Friday, April 8, 2011

Saving is like a nice

I started off the new year with the goal of saving $1,000 a month to invest for retirement. I won't lie: At first I felt the pinch. February was a little easier and, lo and behold, I found myself with extra money at the end of the month. Once March had passed, I realized I had saved even more cash, going $300 over my goal for that month. In April, I feel I'm poised to save even more than that.

So, what happened? Why is something I once found so challenging getting so much easier?

To begin, I should disclose that it's not all my doing. I'm dating a fellow who is quite generous and insists on feeding me tasty restaurant food at various intervals in the week. In a bit of cosmic irony, he refuses to allow me to pay one cent towards these costs, and I am actually starting to feel a teensy bit guilty. Moral: Be careful what you wish for. The upshot is that I still buy groceries but I am eating at home less often. Instead of $75 a week I am probably spending closer to $50.  That still only accounts for about a third of my "bonus" savings, so where is the other money coming from?

I have a pretty simple theory: Just as spending begets spending, saving does the same. For instance, I stopped spending money on magazines and cable TV, which were always giving me ideas of things to buy - things I don't really need at all. I also think "saving" becomes a habit, just like anything else you do seriously for awhile. It is starting to feel comfy and warm and a beer you crack on your patio after a long week at work, except the beer is, uh, cold. (Yeah, you know where I'll be after 5pm. And yeah, I'll have one for you. Happy weekend.)

Initially, to get my spending under control, I was writing down everything I bought; now I've stopped obsessing over every cent. I don't dither over smaller purchases and I don't feel I'm stingy with myself or my friends. It's like I've cut out the unnecessary items to clear more way
Hey, minimalism can be a beautiful thing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Credit rating reform: Dreaming in technicolor and seeing red

Past due? Seven years of bad luck for you...
Here's something I'd like to see a political party campaign for: a total overhaul of our incredibly logic-defying credit rating system.

I find it bizarre and arcane that you can be 60 days late on *one* bill, five years ago, and it is still affecting your otherwise spotless credit. Yes, it was my mistake (I moved, my mail wasn't forwarding properly and I believed I had paid off the card. I should have checked. My bad.) I also noticed that my rating dropped a few points recently, despite now having a zero balance on all my credit cards. I can only guess because I applied for and accepted a new credit card with a lower interest rate. This really gets me.

Here are my suggested reforms:

-Free and easily accessible info: Credit scores should be available for free in a timely fashion (aka online). We should not have to mail in forms - and wait weeks - to see where we stood weeks ago. Credit scores are constantly in flux and certain life events require timely access. It's that simple.

-Detailed methodology: Don't just tell us the "kind of things" that will affect our scores. Tell us *exactly* how it is calculated so that we can understand *exactly* how to improve things.

-Be reasonable, please: Isn't seven years a tad draconian? I mean, isn't that also the number of years of bad luck you get when you break a mirror?

-Distinguish between big mistakes and little mistakes: From what I can tell, being 60 days past due on a $50 HBC bill is the same as being 60 days past due on a $5,000 payment. Or your mortgage for that matter.

-Offer some leniency for first-time offences: A person who makes a mistake once and is warned with a lesser sentence might not make it again.

-Quit penalizing us for being "active": When we apply for a more credit or there are "inquiries on our file" that shouldn't automatically be a negative. Judge by our balances and other info. If I have a zero balance on all cards and a healthy bank account, I shouldn't be penalized for getting another card.

-Put more focus on the big picture: True, I was 60 days late on one $50 payment five years ago, but I've been at the same job for six years, have made all my payments on time for the last five years, have savings, and carry a zero balance on my credit cards. Do you think maybe I should have a perfect credit rating at this point? I damn well think so.

-Quit penalizing consumers for having "no credit." It should be a neutral point rather than a hit against us.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mo' Money, mo' problems: Is "free money" for education a fiscal mistake?

According to the Cons, our students are to be trusted
with cash about as much as Fat Joe and Lil Wayne
Yesterday, the Liberals made their first big platform promise for the upcoming federal election, announcing their "Learning Passport," which would provide $4,000 tax-free to every high school student who chooses to go to university, college or CÉGEP. Students from low-income families will qualify for $6,000 or $1,500 for each year of study. 

Reaction from the media outlets not routinely kissing Harper's butt was overwhelmingly positive: See here and here.

Others weren't so jazzed. National Post columnist John Ivison writes,

"All [students] have to do is open an RESP (no need to make any contributions), turn up at college or university and get their $4,000 in free money. For some reason, the words “beer” and “popcorn” immediately spring to mind." 

The Harper camp launched a full-scale attack on the proposal, which I guess is what they're supposed to do and one of the reasons elections can be so dull. Of course, Conservatives are usually pretty hot to trot when it comes to putting money in the hands of individuals (here I think of Harper's clawback of government-funded daycare in favour of cash payments to parents).

So, who is more likely to waste "free money?" Students? Or parents? Or Fat Joe and Lil' Wayne?

Students, you say?

Let's look at it this way. Under this proposal, students must physically go to a bank and open an RESP. They will be able to see the money accumulate. This in itself could instill positive habits, and get them thinking about saving rather than spending

Yes, some students will waste their money. But in the long-run, affordable education for everyone is an investment in our future. Ivison uses the traditional argument that lowering corporate taxes is the way to make Canada attractive to global investors.

Let's be real: Canada would look good drunk at 1pm, in a dayglo tuxedo and fake moustache. Why? Because we have natural resources - aka "stuff the world needs" - the demand for which will only increase. Now if our goverment is stupid, and goes around just giving away our resources and bowing down to the US every time there's a spat (ahem, Harper, ahem, softwood lumber), well, that's a different story altogether...

I say, let's instill some financial literacy and responsibility in our young people. That, coupled with better access to education for everyone could certainly go a long way towards securing our collective financial future.

PS: I often wonder, when rappers throw money on the set of a music video, do they attempt to collect it at the end of the day? Or does a smiling janitor just sweep it into a big, tidy pile?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Federal election: The markets don’t care. Should you?

Do the eye (brow)s  have it? National Post columnist
John Ivison sports the new Ignatieff look.
With a Federal Fun Fest (also known as an election) now slated for May 2, I’m staring down the daunting task of re-evaluating which party’s fiscal policy most floats my boat.

It’s going to be a tough call, because as always I’m torn between voting "for me" and attempting the nobler and more convoluted task of voting for the good of my country. Like many of us, I like to try and go to the polls with a sense of which party could possibly lead us – economically and socially – towards a better version of ourselves. Fiscally, it can be easy to get mired in relatively narrow issues – who will raise taxes for whom being the most obvious. Health care, government spending and social programs all come into play in terms of securing our financial and societal well being.

This article in today’s Globe
says don’t worry about your investments – yet. Indeed. Even in a coalition government, the free-spending spoke in that wheel – the NDP – would have to kowtow to the Liberals. That is, barring any crazy upsets, like a mythical landslide victory by the Green Party that everyone knows is never going to happen so long as people continue to engage in certain activities such as the driving of automobiles...

Ramping up to the election, I’m going to try and provide as much unbiased information as possible on the fiscal policy of the key parties. And, because that alone would be totally boring and unfun, I’m going to throw in some extremely biased and hopefully amusing commentary, as well.

Just so you know where my sympathies lie: Steven Harper is not my friend. Nor is he yours – especially if you’re gay, aboriginal, a feminist, or just really don't like war. In past I have spoiled my ballot rather than vote for the Cons. Will that even be an option this time around? Please note also that I am no fan of Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff - a man who still has not fully addressed his latent eyebrow issues. True, there is now an actual separation between the brows. Yet this new effort at grooming seems to have rendered them all the more sinister and Communist-dictator-like. This does not bode well.

In all seriousness,
the real test of the men (and one very determined and intelligent woman) will be precisely what was lacking last time around: Vision. Can Harper or Ignatieff come up with one? If nothing else, it will be fun to watch 'em try.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Negotiation 101: Not getting taken to the cleaner

When we think of "negotiation" in financial terms, we may think those stress-inducing, grey-carpet-and-muzac situations: mortgages, loans, car dealerships (I hear this one is particularly bad). But really, financial negotiation happens in a myriad of small ways in our day-to-day lives, whether it's deciding how to split the cheque, or haggling over a cab fare.

Or, in my case, yesterday: Demanding cash compensation after my dry cleaner wrecked not one, but three of my blouses.

Staring at my clothes covered in black ink - ink belonging to a pen that was clearly not mine - I realized that my reaction to the problem would make all the difference in its outcome. Here are my pointers, which I think can be applied to a variety of scenarios:

1. Even if they don't apologize, set the standard for the communication by being calm but firm. Express disappointment, be polite and understanding, but do not be a pushover. My first comment: Oh dear. One of those shirts was my favourite. But, these things happen. Everyone makes mistakes. Then I asked how they planned to make it right.

2.Don't accept less than what you feel you deserve - at least initially. They countered by offering me a dry cleaning credit equivalent to the value of the clothing.

3. Use humour if you can - sometimes it helps set both parties at ease. I replied, with a grin, "I'm not sure a credit will be helpful for me to clean clothes I no longer own." [Blank stare in this case, but I swear it does work sometimes.] I added that I would need cash compensation to replace the items that were ruined.

4. Be honest. No strategic reason, just because it's the right thing to do. I told them what the items were worth - roughly $200.

5. Don't accept less than you feel you deserve - just yet. They offered me $150 in cash. I countered that the items were worth more than that, plus I would have to go to the effort to replace them.

6. If you reach an impasse, put the problem back in the hands of the person who caused it.  When encountered with another blank stare, I said, very nicely, "I'm sure you know what's fair. So what don't you tell me what you think is the correct way to handle this situation." The lady at the counter went into the back and after some tense negotiations with her husband, she offered me $150 cash plus free cleaning for the other items that were not ruined.

7. Be prepared to accept slightly less than you feel you deserve. Yes, I would have preferred a more forthcoming apology and more effort on their part to compensate me for the cost of the clothing and my trouble, but I realized that what they were offering was as good as I'd get - without a time-consuming and potentially Disastrous Duel to the Death with the Dry-Cleaning Duo. They would probably win, too. They are hard-working, wiry, humourless people. These are not things I like in an opponent.

So, I said goodbye to my favourite blouse - and the other two, which honestly weren't that hot to begin with - and left the store *almost* smiling.

The end.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Your Bell rebate cheque: in the trash or in the bank?

You can see the delicacy with which I tore into this -
of course having no idea it was a cheque...

Hey, guess what? Bell Canada is sending out rebates to its home phone customers - and you may have thrown yours out, because it looks a lot like junk mail.

Like everyone else, I get reams of junk from all sorts of companies - Plan your funeral! Find true love! - which I chuck without opening. But I also get "junk" from legitimate companies. Bell in particular has a way of making all their envelopes look the same, so you just have to open their mail containing crappy promos, in case it's, you know, something important.

Having paid my Bell bill already this month, my hand was hovering over the recycling bin in the mail room when I thought, "aww crap, I should really open this." Good thing I did. Inside was a rebate for $67.41 which, according to Bell, is mandated by the CRTC.

It made me a little weak in the knees to think of a cheque going in the garbage, and even shakier being that it's from a company I kind of consider an arch enemy (a longer story for another day). The irony of it going unopened would be somewhat massive.

The lesson here: take a minute and open all your mail from any companies you have or have had business dealings with, even if it it looks like crap.

If you're a Bell customer and haven't received a cheque, take a minute and surf to to see if you qualify.

Monday, March 21, 2011

You're going to pay me to do *what*?

Well hello everybody! Happy Monday! Are you as stoked about it as I am? Are you all revved up? 

I'm telling you, when it's Monday, and it's grey and raining, and the roads are clogged with cars that have apparently lost all ability to drive about 20km/per hour due to a small amount of precipitation, I freakin' jump out of bed. I simply cannot wait to get on the bus and watch my fellow passengers eat their breakfast and paint their nails in public.

[An aside: Could someone please tell me, how long does it take to eat one slice of toast? Do you think, speaking theoretically of course, this act could be made to fill the comparative silence of a 45-minute bus ride? I mean, there's nothing quite like the slow rustling of foil and the soft crunch of clean teeth on buttered toast, eaten directly in your face, to really make you want to break into a dance of jubilation and shout, yes, YES, this is what I want. This is what I want every Monday morning for the rest of my non-arthritic life.]

Ahem. Pardon me.

Now that I've got that off my chest, here's what I'm sayin': You're going to pay me to do what this coming Wednesday?

Yes, I started teaching violin lessons - one of my goals for 2011, and so far I've had two sessions with my new student. Each time she hands me $20 for a half hour of help that I'd happy give anyone for free and I scratch my head and say, "Huh? What? Awesome!" This is the exact feeling I want to expand on, so that more of my working hours are like this. I realize not everyone has this luxury, and maybe I'd have to take a drastic pay cut to achieve it. Being paid to write creatively (my other favourite - though at times hair-pulling - pastime) would be equally as luxurious...

Are there people out there who get this feeling from their full-time job? How truly rare is it? Is it worth risking a certain kind of security for a certain kind of freedom?

Don't get me wrong, there are moments in my job when I do feel this way. Only I sense my role - and my industry - shifting. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling I'll be doing less and less of the things I love. It does makes me think...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tax refund update: Officially impressed (and stupid)

Thanks Stevie. You're the best. Really.
Okay, Stevie Harper and your Federal Government Jamboree. I am officially impressed. I'm sure this is an improvement that some other, better government (surely not the Liberals) had in process before you were elected a crappy, half-cocked minority, but I digress: I got my tax refund processed faster than ever this year. Exactly one week from submitting via NetFile, my return shows online as assessed, and a refund has been...mailed.

Forehead slap.

I completely forgot that I was going to input my direct deposit information this year. Rats! So it looks like I'll have to wait another 5-10 business days for the cheque show up in my mailbox (has anyone else noticed that Canada Post has been deadly slow lately? Ants tug crumbs faster, I swear.) And another 10,000 business days for the cheque to clear at the bank. I mean c'mon guys. It's a government cheque. You know old penny-pinching, arts- funding-cutting Stevie is totally good for the dough...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How much should we give?

Following the horrific events in Japan this week, I realized that I have neglected something crucial: I haven't allocated any funds in my budget for charitable giving.

I thought about it this morning on the way to work. It was raining and I remembered a parable from the bible (bear with me, I promise this won't turn into a religious diatribe!)
It was Luke 21: 1-4, the parable of the widow's offering. Please, keep reading even if you think the bible's a load of crap. I promise this will be interesting:

"As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

This made a big impression on me as a kid. Being literal, as kids are, the lesson seemed to be "give everything." Now I think of it in terms of spiritual wealth (or wealth of character, if you're not a spiritual person) versus material wealth.

I think the parable was intended to make us uncomfortable. It's saying, take stock of what you've got and "give of yourself." This will be different for every person. When it comes to money, it might not be a straight equation - a percentage or a line in one's budget.

I feel that I can and should sacrifice something in solidarity and support of the people of Japan. My monetary contribution, like the widow's, will be negligible in the grand scheme of the billions that are needed to piece their world back together. But if the parable holds true, it's still has value. All I'm giving up is the money I would have put into my vacation fund. Maybe that's not enough? I'll see how I feel. If it doesn't feel uncomfortable I will add more until it does.

I pray that the people of Japan will be able to sustain hope in such dark times. Hope is hardest when it is most needed.

I'm interested in hearing whether others have a set amount of funds for charitable giving, or how they determine what they will give. Thoughts?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Can I get this off my chest?

I was inspired reading Krystal's post last week on Give Me Back My Five Bucks about Toastmasters and how she's tackling her anxiety regarding public speaking. I really admire when people share their fears with others and take constructive steps to overcome them.

So here's mine (and this nothing to do with PF, so please bear with me):

At times, I get extremely nervous meeting new people. It can range from a medium level anxiety that is probably somewhat normal to feeling as if I'm so nervous I can't quite get my breath. And in those situations, I can say the wrong thing at the wrong time and make a bad impression. Talking to groups of people, where I am an unknown person - and especially if other people in the group all know each other - is a special kind of hell for me.

Here are some recent examples: During a panel job interview, I froze up and could not say a word. My mind was like trackless snow. The room started to spin and tilt and my heart was pounding so fast I felt like it would hammer right out of my chest.

I got the same bad feeling during an audition for the orchestra I'm in, but managed to stumble through. When I was invited out with other orchestra members for the first time, I didn't even go because I was so nervous.

It isn't always like this. Sometimes I am "on" and I am fine. I am capable of making a good impression, both in job interviews and social settings. But other times I crash and burn. In an interview setting, awkwardness is a death knell. And if you screw up in a social setting, many people won't give you a second chance. They may write you off as weird, self-absorbed, oddly quiet - whatever apparent deficit rears its head. Ideally we would be judged over time on who we show ourselves to be. This isn't an ideal world, though, and life isn't "fair." It's not something wrong with other people, or "the system." It's me. I must learn to adapt if I want to thrive and be happy.

I'm most comfortable when I'm arranging words in a way that makes sense - with the opportunity to edit and delete. This is probably why I work in communications, but on the written end exclusively. To stand up in front of 500 people and play the violin? I don't know how I ever did that. I have a picture from the newspaper when I am 15 and I am doing exactly that and I am smiling. I look relaxed.

I want to get to back there again. I want to be able to come off poised and confident in any situation, and with consistency. I'm making this an official goal of 2011. I think it's doable!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tax refund: Rev Can, bring it.

Let me sing you a song about taxes....
because I'm a sensitive guy and not a robot....
After some typical dithering born out of frugality and coupled with a side of indecision (sounds tasty, but needs hot sauce) I Netfiled my taxes yesterday.  I've read with this method, you can get your return in as little as eight business days. So, the race is on. Let's see what Revenue Canada is made of (other than...uh....Hey, it's early. I won't go there).

I will say this: the online experience this year is much improved. The website is faster, Netfile codes are available through the website, and everything has been streamlined under "My Account." As I recall, last year, I needed about three different passwords just to file my taxes and the website kept seizing up. I blamed Stephen Harper personally for this because it is fun.

The site tells me my return has been "Received" but doesn't assign a date as to when (I submitted it yesterday). I'll be checking this daily to see whether there are any updates.

I'm interested in hearing time lines from others: How long did it take to get your refund last year? Has anyone out there already gotten theirs?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What I thought I wanted

Well, well, what a week. A lot has happened. And when you have a shake-up like this, it can cause you to rethink your priorities.

Specifically, I've been thinking about whether I might actually want more money. Not that I don't want to save (no way am I giving up on that) but perhaps I don't want to live quite as frugally as I'd thought.  Having and doing nice things can be fun. It's certainly not important, but it's a dimension of life that, if it's in your grasp, why wouldn't you want to at least try for it?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm opening my mind to new possibilities. Perhaps I've been too strict in my anti-materialism. Maybe I do want nicer clothes or a car (actually, I'd take a nicer violin over a car any day). I know I'm not a fundamentally materialistic person, but I think I want to have a family. And how would I want to raise a family? Would I want to send them to public school or private? Where would we live? It doesn't have to be complicated at all, and there are no set standards in my mind except for loving your kids and your partner and being there for them to the best of your abilities. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with trying to raise the bar to make yourselves more comfortable in life. Provided, of course, that the means don't thwart the ends.

That said, I have some issues with capitalism. And even bigger issues with materialism. The idea of a lifestyle where you need millions to retire - and there are many people who feel this way - is a bit scary to me. Of course, so is the idea of this (and coincidentally, probably my favourite TV show of all time).

Anyway, if you haven't guessed by now, I met someone. His financial goals and cultural background are quite different from mine. I haven't shown him this blog yet (should I? I'm a little scared). I think we both might have something to teach each other; I sense we're both re-evaluating some of our ideas now that we've met.

What he has taught me so far is that you can think you want something, and then realize that what you really wanted is something else entirely. And that's just in the short time I've known him. I have also sampled some truly kick-a** Chinese food. ;)

When you're first meeting someone, do finances come up right away? Are you freaked out if it seems like a scenario between the Capulets and the Montagues - or are you curious?

I think I'm curious and so is he. :)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Job postings: Show us the money

I’m starting to look at job ads again as there’s some uncertainty at work and I would also like to increase my salary eventually. (FYI, if my employer did read this, they wouldn’t be surprised: I’ve shown myself to be a dedicated employee, but we all know the situation in my area isn’t optimal and may not be for some time.)

So, is it just me, or are fewer companies including salary ranges in job postings these days?

I think it has the potential to waste time on both sides of the hiring process.

If I have no idea of the compensation being offered, and it turns out that salary is much lower than my target and I have to turn down an offer of employment, won’t I have wasted the employer’s time as well?

Why not be up front as to roughly how much money you’re willing to pay someone? Is there something I’m missing here?

I had a particularly frustrating experience prior to finding my current job, which I'd rather not repeat: I went through three pretty gruelling interviews before being offered a job at a publishing house. Salary was never so much as discussed and everyone I talked to told me *not* to ask. Finally, they made me an offer – a completely pathetic sum that was barely minimum wage (I could have made more in retail) while at the same time dropping the bomb that it was only a contract job, and I would have to work with a notoriously difficult author. And they wanted me to quit my current job immediately to start working for them - no notice.

I wanted to get my foot in the door of this particular publishing house very badly, but they gave me no choice: I had to turn down their offer. I felt it was an unethical way to treat a future employee. It was a difficult decision because I was miserable at my other job. But, my instincts were right; about six months later, they started eliminating jobs and have since folded completely.

Obviously, when it comes to salary, there needs to be room for negotiation on both sides of the table. Ultimately, I think everyone should just be above board and the whole process would be less painful and more efficient. And shouldn’t corporations be all about increasing efficiency?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tax return: to Netfile or Not?

I have a teensy dilemma: Do I file my taxes for free using the trusty old paper and pen method, or shell out a bit of cash to Netfile, and get my refund back faster?

The average wait time for a paper refund is about six weeks. Filing electronically can apparently put your refund in your account in as little as eight days (though my experience has been about two weeks).

I'm not sure whether this is a strictly Canadian conundrum (?), but our government requires taxpayers to use special software to generate a return that can be submitted electronically. This means either pay for software or a web-based service to generate a return, or file the old-fashioned way.

This article outlines the various options and pricing for different types of software. Web-based services start at about $8.99 for a single return. Software starts around $19. Note: You may be eligible to generate your return for free with some services if your income is under $20,000.

So, is it worth it for me? While I hesitate to part with a single penny the government owes me - ever - I did pre-spend about half my anticipated $825.00 refund on a fancy dress. I put this on my credit card and need to pay that off ASAP to avoid interest charges.

There’s also something to be said for the OCD types such as myself who like to know that their return has been received / submitted and where it is in the bowels of the Revenue Canada machine. Just sending an envelope of off into the ether kind of freaks me out. Odd, I know...

How are you filing your taxes this year?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My subconscious likes to spend

Well, this is embarrassing. Last night, I dreamed I was in a gigantic mall with ceilings that arced endlessly into the sky. I was with a friend who loves to shop. We were swatching buttery soft eyeshadows and blushes and trying on cute little dry-clean-only dresses. Leighton Meester from Gossip Girl may have been there as well. We were eating chocolate ice cream from Laura Secord.

I think I may miss shopping more than I thought I would, seeing as I’m now doing it in my sleep.

Let me clarify that I was never really a big spender, but I was a "shopper." Typically I would dither over something and eventually…not buy it. I also went through a crazy phase of buying and then returning things. (Inevitably I’d get an item home find something I didn’t like about it – in a very Seinfeld way – and back to the store it went.)

So why did I stop shopping if I wasn't spending? Simply put, it gave me a general feeling of unease - of being unsatisfactory in some vague, indefinable way. Like a kind of perfection I could not achieve.

It would go like this: Oh I wish I had nicer clothes. I wish I were more “pulled together.” How do all these girls look so pulled together. I would be more pulled together if I wasn’t running around all the time looking for matching socks. Maybe I should colour-code? Dividers? Padded hangers for my clothes? And how do I get my cutlery drawer to be perfectly neat, like the one in the flyer for Crate and Barrel? Is there something I can buy for that, too?

I was spending my life fretting over insignificant details in a quest for material perfection, when really what I wanted was something more intangible – wholeness, happiness, fulfillment of purpose. Instead I was looking for a solution I could buy.

There’s an aesthetic part of me that craves pretty things, and perhaps that’s what the dream was about. I wonder whether it's dangerous to deny such desires entirely. Like Well Heeled was saying recently, could a small but happy-making purchase be beneficial now and then? Or will frivolous purchases put me back on the never-ending tilt-a-whirl of consumerism?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How I graduated without debt

I graduated university debt-free in 2001. Here's how I did it:

Split costs with my parents: Though my parents were in the position to pay for my education, they believed I should help pay my way. Some people are surprised when I tell them this. I am grateful: it instilled a work ethic in me. First and second year we split costs. By third year, I was by and large paying my own way. Note: I went to school out of town and had rent/living expenses to think about as well as tuition.

Started saving early:
I started saving as soon as I got my first part-time job (at 15, playing violin in a restaurant). At 16, I got a job on the line at Green Giant, working 12-hour shifts in the “Bean Production Building.” Yes, it was really called that. I worked 6pm - 6am and made $6.85/hr. I saved the majority of this money for my first year's tuition. Let me tell you, standing in one spot and picking bad beans off a conveyor belt all day can really make you want a degree. ASAP.

Worked multiple part-time jobs while in school: I looked for jobs that allowed me to work early in the morning and later in the evening, in order to work around my class schedule. I took a 6am shift at the airport, and an 8pm shift as an editorial assistant at a newswire. On alternating nights I worked as a receptionist at a retirement home. Overall I worked 30-35 hours a week.

Worked summer jobs and lived at home in the summer: I started looking for summer jobs early and made sure I had some type of employment in place come May 1st. Three out of four summers I was able to live at home, which helped me to save more money.

Freelanced in my area of study: I studied journalism and began freelancing for the local newspaper, writing fashion articles.

Lived very cheaply: I always lived with roommates, and never paid more than $500 a month for rent. I bought food staples in bulk and rarely ate out. I didn't generally buy milk or cheese (cereal with water...those were the days) and ate very little meat. I survived on a diet of rice, lentils and pasta and consumed more curry than anyone probably should in their lifetime. I had no car (still don't), and took the bus everywhere. I wore a lot of black clothes because they matched with everything.

What I didn't have:

A cell phone (for the majority of the time I was in school)
A credit card
Internet at home (except for free dial-up access)
Fancy designer clothes or accessories
Haircuts (my mom cut my hair with a pair of kitchen scissors). In fourth year I started to treat myself to a cut in a salon, on occasion.

I may have been especially frugal, but I think overall, standards were different even ten years ago. You didn't see kids toting Gucci and Vuitton (fake or not). A "brand name" was more like GAP or Club Monaco. Girls didn't come to school with fake tans and manicures. Certainly not that I recall.

Have spending standards for students risen? Is it part of the reason why they're graduating with so much debt?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My TV-less life: Week one

Yet another story today on cable TV getting more expensive.

But not for me.

I ditched my cable contract last month and returned the requisite equipment to Rogers last week. That's right: I haven't watched any seriously cute guys investigate crime and make moderately intellectual pronouncements in almost seven days.

How much will it save me this month? $43.00.

How much will it save me over a year: $516.00.

Doesn't sound like much, right? I mean why ditch the awesomeness of constant advertising and typically mind-numbing programming for such paltry savings?

Well, think about the next thirty years of your life, and do the math. $516 x 30 = $15,480. That's without inflation. And if that money were invested, instead? At a rate of 6%, that's $43,241.67.  For basic cable. And a lot of people spend double the cost of basic cable, I'll bet.

I don't know about you, but that math makes me a little queasy (math always makes me queasy, but especially so when it involves a calculation that hits you over the head with the conclusion that, hey, this is a really dumb way to spend money.)

Why is TV a dumb way to spend money? It doesn't just waste money. It wastes time and kills motivation. Sure, there are quality programs. And how often do you sit down and just watch that one program, then switch off the hopeless little screen? As I've argued already, TV steals the precious few hours at the end of a long working day, in which something productive can be done to enrich our lives and better our situations.

But, you say, TV helps me tune out and relax: There are much better ways. Trust me.

Don't those all involve being alone with one's own thoughts?
Naw, not all of them. And you can always look at your Blackberry repeatedly if you feel the need to distract yourself from thinking (works for me). Also, we all die alone (Happy Tuesday).

How has a TV-less existence been so far: Honestly, I've barely noticed it. I did try to switch it on once, and spent a few minutes staring abstractedly at black-and-white fuzz.

What have I done instead: Practice violin, read two novels, work out, dance in my apartment to le techno musique (Did I just write that? What I actually meant was "stand around in my apartment looking cool"), talk to friends on the phone, make progress on my writing. And listen to one cute guy make moderately intellectual pronouncements. (Okay, maybe "smart-ass pronouncements" is more accurate.) In real life. Imagine that.

Me: One. TV: Zero. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

Younger and faster

The most conventional retirement advice is to start early and save slowly. Articles like this one show you how you can become a millionaire with as little as $100 a month if you start when you're 25 and save for 40 years. Great, except who wants to wait 40 years?

Not to be morbid, but the so called "Golden Years" are the time we're most likely to experience failing physical health, death of a spouse and friends in our age group, and eventually....well, you know the rest. Happy Monday.

I'm of the view that as a society we need to start saving younger. But it's tough. Look at the cost of getting an education. If higher education were free - like it is in the Netherlands, for example - we wouldn't have students graduating $20,000 in the hole. If you were working part-time during school, and tuition was free, you could even save money while completing your studies.

Setting the retirement bar at 65 is such a dismally low target. Why do you think it's been set there? I hate to sound cynical, but it probably has something to do with declining productivity after a certain age. Your value as a worker bee starts to decrease. My point is, retiring at 65 isn’t designed to be in our best interests. It's in the best interests of corporations and shareholders.

If you could save enough money for retirement in 10 or even five years, would you? Would it be worth the discomfort? Or does the saying, "slow and steady wins the race" apply?

The attitude I commonly encounter among people my age is "I want to enjoy nice things while I'm young." But are you really enjoying them when you're standing on the edge of the precipice of debt? Wouldn't it be better to enjoy these things a little later in life - when you're grounded and have your head on straight, but you still have all your teeth?

Friday, February 25, 2011

$1,000 goal: I made it - now what?

Today is pay day and I have good news to report: Not only did I manage to save $1,000 last month, but I actually ended up with $95.45 left over – after all bills and expenses!

Was it stressful? A bit. I'm not used to watching my money so closely. Can I repeat next month? Sure.

The bigger question is whether I can keep it up long-term.

The budget I’ve outlined doesn’t leave much for extras. I realize I’ve neglected both dry-cleaning and clothing purchases. And you can only go for so long without either of those.

Why is my savings plan so aggressive? Simple: I don’t want to work until I’m 65.

My goal is to retire by my mid-40s. Unfortunately, that means my plan isn’t quite aggressive enough. I believe it’s possible to retire or at least semi-retire on as little as $500,000 (at a rate of 6% it would generate about $30,000 annually).

Saving $12,000 a year for the next 13 years at a return of 6% would net me around $240,000 by the time I’m 45. By that time, if I keep working full-time, my pension would be worth about $150,000.

What I would really like to do is ramp up my savings to $2,000 a month, which would put me over $500,000 (taking into account the current value of my pension) by the time I’m 45. I don’t want to plan much around future pension income, as my overall goal is to gradually move away from 9-5 work in order to pursue other ventures.

Do you think it’s achievable?
To do this immediately I’d have to get a higher-paying job, and then work on building my freelance income in my spare time.

Do you have a monthly savings goal? How does it fit into your long-term plan?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dresses make me spendy

The dress in question (on someone who is not me.)
I'll come right out with it: I spent $448 dollars on a dress last night.

I've been hunting for an outfit for an orchestra performance this Sunday. Dress code for women is a long black dress or skirt, or black dress pants/top. I had my heart set on a dress (maybe a wee bit of princess syndrome, but I love any excuse to wear one). The most economical option would have definitely been black pants and a jacket of some sort - something I could mix and match with other pieces I own and potentially wear to work. Yawn.

Instead I started hunting for a cheap floor-length dress. I saw some horrible stuff: A $118 piece of stretchy t-shirt fabric with no lining. Polyester prom dresses. $700 gowns covered in cruddy fake sparkles. I knew precisely what I wanted: elegant and non-fussy - almost austere - substantial fabric, ease of movement while playing. And sleeves.

Good luck with that.

Finally I just gave it up, hung my head and went into Holt Renfrew, where a Shelli Segal dress called to me from the rack. I had that "aha" moment - ladies you'll know what I mean - before I'd even looked in the mirror. With tax and alterations to shorten the hem, it ended up being twice what I wanted to spend. Note: This won't affect my $1,000 monthly savings goal. I will be receiving some overtime pay, plus a pretty substantial tax refund.

The big question: Will it be worth it?

Youngandthrifty recently wrote about the logic of purchasing quality everyday clothing, like jeans. I'm definitely on board with that. This is far from an everyday item. However, I will be wearing it for all upcoming concerts in the foreseeable future.  Because it’s so classic, I could actually wear it for years to come. I also plan to start playing weddings and will need something for those occasions, too.

In a way, it does seem essential to have well-tailored, quality clothing for performances. I cringe at the thought of going up on stage in front of hundreds of people wearing something that looks cheap. There’s also something to be said for having a black-tie worthy gown in your closet. You know, for all those last-minute invites I get from handsome young astronauts. Hey, a girl can dream....

So, what do you think? Am I out of my mind?

In an upcoming post, I'll give some tips for how to spot a quality garment, regardless of the price tag or brand name label.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Additional income: my strategy

A while back, Krystal of Give Me Back My Five Bucks wrote for Moneyville about how to earn extra money in your spare time. It got me thinking about ways I can supplement my own income. Other than freelance writing (which I've done in past and plan to start again) I was coming up short on inspiration. So, I sat down and wrote a list of things I really like to do, noting any money-making potential for each activity, as well as potential downsides.

My list looked like this:

Gluten-free baking: Since I'm allergic to wheat, I've developed a talent for baking without it. There's definitely a growing market for this. However, this would likely result in a low dollar rate per hour due to the effort required. Cakes might be more profitable, but I am actually terrible at decorating them (though I know someone who is excellent at it). I made a note to contact this friend about potentially joining forces.                      

Playing violin: Teach violin, start a quartet/ensemble to play weddings and other gigs. I could make $30-40 an hour teaching, given my experience, and I really love it, too – especially working with beginner students. I’ve done it in past so I know what’s involved. With a quartet, you can make $50 or more for a one-hour gig, although there’s a fair deal of preparation involved. But, once you have your “sets” down, you can slash that prep time considerably. I sent a note to a fellow orchestra member to see if we can get something going.

Fooling around with words: I actually quite enjoy crafting bad writing into readable prose. I might be able to make $20 an hour editing, to start, though it would take some to ramp up to decent contracts. Corporate jobs would pay more, but would likely be *really* boring. I’m more interested in narrative writing (fiction / non-fiction) and wouldn't necessarily mind working for a lower rate to do this. I am going to look into this further.

Working out: I could actually do a great job of personal training, judging by some of the trainers I've seen at the gym (I see some really bad stuff, geez!). I’d need certification though, which would take time and cost some money. I’m not sure I’d enjoy it, either. There’s something about other people’s sweat…

From this list, I determined that I could immediately start teaching violin lessons. I put some ads on Craigslist and Kijiji. Good news: I just got my first student! She will be starting March 2nd. I'm charging $20 for a half-hour lesson, once a week, which adds up to an extra $80 of income at the end of the month. If I can work my way up to five students, that amount will grow to $400 a month!

If you’re stuck for ideas, try the format above. What do you really like to do, and how much could you make doing it, just starting small? Could it evolve into a full-time business? Might you like it even better than your current job?

I'm learning that with many things in life, if you start small, you can achieve big results over time. Freelance work is a great example of this principle. Finally, really do try to choose something you love. You'll definitely be more motivated to succeed!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I was wrongish

So it appears I ticked off more than one person earlier today with my post about the cost of being female. Including one close friend. Yikes!

First off, let me say this: My argument was definitely flawed. Tragically so. Shout out to Dan @ How to be for pointing out some of the additional expenses men have, and helping me figure out what I was really trying to say.

It turns out what I was getting at is more social commentary, and less about finances, so I'll keep it brief: I feel that a man who really likes a woman will offer to pick up the cheque - especially when they are in the early stages of a relationship. The kind of man I tend to like, anyway.

One of the things I love about the Internet (and I do have a love-hate relationship with it) is that you can get an honest appraisal out of people (rare in "real life"). They will tell you what they really think – why not? It's fodder not only for debate, which is fun, but also for personal reflection: How did I arrive at a certain conclusion? What does that say about me as a person? Are my values in the right place? (Yes, I really think about all of this – I'm just nerdy like that).

For instance, as I ate my dinner, I wondered the following:

-Am I an entitled brat? Or some kind of snob?
-Am I anti-feminist?
-Are my expectations out of line with reality?

No, no, no and … no – I hope. It would have behooved me to consider that men incur additional expenses as a result of their gender. However, my original argument (the part about chivalry) still stands – for me. The problem is, it's not really an argument so much as a feeling. One thing I've learned is that you have to trust your instincts - at least really clearly consider them. Thinking that a man should pay for a date isn't entitlement or snobbery; it's simply a personal preference. It's kind of along the same lines as when someone I've just met shortens my name – calls me “Mel” when I've introduced myself as Melissa. Could it be that such fickle likes and dislikes keep you away from certain “flavours” of people that are no good for you? (By the way, that one's not a deal-breaker, unless a guy leans and coolly smokes a cigarette, while typing on his blackberry, *while* slangifying my name. And is wearing shoes that curl up at the ends like elves'.) Hey, I know what I don't like. But I'm only looking for one person.

And with that, I now take you back to our regularly-scheduled programming. Tomorrow I blog all about additional income: what I'm doing and how to make it work for you.

The financial math of being female

Travelling "light."
When I'm out on a date - especially a first date - I'm always a bit disappointed if the fellow I'm with doesn't offer to pick up the cheque. I've gotten some flack for this opinion from both women and men. Usually it's the feminism argument: Men and women are equal, so women should split costs equally with men. I'm not so sure about that.

I think of feminism as equal pay for equal work, as well as equality in terms of rights. Men and women are equal but not the same. There's a reason why a decent guy will drive you to your door and wait until you're safely inside, or offer to wait with you at the bus stop when it's late.

Biologically we are different, and our social reality reflects this. In the same way that a man wants to look out for you, he should also want to impress you. Chivalry - offering to pay the bill, opening doors, getting you home safely - is one component of that.

We can also look at the financial math of being female. Women pay considerably more for services like haircuts and dry cleaning. And, in keeping with certain pesky social standards, we are compelled to wear some sort of make-up, purchase feminine hygiene products (pretty much non-negotiable), remove hair from large swaths of our bodies, and possess more varied wardrobes than those of men. Many women also feel it necessary to dye and highlight their hair, and spend money on manicures and pedicures (I don't personally spend money this way.) Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to the feminine sex and grooming. Much of this effort is often made to attract a man and end up on that aforementioned date...with someone who can't be bothered to pick up the cheque?

Once the relationship has evolved to a certain point, it's normal and healthy for both partners to pay for things together. But he should still want to impress you and look after you in small - but significant - ways.

What do you think? Guys, do you try to pay for your date, or do you split the cheque? Am I radically off-base here? Girls, does it turn you off if a guy doesn't offer to pay the bill?

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Letter to My RRSP

Dear RRSP,

I am aware that I have neglected you far too long.

Every year, responsible adults would wag their fingers at me, telling me I had better max you out. And I would nod my head in mock agreement, while my thoughts drifted elsewhere...

When I finally checked on you, you had grown bloated with neglect. I was filled with a mixture of shame and regret. Yes, I knew all along that you offer a shelter for my taxable income. I knew that I would receive refunds on my current earnings, and also pay less tax in future when cashing you out at a lower income. I knew that you were one of the best ways for my savings to grow.

And yet, I was so immature. I could not appreciate your exemplary qualities.

As a gesture of goodwill between us, I have just contributed $1,000 to you. Another $1,000 is forthcoming next weekend, prior your deadline of March 1st.

I know we haven't celebrated it before, but maybe I could take you somewhere nice for this upcoming anniversary? Maybe down to the financial district for dinner and a tour of the Toronto Stock Exchange? Perhaps that would be too much excitement for you. I know how you feel about short-term, volatile investments.

Regardless, I can tell you this: you are about to experience a change of pace. Pack a bag and a swimsuit, because a little jaunt to to the Isle of Index Funds is in your future. And don't worry; with my love and care, you will drop that $39,000 of bloat and be back to your slim and trim self in no time. (It's really just water weight.) And in the meantime, you're perfect just as you are. I mean that. I really feel this is the start of something amazing.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Refund strategy: Hot & Spicy or Mild?

I haven't filed my taxes yet, but I'm already dreaming of what I'll do with my refund once I get my hands on it.

Perhaps because I'm particularly ravenous today, I'm thinking of chicken wings and taxes more or less simultaneously. And the "menu" for my anticipated $800 refund is looking like this:

Suicide: Gamble it. Potentially memorable, but pretty much guaranteed to cause heartburn...

Hot & Spicy: Spend it on something that's completely unnecessary – a trip somewhere warm, perhaps? I hear Barbados is lovely this time of year...

Honey Garlic: Buy an item I both want and could use right now, like some new clothes or an upgraded computer. A middling option, flavour-wise. Unlikely to satisfy...

Mild: Put it on my mortgage or invest it. May as well have a side of boring sauce and some wilted celery with that order...

Right now I'm wavering between "Hot and Spicy" and "Mild." A sensible Jane Eyre kind of purchase, represented by the Honey Garlic option, has little current appeal to me. I feel like I either want to spend the money on something really excellent, or just suck it up and save it. I could also consider divvying it up into different categories. Thoughts? What are you going to do with your tax refund?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Savings strategy: rollover funds

Getting through the last week before my next paycheque - without dipping into my savings or charging things to my credit card - can really be tough.

My solution to this problem is simple: At the beginning of the month, I move $100 into my savings account. When I look at my statement online, I see only my chequing balance on the home screen, and budget for that amount. Once I'm into that last-week home stretch, I move the $100 back into my chequing account and, presto – I have “extra” cash, and things don't feel so tight.

Some people have emergency funds or a line of credit. I don't have either, yet – though I should probably consider one of those options. Fact is, even if I had an emergency fund, I wouldn't want to dip into it for daily expenses.

I wonder if anyone out there has a similar strategy? It does seem pretty basic; you're just tricking yourself a bit, kind of like setting your clock ahead to give yourself "extra" time. Hey, it works!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Let the prices soar

There’s been a lot said lately about everyday items like food and clothing getting more expensive.
Is the era of overabudance nearing its end?

I’m going to break from the whimpering masses and say, good. It's about time.

It seems consumers have been lulled into a false sense of wealth-and-plenty - disconnected from the reality of what things should cost and what they can actually afford to buy.

I'm talking about "average people," with 2,500 square foot houses for four, TVs in every room, driveways clogged with cars and garages full to the roof. If something breaks, discard and buy a new one. Heck, buy a new one simply because a better model is available and the price is right. Keep buying unnecessary items with money you don’t really have. It's as if they've been asleep in the American Dream so long, they believe they're entitled to a standard of living that exceeds their incomes.

Is it any surprise the economy is looking like a puppet show that’s starting to expose its strings?

Sure, Walmart keeps rolling back its prices. You can buy a massive bag of shrimp for about $10 at Costco. But is that really what it's worth? My dad is the only person I've ever heard complain about a price being too low - "how can they sell it for that. It's not right." If he were given to using buzzwords, he would have said, "it's not sustainable." Either way, he's right.

What many of us fail to realize is that we're occupying such a small blip in history. Apparently, a hundred years ago average people got excited over a crate of oranges at Christmas. Right. And how much of our food goes into the trash without so much as being tasted? Is that progress? Or does progress look more like a global living wage to produce what we consume? Should that ever occur, prices will rise – to a level representative of reality.

Regardless of the reasons, if I'm paying $30 for a bag of shrimp, rather than $10, I’ll be less inclined to let it spoil. Perhaps I'll strive to eat no more than I need to stay healthy. We may no longer be a society that has to spend money to lose weight. Perhaps we'll find ways to consume less and won't end up having to ship our trash to outer space...

So I say, rise baby, rise. Let the prices soar. This could just be our saving grace.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The $13 Big Mac, or, Urban Laziness 101

I see a lot of odd things in my neighbourhood: Dogs dressed up like bumble bees, people wearing surgical masks to keep their faces warm (I know, it’s weird ), and levels of urban laziness that make a thrifty gal shake her head in dismay.

Would you pay $10.00 in cab fare for a $2.99 burger?
Condo dwellers in my area have always had strange pizza delivery habits. For example, there’s a pizza parlor 100 feet from my building. Yet I see the delivery man in my lobby all the time. He literally just walks the pies across the parking lot. Well, you might say, it’s only $3.00 for delivery (plus tip), why on earth would I put on pants and walk outside when I’m all bundled up under this Snuggie watching Big Bang Theory? And I’d say, well you do have to put on pants to answer the door, regardless...

So, the other day I’m cutting through the same parking lot, and I see a guy getting out of a cab, clutching a Big Mac. It’s about minus fifteen and he’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt – no coat. I realize I am likely witnessing one of two scenarios:
  1. This unfortunate fellow walked over to McD’s for a quick bite and while he was waiting for his hamburger, someone stole his coat. He was thus forced to take a taxi home in order to avoid getting frostbite. He may have also driven there and someone stole his car. In which case he is very unlucky indeed.

  2. Said under-dressed fellow had massive Mac Attack, so he grabbed a cab, grabbed the grub, then turned around and cabbed it back home.
Sadly, the latter scenario seems more likely. And it makes paying $3.00 for pizza delivery look like small fries, when you consider the taxi probably cost him $10.00, given the traffic in my neighbourhood (at 6pm on a weekday, it's pretty much a parking lot).

Did I mention the closest McDonald’s is four blocks away?

Add another entry to the encyclopedia of Wonderful and Whimsical Ways to Waste your Wealth….

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love & money: Do the same principles apply?

I was sitting on the train this morning thinking about the similarities between personal finance and relationships.

A healthy relationship, I'm learning, should happen naturally when you live your life to its fullest and according to right principles. It’s as if the kind of life you want takes shape incrementally, day by day. At some point, your life intersects and then merges with that of a like person, someone who can see you for who you really are, who values the same things you do.

Prosperity might be similar. When it evolves out of right living, rather than as an end in itself, you can achieve a kind of natural balance, a symbiotic relationship between your money-making capacity and other key areas of your life.

On the other hand, if you aggressively seek a certain level of material wealth, making this a priority above all else, you can arrive at your goal without a real sense of fulfillment, happiness or peace. Aggressively seeking a relationship, trying too hard to make something happen, can produce the same result.

I've come to realize that this struggle to force our lives into a certain shape is often the result of trying to fill a hole; it’s as if we're functioning out of a dependency, desperately trying to fill that emptiness with something, rather than addressing its cause.

Take away those external sources of validation - the high-paying job, the person you love - and suddenly it’s as if the bottom of your world drops out and you're falling, with nothing to hold on to.

This morning, as we flew past frozen fields, it occurred to me that what’s in our minds and hearts is all we’ve really got. I’m going to try and remember that. We can’t take money or people with us. All we leave behind is how we’ve lived.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Are magazines messing with your head (and your goals)?

Is that Eva Mendes clutching...Eva Mendes?
Whilst tallying up the silly ways I used to spend money, I seem to have left out one key category: magazines. Specifically fashion rags, where the first 30 pages are comprised solely of advertising for luxury consumer goods. In past I've tended to buy them out of material boredom - perhaps what could more aptly be described as consumer ADD: I felt a need to buy something so I'd pick one up, hence giving me ideas of yet more things to buy...

Overall, magazines are about selling a lifestyle. They give you a glimpse of what your life could and perhaps should be like - if you have unlimited funds or are willing to go into unlimited amounts of debt, that is.

Celebrity product lists are my favourite: You always get some "down to earth" impoverished-child-adopting, yoga-practicing type recommending a $50 lip gloss or a $150 hair brush. Mixed messages? Maybe not. I'd say it's all part of "aspirational marketing" - the concept that goodness and living a good life are tied to material things. I'd say most people know not to take these messages at face value, but they must go in on a subliminal level - otherwise advertising in such publications would likely be pointless.

My challenge for the months of February, March and April is to slash my magazine consumption to zero. Beyond saving me about $20-30 a month, I'm interested to see whether it will affect my level of material craving. If I stop looking, will I stop wanting, too?

Note: I included the above links purely for documentary purposes. I was happy to see Christine @ Temptalia's conclusion that "it's hard to say any [lip]gloss is 'worth' $50." Right on.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Monthly budget: How I spend (and save) my money

Personal finance can be a touchy subject. You don't just up and ask someone what they make, how much they spend, and what they're able to save. There's good reason - and manners - behind this; the downside is the lack of comparatives can make it harder to evaluate one's own situation. It can seem like we're living in a vacuum when we don't see behind the scenes: our friends may appear to always have cash on hand, when their financial reality may be quite the opposite.

In the interests of demystifying one 30-something's personal finances, here's my monthly breakdown:


$1000.00         Payment to myself – direct to savings (notice how this is first?)
$994.49           Mortgage payment
$350.85           Condo fees
$300.00           Groceries ($75.00/week)
$150.00           Property taxes
$107.00           Transit pass (discounted through work)
$100.00           Entertainment (drinks/eating out, etc.)
$75.00             Beer and wine
$65.00             Cell phone
$50.00             Toiletries
$31.55             Telephone (land line) (I'm getting rid of this)

(monthly take-home, after all deductions, including taxes & pension)

Additional income
$100.00 (from renting out my parking spot)


$3,500.00        Income
$3,223.89        Expenses
$276.11 leftover to spend (or save) as I see fit. So far, this money seems to be enough to cover unexpected expenses; repairs, gifts, etc.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just *don't* buy a new one

My coffee maker, in happier days
A common response to something we own breaking down or otherwise going on the fritz is to simply toss the offending item and rush out to the store to buy a new one.

For instance, the other day I noticed a nasty crack in the glass carafe for my Bodum coffee maker. I must admit, I'd gotten careless with it - just tossing it in the sink and letting it get banged around with other kitchen stuff. Entirely my fault. The old me - spendy me - would have marched straight over to Starbucks and shelled out $30, with the justification that it's something I need, hence it needs to be immediately replaced. I might have tried to find a replacement carafe first, but I probably would have given up after realizing you can buy a whole new french press for about the same price.

In my new mode of saving, I took a different approach: First, I looked into whether I could repair it. Fail. You can easily get a cracked windshield replaced, but small jobs like coffee pots aren't profitable, I guess.

I then asked around if anyone had one I could borrow. A friend offered up a travel version to tide me over.

I also posted a want ad on the Toronto Freecycle board. Patience is key. Someone in this city of 1.5 million must have a Bodum they want to give away. How soon I connect with that person is entirely unpredictable; I can't throw cash at that scenario to make it more convenient or less random. Kind of like life, actually...

We live in a culture of planned obsolescence; products simply aren't built to last a lifetime - heck, many don't even make it past a year or two. The logic is simple: An item that lasts forever never needs to be replaced, and capitalism works on the concept of material recidivism - in other words, companies want you to keep buying the same item over and over again. Add our culture's need for instant gratification to the mix, and you have a recipe for financial success - for the people who are selling, that is.

We can throw a wrench into the works by making best efforts to buy quality items, learning how to make repairs, and reserving "buy a new one" as a last resort, rather than our default mode.

Sadly, the process I've described above is simply common sense and would have once been considered obvious. Maybe it is? Unfortunately I suspect our collective common sense isn't what it used to be. A post for another day...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My $1,000 monthly goal - savings update

My fiddle is playing much better after $87.00 worth of repairs
I started the month with the goal of saving $1,000.

As anticipated, I hit a few snags, but I still have $385.00 to see me through until February 25th (I'm paid monthly), so it looks like I'm on track to meet my goal!

The snags I hit (so far):

Nasty cell phone bill: $91.30
My bill is normally about $65.00. This was the result of some stupid calls made to a friend who isn't on my calling list, outside of my “free minutes." My fault completely. Note to self: think before you pick up the phone.

Violin repairs: $87.00
I'm playing with an orchestra and practicing seriously again. Over time my violin has become much more difficult to play. I had some cracked seams and a bridge that needed to be addressed. I also went for $40.00 of repairs to my bow, and bought a practice mute -- a courtesy to my neighbours. Considering that the violin sounds about $1,000 better, I'd say it was worth it! PS – Alistair at the sound post is amazing; he spent a hour with me, and really made an effort to work within my budget.

Farewell dinner for a colleague: $30.00
I got off easy on this one, as a coworker insisted on paying more than her share of the bill.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Valentine's without the $

I realize I'm going to sound like a huge sap, but that old saying, "it's the thought that counts," really is true. With a week left until one of the spendiest days of the year (if you're part of a couple, that is) there's still time to consider a thoughtful gift over a pricey one. Sidenote: The most romantic gift I ever received from a man was actually a simple card; it was what he'd written inside that made all the difference to me.

Some ideas:

Instead of a dozen roses: A pretty plant, with a handwritten note attached. You could deliver it yourself, or delegate the task to a friend. Bonus points if you can get something cutesy going and have a niece or nephew walk it up to the front door for you.

Instead of store-bought chocolates: Bake a simple recipe for brownies, like this one. If you want to get extra fancy, use a heart-shaped cookie cutter (I paid about $1 for mine at Bulk Barn.) PS: Cocoa-based recipes are more wallet-friendly than those based on bar chocolate. PPS: Alice Medrich rules my world.

Instead of dinner at a fancy restaurant: This one is obvious, but make the effort to cook your partner a romantic dinner. Effort is the key word here. No cooking skills whatsoever? How about buying a roast chicken, mixing up some packet gravy, and making a super-simple veggie side, like these cream-braised brussels sprouts (hint: anything with *cream* is pretty much a no-fail). If it's an outing you want, try having dinner at home and then heading out for drinks or dessert afterward.

Instead of a store-bought gift: Think about any other talent you have and parlay it into something personal. I once wrote a short story for my dad and pasted it into one of those little photo flip-books. I noticed that he seems to always have it with him. That's more than I can say for the tortured-urban-guy scarf I bought him.

Some more ideas:

  • See if your local symphony, opera or ballet company offers "Under 30" or "Under 35" discounts (Torontonians, check out tsoundcheck for $14 Toronto Symphony tickets!)
  • If you have (or can borrow) a car, go see a flick at a drive-in theatre
  • See if you can "borrow" a free pass to a museum or art gallery (the Toronto Public Library does this).
  • Go skating and grab some hot chocolate
  • Check out some community theatre or a university production
  • Scan the arts/culture listings in your local alternative mag for things your partner might like to do

Friday, February 4, 2011

Booze blues

In honour of the weekend, it’s time to talk about my favourite beverage - one that also happens to be rather expensive and completely inessential to proper nutrition.

If you’re a “one-drink with dinner” person like I am, you’re probably spending $60-70 a month, depending on your choice of libation. Currently, mine is beer. I’m allergic to wheat, so I drink a gluten-free variety called New Grist. It’s not bad stuff, but it is somewhat pricey; $12.40 for a six pack. That means every time I crack one open, I’m spending a little over $2. Yikes.

Is there a cheaper way to go? I'm discovering there are some lovely bottles of wine to be had for less than $8, which can get the cost per glass down under $2. Buying one's favourite wine in a 1.5 litre bottle would be all the more economical. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a wine I love that’s sold in a larger size. (Suggestions are welcome!). Note: I'm currently taste-testing budget wines and will detail this *very taxing* research in an upcoming post.

Getting back to the price-per-drink conundrum, it looks like a reasonably-priced 40 ounce bottle of hard alcohol (gin, vodka, rum) is probably the most cost-efficient way to go, especially if you like your booze straight up, or mixed with a bit of soda or tonic water. (I'm assuming of course that you make your own ice.) While I do like a nice gin and soda on my patio in the summer, it’s not really the kind of thing I want to drink with my dinner after a long day at work.

Brewing or bottling your own is probably the cheapest way to go; I haven’t seriously looked into this yet, but it’s on my list of to-dos. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has had success with home brews and if the time involved was worth it.

The most obvious solution is to simply stop drinking - or cut back. Hmm. I could *think* about it. Grist for the mill...