Steak pies and Aston Martins

The little story I posted on Facebook about the expensive steak pies and the Aston Martin DB9 has had quite a response and has left me pondering that age old question of what makes us rich. I know it’s been done to death in books, films, songs and even, I’m fairly sure, by me in previous blogs, but I was never one for turning away the opportunity to flog a dead horse.

The story, for the benefit of anybody who is sensible enough not to go anywhere near Facebook, was about us declining to buy steak pies from a local butchers because they were ridiculously expensive but then seeing a man emerge from the same shop and drive away in an Aston Martin DB9 thus confirming our station in life. Of course it was a joke and we could have bought the pies, but maybe not the car, but being rich isn’t about money is it? Or is it?

If Aston Martin made pies….

I know there is a point at which lack of money will make you miserable in a world where money is king and nothing for free comes easy so I am assuming that what I am considering here is wealth beyond the basic needs of food, shelter etc. So the question is; if we have enough money not to have to worry about the basics what does more money add to our lives? Gill and I are not poor by any means but I wouldn’t like to have less surplus income than we have now and I’m pretty sure that applies to most people irrespective of how much they have. Isn’t that the conundrum? What is it about money and possessions that fools almost everybody into thinking that they need more than they already have? Or than somebody else has for that matter.

I think money is like an empty garage or loft. Indeed just about any empty space in a house that just gathers more and more stuff until it’s full, we just expand to fill the void. In a similar way we adapt to make use of whatever spare cash we have and convince ourselves that we couldn’t really do with any less and a little bit more would be lovely. I am always amazed to read stories of people who have won fortunes by some means or other and managed to change their lifestyles so dramatically that they have been able to spend the lot and become poor again. Dedication to the cause indeed.

Home sweet home
‘Grace’ – Somebody’s pride and joy

Travelling on the canals is like viewing a microcosm of society. There are people on boats worth far more than ours but for them it’s just a play thing for weekends or maybe a two week trip twice a year if the sun comes out. They are always friendly and cheerful and happy to chat with us when we come across them. Then there are what look like derelict craft covered in debris and green algae, roofs piled high with old wood and all manner of worn out possessions. The windows in their crumbling rusty frames are well beyond being see-through, grubby tatters of curtains hang listlessly and it’s obvious that the boat hasn’t moved in months or even years. It’s hard to imagine that anybody could be living in such conditions but the wisp of smoke curling from the chimney says there are. Occasionally a scruffy, grubby individual will emerge from one of these wrecks as we pass by and invariably they are smiling and friendly and, as far as we can tell, happy. I’m pretty sure that the people with the fancy boat wouldn’t want to swap places with them. But what about the unshaven, dishevelled old man on the tatty boat, would he want to swap places with them? I’m not so confident of the answer to that question. What makes him happy, if he is? Certainly not money.

It sure is a tricky business finding that happy compromise of enough but no more. We are all chasing happy, but happy can rarely be purchased and I think we all know this deep down but it’s so hard to believe it. Money pulls and pushes us, it lures and beguiles us and constantly whispers in our ears, “just a little bit more”. I don’t crave an Aston Martin but flipping heck, those steak pies did look good.

Do I have too much of what money can’t buy?

I have just been told that we are quite obsessive about our finances! When I say we, I probably mean me mostly but it came from a friend that has been staying for a few days and I think he was fascinated, or should that be appalled, at my practice of recording everything we spend on a spreadsheet. It’s something we have done on and off for years and it’s all part of our strategy for dealing with the thorny subject of money. Money seems to cause so much worry and stress to people, not to mention being at the root of most extortion, violence and general skulduggery. It seems to be both worshipped and despised almost equally and universally. I think a little obsession can probably be forgiven.

It seems to me that there are three statuses when it comes to money. You either have lots of the stuff in which case there isn’t a lot of need to account for each pound you spend and you can focus all your stress into hanging on to it, worrying about pensions and investments and planning how much or how little you want to leave behind when you go. The second scenario, the most awful one I imagine, is simply not having enough to get by on. I don’t mean struggling to decide if you can afford that second Mediterranean cruise this year, I mean choosing between electricity and bread or holding back the rent to buy replacement shoes for the kids. Gill and I are lucky enough to fall somewhere in the middle of the two where I actually think that managing the money is an interesting challenge but after our friends comments I’m worried that I might have become a bit too focussed on counting the pennies. I feel I need to defend myself.

I should confess at this point that I really like spreadsheets. Maybe now would be a good time to say that there are other blogs available. There is a particularly well written one that contains humour of a cat based nature just a click away here. If you are still with me however, I’ll give you an example of how my beloved spreadsheet has come in useful since we moved house. (There won’t be any formulae involved I promise)

We bought our mobile park home purely as a financial solution. Swapping £500 per month rent for £84 per month pitch fee doesn’t require a financial advisor to explain the benefits and we were lucky enough to be able to raise the cash to buy the home outright. It’s all part of our strategy of focussing on what our outgoings are rather than what our income is. A lot of working people seem to focus on how much they earn and then live a lifestyle to match that income. Fair enough if that is what floats your boat. I myself don’t really hanker after most of the stuff that money can buy but I do crave the things that it can’t buy, time especially. By focussing on how much money is going out rather than what is coming in, it kind of turns everything on its head and you tend to want to reduce your outgoings so that you can work less and play more, which is why I record everything.

Sometimes however, just knowing what you are spending isn’t enough which is why I have just put yet another spreadsheet together to monitor our gas consumption. That cat bloke is here by the way. In fact if you Google ‘funny blogs’ you may never need to come back here again, I won’t be offended.

It all started when we decided to buy the park home, and as part of our economy drive, we took a bold decision to change our gas supplier. We had been loyal customers of British Gas for many years and probably suffered, like most people, from inertia when it came to switching. That and the worry that it would all go to pot and we would end up in some administrative nightmare with no gas at all but enough paper bills to keep us warm so long as we kept burning them. But despite our fears we decided to be brave and after a bit of research we signed up with Zog Energy on a tariff that was almost exactly half the price of the old one, so far so good.

There was a bit of initial misunderstanding because the mains gas meter had to be replaced which confused both British Gas and Zog Energy, in fact British Gas sent us a bill for £907 for two day’s supply at one point. They were very nice about it when I complained and agreed that it did seem just a tad excessive. Once things settled down though we thought it would be wise to do some reading about the most efficient way to run our new central heating boiler and as you do we turned to the internet. Well it seems that there are those that think it is best to leave the heating ticking over low all the time and those who favour periods of no heating interspersed with fiery blasts for cosy nights in and candle lit showers. (We don’t have a bath). We probably should have taken into consideration that we now live in what amounts to a plywood box with a tin roof rather than a Victorian brick built mid-terraced house but we didn’t. We thought we would try the ‘just ticking over constantly’ option to start with. Had I had a spreadsheet to monitor things from the start it might have been different but I didn’t so it was a bit of a shock when the first E-bill arrived in my in tray. When I saw the figures for estimated consumption my mind went into mental arithmetic gymnastics and I immediately ran outside to take an actual reading rather than phone the bank for a loan.

Time to find another jumper

Time to find another jumper

To my horror, the actual reading was much higher than the estimated one and with a slight sickly feeling in my stomach I sat down, with a spreadsheet of course, to work out our fate. It wasn’t good news. If I hadn’t been having so much fun writing conditional IF statements

Geek alert!

Geek alert!

I might have been considering arson as a possible solution to the horror of heating our lovely new nest. It looked like we were going to be paying half as much for our gas but using FOUR TIMES as much of it at the current rate of consumption.

So to plan B; we now have the timer on the boiler firmly set to long periods of no heating at all and if that means a trip around the charity shops looking for previously loved knitwear then so be it. I am also making twice daily visits to the gas meter to take a reading and record it in column B alongside the date, daily consumption, units used, Kwh, Cost before VAT etc., etc. It’s early days, but I am hugely relieved to report that there may be some gas left for the other residents of the park after all.

I am probably rambling a bit I know but my point is that without recording stuff it’s impossible to know what is going on and the same applies to the daily shopping expenditure. I don’t expect anybody to be particularly impressed that I will be able to tell you in six months’ time how much we have spent on pickles and sauces and yes, perhaps I may have gone into slightly too much detail there, I agree. The point is though that being able to analyse your spending is half the battle in reducing it. Having reviewed the first two months figures since we moved here though, I am also wondering if I should perhaps merge the categories of alcohol and gas so that I can pretend that I don’t know anything about either of them.

Economy measure. £1 in Morrisons

Economy measure. £1 in Morrisons

I will spare you the calculations that went into justifying buying a new car over a second hand one and as for the fuel consumption records that will ensure we don’t go too far over our allotted ten thousand miles per year? Ok, well maybe I am a little obsessive after all and perhaps you can actually have too much of that precious time that money can’t buy.

How to win the lottery without buying a ticket

So the genuine winner of the thirty three million pound lottery prize has finally been found and now there are a few dozen very nervous false claimants wondering if they are going to prison rather than on a Caribbean cruise. These Lottery stories seem to capture the imagination of the public every time they come around and spark off another succession of conversations that start with, “what would you do with x million pounds?” I don’t feel qualified to contribute to the debate because I have never bought a lottery ticket and don’t ever intend to. Why would I put myself through all that false hope and then disappointment when I already feel rich? Gambling is one way of getting rich but the odds are long and even those that win don’t always get what they want. Search the internet for “Lottery winner stories” and you will find numerous sad accounts of couples and individuals who found that untold wealth is no guarantee of happiness and many who ended up losing everything they won. There are even a few tragic cases that led to suicide.

Of course it does work for some people but if you read the stories of those that did cope with a big win they all talk with great satisfaction about giving money away, helping others and, in many cases, being able to do voluntary work and to support charities. In other words it is the giving rather than the gaining that has actually brought them happiness.

Personally, rather than hope in vain for a huge bank balance I choose to think about what defines being rich.

All this navel gazing has come about because of a conversation yesterday that ranged from pensions and retirement via the recent unclaimed lottery win story to some of our experiences on our ride around the coast of Britain. We met many rich people on our travels but not all of them had money. So what is wealth and how do we achieve it?

I accept that for some people money will do the trick but I really don’t think it’s the only option. When we went on our trip we had managed to set aside ten thousand pounds and in the end we spent eight thousand of it during the five months on the road. For eight thousand pounds we could have bought four thousand lottery tickets, a small basic car or a three week luxury cruise. We chose to spend it on campsite fees, simple food, a beer or two and enough memories to last us a lifetime. Here are just some of the things that we got for our money:

Priceless

Priceless

1000961

memories

150 completely unique days each of which had it’s own ups and downs in every sense.

Countless scenes that are etched into our minds for future viewing.

Acts of kindness that ranged from meals and accommodation to just an encouraging word on a gloomy day.

The satisfaction of getting somewhere by our own effort and determination.

The endless discovery of boundaries that could be stretched and broken only to discover new ones waiting for us.

The investment of suffering that adds value to pleasure and comfort.

2000 photos to re-kindle memories

80,000 written words that I can re-read when my memory struggles with the details.

A bunch of new friends that continue to enhance our lives from a distance.

A large bucket of anecdotes that I can torture people with when I am old and senile.

Never having to wonder what it would be like to ‘take the plunge” because we’ve done it and it turns out to be great. (Thanks for the reminder Gareth)

 

So my chances of winning the lottery may be non-existent but that doesn’t mean I will never be rich; far from it.

 

This is bonkers

Three things have come together today that have made me have a change of heart about my blog post. I felt that a light hearted, hopefully amusing post was due after yesterday’s reflections on death but I’m sorry it will have to wait.

The first of the three items was the announcement from Oxfam this morning that it won’t be long before 1% of the world’s population will own more than 50% of all the wealth. That is such a sad indictment on how the world is developing and it seems that it is an ongoing trend, which is even more depressing.

Secondly, my cycling and blogging friend James uploaded a monster post today all about the terrible state that we seem to have got ourselves into and the difficulty of trying to turn back the tide of self-destruction that threatens to overwhelm us.

James’ blog was all about global causes and effects but my own experience today, the third thing, involved what goes on right in our own back yard and it brought home to me what a terribly mixed up world we live in. As I drove home I was trying to think of an eloquent way to describe what I saw today but in the end I decided ‘bonkers’ did the job better than anything.

I spent the day at a re-cycling charity where they reclaim and refurbish all manner of household goods to save them from landfill and give them a second life with somebody who might otherwise not be able to afford such luxuries. I say luxuries but really, by today’s western standards, they are really considered to be necessities. I’m talking about furniture, white goods and Personal Computers all of which have been dumped because they have reached the end of their useful life in their owner’s eyes. A better, faster, smaller model has been released which they simply must have.

Image from Trasch.co.uk

Image from Trasch.co.uk

I have no doubt that in the case of the computers they probably aren’t even broken but just considered too slow and not worth spending money on. After all, three years is considered to be the maximum life of a computer these days even though it may actually go on working for ten or more.

As I mentioned the organisation I was working with is a charity and they rely heavily on volunteers to do their refurbishment work. Most of the volunteers I saw weren’t retired people doing something useful with their spare time, they were all younger than forty and I therefor concluded, in most cases, probably out of work. The irony of this wasn’t lost on me. People with no jobs, picking through the cast off goods of those who are wealthy enough to just throw the stuff away because it’s a bit tired and out of date so that it can be sold at a fraction of its true worth to people that are just marginally higher up the wealth ladder than the volunteers that repaired it. As I said, it’s bonkers.

I came away with so many questions buzzing around my head. Why does so much valuable stuff simply get thrown away and how have we reached a state where people think it is acceptable? Why does it take a charity and an army of volunteers to fix the problem when thousands upon thousands of people don’t have a job? Why can’t we legislate to make it financially detrimental for companies to build in obsolescence into their products? Why don’t we value longevity in things anymore?

The answer to most of these questions of course is inevitably about money. Which is where we came in I believe. The seemingly irreversible process of more and more wealth being accumulated by fewer and fewer people leads to a world which, to me, seems to be increasingly bonkers. There is no other word for it.

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