Thrifty Living: Our free outing to the blasted heath. Hampstead, that is

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The Independent Online

Of course, I'm not talking about invisible spending, such as the interest charges piling up on my various accounts, or the phone bill. No, I'm talking pure and simple note usage. We are not buying anything today. The phrase had such an unfamiliar ring I had to say it several times. Or is it just that no one I live with actually believed I could do it?

Slowly, I have come to recognise that having indulged myself for the last 20 years, I have bred a passel of hopelessly spoilt brats. Rather like gull chicks who have their own homecoming cry to the mother bird, my own offspring too have developed a familiar welcoming cheep. It goes thus: "What have you bought me? What have you bought me?" I might be carrying, say, a Borders bag holding a newspaper, a card and a book about casseroles. Not to the junior Millards, who will be convinced said receptacle is groaning with Disney magazines and a Lego Star Wars kit. To them, any external voyage, including the walk to school, is a potential purchase moment for a "little something".

I can't blame them. At the BBC, as an office-bound and therefore guilt-ridden parent, I often used to plan my daily exit route via the TV Centre shop. I may have looked to the rest of the world as if I was focusing on the Arts Council's mid-term report, or Scarlett Johansson's dress at the Globes. Actually, I was mulling over whether the kids would love me more if I bought them a giant plush Fimble, or a Clifford mouse mat. They hate the fact I now work at home. Particularly as I am now vigorously dumping not only weekday "little somethings", but pricey pursuits such as lunch at Pizza Express.

But getting through an entire day, cash free? Is it possible? My thinking goes thus. One, sort out food. Two, sort out location of Epping Forest. To this end, I dispatch Mr Millard to the computer and myself to the kitchen. The children are suspicious. "What are you cooking? Fish pie?" There follows a series of vomiting noises. Undeterred, I concoct a fish pie and an apple pudding and put them both into the oven, there to cook while we were out. Well, if you are going to run around in wellies all day, you might as well have a proper pudding to come home to. Because if you are taking everyone off for a free walk, you absolutely must prepare some food to have on your return. Even if it's a pile of cheese sandwiches. The thrift-driven rationale behind this is that if you spend all morning chopping up cheese and apples, you are damned if you are going to fall into Pizza Express after your exertions. Believe me. This is a fail-safe strategy.

After all this cooking, Mr Millard appears, waving a map printed off from the internet. It transpires that Epping Forest is rather far away. And I have spent so much time on the white sauce we decide to go to Hampstead Heath, which is nearer. After our walk, which involved various hearty exercises, including timed laps, football and an exciting moment when my glove was stolen by a golden retriever (maybe you had to be there), we return home. "Aaaah! Can't we go to the café?" is the wail from the back of the car. No, I hear myself say. "We have fish pie and apple pudding ready in the oven." Call me Mrs Beeton, but I am over the moon not to be grappling with high chairs, dough balls and a £60 lunch bill at Pizza Express.

After lunch, we play Blind Man's Buff and make cardboard and collage "Do Not Disturb" signs to hang on everyone's bedroom doors. No, I don't know why I chance upon this exercise either, but it keeps everyone quiet for two hours. And no, I haven't made one for myself. Do I need to turn my bedroom into a sanctuary? Mr Millard has his charms, but I've got four children already. I can't afford another.

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