Finding Contentment While Spending Less Money

Recently, I have come to realise that my level of spending has  pared back significantly over the past months. This has been partly deliberate, as we have been adjusting to living on one income and partly unintentional. Spending less makes you more mindful of the simple pleasures in life, I find. Read on for a few examples of the areas in which our spending has been reduced and how I and my family have felt about it.

Eating Out

We used to eat out at least once (often twice) per weekend. Often we went for brunch on a Sunday for our favourite Eggs Benedict or Eggs Royale. This ritual mainly stopped because finding cafe tables for a family of five including space for a buggy isn’t always easy, plus when I gave up my job the family income meant that making cutbacks on things such as eating out made sense. I’ve substituted the meals out and takeaways with home-made yet still feel like ‘treat’ or cafe-style meals (such as paninis in our panini maker) and we often enjoy eating in our garden during the warmer months. It actually feels more relaxing to do this than dine out with our young kids as it takes the pressure off my husband and I when we don’t have to worry about the kids misbehaving or whining that they are hungry. As an added bonus, my eldest child is now showing an interest in helping to prepare some of the meals and gladly carries out simple tasks such as grating cheese, stirring sauces etc. Kids are never too young to learn to cook and I hope that my other two begin to express a similar interest before long.

My husband and I only rarely go out for date nights these days- mostly for logistical reasons. Family members have started giving us restaurant vouchers for birthday gifts which is appreciated as it gives a nudge to make us get on and book a meal out rather than having a vague notion that we should but never seeing to get around to it.

Reading Material

Then there’s my reading habit, which has always verged on the voracious. I’ve always loved books and have bought at least some from Amazon and charity shops even though I’ve long been a regular user of the local library. Recently though, I’ve cut out buying books completely and started reserving and ordering books online that I really want to read in to my library to collect from our local branch. Happily, this means I remain stocked with plenty of reading material. If there are any that I read from the library and desperately crave to keep, I ask a family member to give me a copy of it for Christmas or my birthday.

Last year I also discovered the RB Digital app which allows registered library users to read a wide range of magazine publications online for free. How did I not know about this sooner?! As well being available in my local area I have been informed by friends in different areas of England that it is available countrywide. This can represent a significant saving on spends for any magazine fan.

Children’s Clothing

Even though I restrict my own wardrobe items and prefer to keep a pared down, semi capsule wardrobe, I must admit that I have a weakness for buying the kids too many clothes. Children’s clothes are so cute, with colourful appliques and designs. Still, when I changed over their clothes at the end of seasons, I felt bad when I sometimes discovered items that had never been worn even once. I really should know better on this front! The best solution I have found to this issue is to keep a simple spreadsheet on the computer and record every clothing item I acquire for the kids in different sizes. I do tend to stock up on good quality clothes in the sales, even in sizes several years too large at times, but if I forget that I have those larger sizes stashed away it’s too easy to end up buying a similar item later on. This spreadsheets also assists with guiding relatives who ask what clothing items the kids would most benefit from being given as part of their birthday presents. Whenever I find myself tempted to buy cute clothes for the kids, I force myself to check the spreadsheet first to see whether the item is genuinely needed or not.

What do you Gain Most out of Spending on?

Finding cheaper or free alternatives to the things we used to spend money on feels rewarding because it means that we can funnel our money towards things that matter more to us- such as holidays. We love going away together as a family, both in the UK and in European countries and we hold some wonderful memories of times spent on past holidays. Everybody’s priorities for their finances will be different, but being mindful of them and having more funds available to direct to them instead of being frittered on things that we are less bothered about makes a lot of sense.

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A Holiday to Holland

Why Visit The Netherlands?

Holland (officially known as The Netherlands) is the foreign country we have holidayed in more frequently than any other in recent years.

Why, you might ask? The primary reason why we favour Holland for our holidays is it’s close proximity to our part of the U.K., in particular the ease in which we can travel to the ferry port in Harwich (45 minutes away), take a convenient overnight ferry crossing before waking up in our destination.

However, this reason of practicality is closely followed by the hospitality that the Dutch people have unfailingly shown us. Even though I endeavour to learn and practice a few simple phrases of the native language wherever I travel (and my eldest daughter has developed an interest in doing the same thing), as soon as the Dutch twig that we are British they instantly switch to flawless English. It may be a generalisation, but we have always found the Dutch people we have encountered to be a sociable bunch, often keen to start conversation and fuss over our young kids.

Historic Cities and Beautiful Countryside

Although the Netherlands is a densely populated country, with the roads fairly heavy with traffic most of the time as a result, the drivers are courteous and law abiding which removes much of the stress for British drivers, especially if a sat nav is also used to locate your destination. There are numerous historic towns and cities that account for housing the majority of the population, leaving great swathes of lush green countryside dotted with ubiquitous Dutch windmills and grazing cattle, intersected by canals and rivers in this country where much of the land has been cleverly reclaimed from the sea.

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Perfectly Presented Homes

Whenever we passed through residential areas, I was struck by how beautifully presented the dwellings were. Even balconies adjoined to modest apartments that overlooked main roads were personalised with vibrant flowers in window boxes and comfortable outdoor furniture. On terraced streets, benches were often positioned just in front of homes so that the owner could relax in the evening sun with a book. Windows facing the street are usually adorned with pairs of matching plants or lanterns for the appreciation of passers-by. The sense that homes are set up for the benefit of passers-by is heightened by the fact that many people leave their curtains drawn open long into the evening (if indeed they get closed at all), affording a clear view of the front room for anyone who cannot resist taking a look. Me? Guilty as charged!

Admirable Architecture 

I also adore traditional Dutch architecture, which is evident even in modern home designs- with large panes of glass (less frequently divided into smaller sections than windows here in England), cute gables and red roofs.

Everywhere was immaculate- the smooth roads (even in narrow village streets), the complete lack of litter and dedicated cycle lanes that were well used by people of all ages from commuters to work to young children cycling with their parents to school and toddlers in trailers on cargo bikes created an air of a highly civilised, well-functioning  society. I couldn’t help feeling a little envious of some of these things, that were undeniably streets ahead of my homeland.

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Photo by Marko Zirdum on Pexels.com

 

De Efteling Theme Park

We visited (for the third time!) a theme park called de Efteling, which is practically an institution in Holland. The park is structured around a fairytale theme, with a fairytale wood complete with replica houses from many fairytales and the respective characters found within them, such as Little Red Riding Hood poised knocking the the door of her grandmother’s house, while the wolf disguised as grandmother is propped up in bed and visible through the window. There is also a large, realistic-looking oak tree that speaks. You have to see it to believe it! As well as the fairytale forest area there are a multitude of imaginatively designed rides for all ages, from incredible dreamlike fairy themed Dreamflight to the thrilling Baron 1889. De Efteling is a huge park and takes two or three full days to do justice to the many attractions on offer. We stayed overnight at the Efteling Hotel (excitingly constructed in the shape of a castle) to enable us to easily fit in two full days at the park.

Beekse Bergen Holiday and Safari Park

After that, we moved on to a holiday park called Beekse Bergen, in the North Brabant region of Holland close to the city of Tilburg. This park is centred around a large lake and has many wooded areas where the mobile homes are sited, which created a sense of tranquility as well as privacy. The trees also encouraged many types of birds: we had a pair of ducks that took up residence right outside our mobile home for the duration of our stay, to the delight of my children who enjoyed feeding them. We all felt ourselves start to relax as the calming influence of our surroundings took hold. Playgrounds are dotted all around the site, which pleased my kids as they rode their bikes around and frequently stumbled upon new ones to explore. There was a great indoor pool complex on site, with several slides and water features in the pool for under fives as well as a lazy river and larger slide.

Free Days Out With the Extra Card

If you stay three or more nights at Beekse Bergen you are given an Extra card which allows you free access to a number of attractions owned by the Libema group. This includes the safari park adjoining the holiday park (one of the largest safari parks in the Benelux region, it offers visitors the option to take a bus safari, car safari, boat safari or explore on foot to catch sight of as many animals as possible), as well as a couple of other zoo type places within an hour’s drive. See image below (borrowed from inyourpocket.com) Also included is Speelland (Playland), a small scale theme park aimed at children aged under twelve with bouncy castles, adventure play equipment as well as a few rides. Speelland is accessed by boat across the lake which adds to the sense of adventure for young children. Image below of Speelland borrowed from Tilburg.com.

We were very fortunate with the weather- a heatwave made it feel almost conceivable that were in the Mediterranean rather than the lowlands of northwestern Europe.

Have you visited the Netherlands before? Prior to having children, I had visited Amsterdam several times, but never ventured beyond the capital. Now I have caught the bug, I can’t wait to start planning our next Dutch getaway for next year.

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6 Tips For How to Stay Feeling Chic During the Summer

During the last month we have experienced a heatwave here in the UK, even though it’s technically still Spring. In many ways I adore the warmer months of the year and feel more alive during them- the longer, lighter days feel full of promise and offer more opportunity to get out and enjoy life than the winter months. The warmer weather is all the more welcome given the protracted winter we experienced this year, too.

However, I have found in recent years that the heat tends to make me feel a little… well, hot and bothered at times. I suspect this feeling also boils down to having three small people to run around after, too!

No doubt other women feel a similar way so I’ve compiled a few tips to help stay feeling fresh and chic during the summer months.

1. Suncream

Yes, I know this one is so obvious it shouldn’t even need a mention. Yet I have to confess that there have been occasions when I have forgotten to apply suncream to myself, even though (or perhaps because) I am a stickler for ensuring my kids are always slathered in the stuff. My awkward skin type of oily yet sensitive makes finding a suncream that neither breaks me out in spots nor flares up redness something of a challenge. My best solution so far is Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid, which I buy from Amazon. It comes available in several different SPFs, from SPF30 to SPF110 (nope, that’s not a typo).

photo of woman in a sunflower field
Photo by Noelle Otto on Pexels.com

2. Style a Hat

Hats offer unbeatable protection from the sun, and anyone who has suffered the horrors of heatstroke will agree that it is worth wearing one to protect your head from the powerful rays beaming onto your head if you are going to be out there for hours at a time. There are many choices of style available which will vary somewhat according to what is in fashion on a given year, but classic straw or fedora and raffia hats come in a range of colours with a huge range of ribbons and trims available.

3. Banish Thigh Chafing

Ugh, what could be more irksome than chafing thighs? There are plenty of expensive products out there offering to solve the problem, but I find that a small amount of coconut oil applied to the problem area of both inner thighs works perfectly. If you do a lot of walking then you may need to re-apply it halfway through the day but that’s all.

The other option is to wear very short shorts underneath your dress or skirt. You could keep any laddered tights from the winter and snip the lengths of them off from mid-thigh, as this also prevents the friction.

4. Painted Toenails

Ok, ok, so this one doesn’t exactly offer any type of bodily protection from the heat but it will give you a boost each time you look down and catch a glimpse of your perfectly painted toes. There seems little point in bothering to paint toenails in the winter but when they are on show so much in summer they always addd a touch of glam, especially in a bold, bright colour and matched with your fingernails.

woman wearing yellow spaghetti strap top and round sunglasses
Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

5. Sunglasses

Sunglasses get donned by the Italians at the merest hint of sunshine, any month of the year, as I couldn’t fail to notice when I lived there. The general rule seems to be: the bigger, the better. As well as providing crucial protection for your eyes from the potentially damaging rays of the sun, sunglasses up-cool any outfit so are a must have accessory.

6. Matt Face Powder

No matter how well you apply your makeup in the morning, a high temperature can have it all slipping and sliding off your face in no time at all and leaving it shiny. This is not a look most of us aspire to, so setting your morning makeup with pressed or loose powder can help make it last a little longer and re-applying the powder a couple of times a day is a must. I like to start with a mineral powder foundation in the morning such as Lily Lolo’s.

I hope you found these tips useful and would love to hear any of your own. How do you stay feeling cool and chic during the warmest part of the year? Please do answer with a comment below 🙂

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What Living in Italy Taught Me About the Benefits of Solo Travel and Experiences

Whilst having a sort out of all of my photographs recently, I came across the photo above. This image of myself was taken when I was just eighteen years old, towards the end of my seven-month au pair placement in Italy.

Some of the memories from my time there are so fresh in my mind that it could have feasibly been just a couple of years ago. Yet in other ways it feels more like like a lifetime ago, as my life since then has changed beyond recognition. These days, I feel the need to plan most things such as a holiday or even just a day trip in precise detail. Not much in life feels spontaneous.

It wasn’t always this way, though. The eighteen-year-old me merrily accepted an au pair placement in a foreign country that she had never visited before (let alone held a grasp of the local language), without even speaking directly to the family she would be living with and working for or seeing a single photo of them beforehand. This was pre-internet days and the entire placement was arranged by snail mail. Oh, and of course that girl booked a one-way Alitalia plane ticket with insufficient funds in her bank account to buy the return ticket if things didn’t work out… I blame the impulsiveness of youth!

On reflection though, I think I took the breezily optimistic view that I simply had to make it work and was determined that I would master my duties and the language quickly once I arrived. When you’re on your own in a foreign country and want to make friends and integrate into your new place of residence, learning the language becomes a top priority.

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Therefore I purchased a stack of Italian language books after being informed that there were no Italian language courses available within the small city of my placement, so learning the language was going to be solely my responsibility. I made a start on self-tuition the week or so before departing to il bel paese, but found it easier to learn once I arrived. It’s true what people say about the best way to learn a language being to immerse yourself in it. And immersed I truly was…

The very first words I heard each morning were the animated conversations of the maids working in the lavanderia (laundry room) of the hotel my host family lived in. On balmy nights I had to leave the window open and it was inevitable that loud and lively discussions would drift from the adjacent lavanderia to my bedroom. Often, I was treated to their singing, too! I was fortunate to have a small television in my room but it only had Italian channels, but I saw this as a good thing, so determined I was to expose myself to as much Italian language as possible. It was rather amusing to watch familiar shows such as Friends that had been (badly) dubbed into Italian and knowing the gist of the storylines did help too.  My radio was permanently tuned to Italian channels, as well.

All those types of passive language learning can’t be used as a substitute for actual conversations in the desired language, though. Attempting conversations that you know will be clumsy and mistake-ridden can feel daunting to anyone of any age. Fortunately, most of the natives were very encouraging of my efforts and forgiving of the endless errors I made. Trust me, I made a couple of real bloopers by substituting similar words with VERY different meanings in highly inappropriate situations…but that’s a whole other story! 😉

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When travelling alone you have to rely solely on yourself to deal with awkward situations. However scary the prospect might seem, once you have dealt with it your confidence grows and dealing with a similar situation in the future seems less daunting.

The very things that you may fear happening could indeed happen while you are alone. To take one example, I used to worry about being harassed by men before I went to Italy, having read about pale skinned, young foreign women being particular targets for unwanted attention. Well, I can tell you that I definitely did get harassed by plenty of Italian men when I ventured out and about by myself at first, even while sitting minding my own business reading a book by the marina. But I faced the fear head on and learned in time the best way to deal with it. Attempts to studiously ignore them and carry on reading occasionally  worked. Failing that, ‘saying ‘va via’, firmly and with a stern glare, usually did the job. I often used to wear my cheap ring that I’d bought with birthday money as a sixteen year old on the ring finger of my left hand and wave it at them, too!

Not everyone may have had the chance to travel alone in their teens. There are still opportunities to get out and spend time on your own at any age, though, and doing so can be a liberating experience.

Would you go by yourself to the cinema, if there was a film you really wanted to watch but no one else was available (or willing) to watch it with you? Or go to a great new restaurant serving a cuisine that no one close to you appreciates? How about sitting through a moving opera performance? Lots of women would feel a little awkward at the prospect and avoid doing these things for fear of feeling self conscious. Yet just focus on all that you stand to gain- the pleasure of seeing a great movie or delicious meal.

When you experience things alone, you have the peace to relish and focus on all the small details that make up the experience too, which you might not have appreciated fully had you been drawn into conversation with a companion or worse, had to contend with their complaints and whinges.

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Self-consciousness causes many of us to avoid going in public places where individuals do not usually venture alone. It’s easy to develop a sense of paranoia that people are staring at us and thinking or saying negative things. Generally, though, most people are so caught up in what they are doing themselves that they won’t even notice you, let alone think negatively of you.

Often in life, the things we fear doing the most, provide the greatest opportunities for personal growth. Feel the fear and do it anyway as the saying goes. It’s easy to dwell on the potential negatives and what might go wrong, but we are more likely to regret missed opportunities and the things we didn’t do, I think.

So, seek out experiences to spend time alone, indulging in things that really appeal to your specific interests and tastes.

Life is peppered with opportunities, large and small, that are yours for the taking to enjoy- get out there and grab them.

You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

 

An interview with Tara Ray from Done and Left Undone blog, on Livechicandwell.com

Introducing Tara from “Done and Left Undone”

After the enjoyable experience of interviewing Jane Beckenham from My Home My Sanctuary a few weeks ago, I have been fortunate enough to score another great blogger interview.

This time I am delighted to present to you the inspiring Tara from “Done and Left Undone”. Tara resides in Australia with her young family but is originally from the United States and took the plunge to emigrate to Australia a few years ago.

Tara also interviewed me recently, here is the link to the thoughtful questions she asked and my responses.

Enjoy reading all about Tara and her fascinating perspective on life and I’m sure you will be keen to check out her blog or follow her on Instagram!

Please can you explain your choice of the name of your blog, “Done and Left Undone”? Perhaps it holds a certain significance to you or your life circumstances?

I guess it is a funny name for a blog. It’s actually inspired by a poem by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

In the pursuit of knowledge, everyday something is added. 

In the practice of the Way, every day something is dropped.

Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. 

True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.

From the moment I read it, this passage started rolling around my brain like a marble. In our culture of glorified busyness, we are always doing, and yet there is so much left to be done. The more we do, the more needs to be done. The blog name is a reminder to myself to slow down and avoid the busy trap. I certainly believe in taking action, but I hope to take inspired action rather than just traipsing mindlessly from one activity to the next.

Tara, you grew up and spent most of your life in the US before emigrating to Australia (2 years ago?). How did you feel about the prospect of uprooting yourself and your young family to a faraway country? It sounds like a huge, brave step to take.

Thank you! My husband and I, along with our three children, moved to Australia in July of 2016 because of my husband’s job. The move is not a permanent one, which made the leap a little easier. It has been a really exciting time in our lives. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and had lived there most of my life. I had always wanted the experience of living in another country, so I was very grateful for the opportunity when it came along. The logistics of moving and figuring out how everything works in a new country, from enrolling the children in school to setting up our phone service and bank account, were not always simple.

It took about three months for me to feel settled, and ever since it’s been great. Sydney is such a beautiful city and I love being closer to the beach. My oldest child was 12 when we moved, and it was a lot harder for him than it was for his younger siblings. I think big moves are often easier for younger children. Still, we’ve had opportunities to travel and experiences that we never would have had if we had stayed in the US.

How is your life in Australia now different to the life you lived before in the US?

We shipped very few of our belongings from the US to Australia. We arrived with only our suitcases. A few months later, a few boxes that we sent by sea (mainly the some toys and books) arrived. The result has been an experiment in minimalism. 🙂 The house we’re renting in Australia is a lot smaller than our house in the US and we have relatively few things here. That aspect of it has been amazing in terms of housekeeping and having fewer things to organize and keep up with.

We’re also in a more walkable area here than we were in the US. I had been spending almost 3 hours a day driving in the US, which was way too much. Being able to walk the kids to school and spending less time in the car has been HUGE for me. I hadn’t fully appreciated before how much time I was losing every day by having to drive so much. One reason I’m able to write more now is that I’m spending less time commuting and driving the kids to activities. I finished the draft of a novel last year, and I don’t know that I would have been able to do that if we had stayed in the US. That change really isn’t anything specific to the US or Australia, we just happened to end up with a really different lifestyle.

This experience has taught me that there are a lot of different ways my life could look. I was on one path and it was comfortable and it would have been easy to continue along that path without giving it much thought. Making a huge change, like uprooting ourselves and moving to Australia, has taught us that it is possible to make massive shifts. If it’s possible to do one big thing, maybe it’s possible to other big things. Our lives are full of endless possibilities– I think it’s so easy for us to forget that as we go through our daily lives.

A quote in one of your blog posts really resonated with me: “I tell my kids, and myself, and anyone else who will listen, that our lives are the stories we tell ourselves”. Please can you expand a little on this. 

I think the stories that we tell about who we are define us. Have you ever noticed how two people can have almost identical experiences but describe their circumstances completely differently? Maybe one is a victim, the other is a survivor. We can focus on the negative or focus on the positive. It’s all about the details we choose to focus on and repeat. We’re not just passive creatures letting things happen to us; we get to be the creators of our own life stories. I think it’s empowering to recognize that where we choose to focus our attention helps shape our life’s narrative.

Finally, what advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

Oh, my 20 year old self was kind of a mess. I would tell my 20 year old self to start loving herself. She cared way too much about what other people thought and she wasted way too much time worrying about the future. I would tell her to start paying attention to her inner guidance instead of always looking for external validation. And I would tell her she is going to LOVE her future. In just three years she’ll meet the love of her life and each year will be brimming with more love and adventure than she can imagine.

Thank you for such thoughtful, insightful answers, Tara. They are very in-keeping with  the lovely, thought-provoking blog posts that you write 🙂

Tara Campbell Ray blogs at doneandleftundone.com.

You can also find Tara on Instagram @doneandleftundone.

P.S You can now follow me on Instagram. My IG handle is sarahdeeks_author. I post extra photos of bits and pieces that inspire and uplift me day-to-day so they may well have a similar effect on you 🙂 I look forward to seeing you there!

How to boost your confidence in social situations

6 Tips to Boost Your Confidence in Social Situations.

Confidence. One of those oh-so-elusive things at the times we need it most.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it a little anxiety-inducing to have to enter a room full of strangers. I admit that I still find unfamiliar social situations a challenge but many times I have pushed myself to face the fear head on.  A couple of examples include when I travelled alone to Italy to be an au pair for a family I had never met before as well as more common situations such as weddings where I knew very few of the other guests beforehand.

Yes, having to find the confidence to meet new people in social situations is unavoidable at times, so here are some strategies you could follow:

Visualise What Might Happen

…and anticipate likely questions, so that you can think about potential answers beforehand, as well as questions to ask the other person. For example when your child starts school, think what the other parents may ask you at the school gates. You could make a mental note to ask them whether they have any older children at the school and heather there is a PTA.

How to boost your confidence in social situations

Seek Out a Friendly Face

If you attend a party alone, quickly scan the room for someone who looks friendly and approachable. Without delay (to give yourself time to change your mind), stroll over to them with a smile and say hello. An easy ice breaker is to ask them how they know the hostess. Then you can ask a few questions about them or compliment them on something they are wearing. Most people are happy to talk about themselves and also enjoy having the pressure off having to think of their own questions!

Accept Compliments With Grace

If someone offers you a compliment, just smile and thank them. Resist the urge to downplay it by adding “what, this old thing?!”. That would only lower the energy to a more negative level and make the complimenter wonder why they bothered.

How to boost your confidence in social situations

Wear Bright Colours

They can have a positive psychological impact on our mood when we look in the mirror and make us look more approachable, too.

Be Mindful of Your Body Language

Crossed arms may make you feel safer but they say “don’t approach me”. Instead, aim for open body language with relaxed arms or gesticulate with your hands to show friendliness and confidence. If you have side pockets you could loosely keep your hands in them.

Spritz on a Favourite Scent

Studies show that women gain instant confidence by wearing their preferred scent. Carry a travel sized bottle to top it up later as needed.

It is Usually Worth Making Making the Effort

Scary though it can be, it is usually worth making the effort. You may even make some great new friends and make long-lasting memories. The more experience you gain in the types of situations you find difficult, the more easier you will find it to cope with future situations.

Do you have any of your own tips for increasing your confidence in social situations? I would love to hear them in the comments section below.