In the days ahead many of us will be spending a lot more time in our homes. Some people will be working from home, some people will be self-isolating and too many people will be sick. For those who are well but struggling to cope with the confinement (and we include ourselves in that cohort, to be honest) thought we’d look for some diversions that will hopefully not only help us through the tough days ahead but might also save us a few bob. And – all going well – we’ll learn how to play the ukulele too.
1: Cook up a storm. If you are anything like Pricewatch you have mountains of cookbooks that you have bought over many years that you barely look at now. They just sit on shelves judging you and reminding you of your tendency to waste money on the one hand while lecturing the nation on how to be better with money on the other. . . Oh wait, that's just us!
Well, with little else to distract you in the days ahead, why not open some of those cookbooks up and see if they have anything on their pages that you fancy? Another option when it comes to cooking is to use the great sage that is the internet to match the ingredients you have in your house after that joyless, panic-fuelled sweep of the supermarket last week with recipes that might use them. There are loads of sites that provide such a service but one that we like the look of is supercook.com. It is ridiculously simple to use. Add whatever ingredients you have to hand or would like to cook with today and it will instantly give you some excellent ideas. We fed the site parmesan, onions, milk, garlic, potatoes and broccoli and it gave us parmesan and broccoli stuffed potatoes which – we have to say – not only sounded amazing, it also sounded really easy to do. Have we done it yet? No, but we will.
2: Walkies. We can't hang out with each other for a while. We all know that – or at least most of us do. And the ones who don't need to start copping themselves on. But just because we have to keep our distance for a while does not mean we have to stay in our houses forever. There are a lot of people walking the legs off themselves – and their poor unfortunate dogs – these days. It's a free and safe way to clear the head and get a bit fitter. But remember, it's probably best to avoid places where there are loads of other walkers, just to be on the safe side. Another option would be to set yourself some class of running challenge – a couch-to-5k kind of thing. Getting fitting will make you feel better.
3: Statements of intent. Spend a little time in the days ahead getting your head around exactly where your money is going each month so you can work out what you can do to cut back. The good news is it is neither as tedious or as difficult as it sounds. There was a time when carrying out even the most cursory of financial audits required sifting through endless sheaves of bank statements, collecting all your receipts and looking over incomprehensible utility bills. And maybe even staring mystified at cheque stubs.
But times have changed and technology is now your friend. So, the first step on your road to financial redemption will see you log on to your online bank account so you can go through the last six months of your transactions – or year if you’re feeling bored. Keep an eye out for all payments or direct debits that look unfamiliar; it doesn’t matter if the payment is substantial or just €2.99 for some online service you have long since forgotten you signed up for. Cancel all the subscriptions to services that you reckon are of no value to you any more. Saving yourself even a tenner will make yourself feel better for a bit.
4: On-street art galleries. In recent days Pricewatch has come across many great ideas to help take our minds off the crises that has gripped our world. We have also come across many great ideas to keep kids entertained, engaged and educated too. And we came across one idea that does all of the above. Have your children draw pictures each day – but not just for themselves or for you but for the downstairs window at the front of your house. This will amuse them. It will amuse you. And it will amuse the people who walk past your house. This notion obviously works best if you live in a house that faces directly on to the road. If you live up a long drive you might want to come up with another plan. Or draw really big pictures!
5: All credit to you. Pay a bit more attention to your credit cards in the days ahead – and by that we don't mean sitting on your couch drinking wine and shopping on Amazon. Really get to know your cards and work out how much they are costing you every month. Also work out how you have been using them over recent months and years. Chances are you have not done that for a long time – or, let's be honest here, ever. Last year, the Irish League of Credit Unions published a survey which suggested that just under 60 per cent of people do not know the rate of interest their credit card provider charges, while even more have no idea how and when interest is applied to their cards. It also revealed that most of us routinely use them for spontaneous purchases. Have a look how you are using you card.
6: Be house proud. Has there ever been a better time to draw up a snag list for your house and then do something to make it all better? Spend a little bit of time wandering from room to room jotting down all the things that displease you and that you think you could make better. Please, please, please do not include electrics, plumbing or structural issues unless you actually know how to fix those things. We are talking more about messy shelves, badly arranged pictures, drawers so overstuffed with junk that you have not been able to open them for donkey's years. Then, slowly and methodically and without wrecking your head or the heads of those around you, start making things better. It will be good for your house, good for your head and it may even be good for your wallet if you find things that you will get use out of that you completely forgot you had. And can we say again that unless you are actually qualified, stay away from the electrics.
7: Explore your viewing options. Such is its omnipresence of Netflix that when many people talk about binge-watching box sets or whatever nowadays they are referring exclusively to the streaming service. And while Pricewatch is as big a fan of Netflix as the next couch potato, there are others other there that will allow you to broaden your viewing options without breaking the bank. Pricewatch has subscriptions – ones we pay for, for the avoidance of all doubt – to Netflix, Now TV and Amazon Prime. We have also signed up to Disney+ although that has yet to start streaming. (And before you judge the ludicrous amount television-related things we have signed up for, bear in mind that the Pricewatch house is full of children, and that pubs and restaurants are things of memory – and not just because of the Great Unpleasantness we are all living through.
If you have not signed up already, Now TV might be ideal to get you through what we hope will be a relatively short-lived confinement. It gives you access to all the content on Sky and Sky Atlantic and includes box sets such as the Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Modern Family, as well as very recently released movies. It is contract-free so you can pay for a month or two months, after which we will be – hopefully – be able to roam free again.
8: Become a Ted head. You know the way you love the idea of Ted Talks but can never really find the time to watch or listen to them? Well, resolve to watch just one every day. It won't take long and by the time the current crisis passes you might find you are suddenly a whole lot smarter. You might also find you are a bit of a bore at dinner parties but that is a risk you are just going to have to take.
9: Take on a musical challenge. Have you a musical instrument in your home? One that belongs to you or a loved one? A child maybe? Have a go at learning it. There are literally thousands of YouTube videos just waiting to help you out. For its part Pricewatch is determined to learn the ukulele. And yes, everyone else in this part of the world is delighted by this development. They should be grateful we are not learning the recorder. Yet.
10: Download a learning app. And we're not just talking for the kids. It is obviously really important that children keep their education going for as long as the schools stay close, parents and adults can also learn new things. We love Duolingo but that is not all there is out there. There is also MangaHigh, which is a whole raft of maths games. There is also ABCya.com, which has all manner of learning games.
11: Get switching. We are constantly banging on on this page about the need for people to be more proactive about switching utilities. According to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, the vast majority of gas and electricity customers in Ireland did not switch providers last year. Many have never switched. Consumers who have failed to switch gas or electricity suppliers over the last four years have paid almost €1,700 more in utility bills than if they had made the move. According to the independent energy regulator, people who switched or renegotiated every year for the last four years could have saved €704 on gas, €1,097 on electricity or €1,696 on their dual-fuel costs.
The first things you need are copies of your most recent gas or electricity bill, or both if you’re a dual-fuel customer. You also need your gas point reference number or meter point reference number, so energy suppliers can identify your property. They are on your bills. Then you need a current gas and/or electricity meter reading, so your old supplier can provide you with a final bill and your new supplier can start from that point.
The first and easiest thing to do is call your existing provider and tell them you are taking your business elsewhere unless they give you a better deal. And by better deal you should expect to be offered a discount of between 10 and 20 per cent on what you are paying. If they refuse simply go elsewhere. All companies offer substantial discounts to new customers.
12: Cash in the attic. Your financial spring clean can turn into a physical spring clean too which may generate some cash. Take a day to wander through your house boxing up all the stuff you no longer use or no longer like. Sell the stuff on donedeal.ie or, better still, donate things that other people may need to a charity.
13: Tot up the numbers. Work out how much money you are saving while self-isolating. If you are working from home, then work out how much less you are spending on commuting, on lunches and takeaway coffees and all the rest. You can also tot up how much you are saving by not going to the pub or to restaurants. Add in how much you might have been spending on flights in the days and weeks ahead. Throw in whatever you have managed to save through your bank account audit and by switching utilities. Work out a weekly figure and then multiply it by how many weeks long we find ourselves in this miserable situation. If you can, set the money aside. Then, when the good times come again – as they surely will – go out to all the restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, bookshops, small local providers, travel agents and even airlines and spend all around you. Every single business in Ireland will need all of our support to help them get back on their feet in the weeks and months ahead.