Thursday, 26 June 2008

Poor But Happy; the boring old basics. Bills & tax.

Tax. If you cut the hours you work, the UK tax system operates in your favour because your take-home pay goes down slightly less than your gross pay does. As a rough guide, if your full time gross is £15K and you halve your hours, your take home only goes down by 42%. If you cut your hours by 33%, take home reduces by 28% (3).
Switch utility suppliers. I was against privatisation, but now it’s happened you may as well shop around. You can save by changing suppliers of gas, electricity and phone. Several websites let you compare suppliers; is good, while donates to charity if you switch using their site. According to Ofgem, 35% of gas and electricity customers have already switched, saving an average £60 a year. Check if you want to get your leccy from renewable sources. I switched to Powergen for gas and electric, saving about £2 per week (15mins). Their treatment of punters is famously shite but their Greenplan tariff draws your electricity from renewable sources at no extra cost. For my home phone I stayed with BT for line rental but changed to for calls. They cost the same as BT but donate the net profits (around 13%) from your calls to a charity you select, so each month Oxfam receive about £2.50 indirectly from me.
You can’t change water suppliers but it’s free to get a water meter fitted free. Check if this will save you money at . Thames Water reckon a ‘low user’ living alone will pay £148 a year on a meter, instead of the £228.79 I used to pay. In fact, now I’m metered, I’m on course to pay £114 a year, saving £2.21 per week (17mins).
Reduce consumption.
Reducing the amount of energy and water you use saves money, and damage to the environment.
Water. Water purification adds massively to CO2 emissions, so save water if you can. Fix dripping taps; just one can lose up to 100,000 litres a year, that’s £200 if you’re metered. Use the economy setting on the washing machine and only wash full loads. Put a filled plastic water bottle in the toilet cistern to cut the amount used for flushing. Toilet flushing accounts for 35% of domestic water use – about 100 litres per person daily. You only really need to flush when you’ve had a shit, although on hot days pee that’s been hanging about can hum after a while. Try reusing water from showers and washing to flush the loo – instead of pulling the plug out, use an old jug to scoop the used water into a bucket for later use. Tip it down the bog instead of flushing in the usual way. Don’t reuse water from washing up dishes – it quickly gets smelly. If you’ve got an old plastic dustbin or fliptop bin that you’re not using, you can hook up the outlet hose from your washing machine to feed into it, and use this water for flushing. Be sure to keep an eye on it while the washing’s doing or you’ll flood the kitchen. Have showers instead of baths; a 10 minute shower uses 30% less water than a bath. Ofwat estimate a shower costs 14p while a bath costs 31p, including the cost of heating the water. Argos do bath/shower mixers for about £10. Get they type that stay on the taps and let you switch from bath to shower mode, rather than the cheapest push-on type with the suction cups as they perish quickly.
Electricity. Household energy use produces 28% of the UK’s CO2 emissions so it’s good to cut down. Switch off appliances on standby like TVs, DVD players, mobile phone chargers. This saves about £11 a year or 21p per week (1 ½ minutes!). As a guide, if the plug’s hot when an appliance isn’t in use then it’s using power on standby. If you’ve got a microwave with an electronic clock display, turn it off at the mains – powering the clock uses as much electricity over a year as cooking does. About 85% of electricity used by a VCR is used while it’s on standby (2). Do laundry at lower temperatures – washing clothes at 60º C uses 30% more electricity than washing at 40º C(2). Keep a lid on saucepans and cut veg up small; food will cook quicker. Buy a kitchen timer from the pound shop – mine’s really helped me not to waste energy overcooking stuff – especially useful given that my early experience of cooking was putting the tea on in time for my mum getting back from work. It’s taken me years to break the habit of boiling the living bollocks out of everything for thirty minutes. Move your fridge away from heat sources like cookers and radiators - it uses 15% more energy battling the additional heat. Dust the condenser coils on the back of the fridge – dusty coils can increase fuel use by 30%. Lighting accounts for about 20% of an average electricity bill so get low energy light bulbs - they use about 25% of the power of standard bulbs and can last for 10 years. The Energy Saving Trust ( reckons each low energy bulb saves around £5 a year. I’ve now got five in my flat, all picked up for free, so I save 48p per week (3 minutes 40 seconds!). Turn off lights when you leave a room. If you replace any big appliances check the energy efficiency rating of the new item – A is the most efficient. My washing machine packed up in December so I bought an A rated replacement which should save 10p per week (46 seconds). Fridges are the biggest users of power among appliances— an energy efficient fridge can save about £35 p.a. If your old fridge has a crap efficiency rating but it looks like lasting a while yet it’s worth getting a Savaplug. You substitute it for the fridge’s existing plug and it saves about 20% of running costs ( £12 p.a.). It’s easy to fit, and’ll pay for itself in about 2 years. See . Portable electric heaters are expensive to run but can work out economical if you only want to heat one room and the alternative is to put on central heating.

Gas. Turning the thermostat down on central heating by 1º saves around £30 a year. Set the hot water thermostat to 60ºC – any hotter than that, you’ll only need to add lots of cold water to cool it. Put a jumper on. Open your curtains in the morning and close them at dusk to get some free heat from sunlight. Close internal doors. Sus out the timer controls for your heating and hot water and make sure it’s only on for as long as you need it. I find 30 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening gives enough hot water for one person.
Insulate your place if you can. There’s some cheapo DIY ways to do this. It’s easy to fit makeshift double-glazing. It won’t be quite as good as the real thing, but still effective enough to make it worth doing. Buy some narrow double-sided tape and a builders’ clear polythene dustsheet (usually about 12ft by 12ft) from a DIY shop. If they sell the sheets in a choice of thickness then don’t choose the thinnest they’ve got. Measure the panels of your windows. Mark and cut the polythene sheet to fit the frames, allowing for any handles etc. Cut the double-sided tape to the length of the sides, top and bottom of the frame. Start by fitting the tape along the top of the frame, then stick the polythene sheet to this. Then tape it in place along the sides and the bottom. Try to pull the sheet reasonably tight, but don’t rip it. You might need a friend to help with this job.
You can make a portable draught excluder to put at the base of doors by filling old tights with rags or shredded newspaper.

Alternatively, tightly roll old newspapers to work the same way. To get the size right you’ll have to tape them in the middle. You can make your own draught excluder to fit round doorframes by cutting corrugated cardboard into strips. Cut the cardboard along the length of the corrugation to a width of about 2 centimetres and either glue or tape it in place. If the cardboard is particularly thick and it makes the door hard to close, try flattening it a bit by pressing it with your thumb. DIY shops sell a brush strip draught excluder that you fit at the bottom of a door. You can bodge an alternative. Take a strip of old carpet, lino, corrugated cardboard, foam rubber or thin polystyrene packing, which is as long as the width of the door. Tape or glue this at the bottom of the door so it blocks any gap, but is just clear of the floor. If you’ve got the sort of landlord who’s going to get the arsehole if you leave any trace of your existence, you can fix it so as to cause no damage. Make a small hole at each end of the insulating strip. Get a length of knicker elastic, just long enough to fit tightly around the door. Tie the elastic to the hole at each end of your chosen material and loop this around the bottom of the door to hold it in position.

The gaps around an average door are equivalent to having a brick missing from an outside wall. The energy saving trust estimate draught proofing doors and windows saves about 26p per week (2 minutes). You can find more ways to save at the Friends of the Earth site or

Phone. Once you’ve changed phone suppliers you can still cut costs. If you pay a flat fee for unmetered internet access, consider cancelling. I was on Freeserve Hometime. The last two quarterly phone bills before cancellation were £103.65 and £90.96. The first bill after cancellation was £51.19. Switching to pay-as-you-go saved me roughly £3.50 per week (27mins). If you use the internet at home less than 3 or 4 hours a week, pay-as-you-go is cheaper. If you’re surfing sites with a lot of text-based info, cut and paste the relevant text into a document on your desktop to read later when you’re logged off. A similar trick works for stuff like blogging – instead of writing your post online, type it up and save it beforehand, then cut and paste it once you’re logged on. With lots of email accounts you only really need to be online to actually send and receive – read and write messages offline. Remember, internet access is free in all UK public libraries, so you may not need to go online at home at all.
Make phone calls at times that make the most of your supplier’s tariff e.g. evenings and weekends. Avoid phoning companies on 0870 numbers; these cost more than ordinary local numbers and the companies get a cut of the call fee, which is taking the piss a bit if you’re ringing them to complain. You can find alternative cheaper numbers for these companies at . Sometimes you can sidestep the list of options offered by automated call centres – try pressing zero quickly 3 times to get to a human sooner. More tips are available at .
Mobile phone. In 1992 only 1% of the population had use of a mobile – now there’s 50 million of them in the UK (2). Do we really need them that much?. On average a mobile gets thrown away after 18 months; every hour 1712 mobiles are upgraded in the UK alone. A typical monthly contract works out at £44.18 while the average pay as you go user spends £24 a month (2), so consider changing tariff, and think twice before replacing your phone. If you do decide to replace a mobile, Oxfam ( ) will recycle the old one.
Banking. Banks shaft people rotten and very few have got any sort of ethical policy worth the name. You can compare accounts at At the start of the experiment I was still with the Woolwich from when they were a building society, and they now give really low interest. I switched to Smile, the internet bank run by the Co-operative Bank ( They’re ace. The staff are dead helpful on the phone, they’ve got a strong ethical policy and they give 3.00% interest on their current account with a £500 free overdraft. That interest works out at about 39p per week (3 minutes) more than I would have got with the Woolwich.
Housing and transport.
Housing. I’m lucky enough to live in a housing co-op, although I’m ashamed to say I’ve been really rubbish at doing my share of helping run the place lately. Housing co-ops are run by the people who live there, so they’re cheaper than privately rented accommodation. My rent’s £57 a week. If I didn’t live here there’s no way I’d be able to rent a flat so I did a comparison with the cost of rented double rooms which is probably the sort of place I’d be living otherwise. The average double room advertised in Time Out when I checked worked out at £95 per week, so I save £48 per week (6 hours 15 minutes). Find out general info about housing co-ops at .There’s a detailed directory of co-ops in London and the regions at . Housing associations are another option. The National Federation of Housing Associations has a site at and you can find general housing advice at .
Transport. I used to buy a monthly travelcard for tube, train and bus which came to £16.46 per week. Now I get an annual bus pass that at £8.50 a week saving £7.96 per week (1 hour 2mins). The bus is slower but I just allow extra time for journeys and get some reading done. Buses aren’t perfect environmentally, but of every 1000 units of pollution in urban areas 560 is from cars and 7 is from buses and coaches (2).

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