27 Nov 2015, 12:01am
living intentionally
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  • Black Friday is a good day to live intentionally

    1511-blackfriday

    There’s a massive event happening today, the Torygraph has the when and where all taped

    The biggest shopping day of the year is almost upon us, so what and when is Black Friday, and how you can get your hands on the best deals and discounts? It’s here! The shopping extravaganza takes place the day after Thanksgiving, which is the fourth Thursday in November. This year, Black Friday falls on November 27.

    People are going to be fighting each other over TVs and similar artificially created scarcity. The best deals are to be had when we ignore this artifice of marketing sleazebags to get us all to buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like with money we don’t have 1.

    Even 20% off something you 100% didn’t need before you saw the ad is 100% too much money, not 80%. Heck, even if you did need/want it buying into the concept of 20% off to buy it at a time of their choosing rather than your choosing is giving precious headspace to the ad-men, they got a hook into your head. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t expect to get more of a win out of you.

    So let’s keep it real, today, what we need is buy nothing day. Because we’re all running out of time, 24 hours every day. Even if you like working, there’s no dignity in working to be a puppet on a string to someone else’s agenda.

    I learned something in the seven lean years since the start of my journey to financial independence that began in February 2009.

    I learned what enough looks like

    And once you know what enough looks like, you don’t need to dance at the end of a string because somebody wants you to Buy It Now. No. If I want something I will damn well buy it at a time and place of my choosing. And I am rich enough to be able to ignore the desperate blandishments, because once you know what enough looks like 20% off some bauble is lost in the noise. It’s only when you are spending 110% of your income that this becomes a deal-maker.

    Advertising is the mind-killer. Advertising is the little-death that brings total obliteration.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. When the advertising has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

    Litany against advertising riffed off Frank Herbert’s Dune

     

    Notes:

    1. I’m aware of the irony of using pop culture funded by advertising against advertising. There are some pretty slick threads on Tyler Durden and his band of fellow fight clubbers, product placement at work and all that. What the hell – all’s fair in love and war
    26 Nov 2015, 10:55am
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  • An Ermine finds himself working but not worth training

    I have spent the last three years running the other way whenever anything associated with the dreaded W word came up, blanked the ranks of recruiters (they thin out fast enough after six months), turned down the odd design and build and done the odd one pro bono rather than face the grisly issue of self-assessment. But eventually my luck ran out and I was offered just enough to be worth registering for SA, particularly as I am short one year of NI for 35 years to get a full State Pension 😉

    That’s working as a minimum-wage contractor, rather than as HRT paying consulting engineer that is, sic transit gloria mundi, eh? At least it’s only about three days a month. I did some scientific work and electronics for a bunch of guys, so I have to lose about five grand of income somewhere – my SIPP looks like a great place to start. Paradoxically, I would be daft to claim the cost of my microscope and chartered engineer subscriptions to reduce my income as real self-employed workers do, because washing as much income as possible through the SIPP nicely returns me the 20% VAT I paid on the microscope in the form of an income tax refund on tax I don’t pay. It’s a strange old world indeed, working below the tax threshold.

    I’m a deeply lazy bastard, and after 30 years of it I don’t need to sell my time for money. I didn’t even have Jim’s transitory ennui, three years out of the workplace has taught me the world is plenty interesting enough to keep me occupied. Unlike Jim, my exit from the workplace was a rout, not a controlled exit, I was therefore saved from that sort of angst. You just don’t mourn the scenery of the long road trip if you got to crawl from the wreckage fifty miles from journey’s end 😉

    However, recently I failed to step back quickly enough after a fellow doing the books for an enterprise dropped out hastily, and I ended up with  running the books, and doing in the corporation tax and companies house annual return, so I will continue to earn some wedge for that and some on and off scientific analysis and engineering. I followed TFS’s step by step guide how to register and fill in your self-assessment tax form It’s early days yet, and I have the suspicion that I really should have started here since I am not an employee. It appears I have a year to get this right, and he’s dead right, it is not straightforward. 1.

    work... I calim no originality here, it's more system integration/applications than design

    one example work in the form of a remote temperature sensor… I claim no design creativity here because this is a COTS product, my role is more system integration/applications than design

    You can’t motivate the financially independent with money

    I did this to help out rather than to be able to buy a Cornucopia of Crappy Christmas Consumer Shit 😉  On the other hand I am not a Zen being of true light and ultimate detachment. I have a problem with working for free 2 in a role where people have been previously paid for it, and also particularly where there is something that needs to happen by particular times. However, I’m not that sure that the money will change my lifestyle.

    a different aspect fo the activity called work

    a different aspect of the activity called work

    Being a lazy toad the first thing I did was make a PERL script to munge the downloaded online bank statements 3 into something I can import into Quicken, because life is far too damn short to key hundreds of transactions on minimum wage. I set them up way back when with Quicken, because I understood it. The dude who quit in haste was setting things up with Sage One Accounts and running parallel, but I shut that down because Sage One will nickel and dime us for add-on this and add-on that to get the management reporting of product lines and cost of goods sold that Quicken already does. Sage One will make the figures add up and track VAT but it won’t help you answer the question “are we spending more on making product X than we get selling it” which is a pretty fundamental thing people want to know if they’re running a business.

    It was the classification and categorisation of Quicken that help me understand and bring order to my own personal finances. While I wouldn’t go as far a the Rhino and consider myself Ermine Enterprises PLC tracing where the money went, using the principles I learned running that multimedia company taught me to chase the waste. Before, I had simply used Quicken in order to make sure Micawber was satisfied and get the numbers to add up. Spending less than you earn is 80% of the win of personal finance – do that over a working life and some of it will stick to the sides.

    By the time they’d finished upgrading Sage to be as useful as Quicken it would be cheaper to pay an bookkeeper to reconcile the bills from the time-honoured shoebox. And anyway. the Ermine Does. Not. Do. Cloud. I just don’t get it how people entrust key functions like that to cloud, but then I’ve seen dodgy sorts hold my data to ransom. You spend a lot of effort putting transactions into an accounting system, and cloud providers own the keys to your effort. When they say pay more or else, you get to pay more. Of course they all offer a low cost trial period, I believe this is the same way street drug dealers work to raise their customer base 😉

    The strangeness of inverse taxation

    I’m not doing this for the wedge, though it will enable me to pump up my SIPP contribution this year to more than the £3600 my non-earning self has been putting in, which will mean I get an extra 20% payrise from the taxman simply by washing this through the SIPP. I will stay below the personal allowance and am a mustelid of sufficiently grizzled fur as to be able to use flexible drawdown. Once you earn more than the personal allowance then that’s a waste of time in a money roundabout 4, but an Ermine is far too idle to put in enough work to earn the personal allowance.

    Now I’ve managed to get through my working life without ever having filled in a tax return because I was a PAYE wage slave and I can’t say the prospect thrills me – I’ve turned down odd jobs in the past because I couldn’t face that. But the win on SIPP and State pension shifts the needle on the dial enough to make this worth doing, at least for one tax year, where I will put my entire gross pay into the SIPP, although it will only cost me 80% of my gross pay. It’s only going to be about 5k, but it’ll work hard for me, and I get to spend the remaining 1k on beer and crisps… It’s interesting to observe that last year the Consolidated Dividends dept of my ISA almost worked as hard as I will this year 😉

    There’s something deeply futile about working post FI

    What’s the bloody point? I’m still of that opinion – I have to take this wedge and lose it in a SIPP, purely to game the system and win the £1000 I can’t be arsed to juggle 20 bank accounts for. One of the things I learned in the seven lean years 5 from 2009 is what enough looks like. I’m not currently there yet, but once this SIPP starts paying out on average £15k 6, then there’s no point in earning more from then. No consumer shit is worth spending more time in an office, and above all else, I don’t like working for free, particularly for the taxman. End of – so as soon as I draw my main pension I need to cease earning any income from work ‘cos it’ll all be taxable.

    OTOH if I don’t manage to work out how to transfer this SIPP I might consider working enough to stall drawing my main pension for another year or two, then take an actuarial hit and invest the AVC tax-free PCLS. One of the other things I learned in those seven lean years is stay flexible, nothing ever turns out as planned.

    National Insurance deliberations

    The other place this is useful for me is that I only have 34 years of NI contributions. I need 35 for a full State Pension, should such a mythical beast still exist in 12 years. A lot of those years are contracted out, but 10 aren’t. I need one more year, and it so happens that buying NI contributions as a self-employed ‘striver’ is much cheaper (£2.80 × 52 weeks ≅ £146 p.a.) than buying Class 3 voluntary contributions as a gentleman of leisure (£14.10× 52 weeks ≅ £733 p.a) , because the Government fetishises earned income over rentier income, the Calvinist devils. Investing £146 to get a potential 2.5% uplift in State Pension sounds like a punt worth taking to me. The Government is going to have to sort its shit out with this ‘working is good for you’ prejudice if robots really do start to drive jobs out of the economy.

    There are, however, other subtle issues which  I don’t really understand. To be honest, anybody with a fair amount of DB pension should basically appreciate their good fortune and maybe not carp like this about losing out, because you’re losing out something you wouldn’t have got had the change not been made, and FFS there are a whole load of problems to do with pension saving you just don’t have compared to everyone else. But yes, if you contort yourself in knots you might make a case that under some circumstance you lose out. The issue is described in more detail here, but boils down to

    The old basic SP without add-on SERPS etc was £116pw if you got the full whack, and you should not lose out by the move to the new system, even if as a teacher you were contracted out of the State Pension earning related bits. That sets a lower floor, assuming you have 3o years of contributions up to next tax year, but it’s not inflation-linked. Your DB pension provider has to compensate for the loss of SP up to some arbitrary inflation linking – about 3%, and historically the compensation over that has been the inflation-linking of the old SP. But that nominal £116 is frozen at the change, and the contracted out years are held against you.

    The new SP is £151. Even if I hadn’t been contracted out, because I am a year short I’d lose £151÷35×0.8 (0.8 because I’d be 100% taxed on any extra, reducing the loss) or £3.45 p.w. which is £180 p.a. That will be sorted, but I will still lose (151-116)×24(contracted out years)÷35×0.8=£19.2 p.w. which is nearly £1000 p.a. for being contracted out, and the effective value of that deduction will increase with inflation.

    I therefore have the opportunity to add 80p a week to my State Pension (£41.60 p.a) for each year of NI I pay after April 2016. It’s not actually clear to me whether this year (where I would not be contracted out) counts for contracted in years under the old system, where it would punch higher than the new system (due to 1/30th rather than 1/35th). If it won’t then I will choose not to pay it this year from the small profits threshold regulations. Although £42 a year isn’t much, I may choose to consider myself working for some small amount and electively invest £150 NI a year for the next five years as I have a reasonable chance of living for three years beyond 67 (after which I’d have my money back) and after that I’d be in extra time.

    The ONS is right. An Ermine’s human capital is shot – it’s not worth training older guys…

    The ONS have officially declared older workers a waste of space. I will wear my badge with pride 🙂 It was that Monevator fellow that stated young people are already rich, and the ONS is right behind him

    Doomed, i tell ya, doomed...

    Employed human capital by age group, 2014

    Figure 4 shows that the stock of human capital is disproportionately concentrated in younger workers. For example, 41.4% of the working age population are aged between 16 and 35 but this group embodies 66.1% of the human capital stock, showing that being relatively young and having more years of paid employment remaining more than offsets the effect of having higher earnings whilst being relatively old.

    Arguably a 21-year-old Ermine leaving Imperial College in the teeth of Thatcher’s first recession carried the potential of all the putative earnings of an Ermine all the way up to retirement in 2012. Since a pension is deferred pay it’s hard to know where to allocate the next 25-30 years of pension ‘earnings’, after all I have to live that long to get it. As for the dividend income from my ISA which is effectively my DC pension, presumably the ONS looks at investing returns with the same dim view as Osborne looks at leveraged Buy to Let – as a tax on the otherwise productive activity of the economy.

    I was looking at improving my competence at this bookkeeping lark. 20 years of running Quicken and about 10 years of running a multimedia limited company on the side taught me the basics of doing this, and although I used to submit VAT returns on paper the online version asks the same things and numbers the boxes the same as over ten years ago.

    So I take a butcher’s hook a the AAT. Now the Ermine is an individualistic and solo learner, I am happy to read books and try and take the AAT test which is a modest investment of the odd hundred pounds. But it appears that you can’t self learn all of it and have to involve a training organisation, and all of a sudden the costs skyrocket. I want the learning but I don’t want to pay the training fees, and now that ONS chart makes sense. There’s no point in investing in training an Ermine because there’s no decent return in it compared to the school leaver. I’d have to set up in business and start doing other people’s books and that sounds far too much like work to me.

    The other thing is the pace of the CBT e-learning is terribly slow. I was totally unaware that businesses could transfer the risks of customer invoices to banks, and it appears in two ways – either debt factoring or invoice discounting. With one you get the customers to pay a third party, who advances you a lump of the invoice as they chase the customers, with the other you get a credit line which is a certain percentage of your outstanding sales invoices. The e-learning takes five minutes to play-act out what I’ve just described in two lines. I really hate the trend towards video for instruction nowadays – it forces a dreary pace on things, you can’t speed up or slow down with bits you get or don’t get, and unlike reading you have to grind along at the pace of the slowest learner. Likewise for the solvency sketch, it’s pretty ‘king obvious that you run out of money if you have to pay people faster than you get paid. I believe I would have jumped to that even as a callow late 1970s school-leaver.

    Much of this training seems targeted at school leavers who have little idea of what a business does. I am okay on that, it is the peculiar conventions of bookkeeping and accountancy I am unfamiliar with. I can make the numbers add up, identify if things are costing more to make than they earn from analysing the classifications and the flows of money in Quicken. I can fill in the VAT returns and the annual accounts, again from understanding the flows of money.

    But I find the specialised lingo counter-intuitive – take this for example. WTF is an increase in assets the same sort of thing (a debit entry) as an increase in expense? If I buy a load of shares my bank balance goes down, yes, but I have something of value to show for it. Whereas if my expenses increase, my bank balance goes down but it just gets to piss me off. This really isn’t the same thing at all.

    However, I solved the problem for the princely sum of £0 with this Open University book on accounting free on Kindle. Apparently years ago in the 1600s the Italians decided assets increasing were classed as debits, and we’ve been stuck with this bizarre convention ever since. Which explains why I kept on failing those AAT tests 😉

    You do not need expensive classroom training for many things. Sometimes an enquiring mind and having learned how to learn will do, so the ONS can take their human capital and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine as far as this human capital deadbeat is concerned.

    Notes:

    1. I owe TFS a beer, because I have managed to complete this now without gnashing of teeth
    2. The Guardian asserts this is a specific problem with my generation and gender, though I don’t observe this particularly in the local environment, grey hair predominates in charity/volunteer roles, and I note the younger generation may be forced into unpaid work to broaden their CVs, which may distort the survey
    3. the modern way is to use a third-party service like Yodlee, give them your bank login details so they can log in to your bank and transfer this data, which is how Sage One does it. As soon as I read that I decided these were not people I am prepared to do business with, because doing that instantly gives the bank carte blanche to repudiate any losses you incur due to fraudulent activity even if unconnected. No thank you sir. Not. Going. There.
    4. until you reach the HRT threshold
    5. I know, it’s six, but I will only start to draw this in the next tax year
    6. when I toss in the PCLS spread out over five years, assuming it isn’t recruited to save my sorry ass from a market swoon
    16 Nov 2015, 5:21pm
    personal finance rant
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  • The Guardian misinforms punters how to deal with the cost of Christmas

    The Guardian, which is a broadsheet paper aimed at the left-of-centre middle classes, hipsters and other good sorts, brings us an article on how to deal with the fiscal impact of Christmas. Which is absolutely, totally, stupendously wrong on all counts. It is like, WTF is wrong with these guys. It’s a total riot of wrong-headed gormless thinking. They trip up right out of the starting gate, with the headline.

    Overdraft or a ‘money transfer’? How to ease the cost of Christmas

    Repeat after me, you addle-brained punters, you never, ever, ease the cost of anything by borrowing money to pay for it 1. You always make your future self pay more and go without so your greedy current self can Have. It. Now. That’s fine and dandy when you’re in short trousers, but by the time you’ve gotten to 18 and over when you can legally buy beer and drive a credit card, you should have noticed something about Christmas.

    Christmas is not a random event

    It’s so unrandom that I can tell you when it will be in a hundred years time – 25th December 2115 since you ask. It’s not a random event or some act of God – well, depending on who you speak to it might be, but not in the OMG that’s totally unforeseeable category of things.

    less bad than the timer.. just. Still begs the question, why...? Just why make it, why buy it?

    Do not spend more than you have to on crap like this

    The choice is not overdraft or money transfer, you blithering nincompoops, because the other thing about Christmas is that is a totally gratuitious and elective expense. There is nothing at all wrong with spending shitloads of money on consumer trash to see the beatific smiles on your kids’ faces for five seconds if you save up for it first. You did, didn’t you? We presume since you are an adult you have noticed that regular things happen, er, regularly…? Mind you, I do wonder when the writer was born

    This is a relatively new facility on offer to some credit card holders, and allows someone to take part of their credit limit in the form of cash that is paid directly in to their bank account.

    Err, I used this newfangled facility to borrow £15,000 interest-free from MBNA to put down as a bigger deposit on my first house, over 25 years ago. There was a lot wrong with buying that house, but the MBNA loan was repaid and did not cost me any more than £15,000. This feature ain’t that new.

    Not only are the Guardian normalising infantile consumer behaviour, they are also telling their readers

    Go find a store that is offering x% higher prices for your Christmas goods. And shop there

    Normally you’d look for money off, but borrow for Christmas and you are spending more on your Consumer Stuff than you need to, which is the mark of a prize airhead.

    It’s simple. You spread the cost of Christmas by saving up for your consumer splurge before Christmas. Otherwise all you are doing is getting the same goods but paying more, or paying the same money and getting fewer goods. And that’s just pain stupid, dear Guardianistas. Don’t do it to yourselves.

    If you need to borrow money for Christmas, you can’t afford it

    So do yourself and your family a favour, cancel it for a year, and resolve to start saving in January for this predictable expense that will come round in 12 month’s time. You worked hard for that bloody money, and it’s rude to take 10-20% of your time working for the Man and just toss it down the toilet because you can’t think ahead. Suck it up for this time and resolve to get your act together for next Christmas, because y’know what? You have 13 months, starting now 😉

    That’s an F for Total Fail, Guardian. Do not borrow money for predictable expenses, because if you do you are spending more to get less.

    Notes:

    1. unless you can borrow for a total effective cost below inflation, which is not the case now
    14 Nov 2015, 9:53am
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  • the penny and the steamroller at Monte Carlo

    Note: the lower part of this post has rapidly moving/flashing graphics

    I am slowly inching my way to being able to run my DC pension flat in front of my DB pension, effectively burning up the DC fund over five years, drawing my DB pension at normal retirement age. The latter will give me enough to live on, and I can keep my ISA tax-free income reinvested against the day when wages in Britain begin to increase in real terms, whereupon I will start to fall behind without being on the side of Capital. Or I can use it to hedge against the demise of the NHS, when healthcare will become at best insurance-based like in most other European countries, or at worst like the evil that is the US system. I am fortunate enough to avoid doctors and hospitals at the moment, but nobody gets healthier as they get older.

    Running a DC pension flat over five years is an odd time-frame

    There’s an age-old rule of thumb, never have money you will need in five years anywhere near the stock market. Ever ask yourself why this is so? The basic reason is that the equity premium is tiny – about 1/20th of the capital sum per annum, and this is the fella who is fighting on your side. He is such a puny bastard you either need a lot of time or a lot of money on your side. They ain’t making any more time, which is why compound interest won’t save your ass unless you work till you have one foot in the grave…

    On the other side of the ring is the Bad Guy – volatility. He’s a moody bastard – sometimes euphoric, and sometimes down in the dumps. He will drag the aggregate value of your share portfolio up and down as he pleases, and that volatility is massive, because Mr Market is the 600lb gorilla, and if he’s in a grump everybody gets to know.

    So I asked myself what would happen if I started out with a lump of about 80k – if I want to run it flat in five years I can’t really use much more than that, and there is no point in running my DC SIPP into the revenue from my main pension as that is already over the personal allowance, so I’d be taxed on the SIPP in its entirety.

    Right off the bat I can take ~£20,000 as a tax-free lump sum, and this is the obvious thing to do. 1.

    After taking the PCLS I can take ~£11,000 per annum income tax-free from the personal allowance, and simple arithmetic shows that after I have iced £20k from my stake I have £60k to run out, and 5×£11,000 2 is 5k short of the £60k balance. If I am lucky they will lift the personal allowance towards the end of this Parliament 3 and an Ermine will squeak under the finish line with the goose feathers unplucked.

    What about that steamroller then?

    about that steamroller

    about that steamroller

    I have paid a lot of tax in my time, and I considered contributing £3600 a year to the SIPP over those five years at a cost of £2800 p.a.. Somehow I want a way for the taxman to share in the risk, so I asked myself the question of what I think about tackling the steamroller of the stock market

    What would happen in my SIPP if rather than cash I held it in some index fund of a market that isn’t on a high CAPE, so FTSE 100 or 250 rather than S&P500…

    more »

    Notes:

    1. the PCLS is a special case, the actual income from the SIPP is the tax-free personal allowance each year
    2. the personal allowance is £10,600 at the moment
    3. the aspiration that nobody on the full-time national minimum wage should pay tax ought to help with that
    4 Nov 2015, 11:21pm
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  • The Latte Factor and the Coffee Outlet as Performance Art

    The Latte Factor is one of those personal finance staples – the meme is that if only you could kick your daily coffee habit you would retire years early and help the environment too. It’s also unAmerican thinking and to be stamped out in a consumer society, natch.

    I’ve been lucky enough to work in places where people got together in coffee clubs and the companies provided hot water taps and tea points where you could plug in a kettle and sit with colleagues and set the world to rights every so often. Sometime I wonder if this was simply the more relaxed working pace of the past before everything got all so dreadfully competitive. There now seem to be workplaces you have to log out to go for a piss never mind entertain the concept of a morning and afternoon coffee break.

    Forces in the economy are making luxuries cheap and necessities dear. Sometimes I gawp in amazement at what you can do now – coffee, 3d scanning with a kinect games controller, the power of computers that I paid thousands for in the mid 1980s packed like sardines into smartphones the size of a packet of cigarettes (remember them?). We’ve go so much better at Stuff but in crafting this consumer cornucopia we’ve also built a world where everybody wants to be somewhere else, preferably facetweeting in smartphone-space as they run into lamposts in the real world.

    And yet for all that awesome technology more and more Britons will never earn enough to buy a house, and the pressure of work on their relationships is such that having kids is less fun for anybody involved in the enterprise. But all that is a different rant. Let’s take a look at this particular consumer luxury, where our office workers at least have other wage slaves to make them coffee.

    Coffee seems to have taken over from tea as the British beverage of choice over the last 40 years or so, but it seems only recently that we are so coffee-deprived we have to buy it on the go. Judging by the number of Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero and the like it’s big business. The Ermine has a reasonably simple approach to coffee, it needs to be good enough, so generally non-instant, but filter coffee is fine. Those stove-top contraptions much favoured by Mrs Ermine are fearsome – a needlessly harsh and aggressive jolt. A cafetiere/French press is fine though there is always the problem of where to put the grounds, which will eventually block up your sink if you lose them that way. There’s no need for greater complication – the Heston Sage favoured by some of the more metropolitan frugalistas is overkill IMO. Plus you need domestic staff to clean the bugger out, the whole heat and milk combination is never easy on them downstairs…

    I never used public transport to get to work after leaving London and just didn’t get into the habit of buying prepared coffee, for the first half of my career this sort of metropolitan effeteness just wasn’t even available, though it crept in in the last decade or so, The Firm outsourced anything it could, and the introduction of a tuck shop selling overpriced coffee in paper cups was one of the improvements. Which then picked up a Costa franchise I think, and the price jumped 100%. So I’m not an expert on prepared coffee other than the DIY sort, which works fine for me.

    However, I recently darkened the threshold of a Costa Coffee joint with my mother, well when you’re pushing eighty then if you want to go mad and buy overpriced coffee then you can damn well knock yourself out 😉

    A Costa Coffe joint. They all look the same, I hear. And why are mobile phones so crap at taking pictures...?

    A Costa Coffee joint. They all look the same, I hear. And why are mobile phones so crap at taking pictures? Observe the two CCTV cameras over the till… That’s the trouble with paying minimum wage, you can’t trust anybody

    So I took some time to note the carefully orchestrated buying experience. There was a small queue, so they line the punters up by the curved glass cabinet on the right where there is an array of sugary treats, all with enticingly foreign-sounding names, but you know that they are basically industrial sugar with some esters made in a factory somewhere along the New Jersey Turnpike to give it a semblance of something dearer. I resisted, but took the time to observe.

    The theatre troupe has three members –  the first teenager behind the till who takes the order, and flannels the prospective punter a little, presumably they are incentivised to upsell some of the sugary crap. No thanks, two Americanos, and since my mother prefers too little rather than too much milk, he writes it onto the ticket, to make me feel special. I never worked out what the third actor did. Maybe the CCTV is watching them watching the others, we never have found an answer to the centuries-old problem of who watches the watchmen…

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    This then goes into a queue to the barista, who was probably a student, at least he looked old enough so he could legally buy beer 1. He may have been on the same course as Monevator, because in front of him he has a gleaming instrument of coffee gustatory creation, a finely honed machine with which the barista of distinction can meld to produce aromatic brews of the finest creations of the coffee-growers art, bringing a colourful piece of sunny Africa and South America to a grey day in Ipswich.

    What he actually does is add three-quarters of a cup of hot water to a quarter of espresso, ‘cos this piece of kit doesn’t do ordinary coffee. The cups are about half an inch thick, instantly chilling the coffee to just about warm enough. I guess you don’t want the punters to take too long over their coffee and want the cups to go through the industrial dishwashing machines without breakage.  I learned in my time as a kitchen porter in the late 1970s you only needed cups to be half a centimetre thick to minimize breakages – we sometimes lost one or two of the cups from the Directors’ lounge running through the machines, which happened to be decent china, whereas the cups for the hoi polloi only broke if someone was hamfisted and dropped a tray of them on the floor.

    So we got to enjoy some watered down espresso. Which is exactly what an Americano is. Now my mother got her value out of her outlay, because she came for the experience of seeing the world go round and to drink a cup of coffee with company. An I got to observe some consumer theatre and wonder on the world a little. But if I did it every day on the way to work, and it was the coffee I wanted, well, to be honest I’d feel ripped off  – watered down espresso tastes like watered down coffee does. You should make it at the strength you want it, not stronger and then water it down. And Costa really ought to change those cups. If you get coffee to go you have the privilege of a paper cup, which reacts with the coffee to give you that prized waxed paper flavouring but at least doesn’t chill the result.

    It’s perfectly possible to bypass all the theatrical drama – at work in the late 1990s/early 2000s they had machines in the canteen which could make a very decent cup of coffee all by themselves – beans went into a great big hopper at the top and they brewed decent filter coffee typically in batches every five minutes, dispensing this on demand, and indeed with a hot water spout if you wanted to water it down. No baristas needed. Of course you don’t get to play with the microfoam and all that stuff, but I fear the Ermine palate is just not as sophisticated as the metropolitan types – like so many products, once you’ve got out of the low-quality bottom end of the range 2 then good enough is good enough and there’s no point in over-thinking it IMO. But of course playing with the microfoam adds artisanal drama and the opportunity for you to feel special, and let’s face it, if you’re prepared to pay over two pounds for your morning coffee then you need to get to feel special – Because You’re Worth It ™

    It was an interesting lesson on the consumer experience. The product is a vehicle for the performance, and a lot of the performance is there to try and make the customer feel special, one of a kind. As Katherine Rosman of the WSJ said, engagingly

    giving that little lift that can come from a quiet moment of self-appreciation. That’s when a cup of coffee is so much more than a cup of coffee.

    This is the principle behind a lot of attempts at consumer marketing . Tesco tell you that ‘your’ store is changing – no it isn’t, their capital asset used to sell you groceries needs a refit. The named Coke bottles are a different take on the same old game, as are all those loyalty schemes that the good people on MoneySavingExpert dedicate much time on getting the most out of. So much consumerism is theatre – you’re buying the experience, not the product. The theatre is cheap value-add – the delightful thing is that this part of the value provides a feeling, it isn’t durable, so you keep coming back to renew it.

    The mysterious marvels of the microfoam…

    Having said that, I’ve also learned that I have been saved from chain coffee-shop coffee by my history. In 1970s Britain people used to make coffee with heated milk and instant powder coffee 3  – they weren’t used to it at all. It was disgusting to my taste, raised on Tchibo and Melitta 4 coffee imported from Germany by my mother and relatives. You couldn’t buy filter coffee in British stores in SE London at the time.

    I still associate the taste of heated milk in coffee with those days, and that was a world where we hadn’t been taught fat was bad, so a skin could easily form on the heated milk, which is just plain creepy. It appears that in the intervening four decades, people apparently prize the unique qualities of heated milk and wax lyrical about the many forms of heated milk in coffee and the art and craft of doing this, to me, disgusting practice. I am therefore always going to be a barbarian at the gates of the metropolis in this respect. I realised this, right at the end of writing this post, when I read this lady

    Yet, I don’t want to make myself a cappuccino at home in the morning, pour it into a thermos and drink it cold and frothless when I arrive at my office some two hours later.

    For Gawd’s sake, disregarding all the intangible Because You’re Worth It ™ bits about the theatre and the impracticality, never, ever, keep hot coffee and milk in a Thermos because the coffee heats up the milk and over time it gets to taste like that disgusting 1970s brew. Keep the hot coffee black in the Thermos and then add the milk after you’ve poured it out. Sorted 🙂 Obviously if you want hot frothy milk added then yes, you are SOL but if you can slum it with hot filter coffee and cold milk that sorts the latte factor problem out, though not the “little matter of self-appreciation”.

    Notes:

    1. that’s 18 in the UK
    2. the low quality end being all forms of instant coffee
    3. I grew up in a working-class background. I sincerely hope that Britain’s doctors and bank managers didn’t do this, although they probably eschewed coffee altogether, after all the whole point of being middle class in those days was genteel bourgeois living and being able to send your kids to public/boarding schools. You just didn’t need the kick to the back of the neck that an espresso delivers to get you out of bed and on the way to work at 6 am, tea was perfectly adequate. The British palate was a coarse and unrefined thing before the 1980s, this was a nation that found the Vesta curry exciting. In fairness to those gastronomically unsophisticated generations, this was a country that had the shit bombed out of it and only exited rationing in the 1950s, so the pragmatic favouring of quantity rather than fancy cuisine was understandable
    4. these are nothing special now but when the alternative is Fine Fare instant coffee powder it’s the height of Continental sophistication
    2 Nov 2015, 1:20pm
    reflections simple living Suffolk
    by

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