Thursday, January 13, 2011

Saving Money in London

For most of my friends that know me-both here and in the US-most of them probably know that I love nothing better than saving money on my purchases-I love coupons (vouchers to the Brits), discounts, deals, loyalty programs...anything that will make living my life a wee bit cheaper!  And, as vouchers have become very in vogue in London the past two years with the economy, I started thinking about all the ways I try to save money while living in this incredibly expensive city.

Now, I'm not one that would go so far as to buy something I didn't want/need just to say I got a deal (well, barring that Givenchy jacket I bought 10 years was Givenchy, afterall!), and most of the things I try to save money on are either things I'd buy regardless (meals out, for instance) or would like to buy, but refuse to pay full price for (a full half-dozen microdermabrasion treatments).  So, continuing the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd mention a few of the places/ ways I've saved money since being here-for what it's worth, these ideas don't have to be confined to London-or even to the UK (I'm fairly certain some of the group discount sites are now in the US).  In the interest of full disclosure, any links below are purely IMHO, and I'll make no profit from you clicking on them-except the Groupon link-though, in truth, I think I've screwed the link up, so it doesn't matter! :):

Groupon:  There are a few versions of Groupon circling the globe-Tippr, Groupon/My City Deals, Living Social, etc..and they're all effectively group discount buying sites.  With these concepts, you sign up to a website (free), pick your location, and sit back and wait for daily deals to be emailed to you. In the past few months with Groupon, I've bought £170 hair cut/color packages for £45,  a £500 microdermabrasion series for £50, and £60 worth of food and drink (at a place we go already!) for £19.  You really can't beat this, and I may never pay full price for a beauty treatment in London ever again!

Email Vouchers:  I am the queen of vouchers, and I'm not afraid to use them. :)  My $.02 for what it's worth...take a look around at the places you frequently spend money-restaurants, shops, department stores, pubs, etc...and then see if any of them have websites with email programs you can join to receive vouchers.  Ask (think, Olive Garden but better) has a great email voucher program, and as there is an Ask about 50 feet from our front door, it is our go-to restaurant when I don't want to cook and we don't have the inclination to trek somewhere.  Rarely, if ever to we pay full price at Ask-and their deals usually mean one meal is free.  We ate there two nights ago and had two pizzas -both 50% off (or £5.07 each).  Can't beat that!  Young's pub chain is also good with voucher emails-our local is a Young's chain, and again, I can't remember the last time we paid full price for a meal-and have on more than one occasion received a voucher for a free drink (no purchase necessary)!

Loyalty Schemes:  Why not make your purchases net you something in the end? And in the UK, this option seems more plentiful than I care to think!  Boots, Harrods, Nandos, Ping Pong, Nectar, Nero, local restaurants with punch cards...I have no problem carrying around carrying around a tiny piece of paper or plastic the size of a credit card if it means I'm going to get something free after just a few purchases.  You're going to buy the face cream/chicken sandwich/coffee/dim sum anyway-why not use a loyalty card and effectively get a 10% or more discount off every purchase?!?

Bite Card:  I swear I'm the only person that knows about this, though I don't know why...It's a discount card that gets you 20% off at a good number of food stalls in train stations-Delice de France, Costa, Millies...and a few others.  If you have a commute that involves a train station, you're crazy not to have one of these.

Annual Tube Pass:  I have an annual tube pass.  This means that I suck it up once a year (though, some employers will offer interest-free loans), and pay a chunk of money to TFL so that I don't have to worry about what travel in Zones 1-2 *really* cost me again for 365 days.  Along with the actual tube pass come a few 'perks' that seem to be the best kept secrets of the Annual Pass:  Discounts on Heathrow Express (about 40%) for up to 4 tickets purchased at one time-even if all travelers using the discounted tickets don't have an annual pass, and discounts on National Rail.  Most train discounts run in 30-50% range, which is not small change.  The nature of the annual pass alone means you get a free month of travel-in comparison to buying 12-one month passes, and with the other discounts, you have a very real chance of clawing back even more cash into your wallet!

Pub Quiz:  OK.  Don't laugh.  But, the pub quiz can be a very real way of saving some cash!  I'm lucky enough to play with a group of people who, collectively are the right combo for a winning team, and we're fortunate enough to win something (free bottle of wine, bar tab...) almost every week.  I like to look at it as self-funded drinking!  I'd likely be in my local once a week for a few beers anyhow-why not organize with a few friends and make those beers free?!?

Taste Card: The Taste Card is a dining discount card that gives you either a 50% off or 2 for 1 deal at participating restaurants.  Unlike every other suggestion above though, this one does cost to participate.  There is an annual fee of around £75, but if you Google 'taste card discount', you'll almost always find a relevant code for 50%-ish off the annual fee.  There are a good number of national chains with the card (Pizza Express, GBK), but there's also some local gems (Ukai Sushi, Greigs)-and a few that are rather pricey in which the card could actually pay for itself after one use! 

With all of the above, Simon & I hardly ever pay full price for a meal-unless we're just out and about and decide to grab a bite at the most convenient place.  But, if we're looking for a meal, and have the option to plan for a bit, we likely will get a discount on the meal.  As such, we probably eat out a bit more often than most.  But, eating out has always been a special treat for me as we didn't do it much when I was grown up;  if I can treat myself and save money all at the same time, you 'd beter believe I'm going to do it!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Roasted Potatoes-My New Favorite Food

Now, I realize that potatoes (in any form) are a go-to food for many, many people: roasted, mashed, boiled, fried...But, oddly enough, until I moved to London, potatoes for me were my 'eh' veg; I don't mind potatoes, but I just felt that there were other, more worthy-and good for you-veg that I'd rather eat.

Well, no more! Admittedly, I do think french fries (chips) here are outstanding-and I have consumed well more of them in the past 3 years in London than likely the past 10 years in the US. And, since Simon & I moved in together two years ago, mashed potatoes have become a go-to veg for me as Simon isn't as in to vegetables as I am.

But, for Christmas this year, I decided to make traditional Roasted Potatoes.  I used the recipe of Simon's best friend, Herbie (I think it's actually his granny's recipe...), as I'd had Herbie's roast potatoes once previously and they were delish.  I was trying to make our Christmas dinner as 'British' as possible, and roasted potatoes seemed the way to go.  Since Christmas, I've made them 3 times more-twice this past week alone.  I can't seem to get enough of these things!  Which, is somewhat a pity-I know the reason they're so yummy is because they're roasted in goose fat.  Not exactly the healthiest thing in the world, but I can't help it!  So, in the spirit of sharing, if any of you have any goose fat just 'hanging about' the house, you may want to put it to some good use-direct from Herbie:

1) make sure you buy the right potatoes - King Edwards are the best  [I honestly don't know if King Edwards are readily available in the US; if not, get a 'waxy' potato...]

2) peel and cut the pots into reasonably large pieces (too small and they will break when you par-boil them), think about the size in-between a squash ball and a tennis ball.

3) par boil the pots in salty water for about 7mins. They should be getting soft but not yet breaking up

4) drain the pots and put them back in the dry pan over the heat to get rid of excess moisture...give them a really good shake in the pan while you do this to fluff up the edges of the pots as this will add crispiness when they are roasted. You can add dusting of flour or semolina at this point for extra crunch [I have added about 2 Tbsp of flour every time I've made them and can say it is well worth it!]

5) pre-heat a large roasting tray with about 1cm/2cm depth of oil. Goose fat is best (adds flavour), or lard. Don't use olive oil as it burns too easily. (set oven at high temperature for this)

6) when the oil is spitting hot carefully add your pots one by one and swill around so they get covered with the oil. you can drain off any excess oil if the pots are swimming in it.

7) put in the oven and leave for anywhere between 45mins and 1hour. Make sure you work out all your other timings to the pots. You should plate up your meat and veg and have gravy ready so you take out the pots last and immediately serve them. Trust best because it stops them from going soggy. Alternatively you can take them out, roll them around a bowl lined with kitchen roll to remove excess fat, then put into a large semi-heated serving bowl and then bring to the table. Don't whatever you do leave the pots in the oven to 'rest' at a lower temp-they will lose their crispiness.
I've been cooking the potatoes on 220 C, which is about 425 degrees F, and that seems to be a good temp for our oven.
Happy potato roasting!