plonkee money an english-er's thoughts on personal finance

December 3, 2008

5 frugal Christmas gifts with flaws

Filed under: shopping — Tags: , — plonkee @ 9:19 pm

There are some great frugal gift ideas, that when you try and use them, turn out to have flaws. This doesn’t mean that they don’t work in any scenario, just that on closer examination, they don’t work for me. These are my findings so far:

1. experience gifts

I wonder whether I know different people to everyone else. I’m not sure that I know anyone who would appreciate season passes to the zoo. Museums and such like are often free. Most people I know are not blessed with excess time to take advantage of National Trust membership, and I’m wary of booking theatre tickets when I’m not privy to their schedules. Vouchers are ok, but you need people to take advantage of them.

I’ve had two experience gifts in the recent past, one was a voucher for a Red Letter Day experience of my choice, the other was a Spa Day. I never got round to using the voucher because there was nothing that I was particularly sold on doing, and I didn’t have anyone to share the experience with. The Spa Day was more successful because my sister also got one, and we went together – I could receive this again, but would only want to give in similar circumstances, and I don’t have a pair of people to give to in this way.

2. crafts

I’m not a crafty person, so it would actually be a ridiculously large investment of my time if I was to make a gift. I probably fall under the same category as my recipients – I don’t actually have more time available than I have money. I have a friend who knits – she’s making a baby’s cardigan and something for her mother for a few months (on and off) and they’re coming along very nicely.

I haven’t received a homemade gift for a long time, and it’s something for which I’m thankful. Traditional crafts, whilst I appreciate the amount of time and care that goes into them, are just not my style. For example, I know that quilts take forever to make and are really beautiful, but I have a chrome and glass aesthetic going on. I would really rather not have them, and that people gave things like that to those that appreciate them.

3. gift of the month

This is a truly nice idea. You wrap up say a plate of Christmas cookies, and include a voucher for 11 new plates of cookie, one for each month. However, the only way to do this frugally is to do it yourself and therein lies the problem. I live more than 100 miles from my closest family, so this is just not a practical gift for me to give, however great it is otherwise.

4. holiday themed gifts

I don’t give these, in case other people have the same reaction to them that I do, which is “beautiful, but when am I going to use this?”. Seriously, there’s some nice Christmas stuff on the shelves at this time of year. But how many turkey platters / tea towels / aprons does one person need? And are people into traditional red and green, or Scandinavian style, or jewel toned elegance? Do they entertain at Christmas? Where will they store it for the rest of the year? Will people still be using cranberry soap in July? Most importantly, do they already have this stuff?

5. goats and heifers

A really, really lovely gift for the people that have everything is to buy a goat for a family in Africa in their name. I honestly think that this is a nice thing to do. But, my aunt did this once, and whilst she’s otherwise not known for her great presents this wasn’t appreciated as it could have been. I’ll admit it because it’s true, my family are not the major charity donating type, and it felt slightly *holier than thou*. Although I like it, it’s not something I’m planning on doing as a gift as I just don’t know people who would appreciate it. I’ll just make a private Christmas donation instead.

Of course, all of this sounds a little ungrateful. But really I’m not – when I receive a gift it really is the thought that counts and I appreciate the love that goes into all the un-useful gifts I’ve received just as much as the useful ones. It’s simply that not all gifts work for me.

There’s nothing I can really do about gifts people give me, but more importantly, I need gift ideas that take into account the recipients lifestyle and tastes, as well as taking into account my lifestyle and budget. Not every great gift idea that you find will work for your friends and family.

November 30, 2008

driving home for Christmas

Filed under: shopping — Tags: , , , , — plonkee @ 7:12 pm

I never get tired of thinking about personal finance. As usual though, I’m tired in general. I can’t wait for Christmas and New Year – mostly because I have a 10 day stretch without any work, half of which I’ll spend with my family and the other half in my own house.

However, going *home* for Christmas means travelling – which is never free. I don’t have a car, so I go by train. The standard open return fare for my trip home is over £100. Buying in advance, with a non-flexible Advance Purchase ticket, it cost £10. That’s like a 90% saving.

book in advance

Travel in general is cheapest booked well in advance. Plane tickets need to be bought more than six months in advance to get the cheapest deals, and rail tickets probably a month in advance – depending on the popularity of the route/time.


If you need to fly somewhere at Xmas you probably should have bought your tickets already, although you may still be able to snap up a relative bargain if you’re willing to travel on either Christmas Day or (possibly) Boxing Day.

The following screenscrapers, metasearchers and brokers are reputed to give good results:


If you need to get the train, now is the time to pin down the exact details of your journey(s) so you can try and bag one of the remaining advance purchase tickets. sent me an email telling me about a new farefinder tool that they have. If your journey is on one of their top 100 routes (generally between major cities), then it will tell you the lowest available ticket prices in four time categories in the week around a date you specify.

It’s a little convoluted to get to the ticket booking page, but it’s a nice idea. There’s similar functionality at Find Cheaper Rail Fares @ Transport Direct, which also has its limitations.

Wherever you buy your train tickets, watch out for booking fees, and don’t pay them. You can always get the exact same ticket without paying a booking fee as generally all the train operators can book tickets from anywhere to anywhere.


If you’re going to be driving, don’t forget to allow plenty of time – you can work out the best route and see anticipated congestion using the Transport Direct car journey planner – it also calculates the likely fuel costs of your journey.

November 13, 2008

8 reasonably priced gift basket ideas

Filed under: shopping — Tags: , , , , , — plonkee @ 4:40 pm

Some of these, I have actually given, others I would like to receive, and yet others I think are just a great idea but I don’t have the perfect recipient. Most of these are cribbed from a list that I found on the now defunct boards of the (still useful) Organized Christmas website, and they are roughly in the price range that I would normally use for a sibling or parent. You’ll notice that a lot of them are food based, I think that’s because I like food.

The thing to remember about gift baskets is that lots of little things can add up to a larger than expected price tag.

1. s’mores kit

Mini Marshmallows, Animals biscuits/mini chocolate chip cookies, skewers, candle jar.

Approximate cost £12+

Make s’mores by toasting the marshmallows over the candle and then squashing between two biscuits. Include directions. I gave this to my sister one year, I’m not sure how much she enjoyed it, but my brother thought it was awesome and still enjoys making s’mores over a candle.

2. pasta kit

Pasta bowl, fancy pasta, olive oil, pasta sauce, cheese grater, dried tomatoes, cookbook.

Approximate cost £20

Stick everything in the pasta bowl, and wrap up. You could also include wine, Parmesan cheese, tongs, herbs, etc. I’ve given this, and received it in different years. The one I received was ready packaged from a department store, the one I gave I made myself. On balance, I’m not a big fan of this one. It’s hard to make it look expensive without spending a lot of money on really fancy things. But if you know someone that really loves pasta, it may still be a good idea.

3. manicure basket

Nail polish (a couple of shades), base coat, top coat, emery boards, cuticle trimmer, nail clippers, little bottle of bubble bath, nail polish remover, cotton wool balls / sticks, quick dry top coat

Approximate cost £15-£20

Add more by having different shades of nail polish, cut costs by getting sample sizes or using discount cosmetics stores. This may or may not be cheaper than a ready made kit and it helps to know that what colour nail varnish the recipient normally wears. I’ve received something similar and appreciated it.

4. death by chocolate

Plain, milk and white chocolate in bars, chocolate truffles, hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies,…. You get the idea.

Approximate cost £10+

Key to making this look nice is having quite fancy stuff (i.e. not Hersheys/Cadburys). Or, making things yourself. I have given this before, as an alternative to just giving a box of chocolates. It took more effort, but looked better for the same cost.

5. travel toiletries kit

A 1 quart clear zipped bag filled with travel size (under 100ml) shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, tooth paste, deoderant, shaving oil, hair gel, etc.

Approximate cost £5 for the bag, plus £2 per item so easily £15-£20

This I would appreciate receiving. It’s surprisingly expensive to do, you’d need to keep your eyes out for some bargains on some of the items. This sort of thing can be adapted for baby travel toiletries, and tailored nicely for the recipient.

6. kid’s bath basket

Kids bubble bath, flannels, bath toys/books, crayon soap, plastic bath basket

Approximate cost £12+

Some of this stuff you can get at a bargain price if you shop carefully. I don’t think I’ve actually given this gift, but I’d definitely consider it for a child of between the ages of say 2 and 6. If you wanted to spend more, you could add in cartoon character towels, robes and pyjamas.

7. wine tasters basket

Bottles of wine (3+), corkscrew, wine glasses (2+), wine charms, bottle stoppers, snacks

Approximate cost £20-£100

You can cut costs by using less expensive wine, getting glasses and such like in Ikea, and inexpensive corkscrews and so on. Or you could splash out with decent wine, a cool fish corkscrew, crystal glasses, etc, etc. This can be adapted to other drinks – beer would probably be cheaper, and spirits or champagne more expensive. I might do something like this for my dad this year.

8. coffee lovers basket

Selection of coffee beans, chocolate covered espresso beans, cups/mugs, coffee grinder, cafetiere

Approximate cost £30

Cut back by using pre-ground coffee, mugs, and coffee spoons etc. Or scale it up with a coffee maker, fine china espresso or cappucino cups and very, very expensive coffee. I’ve received this (coffee grinder, espresso cups, coffee beans) and thought it was a very nice gift. Sadly, I don’t know anyone else who likes coffee as much as me.

final thoughts

The only other thing to remember about gift baskets is that it’s all in the presentation. One year, I found it hard to find actual gift baskets, and shredded paper very cheaply, and so the gifts ended up costing more than I expected.

If these ideas don’t look that exciting to you, peruse your local department store for ideas as they always have plenty of gift baskets. Then think carefully about whether you could actually do it for less. Although the shop ones often look like a lot of money for not a lot of stuff, they also have economies of scale so I’d advise pricing the complete gift before you start buying.

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