Monday, 30 September 2013

Week 12: sharing - is it quids-in for parents?

The overwhelming answer is, yes.

It's estimated that the average parents spend £327 on clothes for their one-year-olds.

Not us: I've scratched my head thinking of new items we've bought for Gwen this year and, apart from tights and socks (or presents from friends and relatives), everything she wears is second-hand. She never looks shabby; at this age, children grow out of clothes so quickly that even third- or fourth-hand clothes can look brand new.

Austin and Gwen wear clothes passed on by their older cousins; NCT friends; D's boss, whose daughter sports some impossibly chic garments; and anonymous benefactors, who put notes on sites like freecycle saying they'll leave a bag of children's clothes on their doorstep for whoever replies first (I've always found these to be in good nick, and there are often some good-quality brands included).

I get a regular shopping fix at NCT nearly new sales, but I reckon that, at those, I've spent no more than £50 on Gwen over the past 12 months. Throw in £30 (probably an overestimate) for her hosiery, and that means we've forked out £80. That's £247 less than the average parent.


The people behind sharing website Streetbank (which has just launched a whizzier new version of itself) estimate that, in London, the average Streetbank member has over £7,000 worth of stuff available to them from neighbours within a 1-mile radius of their house. I can well believe this, given the books, ladders, gazebos, furniture, cycle repair, cups of tea (!) and whatnot that people have offered, through Streetbank, to loan or give away in our area.

And that's just the beginning. We also save money by gleaning items off the street, through online forums, the aforementioned freecycle, and networks of friends. Over the last couple of months alone, we've managed to furnish our house with a double bed, a single, and a bookcase/display unit that would all otherwise be clogging up landfill sites. They look as good as new, and, if bought from retailers, would have cost hundreds of pounds.

We're not alone: Jen Gale of My Make Do and Mend Year has kept a running tally of the money she's saved over the year of her experiment in buying nothing for a year. It's worth a look, to see what unnecessary spending can be avoided with a bit of effort. And Frugal Queen has documented her success at paying off a huge mortgage, through dramatically changing her lifestyle.

Of course, we're lucky enough to live in an urban place that - while not being full of wealth - does have enough money around for some people to feel able to give away possessions that have served their purpose. And we have regular access to the internet, which is something often lacked by the people most in need.

But, if you know where to look and have the means to do so, there's plenty of free stuff out there, up for grabs.

This week, I gave away some toddler clothes to my one-year-old nephew. Like all thrift-o-philes, D and I dress our daughter in gear that has been outgrown by her older brother. But a few items are too boyish for even us liberal-minded parents to stick little Gwen in. A top sporting a scooter with a registration plate reading 'BOY1', for instance. So, these items are winging their way to Gwen's cousin.

Now, back to scouring the streets for more goodies.....

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Week 11: pears, pears, pears (and a few crab apples)

I have Streetbank, the neighbourhood sharing website, to thank for helping me concoct this week's gift.

A few weeks ago, I put out a note asking for help with the garden. Streetbank had already sent me the delightful Wilhelmina to pitch in with our effort to winkle out the weeds and, this week, Jane came along, with her 5-year-old daughter Minnie in tow. She'd seen my notice, had a bit of spare time on her hands (she's an artist), and wanted to do something outdoorsy on what turned out to be a jewel-bright Autumn day.

The lure of a 'big girl' to play with kept my two children amused for a good couple of hours. Somewhere in the midst of the grown-ups' coffee-drinking and chatting, we all had a picnic lunch of flaked salmon and roast vegetables from my neighbour Martin's garden. Oh, and we did a bit of gardening.

When Martin had popped round with his yellow cherry tomatoes, crab apples  and crunchy pears, we'd all surveyed the tree of a neighbour whose garden backs onto ours. She's elderly, and, although it was probably the largest, most crowded pear tree I've ever seen, there was little chance she'd be able to pick them by herself. Without help they would just fall and rot and - especially considering the growing numbers of people who are now reliant on food banks - that was a staggeringly sad thought.

Martin offered to borrow a fruit-picking pole from the local Transition Town group. Then, over the next few days, between the two of us Martin and I gathered kilos and kilos of pears, ranging from enormous, fist-like lumpy specimens of a ghostly shade of celery, picked from the highest branches (Martin), to soft, yellowing, dappled windfalls (me, with the help of 1-year-old Gwen).

And now my kitchen smells like a (Perry) brewery. Pear, orange and ginger chutney, pickled ginger pears, and spiced crab apples have all bubbled away on the hob then been transferred into baked, scorching jars.

So I now have a crop of Autumnal gifts waiting to be given. And I even managed to find a new Streetbanker to take a huge carrier bag of pears off my hands, when I reached a stage of pickling fatigue. Chutney is winging its way to the key players in this week's story. And, given that you're supposed to wait months before opening the jars and eating the stuff, a few pear-themed Christmas presents are already sorted.

Mother nature (and my neighbours), I thank you.

Do you have an Autumn-themed gift story to tell? I'd love to hear it, either in the comments below or via email.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Week 10: the swish

Could clothes swapping be the new mother's little helper?

This week, I went to a swish party organised by a friend I met through NCT classes. It was about as middle class as they get: a group of around 40 bubbly-supping women, all connected via circles created during the pre- and post-baby scramble to make friends.

Back then, we'd all paid for the privilege of sitting in the front room of someone's tastefully furnished house, telling ourselves we'd gone to learn how to breathe through the pain, when what we really wanted to do was make friends with people who shared our trepidation.

We were a group of well-educated women, about to share the experience of 'leaning out', albeit temporarily, of careers we'd spent the best part of our adult lives cultivating. And those of us who went back to work post-baby, went back changed. All that wiping, poo, snot, breastfeeding and....well, love had added a new dimension to post-work downtime. In short, there is now no such thing. As several of my working friends have told me, despite the high-powered, stressful jobs they perform well, they look forward to going to work because, in comparison to looking after small children, it often feels like a rest.

And there we all were, eyeing up each other's tasteful cast-offs in the upstairs room of a pub. Ours was among thousands of other similar parties. New lives, changed women, economic downturn and the rapid descent of our planet into a broiling mass of greenhouse gases have heralded the rise of clothes swapping. Lucy Shea cleverly rebranded it as swishing back in 2007 and, as this article shows, it's shot up among the ranks of women who might feel a bit sniffy about saving their pennies by seeking out designer garb at a charity shop.

Even though I'm not one of those - I love a good rummage through mothball-scented railings - I do confess to missing the buzz I used to feel when spending my leftover twinkie cash on a frivolous piece of overpriced frippery. But even if I had the money now, that kind of material indulgence just wouldn't seem right. We're not living in the 80s; these days, it's cool to care about the planet and, what's more, people have cottoned on to the fact that spending (or not spending) can have social benefits.

Take the swish party I went to, for instance. The friend who invited me was one of a handful of women who had pitched in to organise the swap in aid of the Demelza Children's Hospice and the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital. The three year old daughter of one of their NCT friends had died of a brain tumour, and care had been given to her and the family by these charities.

This story was doubly heartbreaking because the little girl was the same age as all our own children. Maybe  empathy had fed the organising team with extraordinary energy because, as well as organising the clothes swap, they had managed to round up a list of at least 25 restaurants, shops and theatres into donating genuinely brilliant gifts for a raffle.

My own raffle stubs won me a pair of premium tickets for Wicked - woohoo. There was also an auction of some of the classier items - which included a natty jacket worn by ex-Spice Girl Mel C (or was it Mel B?) - and, in exchange for some treasured garments from pre-pregnancy days (lovely as they were, in reality I'm unlikely to ever fit into them again), I came away with a few nice items of clothing. I even felt the old familiar shopping buzz, from pre-pregnancy days.

The event was perfectly pitched. A tenner, whatever you wanted to spend on the raffle, and some decent clothes from the back of your wardrobe; in exchange for a glass of wine, a chance to catch up with friends, and the opportunity to nab the dress you knew was much better suited to your own curves than those of your friend. The funds raised through the entrance fee, raffle and auction reached well over a thousand, and I came away feeling great, despite having been a bit teary over the story of the little girl who died.

It was a special evening.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Week 9: the book

My soon-to-be nonagenarian grandmother has announced she'll no longer give out cash on people's birthdays. Instead, she's decided to give away her collection of books, choosing titles that will mean something to the recipient.

I have to rank this as one of the best gift ideas ever. Over her lifetime, Grandma has built up a library of books that she's found entertaining, inspiring and enlivening. Some of my earliest memories of our time together involve perching on my bedroom floor, talking about the titles we each had on the go. Our mutual love of reading and the book-based chat helped strip away our differences in age and physical disability (she's had MS since her 30s). Now, when I read the tales she's given to me or recommended over the years, my memories of Grandma are indelibly woven into the texture of the story.

It was Cicero who said that "A home without books is like a body without a soul". And if I'm spouting forth about a book that I love, I feel as though I'm baring my soul in a way I imagine people born and raised in politics feel when discussing their worldview. Events from the past, the physical environment and encounters with other people are all seen through the filter of literature; if all memory is fiction, then a good book can have as much - if not more - resonance than something that actually happened. Some bits of my memory can be a bit shady, but if I want to try and remember how I was feeling - say - the year I moved to London, it helps to reach for the book I was reading at the time (unfortunately, it was Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Not ideal for a country girl bedazzled by the grime, poverty and chaos of Hackney Central).

Unsurprisingly, I'm part of a book group. And one of my fellow literary acolytes recently told me about BookMooch, which she's been using successfully for a few years. It's a bit like an online version of those cafes where you're allowed to take a book home, so long as you leave one of your own on the shelf for others to enjoy. With BookMooch, you advertise the titles you want to give away, and earn points from sending them out. You can exchange your points for books that others want to give away. Simple.

So this week, my gift was a copy of Charles Dickens: a Life, by Claire Tomalin. It's a great book, and I'm hanging onto a copy for re-reading; but I was recently given a brand-new duplicate as a present. My spare has been sent out into the BookMooch ether, and I'm looking forward to mooching back a title that will (hopefully) help pad out my memory for the next year or so.

Now, where did I put that pencil.....

Disclaimer: I'm not in the pay of BookMooch. I just think it's a grand idea.