Saturday, 29 October 2016

Life's Simple Pleasures: Halloween Pumpkin Carving

It's been a while since I wrote about my simple pleasures, so a new post is long overdue. As I've said before, I'm a firm believer that happiness can be found in the little things in life. My personal view is that when we focus our attention on appreciating these small things, we can experience a more peaceful, contented and ultimately happy life.

Today I found myself with the biggest smile on my face as I experienced a rather creative, yet simple and fun pleasure...

Happy Halloween!

Yes it's that time of year when many people choose to have a bit of fun dressing up in ghoulish fancy dress, decking homes and streets with cobwebs, skeletons and all sorts of other spooky decorations, and getting into the spirit of all things halloween (pun intended!) 

I've always enjoyed the theatrical nature of Halloween. I love finding new suitably frightening costumes to wear as well as experimenting with spooky make-up techniques. Then of course there's decorating the house with items from my "Halloween box of goodies" such as my flickering haunted house, bubbling cauldron, and spiders web candelabra. I always find it fun when the local kids stop by trick or treating, and this year we have made sure to have some sweeties ready - it's the least we can do when they've made so much effort with their costumes.

Sticking with the theme of Halloween, while I was out investigating our new local Aldi store today, I decided to purchase a couple of reasonably large pumpkins for the bargain price of 99p each, with a view to having some fun carving them.

I don't seem to find the time these days to allow my creativity to flourish, so this promised to be an opportunity not only to share some fun time with The BF, but also to let my artistic side have a bit of an outing.

There were a lot of seeds to remove and scraping out
 to do before we started the carving!

Late this afternoon, we took some time to have a go at carving our masterpieces. TheBF had never carved a pumpkin before, and I had only carved about one or two basic attempts in years gone by.

First we began by cutting a large hole in the top of the pumpkin, then scraping out any seeds and pumpkin pulp.

There was lots to scrape out                     
Scraping complete!

Next we searched the internet for inspiration of what to carve. TheBF opted for a Pikachu style image, and I found a fairy image to carve. We printed out images to fit the size of our pumpkins and taped them onto the pumpkin so that we could use these as a guide.

Template applied and ready
to commence carving

I used a dressmakers pin to mark out the outline of the fairy (this took sometime and I now have sore fingers from putting the pin in and out so many times!) After this I was able to remove the paper image from the pumpkin and carefully use a knife to cut out the image of the fairy.

Pins for marking the outline                  
Something to keep me going...
well it was Saturday night!

After I'd fully cut-out the image of the fairy, next I wanted to create a "swoosh" of magical stardust trailing behind her. To do this I used a drill with different sizes of drill bits.

While I was doing this I switched the house lights out and popped a small torch inside the pumpkin to see how it was looking.

All in all, I think this mini project took me about 2-3 hours and I was thoroughly engrossed the whole time. In short I loved the process and better still I loved the end result.

A little bit of magical fairy dust

TheBF's pumpkin carving was fabulous too...


So now we're all set for the next couple of evenings, these babies will be taking pride of place outside our front door, facing onto the square where we live.
A pumpkin welcome!

After the pumpkin carving was complete, it was time to decide what to do with all the contents which had been scraped from the insides! A quick internet search suggested that we could turn the many (many!) seeds into a tasty snack. So we decided to give it a go.

It was really easy to do, and I have to say the results are delicious. We put the pumpkin seeds in a colander and rinsed them, then placed them on a baking sheet where we drizzled them with Olive Oil and sprinkled with sea salt.

These went into the oven (at 180 degrees fan assisted) for 16 minutes (anywhere between 10-20 mins is good depending on your oven), after 10 minutes I checked them every 2 minutes to see whether they had browned.

Our roasted pumpkin seeds hot out of the oven
Once out of the oven, I put the seeds onto kitchen towel to pat off any excess oil, then popped them into a serving dish and they were ready to sample. They're a lovely savoury snack, reminding me of a type of bar snack one might be offered!

Removing the excess oil                        
Tasty pumpkin seed snack

So that's my simple pleasure for today - the enjoyment of taking some time to be creative both in carving, and in coming up with a new tasty snack for us to try.

Have you tried carving a pumpkin this year? How did it go? If you have any pictures, let me know using the comments or my contact form and if you're happy for me to do so, I'll be in touch to see if I can list them in a follow up post!

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Now You Can Trade Gift Cards, With A Free £5 Credit For You To Try

Have you ever found yourself after Christmas, a birthday or even a wedding, having received a generous gift card but unfortunately it's for a retailer who you have nothing particular you wish to buy from? Or perhaps you have won a gift card in a competition? Or been sent a gift card as a reward for being a loyal customer elsewhere and you'd rather have received the cash value instead? 

It's possible to end up in a situation where you are scouring a retailer's online site or store simply to find a product to purchase so that you can make use of the gift. It's a lovely gesture, but sometimes it falls flat when you'd rather be able to spend the value at a retailer of your own choice. Well that's where handy site Zeek comes in, solving the problem by allowing you to sell your gift card (for a small fee) so that someone else can purchase it who actually wants to use the retailer in question.

Not only does Zeek allow you to sell unwanted gift cards, you can also find generous savings on a vast array of gift cards available for purchase

Recently I was kindly offered a £50 credit to check out how Zeek works so that I could share the experience with all of my readers in an honest review. Unsurprisingly I couldn't wait to jump straight in and give it a go, particularly because I also have the opportunity to offer £5 free to all new members signing up using this link.

So, here's how I found the Zeek user experience...

First things first, with my frugal hat on I checked on Quidco and TopCashback to see if there were any cashback deals to be had for signing up with Zeek. Sure enough Quidco offered 4% and TopCashback offered 4.04% cash back for first purchases, nice! I found the sign-up process very quick and simple, opting to sign-up with my Facebook account (though there were also options to use your Twitter, Google or email accounts).

Since I didn't have a gift card to sell, my experience was instead from the perspective of a buyer. The great thing about Zeek is that you can pick up a bit of a deal, because you can buy gift cards for less than their face value, so I was excited to see what was on offer.  I found the site easy to navigate with options for "Buy Gift Cards" and "Sell Gift Cards" always present on the top navigation.
Just some of the many gift cards available to purchase at a discount

Selecting the Buy Gift Cards option, I was presented with a vast array of well known brands including NEXT, Debenhams, iTunes, Argos, Tesco, Boots, Pizza Express, Prezzo, John Lewis, Toys R Us and many, many more. I had been a bit sceptical about how much choice there might realistically be, but I wasn't disappointed.

Under each brand a percentage was displayed to indicate the maximum discount available, though the exact amount of money-off depends on the individual gift card being purchased. Since the cards on sale at any given time depend entirely on what has been sold to the site by other Zeek users, the denominations of card available for each brand can be quite variable.

On selecting a retailer, it was then possible to see any gift cards currently on sale, with the purchase price for each clearly listed. 
For each retailer there are a mix of card values to purchase with varying levels of discount

I opted to buy a £25 Debenhams card for online use, and a £30 physical card to use at Cafe Rouge, enjoying 8% and 7% discounts respectively (total cost £50.80).

For online cards, once purchased they're available immediately to spend, and can be accessed via a handy wallet option on the Zeek site. Physical cards are posted via recorded delivery to be received within 7 business days.

So my Debenhams gift card was available to use immediately from my Zeek wallet and I received my Cafe Rouge gift card in the post about 4 days after my order was placed. Unfortunately the Cafe Rouge card which I received was for £20 instead of the £30 I'd ordered. I immediately contacted Zeek to explain the problem and I have to say they responded very quickly and were keen to rectify the mistake. My personal view is that most companies will make a mistake at some point, but it's how their Customer Services handle the challenge of making things right that makes a good company really stand out.

Zeek, didn't disappoint, offering me two options to resolve the Cafe Rouge situation. I could either post the £20 gift card back, and once received, they would send me a £30 card (assuming they had one available for that value), or, they offered to credit my account with the £10 I was missing plus an additional £5 as an apology for the situation. I opted for the latter which meant I had another £15 to spend! This time I decided to opt for another online card, so I purchased a £20 Interflora card for £18 at a 10% discount.

In total I spent £58.80 for gift cards of value £65.00 which meant I'd saved £6.20 (nearly 10%).

Although I haven't tried selling an unwanted gift card to Zeek yet, the process sounds relatively simple. Gift Cards can be sold as long as their value is between £10-£500. The cost of sale is 7% of the card value (with a minimum fee of £3).

There are some things to consider when deciding to use Zeek for gift card trading:

  • For gift card sales, some of the face value is forfeited due to the sale fees (though this is nothing new - sale commissions are common practice across vendor sites on the internet)
  • You're not able to resell a gift card through Zeek if it was already purchased through their site
  • For purchasing, it would be nice if you could see the expiration dates of cards you are buying, as far as I could tell this wasn't an option to check before purchase (although for some of the retailers the duration is stated on the purchase page). Having said this, the 3 cards which I purchased all had long expiration dates on them (the earliest expiration being October 2017)
  • There's no easy way to search using the denomination you're interested in buying, instead you have to click into each gift card retailer to see what is on offer. A few times I clicked on a retailer to find that they only had £100 gift cards available, sadly outside of my budget
  • Turnover of gift card values available for sale can be fast, so you have to be quick if you see a card that you want
  • At the moment this service is only available in the UK. Although Zeek have advised that you can follow on Facebook, Twitter and their blog to find out when they're launching further countries

The things which I really liked and why I will continue to be a Zeek customer are:

  • The concept itself is a really good one - I love a bargain, so being able to essentially buy "money" for less is always a winner in my book. Plus it's nice to have an outlet for disposing of gift cards I simply wouldn't get around to using otherwise
  • The site is easy to use and the purchase process was quick and simple
  • The discounts I saw while looking through the different brands ranged all the way up to 25% off - certainly not to be sniffed at!
  • The handy Wallet feature allows you to easily see all cards purchased, and keep track of which ones have been used, as well as the all important expiration dates
  • I cannot fault the Customer Service, which was always super quick and very helpful
  • Zeek offer a referral program, which means that you can invite your friends to sign-up and they will receive a £5 free credit (as will you)

If you're interested in signing up to Zeek to make use of the promotional £5 credit, I would recommend following these steps:
1. If you already use a cashback website such as TopCashback or Quidco, navigate to Zeek via these to get your 4% cashback! (correct at time of publishing)
2. Sign-up for a Zeek account
3. Hover over your profile in the top right corner of the site and select the Promo Code option. Enter the promotional code: 23R7773N so that your free £5 will be applied to your account
4. Ensure that you spend your credit within 10 days of applying it to your account, because otherwise it will expire

Alternatively, if you don't use any cashback sites simply follow this link to sign-up and get your £5 credit (and importantly, remember to spend it within 10 days so that it doesn't expire).

PLEASE NOTE: In the interests of transparency if you decide to use the free £5 credit offer, I too will receive a £5 credit in my Zeek account. If you don't like the idea of this, please don't let this put you off giving Zeek a try, here is a non-referral link to Zeek from which I do not benefit whatsoever (though obviously you wouldn't benefit from the free £5 either should you use this). I also use other affiliate links in this article for the cashback sites I mention. Happy shopping!

If you give Zeek a try I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts and feedback, do drop me a line in the comments below...

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Look out Dallas, FinCon2017 here I come!

While I was reading my favourite blogs this week, I noticed in Mrs Frugalwood's latest post that she had not only attended FinCon16 but their website won the Best Frugality Blog of the Year Award in the 7th Annual Plutus Awards. Many congratulations on a well deserved win!

I've never attended any sort of conference before despite the fact that it's something I've always wanted to do. I guess I'd previously assumed that attending conferences was for employees of companies who decided to send "the chosen few" (of which I was never one). However, having entered into the blogging world earlier this year, and indeed venturing into Kindle Publishing as an income generating opportunity, I feel that attending a FinCon event could actually really help me get to a whole new level. Most importantly I suspect that I would enjoy it tremendously.

So this morning I bit the bullet and bought myself a ticket! I have to confess I am slightly daunted about going. For a start this means solo international travel to Dallas, a reasonable amount of expense after ticket, flights and accommodation are accounted for, and throwing myself into a situation where I'm likely to know no-one. Having said all that I'm also incredibly excited and will look forward to this immensely. Hopefully I'll get to meet fellow UK and non UK bloggers alike and maybe even make some new friends.

The early bird catches the worm
The real driver that nudged me into taking the plunge was the fact that there is currently a "List Sale" price for purchasing FinCon2017 tickets that's a significant reduction on the regular ticket cost. Until October 3rd 2016 the sale price is $189 per ticket compared to the normal $449 price. If anyone is interested in going here's where you can purchase your ticket. If you miss the October 3rd cut-off I'm not sure whether there will be any other form of "early bird sale" but it's always worth checking.

If you do decide to go (or indeed already have your ticket), or if you have attended FinCon before please let me know. We could share tips on getting there, what the best things to do are, best places to stay etc. Heck we could even arrange to meet up in person there!

No doubt I will do some sort of write-up on the event after attending (even though that simply feels too far into the future to even be thinking about just yet!)