“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.
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:
- To be a good mother
- To be a good wife
- To always help people less fortunate than herself
- To work hard at everything she does
- 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!)