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Bargain hunting in France

Despite the French cost of living being slightly higher – in my opinion – than the UK, it is still possible to do plenty of bargain hunting in France, even here in the rural Limousin countryside.

Bargain hunting in France
Rummaging for bargains in the Limousin

Where to go hunting for treasure?

Finding the places which could offer us good prices for the things which we were used to finding for less has been part of the work of our first year in France. Learning not to “just nip down” to our local Briconautes for screws or a piece of pipe when its a 30km round trip and when you get there the thing has a 50% chance of being in stock, and a 50% chance of costing twice what you’d anticipated was a lesson to learn early on.

As I’ve mentioned before on the blog and in my French Property News articles – one of the keys to saving money on “things” is planning. Knowing in advance that you will need something is the key to identifying it at a better price somewhere along the line before you become desperate for it.

Laura Harley Frugal France in French Property News magazine
My October article in French Property News

Sometimes this works out well and is seasonal, in October’s French Property News I wrote about winter money-saving – but that work really starts at the end of the last winter. Think of it like buying your Christmas presents in the January sales – you know you’ll need something later on so why wait until a deadline forces you to pay more for a thing than you would like?

This rule is harder to apply to the things we don’t need (like wood for fuel) but want (like pretty old french plates for… eating my bread and cheese from?!). And in my experience, these temptations come up more often than a cheap piece of fencing or bargain paint. Just such an occasion caught me unawares on Friday when after my husband met with a new stockist for his artisan jewellery in the Charente, we popped into Emmaus87 on our way home.

Bargain hunting in France
My newest vintage plates

Rummaging at Emmaus

If you haven’t been to an Emmaus before, they are a chain of charity shops and warehouses across France and also other countries (I distinctly remember one on Bedminster Parade in Bristol which was an absolute tardis) – you can check out their cause and find your nearest branch in France here. Our closest branch is a large warehouse just outside of Limoges in 87 where you can find an enormous collection of furniture, clothing, electronics, ceramics, tools and collectables at excellent prices.

Bargain hunting in France
Emmaus 87 on the outskirts of Limoges

Ignoring my own rules about being prepared, we turned up sans measurements for the new kitchen island which we are going to build, and so despite there being some very well matched work surfaces in stock, we couldn’t commit to buying the wrong thing. Instead, I focused my efforts on some inexpensive homewares (I have been planning to recover some cushions for AGES and now have wayyy more material than I need, it’s nearly time to get the sewing machine out I think….) and G managed to find his perfect toaster from Moulinex (toast is as important to him as I am) so it was a cheap and cheerful afternoon of rummaging.

G’s backup wife, aka his new toaster

Your French bargain finds

If you’re determined to do some bargain hunting in France I’d love to hear about your own Emmaus adventures and your biggest savings. Ours was a sofa bed in excellent condition which we managed to catch on a weekend where all sofas were discounted by 50% – we ended up paying 30€ for it, and are still, some months later, rather smug. If you’ve outdone that (and I’m sure plenty have) do let me know in the comments!

This week’s Emmaus 87 haul
Bargain hunting in France
Seventies cups and fondue pan
Vintage material for cushion making
Our receipts to the grand total of 14€

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How did I become so frugal?

I know that I haven’t posted much yet, and more importantly I haven’t posted much about living frugally. But that’s about to change. The road to get here – to get to the point where we are physically resident in France – has not been easy. Any of you who follow my Instagram will know that.

So putting on my psychotherapist’s hat for a moment, if we want to know the present then we must first understand the past.

I’ve not always been brilliant with money. I came out of university with debt, student loans, and credit cards. I knew things weren’t good when I had to use a credit card to buy food. I even worked to try to earn enough to get by but it all ran out really quickly. I lived off my loan and shopped cheaply. My friends and I now joke about the dubious quality alcohol we used to drink – a poor man’s copy of Lambrini as I recall – but the truth was we couldn’t afford anything else.

Having my first job as a graduate was great and paid reasonably well, but I already had debts and was living with someone who earned a very meagre wage. I ended up subsidising our lives and somehow would always end up with nothing at the end of the month. Credit cards seemed like the obvious way to fix the situation, but of course it wasn’t.

I slowly became aware of the amount I was spending. Driving to work and back each day cost £30-£40 a week and I felt it keenly (shout out the Southampton’s traffic issues!). I was presented with an opportunity to make a change after I received a pay-out after a car-crash of around £3,000. At the time I knew that I had credit cards, a graduate overdraft and a loose understanding of how much I was spending at the time. £3,000 wasn’t going to make much of a dent in the balance, so I could decide to spend it (I wanted lots and lots of things back then, mostly from Topshop and ASOS) or I could use it to pay off some debt. To facilitate making the decision I decided to draw up a spreadsheet of all outstanding credit cards. I was horrified to learn that my grand total was around twenty-seven thousand pounds of unsecured debt. Aside from some fantastic memories of trips to America and a few places in Europe, a full wardrobe and an overfurnished home I really didn’t have anything to show for it.

Thankfully, I decided to tackle my financial denial and paid off a card. I proceeded to learn more about how to limit the expense of paying my cards off – moving to zero percent cards and doing some damage limitation on the interest. I quickly learned how addictive it is to pay off debt, to which I almost entirely credit the moneysavingexpert.com forum. If you’re in the UK, have debt and are unfamiliar, I highly recommend checking it out.

My frugality ebbed and flowed over the years, but when I decided to leave my career in IT and retrain to become a therapist I knew that I would be exchanging material comforts for psychological ones. Being self-employed added an additional strain to this adaptation and the years where my business was starting out were some of the hardest of my life. I had a large mortgage on a house that I had once intended to sublet the rooms of, however, due to some personal changes (i.e. getting into a serious relationship!), that didn’t come about. It meant finding a large mortgage payment every month along with covering bills and my newly rented office. Looking back on it now I almost wince. I remember taking a temporary role doing admin in the NHS for six weeks, and its no lie to say that I cried when I received my first incredibly meager payslip.

Fortunately necessity is the mother of invention, and I adapted my outgoings as much as I possibly could to limit the need for income. I ran an airbnb from my house. I sold things on eBay, I did small one-off jobs and opened another small business to supplement my therapeautic income. I easily worked 60 hours a week toward the end of my time in the UK. I was exhausted.

Do you remember where you were when the Brexit vote was reported? I do. I felt bereft. It was all anyone could talk about. It felt like grief, and in a way, it was. I was grieving the idea that I would never get to France. That place that I had loved but recently overlooked as I strove to make it out of the red. I certainly couldn’t afford to go on holiday there and it had grown distant in my memory. So I was poor, my country had voted (in my opinion, don’t @ me) to make itself poorer. I had ridden out the last recession in a well paid job using credit. I knew I wouldn’t be able to ride out another.

My partner is brilliant. He supports all of my crazy ventures and I feel as though he is my biggest cheerleader. But I wasn’t sure how he would feel about a suggestion to leave the UK. I knew I didn’t want any more debt, so I researched house prices in France (truth be told I had been a part-time French property tourist through various websites for years) and we worked out whether we could feasibly survive on what equity we had in the UK. It was obvious that one or both of us would need to continue to work – and I had enjoyed so much success with my psychotherapy business that I wanted to carry on whatever we chose.

Would I say that I am an impulsive person? Yes. Is my partner? Less so, but after a wine… also yes. So we made the decision that precipitated the adding of thousands of micro-tasks (and some positively maxi-tasks) to our joint to-do list. We decided to move to France. Over the coming weeks I’m going to go into the various ins and outs of that process, as well as any financial learnings which we have gained along the way – so that any of you following us might have some more insight than we did.

Speak soon – L x

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