Guests are told to keep their coats on, a bottle of washing up liquid lasts a year and every meal costs less than £1... Sarah Freeman meets Ilona Richards, Britain’s most frugal pensioner.
Ilona Richards writes a blog at meanqueen-lifeaftermoney.blogspot.com
WHEN Ilona Richards emails to confirm our interview, she adds a short PS. “If you want a cuppa,” she says. “Bring your own teabag.” Well, what else would you expect from the self-styled Queen of Mean and the woman who might just be Britain’s most frugal pensioner?
Just to be safe, I also take my own milk and put on an extra jumper, but Ilona has in fact gone the extra mile. Not long through the door, she announces the heating has been momentarily switched on in my honour and she’s also used a little bit of electricity to vacuum the living room carpet, albeit with a Dyson she found in a skip round the corner. Later, she’ll bring an electric kettle out of the cupboard (normally she heats water in a mug in the microwave) to make a round of tea and she’s also splashed out on doughnuts. Four for 15p.
“That’s the difference between being frugal and being penny-pinching. I don’t deny myself anything, but I never go mad.”
In fact over the last 10 years, Ilona, who lives in a quiet village, close to the Humber Estuary, has rarely paid full price for anything. Even before that, when she worked full-time driving lorries for B&Q, she had never been particularly extravagant with money, but the real turning point came when she was forced to have 12 weeks off work following an operation.
“Not long after I went back they announced they were shutting the depot. I was seven months short of my 60th birthday and the time seemed right for a bit of a change.”
With no regular income, Ilona, now 66, had no option but to watch her outgoings and for a while noted down her daily spend in a small notebook. It didn’t usually take long. A typical entry read ‘walked up the road to a smallholding and bought six eggs for £1.20’ and splashing out involved a haircut at a local college for £4.50. These days, Ilona no longer uses the notebook. Her frugal skills are so well-honed she doesn’t need to. She also now cuts her own hair.
Old habits though die hard. She still writes on every tin of beans and every packet of cereal what she paid for it and when she does a supermarket shop it tends to be after 7.30pm when the big discounting begins.
“I went last night,” she says, opening her new fridge (bought using £49 worth of supermarket vouchers). “At Tesco they tend to stick the first yellow label on at lunchtime, the second at teatime and the third a few hours later. It means I can’t go out with a shopping list, I just have to buy what’s there.”
The previous evening that meant she came home with a tub of pease pudding. She’s not entirely sure what you do with it, but she does know it was reduced from £1.35 to 15p so it ended up in her basket. It was joined by more familiar items, which at some point she’ll turn into vegetable stew, but she admits lunch and dinner can be a bit of a lottery.
“I have to eat things in date order. Those beetroots will probably last a couple more days, but I’ll have to get onto those raspberries and tomatoes pretty soon or they will turn into mush.”
While Ilona is not teetotal, alcohol is a luxury item. Four pear ciders from Aldi will last a month and a bottle of wine, which she buys at most once every three weeks, will still be there four days later. However, that’s nothing to how long she is able to eke out toiletries and cleaning products. In Ilona’s house, a bottle of shampoo lasts eight months and a regular bottle of washing up liquid sees her through the best part of a year.
“I used to pile dirty dishes up on the side here and wait until there was enough for a full bowl full of hot soapy water. But I realised that if I rinsed them and gave them a little scrub like this...” she pauses to demonstrate her technique just so I’m clear. “...I needn’t bother with washing up liquid at all.”
Ilona says that she spends around £10 a week on food, her last quarterly gas bill was just £32 and she has only been in debt once in her life.
“Quite a few years ago I bought a catering trailer. The plan was to go up to the local industrial park and sell burgers and bacon sandwiches. To be honest it wasn’t the ideal job for a vegetarian and it turned out there just wasn’t the custom. It was a mistake, but as soon as I realised it wasn’t going to work I sold it. I probably lost a couple of thousand pounds on that, but it was only me that lost out.”
Ilona is a regular in the chatrooms of websites like Money Saving Expert. She is keen to pass on her own tips and it seems there are more and more of us who could do with a little lesson in budgeting. Research recently found that typical household debt has surged by 42 per cent since last summer. Excluding mortgage borrowing, the average family debt now stands at £13,520 – the highest level for two and-a-half years.
“A lot of people say they want to downsize or cut back, but they are not actually willing to change their habits,” says Ilona. “When you stop worrying about material things and when you stop working just to earn money to buy things you don’t need, you suddenly find that there is an awful lot of time to do the things that really matter to you. Buying stuff rarely makes people happy.”
These days, Ilona reserves most treats for her three cats, Bugsy, Heidi and Mayze and dog Rocky, but even they aren’t immune from her frugal ways. While she only got the central heating fixed for them, even on the coldest days it’s only ever on for an hour or so. Rather than buying a cat bed, she made one out of an old suitcase and she has no plans to replace the heavily clawed stair carpet. Instead she’s held it together with duct tape.
“Everything has a use. I just don’t know what it is yet,” she says. We are upstairs in the spare room which is filled with boxes of old tin cans, plastic bottles and shelves of material bought from charity shops. “I used the rest of these to make cushion covers,” she adds holding up two shirts which now finish below the second button.
Most of Ilona’s own clothes are bought from charity shops, although there are a few exceptions. Underwear is obviously bought new, but she prefers pants made for teenage boys, partly because they last longer and also because they don’t incur VAT.
“These are my latest purchase,” she says holding up a pair of brightly coloured men’s Bermuda shorts, which cost her £1 from Primark. “They’re XXL, but they’ve got a drawstring, so I reckon they should be OK.”
When the weather finally warms up for those shorts, Ilona will also be able to enjoy her summerhouse, which she built last year from a couple of pallets and old wooden doors for the grand total of £20.
“I’ve entered it in Channel 4’s Shed of the Year competition,” she says optimistically. “But I haven’t heard anything back. It’s good though isn’t it? There’s enough room for me and a few friends.”
As long as they bring their own teabags, obviously.