England

How to live a thriving London life on a budget

#firstworldproblems, but living in London is hard. According to an article published by the Independent last year, London is the 30th most expensive city to live in in the world and, with well over 4,000 cities in the world, that is pretty high up! How are we supposed to work hard, travel the world and conduct full social and family lives while comfortably saving for the future, eh?

I am very lucky to live where I do; for all his quirks, our landlord charges us very favourable rent, which in turn allows me to avoid spending a grand a year for the pleasure of spooning with strangers deep underground (ew). Still, with all my outgoings like rent, house bills, phone bill, contact lens payments, pension, food shopping… there’s not a lot to go around for actually living. 

Obviously, I have a travel OBSESSION, so any savings I actually make right now seem to go straight towards getting out of London but, since August last year, I have somehow managed to stay firmly in the black (apart from a few wobbles - thanks for the bailing out, Mother Goose!) I promise, it is doable to live life wild and (almost) carefree with a couple of small changes to your spending habits, even when you’re on a less than sizable salary for ol' London Town.  

Be realistic with budget
There’s no point setting a £50 weekly budget if you know you spend £40 on travel a week. £10 ain’t gonna get anyone anywhere. Hop onto Excel and write down the amount that hits your account each payday, then realistically note down your outgoings. Divide what's left by 4.5 (the v.rough the average amount of weeks in a month). This is your money to spend as you will. Clothes, alcohol, drugs, a collection of Sylvanian family figures; go for your life. Just don't go over that limit, and don't get in the habit of taking from another week's pot. Chances are that week you think you'll only need £20 will be the week Britney Spears tickets come out (I love you, Britney!)

Do I actually need it?
It may sound like a basic question, and most of the time your instinct is to answer 'yes', but actually think about it. Do I REALLY need this? Am I going to get at least five different outfits out of this new jumper? Do I really need to switch over my moisturiser to this fancy new one? Is this hot chocolate actually going to benefit me? I’m not saying deprive yourself of all of life's joys, because sometimes we genuinely need a little pick me up, but just watch how often this is. When I see a new item of clothing or lippy I want, I take a photo then leave it for a few days. If I still want it, then I treat myself. 

Make your own lunches  
Okay, forget those visions of soggy sarnies and limp lettuce. Ain’t nobody gonna wanna eat that. I work quite centrally with an array of tempting takeaways and restaurants within spitting distance, which was always the draw for buying lunch. However, just use them as inspo! Loving that salad from Hummus Bro? Buy all the ingredients, and some round Tupperware, and make five batches! Fancy a Chipotle? Make a burrito AND bowl for the same price as one standard meal. 

Also, preparing can sometimes be a drag, especially after a long day at work (or hitting the pub) and all you wanna do is crawl into bed. I absolutely swear by weekend prep and freezing everything. On a Saturday or Sunday, I set aside a couple of hours and cook two to three different meals that can be separated into about six different portions. If you do all the chopping in one go, and wash up as you go with music blaring, it literally flies by. Pop four of them in the freezer and take out as and when you need during the week (in case you have that craving for a fish finger sarnie on a Tuesday night and need to push the meals back a day). You'll literally only need to cook a couple times a week and all you’ve had to do is wash up a Tupperware, or two, a day. 

How to drink alcohol
Take inspo from your 18 year old self and drink to get drunk, but *only* drink to get drunk - as in only drink when you’re going out out; NOT crack out the funnel and see how many pints you can down in seven minutes. That tenner you’ve dropped on a couple G&Ts, what did you get out of it? Did it really take the edge off? Did it really make a difference to your evening? A plain ol’ tonic would have tasted pretty similar and you would have saved yourself half the cash. 

Peer pressure to drink is still prevalent, even in your 20s and 30s, but stand strong, ignore the jibes about being boring/preggers and think of your bank account. You could even focus on putting that 40/50 quid you've saved from staying on the soft drinks during those thrice-weekly pub visits (which, when you think about it equates to about £15 a night) into one night every week or two where you can be a little less stringent. Avoid the midnight £20 drop on bar snacks, or the obligatory Maccers, by taking your pre-cooked dinner to work and just eating your meals a little earlier, if possible, before a night out.

Tap into your personal network 
Networking isn’t just for driving your career forward; you’ll be surprised how many people you know who could save you a few bob in your personal life. According to research conducted by TotallyMoney.com last year, the average UK individual spends almost £4,500 on their looks each year! Think how much you could save if you got your talented mate to do your brows every few weeks (obviously compensate them for their time with something though), or you did your nails yourself. I haven’t had bare nails since I was 11 years old, and that would be a pretty expensive habit if I didn’t do them myself. Yes, I may have dropped £16 on a base coat last weekend, but that thing is gonna last me eight months, as opposed to a professional infill that would need to be done every three weeks. 

It’s not just beauty, either. According to that same research, us Londoners spend about £601 on the gym - or, more specifically, on gym memberships for those of us who admire the card in our purse as we snuggle back into bed with a bucket of KFC. I’m very lucky in the fact that one of my friends is a personal trainer and was able to kick start my fitness at an affordable price, as well as giving me the tools and motivation to maintain it myself when I couldn’t pay for a few months. There is SO MUCH you can do at home with little, or no, equipment that gets great results if you’re committed, or have a housemate to keep you in check. That extra £601 could fit nicely into the 'entertainment' section of your budget spreadsheet...

So, there you have it. Try these tips out and, although you may not see a beautifully high number left in your bank account left at the end of the month, you won't be seeing that overdraft or have missed out!

A beginner's guide to surviving Notting Hill Carnival

The August bank holiday is the last long weekend before Christmas and we are going to make the most of it: we’re going to dance, eat and drink our way through the streets of London’s Notting Hill!  

This coming bank holiday Sunday and Monday, mahoosive crowds of all races, ages and genders will descend on West London to celebrate the colourful Caribbean culture and have a grand old time, just as they have for the last 50-odd years. 

If you’ve never been to Notting Hill Carnival, it can be daunting; especially with the negative coverage in the news. Fear not though, there is a heavy police presence and, when they’re not wiggling their hips to the music, they’re there to keep everyone safe. With a little bit of caution and a lot of wining (in both the drinking and dancing sense), you’ll literally have your happiest day of the year so far (I'm not kidding) and love the unbelievable vibes. So, make like those dancing policemen and get yourself down to London’s biggest street party this weekend…

Find a good spot
Whether you go on Sunday -  also known as Family Day, where paint, liquid chocolate, glitter and general happiness fly high in the sky – or Monday – the beautiful costume day – you do not want to miss a thing. Grab your drinks, snacks and sit your butt down on the best bit of pavement you can find. You can find the official route on the Notting Hill Carnival official website, so you can place yourself perfectly between the food, parade and sound systems.

‘Run’ with a float
Alternatively, don’t just watch the parade, be in it! Granted, you need to be prepared for this one. Tickets start selling around April/May time, but are still available right until the week before the bank holiday. I run with Colours, a massive, seven-hour paint party on the road on Sunday, then mesmerising costumes come Monday. These teams sell packages that include unlimited drinks (and, boy, is that rum punch GOOD), food, t-shirts, souvenirs, toilets, international DJs and a full security team to set your mind at ease as you party away.

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Drink a little slower
It’s a full day, and there are shit loads of people about. You need your wits about you if you ever want to find your friends again after lone-wolfing it to the food stand, or if you want to catch any of the many UK and international DJ sets. Now, OBVIOUSLY I'm not saying don’t drink, just saying drink a little slower, or with water in between. Something I've not yet mastered, but will... soon. 

Plan your route home
There are a lot of road closures and station closures in the area during Carnival, so it's best to plan how you’re going to get there, and home again, in advance. Head to TfL's website to work out your best route.

Just have fun
The whole point of the weekend is celebrating and enjoying yourself. That means every size, race and type of person are welcome to just let loose. Don’t feel self-conscious; embrace the paint, chocolate and costumes, and sing and dance your heart out!

See you there!

First time at the Royal Ascot?

I attended my first Ascot this year - in fact, I've now been twice in the space of three months. I'd never been to a racing event or placed a bet before, so this was a whole new field for me. Literally.

In my head were two opposing expectations: people falling all over the shop and making fools of themselves and the Queen very regally watching the horses race. My first experience erred towards the latter... but only just about. It was a friend's birthday, after all! Okay, so I may have only won £3.50, but it was faaaaaaabulous, dahling.

Dress appropriately
The different enclosures have different dress codes. From all-out hats with diameter requirements to colours of suit pants allowed, check before you rock up in that off the shoulder, thigh length dress. The cheapest enclosure, Windsor, doesn't actually have a dress code, but everyone still dresses formally anyway. It just gives you an excuse to forgo the hat and shoulder straps.  

Get there early for a good spot
It goes without saying, really, but even more so in the Windsor Enclosure. We got to the track itself by half 11, and easily got some chairs and a table in what we thought was going to be a "quiet bit" with a great view of the track, and was really close to a bar and betting stand. Fast forward half an hour, and we were surrounded by people. And potential chair stealers. 

You can also take blankets, or mats, and sit on the grass too. Make sure you don't end up with mud on your butt though - we saw many ladies and gentlemen with telling mud marks on the back of their outfits.

Word of warning, get to the town in time to get to a cash point. The majority of bars and betting stands are cash only.

Group trip!
I would say Ascot is more of a group day out than a couple, or pair, kind of activity. The races themselves are only about 2 minutes long, so the rest of the time is spent chatting and enjoying each other's company. 

We were a group of 9 and came armed with a picnic full of snacks and a cooler full of alcohol. Those of us who came via the Ascot Express were entitled to a free glass of champagne (which was appropriately downed at 11:45am), from which we kept the glasses to refill with our own stuff. It was basically a day-long piss-up with the added bonus of potential winnings, being outside and getting dressed up!

Feeling lucky?
Going to Ascot and not placing a bet is like going to the hairdressers and not getting your hair done. You don't have to bet big money: a little £2.50 on an outright bet will mean you only stand to lose just that... or you could double your money at the very least if you win! 

Make sure you know exactly what you're betting though; a £5 each way bet on 7 horses tots up to seventy quid, as one of my friends learned pretty sharpish. "Each way" means you have more of a chance at winning - as you get money if your horse places first, second or third - but it doubles your bet. So, £2.50 each way on Belgravia would mean you parting with £5, but getting money back if Belgravia placed first, second or third (she didn't. Hmf.) This is how I won my grand total of £3.50, on a second-place horse. Oh yeeeeah, the BIG BUCKS.

Although it might be tempting to leave collecting your winnings until the end of the day, be warned that some of the betting stalls start closing up soon after the last race. By all means, you don't have to collect after each race, but just make sure you do so in a timely fashion after the last horse has passed the line.

If you can, make sure your group has at least one race card. These can be purchased at one of the stalls, or it comes free with your Ascot Express train ticket. This details each of the horses and their ratings for each race. It doesn't show the odds, but this can be Googled pretty easily. I would recommend going for at least one horse that's a favourite to win, but also, throwing caution to the wind and betting on one you just like the name of. We had winnings for both in our group - one of our lot won £50 in the end!

Look out for Liz
Don't miss the Queen doing her rounds before the first race. On our day, the fourth day, this was at about 2pm. Whether you're into the royal family, or not, it a pretty cool moment to see ol' Liz waving right in front of you (in a rather nice mint green suit and hat!) and it will definitely impress any ex-pat friends who aren't from England: "Oh my gawd, you saw the Queen with your OWN eyes?!" 

Also, be very thankful that this is an event with royal attendees. Although they sure as hell won't be gracing the loos in the Peasant Pound, as one of our group coined our enclosure, the temporary toilets are actually okay! They have faux wooden floors, are stocked with loo roll and soap, don't smell and there are loads of them!

Happy horse racing! I'm off to drive one's car around one's manor...