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...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Internet should be free (and it is)

Looks like good news today for Canadians, with the federal government poised to reverse a CRTC decision that would make unlimited Internet plans a thing of the past.

There’s been a lot of hubbub over this. More than 350,000 Canadians were concerned enough to sign a petition against usage-based billing. The overall sentiment is that online access is already too expensive; jack up rates even further, and we’re going to have a full-scale revolt on our hands.

I agree wholeheartedly, but I’m going to go one step further. First, the Internet should be *free.* And, secondly, the Internet is available absolutely free of charge – depending on how you want to use it.

The best and brightest of the online arena, in my opinion, is access to information. The Internet can be a powerful learning tool, allowing us to tap into almost endless educational resources. In an ideal world it would be free-running, in every home, like water. Control of its bounty would not rest with corporations, but solely with governments, which tend to be more accountable to the public.

Thankfully, we have public libraries. All Toronto public libraries offer free wireless access, as well as a decent number of computers that can be reserved. No, you can’t play World of Warcraft, or download mass amounts of music. But you can use the Internet for its most important functions: information and communication. (Worth noting: you can actually borrow CDs and DVDs from the library, too.)

Unless you work from home, or you have a really good reason to download huge amounts of multimedia, why not just plan your Internet usage around a trip to the public library? For me, the digital realm is a lot like Miss Vickie’s Crinkle Cut Potato Chips: having it readily available in my home is just a temptation to binge. Library usage forces me to think, “What do I really need to accomplish online?” and get it done. I think it helps me conserve both time and money, and really you can’t beat that.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

My radical TV experiment

I called Rogers last week and cancelled my cable. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? Partially it's because I believe television is completely inessential to my happiness; I will miss it very little. The other major consideration was cost; the recent rate increase was the final push off the Rogers cliff for me.

As far as I am aware, there is no way to purchase cable that is truly a la carte. Even with basic cable, I am paying for 30 channels, 28 of which I rarely visit.

Then there's the advertising. I can switch the channel, but why should I have to? Why should I pay to be sold something? The whole premise seems backwards, actually. I mean shouldn't Rogers be paying *me*?

Jacob Fisker, who writes the blog, Early Retirement Extreme, makes the point that TV can steal our motivation and keep us spinning our wheels in one place. I couldn't agree more. The few hours we have outside of work and sleep are precious; I want to use them actively, to enrich my life, rather than in a passive mode of consumption.

Of course there's nothing wrong with watching a little TV now and then; the problem is that for many of us, it's a default mode. My current usage is about 4-5 hours a week. I rarely watch it on weekends; I just find there are too many other things to do. It's more an issue of switching it on after work, when I'm exhausted.

So, will I miss my "hopeless little screen"? If I do, it's worth noting that HDTV signals from the major stations are transmitted from the top of the CN tower, free for the taking with a receiver you can buy for the price of one month's cable bill (or less) at any electronics store.

Marketing trains us to think within certain parameters; we are likely to think of the available options as Rogers or Bell rather than a TV / no TV (or free TV) paradigm. Never mind all the concepts TV is constantly feeding us about our "lifestyles" - a certain kind of person drives a certain kind of car to a certain kind of restaurant after a certain kind of day with their certain kind of family. I think it's limiting even if you don't buy into it. The concept that our identities can be defined through our purchases is still floating around out there, and it's massive.

When I tell people I cancelled my cable, the most common reaction is one of bewilderment, and then denial: "Oh, I couldn't live without it."

I submit that we all could, if we wanted to. It certainly can't hurt to try.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to waste $190,000

I promised you a rundown of the crazy ways I used to spend money. I’ve listed my vices in order of the worst offenders. "Estimated monthly cost" refers to the extra amount of money I was spending each month, beyond what I think is reasonable – money that could have easily been saved:

  • Overspending on gifts. Once I was making good money, I felt obligated to buy people expensive gifts on special occasions. I figured they were probably tired of my old, “thoughtful gift” ways. Estimated monthly cost averaged over year: $100.

  • Eating out and drinks. I didn't have a set budget in this category, so I just ate out whenever I felt like it. I've never been extravagant in this regard, but prioritizing would have helped me spend my money more wisely, on things I really wanted to do. Estimated monthly cost: $80.

  • Buying lunch almost every day. My lack of planning extended to the culinary realm; I'd cook dinner but wouldn't make enough leftovers for the next day. Estimated monthly cost (over what it would have cost to make my lunch): $80.

  • Too many taxis. I was always running late and my solution was to simply call a cab. Estimated monthly cost: $75.
  • A gym membership I barely ever used. This was just plain stupid. There is a gym in my building for heaven's sake. Estimated monthly cost: $70.
  • Too much money spent on groceries and too much wasted food. I didn't read fliers or plan my grocery list efficiently. Estimated monthly cost: $50.

  • Desperation purchases. Oh sure, I'd be running out of toilet paper for a week, but I wouldn't think about buying some more until panic had set in. This almost always resulted in paying an inflated price. I didn't just do this with toilet paper, either - I did it with almost everything. Estimated monthly cost: $30.

  • Pet overspending. Does any dog really require a $12 bag of organic treats? That is not an existential question. Estimated monthly cost: $30.

  • Overdue fines and late fees. I have actually been so lax in this regard that there were a few times I spent so much on overdue fines for a book, it would have practically been cheaper to buy the book. (Hangs head in shame.) Estimated monthly cost: $10.

  • Forgetting to buy my TTC pass and then having to pay an extra fare. Never mind the time wasted standing in line if you wait until the first of the month. Estimated monthly cost: $3.

Grand totals: $528.00 wasted per month, which equals $6,336.00 per year. That would equal $190,080 over the next 30 years - not counting interest.

Looking at this list, I realize that I wasn’t spending a lot of money on “stuff,” at least not for myself. It was more about lack of budgeting and planning. Disorganization can cost you a lot!