Thursday, 29 January 2015

Small miracles

A question I have been asked many times over the years is how do I manage to stay so positive? Trust me, there have been plenty of days when I've found it impossible to drag myself out of bed and just wallowed in my own self pity and negativity.  I think the record was something like three weeks! I'm also an absolute pro at hiding myself away from the world.  Before I started my job at the club I could literally go for days at a time without talking to anyone except my boys and my mum.  Even when I did start working in town, nobody could believe I had been living there for four years as they had never seen me before!

The thing is, no matter how often or how long I feel like crap, life has this habit of (to quote Dr Evil from Austin Powers) throwing me a fricking bone.  No matter how small, all of a sudden something or someone will make something absolutely wonderful happen which can completely change my perspective on the world and restore my faith in human nature.  Even the smallest thing can make an enormous difference and when that happens (which it unfailingly always does) I take that as a sign that the universe is telling me not to give up yet.

Take my $6.35 week for example.  One of my dogs has an auto immune disease.  She shouldn't even be here really but thanks to the vet being completely brilliant we have managed to keep her alive for the past four years.  He knows what's wrong with her, what she needs when her health starts going downhill and rather than demanding to see her so that I have to pay megabucks for a full consultation each time, simply has her medication prescribed in her records so I can go in and grab some more as and when she needs it.  Brilliant!  Except last time she really needed them I couldn't go and get her any because I already owed the poor guy $600 from taking our other dog's teeth out and he had already been waiting forever for me to clear my bill.  Understandably they weren't going to let me add any more to it!  I felt like a terrible mother.  Minnie was my little shadow, my most loyal companion and nurse maid whenever I was sick.  Now here she was waddling around with more snot coming out of her nose than a two-year-old and there wasn't a darn thing I could do except watch her get worse and worse.  Which was very hard to do when I knew the problem could be so easily fixed if only I could clear my debt!

One morning I could take no more and in desperation started rifling through all the drawers and bingo!  I found a little bag containing a small supply of Minnie's antibiotics from a year earlier.  On further counting it added up to a week's supply - enough to help her recover!  You cannot imagine my relief, I was almost dancing round the kitchen!  To top it off my good luck, I unexpectedly found enough tomatoes and beans in my garden to get me through the last two days of my super frugal week without having to resort to buying vegetables.  Such small things but all of a sudden I went from not coping to coping.  And that's the way it always goes, I find.  Thanks to Mum and Peter for planting those tomatoes and beans for me a few months earlier and looking after my future self - in the end they proved themselves to be even more valuable than we had envisaged!

As it is, my little garden at Nawtypoo Heights (the affectionate name for our house if you didn't already know) is now literally throwing food at us!  I feel so fortunate to have so much free food, even if I can't lay claim to growing most of it.  One of the things I loved most about my house when I bought it 18 months ago was that the garden was so beautifully established and looked after.  Check out all the things I have to look forward to!

Baby 'nanas!  I have two huge bunches of these!

Baby apples!  I don't know about anywhere else but you CANNOT buy apples where I live at the moment.  Fortunately I don't have to worry as I have three trees of them to pick!

Grapes - bunches and bunches of them, all hanging merrily over the fence from our absent neighbours.

Black Doris plums.  I have to admit I am not much of a fruit eater at all but oh lordy these are to die for!  I have two plum trees and I don't know why this one didn't have any fruit last year but it's certainly making up for it this year!

I'm still getting the odd handful of beans and the main crop of tomatoes is yet to ripen but there is still so much more to come!  I'm looking forward to sharing them with you as they arrive on the scene. So you see, with blessings like these always managing to come my way right at the exact moment I need them, how can I be anything else but positive?

I don't know where the school holidays have gone but Ali goes back to school on Monday and get this, he's going to a new school!  Well kind of, it's an old new school - it's the one he used to attend before changing to another two years ago but he's been offered a job at the local fishing shop (for anyone who knows Ali, can you imagine how perfect this is for him!) and needs to be closer to his workplace so he can work after school.  This decision was very sudden and unexpected (thank God I didn't list his brother's uniform for sale on Facebook last week, I almost did!) but has me doing cartwheels as from now on we will be saving an incredible $4,800 a year on transporting him two and from school!  Yes you heard right, no more struggling to find $80 for the school bus (which runs a brilliant service and is still the cheapest option for getting to the school) from now on it's going to cost absolutely nothing!  I can hardly contain my excitement!

I hope you have a brilliant weekend and if you're not already looking after your future self please remember to do so!  I've put a couple of steps in place already I'm looking forward to sharing with you soon.  Also for those of you who have written to me with regard to insurance wrangles keep an eye out for Rob Stock's feature on insurance in this Sunday's business section of the Sunday Star Times.  More to share on that very soon too!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Helloooo, future self!

Years ago I remember Fiona from Simple Savings saying to me 'Teaching people to save money is easy!  It's making them WANT to save money that's the hard part'.  She was, and still is absolutely right. After all, we hear people say they need to save money all the time - often with a light hearted giggle - but how often do we actually make a concerted effort to do it?

The problem with saving money is that unless your circumstances are dire enough that you have no choice, the thought of it is actually really boring and unappealing.  It's all a bit grown up, a bit too serious for a lot of us.  And let's face it, a lot of money saving experts don't help because they make it sound too posh and well, experty for the average person.  I like to consider myself a reasonably intelligent chicky but over the years I'm embarrassed to admit I have a collected a worryingly large collection of 'serious' money saving books, all of which sit gathering dust on my shelf and none of them have ever been read beyond the first few pages. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they're all actually brilliant and really helpful!  It's just that I can't stick my nose into any of them for more than five minutes without me thinking 'I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about', 'Woah, this is wayyyy over my head' or quite simply 'Jeez this is boring!'

If I had one wish (once I get myself out of Operation Hellhole of course) it would be to become the Dav Pilkey of money saving.  Who's Dav Pilkey?  He's the legendary author of the super popular 'Captain Underpants' series of kids' books.  It may not exactly be Pulitzer Prize style literature but nonetheless he is a very clever bloke.  He got an entire generation of youngsters to embrace reading and power through his books voraciously by tapping into what makes kids all over the world laugh - poos, bums, farts and calling his characters daft names such as Professor Poopypants and The Bionic Booger Boy.  Apologies if I'm making you cringe, I appreciate toilet humour isn't everyone's bag but the thing is, IT GOT THEM READING.  What did it matter if it wasn't Black Beauty or Anne of Green Gables?  The important thing was that it pushed their buttons so that they read.

And that's the thing when it comes to making people want to save money - you just need to find someone who pushes your buttons.  You can have 10 people all saying the same thing but it's HOW they say it that's the important thing, otherwise they might as well be talking to a wall.  I actually had a brilliant light bulb moment the other day which didn't come from a financial expert at all, yet resonated with me so much it almost had me doing a happy dance.  It came from Elizabeth Gilbert, the mega famous author of 'Eat, Pray, Love' and talked about being kind to her future self.  By this she meant doing something in advance that in the future she could thank herself for having the foresight to make her life easier.  If you happen to have your Facebook window open, check out the whole post here and you'll see what I mean.

Anyways, all of a sudden I got it.  Elizabeth Gilbert, unbeknown to her had triumphed where all the dusty books on my shelf and the serious experts on TV had failed.  True and valid as it was, I didn't want to be told 'Save money for your retirement, save money for your funeral, save money for your children's education'.  That's at least fifty million years away, who seriously wants to think about that now?!  But looking after my future self?  Yeah, I get that!  I want to do that!  I want to do stuff for my future self now so that when I get there, I can give my past self a high five and say 'Thanks for that!'

It's a shame Elizabeth Gilbert wasn't around years ago or who knows, Operation Hellhole may not even exist!  As it is, not looking after my future self earlier is certainly making things more challenging now.  This is me with my eldest son, Liam.  He's 18 and is going off to university at the opposite end of the country in less than three weeks.  I'm one of those annoyingly laid back parents who let their kids do and be whatever they want and have never pushed them into further education so I couldn't be prouder of him for choosing to undertake another three years of study!  However I'm prouder still because from the moment he arrives my big fella is going to have a lot of pressure on his young shoulders.  How come?  From not realising earlier how important it is to look after my future self and selflets.  From the moment Liam signed up for his course we were very careful to make sure we dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's.  Student loan - tick.  Student allowance - tick.  Get a job - will do.  We thought we had it sussed; pay a bond and then use the student allowance plus to pay for his accommodation each week like other people we knew.  Sweet!

So we got the fright of our lives the other day when attached to his letter of acceptance was a bill for $5,775 deposit.  Due to be paid in less than a week, with another payment of the same amount due in July. All of a sudden it became crystal clear why a hell of a lot of people leave school and get a job instead of going to uni.  Having just finished our week of living on $6.35 I did the only thing I could do and that was burst out laughing.  Followed by a lengthy bout of hyperventilation and finishing with a flood of tears.  'I guess that's it then - you can't go!'  I told him.  I can't even describe how I felt. Just like that, my boy's dreams were over, all because of years of ignorance and lack of foresight on my part.  Bloody hell, this was serious.  What the hell was he going to do now?

I slept on it - badly - and came up with an answer in the morning.  There was only one thing we could do and that was ask for help.  We didn't want to do it - we REALLY didn't want to do it but if Liam wanted it badly enough he was going to have to.  He did and thank the Lord it was given, the deposit was paid and this wonderful young man still gets to pursue his dream career.  But from the moment he arrives at his new home he will be under considerable pressure.  Every week the money he receives from his student allowance will immediately go towards paying off that loan and already he is looking for a job so he can start work as soon as he gets down there.  I wouldn't want to be him bless him, it's going to be tough!  The only good thing is that he has a mother who knows thousands of ways to save money on pretty much everything but one thing is for sure, from now on my future self is going to be receiving regular payments!  In two years my youngest son will also be leaving home and this time I am going to be ready.

So there you go, consider me living proof that you DO need to listen to the experts when it comes to the big things in life.  A lot of them might have a horribly boring way of putting it, but if that's the case, keep hunting until you find the right one for you.  Or I guess you could just 'like' Elizabeth Gilbert on Facebook but I think that was a bit of a fluke!  One money expert who is definitely not boring is Rob Stock, money editor of the Sunday Star Times.  If you haven't seen his article about yours truly yet you can find it here.  I'm chuffed to bits with it!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Loud and proud!

Guess who's going to be in this weekend's Sunday Star Times?!  I'll be honest with you here, I'm freaking terrified!  Even though I know Rob will be nice to me, putting yourself out there for everyone to read and ultimately judge is incredibly daunting.  And let's face it, people DO judge you if you have no money.  'Why?  What did she do wrong?  I bet it all went on booze/cigarettes/pokies/shoes or she's got 10 kids to 12 different blokes'.  Cue vigorous tut-tutting and knowing looks.  It's true to say that I would much rather the headlines screamed 'Jackie Gower caught in steamy clinch with Robert Pattinson!' than 'Jackie Gower is broke!' but the thing is, somebody's got to do it.  They do. This blog is less than three weeks old and already I've received so many messages from all over the world from people having a really, really shit time. They're too scared to talk about it in public - hell, so am I!  But meh, I'll do it anyway.  

You see if there's one thing I've discovered about people it's that most of them are actually quite nice. We want our friends and loved ones to be happy, we want them to be comfortable, we don't want them to struggle. Think about your friends, family, colleagues, people you love.  Would you suddenly think less of them if one day they confessed that they couldn't pay their bills or afford to buy food this week?  Of course not; if anything we would rush to help if we could.  Not having enough money doesn't automatically make you bad with money or a bad person!  And that is why we need to make money and people's lack of it not only an acceptable topic of conversation but a comfortable one.

Through the past two hellish years there is one thing which has got me through time and time again. Other people.  I highly recommend talking to them about stuff.  I've never been one to do things by halves but last year I found myself in what I thought was an impossible situation.  I believed I had done everything I could to be able to make my mortgage payments and pay my bills. I had sold almost everything I owned but still couldn't make ends meet and could never imagine being able to do so again.  I thought I had no choice but to go to the bank, cap in hand and sell my house.  I was petrified.  There was only one other thing I thought of that I could try.  I remembered an old school friend on the other side of the world telling me via Facebook that he had gone bankrupt the year before.  Surely he would know the procedure and maybe even have some advice to make such a painful process a little easier, right?  He was no dropout either; like me he was a perfectly intelligent and presentable human being, with a good job and qualifications who had also simply been dealt a rather crappy hand after his marriage broke up. 

I could have just messaged him privately - but then I thought 'Hang on, if there's one person among my 600 or so Facebook friends who has been through this, maybe there is more?  As far as I was concerned, if anyone out there had even just one idea or piece of advice that I hadn't tried, it was worth baring my soul for.  So, to the absolute horror of some on my friends list, I wrote a heartfelt and desperate post.  Something along the lines of 'I have 24 hours to find a way to hold on to my house. If anyone has ANYTHING - a tip, a suggestion or an experience they are willing to share that I may not have tried, please let me know'.  That's the in-a-nutshell version, the real one was much better!  And within seconds, help began flooding in.  It was unbelievable.  I thought I had tried everything yet it turned out there was at least a dozen things I hadn't tried or even heard of.  All of a sudden I had a huge pool of advice to dip into and by the end of the afternoon, not only had I held onto my house, I had secured it for another six months.  I even had two job offers!

As you can imagine, I can't put into words how grateful I was.  The funny thing was, people were writing to thank ME!  Turned out a good 20 - 30 of my Facebook friends had suffered with terrible money struggles at one time or another.  Several of them had also come perilously close to losing their homes; much closer than I had.  They thanked me because they had never told anyone, they were too embarrassed but now they could also benefit from the tips, advice and support I was given. Sure, there were a few people whose jaws dropped in horror and distaste and thought 'What the hell is she DOING?!  How EMBARRASSING!' To them I say lucky you; you obviously have never been where I have.  In all honesty it's probably the best and most valuable Facebook post I've ever written. And hey - I got some brilliant financial advice, from everyone including bank managers and mortgage brokers, all for free!

A lovely lady called Caroline commented recently on my Facebook page how open I was.  That's just me, I've never known how to be any other way but even so, I'm far more comfortable talking about money trials and tribulations to people I don't know than those I see every day.  Which is wrong because many people around us are worth their weight in gold.  The day after my week of living on $6.35 ended, a work mate asked if he could borrow $25 just until tomorrow as he had lost his bank card.  I wanted to cry - that $25 I had in my pocket was all the money I had in the world.  But I didn't want to tell him that.  I knew he would give it back the next day as promised and besides, I could do without it for another day.  However when I forgot myself for a moment and casually mentioned in conversation last week that I had managed on $6 his reaction surprised me.  'Do you want me to come over and slap you?!' he said.  'Why didn't you tell me you were struggling?  What the hell did you lend me money for!'  

I had known this chap no more than a couple of months, if that but in between clearing glasses and serving customers, he got me to tell me all the people I owed money to, how much and my predicted weekly income, as well as my regular bills.  He took the scraps of paper home and I didn't think too much more about it.  I walked into work the following night and he presented me with a black, hardcover diary.  'This is your new budget', he said.  'Stick to it and you will be debt free in 11 weeks'.  I couldn't believe that someone would go to the trouble of doing that for me - but he had. Thanks to him I paid off five debts today and am a week closer to being debt free than I would have been if I had never accidentally opened my mouth.  He's the same guy who gave me my Peppa Pig! She sits on my desk and keeps me focused on my goal.  Who would have thought a stuffed pink animal would turn out to be such a great financial motivator? Whatever works I guess!

Monday, 19 January 2015

My happy place

I may have only just started writing about it in earnest but my journey out of Operation Hellhole began a little while ago now, back in September.  I needed to find a second job and was actively job hunting when I landed myself in hospital with pneumonia.  Recovery was pretty slow and a month stuck in bed unable to work did my financial state absolutely no favours!  As soon as I was able to work I applied for absolutely every possible vacancy which came my way and was hugely grateful when word of my woes spread to the owner of the local supermarket.  He immediately offered me a job and I relaxed in the knowledge that in two weeks time I would be working 30 hours a week in addition to my writing.

So it was a bit of a blow to say the least when the day before I was supposed to start, I came down with pneumonia AGAIN! Whilst not as severe as the first bout, it still knocked me for six and I had to wave goodbye to my new job before I had even started.  Boy did I feel like a right pillock.  It took five courses of antibiotics to get me up and about again and by now the doctors were getting concerned.  Why wasn't it clearing up?  They did some more tests found that hooray - the pneumonia HAD actually cleared up!  But now they had found something else.  They could see something on my lungs and they didn't know what it was.  All they did know was that it was most likely one of two things - a chronic condition called bronchiectasis, or you know, that awful word that nobody mentions just like Voldemort in Harry Potter.  The illness that shall not be named.

Understandably this news didn't really fill me with joy!  Neither did the news that I would have to wait months for the scan I needed to determine what the 'something' they could see actually was.  But the funny thing was, I was finally feeling better!  I had no choice but to try and get on with life as normal and get back to job hunting as soon as possible.  Which was good because all of a sudden everyone decided they wanted to offer me a job at the same time.  I went to a lot of interviews and they were all OK but something about each one just didn't feel quite right.  I berated myself inwardly about this attitude; after all I couldn't afford to be fussy!  Then one day out of the blue a friend who knew I had been looking for work tipped me off about a vacancy behind the bar at the local club and straight away I thought this could be the one.

The interview I had with Susie, the manager was like no interview I had ever had before.  I mean as interviews go it was just a regular interview but it was the first interview where I wanted not only the job but also actually to work for that particular person.  I told her about my shocking run of health and that I still wasn't 100% recovered, plus I couldn't even guarantee I wouldn't get sick again but she appeared unruffled and was still willing to give me a chance anyway. She was so sweet and kind that I left my interview wanting to do the best for her that I possibly could.  I wanted to be the best barmaid in town and I couldn't wait to start!

From the first day I loved my new job.  In my first week alone I had to dress up as a witch for Halloween and then again in my glad rags for Melbourne Cup.  This photo isn't the best quality as it's from the local newspaper but I'm the world's least scary witch cracking up laughing second left.  I love this pic because it sums up exactly how I feel when I'm there. After 15 years working alone from home behind a computer, all of a sudden I had somewhere to go!  And it didn't take me long to realise that this was exactly what I needed.  You see it doesn't matter what it is you worry about or what gets you down, being stressed every minute of every day isn't good for the mind, body or soul.  In my case it doesn't help that I lead a very solitary existence.  I don't go out, I hardly ever see friends - combine that with working alone from home and I spend the majority of every day awash in my own thoughts. I hadn't realised but my confidence and self esteem had been at an all time low.

Not any more however!  From the moment I started working at the club I no longer felt alone.  It feels like I have a whole new family!  We are all very different; different ages, different walks of life but I love all my workmates and as for the customers, I love them too!  I have so many favourites and nothing makes me happier than making them laugh.  I can be having the most rotten, awful day but as soon as I step behind that bar and start smiling and joking with the customers I forget my worries. It's almost like playing a part; a larger than life version of me - except it really is me.  I love my job so much that even if I was rich and famous I would still want to work there as I would miss everyone too much!  And to top everything off, I had the long awaited scan on my lungs just before Christmas and we found to my relief and amazement that whatever it was that was on my lungs had completely gone!  No bronchiectasis, no Voldemort, nothing!

You're probably thinking 'OK cool, you've got a job just like most of us do, what's so special about that?  We all have to work to make money', but it's not about the job.  I guess what I'm saying is that constantly having money worries (or health worries, or any kind of worries for that matter) makes you feel low.  Low, low, low, low, low.  You feel like you're a failure, like everything's your fault, like nothing you do is good enough or even just enough.  Often we become our own worst enemy and certainly our own worst critic. And when that happens you need to find something to make you feel better about yourself otherwise you just get dragged further down.  In my case it was my job but it could be anything.  Take up a new hobby, join a club, go for a walk - something where you can be among other people.  They don't have to know your problems, they don't have to do anything but they might just work some magic.

For example yesterday I walked into work and was given a rainbow ice block from one work mate and a soft toy Peppa Pig from another who spent time and money winning it for me out of the toy machine just because he knew I would love it and it would make my day.  Peppa already has pride of place on my desk and every time I see her it makes me feel happy and reminds me I have true friends who care. Believing in yourself and maintaining your self esteem is half the battle because when you have that you will fight, just like I did the day I started this blog.  And as I've already discovered, once you start fighting instead of wallowing, good things really will happen.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Deny or empower?

For those of you who haven't met us before, here is our little family!  Alistair (known as Ali) is on the left.  He's 16 and Liam on the right is 18.  They're pretty awesome kids if I say so myself.  Even at their young age they've already known what it's like to be able to have anything they want - and nothing at all.  They've both got plenty of exciting (though rather daunting) new challenges coming up this year which you'll learn about soon enough, Liam especially.  Fortunately they're both accustomed to living under pressure!

Talking of which (oh nicely done, Jack) I had a most enjoyable chat the other day with Sunday Star Times money editor Rob Stock.  He's a very cool guy. Back when Simple Savings was first launched in NZ, saving money the way we did it wasn't smart or trendy the way it is now.  When it came to promoting us in the media, journalists either 'got it' or they didn't. Rob was one of the few who 'got it'; who immediately saw its merits and didn't think we were weird or quirky. Actually, he probably did think I was a BIT weird.  Even so, we've been talking for years and over that time he's seen me go from one extreme financially to the other.

Of my current situation he asked, 'Isn't it incredibly stressful having no money? Constantly having to deny yourself?' As anyone who doesn't have enough knows; whether it's short term or long term, whether you're a little bit strapped or in dire straits, the stress of having no money never leaves you.  It sits on your shoulders, weighing you down and banging on top of your head every minute of every day.  The only good thing when you're single and short of money is at least you don't have to worry about fighting with your spouse over it or apportioning blame.  I remember when I first joined Simple Savings reading how money is the number one cause of divorce. I might have to carry the load alone but at least there's no 'this is your fault!  You shouldn't have spent this, you shouldn't have done that!' The buck stops with me and funnily enough that helps because I know every choice is mine for good or bad and I'm responsible for everything I do. Still, I can't remember the last time I had a good night's sleep.  I think it was last September when I was in hospital and for once I had a decent reason for not being able to pay my bills on time!

As for constantly denying myself however, Rob was right.  For years I told myself and everyone else who would listen 'it's not about going without, it's about finding the smartest way to get what you want'.  Which is still true, absolutely!  But for many people there comes a point which goes beyond that and I didn't - couldn't - understand that until I had reached it.  You go from 'I'll get a haircut/facial/new shoes next pay day' to going without even the most basic things for so long you don't even think about it.  Once again it's always on your mind - I can't, I mustn't, how am I going to?  I didn't even realise I had gone into this next stage until Rob mentioned it but somewhere along the line I had gone from being Little Miss Smartypants, quick to brag about her latest frugal choice, to someone who had ran out of choices long ago.

Which is why after I finished talking to Rob and went to the supermarket, I still found myself struggling to spend any money.  Even though I hadn't bought more than a handful of things since before Christmas, even though for the first time in longer than I could remember I had money in my bank, I still couldn't bring myself to use any of it.  Even things I loved and had been craving such as chicken was too extravagant in my book to consider putting in my trolley.  The real clincher (and sorry for too much information here) was refusing to buy 'ladies products'.  I actually had a bit of a chuckle to myself at how stingy I was.  We had nothing at home, the insurance company had given me a meal ticket, quite literally - yet I still couldn't buy any more than the bare minimum!  I had become too conditioned, too ingrained.

And just like that I went from feeling downtrodden to empowered. Jeez I was strong!  I never realised until then how much my mindset had been dragging me down.  For the longest time the little voice inside my head was telling me I had nothing, I was never going to have anything, my life was always going to be this way, cue the violins. Sure it was understandable - but where does thinking like that get you?  If anyone knows how important mindset is when it comes to financial success, it's me!  What the heck happened?  I needed to start feeling empowered again; not only with every dollar I SAVE but with every dollar I SPEND.  Because every dollar I use to chip away at those debts with is another step closer to freedom, another couple of feet out of the hellhole.

So I left the supermarket, and ran into the mechanic's (actually it was more like a bounce) and gleefully announced 'Guess what!  I can pay you!'  And then I bounced into the vet and told them the same.  And the doctors.  And later that night when I was working I bounced over to the lawn mowing contractors who had chopped down a huge tree in my garden months before.  Obviously they were rather happy they were finally going to get their money but the lovely thing was (judging by the way they were laughing at my bouncing) that they all seemed genuinely happy for ME.

You're might well be reading all this rosy stuff thinking 'Oh well that's just fab isn't it.  She's just started a blog saying she's got no money and now all her troubles are over already!' But no.  Ohhh no! I still have a long way to go and there are no laurels to rest on.  Liam leaves home in less than a month, there is no more child support and Inland Revenue have already stopped my Working for Families benefit for being his sole carer.  That's a whopping $900 a month less I will be getting from now on! I might be able to pay some bills but it's going to take some very careful adjustment to stay on track.  It also takes a long time to get into a mess this deep and it's going to take a long time to get out of it too.  Unless you have a credit card of course; then you can get into a huge mess in the blink of an eye.  Which was another thing Rob brought up - so many people in my situation have no money so of course they turn to credit cards and other magic solutions.  Bad idea as we all know.  Fortunately by the time I got that desperate nobody would give me one anyway!  But I'm glad about that because the end of the day it's just bloody hard work that's going to get me out of this and when it does I'll feel like a million bucks.  Actually I don't know how I'll feel.  I can't even imagine it.  But I'm looking forward to it nonetheless!

Monday, 12 January 2015

The pen is mightier than the sword

Well, I did it.  We survived the week on just $6.35!  I spent the last of it yesterday on another loaf of bread and the three smallest fish fillets you have ever seen in your life but we DID it and as of last night our grocery money went into the food account so we can finally go shopping, woohoo!  I have to admit we have eaten better.  Yesterday was a bit of a low point when we were reduced to eating Marmite and Camembert toasted sandwiches as we literally had nothing else.  I had been saving the Camembert from a gorgeous gift hamper I was given for Christmas by some dear friends but it was the only cheese we had in the house.  Even in a toasted sandwich I had to admit it was bloody marvellous and I shall forever be grateful for it.  Still, having survived the week on next to nothing I couldn't wait to be able to enjoy some decent food again and was looking forward to today. However I had no idea just how good today would turn out to be.

You may remember me mentioning in my last post about income protection insurance being a sore point.  Cor blimey hasn't it just!  I took the policy out last year on the recommendation of - well, all sorts of people.  Being a writer isn't exactly the most dangerous or hazardous line of work but even so, should I accidentally lose a hand or have some dreadful illness befall me so that I was unable to work, my self employed status as I was at the time would not entitle me to any sick pay.  So I did as I was told, took out a shiny new life insurance policy (saving me $72 a month on the old one, with MORE cover) and chucked in some income protection insurance for good measure.  This was in June. Little was I to know that at the end of August I was going to get pneumonia. And then again in October!  In all I was unable to work properly for almost two whole months and my GP told me I had valid cause to make a claim.  This I duly did and when they requested to view my medical records for more information I agreed without hesitation, after all, I had absolutely nothing to hide.

So I was more than a little surprised when a few weeks after they contacted me to say that my claim was being declined on the grounds that a) I didn't tell them when I took out my policy that I had had a lump in my breast in 2012, b) I didn't tell them I also had a dodgy smear test in 2012 and c) I didn't tell them I was depressed in December 2013.  You might be thinking 'Indeed, why didn't she tell them that?'  The answer, dear reader when they showed me the original policy was that they never asked. What they did ask was a) had I been hospitalised at any time over the past five years due to serious illness.  My answer was no and it was the truth, I had not been hospitalised at any stage until my pneumonia.  My breast lump turned out to be a harmless lump of fatty tissue which disappeared by itself and the abnormal smear test had not turned out to be anything harmful and required no further treatment. As for being depressed, my marriage had broken up a few months earlier, I was hardly going to be doing cartwheels!  But I never took a single one of the anti-depressants the doctor prescribed me and still had the entire packet to prove it.

Besides, what did any of these things have to do with the price of fish?  I was making a claim on the grounds of pneumonia, yet the way they were carrying on I was potentially suicidal if I wasn't already half dead from the other things first.  Despite the fact that it was their lack of questions on taking out the policy which were at fault, they insisted that had they known about these conditions they would have never given me the policy; or at very least would have deferred it for 12 months to make sure I didn't kick the bucket first.  Basically, the cover I had been paying for all this time wasn't covering me at all and never had - yet even now they were still taking my money.  Back and forth the emails went and every time I shot them down until the only thing they had left to say was that they still considered me a high suicide risk.  Unfortunately for them they were saying this to a woman who had $6.35 in the bank to feed her kids with and I was not only feeling determined but powerful. In person I'm a pretty meek little thing who can never find the right thing to say or come up with smart answers on the spot.  But as a writer?  You can't argue with me on paper.  I will ALWAYS win.  So on Sunday morning I gave them both barrels. And I knew this time I had them.

This morning I had just picked up the keys to a holiday home I was about to clean when the phone rang. I couldn't resist taking a photo of those keys as I thought the keyring dangling on the end of them was so appropriate! At the other end of the phone was a man from Westpac Life Insurance who had been given my case.  'Oh hello!' I said in a cheery voice.  He seemed quite taken aback.  'Oh yes, sorry I was rather blunt in my email wasn't I?' I laughed.  'Yes, you sound very different in person.  In fact you sound like the least suicidal person I've ever heard!'  Well there ya go, the proof was in the pudding mate.  'Look, I'll be honest with you', he went on.  'The underwriters have been through your case again and are sticking to their guns.  Had we known your medical history you would not have been approved for that policy.  We have to decline your claim.  But - it's not your fault, we should never have given it to you.  You've been paying all these months for non-existent cover and to top it off you've had one hell of a crap time. So we're refunding all those monthly payments.  And are paying you half of the amount you claimed on compassionate grounds'.

At which point I didn't give a stuff that my call was being recorded and told the man he was a legend and I would give him a massive hug if I could before bursting into noisy sniffles to be stashed in the Westpac archives for posterity.  And then I went and cleaned that holiday home and sang at the top of my voice.  What does this mean for me?  It means I can pay off some of the debts which I've struggled to pay for the past two years.  It means I can pay the vet, the mechanic and all the other locals I've been crossing the street to avoid out of embarrassment.  It means that I still have a long way to go and we still to be really careful but there's a big light shining at the end of the tunnel.  I'm almost too scared to hope but I think it means at last that the universe has decided to give me a break.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Nobody's immune

Hello and welcome to all my new page likers!  Thank you so much for stopping by.  Most people tend to fall into one of two categories - either they know me through my writing but don't know me personally, or they know me personally but not anything about my writing.  Those who have followed my blog or read the $21 Challenge before will know already that saving money is my thing, whereas those of you who say hi to me in the street or message me on Facebook may well be thinking 'What the hell is she doing?  And why is she confessing to all and sundry that she only has $6 to feed herself?  Isn't that a tad embarrassing?!'

Actually nope, not at all.  Look at Jack Monroe.  Look at the massive number of people she has helped all over the world because she was brave enough to stand up and say 'My son and me are surviving on ten quid a week'.  Did people think 'God, what a loser!'  Hell no, they saw her as a fighter, as a survivor. Because everywhere you go people are struggling.  You just don't hear about them because they don't like to admit it. They don't want people to think they're 'bad with money' or haven't got their shit together.  A lot of the time it's their own fault they don't have enough money - but a lot of the time it isn't.  Yet they're too scared to say because in even in today's open minded society people are still far more comfortable talking about their sex lives than their financial woes.  Some people are comfortable talking about their finances - as long as you don't know it's THEM, e.g. on a public Forum or blog under a user name.  Which was why writing under the name Penny Wise for so many years was rather nice.

Talking of Penny, you may well be wondering, how on earth did I get into this situation?  Me of all people, money saving guru of the last 10 years?  Well that's another reason I started this blog.  If it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.  In my case, my marriage broke up and I bought a house which used up every cent I had.  I was conscious I didn't have any savings to fall back on but I carried on blindly because I believed that life would continue as it always had.  Then my work hours were cut and before I had the chance to find alternative employment I fell very sick and was unable to work for two whole months. When you're self employed you don't get sick pay and with no savings or emergency fund, I was quite frankly buggered.  You might be thinking 'don't you have some kind of income protection insurance?'  Yes, I do.  Sore point.  That's a whole other blog.

So there you go.  That sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen to me but it did.  And things like that happen to people around us all the time which is why I decided to shed Penny's protective cloak and write as me.  Because the one good thing about being in this horrible situation is that if there's anyone who knows how to get themselves out of it, it's me.  And somewhere, someone else reading this may have even less than $6.35 to feed themselves with and me sharing my story, my progress and the countless ways I have learned how NOT to spend might just help them as much as me.  I was amazed recently when I told a friend of mine how I had been making soup from a leftover cooked chicken carcass, one of the cheapest meals I know.  She told me that once upon a time she had been so poor when someone gave her bones for her dog, she used them to make soup to feed the family.  I was close to tears.  And I thought I had it tough.  The great thing is, she got herself out of that awful situation with sheer hard work, determination and a lot of savvy money saving skills.  She is one of the main people inspiring me in my mission.  If she can do it, there is hope for me.  I haven't had to pinch the dog's dinner yet but there are a lot of people who have and they are all around us.

The other thing I want is for people to learn from my situation that saving money really IS important. Nobody is immune.  Nobody is indispensable.  You could be in a job for 25 years but your boss could still go bankrupt tomorrow or have a dreadful water skiiing accident and have to close the company. Doesn't matter if you're 20, 40 or 60 it can still happen.  If I had thought I was ever going to be in this situation I would have stashed away every spare dollar from the time I was 20!  But hindsight is a wonderful thing.  For any young people reading this blog, and I know there are quite a few of you - SAVE, OK?  Don't be dicks with your money.  Be smart, don't spend it all on booze and pizza and you'll never get caught short or unprepared when the shit hits the fan. You can thank me later.

Anyway, that's the past, now you know why I'm here.  Back to the present and I have two days to go and still haven't spend any of my $6.35!  Although I will have to give in and buy a loaf of bread today but that's only $1.  I do have to confess meals are somewhat interesting though.  I had a few sausages I was saving to make a meal and an abundance of baked beans (thank you Foodbank) and remembered a recipe I had seen years ago in Sophie Gray's brilliant 'Stunning Food from Small Change'.  This cookbook literally cut my food bill in half when I first started using it. Granted I had a lot more money to spend on food back then but I had a vague memory of seeing 'Sausage and Bean Casserole' amongst its pages and dug it out.  It was super easy to make and along with mashed spuds and beans from the garden made plenty to feed the boys while I was at work until 1am.  I told myself that it was much like Devilled Sausages, although my tastebuds still told me that they tasted of exactly what it was; sausages and baked beans mixed together.  OK, so it wasn't something you would serve up to posh guests but for two teenage boys it would do.  Alas they were also unimpressed.  'Dinner was - characteristic last night!' Ali said with a chuckle.  'Oh yeah, that was yuk!' Liam chipped in a little less subtly.  Unfortunately that did not surprise me!  Still you have to try these things to know and out of the many, many Sophie Gray recipes I have tried over the years this is the very first not to result in a family favourite so I'm still not complaining.  It filled two large teenage tummies and didn't cost me a cent.  Dinner tonight is venison steak from the freezer, courtesy of Ali the hunter and then I just have one more day to get through and I will have survived on my $6.35!  In addition I have also managed to pay the vet $100 of what I owe and my car is now legally on the road. A pretty good start to Operation Hellhole I must say!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Let the battle begin!

When I was first married with kids I used to loathe baking with a passion.  All that time and effort spent in the kitchen, covering yourself and every available surface in flour in order to produce a single cake or dozen muffins, only to have the rest of the household wolf down all your hard work in five minutes flat?  Seemed like a big waste of time to me, not to mention a thankless job.  But that was back when we had money to burn.  These days baking is my sanity.  I do it out of love.  I do it because it makes me feel productive and useful.  I do it to survive.

Yesterday was one such day.  It was my day off and I had been looking forward to it excitedly (when you have four jobs a day off from all of them is a huge rarity!).  However instead of spending a leisurely day fishing off the rocks in a tiny, picturesque bay as planned, I woke up to the sound of torrential rain.  Grr, bloody weather - now what was I going to do?!  I decided it was probably best to try and get a little bit organised in preparation for the next five nights' worth of meals, when I would be working late.  Excellent idea in theory. The problem was, we didn't really have any food.  And with only $6.35 in the grocery account I couldn't really buy too much either.  Being the type to stick money in random 'safe places' I searched every pocket, every drawer and even shook out every notebook on my desk in the hope a $5, $10 or even $20 would fly out but to no avail. A quick look in the fridge, freezer and pantry didn't do anything to improve my mood either!  The only good thing was at least I had butter, sugar, flour and eggs.  And if you have an egg in the house, you have a meal.

So I got to work and used some squishy bananas and the last of the chocolate chips in the pantry to make the banana muffins I've been making for the boys for the past 15 years.  At least now they had something to snack on when I was at work.  I had two sheets of pastry in the freezer, a couple of rashers of bacon and two-thirds of a bottle of cream left over from Christmas.  That was tomorrow night's dinner sorted, Quiche Lorraine!  Even so, I still needed quite a lot more, including work lunch for myself.  I didn't even have enough vegetables to make vegetable soup!  That made me REALLY grumpy; I mean come on, how basic is vegetable soup?  Then I thought of a friend of mine called Rachel who has her own thrifty Facebook page called Stinge O Rama Mumma.  Rachel loves cooking and loves experimenting making new things even more.  There's no limit to her culinary imagination! Especially when it comes to using things up or making things stretch.  So I decided to take a leaf out of her book and make something up.  I proudly present to you:

Amazeballs Soup!

So called because the flavour really is quite amazing when you consider how little is in it. Super cheap and healthy too!  I just threw in the following in a large pot - 

Splash of olive oil
1 finely chopped onion
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 400g tin lentils (I just happened to have these on hand but you could use dried as well)
1 beef stock cube
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp garam masala
3 sprigs fresh rosemary, stalks removed
Lots of water (I just kept adding until it was the consistency I wanted and season to taste)
Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in the pan, then throw in the onion and carrot and cook gently for five minutes. Throw in the rest of the ingredients and let it all bubble away until everything is cooked through.  Makes a thick, hearty soup which is surprisingly delicious!

To top it off I managed to make two days' worth of dog food by cooking up a leftover roast lamb bone with some rice.  You're probably wondering 'why didn't you put the lamb bone in the soup?' Simple, I don't eat lamb!  Plus the soup was already nice and full of flavour as it was and using it to make dog food was going to save me a whole $3 out of my precious $6.35 on buying a can.  I still have three more days to fill with meals but I can do it on that tiny amount, I know I can!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Fly away, Penny

Let us start at the beginning.  Which is, I guess at the bottom.  How I would have loved to start the New Year with a clean slate after the annus horriblis that was 2014!  As it is, well things are currently a bit crap.  I’ve been driving around for weeks with an unregistered car, which is also well overdue for a service but I can’t get that done because I still owe the mechanic $200 from the last one.  The local vet is threatening to set the debt collectors on me if I don’t pay him the $600 I owe him for taking 20 – yes, 20 – of our dog’s teeth out.  Oh, and today is Thursday and I have the princely sum of $6.35 to feed myself, two teenage boys, two dogs and two cats with until next Tuesday.  That’s going to take a bit of creativity I can tell you! 

A bit about me, if you haven’t already met me before.  I’m a solo mum of two very large teenage boys.  My marriage broke up two years ago and I decided it would be a good idea to buy a house and be saddled with paying a mortgage by myself until I’m 102.  On the whole, it WAS a good idea.  I just never realised how hard it would be to KEEP it.  As readers of my previous Penny Wise blog will know, life has thrown pretty much everything it can at us over the past two years and I’m currently working four jobs in an attempt to hang on to it.  Working that many jobs is really not ideal, I don’t recommend it!  Suffice to say it’s one thing I really hope to change this year.

Still, if there’s one skill I do pride myself on more than any other it’s my ability to see the positives in everything and this is the reason I feel it is time to start a new blog.  I’ve been pottering along as Penny Wise for the past decade and enjoying hiding behind her comfy camouflage and pretending everything is jubbly but it’s Jackie who needs to up the ante now and get out of this hell hole.  Because that’s what it is.  Working four jobs and still not having enough to get by, let alone get ahead is absolute hell.  So I’m going to do my darnedest to get out of it and am going to document my journey right here.  Who knows how long it will take but I have two particular people in mind who are spurring me along.  The first is Jack Monroe.  Like me, she’s a girl called Jack.  We’re also both English, both are solo mums of boys, we’ve both written cook books and both of us would do absolutely anything to keep our kids fed and with a roof over their head.  The brilliant thing about Jack Monroe is that she not only managed to feed herself and her son with just ten quid a week, she shared how she did it through her blog.  In the process of getting out of her own personal hell hole, she helped countless others to do the same and now she needs never worry about where her next meal is coming from ever again. I want to be like that Jack.

The other person spurring me on is actually a fictional character but nonetheless has been a personal heroine of mine for many years.  As of last month, I am the same age as Shirley Valentine.  We are both 42, both stuck in a rut and both let everyone walk all over us.  She got out of her hell hole thanks to sheer bravery and guts.  I want to be like Shirley too. 

So here it is, my new blog.  I would have liked to call it ‘A Girl Called Jack’, but turns out someone else is already doing a brilliant job with that.  After much deliberation I settled on one of my favourite quotes, ‘Riches Have Wings’, which I was surprised to discover actually comes from the Bible.  You can interpret it however you like, but my handle on it is that money is like a bird, it can fly away if you’re not careful.  And I’m darned if I’m going to let any more money fly away.  I’m going to rein in every cent and just like the other Jack, I’m going to share how I do it.  You never know, it might just help someone but if nothing else, at least putting pen to paper makes this Jack accountable.

So it’s time to fly away, Penny Wise.  Jackie Gower is but human and she sure as hell isn’t always wise but she means business.  And I WILL NOT fail!