12 Jul 2013, 12:51pm
personal finance reflections simple living
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  • You really don’t need as much money post-retirement as you did while working

    Three years ago, almost to the dot, I wrote a post called Post Retirement Needs & Wants are Hard to Envision in Debt Slavery  I’ve come across this again a few times since then, and it seems that though I found it hard, it was a damn sight easier for me than many people. So I thought I’d revisit the theme, with about a years worth of hindsight.

    1307_think_outside_the_box1

    Artist: Rene Schute

    Most people, particularly those who have been working for a while and got set into a certain lifestyle spending, lose the ability to think outside the box. yeah, I know it’s a terrible piece of management-speak that I heard all too often at work, but it seems uniquely apposite here. I can’t believe the number of times I’ve heard variations on the theme.

    how on earth do you have a life on that little?

    A lot of successful people seem to gain their sense of self-worth from the number on their P60 corresponding to their salary, and there’s a knock-on effect that means their sense of self-worth ends up connecting to their spending. They feel that life isn’t being lived to the full if they aren’t spending a similar amount in retirement as they were spending at work.

    Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong in identifying yourself with your spending, provided you can afford it, and most of these successful people can afford it. Many people become successful precisely because they identify themselves with their salary, I know I switched jobs a few times early on because I thought I was worth more than what I was getting, and stopped when I figured I had reached Enough. Identifying yourself with your spending, however, has a cost. It makes retirement in general, and early retirement in particular, scary.

    That’s because you lose a bit of your sense of self-worth if you retire, since in most cases the maths dictate your retirement income is lower than working income 1. Early retirement in particular, is all about reducing your spending. It isn’t about earning more, because earning more is generally associated with lifestyle inflation, if only to compensate for the extra stress that usually goes with it. If you get your self worth from some of your spending, then reducing that is going to make you feel like shit and generally give you the willies. There are three things you can do about this

    1. Accept this is the way you are, these are the values you choose to live by, enjoy the spending and retire later!
    2. Examine your priorities, and ask yourself if your spending is really that important to you or if working is costing you more in loss of quality of life than the increased spending is improving your quality of life.
    3. Refuse to look at the situation and conclude that people who reduce their spending are living a miserable life of slumdogs

    1 amd 2 are both valid and reasonable courses of action. While 3 may make you feel better, if you haven’t asked yourself the question and honestly considered the alternatives, well, you haven’t really got your head out of that box, have you? It’s not like you are committing yourself to course 1 or 2, but at least if you go for 1 then you know that you are living your values, that there are other options but on balance you know you prefer to work longer and spend more.

    One of the problems is the classic one associated with all change. It is easy to see what you will lose with a change, but not so easy to see, and impossible to live, what you will gain with the change. The vast majority of the benefits of retiring I found were not to do with money. They were to do with the extra time I have, the vastly increased sense of self-determination, and the elimination of stupid rules and hoops to jump through.

    Many people think they will dive into a frenzy of DIY which will save them a load of money, and good for them. I did repair a tractor starter motor and a few things. But I can’t be arsed with many DIY tasks – I still have a flat roof fund against the time when that will need redoing, I paid a chimney sweep rather than do this myself though it’s perfectly in my capability, and I still haven’t really convinced myself I want to paint the house. All of these are still choices and the balance may change in time. There are some things I will do if it’s too hard to find competent workmen or the labour cost would make it prohibitive but I haven’t run into too many of those yet.

    My spending dropped because far too much of it was compensating for the stress and ennui of not being a free-range human being. And here’s a secret I can share with you – all the money in the world can’t compensate you for the deep loss of personal freedom that working for a living imposes upon you. Each one of us has 24 hours allocated to us every day, and about 8 of those we have to sleep. Of the remaining 16 half of them are sold to work. It’s a necessary evil, but over the course of three decades it is easy to end up with the words of Tyler Durden being all too true

    Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.

    Now there’s no getting away from the fact that the transition from working to retired is a change, and a challenge to boot.

    It made me nervous. More so in my case than most, I should imagine, I went from having a decent income to sweet FA, because I am not drawing my pension. Why not? Because I saved a shedload of money as cash, I had a year’s worth of salary under the tax-free threshold as cash and even after filling up 2012′s ISA I still had a load of cash left over.

    And you can’t turn a profit on cash these days. So the best I could do with this cash is to live off it and defer my pension. Because the trustees in charge of my pension expect me to die 20 years after I turn 60, each year I defer my pension it gets bigger by 5%, though since I am running into tax that actually only increases by 4%. It would be mad to take that income now because where the hell else am I going to turn a 4% in real terms return on investment on cash after tax? What am I going to do with it, there’s no point in drawing it and saving it, or even investing it, because I am not such a smart investor that I can say I have a good chance of doing better than 4% real.

    However, I have the ghost of Micawber on my shoulder, yelling out

    You are spending more than you earn Wrong Way, Stop, TURN BACK NOW

    He’s right in a narrow way and wrong in a big picture way. At the point of transition this gave me grief, I had just come out of three years of saving to get out, and wasn’t in the greatest place mentally.  I tried to maintain my net worth, becoming virtually catatonic for a short while after leaving. No, that isn’t living life to the full, but the time was productively used, it’s called convalescence, and that sort of thing takes just as much time as it’s gonna take ;) Life is a dynamic balance – as so well summarised in Ecclesiastes on “a time for all things

    However, looking back I went on holiday three times in the last year. So why is it that I needed less money after retiring? Was it as simple as Jacob ERE highlighted in his direct way – that for most people, the idea of living life to the full consists of

    In general, if you ask the average consumer what enjoying life is all about, it distills to the following trifecta: buying tickets, going to restaurants, and shopping.

    That’s it. Those three things are all there is to enjoying life. The uninformed opinion is that if you don’t have these these three things in your life, your life sucks. I know, because that’s what I used to think. And it’s also what consumers keep bringing up

    Why is this so? Jacob linked to this post on Raptitude which makes an attempt to nail down why, where the author looked at what changed when he went back to work

    We buy stuff to cheer ourselves up, to keep up with the Joneses, to fulfill our childhood vision of what our adulthood would be like, to broadcast our status to the world, and for a lot of other psychological reasons that have very little to do with how useful the product really is. How much stuff is in your basement or garage that you haven’t used in the past year?

    The ultimate tool for corporations to sustain a culture of this sort is to develop the 40-hour workweek as the normal lifestyle. Under these working conditions people have to build a life in the evenings and on weekends. This arrangement makes us naturally more inclined to spend heavily on entertainment and conveniences because our free time is so scarce.

    I’ve only been back at work for a few days, but already I’m noticing that the more wholesome activities are quickly dropping out of my life: walking, exercising, reading, meditating, and extra writing.

    The one conspicuous similarity between these activities is that they cost little or no money, but they take time.

    Suddenly I have a lot more money and a lot less time

    I failed dismally to call this out in my post on post-retirement needs and wants, because I wrote it while still at work. I missed Raptitudes’ insight because I hadn’t lived it, but now I have lived it he’s spot on. He goes on to say

    Can you imagine what would happen if all of America stopped buying so much unnecessary fluff that doesn’t add a lot of lasting value to our lives?

    The economy would collapse and never recover.

    All of America’s well-publicized problems, including obesity, depression, pollution and corruption are what it costs to create and sustain a trillion-dollar economy. For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people don’t feel like they need much they don’t already have, and that means they don’t buy a lot of junk, don’t need to be entertained as much, and they don’t end up watching a lot of commercials.

    I recommend his post to those who say that reducing spending means not living life to the full. To wit -

    Big companies didn’t make their millions by earnestly promoting the virtues of their products, they made it by creating a culture of hundreds of millions of people that buy way more than they need and try to chase away dissatisfaction with money.

    Now if that’s really what you want to do with your three-score-years-and-ten then have at it, but do take the time out to ask yourself whether that really is what living life to the full means to you ;)

    Me, I’m going to post this and then wander out in the neighbourhood and look at the bees skimming the clover and the flowers growing and the birds singing. It’s part of my investment in health insurance after MMM punched me in the face with his 23 1/2 hours article.

    That’s why I need less money than I anticipated. It’s that I have more time. And no, it’s not as simplistic as time=money so I can do for myself what I’d pay others to do. That sounds smart but it’s bollocks. More time has an existential value in and of itself. It enables me to live better, so I don’t have to chase away dissatisfaction with money.

    Notes:

    1. a typical expected retirement is about as long as your working life, so unless you are saving nearly half your pretax salary you will retire on less than your working pay. Compound interest isn’t enough to do most of the heavy lifting here
    7 Jun 2013, 8:55pm
    fixing things rant:
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  • Maplin Electronics – if it’s under £100 and lasts a year that’s as much as you can expect

    Way back in March 2012 Maplin sold me this 7″ TV from Maplin. My main application was lining up security cameras, but I also thought it would be useful for checking the weather forecast when in our campervan. As it was I didn’t realise there is no useful Teletext replacement on digital TV. A smartphone and the weather page on the BBC website is far more practical, unless you’re in parts of Scotland. And then you probably don’t get DTT service either.

    Today I wanted to rig a camera looking at the massive Barn Owl box kindly provided by Suffolk Wildlife Trust at the Oak Tree farm because a barn owl is a frequent visitor, occasionally to be seen at the box and there’s loads of bird crap underneath it, and some owl pellets, or so I am told by people who know about this sort of thing. I get to see this, rather than a blue screen I’d expect with no signal

    Maplin customer service is crap

    One dead Maplin TV that they refuse to replace

    So I take advantage of the glorious sunshine and take a wander through a couple of recs and the park, to it back to the store

    And they refused to replace it or refund. It was the usual runaround, sorry sir, yes, I agree it’s a bit short for the TV to fail but company policy is yadda yadda. They suggested I contacted Maplin Customer Services, where I talked to Kirsty who repeated the story. I educated her as to the Sale of Goods and that this TV was not of suitable quality as consumer durables should last longer that a year and a bit and she more or less said “f*ck you, so sue us” I wish I had a recording, but since I used Maplin’s phone to avoid paying some usurous 0844 charge I couldn’t do that. Next time I will take one of those sucker pickup coils and a recorder.

    I really try and avoid using the phone with big firms. If I have to deal with them then writing a letter is usually quicker and cheaper, plus it wastes less of my time. But if I do have to use the phone then I always record the call as a matter of policy.

    This reminds me that there are added advantages to not buying consumer crap. Not only do you not spend money. You also don’t get the sort of deliberate frustration that companies like Maplin set up to reduce their costs by avoiding their legal obligation to supply goods of suitable quality.

    I remember Maplin from a time when it wasn’t a purveyor of cheap Chinese crap but actually a supplier of useful components. They took a business decision somewhere in the 1990s to get out of the electronics hobbyist market and into the gadget end, and increased their prices to about one and a half times what they should be. And became a damn sight more successful ;)

    Now I can’t really get too excited about the £70, but I sure as hell don’t like being taken the piss of. So I got onto MSE and looked at what I should have done and exactly how to put the letter which will be the next step. I suspect that Maplin take the Ryanair policy of customer service. They spend the money on training their staff to runaround complainants enough  that they give up, and in the end there’s only so much effort I’m going to put into this.

    But it’s a little bit more than rolling over. I’ve taken MSE’s template letter, though I’m not going to threaten legal action fo a £70 TV, otherwise I think the people in Maplin’s complaints centre would be justified in having a titter.

    The official Maplin policy seems to be -

    If it’s under £100 and it lasts more than a year, that’s it, sunshine. It doesn’t owe you anything

    Not only does this sort of shoddy approach contribute to the amount of e-waste, it’s also taking the piss. A TV is not a consumable item. Okay, 10 years is asking a bit long, but five years is a reasonable minimum service life to expect.

     

    18 Apr 2013, 9:37pm
    living intentionally simple living:
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  • Retirement isn’t like a long weekend, or a long vacation

    Something I’ve discovered is that many people who have been working for some time find it hard to imagine what life is without work, and occasionally fear the void. I’m not talking about someone who has found their vocation and genuinely enjoyed most of it. I observe that most often in the self-employed at the entrepreneurial end of things, be that in DW at The Oak Tree Farm, or the driven creative entrepreneur, or hell, even Diamond Geezer Bob ex of Barclays ;). That’s fine – but some of the rest of us wage slaves occasionally look at our lives, look at the bits that aren’t work (weekends, vacations) and subtract work to think ‘is that all there is’? with a little shiver down the spine at an imagine life of long weekends and extended vacations. For some, it seems to lack meaning and purpose.

    It isn’t how it will be, but it’s an understandable mistake. When you have retired, life is not like one long weekend, or even a long vacation. Yes, the weekends are less different to the working week, obviously, but therein lies the clue. For people working 5 days a week, the two-day weekend is a brief respite, a chance to recharge the batteries, to take a break. You don’t need to do that when you have control of your own time, so your weekends are different! it still staggers me how I became almost zombified as energy drained, whole swathes of weeks merged into grey blocks of time compared to the kaleidoscope of variety. Don’t get me wrong, there was much more busyness then, but the ancient Greeks identified the problem with their concepts of Kairos and Chronos. You must live time, not just watch the hands sweep over the face of the clock. That means paying attention and doing things with respect.

    Retirees still have to take some regard of the weekends, of course, because meeting up with others who are working is usually easier. Just as steam gives way to sail you need to respect other people’s time pressures. Nevertheless, life retired isn’t one long weekend, because there’s no need to decompress from the stress of work or to pack all the stuff into the two days that you couldn’t do in the other five days. It’s hard to say exactly how that is different, but it is – it is much more relaxed and more fun. Your weekends are no longer the bassline to the strident demands of work, they are part of a greater harmony.

    It’s not one long vacation, either. Unless you’re very rich ;) Even if you are, ask yourself whether an endless vacation isn’t perhaps the grown-up version of the kid who only wants to eat ice cream all the time. A life well lived has dynamic contrast, moving between different poles. A lot of your vacations while working are expensive because you are packing in a lot of stuff to make it as different from work as you can. You are usually time-constrained, too. I can’t really put this much better than GOP from this comment:

    One change since I retired relates to travel. I used to go on far-flung holidays ranging from Bolivia to Bhutan which I thoroughly enjoyed but which also satisfied a need to get as far away from work as possible in every sense. Since retiring, although I can still afford to do it and my partner would be happy to let me, the need has somehow gone and I’m content with more local travel which, preferably, does not involve flying.

    Now I am somewhat constrained at the moment in that I have no income, so I’m not going to spend large amounts on travel right now, but that won’t last forever. I still feel similarly to GOP – I travelled reasonably well with work when I was a single man and had a penchant for trying to take longer but travelling overland. Most of the time I love my fellow humans but that doesn’t extend to seeing them milling around in airports, or pretty much anywhere where a whole load of people have to line up all in one place. MMM may have put his finger on the problem with a Peak life is lived Off-Peak.

    One of the key Principles of Mustachianism is that any and all lineups, queues, and other sardine-like collections of humans must be viewed with the squinty eyes of skepticism. Because if so many people simultaneously decide to do something that they are forced to stand or drive in a queue to do it, there’s a good chance it is something that is not worth doing.

    He’s got a point. Don’t travel at the same times as the rest of humanity if you can. Sometimes that means don’t travel at all ;) Often it’s as simple as travelling midweek, sometimes it means travelling at night. Similarly if you have to queue to buy something, it’s probably a carefully orchestrated shortage (think anything made by Apple, Christmas toys where the supply, marketing and demand are carefully managed to engineer a shortage and pester power that keeps sales up well after Christmas).

    Food. Overpriced and aspiration next to overpriced and junky. I'll pass on that, thanks all the same

    Food. Aspirational but dearer than if you made it at home and brought it to work

    Your life will change post-retirement. When you’re working more than half your time is owned by someone else, and in a hard twist that means you often have to pay other people to do things for you because you don’t have the time, be that Starbucks to get you coffee, some deli in London because you didn’t make sandwiches or calling in a plumber because you don’t have the time to fix the problem yourself or understand and learn what needs doing.

    The other thing, for which I have to thank GOP for introducing me to, is Herbert Marcuse, and his critique of capitalism, which is even more true now than when he wrote it :

    The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment,” meaning that under capitalism (in consumer society) humans become extensions of the commodities that they buy, thus making commodities extensions of people’s minds and bodies.

    You are not what you buy or use. Your soul is to be found in the space between your ears, in the web of life with other sentient beings, in your love of life, and of others. It has no barcode; there is none other like it. Never lose sight of that in the mesmerising maelstrom of marketing messages. Thoreau had some point when he said

    “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

    For a more direct dissection Jacob ERE gives it to us straight between the eyes with both barrels.

    In general, if you ask the average consumer what enjoying life is all about, it distills to the following trifecta: buying tickets, going to restaurants, and shopping.

    That’s it. Those three things are all there is to enjoying life. The uninformed opinion is that if you don’t have these these three things in your life, your life sucks. I know, because that’s what I used to think. And it’s also what consumers keep bringing up.

    Gulp. The Ermine has been known to darken the door of a restaurant occasionally ;)

    It is a little over three years since I started this blog. The first real transmission was this one. It’s hard to picture your life retired when working – I found even the financial issues hard to envisage and they are among the more tractable and quantifiable changes. Nobody bangs the drum for things after the change – because nobody has the experience of being retired before they are retired ;) Looking at that post, it was quite prescient. Illich had a point when he said choose a life of action. I spend more on tools and things to investigate stuff and make things happen. I don’t spend money on DVDs and video games. I’m fiddling about with finding out how to post a graph of the temperature of some chickens, and a polytunnel on Cosm. Because it’s a challenge. The secret to retirement is to be curious. Become like a child, always ask the question why.

    1304_flowers_P1040805

    I took a rotten shot of some flowers I passed because I’ve seen them before, and I figure it’s time I knew enough about my world to know what they are called. It’s one of the things that the gift of time gives you – you don’t have to live life on autopilot any more. Take joy in the quotidian as well as the unusual. I hear the song of the blackbirds slowly becoming more accomplished as time goes on. I learned about how to use json for data interchange.

    It was easier for me to not fear the void, because my work experience had deteriorated, and I was seriously stressed, not by what I was doing but by the stupidity of the system. In life you should generally try to run towards the light rather than away from the darkness. But sometimes it simplifies things. For someone who doesn’t have serious issues at work, there is much to be said for taking some time. I can’t recommend highly enough scaling down your expenditure to match what you expect to retire on, and do that for a year at least. The decision to retire, and if so to retire early, is one that is important, though not urgent. You have to make time to consider it. I was seriously motivated to retire early, but it still took me three years to get to the right point for me. The delay wasn’t for the want of trying to convince myself I could do it earlier.  And you have to be prepared to take some leap of faith, because you have no clear idea of what it will be like. Sometimes in life it is good enough to do the best you can with what you have to hand ;)

    It won’t be an endless weekend, or even an extra long vacation. Like sculpting anything, crafting a good life free of ‘work’ is a matter of having a general idea in your mind’s eye, and then taking the first steps. It won’t turn out exactly like the mental picture, and that’s fine. It won’t solve all your problems either, because remember that every place you go, still yourself you see in the mirror, and it is still your shadow that the lamp throws on the wall. Issues that lie within will retire with you. You may have more time to ruminate on how to work on them, but you won’t leave them behind as you hand in your mobile phone, computer and access card. Possibly for the first time you will be in charge of most of your time. Carpe diem – and may it serve you well.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about the money aspects of retirement. I overshot somewhat – I don’t spend now as much as I’d get if I drew my pension early right now. Getting the money straight is a prerequisite, and I would urge anybody thinking of retiring early to inform themselves about the financial aspects of retirement as much as they could. But money isn’t the whole story.

    Finance is necessary to crafting a decent retirement. But it isn’t sufficient. Your setting is just as important – who you will spend your time with, where you are, who is in your life, what your connections with the wider community is. Early retirees have some extra challenges in this area (most of their current social circle will probably be still at work) but they have other advantages unique to them too. They are younger, and probably more adaptable too. In the end I only retired eight years early, so I am not that unusual, compared to, say, Retirement Investing Today or Mr Money Mustache. There is a big difference in retiring in your early forties compared to early fifties. While the principles are the same – basically spend less than you earn, the scale is very different.

     

     

    22 Jan 2013, 11:02am
    simple living Suffolk:
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  • Scandinavian invasion – Waxwings

    This morning I heard a welcome noise, a fine trilling in the air. It can mean only one thing, Scandinavian invaders on the loose. Stand by your ornamental garden berries!

    Waxwings

    Waxwings

    These guys had come all the way from Scandinavia over here, in search of berries. And they parked themselves on a telephone pole at the end of my road. so I could go get a camera for a second look at these handsome creatures with their jaunty crests. They aren’t particularly shy, and tend to group in garrulous flocks, trilling away to each other.

     

    what they're really after is berries

    what they’re really after is berries

    They post some of the ranks on the telephone pole as lookout, busily digesting the spoils of war.

    waxwings massing

    waxwings massing keeping a lookout

    Sitting around also helps them digest :)

    They crap a lot too

    They crap a lot too

    It’s kinda rude to ignore something as lovely as these guys, and what’s nice about them is they are drawn to urban areas, because fo the ornamental berry crop. They aren’t particularly shy and have a penchant for supermarket car parks which have a lot of that as low ground cover. first time I’ve had them in my road!

    16 Jan 2013, 8:18pm
    fixing things:
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  • Why you shouldn’t break the ice on the birdbath with a hammer

    snow

    It’s a bit parky round these parts, so I reloaded the spadgers’ nuts, which is more fun in the interludes between the snow rather than in the anticipated blizzards to come. I figured I’d break the ice on the birdbath, with a hammer.

    The trouble is it was one of those plastic resin jobs, which is hollow inside. and despite being 2pm in the afternoon sun, the ice had frozen solid.

    Damn. Any fule kno plastic gets brittle in the cold...

    Damn. Any fule kno plastic gets brittle in the cold…

    So I’m down one bird bath and the sparrows are SOL on water. It’s the second time I’ve knackered it de-icing it, the first time was breaking the ice with a spade a couple of years ago. It’s a curious hollow plastic construction. I fixed it the last time using Milliput, which is a sort of epoxy resin putty. The same trick could sort this break out too.

    The right way to do this is with hot water from a kettle, but I was trying to avoid losing a load of heat to the latent heat of fusion of the lump of ice. I shouldn’t have been so tight, the bird bath holds probably about 5 litres, so I’d take a hit of 5 x 334 kJ or about 0.5kWh, about 10p these days. It would be several kettles’ worth of boiling water though to thaw it. Whereas now I’m down either £2 for some Milliput, or I may junk this and get a replacement.I’ve been coveting a cement/concrete one at a local hardware store for a while at £22.

    The sides of this birdbath are a bit steep for the spadgers and I have to put a piece of wood in as a ramp in the breeding season to give baby birds a fighting chance of getting out. The trouble is many modern ones are resin again so I really need to learn to to stop using blunt instruments on the ice.  I could repair this with Milliput and then fill some of the bottom with concrete to make it shallower, but the £22 one starts to look like a better deal. Plus this is only as high as a cat standing on its back legs, which is poor design in a birdbath IMO.

    So if you have one of these apparently solid birdbaths are are tempted to de-ice it with a blunt instrument, perhaps ahead of the Big Garden Birdwatch next weekend then learn from me

    don’t do that ;)

    knackered

    20 Nov 2012, 10:31pm
    economy fixing things frugality reflections:
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  • where did we lose the basic skills of self-reliance to cope with financial austerity?

    The Grauniad’s had a series called Breadline Britain about how dreadful life is for our increasingly financially challenged nation. Now I just about experienced Britain in the 1960s, as it was pulling itself out of the post-war austerity, and one of the things that strikes me about the difference between the Britain I saw as a child and that of now is that adults have become far less self-reliant. We have lost many basic skills that soften the issues of having less money, and it appears that many adults just don’t seem interested in learning. The second thing that strikes me is the appalling incompetence at household financial management. Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation because borrowing money was much harder in the past, so people had to live within their means or just lump it. And the last thing that is obviously wrong is people don’t seem to be asking themselves whether they can afford to have children before doing so. This lady has four children – on a family income of £44k. It isn’t hard to see why she is struggling.

    People design in fixed costs into their lives without giving them enough thought. It first struck me when I reflected on a colleague who lived 25 miles away from work, where I was 6.5 miles from work. We were both higher rate taxpayers, and I calculated that he needed to earn ~£5k more than me, just to have the same disposable income. How’s that? Well, design in a 50 mile round trip instead of a 13 mile round trip. That’s an extra 37 miles he needs to drive, each and every day. That’s about £1300 a year in fuel alone. He’s putting 8100 extra miles a year on his car, with all the wear and tear that entails. I could keep my cars for 10 years and buy them well secondhand; he bought his cars new – in the service life of one of mine, he’d have put 80,000 miles on the clock, so that just wasn’t an option for him. I could bike to work when the weather was congenial. Taken in the round he was taking a hit that was probably equivalent to a salary cut of £5000 a year. And of course he was losing about an hour of his time each day.

    Every time you pay someone to do something you can do yourself, you have to earn enough to be able to pay tax on the money you are paying out. If that person is employed, you have to cover the overheads, sick pay, employer’s contributions, the lot, whereas if you are doing it yourself, you do not have to earn the money and pay the tax and NI on it.

    It is always much more expensive in cash terms to pay someone else to do something that you can do yourself.

    Now that isn’t a reason to insource everything, because there’s the opportunity cost to the money you could be earning at the same time ;) If you are hiring someone on minimum wage and you’re on minimum wage yourself, that is barmy – do your own cleaning. If you’re earning £50k then knock yourself out and hire the cleaner if it means you can earn £20 an hour net and paying them £6.19.

    The cleaner on minimum wage is the obvious example, but there are more subtle costs. For instance, it’s more expensive to get Tesco to prepare your meals for you rather than do it yourself, which is why ready meals are more expensive than the ingredients, and if the cost is the same then the ready meal will contain ropey ingredients ;)

    I was staggered at this bunch of Guardianistas who are struggling to feed two children and two adults on the meagre income of… £35,000 if you please, and they’re living with his parents! Let’s take a closer look. They were on a combined household income of £75,000. Now I have never lived in a household that had this much income – ever! I haven’t been in a household with two incomes for most of my life. The Ermine is not one of the 1%. So I ask myself how the hell these good people managed to get made bankrupt. She lost her job when they had twins. Now I appreciate that it’s not meant to happen that way but in general many mums leave the workforce for a few years after having kids, so the loss of that income was to be expected. Have they never heard of savings? Now they are complaining of not being able to afford decent food, and having to use ready meals. Mrs Ermine has examined that fallacy in this post and found it wanting – the problem there is food preparation skills, or the lack thereof, as well as a shocking lack of imagination and general get-off-your-backside-and-do-something smarts.

    Now eating is one of those fundamental things that everybody needs to do. If you’re rich enough to afford ready meals, then have at it, but if you’re not, or you have the temerity to want your food to taste of something other than sugar. vegetable fats and monosodium glutamate, or maybe you are rude enough to want vitamins, then you have to re-acquaint yourself with the food prep skills that humanity has preserved across generations – until now. Sometimes I wonder if people realise that food doesn’t only come from supermarkets – it’s actually possible to grow some things yourself ;) I particularly like the line

    I’m not stupid: I know this is going to have a detrimental effect on my children’s health.

    For God’s sake, woman, you’re running on £35,000 a year, and have more time, being unemployed. And yet you see fit to switch from cooking yourself to using ready meals? Where’s the rest of that £35k going, on the horses?

    It is the loss of skills that will hurt people in future. In the past people grew food on allotments and in gardens, which saves a lot of money – Mrs Ermine qualifies that at about £2000 a year saved; for a basic rate taxpayer that’s equivalent to needing to earn about £3000 less every year! As an added bonus, although your veg will look gnarlier that Tesco’s, it will actually taste of something and be good for you, as well as filling you up.

    Food does this – it just sprouts from the ground, despite what Tesco would have you believe, and here some citizens of Ipswich are taking advantage of that fact

    There are other skills that could save people money. When I bought my first house, I had a problem with a stuck main intake stopcock under the kitchen sink. Now I could have called in a plumber, but because I had seen my Dad do plumbing, I figured I’d change this myself. I had ambitions of using a blowtorch and Yorkshire fittings but couldn’t reduce the seepage from the Water board stopcock enough to get enough heat into this, so once I got within 5cm of the inlet with some abortive attempts I sucked it up and used a compression stopcock. Job done. I replaced the guttering myself on that house – for the cost of an aluminium ladder and the materials, which was a lot cheaper than when I had that job done on this house; I was time-poor and wanted the soffit and bargeboads changed to uPVC which wasn’t within my capability. I fixed my heating system when the timer/programmer died and again when one of the motorised diverter valves died. I changed my own cold water tank, taking the opportunity to relocate the bugger to the apex of the roof to give a decent head of water to the shower, rather than run a power shower. I changed the water pump on my car, and replaced brake pads in the past. I did this because I grew up with the expectation that any halfway competent person who wasn’t rich would be able to do those – people just couldn’t afford not to.

    More work, yes. More money, no – I can’t save any more money on heating ;)

    Mrs Ermine asked me recently if I was going to run the wood stove in the day. I don’t generally, because the heat is preserved in the house from the evening before. I said no, because I didn’t want to spend the money. She looked at me as if I was crazy. “How’s that going to cost us more then?”. She was right – we don’t pay for heating, because we are prepared to chop up wood and pallets. I did some of that today. Heating less doesn’t save us money. But we need to chop up more wood.

    In Britain we need to become more self-reliant. We need to learn how to cook decent food from ingredients that our grandmothers would recognise. We need to learn to fix some of the basics ourselves. We need to learn to go without if we haven’t got the money, rather than borrow money and have our future selves pay even more back. In the last decade or so we have outsourced a lot of these basics to outside agencies and to the welfare and benefits system, to try and buy our way out of needing to tackle the gritty basics of life. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands, and get to work relearning some of the basic skills our grandparents used to take for granted.

    Where’d they print the instructions on this darn thing?

    Knowing how to feed yourself and your children from food not sourced from supermarkets and food that doesn’t come with instructions printed on the back is a skill we seem to have lost somewhere. My mother’s opinion of supermarket veg was unprintable – she got that from Lewisham market stallholders who would get it from Covent Garden market in the early morning. Even as a student supermarket veg was tired and low-grade. Fortunately students don’t need veg ;) The supermarkets have found how to make veg last longer by chicanery like de-oxygenated atmospheres in plastic packaging and the like, but they can’t get round the problem that the flavour of food fades with time, and most of it seems to fade in the first day or two. It’s why those stallholders got their produce from Covent Garden barrow-boys in the early morning – because they’d have got an earful from their customers if their produce tasted as poor as Tesco’s finest. But it was more faff, and somewhere between the 1970s and now we collectively decided that all the adults in a household should go to work, so we don’t have time to buy decent fruit and veg, or grow it, or cook our own food, or fix our own plumbing or any of those things that our grandparents took for granted.

    We could afford the luxury of losing those skills in the last couple of decades. From the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series it looks to me that these skills are now being very sorely missed. We need to stop borrowing so much money and start living within our means. We need to think about whether we can afford to have as many children because it looks like some of the freebies there are drying up. And all in all we need to man up and start to take responsibility for the choices we make in our lives and skill up to be able to do more with less. The Guardian’s we never had it so bad is absolute bullshit. I grew up in a London of coal fires where only a single room in a house was heated in general, where most people didn’t have cars, and where people grew their own food and cooked it themselves.

    Fridges had no freezer compartment – I recall the excitement when we got the first one with a two-star icebox – you could store frozen food in that but couldn’t freeze it I think. Respiratory ailments were widespread, because the damp and condensation were endless problems; I got bronchitis nearly every year until we moved to a house with central heating. That was not poverty in a Guardianista sense of the word – nearly everybody was like that. But what we did have was a broad base of basic skills, and good and reasonably stable communities. The move to paying for everything and having both adults working has atomised those communities and we have surrendered some basic skills for the blandishments of advertising. It would make the Guardianistas wring their hands in horror.

    And yet there was some satisfaction and camaraderie there. People had hobbies other than watching television, and often these were creative, in quite eccentric ways. There may not be so much money about in future, but we have enormous advantages over those times, communications are far cheaper, the relative level of wealth in much higher.

    The essential difference is that Britain in the 1960s, though it was far poorer than the Britain of 2012, was improving. It was better than Britain in the 1950s, and immeasurably better than the Britain that had endured its darkest hour standing alone against the Axis. The Britain of 2012 stands wanting compared to the Britain of 2006/7, and the Britain of 2015 will probably be wanting in material terms compared to today never mind 2007, for many people.

    We probably can’t dodge that, but we can soften the blow by taking our lives back from the endless messages of spend spend spend. There is a certain reward in taking control of some of the variables, and pulling back from the money economy to improve our quality of life, rather than our standard of living. In a previous life, I used my meagre skills to grow tomatoes in the back garden. The crop was variable because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but for a lot of the time they were far better than Tesco’s Finest vine-ripened tomatoes-  because they had experienced th sun until the day they were eaten. Some simple pleasures can’t easily be bought, and perhaps we will find pursuing these more rewarding than chasing the admen’s plastic dreams. There’s something peculiarly short-lived about the enjoyment derived from satisfying a want that is created by marketing, because it is always a hostage to the next updated version. The stillness when the treadmill stops is a silence that is valuable in itself…

     

     

    23 Sep 2012, 9:59pm
    living intentionally simple living
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  • Simple Living is about more than money…

    It’s about living well. Welcome to a guest post from Mrs Ermine on some of the finer aspects of living well

    How, you may ask, does the Ermine household keep itself in high style on a modest budget? Mr and Mrs Ermine like to eat well, but don’t like to fill the coffers of large food corporations. Fortunately good food and industrial food are two very different things.

    So while Mr Ermine prepares his next post on financial wizardry, or perhaps another of this rants about the state of modern Britain, why not come and join me in the Ermine Towers kitchen on my new blog Simple Eating in Suffolk? The kettle is on (with just the right amount of water, of course) and right now there is something with a distinctly South Indian theme being prepared… a fine dish which Mr Ermine enjoys, and which costs just a few pence.

    17 Sep 2012, 10:48am
    fixing things rant:
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  • Where have the decent, middle ground consumer products gone?

    In her book Cheap, the high cost of discount culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell observes the increasing polarisation of products. Globalisation is driving most of us towards the Poundland end of the market, with stuff that is cheap, absurdly cheap compared to earlier times, and a very few people who are either fanatics or have a lot of money towards the high end. As a result, the quality and reliability of a lot of products is, quite frankly, crap, though their functionality is pretty good. Nowhere is this more apparent than in electronics. Digitalisation, higher integration of components and Chinese manufacturing have all made it a lot easier to do many things in electronics, in particular adding features and functions. These are pushed relentlessly by marketing departments, and we often fall for it. The entire history of the iPhone is an example of featureitis gone mad. Just as well this makes the product cycle so short.  The vacuum tube kitchen radio my mother had in the 1960s operated from 1960 to 1976 ISTR. None of the replacements have lasted 16 years. There’s no point in making an iPhone last more than 5 years, it will be hopelessly naff by then in the eyes of consumers.

    One of the advantages of taking an axe to consumerism is I get off some of this hamster wheel. The recent launch of the iPhone 5 left me as cold as the previous four launches. However, I still have the problem that stuff breaks down, and it seems that this is much more likely for newer stuff than kit I’ve had for a while. It makes me loath to replace something with a more modern replacement if it can be avoided, because capitalism seems to have hollowed out the middle ground. I either end up with cheap rubbish that fails me in my hour of need or top-end products that are often too fancy and too pricey for my requirements.

    Demise of a faithful friend

    This was brought home to me when my 10-year old Iriver IMP-250 mp3 cd player died. I don’t have an iPod because I don’t do portable music on the move, it’s kind of hazardous as a cyclist, and when I had my car it had a perfectly serviceable CD player ;) However, the iRiver CD player was nice for the outdoor parties because a MP3 CD would run for several hours, and being a CD player meant we could take other people’s music too. Ipods seem unreliable in this kind of service as well as being a closed box without a computer- I constructed a switchbox to select different people’s iPods but the big problem seems to be iPod battery life plummets as it gets colder when the sun goes down, I will have to run a USB hub from the main battery in future to counteract this.

    The iPod doesn’t really like to party after sundown…

    All portable audio devices live on borrowed time, due to the hard life they lead and the inevitable drop-tests. Nowadays, to make manufacturing cheaper the connectors are mounted on the main circuit boards, which is a really bad idea. Pretty much anything I make myself uses connectors mounted on the case with wires to the circuit board, because the connectors take a lot of mechanical stress. Fixing the connector to the case stabilises it, and the wires to the board take out any residual strain. However, this is a very pre-1980s constructional style.

    Transmitting the mechanical strain to the circuit board flexes the solder joints, which causes micro cracks and ratty intermittent connections. It’s why you should always try and use right-angled audio jacks on portable gear. Presumably Apple provide straight plugs so you break the iPod faster and have to get a new one, leastways the earbuds I observed on people’s iPods all had straight audio jacks.

    This 10 year old iRiver was just dead. That sort of fault is good, the ones I hate are the intermittent ones where you never really know if you’ve nutted the problem. I took it to pieces and was faced with this

    iRiver IMP250 innards. That’s a lot of small parts, as its about 13cm across

    In previous lives like at the BBC I’d fault find to individual components but that’s not going to happen with this, no circuit diagram and no service manual. You used to get one in the handbook of most consumer electronics until the mid 1970s when people expected to repair things if they went wrong.

    Even if I had these there’s no fun in trying to unsolder parts here. That involves magnifying glasses, tweezers, lots of bad language and a fair chance of knackering some other part in the process. These things are assembled in the Far East by automatic pick-and-place robots, though an awful lot of module level assembly still seems to involve humans even on the iPhone 5.

    the offending connector, black item on the left

    However, there’s a good win in faulting consumer  electronics by knowing that 90% of problems are to be found in connectors or the power supply. Power supply problems are usually associated with smoke and visible damage. Connectors, however, aren’t so obliging. Probing on the circuit boards showed battery power wasn’t getting to the player, and nor was external power, and the problem was traced to the DC jack which switched the battery to the player when the DC jack wasn’t inserted. Or not, in this case. So I unsoldered it, cleaned out the microscopic switch contacts and reassembled the part, and the player came back to life, both on external and battery power.

    iRiver IMP 250 working again, once more into the breach at the Christmas party then…

    Now I could have bought a current replacement for about £30 at Argos or a little media player secondhand from Computer Exchange for £20-ish. I had been on a previous reccy for that sort of thing but come away empty handed. I have to admit that I hat been tempted by a secondhand DJ CD mixer that looked like it could run off 12V, but then sense prevailed. Not only was I setting myself up for an audio earth loop fail, but in the end I don’t really want to be a live DJ. I want to talk to people at parties and maybe get hammered, not do a Paris Hilton ;)

    Paris Hilton DJ-ing. It didn’t go well, apparently

    The price of freedom from consumerism is still eternal vigilance. There is still somewhere in the back of my mind the ad-man’s meme ‘if you just buy this product, your problems will be solved and life will be wonderful‘. No. All I want is what I had before, thanks, it’s worked well enough for  five parties outside, and if I’m going to spend money then I should change the old hi-fi speakers, which are clapped out from being a) overdriven and b) far too small for the job of running outside, which is why they’ve been pushed too hard ;)

    Although the repair was effectively paying below minimum wage, I just didn’t want to add to the mountain of e-waste without trying at least to inquire what had caused this faithful old middle-range CD player(it cost about £120 in the early 2000s ISTR) to give up the ghost. Plus I know that once started, it will keep running outdoors past the 11 p.m point where dew starts to accumulate on metal surfaces, because the self-heating of the circuit boards stops the dew forming. It had been a surprise to me that dew forms in late evening and the small hours of the night, I’d always thought it was an early morning thing.

    More digital casualties in the pipeline

    The digital camera seems to be another terribly unreliable electronic gizmo in the modern world, particularly the point and shoot digicam. Digital SLRs seem okay, I even managed to keep one in good working order until I sold it to a colleague. Digicams, however, are a whole different world of hurt.

    I learned photography with film, and one of the great advances in photography in the early 1980s was the autofocus lens. Manually focusing was fraught even with some visual aids and just one more thing to slow you down in capturing the moment. In the 1990s manufacturers made automatic exposure work properly most of the time, and then came digital, which after some early issues sorted many of the residual problems, in particular the running costs and latency of seeing the results. Digital SLR cameras reached a point  in the late 2000s where for the vast majority of people the main improvements were to be had behind the camera, not in front of it or inside it; a rotten photographer will take poor shots no matter how expensive the gear.

    My old Canon AE-1P from the 1970s that I bought second hand in the late 1980s is still serviceable, as are the lenses. I’ve had five digicams fail on me with lens jam failures, a Fuji 1700, Canon Ixus 80, an Ixus 950, a Nikon 995, and I will have to take my Panasonic digicam to pieces to remove dust from the sensor which makes the camera useless at high f-stops (in bright light). That’s four down permanently and one fiddly repair job, in the course of ten years. I look at the cost of a digicam more as a two year rental, rather than as a capital investment. One of the advantages of digital was supposed to be you don’t have film costs any more. Looks like you still have the same costs, however, just in a different form as the gear falls apart in your hands as you use it. Money still has to made somewhere ;)

    You can make a digicam last if you keep it in a box and only haul it out for birthdays, but the whole point of a camera is you take it to interesting places and put it in front of new vistas. Every time you switch the damn thing on and the lens comes out, it sucks in a little bit of dust and fluff, which eventually gums up the lens mechanism (Canon) or gets dust into the sensor (Panasonic). On a film camera that dust only affected one frame because it was advanced with the film. On a digicam you get this after a while.

    dust on the sensor causing splodges in the sky

    The manufacturing effort seems to go in features rather than fundamentals. What’s so hard about making a digicam that doesn’t suck dust into the camera? It’s so much easier for Panasonic to say hey, this camera has got Face Tracking, than for them to say this camera won’t suck dust into the works so your pictures won’t gets spots after a year or so.

    after taking the camera apart and decoking the sensor. Face tracking is obviously more important than, say using the CPU space allocated to Face Tracking for something useful, like saving the dust pattern and removing it from future images, for instance.

    What the hell does anybody need face tracking for? If you are so drunk that you need the camera to find the face in the shot for you, then either you aren’t close enough or you don’t need to take that picture for uploading to Facebook because a) it might not be the right face and b) they’re probably as drunk as you are.

    What face recognition is for. Hat tip to Glenys for sharing with the world

    It’s hard to deny the sneaking suspicion of advanced decadence in Western capitalism here. Faced with the choice of making this kind of shot easier, or keeping the dust out of the sky, the obvious choice is sod the dust, help the Facebookers out even if they are a few sheets to the wind. Bless…

    It isn’t just the digicams, either. I have a Canon 18-75 IS zoom lens which has developed a stock fault after 5 years. This was something that cost about £350 new ISTR, and I had expected to be a decent middle ground product. Those old Canon FD lenses for the AE1 are still going fine, forty years after they were made… There’s no point in sending off the lens to be fixed if this is a stock fault, it will only happen again. Just how common it is was brought home to me in that the replacement part was only £2 on ebay, however the process of taking the lens to pieces and changing the ribbon cable is fraught and likely as not to break something else. For £2 it’s worth a go, and I’ve become happier with dismantling ribbon cables that seem to be widespread in small gadgets after learning from some videos on Youtube and experience gained with the iRiver repair. If I screw up I guess I just have to take the £600 hit on the 15-85 replacement. Or take an extra £200 hit and go with the 2.8 aperture  17-55 and get closer to the subject at the long end. I was more often short of light than of reach in using the old lens ;)

    I really miss the middle ground in many products. The AE-1P was a middle ground camera – it worked well and lasted, but that part of the market is evaporating fast. As a result I end up buying rubbish, just because I don’t think it will stay working. Tools seem to be another case in point -  you can get a set of 50 spanners for a tenner. Just don’t expect a 13mm spanner to stay a 13mm spanner after you’ve used it a few times. Fortunately I still have my old ones from the 1990s, before the Chinese got in on the act ;) I want a pillar drill. The whole point of a pillar drill is precision, and I know if I buy something for £90 then mechanical precision is not what I’m going to get. However, I don’t need a 1kW three-phase pillar drill for a thousand pounds either. Something in between, say 800W for about £300 would match my usage, but it’s not to be had locally.

    Bring back those mid-range products. Not everything is life is black-and-white where you need either something disposable or the very best. Often something well-built but less capable than the best is good enough. I don’t want to be endlessly buying junk, and throwing it out after a few uses. There’s got to be a place between the Trabant and the Rolls-Royce. As Ellen Ruppel Shell asked in Cheap

    Why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that all coonsumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so many years ago?

    3 Jun 2012, 8:27pm
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  • Preparing for the Harvest with Elderflower Wine

    The Elder tree is often to be found growing right next to the house or an outbuilding, making a right nuisance of itself. They get there because birds love the berries, and then the bird sits on the top of a wall or the gutter and shits out the seeds, and voila, new elder tree you get to spend ages trying to hack down, only for a bazillion shoots to spring up. Apparently a clean cut encourages shoots,so if you do want to take one down then hacking away at the stump with an axe to open up loads of cuts is recommended. Elder is no use for firewood, indeed, presumably this line from the Wiccan Rede is there to prevent people making a right prat of themselves trying to use it to light a bonfire

    “Elder be ye Lady’s tree, burn it not or cursed ye’ll be”

    You have to have seen someone try it to know how little success is to be had ;)

    In our long ancient hedgerows we’ve got lots of Elder trees and they aren’t doing anybody any harm. Indeed Elder has its uses, and one of them is making the most fearfully strong and sweet elderflower wine. You can also make elderberry wine but that needs to get aged for over a year. Since we want something for the Harvest party in the Autumn, we’ll go for the elder flowers.

    Unlike the berries, the elder flowers have a short season. It’s best to harvest on a dry sunny day, but the best we can do is a wet Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend – another week and the elder flowers will have started to go over.

    Everybody knows what an Elder tree looks like, OK ;)

    The flowers come in umbels, which the decadent Germans have been known to deep-fry in a sweet batter. However, we prefer the alcoholic form, so we harvested a load of the flowers, which you have to avoid crushing which releases  the fragrance.

    A fresh head of elderflowers

    Prefer the fresh flowers rather than the older ones that are excessively open for a better flavour – that’s the trouble with these, the short ripe season means you get only a couple of weekends to hit the trees at their best.

    Somewhat skanky overblown flower, we left this one for berries for the birds

    The season is sensitive to the microclimate, in more sheltered areas the flowers were just buds

    immature elder flowers

    What makes this job easier on a sunny day is that you can take a sniff of the flowers, you want ones that smell good as there seems to be some genetic variation. even with a few hundred yards of hedgerow we don’t have so many to choose from, but we had decent results last year so we used trees from these areas again.

    You need a pint of flowers per gallon. The next bit I’ve simply lifted from one of Mrs Ermine’s articles as I don’t understand all the technical stuff ;)

    How to Make Elderflower Wine

    Ingredients

    • 1 gallon of boiling water
    • 1 packet wine yeast
    • 3 lbs white sugar
    • A small cup of very strong black tea
    • Juice of two lemons or 1 teaspoon citric acid
    • 1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
    • 1 pint of Elder flowers cut from their stems and gently pressed down

    Equipment

    • Two one gallon demijohns
    • A large unchipped enamel container or stoneware crock.
    • Clean cloth for covering this container
    • Airlock and bung to fit demijohn
    • 2 meter length of clear food grade plastic tubing
    • Sodium Metabisulphite or Camden tablets for sterilising equipment
    • Large plastic spoon
    • Home brew thermometer
    • Extra boiling water for rinsing off sterilising solution
    • Sieve
    • Large Funnel

    Process

    1. Clean and sterilise the enamel pot or the crock, the thermometer and the spoon. Rinse off the sterilising solution with boiling water.
    2. Add all the ingredients except the yeast, yeast nutrient and two of the three pounds of sugar to the crock or enamel container and pour on the boiling water and stir well. Insert the thermometer, cover, and leave to cool.
    3. When lukewarm add the yeast and yeast nutrient, and stir in with the spoon (which must again be sterilised).
    4. Remove the thermometer, cover with the clean cloth to keep flies out, and leave to ferment in a warm place for three days.
    5. After these three days, sterilise one demijohn, the airlock and bung, the sieve and funnel, and rinse all this equipment with boiling water.
    6. Pour the remaining two pounds of sugar into the demijohn using the funnel and then strain the fermented flower mix into the demijohn, over the sugar. Fill so that the wine is around and inch (2.5 cm) below the fitted bung. Fit the bung and airlock (which should contain a little sterilising solution to prevent contamination by flies) and leave to ferment in a warm place for a couple of months.
    7. After these two months, sterilise the second demijohn and the plastic tubing, and rinse with boiling water. Remove the airlock and bung, and carefully siphon the wine off the yeast sediment into the fresh demijohn. If necessary make up the volume with a very little boiling water. After sterilising and rinsing the bung with boiling water, and refreshing the sterilising fluid in the airlock, refit the bung and airlock on the new demijohn.
    8. Leave to ferment until the airlock no longer bubbles, meaning that fermentation is complete. Your wine is ready to drink, or you may prefer to let it mature a little longer by siphoning into sterilised wine bottles

    How much sugar goes into that again?

    Each gallon uses 1.5 bags of sugar, so 5 gallons uses 7 bags!!!

    One of the thing that struck me was the off-the scale amount of sugar that goes into it. Alcohol has a bad rap for all sorts of things, and not being part of a calorie controlled diet is probably one of the lesser of the charges, but you can see why it has a lot of calories because that is a lot of sugar. On the other hand elderflower wine is quite strong and 5 gallons is a fearsome amount that goes a long way. It took a lot of assembled party-goers two parties to get through the lot last year.
    I took a look at the sugar label, and it looks like you could chug down half a bag of sugar and still remain within the nominal adult calorie allocation. It’s quite awesome that the small box above has enough power to run an adult human for a fortnight.

    Sugar info

    Elderflower wine has a very sweet taste with a hefty kick and seems to be targeted to the female palate in particular ;) It seems to come out about the same strength as port subjectively, but apparently wine yeasts top out at 17%-ish as opposed to 20% for port.

    I can take it or leave it but it does make parties more fun, and it’s nice to have the Harvest party with some of the produce from the field.

    14 May 2012, 12:11pm
    simple living:
    by

    11 comments

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  • Back to Basics – What we learn from Milling Grain

    Bread, the staff of life, has some interesting things to tell us when we compare making it from first principles compared to buying it as a finished product. Here’s a guest post from Mrs Ermine for whom food is a passion with the lowdown.

    I buy bread wheat directly from some farmer friends who live close by, by sack of twenty or so kilograms for £8 each. This is above the wholesale price they are paid for wheat, to take into account the extra work entailed in organising collection, bagging the grain up, and so on.

    Wheat in the fields

    I pick a couple of sacks up whenever I am passing by, or visiting them, so there is no extra transport cost involved for me. To turn my wheat into flour I have a small, but sturdy, “Country Living” grain mill that I bought many years ago when I had a “proper job” that earned me a good deal more money than running The Oak Tree Farm  does now.

    Mr Ermine, being a handy sort of chap with all things electrical, has grand plans to motorise the mill, but for the moment I turn the handle myself in the dead times when I am cooking something else. I don’t really need the extra exercise now, running a smallholding gives me quite enough of that, but I certainly did benefit from the effort  it took when I sat behind a desk all day.

    American "Country Living" Grain Mill

    My habit of making bread and pasta from wheat grains surprises a lot of people, but it really is quite a sensible way of carrying on. As soon as wheat is milled, the increased surface area of the tiny flour particles results in rapid oxidisation of the vitamins in the wheat. Flour that is stored for any length of time, even wholemeal flour, has a considerably lower nutrient content than freshly milled. And for the Ermine household, it has the great advantage of being cheap. Really cheap.

    Your local, friendly, near-monopoly supermarket chain charges, at time of writing, £1.29 for 1.5kg of wholemeal flour. A rapid calculation shows I pay 60p, a mere 47% of the shop-bought price. When you start to make bread and pasta, the savings really add up, but you could just as well benefit from those savings by using shop bought flour.

    So in short, thanks to a one-off investment in the grain mill, Mr and Mrs Ermine eat better food for less than half the price of supermarket supplies, thanks to a friendly transaction with a local farmer and a small amount of physical effort. Our food miles are vastly reduced too. What’s not to like?

    Mr Ermine adds:

    The cost difference suprised me, as it shows the invisible hand of the market is in full price-gouge mode. A 100% markup on a low-tech basic foodstuff which is a 1000-year old mature technology is really quite remarkable.

    The grain mill is designed to run at 60rpm and needs about a 1/4 horsepower (200W) motor. An average human can achieve a sustained power output of about 1/10 horsepower. This accords with observation, I don’t hear the sound of this running for sustained periods of time, more 2-3 minute bursts :)