the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!

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Summer in a bottle

Relishing the reality that we are now in a house, with a garden, and all our things around us that were in storage for a year while we roadtripped it around southern Europe, it was about time I got back in tune with my thrifty and self sufficient principles.

Job number one:
Elderflower cordial.
Digger rings me on his lunch break. “I’m cutting a hedge around a house that backs onto a field. There are elderflowers. Do you want some?”
I dial up on google and see that a typical recipe requires 25 ‘umbrella heads’ of the tiny fruity smelling white flowers. I relay this to Digger.
Digger returns with a carrier bag squashed full of heads.’I got bored of counting but I figured it will just make it taste more intense. Let’s whack them all in.’
We don’t have any citric acid, so we steep the heads overnight in boiling water and dissolved sugar with double the quantity of  lemon juice and sliced rind to try and balance out the recipe without it.

Preparing the heads

Adding the lemony zing

Letting it stew

Straining it out

The finished article

A little bit cloudy but looked fine when diluted with sparkling water for a little bit of summer bubbles. We also had a further four jam jars full which have gone into the freezer to be defrosted at a later date. Rumour has it in the fridge the cordial will last for up to five weeks, but it was finished off by a thirsty Digger and Tiddler far quicker than that. Delicious.

Any thoughts please on your elderflower recipes and experiments? I’m keen to try an make a sparkling elderflower champagne next year!

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How to set up a life in three weeks

Landing on the wharf in the UK with nothing at all concrete about where we would live, what we would do, how things would work out, it has all gone rather swimmingly well:

1. I was incredibly seasick and suffered for 10 days with mal de debarquement after our 23 hour ferry crossing returning from our road trip across Europe. Tiddler kept herself amused with Granny and Papa Westcountry who were hosting us. Leo remained packed, our stuff remained in storage, and we lived out of a bag of ‘stuff’ in my parent’s spare room.
2. Ten hours after arriving, Digger secured himself 4 days a week work gardening/landscaping with a local company. (We arrived at 11pm, and he went for an interview at 9am the following morning. Thankfully gardening type interviews are not that fussed if you turn up looking like you have just lived in a campervan for a month. Fortunately).
3. Five days after returning, I went for a whole day interview at a school round the corner from my parents (rather more formally attired than Digger had been). This included two observed lessons aswell as the formal interview, all of which was rather tricky when my sea legs meant I felt I was on the swell every time I moved an inch. Despite my fear of looking like I was bobbing up and down worse than the Churchill dog, I succeeded, and will be on a one year contract (part time) from September 2018 teaching my subject, geography. Tiddler will be able to attend a preschool on the same site, so all is looking rosy as long as I can keep her entertained till then.
4. After the interview, Digger and I meet up to view a rental property. It is pokey and small and we cannot believe the prices in this locality. The estate agent however turns out to be an old flame of sorts of my sister, and he suggests we look across the road at a property on for more money. He doesn’t have the keys on him so we peer through the window. and jimmy open the back gate. We phone up the following morning and offer 10% less than the asking price, given that we can move in immediately. The landlord jumps at the chance.
5. The following Friday we move in, after much messing about as everyone’s computer says no. We have no income records for the last year. Digger”s records of employment are from our little island and the checks won’t go outside the UK. Digger doesn’t have a bank account ( he couldn’t open one in the UK last summer without ID, and he couldn’t get ID without a UK utility bill, or UK driving licence). Our credit rating is not actually low, it just simply doesn’t exist in their paper trail. Eventually estate agent ex lover-boy and landlord see sense and knock all of that on the head. I’m a teacher gawd darnit; I must be respectable.
6. Leo comes into his own again, as he now doubles as a removal van. Fourteen days after our arrival in the UK we spend our first night in our new home, albeit sleeping on Leo’s mattresses on the floor. We have no furniture.
7. My good friend puts out a plea on social media, that is answered with a rally cry from this market town that is very bohemian/hipster/new age and more. As she puts it, ‘Wow, when I moved there I really had to up my game to stand out!’. I scour the freebie sites and those on facebook buying and selling. I raid my parents shed. In the end we get for absolute free, by hook or by crook: a dining table, 4 dining chairs, a leather sofa, a footrest, a flatscreen TV (Digger thinks he’ll hook it up to the laptop- we don’t have a licence and not had a TV at home for years, but it was offered with the sofa so we didn’t want to say no), a dresser, a bureau, a single bed and mattress, a wicker chair, a sewing machine table to double as a desk, a office chair, a slimline dishwasher, a tiny freezer, a chest of drawers, curtains and a potted geranium.
We cough up 50 pounds for a washing machine, 20 pounds for a fridge, and eventually a whopping 379 for the most beautiful mattress in the world. We are still sleeping on it on the floor though as I type this. No progress on the bed front, but it is far more comfortable than Leo’s mattresses that had to be bound in place with a strategically placed fitted sheet to prevent Digger waking up on the other side of the room at 3am.
(Please excuse the lack of pound signs- this is being typed on Digger”s Bulgarian keyboard and I can’t find the symbol!)
8. We spend time with old friends. We scour the lists of playgroups, and events, and programmes and try them all. The weather burns bright and hot. We plant french beans, and courgettes in the garden, and set up buckets of tomato plants in the conservatory. We relax.
9. Digger gets the first of word-of-mouth work, and takes on additional private customers and odd jobs on top of his four days. I sign up for a Saturday summer job, being a housekeeper for a three bedroom house that is moonlighting as a holiday cottage. The owners are due to set off on a road trip through Europe at the end of July, and the house is let every week through till October. I offer them tips of life on the road, and they promise to pay me to keep their guests happy. Digger plans on having Saturday as a Bulgarian language day for him and Tiddler, but we still have to see how it all pans out. We are in the finer points of negotiation at the moment, such as whether the welcome tea tray should have biscuits or scones on it. They are the other end of the spectrum from us, with our free furniture and converted minibus. I shall think of them off in their deluxe van while I am busy polishing the fiddly bits on their grandfather clocks.

To do list:
Get Digger a work van. Poor Leo is not cut out for all that green waste on his lovely carpet, and branches up his inner cupboards.
Get the garage sorted as Digger’s man lair i.e. wood workshop.
Get crafting- what can I sell alongside his wooden toys to make some cash on the side?
Get back into our thrifty ways. I have a whole 379 pounds worth of mattress to offset. I’ve made a start with making elderflower cordial yesterday.
Look for a house we can buy. Not here as it is too expensive. Maybe across the county borders, somewhere with a bit of land, with some potential. And so you see dear readers, when people comment that Tiddler seems very confident and well adjusted for a child who has undergone a lot of different places and people, we reply, that for her change is the norm. Digger however has put his steel toe-capped foot down.
“This is the last house move I make, until we move into our own house”
“Aha” I say, “change is the norm”


The philosophy of Snow White

Tackling as we are, the thrifter’s life in Bulgaria, we are always trying to scrimp and save wherever possible. For example, I spent some time this week attempting to mend Tiddler’s story book and that has given me a few things to think about.

The backstory of course is that we set off from England as my good and faithful readers know last September, in Leo the campervan, though while sufficient for our basic needs on the two month journey pottering through Europe to get to Bulgaria, was rather lacking in library space. So, a swift calculation means Tiddler (i.e. me) has been reading the same twenty story books in some sort of spiraling rotation for around five months, with my nemesis the pop-up book of Hansel and Gretel appearing on a far more regular than it was due basis. Who knows why Tiddler loves this story so much. I think I made a rod for my own back when I once ad-libbed that the witch was ‘burnt up to a crisp’. Now if I don’t add that specific detail in every time I read of Gretel’s fiendish escape plan I get reprimanded by Tiddler for missing out part of the story i.e. the grusesome nasty bit.
There are a smattering of English language books in the bookshops here, but very expensive, and the town library was no help either. So Granny Westcountry kindly scoured her home for my niece and nephew’s old books and popped them in the post to us as an emergency package of books as frankly, if I have to read Hansel and Gretel one more time there are going to be consequences.  Much excitement all round! The joy of new (to us) books! Unfortunately, seems Tiddler’s cousins had been a bit heavy handed with Snow White and the seven dwarves, and a book had arrived which needed a good dose of TLC.
“Are books alive?” Tiddler asks. Inward snigger from me at the innate cuteness.
“Do books have skeletons?” Cut-off snigger as I have to answer honestly, “Well they do have spines, that much is true”.
“Are books made from lots of ingredients? Have we got the ingredients to mend this one?”
So given the circumstances, I don’t want to throw this book away, and I also believe strongly in the importance of Tiddler understanding the need to take care of her possessions. Money doesn’t grow on trees and all that. Things do still have a value, and a use, even if they are old. Why replace something if it is not broken. Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. I think you catch my general drift on this theme without resorting to further proverbs. Suffice to say, this is not just about money. Rather that I want Tiddler to be happy when she grows up. I cannot make her life a luxurious one, or guarantee no sorrows or troubles, but I hope I can equip her to be content with her lot, which will foster the skills of being practical, with common sense, and the emotional stability to make wise decisions.

Question: “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Answer: “The one who is happy”




Quotes to give us a few more thoughts on this theme today:


Clothing maketh the man

Now if you hadn’t worked it out already, Digger and I are not very up with the trends. Poor Tiddler doesn’t stand a chance. I fear we are destined to be the sort of semi-embarrassing parents who pick her up from school in unfashionable (but warm, practical and cheap) clothing, and say ”just because So-and-so has an [insert name of latest over priced and unnecessary gadget, toy or food item] doesn’t mean you need to have one”. I want to teach Tiddler that appearances can be deceptive, and that there are far greater things of importance that money.

The average Bulgarian on the street looks incredibly trendy. If we take aside the elderly babas and diados who staunchly wear uncomfortable looking shoes over hand-knitted terlitsi, (slipper socks), and various other layers of knitted items until they are veritable Michelin men in order to fend off the coldest of Bulgarian winters, then everyone else frankly makes us look the scruffiest family on the block.
il_570xN.1002661051_97ep(terlitsi from Aliahandmadedesigns)

Bulgarian traditional footwear link.


Little girls are constantly referred to as princesses and are usually fully adorned in pink and white with fake fur trims on everything. The little emperors emulate their fathers and sport brightly coloured branded trainers and riveted jeans. Everyone wears puffer jackets and smart heeled boots. This is not that the average Bulgarian has a vast disposable income. As mentioned in previous posts, the government minimum monthly wage here is 510 lev (under 250 pound sterling), with the average monthly wage at a guess being around 800 lev. Pensions start at 200 lev per month. Yet food prices are almost the same as the UK. Clothing appears to be one way to visually show success, in a Bulgarian version of keeping up with the Jonses’ (or the Jardonov’s).

While there are many fashion shops in the high street of T_ to cater to this need, there is a thriving subculture of a huge number of second hand and thrift shops too. Much of the clothing is, as one shop proudly stated, sent from Italy and Germany. It is all of extremely good quality, and the whole system works unlike the more familiar UK method of doing things. These shops are not charity shops as we would know them, but instead are profit making businesses in their own right. Digger buys a pair of heavy duty work trousers and they are weighed on a scale at the till, and he is charged a price per kilogram of fabric. Other shops operate a two-weekly delivery and reduce their prices per day over that fortnight once the richer pickings have already gone. People can dress themselves very well on the second hand fashions of the rest of Europe.


Strangely enough, for a country where second hand is accepted by many, people here do not donate their old clothing to charity shops, or clothing banks, but instead throw it straight into the large grey dumpsters on every corner. The gypsies have defined territories for these bins and do their rounds daily picking through and salvaging what they can. A lot of these items (along with, according to Digger, a huge amount of stolen property) then end up for sale in giant weekly flea-markets.

(A poor attempt at a candid photo of a dumpster diver-  stick with a metal hook in hand to fish through the rubbish and a push along trolley round the back to load up)





(Above, four pictures courtesy of


At this point I stop taking photographs at the flea market. Digger thinks most of the stallholders are members of the gypsy community and might not appreciate me snapping away. They see themselves as outside the normal rules he generalises. They will quote their human rights at you, and demand the government provides for them, but will not conform to any social niceties or commitment to laws if it doesn’t suit them.  I ask Digger if this is a race-based perception. He tells a story from a few years ago where the gypsy community who live in self-segregated areas of a town in this municipality point blank refused to pay the water bills. The water board switched the water off. The gypsies complained about declining sanitation. The mayor, with the promises of gypsy votes, ordered the water back on.

What is clear, whether a Bulgarian gypsy or just Bulgarian, that identities, and communities, and other people’s perception of your appearance, wealth, and social standing are important. Is this a symptom of a country where over 20% of the population live below the poverty line, and so the pecking order becomes more highly delineated as people jostle for opportunities and jobs? Is this all just my perception, making judgement from a relatively comfortable financial state. We are after all, just playing for a little while at being Bulgarian. Books and covers my friends, books and covers.









Europe on a shoestring?

It has become glaringly clear that the cheapest way to get to Bulgaria is not overland. We know the delightfully named Wizz Air and the like hop across with flights from London to Sofia at less than £100, but not only would that have severely restricted Tiddler’s books, toys and random paraphernalia that we could have brought, but would have meant we  would have gone straight from living with one set of grandparents (lovely as they are) slap bang into the welcoming arms of the others. We needed a little bit of a time out, as well as the opportunity to explore and experience a road trip.

Financially speaking then, let’s cut to the chase. Campsites with the discount ACSI card average around €17 per night. However it is a definite lottery as to what you finally end up paying as the French in particular have made the system so unfathomable (even with handy billboard size tables of rates on the walls for the brave or foolhardy to try and tot up for themselves). Here is the easy bit; rates vary according to high or low season. Then factor in number of people, extra people, children above a certain age, children below a certain age, dogs, tents for dogs, electric hook up or not, caravan, campervan, campervan above a certain length, motorhome, motorcycle trailer, other trailer, extra car, standard pitch size, large pitch size, grass pitch, hard standing and the list goes on ad infinitum. Then don’t forget to add on the tax on top for the final figure owed. We gave up trying to understand the system, and clearly some exasperated campsite owners had done the same and declared to us a flat fee on arrival, ignoring both Tiddler’s presence and tax in one fell swoop. Tres bon for the thrifty minded camper.

Digger’s French is not up to much, so he has taken to wearing a t-shirt that – provided he puts on a quizzical look and points to himself – mean we should end up with somewhere to kip at the end of the day.


Sites vary immensely in terms of facilities, with heated or indoor pools in some and free wifi, right down to no toilet paper (not that it hadn’t been restocked, there simply wasn’t dispensers for the paper in the stalls in the first place) in others. Bizarrely, quite a number of the french toilet blocks had piped musak or local radio constantly on the go. I wondered if this was some sort of french intellectual cultural tradition, to ponder world politics while carrying out your morning ablutions, or perhaps a matter of french delicacy to mask those slightly embarrassing bodily sounds. Either way, a little bit of toilet paper would surely have not gone amiss.

We chose to hand wash our clothes as the weather was perfect for drying them even overnight, but some sites also had washing machines and tumble driers for a few euros a pop. Others organised pre-ordered deliveries of croissants and baguettes just in time for breakfast every day- again slightly more expensive a purchase but a welcome treat. The best savings to be made on food and drink were local markets in village squares for fresh produce, and Super U, Lidl and Carrefour for one euro cartons of wine. Digger and I make no claims at appreciating fine wines, and are more than happy with a cut price glassful, which we were consistently pleasantly surprised by.

Our main expenditure therefore was (aside from the sites themselves, which many motorhomers avoid by using lay-bys and service stations) the diesel for Leo (pricey given the mileage) and a few toll payments on the motorways (when Digger got fed up of traffic through the more built up areas). Tourists genuinely getting out and about and seeing attractions would also end up paying out for entrance fees and honeypot-priced food and drink, whereas with Tiddler’s attention span we spent more time pottering about making our own entertainment, and unofficially eating packed lunches where we probably shouldn’t. However Tiddler once spent a solid hour and a half making her own version of a jigsaw puzzle by matching acorns to their original acorn cups. This epic task was not for the faint hearted, and no doubt far better for her at this age than anything a museum or free wifi could provide.


Low -cost things therefore we are so glad we brought with us: the paddling pool, the ACSI card, Tiddler’s bug shoes (in and out and in and out of the van, and then in and out again), the old scooter, sarongs instead of towels for speedy drying, a stove top kettle, sleep masks to block out the early morning light… though of course we also brought lots of things we probably won’t use at all until we get to Bulgaria, and in the meantime clutter up Leo.


“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road


Pimping my ride : Leo

The latest on Leo’s overhaul- Digger found both a flat battery and a leaky water connection when he wired Leo up to the mains, but all now resolved (we hope for good). I finally had my maiden voyage in The good ship Leo (only down to the petrol station and back) and then we carried on getting things ready.

Digger has tried out the sleeping accomodation, spending a night on the driveway while Tiddler and I were tucked up asleep in the house.

Verdict, comfy but cold. The second week of September and that is the UK weather, unless we wrap ourselves in tinfoil in there it is going to be cool at night. 9 degrees he said, at silly o’clock when he got up to christen the porta potty. Thank goodness we are going south, but we do need to get going, and note to self: hot water bottle. I also realised that all my white bedlinen is not the most practical thing to be heading off in a campervan with, but it is what we have got, and no point in buying new.

He has also finished Tiddler’s bunk, in the end without the ‘stolen’ chair legs.  It is more satisfy that it is all in wood, though now with a hinged support is is heavier, but still will sit flat under the side seat during the day.


We realised however that by the time the mattress (a sun lounger cushion borrowed from Granny (Hoarder) and Papa (Snoozer) inside an old sheet sewn up into a sort of giant pillowcase) is on the bunk, plus pillow, Tiddler, and duvet, she is fairly high up from the double bed below. As Tiddler is also ‘Wriggler’, we now needed a solution to keep her in the bunk.

In the end we came up with what I explained to the others as ‘the windbreak design’. This gave me the chance to make another thrifty item at no cost to us – a piece of old window blind fabric, an old broom handle (that Digger had brought with him from the island- goodness only knows what he was thinking he would use it for at the time!), and the chance to use my mother’s lovely old Singer sewing machine, complete with a random box of sewing paraphernalia as part of the hygge factor. The final picture show it before I sewed in the last baton, but hopefully you get the idea. The broom handle pieces can just be pushed down into the holes in the main bed board after she falls asleep, so we still can do goodnight stories, but she isn’t going to attempt to crowd surf us in the middle of the night.

While this was going on, Digger took a break to fashion something else out of wood. My parents have a bit of a seagull problem. The tealeaf-ing gulls get in through the chicken doors to the sheds, and peck and eat the hens eggs. Friends have suggested nets or awnings overhead but the seagulls will still land and walk in, a dead gull hanging up (!), and blowing eggs and filling the empty shells with mustard or chilli sauce as a decoy, which sounds pretty epic but fiddly. So Digger put together a little roosting box with a double slope so in theory the eggs should roll down and under a second board, so the gulls can’t get to them but we can. In place this evening, so will have to see whether it works, and whether even the hens will take to it as a place to sit.

My next job has been carpet fitting. Again using an old off cut we had, with Papa in the background back seat directing with ‘measure twice, cut once’, and Digger extolling the virtues of the correct way to cut with a stanley knife to avoid impaling myself,  I then had to get my head round the reverse maths of cutting on the back to then flip over to fit.Not exactly a perfect job, but given the wierd shape of the floor space I’m pretty darn chuffed with my attempt.


In non Leo related news, Tiddler and I have been playing playgroup roulette, trying out various groups in the neighbourhood to give her a bit of ‘other children’ time.  Tiddler has tried out the local pool, and managed full immersion for the first time, albeit while laying on her tummy underwater on a shallow step. She has learnt to say ‘ramsbottom’ and ‘bonzo’ and other random sayings of my father. I have had emails from work colleagues asking how we are doing and telling me that the start of the new term is pretty much like always. Digger and I hold hands on the sofa and smile a quiet smile at each other while we are watching TV with my parents. We are busy, but not tired. We are planning, but not stressed. I ask Tiddler in the morning what she dreamt of. ‘It was you Mama, dancing.’



[Motorhomers out there- still open to suggestions and ideas you may have of things we should take, or things we should know before we set off. Particularly any legal requirments for Europe we might not be aware of? Any comments welcome please- thank you!]



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Slip sliding away….

…the information’s unavailable to the mortal man.

That’s how it’s been feeling around here the last few weeks. We now have our final days on the island decided, as the ferry crossings are all booked. There is the 1st August return sailing for Digger and hired van to take our (somewhat minimalised, but I fear there is still work that needs to be done!) possessions down to the Westcountry to store at my parents, and the 14th August for car + two adult + one infant, what will be a one way sailing. Laughably, we have actually booked a return for the 14th, as in the infinite wisdom of the ferry company pricing procedures, a return is actually cheaper than the single. I can’t understand the logic, but the skinflinter in me had no hesitation deciding which option to click.

Digger and Tiddler had some quality time last Saturday while I loaded up the car and did a final car boot sale. Digger has been grumbling for weeks that the boxes where cluttering up ‘his’ sheds, and preventing him finding things. For a not very busy day, we made £92 which I was pretty pleased with given that most of the things were rejects from the previous car boot, and I was selling most items in large rummage boxes for 25p or 50p each. I also made £15 for a neighbour who had given me a couple of items of clothing to sell for her, and she gave me £5 back for my trouble. Tiddler and Digger turned up halfway through to man (and toddle) the stall so I could nip off to spend a proverbial penny, and found in the meantime Tiddler had conned the next door stallholder into giving her a freebie. This was a rubbery stretchy orange dragon that makes me feel slightly queasy when I touch it. Tiddler of course thinks it is fantastical and her new ‘best-favourite’. All in all then, a financially successful (and making Digger happy) kind of day, only marred slightly by the new reptilian addition to the family.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time online, investigating further details with tax and residency and car insurance issues. Our island’s slightly unclear categorisation of status for such things makes this all a bit complicated. There never seems to be a drop down menu that applies to us, yet as we are not actually part of the UK, and herein lies the problem, as trying to get a straight answer as to whether this policy or that law is valid for where we are now, where we will be, and facilitating the transition between the two, is simply making my head spin. We’re workin’ our jobs, collectin’ our pay, believe we’re gliding down the highway.

Digger has taken a hit as his own van has some ‘computer says no’  (UK TV reference, sorry to everyone else. Maybe think a little bit like Marvin if that helps?) issues going on. He bemoans the days when he could poke around with a screwdriver, or hit things with a hammer to fix them.  Now some unspecified electrical self diagnosis means his van has been in the garage twice and a mate’s-rates mechanic has been out to the house to look at it too. This is all a few weeks before he was planning on putting it up for sale. Cost to fix as yet unidentified, as is the actual problem.  You know the nearer your destination the more your slip slidin’ away.

Tiddler herself has being accidentally thrifty. In getting out all her old clothes to pass on to a friend for future use, we discovered that a lot of old leggings and trousers that I had deemed too small are now getting a bit of a frugal revival. As she no longer wears a nappy there is more room in the bum department, and she continues to slim down from her previous roly-poly baby status, so what were once full length trousers can now be worn as pedal pushers. A few that were tight around the calves, or had worn thin in the knees I have simply cut off and made legging shorts, as the material doesn’t fray.

On my part-time hours, I now only have nine working days left. It is a very surreal situation to be in, attending meetings to discuss plans of actions for everyone else for the next academic year, or to be preparing students for classes I won’t be taking. I have a gifted bottle of Prosecco that I have been saving for Digger and I to share after that last day. Digger’s business should in theory be handed over officially this week, but he doubts that it will smoothly transition.
This means of course that I shall have three clear weeks after finishing work before we finally leave. In that time we have to pack everything up, try and sell some large pieces of furniture we cannot take, clear the house, attend a wedding, trick Tiddler in wanting to dress like a flower girl for the day when she’d much rather race down the aisle as a viking, or a pirate, or a dragon.

And a hundred and one other things to fit in and sort out too.  Seven weeks and counting.