The transformative power of learning how to sew

the transformative power of learning how to sew

Each Saturday this past month I’ve been dragging myself out of bed early to head into my 9-5pm intensive pattern-making and sewing course. It’s been mentally exhausting (who knew there’d be so much maths involved!) and quite physically exhausting. Friday nights are limited to dinner and a movie at most, while Saturdays nights mean crashing at 9pm. Bye bye social life!

But as exhausting as this new Saturday routine has been, it’s also been incredibly invigorating. My work has always involved a desk, while my leisure time is usually spent my consuming something – whether it’s food, the latest TV show, or a new travel destination.

Creativity and craft have been excluded from my life for the longest time, and it’s a revelation to re-embrace the joy of learning something new and making something with my own hands.

Pattern-making involves a lot of different rulers.

Sewing as an act of resistance

Beyond the delight of finding a new creative outlet, I’ve also started to viewing sewing as a powerful antidote to fast fashion.

We’re buying and getting rid of clothing at ridiculous rates. It’s never been easier to pop into a shop like H&M and buy an outfit for £20 that we’ll maybe wear three times before deciding we want something new.

High street shops are feeding our frenzy for the latest trends, changing up their collections every few weeks, instead of twice a year as it was in the past. Despite knowing the environmental and social costs of fast fashion, I’m not immune to walking past a shop and spontaneously buying a new top I don’t need just because it seems too irresistible a bargain.

But by learning to make my make my own clothes, I now have a massive appreciation for the huge amount of work that goes into making one garment. I’ve started paying attention to details – the cut, the seams, the fabric – that I had no interest in before.

I’m definitely not going to make every stitch of clothing I wear for the rest of my life. But I am going to think more carefully about what I buy and how to take care of it. This has so many other benefits I’ll reap over time:

Saving money on clothes

Making my own clothes may not necessarily work out cheaper than buying from the high street, but by understanding and appreciating what makes a quality garment, I’ll be more careful about investing in clothes that last, and probably spend less on clothes over time.  I’ll also have the skills to mend wear and tear, and have the fun option of up-cycling cheap clothes from charity shops (this girl is my inspiration!)

Making less of an impact on the environment

Buying less clothing (especially crappy quality clothing) means I’ll also be contributing less to environmental destruction associated with fast fashion. The lifecycle of one garment has an incredible environmental impact, from the chemicals used to grow the raw material, to the toxins involved in dyes, and the textile waste resulting from our hunger for new clothes. By sourcing my own fabric as sustainably as possible, and reducing the amount of clothing I send to landfill, I will effectively be reducing my own negative impact on the environment.

Contributing less to the exploitation of other women

We know that exploitation is part and parcel of buying high street clothing, yet we still buy, drawn in by the lure of cheap pretty things. By shopping less from retailers that push for high production at the lowest prices, I’m also reducing my support for those exploitative practices. There’s a reason why the owner of Inditex (of Zara, and Pull & Bear) is one of the richest men on the planet. He’s sitting comfortably at the top of a value chain that is built of the backs of thousands of women often living and working under inhumane conditions for low wages.

Liberating myself from the tyranny of fashion trends

I often think of fashion trends as sophisticated brainwashing. Fifteen years ago I wore bootleg cut jeans. Now I wear skinnies. Why? Because the fashion industry reprogrammed my brain about what’s acceptable, and convinced me to go out and replace all of my perfectly wearable bootleg jeans. If I decide I want to embrace 50s style, but the fashion gods tell me that the 90s are in (why the hell would I want to wear the same stuff I wore as a tween?), I can tell them to f*off and instead make a dress from a 50s pattern, or customise a 50s dress I find in a vintage shop.
A basic skirt I made! Took forever…

Conclusion

As you can tell, I’m finding learning how to sew quite empowering. But I also understand that the ready-made garment industry has also done us huge favours. Thankfully most women don’t need to be hunched over a sewing machine making clothes for their family like back in the day. We can buy the clothes we need even when we’re on a tight budget (although this does come with a cost we don’t immediately see on the price tag).

While sewing, crafts and other DIY may not change the world, I do think these small efforts can help us become more intentional about how we consume, and give us a greater appreciation of material things.

Overall I’m glad that I’ve re-discovered the joy of creativity, and that this new hobby perfectly aligns with my other passions and goals – environmentalism, minimalism, and saving money.

How about you? Have you discovered a new hobby you’re excited about? Do you love or hate DIY and crafts? Comment below!

Learning how to sew not only helps us to rediscover our creativity, it also presents a powerful antidote to the world of fast fashion

How much does it cost to live in Bangkok? It’s up to you.

Thailand is generally seen as a country with a low cost of living. That much is true. Away from the capital, costs for housing, food, and transport plummet. In some remote provinces, you’ll struggle to spend money because there’s nothing to spend it on.

But Bangkok is where it gets interesting. It’s a city that’s home to the wealthy 0.1% elite who drive around in their ridiculous Ferarris, and to the urban poor and migrants from neighbouring countries who survive on minimum wage. It’s also home to millions of middle class Thais who love to eat, drink, and shop on modest incomes. All of this means that there’s a Bangkok for every price point. It can be as cheap as you want, or as expensive as you want.

The other part of this equation is earnings, which also vary hugely. A foreign teacher in Thailand can earn 30,000 month teaching in a local school, or three times as much in an international school. As a professional in the non-profit sector, I could have taken a job for 25,000 a month with a small civil society organisation, or earned a mini fortune with the UN.

If you want to live on 9,400 THB a month, you can certainly try (I wouldn’t recommend it), or you can live a comfortable lifestyle for 80,658 THB month and upwards. It depends on what you value spending money on, and what your savings goals might be (assuming you have them).

30,000 THB minimum as a general rule of thumb

I agree with the general consensus that foreigners should budget at least 30,000 a month to live comfortably in Bangkok (see here and here for similar assessments). And it will take self discipline to keep to a budget that low. Bangkok is a city of massive temptation (and advertising). Everywhere you go in the city centre, something is just screaming at you to part with your money.

I find it really hard to resist dessert cafes…

Despite being a complete convert to saving aggressively for financial independence, the reason I suggest that foreigners don’t push their budget to the bare minimum is because living in Bangkok can be hard. Yes you can choose to live in a studio for 5,000 THB a month, but can you actually see trees and birds? Does it take a sweaty battle through traffic and commuters to get anywhere? Do you have the freedom of cooking what you want when you want? Living a life of perpetual street food, traffic, noise and pollution is not enjoyable after the initial novelty wears off, and is definitely not sustainable. So be realistic and safeguard against the worst of Bangkok so you can enjoy the best of Bangkok.

The range of costs in Bangkok – and what we actually pay

Accommodation

I recommend people live close to an BTS/MRT station so that they can get places while mostly avoiding traffic. An 18 sqm studio in a central-ish location might cost between 9-15,000 THB month, while a one-bed in a similar location might cost 18-30,000 THB month. We pay 22,000 THB for a 45 sqm one-bed apartment in a high-end area with a pool and gym. I asked for a 2,000 THB month discount three years ago, and rent has stayed the same since. I’ve seen the units of the same size going for 30,000 in my condo building, so shop around and don’t be afraid to ask for a discount!

Living near a BTS station makes life much easier

Food

Food prices range a great deal, depending on what and where you are eating. You can eat dinner for as low as 40 THB in a food court, or eat a healthy salad in a restaurant for 250 THB. Looking back at my 2017 spending, I see I spent an average of 4,400 THB a month on all food, including groceries and eating out (although this doesn’t include food when I was traveling). As a vegetarian, my grocery costs are lower, although I often pay more for free-range eggs, organic vegetables, and imported food (I need my chocolate digestives).

This 25 THB bowl of noodles sure is tasty, but hardly filling

Transport

Transport is one of those things that is cheap regardless of what mode, especially compared to London. A BTS or MRT ride costs between around 15-50 THB depending on distance, and a taxi meter starts at 35 THB, meaning it can sometimes be cheaper to take a taxi if you’re traveling with others. I typically spend 1,500 THB a month, mostly on riding the BTS to and from work.

Or you can get a canal boat for 13 THB

Utilities

Electricity and water bills are usually charged at standard rates, but sometimes apartments will charge tenants a set fee to make extra money. For example, we pay about 50 THB a month for water, but my friend in a cheaper apartment pays 700 THB a month. So it’s always good to ask if you’ll pay the government rate, or a fixed rate. Our electricity costs are low at about 300 THB a month because we don’t use AC much, but this can go up to over 1,000 THB depending on how much you crank up the AC.

Phone and internet

Rates are pretty similar across all providers. Expect to pay 300-600 THB month for data and calls depending on how much you need, and another 700 THB for monthly wifi. I’m sure there are also cheaper deals where you can get both combined. I spend about 300 THB a month on pre-pay phone credit (I haven’t bothered getting a contract), plus 700 something for home internet.

Drinking

Unless you’re drinking 10 THB shots of ya dong on the street alongside construction workers and motocy drivers (which we often do), drinking in Bangkok is not necessarily cheap. A local beer at happy hour in the pub will cost between 80-100 THB, and a decent glass of wine at least double. A cocktail at my favorite bar WTF costs at least 250 THB.

Entertainment

Cinema is cheap, at about 120-280 THB a ticket, depending on when and where. We occasionally go to the Democrazy Theatre, where tickets are between 400-500 THB. There’s also loads of free events happening all the time, and as we don’t go clubbing, our expenses here are low. But if you’re into seeing famous bands, or going to festivals, then expect to spend much more.

Clothing

You can pick up a cute top for work for 100 THB at Siam Square, which will look like shit after three washes, or buy something nicer at Zara for 1,000 THB. In general, buying from Western stores like H&M is more expensive here than back home. I buy my stuff from Uniqlo – it’s still affordable, but the quality is fantastic.

Don’t forget these other essential expenses

Taxes (ok not exactly an expense, but still)

Unless you’re working here without a work permit or earning less than 150,000 THB, you’re going to have to pay income tax. Mine’s 10%, plus a monthly contribution of 750 THB for social security. There’s no council tax (yay!)

Visas and work permits

Each year I renew my visa for 1,900 THB, and get a multiple re-entry permit for 3,800 THB. I’m unsure about work permit fees. My work covers all of these costs. But loads of foreigners are here without proper visas and work permits, in which case they have to budget for regular visa runs, and paying for tourist or education visas. Make sure to include these in your budget so you’re not left short when you need to leave the country.

Healthcare

Healthcare costs outside of the public hospitals range quite a bit, but are generally affordable (at least I think so – as a Brit I’m not used to paying for healthcare). For example the cost of a consultation in Bumrungrad (which feels more like a luxury hotel than hospital) will cost more than one at St Louis. I get health insurance from work, which covers up to 2,000 THB of outpatient costs per visit. I also got a comprehensive health check up last year for 9,000 THB, which isn’t covered by my health insurance, but is something that I wouldn’t be able to get on the NHS back home.

Holidays

At some point, you’re going to want to escape Bangkok, whether somewhere else in Thailand, or to explore a country in the region. Again there are major cost variations. A bus going to Chiang Mai can cost less than 500 THB, whereas a flight on Bangkok Airways can cost 3,000 THB. During months I don’t travel, I can easily keep my expenses below 30,000 THB a month, but during the months I do, my expenditure blows up – especially if it’s a trip back home to the UK. So don’t forget to consider travel costs while budgeting for cost of living.

Escape is often necessary

That’s a wrap! Any questions or comments on the above? Do any Bangkokians want to weigh in? Leave your comments below!

 

5 reasons I decided to pay off my student loans early

Student with laptop

Student loans in the UK are rarely considered proper debt. Having a student loan doesn’t affect your credit score, and no one’s going to come knocking on your door if you lose your job and can’t make a loan repayment. Even better: at some point in your life, they just disappear!

Compared to US graduates who are often saddled with eye-watering levels of student debt they must actually pay back, we have it much easier in the UK.

Because of these favourable conditions, most UK graduates are quite happy to ignore their loans for the most part, chipping away at them gradually through their monthly earnings, as long as they earn above a certain threshold. And if they don’t earn enough, then no payment needed.

However, for a number of reasons which I’ll outline below, I’ve made the conscious decision to overpay each month to get my loan down to a level I feel more comfortable with.

But first:

There is a strong case for NOT repaying student loans early

Martin Lewis says overpaying a student loan is “just throwing money away.” I wholeheartedly agree in most cases. Especially with newer graduates coming out with debt upwards of £50k. They should put their extra money elsewhere: investments, pension, a mortgage, or just doing whatever the hell they want until the majority of the debt is wiped out.

For anybody confused about student loans, I suggest you read Martin Lewis’ guide on student loans. Loan conditions have changed considerably since they were introduced in 1990, and it’s important to know what the conditions of your loan are based on what year you started university.

The guide sets out a very clear and convincing case for why graduates shouldn’t consider paying off their loans early. But it was also as a result of reading the guide several times that I decided that it was right for me to try and pay my loan off early.

How I racked up £19,000 in student loans

I feel lucky to have entered university in 2005 before university fees skyrocketed. That said, I took on a larger loan than most of my peers: I took a four-year degree instead of a three-year, and I went to university in London, meaning that I was eligible for a larger loan.

This is rather embarassing, but I have no idea how much I actually borrowed in the end. Maybe £15,000, maybe more. Correspondence from the Student Loans Company (SLC) was infrequent, and when it did come in, I largely ignored it.

Unlike my friends who went straight into conventional jobs, I didn’t cross the earnings threshold and start re-paying my loans until about three years after I graduated. I remember the heart-sinking realization that my repayments weren’t even covering the interest (I was only repaying about £27 a month; the interest was £42).

But I shrugged it off, and soon stopped making payments again when I started my Masters and then moved to Asia. I wrote to the SLC to tell them I was abroad (there’s a hefty fine if you don’t), and each year sent them documentation to show I still wasn’t earning enough to make repayments.

But soon after my financial epiphany, I decided it was time to at least acknowledge my student debt. Despite my efforts to ignore the loan, the fact that it was growing month by month was somewhere still in the recesses of my conscience.

Since I had probably only qualified to make student loan repayments for about a year of my career, the loan had rapidly compounded to over £18,000 in eight years. Ouch.

I got it down to under £5k!

I didn’t start making repayments on my loan until 18 months after trying to turn my finances around. I decided at the beginning of 2015 to start with a monthly payment of £100, occasionally throwing in a few additional hundred every time I transferred money home.

At some point I got frustrated at the slow pace, so I started throwing £500 a month at the loan before finally scaling my contributions down to £150. This is just slightly higher than what I have to pay monthly anyway now that I have a salary that makes me eligible for repayments.

My loan is now down to around £4,800, which means that over the course of three years I have knocked £12,000 off my student loans. Over half of that was made up of voluntary early repayments.

I swear I have good reasons…

Debt repayment is usually something to celebrate, but as explained above, UK student loans are a peculiar sort that shouldn’t be repaid early.

Now before Martin Lewis and other UK financially savvy folks shout at me for throwing over £6k away, I’d like to outline my (mostly) rational decisions for doing so, bearing in mind my case is slightly different to most, and that we all deal with debt in our own way:

1.  I could no longer invest or save in higher rate accounts

I had been sending my savings back to the UK and investing them in a stocks and shares ISA and pension. But due to my non-UK resident status, I had to stop making contributions after a while. I looked into opening another high-interest savings account, but again non-residency made it complicated. Given that my existing savings account pays 0.25%, and my loan is compounding at 1.5%, it seemed like one way of making sure my money wasn’t being completely eroded by interest. And while paying down this debt, I still made sure I was putting a healthy amount aside for an emergency fund, and a small freedom fund.

2. I’ll have to pay off my entire loan anyway

Unlike graduates who entered uni from 2006 onwards and whose loans get wiped after only 25-35 years, my loan won’t get written off until I’m 65 years old. I’ve still got another 30 years to go!! Between now and then, it’s highly likely I’ll have to pay off the loan in its entirety, plus all the interest it has accumulated. If I hadn’t paid off the extra £6,000, that money would have kept compounding over time, meaning I would have paid more in interest. I’d like to math this shit up Millennial Revolution-style to convince you that this has saved me money over the long-run, but I can’t be sure I’ll do it right (I like personal finance, but maths is not really my thing :p).

3. I have little faith in the SLC

There are numerous horror stories about the SLC getting things wrong and penalizing graduates for no good reason, especially with graduates who move abroad, or those who’ve accidentally overpaid. I have major concerns about their general competence. On one occasion, I renewed my direct debit by post (since they still don’t do email), and they wrote me a letter months later to tell me they received my request, but didn’t have my bank details – which were already on the system, and on the reverse of the request form they had just acknowledged! The sooner I can stop dealing with the SLC and their potential errors, the happier I’ll be.

4. My loan has been sold off

I always felt morally bound to repay my student loan because I owed it to the government and fellow tax-payers. But recently the Tory government sold a large portion of the student loan book to the private sector (at a loss). I received a letter earlier this year confirming my loan was part of the sale. So now I owe god-knows-who several thousands of pounds. Although the loan conditions are supposed to stay the same, I feel less secure about owing money to the private sector, so the less money I owe, the better.

5. It just feels good, ok?

Seeing the loan grow each month really made me quite depressed. Most of my friends had already paid theirs off through their monthly pay, whereas here I was with my student loan still sitting around my neck. The thought of carrying that round with me for the next 10+ years was even more depressing. Frankly, slashing my loan down to just one quarter of what I owed 3 years ago is much more valuable to me than whatever financial gains I may have gotten by directing my money elsewhere.

Conclusion

My experience tells me we shouldn’t underestimate the emotional burden of debt, even if we know rationally that UK student loans aren’t regular debt. So I really do sympathise with newer graduates who need to take on loans. Sure, most of them will never have to repay them in full, but it seems unfair to saddle the younger generation with massive student debt alongside ridiculous house prices.

In principle, I still believe graduates shouldn’t make efforts to repay their loans early. But not every case is the same, and I think I have made the right choice – at least emotionally – to repay my loans early. Time will tell if this was a good financial decision.

What do you think about UK student loans? Have you paid yours off already? Let me know in the comments!