Sunday, January 10, 2016

Outdoor therapy

I'm linking up with Sara's blog post about the value of "vitamin N" - a dose of nature always does me good. Well, except for when I accidentally brush against one of those grevilleas I'm allergic to. Blah. But all those studies about the effect of nature on stress levels and mental health only reinforce what I know to be true. I definitely notice an improvement in my mood when I spend more time out in the fresh air.

With that in mind, I took advantage of the reasonably cool weather yesterday morning, and headed out for a walk along the edge of the parkland that borders our little residential area. I was a bit late getting going, so wasn't sure I'd find any wildlife to stalk, but I needn't have worried. Since it was overcast, there were heaps of kangaroos out in the open. I don't have a video like Sara's, but I did get some decent photos...

Towards the end of my walk, there's a small pond that collects stormwater from the nearby streets. One muscular fellow had stopped there for a drink. I'm always grateful for my 250mm lens that lets me get close-up shots whilst keeping my distance. Males like this one are a bit taller than me - up to 180cm - and I don't fancy my chances if they decide to get territorial.

It's actually a big park, mostly reclaimed farmland. At the top of a hill there's a sweeping view across to the Kinglake and Yarra Ranges. There's also a handy seat where I can stop and enjoy the serenity. You'd never guess there's a street full of houses about 150m behind me.
The young male roos tend to hang out in packs. These guys looked up from their grazing, but didn't budge as a couple of cyclists, a dog walker (and moi) passed within about ten metres of them.

Around the corner, a low and boggy bit of land has been turned into a billabong, which is always teeming with bird life. I was tickled to discover last week that Ma and Pa swan have a new brood to fuss over.

My mate the pelican comes and goes too, sometimes with a friend. He looks like he's having a good laugh here.

I do enjoy combining my "move it" objective with some outdoor therapy. If the weather gods are kind next weekend, I'll take the mountain bike out for a spin and go a bit further afield. 


Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Flying for free

You know those fake Facebook pages that your friends keep sharing? The ones that promise stuff like free first class return airfares to London or a free luxury Pacific cruise? They're obvious scams, because I'm pretty sure Qantas' Facebook page has more than 3,000 likes (not to mention the absence of the blue tick verifying authenticity). But I can understand why people fall for them. Who wouldn't love a free holiday?

Look for the blue tick - and 774,632 likes is more what you'd expect for a big brand.
Well, the Facebook contests might be bogus, but sit tight and let me show you how easy it really is to accumulate enough frequent flyer points to make your dreams come true.

When we returned from our trip to Europe in July 2014, I had 8,800 Qantas points from our flights. In April 2015, I still had 8,800 Qantas points. Then I started pursuing points in earnest, with the result that my balance is about to tick over to a smidge over 100,000 next week.

First of all, I have to give credit to Point Hacks for teaching me some of the finer details of maximising my accruals. I highly recommend signing up for their email course to make sure you're not missing out on some great bonus point earns. And they're quick to notify subscribers of new deals that you might have otherwise missed.

Personally, I enjoy hunting down the best deals and am happy to read all the fine print to figure out what works best for me. But you don't have to join every airline or hotel loyalty scheme or obsessively search out new ways to earn. If all you want is to earn enough points to get yourself on a free return flight somewhere, or take advantage of a free upgrade from economy to business class, this is my best tip: Make your credit card work for you.

Assuming that you're a credit-worthy applicant and that you spend at least a couple of thousand a month on groceries, fuel and utilities*, this is your best bet. You could be earning between 0.5 and 2.0 points per dollar spent. First, pick your preferred airline - in Australia, that's going to be Qantas or Virgin (unless you do a lot of overseas travel), so I'm using that as an assumption here. Join their Frequent Flyer program and then start researching which credit card is going to give you the best return.

Start with the Point Hacks credit card guide to see what's on offer. Also go to your airline Frequent Flyer site and check out what they have listed. Qantas has a handy comparison tool on theirs now.

How do you choose the right card? It will depend on your personal circumstances, but here are my criteria:

1. The sign-on bonus has to be at least 20,000 points. The more, the better (obviously). I've just been credited a handy 50,000 points from my last credit card swap and I'm now eyeing off 80,000 on another.

2. The earn rate on purchases needs to be a decent amount. I spent ages getting a lousy 0.5 point per dollar on my old Mastercard, before I twigged that I could get an American Express card issued on the same account, which earns me 1.25 points per dollar. Not everywhere accepts Amex, and some places add a surcharge, so in those cases, I still use the Mastercard, but that one little tweak has greatly increased my points earn. Some cards have an earn rate of up to 2 points per dollar.

3. The annual fee needs to be waived or at least seriously reduced for the first year. Since I'm not planning on keeping the card for a whole year, I won't be paying a cent. Sometimes it may be worth paying a fee if the earn rate and the sign-on bonus are high enough. This current Amex deal is actually pretty good, in spite of the $249 annual fee. That's a personal call, of course.

4. There has to be an interest-free period (usually between 45 and 55 days, depending on the bank's billing cycle). We put all our supermarket and fuel purchases on the card, plus gifts and anything else that we know we will pay for before the interest-free period is up. Then on the due date - and not a day sooner, because it's our money, Ralph - we pay the total amount off. The aim is to pay zero interest, of course. This is about getting FREE stuff, not being charged interest and fees along the way.

5. The minimum spend to get the sign-on bonus needs to be achievable. The one that I took advantage of recently required a spend of $5,000 in three months, which we might have managed under normal circumstances. Maybe. But with Christmas shopping added in, I knew I'd hit that target with no problem at all. I spotted a deal last year offering a handy 40,000 points with only a $500 spend though. It pays to keep an eye out and read all the fine print.

Take me awaayyy! (image source)

I also did some of my Christmas shopping online. The Qantas Points online mall is a portal to numerous retailers (David Jones, Oroton, Lorna Jane, JB Hifi, to name a few), that allows you to earn Qantas points on your purchases. In the lead-up to Christmas they were offering some mad deals with up to 10 points per dollar spent, which I took advantage of. I paid with my points-earning credit card, and earned even more. Total win.

There are lots of other ways to earn, but having the right credit card is by far the easiest way to earn without spending anything outside your normal expenses. I'll be swapping mine again shortly to grab the next big bonus deal.

Before you do anything at all though, check your current credit card and see whether you can earn frequent flyer points with it. If not, see if your bank offers a product that you can switch to, however you may not be eligible for sign-on bonuses with your existing bank - they usually restrict them to new customers.

My grand scheme is to earn enough Qantas points to get me a premium economy (196,000 points) or preferably business class (256,000 points) return fare to Europe. Relying on clocking up points from actual flights is not the greatest idea. My return flight to Jordan on Qatar, a Qantas partner, earned me exactly ZERO points. Why? Because I bought a sale fare, which didn't qualify for any Qantas points (sometimes the price is so good, it's worth taking a hit on the points front). Our cheap-arse Jetstar sale flights to Proserpine earned me a measly 1,600 points. It would take me approximately forever to accrue enough the old-fashioned way, by flying.

I'm also a Virgin Velocity member, and I take advantage of their bonus deals from time to time too, but Qantas is my main airline. It pays to focus mainly on one loyalty scheme, if you want to cash in sooner rather than later. We're not especially fans of Qantas, but we do love Emirates, and luckily heaps of codeshare Qantas flights are available with them. Plus, Emirates fly to just about everywhere from Dubai, so there's plenty of choice of destinations.

If you can't trust yourself not to run up big credit card bills, or you don't have a solid enough credit rating to apply for new cards, don't despair. Hotel stays can earn you airline points too, as can car hire, wine purchases, movie tickets and online shopping, as mentioned above. There's even a bank account that earns Qantas points. Spend some time reading the info on your airline's website on all the ways you can earn points; you might be surprised.

I seriously encourage you to sign up for the Point Hacks email course (just type your email address in the box near the top of the home page) to make sure you're not missing out on something super-simple that won't cost you a cent. It breaks the whole thing down into small chunks, that will take you 10-30 minutes at a time to read and understand, delivered to your inbox daily. Then just start earning.

You could be sitting next to me in that business class seat on the way to Rome. Or San Francisco. Or Santiago. Or Tokyo. :)

*Check the card T&Cs, because some cards don't award points on BPay transactions. 


Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Worst excuse ever

On Saturday I spent a wakeful night with severe pain across my right shoulder blade. I woke up tired and grumpy on Sunday and had the perfect excuse to skip my planned weights session at the gym. I got up, drank some coffee, took some Panadol and sulked for half an hour, telling myself that it was FINE to just sit on the couch. A lengthy mental argument ensued but finally common sense won out.

The result? I skipped the weights workout, but headed off to the gym to do cardio instead. I came home feeling good about sticking to my "move it" commitment, without having aggravated the knotted up muscles in my neck and shoulder. Total win.

Monday saw me front up for an hour of torture treatment with my osteopath. I left feeling considerably better and miraculously able to turn my head to the right once more. "Good job", I told myself. "That's your do something nice for yourself thing for today." I followed orders, resting my shoulder and applying heat packs throughout the afternoon.

In the evening, I was feeling a bit guilty about not moving it that day. After all, it was my shoulder/neck that was injured, not my legs. A walk seemed reasonable, but it had been raining, so once again the excuses popped up and an internal argument ensued. Finally, I announced to the family that I was going out for a walk. There, I thought. I've made a commitment now, I have to do it.

I retrieved my shoes from under the bed and opened my drawer to get some socks. There was nothing in there but a couple of odd socks. Seriously, I have no idea where my socks go... I stood there with a black sock in one hand and a green and white sock in the other and unbelievably, the excuses started up again.

I can't go, I don't have any socks.
Oh, really? What are those in your hands?
They don't match.
Oh, FFS. You're not going to visit the Queen.
I need matching socks.
Put the bloody odd socks on and get moving.

I actually laughed out loud at myself, it was so ridiculous. I put my shoes and (odd) socks on, grabbed my camera and headed out. It didn't rain on me and I was rewarded for my effort by the sight of this guy up at the billabong:

...and some stunning skies as well.

The moral of this story? If you can recognise when you're just making stupid excuses and push them away, the rewards will be more than worth it. (Or possibly if you resign yourself to wearing odd socks, you'll see a pelican?)


Sunday, January 03, 2016

Jumping in feet first - Day 1

My "build good habits and be kind to myself" challenge began in earnest yesterday, and I'm pretty happy with progress.

First up, I grabbed my camera and took myself out for a walk. About 45 minutes of stalking wildlife seemed like a good start to my plan to move every day.

Later, whilst out on an emergency coffee-buying mission, I ducked into Target and grabbed a few items of office wear (on sale!). Although I have a wardrobe bursting with clothes, my choices are severely limited at the moment, thanks to the extra padding I'm carrying. I'd made excuses and put off buying anything new, but squeezing yourself into too-tight clothes or wearing the same three or four things that fit day in, day out does not exactly boost one's self-esteem. So now I have a small but serviceable wardrobe that'll do me for the next few weeks - and since I'm handy with a sewing machine, most of it can be taken in as the kilos vanish.

A visit to the nail salon in the afternoon for a much-needed mani/pedi topped off my day. How good are those massaging foot spa chairs?

Pretty pink toes. Ignore the scratches from recent gardening adventures.

I think I'm getting the hang of this. Onwards.


Saturday, January 02, 2016

Getting Real

Oh, them feels...

The past two years have been a struggle for me on many fronts. Sure, my Mum died suddenly and I still feel like I'm adrift without an anchor. Yes, Bike Boy's work has involved an increasing amount of travel, meaning I'm alone a lot more than I'd like. And okay, my work isn't the most fulfilling thing in my life. But we all have challenges in our everyday lives, so I'm no different to anyone else there.

My problem is that I haven't been very kind to myself. I bury my uncomfortable feelings - like grief, loneliness or frustration - and distract myself from them with food, alcohol or mindless activities. I'm an expert at avoidance and distraction. If it was an Olympic sport, I'd take the gold. I've also not indulged in many of the little self-care activities that make life a lot more fun - because somewhere inside my head there was a voice telling me I didn't deserve them.

The end result of months of this sort of nonsense was insomnia, debilitating anxiety and an inability to cope with basic life stuff. I couldn't get up early, had no energy to train and my organisational skills just deserted me, which did not make for productivity at work or at home. That led to feelings of failure, which in turn contributed to a nasty cycle of weight gain/feeling crappy/eating more & not exercising/more weight gain.

Anyhoo, I finally dragged my sorry arse off to the doctor a couple of months ago and with the help of prescription medication, I'm now sleeping well and my roaring anxiety has turned itself down to a low growl. Yay for drugs!

So I've begun working on restoring former good habits and being a lot nicer to myself in the process. I won't be leaping into a diet plan or setting weekly weight loss goals though. I know by now that kind of thing only backfires in the end. Instead, I'm aiming for simple exercise goals because I know moving my body makes me feel good. I'll also be eating more veggies/less pizza and wine, without banning any foods, again because I feel better when I do that. And my biggest challenge will be treating myself with the same respect and compassion that I extend to others.

As part of my plan, I'll be scheduling in massages and manicures and other things that contribute to my wellbeing. Reading books, taking naps and going for walks will also be part of the prescription.

I'm taking part in Liz's "Don't Woo-rry, Be Happy" challenge too, where participants simply focus on doing something each day that makes themselves or the world around them a better place. No bullshit like no-carb dieting allowed, but other than that, there are no rules.

My long-term plan is to be much fitter, calmer and happier with myself by the end of this year - at which time, if all goes to plan, I will be taking early retirement (squee!). To be travel-fit: that's my end goal.


Friday, January 01, 2016

I Quit... Common Sense?

If you think sugar or carbs make you fat, and that giving them up is the answer to gaining your "perfect body", then listen up. I'll tell you the REAL secret for free:

I know, it's a very short story.

No matter how desperate you are to shift those extra kilos, you don't need to quit sugar, ditch carbs or jump on any of those other stupid diet bandwagons. All you have to do is achieve this simple equation:

calories in < calories out

It makes no difference what those calories are made up of. Honest. Theoretically, you could eat nothing but broccoli and gain weight, IF you managed to eat more calories worth of broccoli than you use in an average day. Of course that's not likely because most people don't love broccoli enough to gorge on it, plus it has so much fibre, you'd fill up before you hit the calorie number required to start storing the surplus as fat.

Conversely, you can LOSE weight eating nothing but cheese. Or Big Macs. Or ice cream. As long as you hit that sweet spot with total calories. I don't recommend it, by the way, any more than I recommend the all-broccoli diet.

It's certainly easier to overeat some high-calorie foods, but the answer is not to cut them out of your life. At best, that road leads to feelings of deprivation, hunger and general grumpiness. At worst, it can lead to a long period of yo-yo dieting and/or eating disorders.

Even if you do manage to stick to a no-carb diet for a period, it can turn you into you a smug arsehole, and there are enough of them in the world already (and most of them have published diet books). I'm unfollowing smug arseholes like mad and my life is better for it.

You don't need an app that tells you to stop being a fat bitch (seriously, it was a thing last week!) or a celebrity chef's recipe book that sees your grocery budget doubling. Stop following diet pages on Facebook. You're smarter than that. Eat more veggies, more fruit, drink more water, pay attention to your hunger - and get off the couch and move.

If you're struggling and really do need help overhauling your diet, go see a qualified dietitian or university-qualified nutritionist (if you're in NZ, look here) not a self-appointed "wellness" guru who's done a dodgy online course and has NFI what they're talking about.