Save £££££££££££s!

I had a realisation yesterday, and it may be a sign of the times, but it hit me like a diamond bullet in the forehead all the same: I get much more of a kick out of saving money than I do from spending money. I made the vanilla and almond biscotti that I have very badly photographed above, and, on carving out around 48 biscuits from one baking tray and popping them into Tupperware tubs, I decided to calculate exactly how much they cost to make. (It was fun to cook them, by the way, and took just over an hour.)

In a possibly over-forensic manner, I worked out how much I’d spent on flour, sugar, eggs, butter etc. (this is easy to do if you know the price of the food you buy), and the grand total, discounting the electricity I’d used to bake the biscotti for a total of 40 minutes, was £3.88. Now, I could have reduced this total sharply by not using organic eggs, organic almonds, organic butter and – added ingredient! – about eight squares of Green & Black’s chocolate. (I had to buy the flour round the corner, having spontaneously decided to make the biscotti, and they only had non-organic.) Although I saved on vanilla pods by using a drop of essence, I used flaked almonds instead of whole, as I had some in the cupboard; next time, it would be much cheaper to smash up whole almonds bought in big bags. In other words, I reckon it could be done for closer to £2. Even at my organic price, that’s about 8p a biscuit, but at £2 it would be more like 4p. I sometimes treat myself (those words) to a shop-bought box of biscotti and they cost £2.19 for about 20 biscuits – the rest is packaging – which is almost 11p a biscuit. Over 40 biscuits, that’s a saving of £1.20, which would rocket to £2.80 if you spent less on the ingredients, as I will do next time. If you buy a single biscotti in a high street coffee shop, it’s 99p. You don’t need to do the maths (which is lucky, as I am shit at maths). The maths does itself.

In yesterday’s Observer, the ever-reliable David Mitchell was writing about Michael Gove, chiefly, but had this enlightening thing to say about saving money.

In my life, the money I would otherwise spend on shampoo is very dear to me: I buy the cheapest possible shampoo. When I can steal it from hotels, I do. I use every last squirt from every bottle, eking out days’ more use from each one when most people would have thrown it away. I dote on the thought of that saved money. It may amount to as much as £14 over my lifetime. Meanwhile, the money I waste because I’m perpetually on the wrong mobile phone tariff is sent out into the world neglected and unloved.

Now, Mitchell is a well-recompensed TV personality and broadsheet columnist; he has less need to scrimp and save and worry about money than most. But unless you’re actually in the 1%, we really are all in this recession – or these recessions – together, and if Mitchell instinctively squeezes shampoo bottles, so should we all. And if we’re not squeezing them, we should ask ourselves why not. It may be the vilified “bankers” who got us into this mess – or more rightly, the governments that let them get us into it, or even more rightly, the free market that so dazzled the governments in the first place that they turned two blind eyes to the deregulated sleight-of-greed that was going on in their name – but we were happy to spend, on credit, when the going was good, and it’s up to us, I think, to put the brakes on and adjust to the new world order.

In the past couple of weeks, as you can see, I have made beetroot soup, a banana cake, and a radish and mint soup (which tastes a lot nicer than it looks). My imperative for doing this has been to use up what we’ve got. My fruit and vegetables are delivered, in a box, and that means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. One week, you might get 700g of beetroots, which is exactly the amount required for Delia’s beetroot soup recipe, which is free online [see: Factsheet at bottom]. Rather than see the beetroots going wrinkly and unloved in a drawer, I used them, and it serves four, which means it serves me, four times, over four days. The banana cake was, like the biscotti, a cunning method of giving myself a sweet treat in my packed lunch which obviates the need for me to buy expensive cakes and biscuits in coffee shops, or the overpriced British Library café.

I used to work in a rented office, but that had to go come the crash of 2008, when all but the most affluent belts were tightened. I have been working in the Library ever since, as it’s free once you have a Reader’s Pass. But in those early days, I used to buy my lunch, and a mid-morning snack, and even sometimes breakfast, in the cafeteria or café. Even though I was cutting back on expenditure by letting the office go, and cancelling my gym membership, and picking up my newspaper rather than having it delivered, it’s amazing how much I found myself spending per day on food. So the packed lunch became my creed. I cook up something meaty and long-lasting on a Sunday, and apportion it out Monday to Friday. I add to that something sweet, and maybe a Tupperware tub of plain yoghurt with dried fruit or stewed apple in it. Lovely! Although, yes, some days I wish I didn’t have quite so much in my bag, I always relish getting it all out for my lunch. (And to sneak out a couple of biscuits, especially homemade ones, in a coffee shop, feels like a moral victory.)

I have, it seems, turned into a 1950s austerity housewife. And that suits me fine. It takes time to make your own food, but as long as you enjoy cooking, as I do, it’s a surefire way of de-leveraging. We are all feeling the pinch to varying degrees, but it feels good not to throw your money away, doesn’t it? Capitalism requires us all to feel constantly dissatisfied, and to want to own more goods, and better goods. I have had my car for 11 years. By now, according to capitalism, I should have replaced it, or, at the very least, started to envy the better, newer cars of those around me. I don’t. I just don’t. (I am lucky enough to live in London, with its excellent public transport links, so I really don’t use the car much. I feel sorry for those who don’t have that luxury and can’t get about without a car.) I remember reading Will Hutton’s excellent The World We’re In a few years ago and being struck by the observation that the middle classes are the engine of free market capitalism, as, according to the rules, they own some stuff, and it’s the people who own some stuff who are in a constant state of anxiety about their stuff not being enough, or good enough, so they thrive to work harder and earn more money, so they can spend it, and thus, they motor the economy. This, one assumes, is why right-wing politicians are keen to convince us that we’re all middle class now. If we are, then we are the suckers.

This is a horrible period to be living through. I am personally not on my knees, but that’s mainly because I’m self-employed and cannot lose all my clients overnight in the same way that someone who is employed can lose their job overnight. Even in the media, budgets are being cut everywhere, and the BBC, one of my main employers, is public sector. And we all know how much love the Tories have for the public sector. It’s hard to imagine that, a few years ago, I had a gym membership. That seems so wasteful now. (Walking, I have discovered, is free.) Surely it’s better to bake your own biscuits than to buy them?

Oh, and my biscuits taste better. They’re not as sweet as the Arden & Amici ones, but the money I’ve saved is sweet enough.


Factsheet: the recipes mentioned are here, although I have customised them freely, as I often do, to accommodate what’s in the cupboard and fridge, which is a frugal way of doing it.

The almond and vanilla biscotti came from a Waitrose recipe. I used plain four instead of self-raising, so added bicarb and baking powder. I also added choc chips. The beetroot soup, Polish apparently, is a Delia recipe; again, adapted – I added red chilli for kick, and have tried both bacon for the stock, and the giblets from a chicken. The radish and mint soup was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, although it’s designed to be eaten cold and I warmed mine up and used yoghurt instead of creme fraiche, and paprika for cayenne pepper (again, through necessity), which may have changed it for the worse. The beautiful banana cake – which lasted me for a week and a half, rationed to one slice a day – is by Dan Lepard, from the Guardian magazine. (I must admit, I was so exited by the outcome, I sent him the photo on Twitter, and he replied and everything.)

Incidentally, my food photography is rubbish because I don’t have a mobile phone with a camera, and instead use the rudimentary and awkward PhotoBooth application on my laptop. I don’t have a posh phone for the same reasons that I don’t belong to a gym or pay 99p for a biscotti in a coffee shop.


17 thoughts on “Save £££££££££££s!

    • I have a monitor that the electricity supplier was handing out. I don’t trust it though! (And I forgot to check it before I cooked the biscuits.)

  1. Ah. Must check who has my electricity monitor (bought for £1 from a car boot) thanks for the reminder! And, as one of those people who stores shampoo and showergel bottles the wrong way up when they’re nearly empty, I’m glad to see I’m in good company, even if my savings don’t pay for one trip to my excellent hairdresser.

    I can imagine that making your own soup and making cake is probably fairly satisfying if you’re a writer, at least you’re carrying out something from start to finish and not waiting for criticism or rewrites.

  2. Since my bouts of unemployment between 2005 and 2009 I’ve lost that urge to spend that I had through my twenties and thirties. I don’t know whether it would have gone anyway or whether I’m stuck with a kind of bunker mentality. Maybe it’s a bit of both. I know I look at the younger blokes in the office parading their latest on-line purchases with glee and I’m utterly mystified and slightly sickened.
    Good as David Mitchell’s piece was, the leading article on the government’s austerity policy was a real joy to behold.
    I admit I’m not overburdened with hair but I reckon I’ve had my current bottle of shampoo for at least four years even though I use a bit every day. It’s a big bottle mind. But why wait till it’s nearly finished before you start using it sparingly? When the tub’s full, always think how much margarine you’d be happy to get on your knife if it were nearly empty, and scrape accordingly. (That must be why I’m so thin then.)
    Finally, you had it right the first time: blame the bankers. A Tory knob end was trying to tell us a couple of weeks back that UK borrowers need to accept their share of the blame. Banks have to lend to someone, he said, as if they have no say in the matter or no control over themselves. It was the borrowers’ fault for being there with that teasing, slightly needy look in their eyes. It made me think that perhaps borrowers should be forced to wear the burqa to preserve the good name of bankers.
    Even if UK borrowers were asking for it, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think that many people’s borrowing was out of control. If we were collectively borrowing too much – and I don’t think we were – surely the responsibility in that situation is for someone who knows how much a lot of people are borrowing collectively, someone who knows what is “too much”, someone who is actually in a position to do something about it – surely it’s the responsibility of people in those kind of positions to act? If the man whose job it is to decide whether or not to lend money to people doesn’t know how much is too much, then… he should.
    Obviously some people are in trouble now because of the financial crisis – but their contribution to that crisis was absolutely nil. Blaming their borrowing for the mess we’re in is a bit like shooting someone and then telling him, “I’m afraid your chances of pulling through have been greatly lessened by your years of smoking. So that’s something for you to reflect on. Never smoked myself. Filthy habit. Though I am on the board of BAT. So in a way, thank you.”

  3. Great post. In trying to save money myself, and improve my health, I’m rediscovering the joy of cooking. The satisfaction of baking in particular just cannot be matched by buying an overly-sugary cake filled with goodness knows what rubbish. Those biscotti are high on my list to try next!

    • And I can report that the biscotti, though lacking in super-sweetness as mentioned, stand up to dunking in coffee.

  4. Agree with all of this and do much the same myself but here’s my grumble: too many workplaces (let alone what *should* be public spaces like libraries, shopping places) have nowhere in which you are allowed to eat your own food. That’s why so many people munch at their desk in their office – there are fewer and fewer staff rooms where you can take your own grub because it’s ‘not an economical use of space’ – not economical for who? The bosses!

    Eating at your desk means you have to bring non-offensive food like boring sandwiches instead of reheating last night’s delicious homemade curry, as is my wont. And us poor freelancers out and about in town at meetings and the like have practically nowhere indoors to eat and drink our snap (Derby word, meaning packed lunch). Grrrrr.

    • Good point. In the British Library, which is my “workplace” they don’t mind you eating your own food in the cafe but frown upon in it the cafeteria, and I often buy a coffee for £2.15 just to show my appreciation for letting me use the space. (After all, the Library gives me wi-fi, electricity and facilities for free.) My only other workplace is Radio Times, which does have a communal eating area. When it’s sunny, we packed lunch-bringers are laughing, as you can sit on a bench, but the loss of staff rooms is a sad one.

  5. Fair play Andrew, I too am frugal but have always been that way and not because of the recession.

    Whilst laudable all this penny pinching doesn’t do much for “growth”. We need the army of idiots spending 99p on Biscotti’s to get out of this recession!

    • I’m sure you’re right, on paper, Dara. But maybe it’s about time we stopped chasing “growth” and started chasing “sustainability.” I listen to the woes of British farmers on Farming Today and they’re being put out of business by “growth” as the supermarkets race for the bottom line and sell milk at a loss. If the farmers could survive by just selling locally, they’d be better off, but the local people presumably buy from supermarkets.

  6. The biscotti look great, as does your beetroot soup. One thing I would take issue with is :
    ” (And to sneak out a couple of biscuits, especially homemade ones, in a coffee shop, feels like a moral victory”.
    I run my own small cafe. I pay good wages plus tips, I buy local produce wherever possible, and I believe that small businesses like mine will help to pull us out of the mire we are wading through currently. But I won’t get far if my customers sneakily eat their own food & feel morally justified in doing so. I’ve got rent, rates, wages, heating, lighting, national insurance to pay, and every penny counts. Eating your own food in someone else’s cafe without asking first is as rude as eating your own food at a dinner party without asking. If the moral victory is felt because you don’t feel you are getting value for money, or you feel the coffee shop is run unethically, then find an alternative place for your cuppa.

    • I would never do such a thing in an independent cafe! That would be a moral defeat! (Only in a huge chain.)

  7. Enjoyed reading this article and reflecting on the ‘triumph-de-frugal’, the more you save the more you reflect on what you haven’t or could have saved and more importantly what you could have done with what you’d saved when you didn’t save it. Or something like that. Anyway, nice biscotti…organic or otherwise.

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