Friday, January 30, 2009

Water, water everywhere...

...especially all over me. We took Nimbus swimming for the first time on Sunday, which he really enjoyed and then on Sunday night we started bathing the two boys together.

Nimbus loves drum his heels on the floor when he's being put to bed and he does exactly the same in the bath. When Cirrus is in there as well, he gets into it too, and the bathroom isn't big enough (hence our intention to make it bigger) to escape all the water flying through the air.

I may need to invest in a mac.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Maybe this year?

I'm getting more than a little excited by the way the temperature is forecasted to head downhill over the weekend. Apparently the south east is going to be hit by (possibly heavy) snow storms on Monday and Tuesday. Now, I like snow and everything that comes with it but if this had been last week I wouldn't have been looking forward to it anywhere near as much.

You see, Tuesday is my birthday and, as I've mentioned before, there hasn't been snow on my birthday, despite it falling in the depths of winter, for something over twenty years. And I've already got the day off work so I'll really be able to enjoy it, assuming that the weather gods don't conspire against me and make it snow on Monday and Wednesday, with an unexpectedly balmy respite in between.

Here's hoping...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


One of the things I have to put up with in my job is a certain amount of cold-calling from recruitment agents. They just call up reception, say they're a friend of mine and get passed right through. I'd rather they didn't do it, but in some respects I've brought it on myself as I have a profile on a well-known professional networking site that shows what I do and who I do it for. Because of this, I try to find a balance between answering their questions (after all, one day I'll be interested in the service they provide) and keeping company information private.

Last summer, I was getting two or three calls a week from agents with roles to fill and my answer was consistently the same: "I'm not looking for work at the moment". Towards the end of the year the calls tailed off and then ceased all together. In the last couple of weeks, though, they've started up again. In fact, I've had three in the last four days. The difference, however, is that they are now trying to find out whether we are recruiting at the moment. That tallies with what the media is telling us about the state of Financial Services at the moment.

Today, though, I got a call from a different sort of company. At first it was exactly the same; they called reception, who just passed them on without speaking to me first, and then launched into their spiel. It soon dawned on me that this wasn't about recruitment at all, rather it was about personal finance.

They started off talking about a 'conceptual idea' that could save me money on my mortgage by somehow getting the government to add to the capital invested in it. I confess that I was still working while he was talking so didn't pay as much attention as I would if I'd been genuinely interested. Even so, I'm not sure the idea makes any sense. Apparently, whatever it is is perfectly legal but obviously the government doesn't want to shout it from the rooftops. To me, that just made it sound dodgy.

I was then asked if I was a higher-rate taxpayer. I wasn't prepared to answer that question but they carried on anyway: "Just think of it as an illustration of what we can do for you." This was some sort of tax review aimed at reducing the amount I pay to HMRC. Again, I zoned out and didn't really listen to much more than that.

With the call time heading towards five minutes they finally got to the point, which was to ask me wether I would consider meeting with them to go over my finances.

"No, that's not something I'd be interested in doing."

"Ah, well, all right then. Thank you for your time."

I could have given the same answer at the very beginning but if they're going to waste my time then I might was well waste theirs, too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Changing Plans

So, you may ask, what sort of home improvements are we planning to do? Well, we haven't settled all of the details yet but here are the headlines:

1. Bathroom - knock down wall separating bathroom from toilet, replace the whole suite, tile etc.

2. Kitchen Extension - demolish temporary rear utility room, extend kitchen out into rear garden.

3. Dining Room Extension - replace existing rear bay window with full-width extension alongside (though not as deep as) kitchen extension.

4. Front Extension (idea only at this stage) - put 2-3ft extension onto front of house incorporating extension to living room and an enclosed porch.

5. Rear Garden - major landscaping in terms of levelling off slopes, building retaining walls, new beds etc.

6. Interior Decoration - redecorate living/dining room & two bedrooms.

There are a number of other smaller scale things we want to do as well but they probably don't merit a description at this stage.

All in all, that's a lot of work to pay for, and a lot of disruption to live with. Our original plan was to do it all at once and move out of the house for a while once the building work got to a particular stage (since the work would involve knocking through exterior walls in the two main ground floor rooms). That way we would hopefully take advantage of the VAT cut as mentioned previously.

In the last few days we've revised our approach a little. We're now going to leave the biggest expenses (2, 3 & 4 above) until next year as we want to start the work in early springtime, in order to give us a chance of it being finished before the summer is completely over, and we're probably not going to be in a position to do that this year. Also, with Cirrus going to school in September, we don't want to disrupt his home life too much. Even on the financial side this makes sense. Rather than spend the money on it this year and saving a few hundred quid on VAT, we can put it onto the mortgage and save over a thousand in interest before we're likely to be paying much of it out again.

We'll still look to do the bathroom and some of the garden and decorating jobs this year as they won't cause as much disruption, so we'll still save a bit on VAT but the rest of it can wait until we've decided exactly what we want and planned it properly. That way there's more chance of us being happy with the result.

Monday, January 26, 2009


When I got back from the gym yesterday morning, a voice called out to me before I'd even had a chance to take my shoes off.

"Daddy, we made a card for you!"

"Er, really? That's nice." I briefly wondered why.

"It's a secret!"

Ah, so that's what it's for. I'm going to have to act surprised.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

£12.5 Billion to Spend?

Temporarily cutting the VAT rate to 15% will cost taxpayers in the region of £12.5bn. The government's stated aims in doing this are to give consumers a little bit of extra cash to spend, in the hope that this will stave off some of the recession. Clearly, it's far to early to tell whether this has actually worked, despite what many people who are opposed to the idea think, but that doesn't make it a good use of such a large sum of money. Is there a better way to spend it to try and achieve the same aims? I happen to think so and will come on to my ideas in a moment but first, what is wrong with the current policy?

Well, disregarding a higher tax burden in the longer term, there are more fundamental problems with it. For a start, it's not exactly a fair distribution of taxation relief, is it? Those who can afford to spend the most get the most extra cash. While it's true to say that the richest are probably suffering most in the recession, there's no reason not to target this enormous pot of money more effectively. Related to this is another issue: because everyone benefits from it (and some benefit much more than others), a large percentage of people don't benefit very much, so it may not increase spending across the board.

What could be done instead? How about combining the aims above with others, particularly related to climate change? What sort of schemes would save people money, stave off the recession and help to reduce the country's carbon emissions?

Here's one such proposal. Given an average cost of £4000 (ignoring any savings related to the economies of scale) a time, how about installing solar water heating in three million homes? It would save people money (not just now but year on year in the long term), help to create jobs in manufacturing and service industries at a time when it is needed most and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to heat water, thus helping to combat climate change. And, maybe best of all, it could be targetted at the people who can least afford to do it themselves.

Can you think of other ways to spend such a large amount of money to the benefit of the country and the environment, too?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gis a job

How about this for a job advert?

What's the betting you don't need to apply in writing for that one? Just click on the Apply Now button and wait.

Twenty minutes later there's a knock at the door.

"Ah, Mr Skies. We've been expecting you."

Transferring Inheritance Tax Exemptions

This may seem a deathly boring (pun intended) subject but since I don't have many readers to bore in the first place and BW specifically asked anyway, here it is.

I finally managed to track down some specific information, with examples, about the how the new threshold is calculated when unused inheritance tax exemptions are passed from one spouse (or civil partner - can't be seen to be discriminatory, can I?) to the other.

Essentially, what you get is the unused proportion of your spouse's exemption, multipled by the current exemption, which is then added on to your own.

So, regardless of the fact that the exemption was only £64,000 when my grandfather died, since he left all of it to my grandmother, 100% of the exemption was unused and therefore, at today's rates, his exemption is worth the full £312,000. And since her estate is worth nowhere near £624,000, we won't be paying Mr Darling anything at all.

If, on the other hand, he had left £32,000 to my mother when he died then he would have used up half of his exemption and the unused part would now be worth £156,000.

Simple, really. I just wish it was a little more obvious in all the commentary written about it when the change was announced.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Year Ahead

I seem to have had less time to myself over the last couple of weeks and during the little I've had, I've been far too tired to think about writing anything. So, where was I?

Ah, yes. Plans. Big ones at that. More on that in a minute but first some background and a catch up.

My grandmother's funeral went very well. Despite having a very small family (she was an only child, as is my mother), around 40 people attended the service at the crematorium, which made it into a much more meaningful affair. Mum read the eulogy, which was full of little nuggets that brought back special memories of her. Suffice it to say that it was very emotional.

She had been heavily involved in local politics for decades and was the chair of the Conservative association for many, many years until she gave it up in 1999, at the age of 79. So we expected a few councillors and other local political connections to be there. And they were, along with the MP for the constituency, even though he was first elected in 2005 and only knew of my grandmother "through legend". Okay, the funeral may have been a couple of days after the parliamentary Christmas break began so he didn't have as much on as he would have a couple of weeks earlier, but he came on to the reception and was among the last of the guests to leave, two hours later. Definitely beyond the call of duty.

With that over and done with, thoughts naturally turn to what to do with the estate and this is where the plans all stem from. You see, my grandmother, while not what you would call rich, was certainly well-off. Enough to make us glad that Mum could lay her hands on her father's will and prove that he left everything to his wife, so we won't be paying any inheritance tax. And because the family is so small, once Mum has taken whatever she believes she needs, the rest will be split three ways. The numbers are still up in the air at the moment but it's likely to be roughly the same as two year's salary for me; a significant sum.

So all of a sudden, we don't really need to worry about tightening our belts in these uncertain economic times. In fact, we planning on taking advantge of them and spending tens of thousands on improving our home and garden, hopefully all this year so that we can get away with paying 15% VAT - I'm now something of a fan of the reduction, although I don't believe it's working more generally. There should also be enough left to allow us to replace the car and to pay a lump sum off the mortgage.

More details, at least, those I'm prepared to give out - you may have noticed the above is a little light on facts, on those plans as they develop. For now, all that remains to say is that, if everything goes to plan, 2009 will be the year that our lives and our finances become more comfortable and secure. And how many people at the moment can say that?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

Here's hoping that 2009 will be a good year for all of you. It certainly promises to be an interesting one around here as big plans are afoot. More on that to come soon.