Saturday, May 21, 2022

British Gas Part 2

Sure enough, British Gas turned into a battle. Exactly as I predicted in my previous post, they went back on the deal.

The last time I'd spoken to them the agreement was that they would look at my consumption over a two week period and base my bill on the average daily usage of that period. Seemed fair, I could not disagree with that.

So the two weeks pass and I get a phone call from British Gas. Thank-you for the meter readings, we've now had readings from Neon Reef and your bill is £396.

But that wasn't what we'd agreed. Didn't matter, this is now what we, British Gas, have decided that we are doing regardless of what was put in place before. On the plus side, be grateful. We've dropped your bill by £100 so what are you complaining about? Plus you can't argue with a meter reading.

Well, yes, I can argue with it. For two reasons. First, it is still showing a usage far in excess of what I'm actually consuming. I'm getting through around 8kWh a day. Their figures show about 20.

You could damn near hear the shoulder shrug.

The second thing I argued was that Neon Reef had never had a meter reading from me. My smart meter apparently wasn't compatible with their systems and I had not had time to submit any readings to them before they went bust. So where had it come from? It was obviously an estimate based on my closing reading from PFP when I switched.

The woman from British Gas was not budging. She just repeated that the bill was the bill and the readings were the readings. Total disinterest. And why should there be any interest? It is not in their favour to get to the bottom of it or act fairly. What am I going to do? Go somewhere else?

All I could do was refuse to accept it and every time she suggested something, payment plans, credit agreements, etc., I said no. Give me a deadlock letter so I can go to the Ombudsman.

Let me speak to my supervisor about how we can help you pay.

No, just give me the deadlock letter so I can go to the Ombudsman.

Let me see if I can spread the payments over 12 months.

No, just give me the deadlock letter so I can go to the Ombudsman.

I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. If they will not accept your complaint then be stubborn. Do not back down and just keep repeating "Ombudsman".

Whatever they say.


Every suggestion.

Ombudsman. Ombudsman. Ombudsman.

If this is not going in your favour then this is what you need to be doing. Do not get bogged down in the quagmire of any utility company's complaint system because it will never go in your favour.

The Ombudsman is the independent adjudicator in energy company disagreements. All the bigger companies are signed up to them as the final word in complaints. I've used them before in similar circumstances, Iresa went bust and I got transferred to Octopus who then botched the transfer. I got nowhere with Octopus but the Ombudsman investigated, found in my favour and I ended up getting a little bit of compensation. It was actually a really smooth process, the Ombudsman service was helpful and fair. I think there are also penalties for energy companies who end up in Ombudsman cases so there is a big disincentive to let a complaint go that far.

But to get to use the Ombudsman service you either need to wait eight weeks from your original complaint or you have to receive what's called a deadlock letter from the supplier. This states that the complaint has reached a point where no agreement is possible. That is your ticket to the Ombudsman.

So I just kept repeating it over and over. Send me the deadlock letter.

And it worked. After the final call where it was agreed this is what would happen. I got another call a couple of hours later. Suddenly British Gas had decided that, in this case, they would base my bill on the average figures I had given them.

My bill had gone from the original which had been around £600 to £140 once all the various credits from PFP and Neon Reef had been added. That's almost a 75% reduction because I knew I was right and refused to give in to them.

That is absolutely sickening and makes me wonder exactly how many other people were in the same position when Neon Reef and the other companies went bust. There must be hundreds, even thousands, of people who got ridiculously high estimated bills and just paid it because they think it must be right or British Gas tried to intimidate them into paying it. It is shocking that they can be allowed to get away with this with no penalty whatsoever.

I've read theories that the reason they are doing it is that they know the overestimates will eventually have to be repaid but it nets them a huge excess of cash up front so that they can use for business operations. It is basically a line of credit that the customers are paying for. If that is true then it really is awful.

And the other thing that has not been addressed is backing out of the agreed tariff which customers of Neon Reef had been given when they were transferred over. This was supposed to have been fixed until June but they used some very sneaky wording in the fine print to wriggle out of it.

British Gas are a bunch of crooks. There is no other way of putting it. As a company it is immoral and unethical to behave in the way it has done. OK, they have arguably stayed within the limits of the law but I don't think anyone for a moment can argue that they are honest.

While we are on the subject of complaints, I've actually got two positive stories. First, my car insurance. As mentioned in a previous post, someone hit my car in February and agreed to pay for the damage. I notified my insurers of the accident, as you are required to do by law, but that I was not making any claims.

So I got my renewal and spotted that my no-claims discount had been reduced to 3 years from 10 years and my premium had been hiked up to reflect that. I got on the phone to them, the woman I spoke to was extremely helpful. The claim was removed, everything sorted and my new quote issued. Surprisingly, it is actually lower than any other quote I've had from any of the comparison sites so I will renew with them. So to counter the awful service of British Gas, here is a little bit of praise for Zenith Insurance. For once, a company that actually did their job well. It was actually a really nice experience.

The other one was Heinz. It sounds stupid but I had a bottle of tomato sauce explode in my cupboard. I heard a hissing, opened the door and saw sauce everywhere. Not happy, I posted the pic and my complaint of their FB page. I got a message asking for my name and address and now I've got £10 in supermarket vouchers. So it pays to complain.

Monday, April 18, 2022

British Gas - Fleecing The Public

I submitted my end-of-the-price-cap meter readings like everyone else and got my bill through from British Gas.


My heart sunk when I saw that and my first thought, like many, is "where the fuck am I getting that money from?". Obviously, I was expecting a higher than normal bill. Usually electricity costs me £35-40 a month so was budgeting maybe £55. The bill covered the period from 3rd of December, when I got switched from the bankrupt Neon Reef to British Gas, to the 31st March when the price cap changes. So more or less four months. That would have been around £220. I was £140 in credit with Neon Reef so was expecting a bill of £80'ish.

Instead, with the £140 credit, I'm looking at £260'ish. That's nearly £100 a month for electricity.

That was a terrifying thought. I really cannot see how I could sustain an extra £65 a month on top of everything else. It spiked my anxiety through the roof. Not only did I not have the money to pay for my current bill, I really did not know how I was going to pay my bills to come. It was depressing seeing as how I'd finally started feeling like I'd turned the corner financially. And now this sets me back again and wipes out all the work I've done.

So I did what I really did not want to do. I reached for the good credit card, the emergency one, and figured I'd use that, get clear of the debt now, come up with a way to pay it off manageably and then budget a bit tighter from now on.

And then I thought... wait a fucking minute. How do I know what they are charging me is right? I'm just taking their word for it.

So I got the figures they were using (which was a battle in itself which I will outline in another post) and just looked at what they said my electricity consumption had been. It was averaging 21kWh a day over the last four months. My smart meter has a daily history and over that period the highest reading was 10kWh and it averaged around 7.5kWh. So they were billing me for three times my actual consumption.

I'll repeat that as it absolutely staggered me: British Gas were billing me for three times the electricity I was actually using.

Here is the problem. My supplier last year was PFP. They went bust in the autumn so I switched to Neon Reef as they were still offering a reasonable fixed rate deal. Neon Reef then immediately went bust before I could even get my first bill from them. I was then swapped to British Gas under the Seller of Last Resort OFGEM arrangements, starting supply with them on the 3rd of December.

In amongst this shit-show my meter readings got lost. PFP's website was closed so I can't access my smart-meter data. Neon Reef did not work with the type of meter that I had installed and they folded so quickly after I joined them that I did not have time to submit my first reading to them. What readings I'd written down I had lost in the subsequent four months since it all happened.

So once I'd submitted my 31st March reading to British Gas they then estimated what my starting read must have been on the 3rd of December based on an incredible 21kWh a day.

Just to repeat: three times what my actual consumption was.

I fully accept responsibility for losing my meter readings. That's my fault entirely. With such a chaotic situation I should have been more careful. Stupidly I thought that having a smart-meter would solve all that.

But that does not excuse British Gas's behaviour. If you are going to make an estimate then you need to at least use a reasonable figure. Even OFGEM's own data suggests that the average UK household uses 8kWh a day. So where does British Gas get 21kWh from?

That's really puzzled me. It seems such an egregious over-estimation that it has to be deliberate. You don't just arrive at a figure almost three times what the energy regulator's data says at random. There is thought and reasoning behind it.

It was only through talking with other people that I realised what they were doing. This appears to be a deliberate policy across the board and the best hypothesis that I've seen so far is that they are trying to raise as much cash now as they can by grossly overestimating bills and then repay it down the line as a refund. Basically, they are using the public as a cheap source of short-term credit. It is essentially a 3 or 4 month interest free loan.

This is incredibly cynical and manipulative. They are sowing fear in their customers, hitting the ones they can with an inflated estimated bill knowing that the majority will pay it without querying it and then "discover" the error down the line when they've used all that free credit to forward buy energy contracts.

People are absolutely fucking terrified at the moment. Part of that is the media fanning the flames. There wouldn't be half as much anxiety in the country if the scum of the media stopped milking it. There are no "good" media sources any more, even the BBC has turned into just another hysterical soundbite generator. But most of it is genuine. People really are struggling for money. People who six months ago were doing OK have now dropped below the poverty line through no fault of their own. People who are still doing OK are seeing that bar get ever closer to them. This horrendous government has so successfully got the public to look at the poor and think "Urgh, that will never be me" but it is backfiring. The public is now looking at the poor and thinking "oh shit, that could be me next".

And to have giant companies like British Gas milking that is absolutely outrageous. But the worst part of it is that these companies will walk away without even a slap on the wrist. They will get away with it because they always get away with it. Even if they do get found out and do get fined, any "punishment" will be such a tiny blip on their figures that it won't knock a penny off the bonuses of the bastards at the top.

Anyway, this is still going. I eventually managed to speak to some woman in their complaints team. Apart from being incredibly patronising and more or less accused me of lying, she did her best to resist doing anything to remedy the situation. It struck me that her role was not to solve issues but to manage what customers thought of British Gas. "I know we're robbing you but don't you think we are really nice for doing it?".

Eventually, she agreed to monitor my usage for two weeks to check my average consumption and base the estimate on that. This only came after I'd spent 15 minutes saying "no" to everything else she suggested. And immediately after I'd said the word "ombudsman".

So that is what has happened. I've tracked my usage for the last 14 days and it comes to 7.7kWh per day on average. Almost exactly one third of what they have estimated it at.

I don't know what happens next. I do not expect them to simply accept this figure and base the estimate off that. I think they will haggle, try to push something more like 10 or 12kWh. But I guess I just need to keep saying "ombudsman" over and over.

I will update the blog once I get a resolution.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Car Crash

Great start to the year. I'm driving home from work yesterday and some moron decides he's turning right from the left hand lane on a dual carriageway, does a full 90 degree turn right across my lane and I end up t-boning him. The guy gives me some sob story about his situation and that he'll pay for the damage.

He was foreign, didn't speak good English and I get the feeling he's either uninsured, unlicensed or both. I really don't need this right now.

So I end up spending yesterday afternoon in this drawn out text message exchange, half of which doesn't make any sense. He wants to buy my car off me. Then he doesn't. He wants his friend to fix it. Then he's selling his car to pay for my repairs. It all sounds like bullshit.

Apparently I'm going to his shop on Monday to collect the cash for the repairs. I have a very bad feeling about this. I don't trust him or anything about the situation. My insurance company wasn't overly helpful. I reported it to them just so it is logged in case this goes sideways but all they wanted me to do was to pass it straight on to Enterprise Car Rental. Because apparently that's how car accidents work now. Insurance companies don't do anything, corporate car rental companies take the claims, presumably so they can rent a courtesy car to you, arrange the repairs and then recover it at an overblown rate from whoever's insurance company is deemed to be liable.

So why am I not just passing it on to them and let the corporations work it out? It was clearly the other driver who was at fault. His sudden move across my lane left me no chance to react. But if you have any experience of car accidents you'll know it immediately descends into bullshit. He said, she said. Everyone tells the story of what happened in the fashion that reflects best on them. And if you're someone with a lot to lose, as this guy sounds, then I'd expect outright lies.

Last time I was in an accident was as a passenger in an ex-girlfriend's car. Other car comes round a blind corner on the wrong side of the road and hits her car. Clearly in the wrong... you'd think. But by the time the reports are made a totally different accident is on paper. The other driver lied her way out of it and there was nothing anyone could do.

I could pretend I'm trying to help out a young guy that's going to bring a world of hassle down on himself. There is an element of that. But the reality is it is purely self-interest. I don't want to go down the insurance route unless I have to because I know what they are like and I know what third parties are like. Neither can be trusted.

If I'm being totally honest, if I had a dashcam there would be no issue. There would be clear evidence that would be difficult to argue with. I'd just pass it over to the insurance company and say deal with it. I'd feel sorry for the young guy who is either going to get hit with a massive insurance premium next year or find himself in a legal hole. But that's life. When I was his age I had an accident that was entirely my fault and I faced the same massive insurance premiums for a couple of years. That's part of life, it hurts but you live through it and you learn and maybe you take a bit more care.

What has really got to me is the affect it had on my mental state. All the administrative hassle has been hanging over me so there is that. But there is more to it than that. It has affected my self-esteem which was already feeling a bit low to begin with.

I was listening to a podcast where the guy in it said he was in a queue in the post office and could see the CCTV monitor. There was a guy in the queue who looked really shabby, like he had fallen on hard times and just given up. It made him sad and angry that people lived like that and allowed themselves to descend into that state.

Then he realised the guy on the monitor was him. The story niggled at me and I started feeling like I was in a similar position. I thought I was OK but when I look close it seems like my life has taken a shabby turn. I look down at heel. I've not gone anywhere for two years so not bothered buying many new clothes that weren't purely functional. And I've worn them to death. I feel scruffy. I feel poor.

There are other things, too. I live in a rented house. It's a nice house but there's been no maintenance done on it in the three years I've been there so it is starting to look a bit uncared for from the outside. I love the house but being the one scruffy house in a row of four that are well cared for is really hard to miss.

So now I'm feeling down at heel, I live in a house that looks uncared for and I'm driving round in a car that is beat up. I'm not one of these people who are incredibly precious about cars, always wash it on a Sunday types. But it's the most expensive object I own. I want it to look like I look after it. That I look after myself.

It's all made me feel very down at heel. And what's the solution? The easiest thing is to do what I despise: buy your way out of it. Buy a load of Primark clothes, buy something to tart up the outside, buy a repair to the car. Ultimately that's unsustainable, though. The time comes when you can't buy your way out of these assaults on your ego.

I'm working my way through a book called The Self-Esteem Workbook. I've done it before and found it helpful. Trouble is you need to remind yourself. Self-esteem is either something that is reflected back on you or something you can generate yourself in your own mind. Lockdowns have meant that I'm not going anywhere, not interacting with people so there is no boost coming from the way other people perceive you. And with being on my own for so long then I am left with generating it myself. I'm a catastrophiser so in this situation I naturally take the most negative view possible.

As trivial as it sounds, in this case driving round in a car with a dent in it means in my head I believe other people think I must be a piece of shit. If I'm getting out that car in shabby clothes then that confirms what I think they think. Obviously I have no evidence for this being true, it is entirely created inside my own head. The reality is that most people are too busy thinking about themselves to give me that much attention.

So that's it, that's where I am going into February. But there are some positives. My savings are still growing. Slowly, but growing. I've got a decent pot of money built up in my Topcashback account. I've done a bit of a financial review so have a much better idea of what my monthly budget is and it was a lot better than I thought. There are good things happening in amongst the bad.

I think my main focus needs to be getting more into other people's company. I thought I'm comfortable being on my own but equally a big part of that isn't that I enjoy it, it's that I'm able to cope with my own problems that way. That isn't living, I realise that. Nor do I want to get into the world of distraction that other people seem to live by: pubs, clubs, watching football, Netflix. So as the year progresses I need to give attention to expanding my horizons a bit more mindfully than I have been.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Electricity/Energy Situation

 Like about a million other people I got caught up in the run of electricity companies going bust. I was with PFP and I only found out when I went on the website to check my bill.

And now energy prices are through the roof. At the time I got swapped to British Gas as "supplier of last resort". It sounds all very procedural according to OFGEM. But according to the very bitter email I received from PFP (which incidentally was a not for profit aimed at bringing reasonably priced energy to homes that needed it) this is not the case. According to them, the customers of failed energy companies are Dutch auctioned amongst the five big suppliers. It's a bidding process and in PFP's case British Gas "won".

From the start I was told not to swap supplier as it can cause "confusion". Well, I could not give a toss about confusion. The writing was on the wall: energy was soaring in price and the price cap was getting pushed up in October. So I totally ignored that advice and started looking for a reasonably priced deal.

The first bad sign was that quite a few of the better known "cheap" suppliers had already been gobbled up by the big suppliers while they were still in the black. Why would they do that if not to remove competition?

Next was that a number of switching websites were only offering deals from companies that they had "partnered" with. By that I can only assume they meant they were taking money from to direct their way.

Another issue I found with switching sites is that they are set up for a more competitive market than exists now. uSwitch and many others are designed to take your details, look at your current plan and show you who is cheaper. Great in a market working the way it is supposed to. That's just not today. So when no-one is cheaper you get a blank screen. As far as I could see there was no option to just show me the entire market and I'll make my own decision. If you don't have any supplier then you are screwed.

In the end I've gone with Neon Reef. They were the cheapest of what was on offer but by no way cheap. But even this is not straight forward. They will give you an estimate of what you will be paying a month based on your usage figures. Great, looks good.

But the next page is where you get the kick in the balls. What they actually showed you is the average over the year. The way they run payments is that for six months you pay 50% extra so that they can buy contracts for energy for the last six months of your deal. It turns out that instead of paying £40'ish a month like what they lured me in with, I am actually paying £65 a month for the first six months then £35 for the next six months.

That's a pretty big financial shock if you are running a budget where every penny is accounted for. An extra £25 a month needs to come from somewhere. It doesn't matter that my bill will drop in half next May, I need that money here and now.

I'm pretty lucky in that I can massage my budget so that it adapts to that. It still means cutting something else out of my budget for now (I've got a few options for that and not decided which is going). For a lot of people that is simply not affordable. I would guess that is how most energy suppliers are going to start operating. Charging you up front fees so that you can have cheap energy on average over the year. Trouble is, for people who are already facing fuel poverty that isn't going to happen. They can't just magic up an extra £25-35 a month for a short period.

So what happens to them? Stuck on the big 5 suppliers at their inflated prices because they have a captive market and shareholders to keep happy. Utility switching is something else that is now a privilege of the middle class.

This is something that has always pissed me off about "personal finance" experts that populate social media. They are almost always aimed at the middle class and are about getting more for less by using the leverage that being middle class brings.

It's about leveraging good credit scores. Having cash that you can afford to move around different bank accounts to get cheap deals. Two-for-one deals on dining out and hotel rooms. That kind of thing. If you can't afford a treat from your local chippy then none of this has any relevance.

It's sold as "advice" but the reality is it's more like school gate gossip. It's not about financial survival. The usual response for people like that is "speak to Citizen's Advice". They don't want you. This is about people who already have "stuff" getting more "stuff" while those that need it are shut out.

There is a lot about what is happening right now that I do not understand. There is a government that is performing dreadfully, one of the worst performing in modern history. Even if you factor out covid there is no getting away from how badly Johnson et al have done since they took power. No-one is opposing that. The other parties are dead in the water. The media is largely supportive of the government, including the BBC. But worst of all, there is no public backlash. Where are the protests? The only thing you see are a bunch of affluent London pensioners and trust fund students lashing themselves to the M25 over insulation. It is incomprehensible that the public, regardless of political leaning, should tolerate such utter incompetence and bad management.

We are also an affluent, stable democracy (and if you don't believe that you need to look at most of the rest of the world). But we have collapsing supply chains. Food shortages. Fuel shortages. Sky-high energy and utility prices. Massive inflation and a stagnating economy (a bounce-back to pre-covid levels is not growth regardless of how it is spun). These are the conditions you would expect to see in emerging economies.

It is baffling.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Update: 12th Sept 2021

It's been a massively long time since I've done an update so no idea if anyone still follows the blog. Apologies for anyone who does.

Financially, it's been a slow grind. Positives, my job is still going. The project I am working on supposedly will be running another couple of years. I was shocked by that because I didn't really expect there to be that kind of work still left to do on it. If that is a true estimate then that's fantastic news. I actually love what I'm doing and it's been a long time I've been able to say that. It's a good group of people and supportive management. It's incredibly flexible which really helps with childcare. They seem to like me too. The downsides, there doesn't seem to be much work in my sector coming in. If my project is still ongoing then who cares? But it would be nice to know that there was other stuff. My salary doesn't look like it is going to change but equally the agency that got me the job negotiated a rate that was probably at the top end anyway so I can't complain.

The big financial hit so far has been my car. I bought an old but reliable Skoda Octavia 18 months ago. And it has been really reliable so far. I love it, it was old but it's the high spec VRS version and such a great car. But... I never appreciated servicing costs would be so high on it. The parts are the same as on a VW or Audi, it needs a high spec oil and benefits from being serviced by people that know what they are doing. What I thought was going to be a cheap service by an independent VW garage turned into £400. Then last week it went through its MOT. It passed with nothing major on it. But it did need a set of tyres to get through. So again, what I thought was going to be a £40 job turned into £300. But at least I know I've got a set of safe tyres. Next is the timing belt needs doing. I can probably stretch that out until the end of the year as I'm not doing much mileage but still £3-400 I have to come up with at some point.

I got the news on Friday that my electricity supplier, PFP Energy, had gone bust. So now I need to find a new supplier. I had a quick look and there's nothing anywhere near as cheap. All looking like an extra £15-20 a month.

And this week the government announces the 1.25% NI hike for next April too. From what I've read I'm looking at another £30-40 a month on NI. On top of rising food, fuel and energy costs. More than likely a council tax rise too. And it will be coming up to 3 years since I moved here so I'm expecting a rise in rent around that time as well.

So this week I've felt a bit bleak about the next 6 months or so. I'd already felt like I needed to cut back a bit more so that I can put more cash aside. That was before all of this. I guess I'm lucky that I live fairly simple. I eat a fairly healthy diet so no processed foods or expensive junk. I don't really drink (a couple of cans of Aldi Rheinbacher a week is my main vice). My social life has been non-existent for the last 18 months and sadly I can't see that changing much even with lockdown ending. My hobbies are cheap.

Mentally, I've been up and down. I'm still struggling with monotony but that aside, I go through periods of highs and lows and not much in between. I work out and go for a walk everyday which really helps. I've started a beginner's BJJ course last week and it is such a high afterwards. It really makes me feel good about myself.

One thing that is getting me down is that state of my clothes. There has been no point buying anything new so everything I own is full of holes. I mean literally everything is worn out. I do not have a single t-shirt without a hole in it. I have two pairs of jeans and they are both falling apart. Even the shorts I use for training in fell apart finally last week. I realise how counterproductive this has been. Normally you cycle old stuff out and new stuff in as you need it and everything keeps going on an even level. But every item of clothing I own needs replaced. It makes me feel like a tramp because there is nothing I can even wear to go to do my late evening shopping runs that isn't worn out.

I managed to have a nice holiday with my daughter though. I'd booked an Airbnb (as much as I absolutely despise the company and the social damage it does) at the start of the year when things were still cheap. We got a week away by the seaside for £230 which I'd paid off over the last 6 months. Our tastes are simple so not spent a lot on that. Playing in the sea, fishing, rockpooling, walking, so not a lot of expense. She doesn't really like restaurants but loves going to the chippie for a treat. Some cheap, simple meals from the little Co-op there. That kind of thing. I was worried I'd spent too much but when I added it up it was around half of what I was expecting. And yet it was such a good trip. So much fun, beautiful scenery and lovely to spend time with my daughter.

I'm glad summer is now over. I'm looking forward to some wildcamping over the autumn and winter. I really miss travel but I've accepted that the hassle just is not worth it. It's not the risk, it's just the faff of tests, the cost, the potential for delays. And honestly, I think my mental state would benefit from wandering round somewhere nice like I used to do but I also think it's going to benefit as much from camping in beautiful places. I could not give a flying fuck that I'll be trespassing and I could give less of a fuck that our arsehole government is trying to criminalise it. I'm pretty sure I can disappear into any piece of wilderness and not be found.

So that's it. If I had to make a summary, I'd say that financially I'm not in the best position but I'm stable. I'm slowly building my savings. Through hard work I've gone from nothing to £9500 plus a few grand in my pension pot. That's been a real sacrifice and often tough to achieve but I'm proud of having done that over the last 3 years. The first big milestone was when I realised I had 3 months of cash. The next big milestone will be passing the ten grand mark. I want to try and do that by the end of the year. To finish the summary, I'm still up and down but my resilience is extremely strong at the moment. I know I need to address my self-esteem as we go back to normal. And my urge to take off and do things on my own. So not bad but not good. If I had to pick, I'd say I'm on the up-slope.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

New Year Update

 Start of the New Year. I'm really forcing myself to write because I cannot be arsed at all. Mentally I'm stuck in that same old rut of nothing happening and my brain is turning to mush. Likewise, my mental state is following it. I can't say I feel stressed or depressed. It's something else. Bored, maybe? Just fucking chronically bored out of my mind with looking at the same four walls. Staring at a laptop screen all day. Nothing to do at night except watch TV.

It is driving me fucking insane. Before Christmas we'd been asked to start working out of the office again. I was really apprehensive and got stressed out of my mind about it. But it actually turned out OK. In the little section where I worked there were three of us. Tons of space, lots of ventilation. I felt pretty confident about being back. It was only when the post-Christmas lockdown was announced that I realised how much I was enjoying it.

It had made a massive difference to my mental state. Leaving the house and going to work brought a little bit of normality back. Seeing other people. Being able to have conversations about trivia rather than all work. I liked it and I'd missed it.

The other thing I missed was being warm. I'd forgotten how fucking hard to heat this house is. Luckily my daughter doesn't feel the cold. She's quite happy wearing fleeces and giant hoodies. But not me. Sitting in the spare room I use as an office I am absolutely freezing. A few times, today was one of them, I was physically shivering. One thing I only discovered today is how good a hot water bottle is. I stuffed it under my fleece against my belly and the difference was incredible. It made me feel so much better.

The other thing I do is work out at lunchtime. I've found that if I start at 8.30 then the cold starts to become uncomfortable around 11.30. I can push it another hour then at 12.30 I go and train. Sitting there in front of a screen for hours is the problem. The blood isn't flowing. But I find if I go and do a bit of hard exercise then I'm good for another few hours. Then by about 3.30-4pm I don't mind doing a few short blasts of my little fan heater.

Financially, Christmas was okay. I had to transfer about £100 from my savings to cover it all but other than that I survived alright. I'd tried to prepare in advance. When I was a kid my mum always had the Christmas Box. Whenever she was out she'd buy something extra, something that either we would need for Christmas or would just make a nice treat. So now I do that. Starting in October, every time I go to the supermarket I buy something extra for the Christmas Box. And by Christmas Day I've got a nice little supply of both Christmas essentials and a few luxuries. You don't really notice the cost and the end result is that my "big" Christmas shop isn't much different to my normal weekly one.

I get a Christmas dinner pack from the local butcher. It saves a ton of money compared to the supermarket. You get a 2.5kg turkey crown, a tray of their hand made pigs in blankets, a load of sausages and a big pack of bacon all for £30. There's about a good 10 meals of food that went into the freezer just from leftovers.

Presents. I only have my daughter to buy anything major for. In a normal year I wouldn't see my parents til January so their presents come out of that month's budget. This year? Who knows. I did some baking and sent them a few treats instead rather than presents through the post. But for my daughter I spent maybe £300? It wasn't far off what I'd budgeted. I started putting aside £20 a week starting in October so that when I came around to pay my credit card bill for December I had enough to cover her presents.

The big financial problem I've got at the minute is that one of my old fillings disintegrated at the weekend. I patched it up with one of those repair kits and went to see the dentist today. I was registered with an NHS dentist but, stupidly, I'd not been for a long time so got dumped. The only place I could get seen at was a local private dentist. Partly practices aren't taking on patients because of covid but it seems that no-one wants to do NHS treatment now either.
So I went, knowing that this is going to be a fucking disaster. I'd been stressing about it all week. I get there, she does X-rays and pokes around and starts telling me my options. Cheapest is an extraction at £80. The other option is a root filling at... £650. Then she starts talking about implants like we're talking about a new tyre for my car. £2000 and she's acting like it's nothing.

It really saddens me. I'm in a position where I could, in theory, slap the £650 on my credit card. But there is a hell of a lot of people who can't. It's fucking disgusting that in a country like hours that good dentistry is beyond the reach of people on even a decent salary. Who has £600 to spend on a fucking filling in one tooth?

So unless you are fairly affluent... bye-bye tooth. That's the reality for most people. It's incredible that if you are not wealthy then your only dentistry option is the same thing we were doing 200 years ago. I imagine for the average person who isn't with an NHS dentist then instead of the traditional "how much will this hurt?" they are worrying about "how much will this cost?".

That's been the reality of this pandemic for the average person. For most working class people the big worry has not been whether or not they get sick, it has been whether or not they will lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose everything. The inequality and the fragility of existence for a working class person in Britain is awful. It makes me both sad and angry.

Anyway, I think my next step is to try to find either an NHS dentist or someone willing to do something cheaper. I can't believe that the only replacement for a £20 filling is £650 of work or just take the fucking thing out. That's bullshit.

I've got a few financial aims for this year but I think I'll save that for another post.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Update October 2020

I can't remember the last time I did an update. I know I wrote one but never uploaded it.

As usual, everything has just disappeared into the pile of shit that this year has become. I guess like a lot of people I'm not in the greatest of places mentally. To be honest, I'm pretty down at the moment and have been for a while.

I wish I could say it was the toll of all the restrictions and anxiety over coronavirus. That would be the easy answer. But I know it isn't. I'm pissed off and I think I'd be pissed off if everything was normal.

It's back to money worries again. For a couple of months everything was great. There were no demands, it was summer, no need to spend any money. But that has all changed. My daughter has started high school and that transition has ended up costing the best part of a grand.

There's uniform. Apparently that is a cost effective, egalitarian system. The fuck it is. Schools tie up with a sole supplier who price gouge the fuck out of parents because they know they can't go anywhere. You want an egalitarian, cost effective solution? Tell them to wear what they like as long as it comes from Primark. Simple. You'd have a year's worth of clothing for a quarter of what these money-grabbing cunts charge and kids would all be wearing the same. I never wore uniform at all where I grew up. Ever. It caused me zero issues either then or as an adult.

There's all the shit that they need. PE kit. Maths kit. A particular model of calculator. A particular type of laptop. Laptop? Yes, a fucking specific laptop. And no, you can't just buy a refurbed £99 laptop from Ebay. It has to be a particular £300 Chromebook that isn't even half as powerful or durable as that £99 Ebay special would be. So that was August fucked.

Then my car needed MOT'd. Another £300 for that. Then the fucking battery died last week so another £75 there. And tonight it's started making a horrific clunking the moment it goes past 20mph and the steering wheel judders at anything past 40. Fuck knows what that is, I suspect a CV joint so that's probably another £200.

Now Christmas is coming and I'm dreading it because it's another drain. I know that makes me sound miserable but it inevitably becomes a pissing contest with my ex-wife. I'd happily have quite a modest Christmas and my daughter would be more than happy with it. But her mother doesn't see it that way. She'll spend to excess, buy her a shameful amount of stuff. And on Christmas morning I'll have my little pile of presents for after. I hate it on so many levels. I hate how materialistic it is. I hate how bad it makes me feel about myself. I hate how broke it leaves me.

Then there is the weather. I bought a load of logs at the end of spring when they were cheap thinking I'd be starting autumn with most of them. Summer was so shit that they were gone by September. Now I'm back to the fuel poverty of last year. I remember how bad it was, wondering if I should light the fire or just go to bed a bit earlier.

I'm worried about work as well. The project I am working on is due to finish around April/May time. At one point that was a year away. Now it doesn't seem that long. I don't know what there is at the end of it. I'm supposed to be a permanent member of staff but I'm the only person of my discipline in the company and there are no other projects that need my skill right now. I have no idea what they outlook is. Being isolated means you don't get to hear the office chatter and gossip, you don't know what is or isn't coming up. I've got this constant nagging in the back of my mind that come the spring I'm going to be out of work.

I'm so pissed of at the minute and it is all financial. Of all the anxiety I feel, none of it is coronavirus related. As a single parent I didn't exactly have a rich social life to begin with so the impact of these restrictions has been minimal on that. I was lonely and bored before any of this started. That was something else that got on top of me. I've been divorced for five years and my ex-wife still manages to have a significant amount of control over my life. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't have been living like this. I know I'm free to go anywhere but I also know exactly how she would react. If I think I am broke and depressed now then that's nothing compared to the misery she would go out of her way to generate for me if I moved far enough away that we wouldn't have our daughter for equal amounts of time.

My only escape is just getting away on my free weekends. Get out into the wilds, set up a little camp away from everyone and everything. But that's slowly getting eroded. I can't afford the diesel to go far. My car is fucked so I'm not going anywhere until that is fixed. The weather is shit. And the constantly changing restrictions have left me confused as to whether or not I'm even allowed to go anywhere.

I'm burnt out. I've noticed that the time I've been spending with my daughter has left me really mentally exhausted. I know that only happens when my anxiety levels are high. I feel constantly on edge, constantly like I'm on red alert. I walked past the back door last night and freaked out when I saw my reflection and thought it was some outside. I feel ready to go to war at a second's notice. It's exhausting me. I had PTSD in the past and I felt like that then: always ready to go into an aggressive defence mode when it was needed. Only it was never needed. Same as now.

I'm tired. I'm depressed. And I don't even have the excuse of a pandemic to blame. If there was no coronavirus I'd be in the same place. It's payday and with all the bills paid I don't think I've got enough to get me to the end of November. I'm sick of this cycle and I don't know how to escape. Every penny is accounted for and I still don't know why I am skint.

I'm going to try to blog a bit more regularly in the hope that it actually makes me a bit more able to keep a handle on things financially. Talking into the void of the internet is also my only real outlet at the minute. I literally don't have anyone to talk to other than my daughter and that weighs heavy. I need this space to vent.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Update 11th July 2020

I started my new job on Monday. I'd been furloughed for about a month and pretty much on the day I got the news I was offered another job. I accepted it and kicked back for what I thought was going to be a nice easy month.

Only it wasn't. It's been one of the most stressful periods of recent years. I'd go as far as to say I ended up in maybe the deepest depression I've been through since the end of my marriage. I don't really know why.

I'm not someone who defines themselves by what they do for a living. I couldn't give a fuck about it so it wasn't that. It wasn't the financial implications, I was only losing a couple of hundred quid that is easily made up for by not going anywhere or doing anything right now. Plus I knew I had a new job starting.

I still can't figure out what caused it but I ended up in a spiral of sadness, depression and anxiety. It peaked on Saturday when I just couldn't cope with my daughter. Nothing to do with her or what she was doing. It was entirely down to me and my inability to react properly. I got out the house on Sunday, had a bit of a day out and some fresh air and it really helped but it still hit me hard on Sunday night.

But once I got Monday out of the way I could feel myself coming out of the other side. I'm starting to feel OK again. I think I'd just got myself into a state of terror about starting the job. Being one of the few people to get furloughed at my old place had a real impact on my self-esteem. I think I kept telling myself I wouldn't be able to do this.

I've only been here three days now but I've still got that anxiety, that sense of impostor syndrome. I'm terrified about fucking this up and getting "found out". In my head I am shit at my job and I am going to screw it up. I'm going to get in trouble. I listen to myself and look at the way I've just described it and I'm a little boy again, not doing it right and not knowing what "right" is. I guess I'm just reliving my childhood angst over and over.

I realised tonight how unnatural this financial helplessness is. If you imagine how we lived thousands of years ago, or even now for the few tribal people left in the world, every human on the planet had the means to fend for themselves. That might be through hunting, fishing, foraging or even a little bit of subsistence farming but you still knew that, no matter what, you had the ability to survive whatever life threw at you.

The idea of being worried about your future must have been very alien. Right now, thousands of us are looking at not being able to cope, not being able to provide and, sadly, not being able to survive. Because the means of providing for ourselves has been taken out of our hands. It would've taken some natural disaster to put our ancestors in a position that  they might not have access to the resources they needed. There was always something you could do.

Now? We are reliant on employers. We are reliant on social security. We are reliant on the goodwill of organisations that do not care about us and certainly do not have our interests at heart. That is not how we are meant to live.

In other news... My child's school sent me a massive bill for out of hours care with a demand for payment. The bill was wrong, they screwed up. I've been getting hassled for months for payment, I've refused to pay until they fixed it. Finally, after the head got involved, the bill was corrected. From nearly £500 down to £100. Not so much as an apology, all I got was an email trying to blame me for their mistake.

And that's school administrators for you. A group of self-important arseholes who wouldn't be tolerated in the private sector you would be hard pressed to find. Medical receptionists, maybe. They are all cut from the same cloth.

Anyway, I'm sad that my child's time at this school is coming to an end but I'm happy to never deal with the twat of a bursar, or "secretary" as the rest of the world calls the job, again. I know it is petty and serves no purpose but I'm going to leave payment right until the very last moment just to irritate her.

I mentioned previously that I felt my weekly shop was getting out of hand. I'd stuck with the whiteboard idea: when I run out of something (or getting close to it) I stick it on the whiteboard. If it is not on the board when I'm doing my shopping list then it doesn't go on it. It brought my spend down by about £20 this week. I'm happy with that and hoping I can maintain that for the rest of the year, even when lockdown ends.

I've been looking into financial protection on credit card purchases this week. Months ago I bought myself a new pair of Meindl walking boots. Exactly the same boots I'd bought in 2012 and wore until they fell apart because seven years of regular wear seemed reasonable for the money. Because of lockdown I never really got to use them and the first time I went out in the rain my feet were soaked. Not happy.

So I sent them back to the retailer under warranty. Obviously, I was outside the refund period so they said they'd look at them. That was two weeks ago. I've not even had so much as an acknowledgement from the retailer. I know they were delivered but had no word from them. I'm a bit pissed off about that.

So I started looking at what my options are. There is a thing I never knew about: Section 75 refunds. If you buy something costing more than £100 and it turns out to be either faulty or misrepresented then you can raise a Section 75 complaint with the credit card company. They will then investigate and pursue it.

The nice thing is that there is no time limit on it, unlike the distance selling laws. So I'm covered. But you need to have tried to reach a resolution with the seller. That's my next step. I'm going to give them a nudge next week.

I'd prefer to be refunded. I used to be a big fan of Meindl but the boots are clearly not the same quality as the original pair I had. They feel cheapened. A lot more plastic-y. Just don't feel as robust.

Hopefully I'll get refunded. They cost me £130. I pay about £6 a week to my credit card to clear the debt for them and I've paid off maybe half of the debt. So in theory a refund would give me about £60 to transfer to my savings pot.

With the new job I've come to realise just how important my savings pot is. I did some numbers and I need to be putting away a lot more to reach my target. I think I need to be more aggressive. I also think I need to bite the bullet and pay into a pension. It means a loss of cash in the short term but it also means free money long term as my employer matches whatever I'm depositing. I think it might be a more efficient way of building up a pot of money than trying to do it on my own. I've got about three weeks to think about it and do some research.

I'm missing not having a holiday this year. It's never anything extravagant, usually a cheap cottage on part of the Scottish coast that doesn't get a lot of tourists. But my daughter likes it, we spend some time together riding bikes and walking on the beaches. It's lovely, last year's was maybe one of the nicest holidays I've had in my life. I'm sad I won't get that this year but it means I save a bit of money. It's always a struggle finding the cash for it and ends up with September being a very lean month as I pay off what I spent in August. In fact, I only just paid off an afternoon of paddleboarding a couple of months ago.

One thing to come out of this is how I've rounded down what I think is important. All the stuff that I thought I was missing out on because I couldn't afford it seems irrelevant now. In fact, it seems like something I don't even care about. More and more, the bullshit of modern life seems increasingly irrelevant to me. The idea of living off grid somewhere becomes more appealing. I can't remember if I've said this before but if I didn't have a child I'd be living in a van right now. I'm feeling pretty alienated and disenfranchised by our society. Lockdown has made me realise how little I actually enjoy what passes for "normal" life.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Update 1st July 2020

Fucking July.

This blog seems to have turned into me mourning the passing of time every month. As usual, not a lot has happened. I'm coming to the end of my furlough period before starting my new job.

Financially, it has not been any different to normal. I'm 20% down on my income but I'm not spending anything, I'm not going anywhere. I haven't really worried about it but I have made an effort to be a bit more careful.

Over the last few months I've done a single weekly shop. It was coming in around £55 and that was including the essentials plus a few little treats that I felt I could afford because I wasn't doing anything else. But over the last few weeks it was starting to grow, I think it got up to £80 one week.

Why was that happening? I realised I was just thinking "fuck it". I'd see something I fancied and it went in the trolley. I suppose I was guilty of trying to buy/eat my way happy. Now, most of the time I eat really healthily and take a lot of exercise. That is not a product of lockdown, that was just normal life. At the start of lockdown I lost a load of weight and after four weeks I had abs for the first time in my life.

But I had that same "fuck it" attitude after that. I have realised how slack I was getting with my discipline, how apathetic I was becoming. It wasn't just that I was believing I was giving myself treats, I was giving up a little bit. Looking after myself physically and financially was becoming less important as the year disappeared into the fog of nothingness.

I need to do something about that. One thing I need to stop now is my bloated shopping list. I realised that pre-lockdown, when I could just nip to the supermarket at lunchtime for whatever I needed, I was maybe spending less. That doesn't make sense, I should have been spending more because I had less of a handle on how much I was buying.

But I think what happened was that I was buying stuff as I needed it. When I go once a week there is a big element of buying stuff either because I think I need it but don't, I want to be prepared and might not get a chance for another seven days or I pretend "it's a treat". So what I've done is be more organised. I have a whieboard in my kitchen and when I run out of something (or know I'm close to running out) it goes on the board. When I do my shopping list on a Tuesday then only what is on the board goes on the list. I am only buying stuff I am running out of.

I might stick a couple of other things on there if I can make a case for it but the vast majority is replacing what is needed. It has worked for the last couple of weeks that I've been trialling it. It has got my shopping down to normal levels and this week I think I came in about a tenner under my average.

Now that I think about it, that average is just a guess. I think I might start tracking it a bit more accurately so that I actually know what the average is and can relate any drift from that to something specific.

I've been keeping an eye on my savings and what has been happening. I've kept up my monthly payment into the fund during this and I am glad I have. The fund has started to recover and is hovering between 2-3% down which is a lot better than the 25% down it was in March. It's sat at this before for a long time before turning positive. At the start of the year it had climbed to 10% up so I'm not too pessimistic for it long term. I don't need the money right now, depending on what happens in the economy that may change.

Chip has started to make savings for me again. It did £41 in June after doing nothing for all of May and most of April. It's not much but it's stil £260 in the pot. I know it is my money but I doubt I would have been disciplined enough to make the savings on my own.
I'm pissed of with the AA. I took out a car insurance policy with them based on a £40 repayment through Topcashback. The AA declined the payment. Again. This is maybe the third or fourth time I've bought products from them based on generous cashbacks and every single time it has been declined. In total, it's maybe £200 that I've lost out on. So if you use Topcashback then the AA is one to avoid.

That's it for financial stuff. Mentally, I've been up and down. Last week was really shit. I had waves of anxiety about starting the new job and it stopped me from really enjoying this period of paid leave. This is a massive opportunity that I want to make the most of: a month paid to do nothing. But I just could not enjoy it for the anxiety. I kept thinking "I'm running out of time" and it made me either do nothing or fill my day with shitty little insignificant jobs so that I could feel that I was making the most of it. It just left me feeling more and more that I was wasting my time.

I've been a bit more chilled this week. I decided to not do anything, not make a list of jobs to do each day and do what I felt like. It has been much better and I've enjoyed much more of my time at home. There has been the odd day where I felt that I was freaking out. Saturday, especially. I didn't sleep well and woke up tired out. I had my daughter that day and it was hard going. All I wanted to do was find a corner and not do anything I had to think about.

This week has been nicer. I write another blog about the outdoors and places I go and I've finally managed to finish a big piece I've been working on forever. I went out on my bike a couple of times and went for a nice walk yesterday. I've found getting out now and again clears my head. Stuck at home it is easier to disappear into your own mental world. Going out grounds me a bit.

I've found a great channel on Youtube by a woman called Abbie Barnes. She does films about her long distance walks. They are interesting enough but what I really like is that she has a lot of mental health issues that she's really honest about. I've watched a few of her films and really like them. She's in her twenties but I still find them quite relatable.

I'm in a better headspace about starting the new job. A big part of me would love to stay on furlough and just fill my days with stuff I want to do. But considering I've had a month to fill my days with stuff I want to do and not actually managed it then why would another couple of months be any different? And looking at how fast time is passing, October would be on top of me very quickly. In fact, the next few months are going to be critical for anyone on furlough. This is when businesses are starting to have to contribute more and more to the scheme. Free holiday no more. I doubt many companies will keep people on even when they are asked to contribute just a couple of hundred quid a month. we're already seeing big redundancies being announced on a wider scale.

I know I've made a good decision but I'm scared of a lot of things. That I might fuck it up. That I might be shit at it. I might not be able to live up to what they expect of me. And just the general worries about starting anywhere new.

I've got a few days left so will try to enjoy them as much as I can without pressuring myself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Meat Preservation

I've run out of space in the freezer. I wrote about my disaster a while ago when I accidentally switched the power off to one of the freezers and had to throw a couple of hundred pounds worth of food out. I've slowly built that up again over the last few months. I hardly notice it, if I buy a steak then I buy one for me and one for the freezer. If I make a lasagne or a meat-loaf then, no matter how good it is, the last piece gets frozen. It doesn't take long to build up a good reserve.

But it means I have to turn down bargains. My local supermarket has a really good butcher section. The meat is really good quality (it's not one of the national chains, it's a small, local chain that supports local producers) but it's pricey. But if you hit it at the right time (Friday evening is usually good) then there is always a fridge for high-quality produce for a couple of quid a portion.

Normally, I'd freeze it but I have no space. So, I'm experimenting with preserving it in other ways. Refrigeration is a recent development and we've got 10,000 years of history we can learn from.

I do a lot of pickling and preserving of vegetables but I've never tried doing it with meat. I've always been a bit wary because of the obvious safety issues with it. A bad tomato is a bad tomato. A bad piece of meat can easily sneak under the radar.

I've started with doing jerky and biltong. I love both of these as a snack but they are expensive. A tiny bag will easily cost £2 and it'll probably be loaded with preservatives and additives that I really don't want to consume. So using bargain meat as a base for making my own seems like a good idea.

Youtube has been my best resource for this. I've sat through a lot of meat drying videos. For biltong, my favourite so far has been a South African chef called Ben Kruger. Biltong is beef that has been soaked in vinegar, spiced, then air-dried over the course of a week.

You need a lump of very lean meat (fat spoils quickly). Slice it into 1.5cm pieces, coat with vinegar, let it sit and then apply biltong spice (a mix of salt, coriander and black pepper). After that you hang it in a biltong box (a box that creates the right air flow and environment for safe drying) for anything up to a week. Slice thinly then eat.

Ben's video is here and he has instructions on how to make a biltong box.

Jerky is different. It starts sliced very thin, maybe 3-4mm. There is no vinegaring but it can be soaked in a marinade and then spiced. Or not. South Africans are very specific about what gets called biltong. Jerky is a lot more vague. The drying process is different as well. It can be air-dried but most people seem to do it in the oven. You hang the pieces from a rack (or lay them flat), put the oven on as low as it will go, prop the door open an inch or two to create air flow and leave for about four hours.

A good video is from Kent Rollins here.

I've had a go at jerky. My first batch I did using a piece of cheap salmon and it was beautiful. I marinaded it in worcester sauce, soy sauce, a little honey and some vinegar. I added a BBQ rub then dried it in the oven for 4 hours. Turned out really nice.

My next batch was some scrap silverside beef. I think the oven was either too hot or the air flow was too low because I ended up cooking it rather than drying it. The result was OK but it was just pieces of over-cooked roast beef rather than jerky.

I've currently got a batch of biltong on the go. I used the other half of the silverside that I turned into jerky and made a small biltong box out of a couple of 1 litre yoghurt pots stacked on top of each other and a little fan to drive air through it. If it turns out OK then I might scale it up. I priced up parts for making Ben Kruger's biltong box on Ebay and it came to about 20 quid.

To be honest, I don't know if I am beating the price of shop-bought biltong or jerky but at least I know what is going into it.

I'm also salting some salmon. Salting is one of the oldest ways of preserving fish there is. I got a cheap piece of salmon that was reduced, lay it on a bed of coarse sea salt and then covered it with more. It's been in the fridge for about 12 hours and a ton of water has come out already. I've drained it and resalted. I'll see how it turns out.

The next project I want to do is making an Armenian dried beef called basturma or arpukht. This starts with salting a chunk of lean beef until it is hard, air drying it until it is really hard then applying a paste of fenugreek, pepper and paprike.

The recipe is here.

I don't know if this is a realistic way of saving money but it is just another way of using scrap meat that doesn't involve freezing it. Sometimes money saving is not everything, it is as much about not wasting produce.

Weekly Update 23rd June 2020

I've felt a growing sense of sadness over the last few days. The world, or the UK at least, is starting to come out of lockdown. Normal life is beginning and things are starting to open up again. Soon we will be able to travel, to go to pubs and cinemas, to see other people. In theory, this is great. It means that Covid-19 cases are dropping and society, especially the economy, can start up at last.

Why do I feel so sad about it? Part of it is that all the bullshit is also now starting over. My daughter is back at school from Monday and the barrage of emails and, now, Whatsapp messages has started up from my ex-wife. My daughter has one month of school left. One fucking month. Not a single piece of uniform fits and for one fucking month I have to buy a load of shit that she will never wear again.

School has said they can wear their own clothes but oh no, that's not good enough for the middle class mothers. Yep, every fucking single one of them has gone out and bought new uniform for 4 fucking weeks. So now I have to do the same for 4 fucking weeks.

For three months I'd forgotten how much I despise these people. In the six years my daughter has been at the school I could count on one hand the number of conversations I've had with the other parents. It's not for want of trying, I'm a fairly talkative, sociable guy. But I'm not one of them. The know I am a single parent and they know, urgh, that I live in the village over the hill. You know, the one where the poor people live.

I sound really bitter. And I guess I am. It's not what I'd expected my daughter's primary school years would be like. It was great that she got into such a nice little village school but that comes with all the snobbish, judgemental, materialistic, entitled arseholes that live there. Considering that half of them inherited their places there and didn't do a stroke of work to achieve is entirely lost.

So that was that. I'd forgotten how much I cannot be arsed with all this bullshit. But the other thing that got to me is how big a lost opportunity this was.

For three months "normal" life shut down. Almost from day one I started noticing things that were never there. The constant, distant hum of the motorway was gone. Birds were singing. Wildlife was returning and the land was recovering. The air was clear. There were no planes in the sky.

And people were nice to each other. I remember reading about how, post-9/11, in New York it happened there. Normality went on hold and people acted decently towards one another. That's fading now, you can see that negativity start to sneak in, that selfishness start bubbling to the top again.

I've loved these last three months where all the pressure was lifted. I don't mean work, that was maybe even worse than normal. I mean socially. In three months I did not give a single fuck that I had a shit social life and a small circle of friends. The loneliness that I normally felt vanished almost overnight because there was no pressure to have a social life and no opportunity to do it. For the first time in a long time I felt normal.

We're also being encouraged to buy our way out of this, too. Advertising seems to have ramped up and I'm already seeing people going back to buying shit again. You can bet that a ton of that shit is being bought on credit. People losing their minds over not being able to consume can now go out and get sucked into a retail orgy presided over by utter scumbags like Phillip Green.

I feel really sad it is over. Really sad. One of my favourite writers, Edward Abbey, once said "there's something wrong with a system that can only either expand or fail". He's right. Lockdown has shown just how unnatural and fragile the world we have created is. If we pause, even for a moment, it starts to crumble.

I've thought a lot about what it must be like to live a tribal life. In a hunter gatherer community it takes a major disaster to threaten the tribe. You can always eat, you can always have shelter. It takes a lot to fuck that up. But in our world? Our "civilised" world? Three months and we are looking at the worst economic depression in modern history.

I feel very disillusioned and alienated right now. As we come out of lockdown, I feel even more out of place here than I ever did. I think if I was younger and if I didn't have a child then I would not be here. I'd pack a bag, I'd sell everything I had of any value and I'd split. Where would I go? To play in the fields of the Lord. Now there's an 1980's reference to look up.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Update 10th June 2020

End of the month so I can actually take a bit of a better look at my financial status. Most weeks nothing happens but when I get paid then I've actually got something to talk about.

I've managed to save a bit of cash this month. Last month, if I remember right, I was hitting a bit of a wall. It surprised me but when I thought about it, there was a lot of expense in the previous month which impacted it. At the end of May I was probably about £2-300 ahead.

I do my shopping once a week and I've got a fairly regular shopping list that I now buy. This was generally coming in at around £50 a week for me and my daughter. It's probably more than I would like but that is allowing for a few treats, some better quality produce and a bit more discretionary spending. I have no other real financial demands at the minute so I can ease up a little on the frugality in the supermarket.

But one thing I've noticed is that prices are going up. I don't know if reduced supply is starting to feed through into the system but there is a noticeable increase. I the bulk of my shopping in Aldi and there are a few things I've seen creeping up. Some quite dramatically. I get through a lot of nuts and I buy a pack of cashews every week. They are 85p. They have been 85p for as long as I can remember. Last week they shot up to £1.45. I noticed it on a lot of things.

It's a lot to just be price gouging. The jumps might be small on most things, 10p here, 5p there, but it's still significant. I suspect this is the reality of food shortages. At the start of the lockdown when people were panic buying, it seemed to be that they were expecting some sort of biblical famine. What was more likely, and what seems to be happening, is that there is still stuff available but just not as much as there was. The end result of that is increased prices. Makes you wonder which is more damaging, an interruption in supply when we're all living off tins and what's in the freezer or a situation where we are paying 25% more for what we'd normally buy. Either way, you can bet supermarkets, who have done extremely well out of the pandemic, are not going to miss an opportunity to take a profit. As much as Tesco and Asda and Morrisons want to shout about their charity work, they are not charities.

A positive is that my little pot of investment funds has started to recover. At one point it had lost about a quarter of its value. Considering it was only about three grand to start with (and that was hard won) that's quite a hit. When I checked yesterday, it was only down 2%. Not great (as it was about 13% up before the panic) but a hell of a lot better than 25% down.

Another savings issue that I've had is with Chip. For starters, it has not saved a penny for me in about six weeks. Nothing has changed in my spending or earning habits but it has pretty much died on its arse. It was a nice little app when I first started using it, squirreling away a couple of quid every few days until it had built a nice pot up. Now, nothing. And as it is adding in a monthly charge (in certain circumstances) it makes me question whether or not it is worth using. It has always niggled me that a. they get the benefit of holding my cash and b. they get the benefit of knowing my spending habits which can be turned into a commodity that can be sold on to third parties.

A second issue I've found with Chip is accessibility. My phone died a couple of weeks ago and I had to revert to an ancient phone I still had lying around which I could not install Chip on. But there is no other way to access your Chip account. There is no online access and you need a device with a phone number (so I couldn't install it on my tablet). That really pissed me off. Luckily I didn't need the money this month but if I did I would have been screwed. They say I can email the helpdesk but is that really the best option in this day and age? How hard is it to set up a web page to allow access? I think my love affair with Chip is at an end and I might be closing my account if it doesn't improve its performance this month.

I can't remember if I mentioned this previously, I've started using my credit card to pay more bills that will allow it. I've always preferred manually paying bills because it makes me feel like I have better awareness of what is going on. Anywhere that gives a direct debit discount I have been leaving alone. But places that don't, like my council tax, I've been using my credit card. I never thought about it until I heard someone mention it on a podcast: I get cashback on my credit card spending so why not use that for bills? Regular things like council tax I transfer the cash into my account and then pay it. It all adds to my pot. Now, as I've said before, it gets paid in Waitrose/John Lewis vouchers and those aren't places I would shop regularly. But it does mean that I get to give myself a bit of a treat now and again on something I wouldn't generally consider buying.

I think my main news is that I was finally furloughed on Monday. This has actually worked out really well because on the same day I was finally offered the job that I was interviewed for a couple of weeks ago. Same salary, same commute and a year's worth of work in the pipeline. I am putting my notice in today. So now I can happily sit on my arse for the next month. Taking a 20% hit is going to hurt but it is only temporary and then things go back to normal.

The way I look at it, if you are first to be furloughed then you are first to be made redundant. The scheme ends in October but what I didn't realise was that if you are not on it by today (10th of June) then you are fucked. The regs say you need to have been furloughed for at least three weeks before the 30th of June. I only found this out recently which is why I've been a bit anxious to get on it sooner rather than later. After today, you're facing the boot with no safety net if you haven't been furloughed already.

Getting the job offer could not have come at a better time. The government is increasing the amount employers have to contribute and I know for certain that the people I work for are going to start the cull the moment it costs them a penny. It won't hurt them, when things pick up they know they can get anyone they need and on a lower rate because it will be a buyer's market. So I am going on my own terms.

The choice is whether or not to start the new job sooner. According to the rules I can work for someone else whilst on furlough. It would almost double my salary for a month, that's a couple of grand I could just drop straight in the bank. I don't know if this is the right decision but I don't want to. I've been so stressed of late that I'm happy to pay 20% for a month's leave. Mentally, I'm really burnt out with everything that has happened and having this time to chill and just catch up has been great even after just two days.

I think it is time that I just sit down, relax and let my mental health come first. I've got plenty to fill my time. I will not be bored. For once, I am taking a fucking reward that I actually deserve. That's at the expense of the tax-payer (which I am one of) and maybe my current employer but I do not give a flying fuck about that.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Learning new skills: The Odin Project

One of the things people recommend to cope during lockdown is learning new skills. There are a lot of hacky memes about people learning Japanese and stuff like that. I'm sure there are probably people doing things like that just for the hell of it. Fair enough, good for them

But it makes sense to do something that is going to improve your employment prospects. I'd mentioned in my last weekly update that I had been learning to code. I've actually been doing it for a while, I started about a year ago and I'm getting near the end of the course.

Before I talk about what I'm doing, understanding the "why" is maybe more important. First thing to say is, I am not a coder. I am not involved in anything in the IT or technology industries. I've made a point of not saying what I actually do because it would make it really easy for my current employer to identify me from my posts. I like to shit on my employer and the company management (usually for good reason), I don't know if my posts could be used against me but I don't want to take that chance. It's better just to stay anonymous.

There were things I could do in my own industry. There are skills I could study and certifications I could do. But as I have said numerous times, I fucking hate what I do and the people I do it for. And it isn't just them specifically, the industry as a whole just seems to be run by arseholes. Things are changing slowly but it's still a largely old-fashioned, conservative, penny-pinching industry run by golf-club member-type twats.

What I did not want to do was get myself dug in further. Investing in skills related to what I do might bring advancement but it also gets me further into a world I despise. I've had a little taste of it before and it strikes me that the further up the ladder I got then the worse the job gets. The added financial reward did not make up for the sheer amount of hassle, stress and unhappiness it brought.

The other factor is that the industry I work in is very cyclic. It's one of the first to get hit during a recession and usually one of the last to recover. In fact, I'm still earning about 40% of my pre-2008 salary twelve years on. Getting new skills will do absolutely nothing for my prospects in another recession. It doesn't matter how skilled you are if there are no jobs.

So it made sense to be doing something that could lead in another direction. Coding has a lot going for it. Even junior positions are reasonably lucrative (compared to the industry I'm in), it tends to weather recessions well, there are tons of resources I can use without having to pay for courses, loads of opportunity for remote working, freelancing and self-employment, and long term it is a growth area. I've also got transferable skills like understanding engineering and design, project management and basic life skills like time management, social skills, team working, etc.

It came to me after I had a bit of flashback moment. I read an article about a year ago how where I'm originally from has become a bit of a European leader in technology. When I was a kid I was into home computers (Commodore 64's so that really dates me) and programming. I had a friend who was a couple of years older than me who went on to become the head of a big video game company in the US and I was easily as skilled and talented as he was. It really made me ask "how the fuck did I get here?". I made a couple of wrong turns when young, a couple of bad relationships as well and here I am, broke, in a dead end job, doing something that gives me zero satisfaction. I needed to course-correct or I was headed for doom.

That's what got me thinking about coding as a way of branching off my career. I did some searching around for resources and courses. I was even willing to pay for something like Open University (until I saw how much the bastards charge). That's when I came across the concept of coding bootcamps. Bootcamps are intensive, immersive courses designed to take you from know nothing to employable in a few months. But I couldn't afford either the time or the cost to do one so started looking at online.

From what I read, the most recommended options were Codecademy, Free Code Camp and The Odin Project. The general advice was just pick one and complete it, the main difference between them just comes down to the languages and technologies that are taught on the course. The skills you learn are more important than the details. So I picked The Odin Project based purely on their website being the most accessible. I signed up and a year later I am coming close to the end.

The Odin Project teaches "full stack web development". That means it teaches the "stack" of technologies necessary to create a web-based application. That means it teaches HTML & CSS for creating the visual look of web pages, Javascript for creating functionality within that web page and Ruby-on-Rails to build the code that does all the processing (like online shopping, blogging, booking hotels, etc) that exists on the server side that you never get to see.

Everything is broken down into 5 or 6 six courses which you work through at your own rate. Each course is made up of individual lessons which are usually either reading through info on external websites or watching selected videos on You Tube. Every few lessons you are given a series of projects to do that cement the learning of the previous lessons.

Some of the projects you can do in an hour, some longer. One of them, creating a chess game, took me around six weeks to finish. There are a lot of difficult concepts, too. The Odin Project says it is for complete novices but I think a bit of exposure to some basic computer science concepts wouldn't hurt before starting.

The big problem with the lessons is that it uses other people's stuff. The Odin Project doesn't have a lot of its own content, instead for each lesson it gives you a curated list of web-pages to read through. The quality can be variable and the level they are pitched at isn't consistent. Some resources seem like they are written for school-kids, others for people who know what they are doing. On the plus side, it means that they can swap things in and out as they find better resources for a particular subject. But this can also be frustrating as I've found I'll be halfway through a lesson when the structure has been changed while I've been working on it. Really annoying.

The other problem is that you are on your own. When something doesn't work or goes wrong then you need to figure it out for yourself. That can be a great learning tool but a lot of the time it is really frustrating. You need to have tenacity and discipline to see it through. There are forums like Stack Overflow where there are always similar questions that have been asked but you still need to be happy figuring stuff out for yourself.

But there are lots of positives. The reliance on external material means you are getting the best info that's out there even if you have to do a bit of extra reading because you don't understand something. And the lack of support means you have to get very savvy at solving problems. I've learned techniques for doing things because I had to work it out rather than being handed a standard method to follow. Most of all, it is really satisfying. I know how to do stuff. I know how things work.

In terms of time, it varies. I aim to do at least an hour a day but I don't think that is enough. It's not just that it takes longer to get anywhere, it is harder. You lose momentum and it's easy to forget something you read yesterday or the day before. If I was doing it again I'd aim for doing longer chunks of time even if that meant doing it less often. Some stuff is more enjoyable. Personally, I'd rather read than watch videos. But I really enjoy the coding projects and would happily lose hours writing code. I liked to spend my lunch break coding on my laptop somewhere quiet whenever I could. Or wake up early and write for an hour.

It doesn't take much of an investment in technology, either. I use a really shitty, old laptop for doing all my coding projects on. One thing I'd say, The Odin Projects doesn't work well with Windows computers. There is a lot of dicking around to get it to work with the software you need (Ruby and Rails). It all works better with Ubuntu or on a Mac. I got a cheap, old laptop for £50 on Ebay, added some extra memory and installed Ubuntu and it works fine for the coding projects. But it isn't easy if you don't know what you are doing and I still don't find Ubuntu a particularly friendly system.

A year down the line and I've really enjoyed it. I'm glad I've done it. The scary part is that I am now approaching the part where I start talking to employers and recruiters. In a couple of months it is going to become real. That's when I find out if the time I have invested has been worth it. I need an escape from this industry and I'm pinning my hopes on this being it. If it doesn't work then I don't know how I will feel about that.

I don't know what else to say other than if you are looking for a way to learn to code then The Odin Project has been a really thorough and enjoyable way to do it.