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.

Now is a great time to sell on eBay!

It’s a great time of year to get busy selling items you don’t need on eBay. You will help yourself by clearing clutter, making space for (select as many as apply):

  1. Christmas gifts
  2. Christmas guests
  3. Christmas decorations
  4. You!

I don’t know if my recent rash of sales has been due to the Black Friday effect, the fact that Christmas is coming or payday is nearing. I’ve often been heard lamenting at how slow eBay is lately, sales seem to sometimes take weeks and months to come, which isn’t helpful if you’re hoping to shift clutter! I made a concerted effort to list a whole bunch of items in one go – I had about 65 items for sale when I started. I went through all the cupboards in the house and anything that hadn’t been used in the last year had to go. In fact I found items lurking that hadn’t been used in years, some in at least 10 years! Those items were mainly lurking in amongst my craft supplies. So I had clearly been too lenient on my previous decluttering attempts.

I was also ruthless with my wardrobe! I had to get most of my clothes out in one go, to shift between my summer and winter wardrobes. I was slightly taken aback at just how many clothes I actually had. It’s so easy to by one thing here, another there and you soon don’t realise just how much is squirrelled away. The vast proportion of what was listing was clothing items. I really can’t say if having that volume of items listed is what made them shift faster, but I can’t think of any other variables from my end. I didn’t set them at silly, low prices, I always calculate my costs and include shipping in my item price as I don’t think buyers want to be adding that on.

Anyway, I’ve sold around £200 of items in just 10 days. It’s made a fantastic difference to the amount of space around the house and also boosted our Christmas coffers. So this post is just to encourage you to get sorting through those cupboards and set your stuff free! eBay is a really great place to start, as there is such a huge marketplace of buyers out there. There’s usually someone out there to buy the things you no longer want or need. Now when I think about it, I visualise £200 worth of bank notes being stuffed into the cupboards around our house. The reality is that’s the truth of the situation! I think it was Joshua Becker who said that spending money on things you don’t need now, is robbing from your future self. Well, thinking of it like that will surely give you a new perspective on things!

Get 500 SB When You Sign Up For Swagbucks

Christmas is coming – can you believe it, barely over a month away? Since this time of year in particular is a good one for having some extra money, Swagbucks is offering a 500 SB Bonus to people who sign up through me this month – it’s the biggest bonus they’ve ever offered!  For any new readers, Swagbucks is a rewards site where you earn points (called SB) for all sorts of things you’re probably already doing online, like shopping, discovering deals, taking surveys, watching videos, and more! Then you can turn your gift cards in to PayPal cash or gift cards to places like Amazon, Starbucks, and more!  Now, most people are definitely going to be doing some shopping at this time of year, so why not earn some SB as cashback and also use those to get free gift cards to buy more gifts. You really can’t lose!

Here’s how you get your bonus:

1. Sign up using this link

2. Earn 300 SB total before 1/12/16. You’ll get a 300 SB bonus for it!

3. When you do your holiday shopping, spend at least £25 through Swagbucks Shop* and you’ll get another 200 SB bonus on top of the cashback you’ll get from shopping.

Here’s the best part – if you refer someone yourself and they do steps 2 & 3, you’ll earn the same bonuses they do, so it really adds up! That’s all there is to it. I buy all my Christmas gifts using SB and I find it really handy for my family who lives in the States, as I can buy American gift cards too. I send them for free via email and it doesn’t cost me a penny!

*You must receive your shopping SB before 1 January

Lush

Today I want to write about a local, ethical and sustainable business called Lush. Chances are, you’ve probably heard of them already- I think they’re best known for the bath bombs and the amazing smells that emanate from their stores!

Ever since I read Bea Johnson’s Book about a year ago, I have been looking for Zero Waste toiletries. Lush immediately sprang to mind, as I knew a tiny bit about them- in the recesses of my mind, probably because they are local. I’ll admit that I wasn’t that keen on them- I found the smell in their stores completely over-powering and even walking too close, when passing by was too much for me! I’d even been given the odd bar of soap and not liked the smell, so sold it on eBay.

However, things were different this time- I wasn’t looking just to purchase toiletries- I was looking for a more ethical, zero waste purchase. They are in-fact pretty unique, as most organic toiletries are still packaged in plastic. As shampoo and conditioner were the things I was about to run out of, I tried their solid shampoo and conditioner bars. They were fab, completely unpackaged, free of silicones and very convenient- as they last much longer than bottles. We have never looked back, even though we’re paying slightly more for our toiletries. I now have total peace of mind that we’re doing our bit for the environment and are supporting a local business, thus also keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible. They are actually made about 3 miles from my house- although I have to drive over twice as far to get to a store!

I recently placed my 1st online order as they had a sale and I wanted to share this with you, as a great example of a sustainable company working towards zero waste.

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A recycled cardboard box arrived, sealed with paper tape. The first thing that hits you is the gorgeous smell coming from the box- unfortunately I can’t convey this over the web!

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Inside was a copy of my order and ingredients lists for all the products I had ordered, all printed two-sided on recycled paper. I felt this was a little unnecessary for me personally, as I am perfectly capable of going online to check these things. I am going to contact them and ask if they could provide an option to opt out of paper communications in your order.

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Your order comes packaged in what looks like polystyrene chips, but they are in-fact Eco Chips! They are completely biodegradable and one of their assistants recently gave me a demo in-store, where they dissolve completely in water. They are made from potato starch and also biodegrade quickly in soil. I will be keeping mine for re-use, in one of my many eBay parcels. I will make sure I make a note to tell their future recipient about them.

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This was my order- all safely stowed underneath. As you can see, most of the products I ordered are solid and come completely unpackaged. In the top right are solid conditioner bars, but because I ordered so many (I stocked up at 1/2 price!) that little cardboard box contains 8 more. Disappointingly, it is sealed with plastic tape- another thing I will be contacting them to ask about!

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So here are all my goodies in their unpacked glory. I have got my first unpackaged Lush soap to try- it’s the rectangular one in the middle and is marzipan fragranced. Above this is a yellow, citrus ‘massage bar’- this is actually a solid body lotion. The bright pink and green items are solid conditioners, as you can see it’s stamped on them. I’ve got the pink one to try because at 1/2 price it’s a good opportunity to do so- as Lush recommend. This is also why I bought the gift set.

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The Winter Garden gift set is a giant metal bauble and is packed inside with Eco Chips to protect the contents. I will re-use this to make a gift for someone in the future.

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Inside, a tub of hand cream, a rose jam shower gel and an Elder and Bergamot solid soap. Lush pots are made from 100% recycled black plastic (polypropylene) which is far more easily recycled. They have also changed their labels from paper to plastic, so that they can all be recycled together. Lush seek to make their  plastic recycling activities closed loop, in turn creating zero waste and so customers are encouraged to return empty, washed pots to their store. They offer an incentive of a free face mask for every 5 full-sized pots returned. This initiative is mentioned on a sticker on the side of their pots. They also moved production from China to a factory in Poole, 1 mile away from their own- so their carbon footprint has been massively reduced too. this in-turn is further supporting the local economy. There is also a mini brochure containing details of most of their products available in store. Again, I would prefer not to have this but I understand they might want to promote their products to people who wouldn’t normally purchase them and don’t know about their ethics.

This little lot cost me around £50 in the sale, including delivery which was a really good deal. Lush only have a sale once a year and it only contains short-dated products and Christmas gift sets. This is because they believe that they are charging a fair price all year round, for their ethically sourced, handmade and zero waste products. I find it really helps me when I’m shopping, as I’m not tempted to buy things that I don’t need and I’m not (normally) tempted to stock up. As their items are made using minimal preservatives, they are best used fresh. But solid items do have a longer shelf-life, since they don’t have as much water in them. If you go in-store, they will package your solid items in a recycled paper bag or  you can buy metal tins to fit them which you can then re-use. I also take my paper bags back each time and re-use them until they fall apart.

Overall, I feel enormously proud to be supporting this local company. They have been around for over 20 years- let’s hope they are here for many, many more!