sealing paint over fresh plaster, do some second coats on a few walls, and get some damp block around some windows where our vendors had simply painted over mould.

Once we got to a point in the decorating where we were dependent on stuff drying over night we were faced with a problem. It was still early afternoon and we wanted to get a bit more done. Our plumber had hired a skip for the bathroom clear out, and it was still sitting on our parking space. We've got it for a few more weeks, and I'd already thrown out some things left behind by the clearance team hired by the vendors. We've found the carpet that we want to get for the bedroom floor, so this seemed like an ideal opportunity to get rid of the old one.
At least we can now get new carpet put down!

Do you know how heavy a rolled up carpet is? We don't have a huge bedroom, the amount of floor space suggested that it would be quite easy to throw out. We managed to get it rolled up with a degree of huffing and puffing, because carpet just wanted to unroll, but we fought it in to submission.

The carpet had the last laugh. We're both used to heavy lifting from our jobs (or my previous job), but this was a new level! In the end we had to go for a combination of simultaneously lifting, pulling, pushing and shuffling just to get it out the door in to the corridor. Getting it down the stairs involved the Other Half carefully balancing on the steps while I tried to put the carpet down without knocking him flying. Finally we rolled it off the stairs on to the floor, thankfully we don't have bannisters, and then we realised - there was no way we would be able to lift it in to the skip.

In the end the Other Half got out his trusty stanley knife and hacked the carpet and underlay to pieces while I took the freshly cut pieces out to the skip, until we had finally reduced the carpet to a small roll that we could carry between us. 

I never realised how heavy even a small carpet can be! When it comes to doing the other rooms we now know that we need to do what everyone else does - cut it up in situ, and don't try to assassinate your partner on the stairs using rolled up carpet!

Review: Aromi in Cambridge

Thursday, 9 February 2017

If you're in Cambridge and want pizza without having to go to a big chain (there's a Jamie's Italian, a Zizzi, a Carluccio's and a Bella Italia scattered around the city centre) then you really need to check out Aromi! They're an independent Italian cafe, split across two sites in the city centre but only 2 doors away from each other. The larger one, with a bigger serving counter, a larger seating area and takeaway ice cream at the front, is on Peas Hill next to Cambridge Art's Theatre. The smaller one, which I went in to, is on the corner of Peas Hill and Bene't Street, two doors away!

The main thing to remember about the smaller branch of Aromi's is that it's tiny! The doorway gets
Delicious margarita pizza!
very crowded very quickly, and I've never actually seen a free seat in there at lunch time, even though there's a slightly larger basement seating area as well as the more obvious ground floor one. But this doesn't matter as Aromi pizzas come as a takeaway, so you don't have to hang around waiting for table space!

I keep mentioning pizza but actually Aromi, which specialises in Sicilian food, does sandwiches, arancini (fried rice balls) and desserts including ricotta cheesecakes. They have a selection of toppings for the pizzas and fillings for the sandwiches, and also do hot drinks including proper Italian hot chocolate (the really thick kind). Everything is made fresh, if you walk past in the morning you can see them working on everything as the kitchen is wide open, with the windows facing the street.

Should you managed to find a table then your food will be brought to you. If you're buying to take away then you'll be given a raffle ticket with a number on it. Once your order is processed they'll call your number, you collect your food, and then try to squeeze back out the door!

The thing I love about Aromi is just how good the pizzas are. The dough is fresh, the tomato sauce tastes like it's from an actual tomato, and there's great lumps of mozzarella scattered across the margarita. Everything is set out under the glass-covered counter, and once you pick what you want they cook it in their wood-fired oven right then and there. Rather than a circle the pizzas are cooked as a rectangle, and the toppings go all the way to the edge. At an average price tag of £4 you may think it's a little expensive for a slice of take away pizza, but they really fill you up so you won't be able to eat a second slice (although you'll really want one!)

If I have one small complaint about Aromi, it's that the paper bags they use really don't keep your slice warm for long :( If I'm taking mine back to the office, which I occasionally do at lunch, then I always have to reheat it in the microwave.

But a microwave can't stop these being so tasty. I think I'm going to have to go back again...

Finding Number 3

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

When you're a first time buyer, looking for a home can be terrifying. Where do you want to move to? Why stare an estate agent's window when everything is on Rightmove? How does house viewing work? It all looks a bit complicated when you're not used to it.

Location, location, it's all the location
We originally looked close to our families, in Hertfordshire and south Essex, where trains are frequent and the service semi-decent. Sadly both areas suffer from the South East Effect, house prices have shot up and are out of range of most people, including us!

So we had to go further down the train lines. I didn't want to live in an enormous town, so that ruled out Chelmsford, and although we looked around Witham I found I just didn't like it. Braintree was a good compromise, and we even viewed a house there, but the train station is only on a branch line, so in the end we reluctantly crossed it off the list. We loved Kelvedon and Feering, but houses were again out of our price range. But moving down the line brought us to Colchester, which was also too big for me, and from there we discovered Wivenhoe.

We also made a list of things we needed (train station, off street parking) and things we didn't (a big garden, more than three bedrooms) so we knew where we would both compromise. Lots of first time buyers are in their early thirties now, there's no point in buying a one bedroom flat if you're planning on starting a family in a year's time!

Once we knew what we wanted in a property and where we wanted to move to, we started the search seriously!

Rightmove, Zoopla or direct to agents?
The two main house buying search engines are Rightmove and Zoopla. Of the two I'd say Rightmove is more well known, there are certainly a lot more houses listed on it, but I found both of them quite easy to use, and I found Zoopla's "Advanced Search" tools to be better than Rightmove. The other bonus to Zoopla being a little less popular is that you have fewer estate agents stuffing search results with inappropriate properties, such as putting a terraced house as "semi detached", which happens on Rightmove and drives me up the wall!

If you sign up for both sites then you can set up email alerts for specific areas. When a property comes up in your preferred area, with specific cost settings, you'll get an email straight to your inbox. This means you don't have to load the website up every evening to see if anything new has cropped up. The price settings are really good as you then don't get spammed with properties that are well out of your price range. Just a few clicks and it's ready to go!

Although a lot of listings tend to go online quiet quickly, it's worth signing up for estate agents too, both the larger chains and the small independents. We mainly just wanted to get ourselves known as looking for a property, so we weren't automatically dismissed as timewasters should we phoned for a viewing. We also at one point got a phone call from one of the larger agencies inviting us to view a house that wasn't on Rightmove yet. This was probably an attempt to get us in to a bidding war, they had multiple appointments throughout the day, but it didn't really matter as after viewing we turned it down. But it does show that not every property makes it online, so signing up to a few agencies can help.

In the end we bought a property that we found through Rightmove, without ever meeting the agents!

We had to book viewings at weekends as neither of us wanted to use up annual leave for property
Hopefully your vendors will cut the grass before
your viewing!
viewing. We went to a few open days, quite a few of which were for properties that were empty. Open days are meant to get many people through the door was possible, and hopefully engineer interest from multiple parties. We placed an offer on one house after an open day, the asking price was £220k and we offered £200k, but we were quickly outbid and were informed that our maximum of £205k wouldn't be enough either, so we dropped it.

Due to the types of property we were looking at (in need of a bit of work) we found that we rarely met the owners, and were dealt with purely by estate agents. But if you're a first time buyer looking for a flat, buying off someone who used to be a first timer, then meeting the vendor is more likely. You may even prefer it, you can ask extra questions that the agent wouldn't be able to answer, such as whether they get along with the neighbours.

Whether you're being shown around by the agent or the owner, the first viewing is always a bit odd. You're stepping in to someone's home, trying to picture it with your choice of furniture, and mentally judging their wallpaper-carpet combo. So if you like a place and you're thinking of putting in an offer, ask for a second viewing! A second look, perhaps at a slightly different time of day (is the road outside quieter in the mornings than the afternoon?) or with different weather (does it look just as nice when it's pouring with rain?) can seal the deal in your head. I went for a second viewing with my Mum and Jon's parents, taking along other people can help you spot problems you hadn't noticed!

We found most agents were able to accommodate weekend viewings, and again the only one that was a problem was the one we ended up buying! Ask if you take a few shots as you around, to help refresh your memory later. After the viewing go for a drive around, see what shops are near, and get a feel for the local area. Although the agent may chase you for feedback within a few hours, you may find you prefer to sleep on it before making an offer.

After 6 months of searching we were sick of house hunting and ready to give up. I hope your search goes quicker!

Our Home - A Background

Sunday, 5 February 2017

In December 2016 we bought our home. It had been months of stress, and we were glad to see the back of it. I got to the point where any time my phone rang, I felt a little sick as I was sure it was going to be bad news about our purchase.

We originally viewed it all the way back in early June. It had been on the market for months at this rate, and the asking price had been reduced by £10k. It was being rented out to three students, and had been advertised as for buy-to-let only, but recently changed to "suitable for first time buyers".
Just getting to see the place was a faff. The agency didn't work weekends, just Saturday mornings, and they were "fully booked" for Saturday mornings for 2 weeks. So we both took a day off work to view it on a week day. Less than 15 minutes away from the house we got a phonecall to say it had been sold to someone else and the viewing was cancelled. We managed to persuade them to let us see the house anyway, but they told us the students living there would have to show us around as the agent already had another appointment.

The students themselves were nice and let us in and showed us around. The house was clearly a place that wasn't really cared for. There were patches of damp between the walls and ceilings, a big patch of ceiling painted cream (the rest of the ceiling was white) were some repair job had taken place, and the bathroom had black mould growing on the grouting and ceiling. But we could see the potential, so we made a counter offer that afternoon.

Sadly the offer was rejected, and we had to move on. But we struggled to find somewhere else we liked. We'd been house hunting for months by this point and were getting fed up.

Number Three on the day we completed!Then, one week after Britain's EU referendum (known as "Brexit"), the house popped back up on Rightmove! Even though we'd made an offer before, no one from the agency called us to ask if we were still interested! They just put it back up online. After discussing it we decided to make another offer, only lower. After three weeks of chasing the Agency, who only told us the vendors were on holiday after I'd chased for a response 3 times, we were finally accepted and began the buying process officially!

We got our mortgage offer quickly and arranged a solicitor, but the vendors were dragging their feet. We'd agreed the price back in mid-July, and by August were still waiting. Then at the end of August the agents called us to say that the students were refusing to move out, and were invoking a clause in their contract that would let them stay.

So we called off our purchase. We'd made it clear right from the start that we were buying the house to move in to, not to rent out. After yelling at the agent I burst in to tears, I couldn't believe that we'd come to so close to finally getting the house that it was now out the window. Three days later a very sheepish agent phoned me and asked if we were still interested in purchasing? They'd found alternative accommodation for the students, who would be moving in the next 24 hours, and our purchase was back on.

After that it was relatively smooth sailing. Given the general neglected air of the place we decided to get a full building survey, which came back with lots of little problems (evidence of mice or rats in the roof, an out of date fusebox in the kitchen, minor damp in rooms which would be sorted with proper ventilation) but nothing major. We also had an electrical test carried out, which confirmed that although the plugs were old they were still in working order, we would just need to get the fusebox replaced if we wanted any work done in the future as it was about a decade out of date.

So when we finally got the keys in December we walked in to a house that had been empty since the beginning of September. It had been cleared out by the lettings/estate agents (although one of the wardrobes appeared to have been ripped apart in the process, leaving lots of fragments of MDF scattered across a bedroom carpet) and just left. There was an enormous pile of uncollected post on the floor, a smell of damp in the air, a seriously neglected back garden and muddy boot prints all over the place. But it was ours, and now I can look back on it and see how far we've come :)