“What are your treats?”


“I don’t really have any treats.”

“Oh, come on – you must have some! Bottle of wine? Holidays? What do you do at the weekends?”

“No wine. A few days away maybe once a year; a friend has a caravan … Weekends are generally taken up doing different jobs around the house together … Dog walking … Going to the park … Visiting Dad … Maybe a car boot sale if I’ve been so very good …”

It’s important to appreciate where Hanna is coming from. Thrift is a popular concept these days, which has to be a good thing, and people from all kinds of backgrounds are jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s becoming dominated by the middle classes, many of whom now enjoy the addictive thrill of rummaging in charity shops to find the occasional gem (especially in posh areas), or discovering that Lidl’s wheat biscuits taste just as good as the Weetabix they’ve always bought in the past (and they have nice packaging). Why spend more? Why indeed. Quids in – and off to Spain you trot, or up goes that extension.

Then there are those trendy thrift books written by people such as India Knight (whose style of writing, I have to say, I absolutely love) who have a wealth of fabulous ideas but kind of give the game away by including suggestions of “swapping holiday homes with your friends” and “sharing ownership of an enormous jam making pan” alongside the cheapie recipes for vegetarian curry.

thrift book

Despite my slightly scornful tone I am in favour of all of this (and guilty – if that is the right term – of some of it). It should be remembered, however, that there are plenty of people for whom thrift is not a handy, temporary or fun way of saving money but a long term, pressing, 24/7 necessity, with no reward at the end of each month other than managing not to have accrued more debt. Hanna falls squarely into this category.

As a full-time mum of three with a husband earning a steady but low wage, Hanna has had to learn how to be more resourceful than most. It was either that or go under, and sinking just isn’t Hanna’s style. ‘Doing stuff around the house’ for Hanna includes any painting, tiling, carpeting, wallpapering, door hanging or electrics, all of which she learned from her dad who was a builder/jack-of-all-trades. On the rare occasion she does need an expert to fix something, she will ask around for a recommendation, so as to give the business to a friend of a friend. I should point out that as she knows just about everybody in the St Neots area she rarely has trouble finding such a recommendation.

The sheer usefulness of knowing vast numbers of local people cannot be overestimated. When Hanna is on the lookout for something, such as a deep chest freezer (free, from a friend) or an xbox for the kids (£35, perfect working order, plus games) her network of friends and the local Facebook sites will be her first port of call, closely followed by Ebay.

Hanna takes the notions of shopping around and bargain hunting to a whole new level: she once salvaged a bike from the recycling centre and was rather chuffed, on having it valued, to find that it was worth around £270. In the past she has spotted an immaculate double bed complete with wardrobe, chest of drawers and bedside tables at the same centre. “We’re a throwaway nation, therefore there’s amazing stuff at the tip!”

Feeding a hungry family of five on a small budget is a challenge (I can vouch for this), but Hanna makes it work. £450 per month (non-negotiable) has to buy all the family’s groceries and other bits such as washing powder, toothpaste and loo roll, as well as dog food. Hanna does a big monthly shop, using a time-consuming but effective system that involves auditing her cupboards, fridge and freezer, then listing what is needed before comparing prices online at Lidl, Tesco, Asda and Farmfoods and buying goods accordingly. She tops up weekly with fresh fruit and veg, also from the £450 budget, and cooks most dinners from scratch. Christmas is frugal, with a gift budget of £40 per child, and Hanna and her husband don’t buy for each other.

Her three beautifully turned out children are clad in garments sourced from Ebay, car boot sales, Sports Direct and various friends. Like Sarah, Hanna pays it forward. In fact, she is a veritable Del Boy (or Girl). You need it? Hanna’s more than likely got it. To cite one example from many: our 11-year-old sons recently had their transition days at their new secondary school. “Ah, no!” I moaned to Hanna in a text the night before. “I forgot to buy Toby’s trainers in time. Bugger.” “I’ve got some he can have”, she texted back, not missing a beat. “Size 4?”

Quite where Hanna stores all these goods I don’t know, as her home is always uncluttered and impeccably presented, but I do know why she stores them. “I never say no to anything that’s offered. If it’s not good for me, it might be for somebody else”, she says simply. Her ethos of helping others is humbling considering how little she herself possesses, but she has lived through tougher times. “I’ve been there: had a cracker for lunch; had just a tin of tomatoes to last me two days. After our first date, D (now her husband) went shopping and filled all my cupboards.”

Her generosity is not limited to material goods. Hanna gives freely of her time, and is a rock in a crisis. When Toby snapped his wrist at his own birthday party some years ago, it was Hanna who took charge of the situation as I wandered around in shock; Hanna who made sure the paramedics were called, came with us to the hospital and waited for three hours until my husband Alex arrived.

When my daughter’s guinea pig escaped and I went into complete meltdown, it was Hanna who raced round, torch in hand, with a no-nonsense “Now, if I was a guinea pig, where would I hide?” mentality and after two hours (during which I did little other than cry and Alex shouted and threw things out of the shed) emerged wet, muddy and smelling of guinea pig wee with a trembling, cobwebbed Tilly who had somehow secreted herself in a hidden hollow beneath a paving slab. That was on her birthday (Hanna’s, not Tilly’s. I suppose it could have been Tilly’s too. I’m sure it felt like it.)

Hanna lists her priorities in life thus:

  1. To be a good mother
  2. To be a good wife
  3. To always help people less fortunate than herself
  4. To work hard at everything she does
  5. To be a great friend

Her aspirations are to have a career, now that her youngest child is at school, and not to have to “go through my list, crossing off things we can’t afford this month”.

I hope she succeeds. I can think of no-one who deserves it more.

The Hanna Touch

  • Never say no to anything.
  • Don’t be too proud.
  • Get hold of a deep chest freezer and freeze everything! (bread, milk, cheese, etc)
  • Use a slow cooker for most meals; it’s cheap because it only uses a small bulb and food tastes so much nicer.
  • Bulk up mince dishes with lots of cheap, chopped veg. Chop and freeze onion and other veg in bags, then you can just chuck it in.
  • Get to the shops 10 minutes before closing and you can get the cheap stuff they’re about to throw out.
  • Visit Emmaus – they have everything you could want for your home, it’s all good, all cheap, and all for charity.
  • Walk everywhere and make use of your local parks (Hanna’s children are all slim and mega-fit).
  • Check out Facebook sites such as ‘Feed Yourself for £1’ – there are some useful ideas.
  • Use or develop a skill or hobby to make some extra cash. (Hanna and her husband recently started their own business: see http://www.cambridgemedalmounting.co.uk – my husband is one of their many satisfied customers!)


‘A show home you can relax in’ is the best way I can sum up Sarah’s house. In over ten years of friendship I have never seen it looking anything other than immaculate: the walls, ceilings and skirting boards look as though they were painted yesterday, the kitchen tiles shine, every scrap of grout and sealant is whiter than white (I pray she doesn’t look this hard at my house!), the windows are always smudge-free, I’ve never seen a speck of dust and everything is in its place. For me this has always been a warm and welcoming home and, thanks to Sarah being such an accepting and non-judgemental friend, I’ve never been made to feel ashamed of my own house. Oh, I do feel ashamed of my house, but Sarah has never made me feel that way. I take comfort in the fact that her job in the care profession means she regularly has to visit homes that are even worse than mine …

Sarah’s organisational skills are devastating: she is uber-efficient, which she puts down to her upbringing. “Mum’s life was lists; she had no greater pleasure than crossing items off a list!” Such is the extent of her efficiency, that although her spotless home resembles that of an obsessive compulsive cleaner, Sarah actually doesn’t spend much time cleaning at all. Really, she doesn’t. She finds it boring, so has devised a routine that gets everything done in the shortest time possible, as well as fitting around her husband’s shifts and her own changeable work schedule. The downstairs carpets are hoovered by Son 1 daily, Sarah cleans the bathrooms on Monday and dusts on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday (schedule depending), and all carpets are hoovered and floors mopped by hubby on Friday or Saturday, depending on his shifts.

When I clarify that she doesn’t have a cleaner, she laughs in a ‘chance would be a fine thing!’ kind of way. “You need to train your kids”, she adds, before openly admitting that she hasn’t (hoovering aside). Any hint that she possesses domestic goddess qualities is quickly refuted. “I am a rubbish and lazy cook! Lots of days I have to cook twice or reheat with a shift work hubby and the kids’ activities. I’m fortunate hubby’s work clothes don’t need ironing, and I do not iron school sweatshirts or trousers if I can get away with it!”

Whether it is modesty or a genuine belief that her beautiful home doesn’t merit any fuss, this dismissive attitude towards her own talents is characteristic of Sarah. Dusting is “a quick flick round”, laundry is done “when it’s there” (and put away as soon as it is dry), and the gleaming fridge gets “a quick wipe round with antibac; nothing major” (I believe her, but can’t help feeling rather grubby about my fridge, which always requires more than a quick wipe: I generally find gunk in the seals and spilt manky milk festering somewhere, and bits of limp lettuce clinging to the vegetable drawers). One major difference between us is that Sarah is good at doing things there and then, at the stage when it is just a case of ‘a quick flick round’. The same principle applies when it comes to avoiding clutter. I regularly clear clutter, but it accumulates again soon enough. In order to change I would need to have a major blitz, then start dusting before things look dusty (or our bedroom carpet triggers yet another of my husband’s asthma attacks), and wiping round with antibac before things look rancid. This would take some doing.

A common trait among the three friends I’m featuring in these posts is their ability to make a virtue of necessity. As Sarah is unable to stand for long periods of time, ironing is done “as it comes” and is never stockpiled. As she can’t vacuum, she has ‘trained’ the boys to do that. Her home filing system is a sleek machine and she knows where everything is. Manuals and warranties are to hand if anything goes wrong, such as Sarah’s last two ovens which unfortunately both exploded. As the most recent one is brand new it is probably no surprise that it looks brand new but, assuming it does not also explode, I have no doubt it will be just as sparkly inside and out five years hence.

I envy Sarah her homemaking skills; the fact that they are second nature to her whereas I try so hard and get nowhere. I envy her the serenity of her surroundings, her calm focus and her uncanny ability to create time. There is, however, something else I admire even more. Through a combination of nature and nurture, Sarah is thrifty in the best sense of the word. She rarely shouts about a bargain she’s found (there are enough folks who do that, myself included), and she’ll buy quality (Next sale rather than Primark, though she says this is down to sizing: “Very few shops do 35” inside leg/32” waist for Son 1, or adjustable school trousers”). What she does do, better than anyone else I have ever met, is take care of things.

Sarah’s boys have always exuded a sense of being loved and laundered, but for years the hand-me-down order was thus: big cousin first, then Son 1, then Son 2, then – and this might be 8 years down the line – I would be presented with a lovely package of sweet-scented, ironed and folded clothes, as good as new, for my son Toby. Talk about paying it forward and making the world go round. One in the eye for today’s disposable culture too (buy cheap tat, chuck it, buy more).

I have never looked after clothes in this way: they vanish and I have no idea where they go. Probably leaving them strewn on the floor and teaching my children to do the same (always lead by example) hasn’t helped. It’s the same with toys. I knew Sarah when the boys were small and they had plenty of toys – they got them out and played with them all the time too. Son 2 went through a jigsaw phase and, much later, a Lego phase. As far as I know, no pieces of either were ever lost. However, on one occasion I remember a Lego kit had pieces missing. At this point I would have put the box ‘on the side’, where it would have remained for many months. Not so Sarah, who identified the code numbers, rang the Lego people and ordered replacement bits. My daughter Francesca also went through a Lego phase. It was short lived, because in this house you open a box of Lego (usually impatiently, by ripping it), bits fly everywhere and that’s pretty much that. What a supreme waste of money.

I think guiltily back to all the times Sarah handed on carefully cherished games and puzzles to Toby, saying she wanted them to go to “a good home”. Gulp. Within five minutes someone would have trodden on the box, breaking it, and five minutes later several pieces would have fallen out and been lost for ever. Could we afford to be so wasteful? No! But even if we could, it was downright shameful. Toys away at the end of the day was one of Sarah’s few rules, and good – as in accessible – storage (not all thrown into one huge container, as in our house) made things easier.

Examples of bad storage in my home. Yes, the third one is the shower.



Taking care of things pays dividends in all kinds of ways. I never took care of the Christmas decorations my children made during the primary school years, and consequently my Christmas tree is a fairly soulless spectacle with colour-coordinated baubles. Sad. Sarah’s, on the other hand, cheerily boasts the treasured decorations that her boys, now aged 17 and 13, made when they were small. Intrinsically happy-making. The same principle applies when it comes to photos. I’m crap with photos. I have old-fashioned ones (many now dog-eared or scratched, and all hopelessly jumbled) in torn packets, which were developed at Boots many years ago and mostly feature Francesca and Toby when they were weany. I’ve got hundreds more recent ones of all three kids on my phone, but I’ve never found – or made – the time to print a load out and fill an album. Sarah has several, carefully compiled, lovingly charting her boys’ progression from cuddly, chubby bubbas to the tall (very tall!), slim, handsome young men they are today.

Sarah says she ‘doesn’t know how I do it’ when it comes to balancing three children with five jobs (well, OK, three jobs but one of them involves three different schools). She says she gets dizzy just thinking about it. And of the two of us, I do seem to be the one rushing around and ‘meeting myself coming back’ (to use one of my mum’s favourite phrases). But I suspect I am like Chaucer’s Sergeant who “semed bisier than he was”, flapping around and leaving things half-done. It’s a false economy of time and energy. It must be: Sarah physically cannot rush around, yet she runs her household smoothly, also works in multiple locations and has raised two sons. Both of us have husbands who work stupid hours, and both of us need to count the pennies.

Having observed, maybe my next step should be to concentrate on each task in hand, and perform it to the best of my ability; to take a bit more care rather than being impetuous and half-arsed. And I plan to make a start the minute I stop procrastinating.

The Sarah Touch

  • Look after things: make them last.
  • Establish and stick to a manageable routine for household chores.
  • Make things accessible and keep them where you can find them.
  • Don’t leave stuff: unpack as soon as you’re back from holiday; put shopping away as soon as it’s delivered; put washing away as soon as it’s dry, etc.
  • Go through clothes twice a year and audit. With kids’ clothes recycle any that are outgrown.
  • Food shopping: keep a weekly routine. (Sarah pays £6 per month for Tesco home delivery, doing the big shop on Thursdays and top-up shop on Sundays.)
  • Check through your favourites online and bulk buy non-perishables when half price. Stockpile your favourite shower gel, shampoo, moisturiser. Plan meals round the half price offers.
  • Make lists! And enjoy ticking off items once you’ve accomplished them.
  • Regularly sort through paperwork and weed things out.
  • Try to avoid p&p. Tesco, M&S, Next are all free to collect from store. Check for voucher codes always.
  • M&S, BHS etc regularly have 20% off everything. Wait if it is not urgent, and you then have a good chance of getting it cheaper in the next few weeks. Sign up for emails.
  • Take a picnic on a day out (made the night before, to avoid rushing – I added that bit!)
  • Prescriptions: if you need more than one prescription a month buy a pre-payment certificate at £104 a year and you can pay by direct debit to spread the cost.
  • Washing machine insurance is worth having because they do go.
  • A homecare agreement for the boiler is also a good idea (ensure servicing is kept up to date to avoid quibbles).

Buffet Bandits

The number of theories put forward in an attempt to explain why some people seem more prone to weight gain than others is dizzying. Some, it seems, can tread carefully pretty much every day of their lives and despair that one or two slip-ups go ‘straight to their hips’, whereas others (like – erm – me) can guzzle whatever they want and remain slim. (Before you hate me, remember that I have NO boobs. None. Whatsoever.)

My brother is also slim (OK, he’s absurdly fit and athletic for someone pushing 40 but I’m willing to bet he’d still be slim if he was a couch potato), and my own theory is that we have both grown up and remained this way largely because of the way our mum parented us when it came to mealtimes. In my opinion she got it absolutely, 100 per cent right, and I’m very grateful to her for the health benefits that have come with this. Of course, I’d’ve been still more grateful if she’d been considerate enough to pass on her big boobs gene, but you can’t expect everything.

I don’t remember much about our family mealtimes, because a) the food, although perfectly palatable, was rarely so mouthwateringly delicious that I fantasised impatiently about eating it minutes or hours in advance; and b) there were simply no ‘issues’ (to use the vernacular – I mean problems really) surrounding food and eating in our house. We sat down at the dining table, presumably hungry most of the time, ate as much or as little as we wanted, probably chatted about our day, and that was that. On to the next activity, which usually involved charging around outdoors.

30 years on, no difficulties have grown up out of a sense of deprivation, because my brother and I were always allowed more if we wanted it, and as no seed of guilt was planted in our little bellies if we left food on our plates we are still happy to leave food on our plates. (Actually, I won’t speak for my brother here. Having married a fantastic chef he may well be in the habit of stuffing his face morning, noon and night and just running it off with a quick 10k …) The other good thing Mum did was to offer crap puddings. She was a busy, working woman trying to be all things to all people (she still is), didn’t particularly like cooking and didn’t have the time or inclination to bake something fat and tempting, so it was usually a choice of fruit or yoghurt. This was an unintentional stroke of genius, because it took those odious pudding threats or enticements completely out of the equation.

I’m sure there was the odd occasion when Mum or Dad would have said to one of us, “Come on; can you manage a few more mouthfuls?” if we’d eaten particularly little, but we were never, EVER coerced into eating anything. I remember leaving quite a bit of dinner once at my nan’s house, and my great nan in the background wagging her finger and exclaiming: “The poor little girl down the road would be glad of that!” “She can have it”, I said earnestly. “Shall we take it to her?” I honestly had no idea that my great nan (God rest her – I’m not portraying her in the best light here, but she was an amazing character who’d had the hardest of lives) was employing a guilt tactic in order to try to make me eat more than my body was telling me it needed.

I had a straightforward relationship with food (by which I mean a completely unremarkable one), because I was allowed to listen to my body telling me when it had had enough. I’m the same today, even if this means leaving three chips on my plate (it drives Alex mad!) I know quite a few people from the ‘clear your plate’ school of parenting who have managed to stay slim, but I know more who have found it an increasing struggle since that delicate appetite calibration mechanism was perpetually and permanently overridden. This is the reason I can eat what I want: because that mechanism from childhood is still intact, I never want to eat beyond the amount my body needs. If I do so, I feel really ill. This is my theory, anyway.

I wish to make it clear at this point that I’m not attempting to level criticism at any parents who raised, or raise, their children this way (who the arse am I to criticise anyone’s parenting: I’m all over the place!) When I was young clearing one’s plate was the norm, and my mum was the exception. And it is just my theory … it’s quite possible, of course, that I’d’ve remained slim (scrawny) if I’d been made to finish my meals. As I said, I know many people who have.

Some time ago I attempted to gain a few pounds in the vain hope they might go to my hips and boobs and hence make my clothes fit better, but to no avail. I did gain a few pounds, but felt bloated and ill every miserable day, and just ended up with a slightly distended stomach. As soon as I started eating ‘normally’ again, my weight and shape quickly reverted to their former states.

So, as a parent myself, have I continued in Mum’s excellent footsteps? Are my two older children ‘well-calibrated’ and keen to race around outdoors at every opportunity? Erm, maybe not. The bigger question is, does this really matter? I don’t know. They are fit, healthy and beautiful (in my unashamedly biased opinion), they have a decent diet with home cooked meals, they do kick boxing and karate and Big Daughter is freakishly strong (I mean, insanely strong). All three of my kids seem to have the constitution of an ox. But the older two also consume too much sugar and I’m not entirely convinced they know when they’ve had enough to eat. My son, who has just turned 11, tells me he wants to lose weight, which is fairly heartbreaking. The easiest thing to do, of course, is to blame the dad.

On Wednesday we returned from a short break at Disneyland Paris (if you’re interested, my review is here: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g2079053-d189258-r296527505-Disneyland_Park-Disneyland_Paris_Seine_et_Marne_Ile_de_France.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT but I warn you it’s a bit negative, so if DP is dear to your heart it may make your defensive hackles rise. Remember it’s just my perspective 🙂 Also there’s a typo in there that I can’t correct. Grr.) We got a really good deal which included a buffet meal each evening. I like a good buffet because of the informality and being able to select as much or as little as I like from an exciting variety of dishes. My husband likes buffets because of being able to fill his face with as much food as he can possibly cram in (from an exciting variety of dishes).

The first and second evenings passed slowly, but not as slowly as the third and final. How can it possibly take two hours to eat a buffet meal? Alex made no fewer than five trips to the groaning tables, each time returning with a fresh, fully laden plate. And oh yes, the older children followed his example. As I spent most of my time docked at our table, I was the one receiving disapproving looks from servers who repeatedly came to clear the detritus. Phrases such as “our last night so make the most of it” (as if we were prisoners on death row), “wait a bit to make more room” (why not just do the Roman thing and jump around till you vomit?) and “getting our money’s worth” punctuated the dreary swathe of time as the minutes snailed by and other families came and went. Eventually my son threw in the towel and went off for half an hour for a poo while the other two continued. Alex’s final onslaught was five – five – puddings crammed on to a plate together (so it only counts as one pudding, right?), which he set down in front of him with a look of absolute glee. It’s worth mentioning that the watermelon I had selected for my pudding some hour and a half earlier had been met with a complicit scowl of derision from Alex and Big Daughter.

What to do …? Oh, I gave Alex a hard time alright, but the children? To criticise might have risked sowing the seeds of deprivation issues or making them feel ‘greedy’ (which could cause potentially devastating problems later on). As a parent you have to be so, so careful where food is concerned. Maybe they’re just going to be more like their dad than me. Actually, I hope so: as well as being pretty much the best bloke on the planet, he’s a far more contented individual.