How to make gift cards work hard for you

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So, what do you do with all these gift cards you’ve been earning on Swagbucks or given for Christmas? Today I’m here to explain how to make them work harder for you. It’s tempting to hit the sales with them immediately after Christmas and before New Year, when the shops are pushing the fact that they have a sale big time. And whilst, if you really want a certain thing (especially something that’s bound to be popular) and want to be sure you don’t miss out, then that’s a good idea. Generally, it’s not – by this point in January most retailers are getting desperate to shift their old stock. We all know from the news, that retailers in the UK are generally having a very tough time out there and so, most of them have shed loads of stuff still left to shift.

By waiting until this point, and picking your day – you can hit retailers when they mark things down to 70%-75% off (or greater if you’re prepared to wait another week or so). This is when stuff becomes as cheap, or cheaper than buying it second hand in charity shops. So, take that stash of gift cards and hit the shops (but only if there’s stuff you really want or need).

Marks and Spencer went to 70% off in-store and online yesterday. I shopped both methods and found that the discounts were greater (nearer 80% in store, where they have shed loads of stock) and slightly less online (usually differing by between £1-£2). Mothercare have gone down to 75% off. Debenhams and H&M are at 70% off. You get the gist of it, most retailers will be dropping their prices now, on the stock that’s left. Just be aware that you have more rights when purchasing online, as they still have to give you 14 days to change your mind, under the distance selling regulations. Whereas, if you buy these items in-store – you’ll likely be told they’re non-returnable (unless faulty). This is certainly the case in M&S. So try things on, if they’re clothing or take the sizes you need with you, or a tape measure!

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Zero Waste Wreath

I fancied a wreath for Christmas this year, I’ve bought cheap (£6-7) before and they’ve fallen apart in about a week being outdoors as they are just glued onto polystyrene. I also wanted to avoid plastic, as much as possible aiming to be zero waste. I had half fancied making my own, but I’d left it a bit late this year. Plus, a wreath holder costs around £5, plus any other materials on top – even if I foraged the natural materials and raided my fabric scraps for ribbon, I would have wanted to buy cinnamon sticks and oranges. Cinnamon sticks are not cheap – around £1 for 3 or 4. This option was starting to look expensive.

I found this wreath going in Morrisons for £5 instead of £15- it was from their ‘The Best’ range. I think I bought it about 2 weeks before Christmas, so maybe that’s the time to look? It is comprised of natural foliage, with cinnamon sticks, pinecones, ribbon, raffia and yes, unfortunately just a few polystyrene and plastic adornments. However, it was the best option I could find. As you can see, it was all sitting on this wire frame which I plan to re-use year after year. It is painted green to blend in with the foliage.

In taking the wreath apart to compost the foliage, I was able to learn about its construction – vital as I will be making a homemade version each year from now onwards. It was actually comprised of very short sections of foliage, each clamped between the metal prongs that stick up. These are easily bent down with pliers. Then the decorations are wired and simply push into the foliage. I have carefully removed all of these and stored them in a cardboard box for next year. Rather than buying an expensive wreath hanger, we simply wrapped a long piece of twine through the wreath, over the door and tied it through the letterbox. It didn’t budge, even in strong winds!

So this is my top tip for next Christmas, or any other time of year you fancy putting up a wreath. Buy a good quality one, on sale and re-use the parts. Or maybe you can find the parts on sale? This frame could be re-used for any occasion – maybe I’ll try a Valentine’s wreath next?

Fighting for a Simpler Christmas

Season’s Greetings to one and all! How has you Christmas been? I’ve come on here to air some of my frustrations about being a Minimalist at Christmas. I know you’ll understand.

We’ve been Minimalists for 4 years now and certainly our wider family and friends know about this by now. We are the butt of regular jokes about Minimalism which we try to take with good humour; since we also laugh at some of the lavish spending of our family and friends. However it really does start to grate with me now, 4 years on when we’ve specifically asked for people to respect our lifestyle and values at each seasonal celebration when we still get gifts we’d rather not be receiving. With the odd and rare exception, however thoughtful people think they are being, they are buying something that quite bluntly – we don’t want!

The fact is that we buy the chocolate we like to eat and don’t particularly enjoy the seasonal boxes of chocolates that people like to give. If we need biscuits, we go out and buy the ones that we love to eat. If we wanted seasonal fruits and nuts at Christmas, we would buy them. Inevitably also, all these things come wrapped in plastic which we try so hard to avoid with all our purchasing. We don’t want wasteful novelty gifts – no matter how much fun the giver thinks they will be – they will end up going to charity and I strongly suspect they have to bin them. We’d rather they weren’t created and resources weren’t needlessly wasted in the first place. Whatever hobby we have, we buy the tools that we have researched and would like to have, so it’s not helpful when people give us more. Do I sound ungrateful? Because I worry that’s how it comes across to family.

Sadly, they all seem to think we’re boring asking for gift cards  and ‘need’ something to open on Christmas Day (which we don’t and have tried with all our might to get this across). So every gift card seems to come attached to a box of chocolates, box of biscuits or other Christmas novelty – sigh. Actually the best gift we received this year was from a family friend, who via Unicef had donated a pair of warm, winter boots to a child abroad in need. Opening that card gave me a really warm feeling on Christmas Day which I didn’t get with any of my other gifts.

The trouble is that whether we don’t create a list and ask for nothing, or whether we create a very specific list – we still end up receiving gifts that we don’t want and then have to dispose of in a responsible manner. However for the largest part, our family did stick to either money or gift cards (although I worry  a little about the plastic waste those create, but surely a little plastic is better than whole items you don’t want or need?) A friend of ours (who is not a Minimalist) only ever asks for the essentials at Christmas, like socks and deodorants. That way he never has to worry about buying them for himself and gets to spend all his money on computing which is his first love. So perhaps I will start asking for bags of flour, oats, sugar and that kind of thing instead?! My family will probably then start to assume we are living in poverty but hey ho!

My husband and I have agreed that we need to try and find some alternative traditions to fill up Christmas Day with. We always enjoy a couple of good meals together, a short walk and usually a board game. Perhaps we just need to accept that that is special enough. Since most people do congregate under a loaded Christmas Tree and that is some sort of expectation around which the day centres. How do you deal with it, especially when celebrating with non-Minimalist family members? I promise I’m not Scrooge really, but still aligning my newer Minimalist values with older traditions. Any tried and trusted methods to get family to STOP buying you things you don’t want or need?

Bah humbug! 😉

False Advertising

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What’s with all the Christmas advertising this year regarding having your best Christmas ever?! It seems worse than usual to me, it’s the mainstay of several UK stores campaigns. Wilko’s tagline is “Bring home your best Christmas”. Asda’s tagline is “Christmas made better”. Swarovski are saying that you must ‘give brilliant’. Since when did stores get so arrogant? I’m all for retailers helping you to achieve ‘Christmas’, after all we all want to buy a little special food to celebrate the day. We may wish to buy a few gifts, or experiences. That’s what makes Christmas different from every other day of the year. But it’s this year I’ve really noticed them piling on the pressure for people to buy more and more. Maybe it’s just that I’ve got fresh eyes now I’m further down the road on my minimalist journey.

In fact the only retailer I’ve seen peddling a different message is Sainsbury’s, who are pioneering an advertising campaign centred on a harassed dad who’s trying to find his family ‘the greatest gifts’. It ends when he discovers the greatest gift he could give anyone is his time. It’s refreshingly different, even if I find the song that accompanies it rather irritating. At the end of the day, a huge part of Christmas is meeting up with people you love and sharing a meal. I think that is a truly great thing – sharing conversation, food, laughter, a few silly hats and a walk in the afternoon.

But, Christmas IS just another day – albeit a special day – but it doesn’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to keep ‘besting’ last year and no amount of stuff, including food is going to stop the odd family argument. After all, you’re probably going to be couped up with these people for a few days! So relax, enjoy it for what it is and take it as it comes. Happy Christmas Everyone!

Why You Don’t Need To Do Christmas Eve Boxes

I have probably been living in a hole, or maybe it’s just the fact that I don’t have kids. But I only heard about the trend for ‘Christmas Eve boxes’ this week. I thought maybe it was just a thing for celebrities, until I overheard a mum in the Post Office saying she had got the Christmas Eve presents sorted.

Now excuse me whilst I scoff, but I find this trend laughable. I think I would, even if I were not a Minimalist. Why on earth a child would need presents on Christmas Eve is beyond me; talk about taking away all the thunder from Santa Claus and Christmas Day! The excitement of Christmas Eve itself is enough – you can watch a Christmas movie on the TV for free, or watch a DVD that you already have or have borrowed. You do not need to BUY your child a new DVD each year! We have a tradition in our house – we watch The Snowman every year on Christmas Eve. It is usually on TV and my Grandma loved it so much (I do too). I also find it a lovely way to remember her each year. Or why not take some time to be reflective and go to a Christmas Eve service at a local church – there are many different styles of service.

Your child also does not need new PJs every year on Christmas Eve – the ones they have are probably just fine. They do not need a Christmas themed box which will either just get chucked or stuffed up in the loft. They are likely to get more items than they need on Christmas Day itself and why add to your own workload or increase your financial pressures, at this already stressful time of year? They most definitely will not be needing more sweets at this time of year and they certainly don’t need anymore toys or other useless stuff, like reindeer food. Santa Claus still appreciates a mince pie as much as ever and the reindeer love a carrot, I am reliably informed! 😉

I suggest taking some time out to spend with friends and family, perhaps quietly at home. Hanging out stockings is enough of a ritual at this time. If children are over-excited, perhaps giving them some colouring to do would be calming? There are lots of free printable available on the internet. If needed, you can look to other countries or cultures for inspiration. The Swedish for example always share a meal together as a family on Christmas Eve. The little girls dress up in traditional costume. You could allow your children to dress up, or just wear a Santa hat for the day. I’m sure there are lots of other lovely traditions out there, maybe you could incorporate something meaningful into your routine?

Sew Your Own Apron

I’ve been practising my sewing skills again. I’m quite chuffed with how these have turned out. I just cut around an apron I already owned, so no pattern was involved. Then I just copied how it was put together. These are very quick and easy, taking around 1 hour to make from start to finish. I used cotton fabric and bought cotton tape from the fabric shop for the ties. I have to say I’m in love with the teapot print fabric, I may just have to find an excuse to use it some more!

You just need to cut around your original apron, leaving an extra 3cm for the seams. Measure and cut out your pocket, again leaving 3 cm all around for seams. I ironed my seams and turned them over twice, attaching the tapes into the seam for strength. Make sure to turn over the ends of your tapes twice and stitch them, to stop them from fraying. Make sure you sew your side seams first, then your top and bottom hems. What a lovely gift these would make. I bought a metre of each fabric and I have loads left for other projects, so I’d estimate these cost around £2 each to make. They are so satisfying to make, there was no traipsing the shops for gifts and no-one was harmed in the making. What could be better than homemade?

Are you planning to make any gifts this Christmas?

Make the Most of Supermarket Vouchers

I don’t know about you, but at this time of year I find that the supermarkets are desperate to compete for my business. I have been deluged in vouchers and coupons by email, post and in-store all trying to get me to do my Christmas shopping with a particular retailer. I will use these coupons to my advantage and here’s how you can too.

  • Make sure you take a calculator to the shop with you, so that you just meet the threshold spend. This means you get the full value of the coupon.
  • Look on MySupermarket before you go and compare prices on the items on your shopping list. Make sure you’re buying them at the shop with the best offer.
  • Combine this with money-saving shopping apps, like Shopitize, Clicksnap, Shopinium and CheckoutSmart. This way you can either get an item for free with the app, or at a further discount PLUS you are getting the shop’s discount on top! Even better if it’s a store that gives loyalty points too. You could even spend some of your points and possibly get your shopping for free, or even by getting them to pay you to take goods away. (Yes, it does happen – I’ve done it myself on occasion). Stacking offers like this is the way to go!
  • Take the opportunity to stock up on essentials, if they are on offer. The shops want you to buy over-priced Christmas goodies, but hopefully being a minimalist, zero waste, money-saving type you are going to make these from scratch yourself and save a small fortune! So, take this opportunity to stock up on loo roll, mouthwash or whatever else you can get a good deal on and stash in the cupboard for next year.

For example, the last time I bought 4 pints of milk at Waitrose – they gave me a £6 off a £30 spend voucher printed from the till. Alongside some everyday items that we needed, I picked up 36 loo rolls. I basically got 16 of these for free and they were on a 2 for £7 offer which is the best price I know they are ever on sale for anyway. So I got a sweet deal here. At the till, they printed £8 off a £40 spend. Yes, they’ve upped the threshold but it’s still a pretty decent discount. If you’re shopping at Waitrose – tweak your ‘pick your own offers‘ and on top of the voucher, you can save 20% on those items. Check the internet for manufacturer coupons too, so you can save on certain products. Again, make sure you check MySupermarket and use them wisely, in the right store. If a product is already discounted, you can often take it away for FREE!

I absolutely hate going round the shops the nearer it gets to Christmas, so I am using this part of the month to stock on essentials like shampoo, tea bags, coffee, loo roll and so on. This way, I needn’t go near the shops for a couple of months at least! Fill your freezer, if you have space but make sure you leave room for any Christmas bits.

Look out for on-line only shopping vouchers too – I’ve been emailed a stack of these too. However they have MUCH higher threshold spends which are probably going to be too much for me (like £10 off £100 and that isn’t such a good deal, but better than none). They would be great for families though, or if you have a lot of visitors over the festive period.

Lastly, don’t over-stretch yourself! Make sure you have enough cash left to pay for Christmas. Maybe use your credit card to your advantage, but ONLY if you can afford to pay it off IN FULL when it becomes due.