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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Food: homemade vs. premade vs. take-out vs. restaurant

It is so tempting, at the end of a hard day of classes, labs, studying, and perhaps a part-time job, to buy dinner at a take-out place, or to eat out.  You are tired, need to eat, and can’t be bothered with cooking.  I understand, and I feel the same many times.  As well, once a while I would like to be able to eat without having to prepare the meal first and feel like eating out.  However, eating out with my 3 kids, without wine nor dessert, is close to $80! in one night, with nothing to show for it afterwards (except an urge to exercise!!).

After studying varying food prices and quality, both in grocery stores and in restaurants, I found this interesting truth:
For the SAME QUALITY, homemade is cheaper than grocery premade (frozen or not) which is cheaper than take-out which is cheaper than restaurant food.  What this means is that if you want a great pizza meal (with salad and soda), making it at home is cheaper than a frozen one which is cheaper than take out which is cheaper than eating it in a restaurant.  This makes sense considering that in a restaurant there would be a large drink and salad charge; at a take-out place, the drink would come in a bottle and would be cheaper (salad made at home), a really good pizza from a grocery (most likely frozen) would be cheaper still, but making your own with pita, English muffin, or bread dough, and canned spaghetti sauce is still cheaper (and a large soda bottle at the grocery store is about $1 if you buy no-name). 

Notice that I talk about same quality meal – this is because, in the example of a pizza, the amount of chicken, say, on a frozen pizza is so small that if you were to make a chicken pizza at home, it’s likely you would put more chicken on it, driving the price up.  Yes, frozen pizzas are practical and they taste good, but in terms of quality of food, don’t count the few morsels of sweet peppers as a serving of vegetables.  Basically, you can make a much healthier meal at home for the same price (or the same meal for much less).
So let’s say you want a meal of salmon, asparagus and rice.  In a restaurant, that’s at least $22 plus drinks, taxes, and tip (plus the drive there and back).  At home, you can buy a serving of salmon (frozen) for less than $5; rice is pennies, and asparagus is about $2 a bunch (for a person).  That’s no more than $8 plus drinks, taxes (there is some tax at the grocery store) and yes, you have to go to the grocery store to buy these, but chances are you buy groceries only once a week, not every time you want to eat.  Drinks will be cheaper at home, and so will dessert.  If you did take out, you would not purchase the drink(s) and you wouldn’t have the tip to pay either (assuming the meal is the same price; often take-out is cheaper because you aren’t taking up space in their restaurant and they do not have to pay a waitress to serve you).

Finally, there’s one thing I often ask myself before I go out to eat: I first evaluate the price of the meal (roughly) and ask myself what else I could buy with that money, something I would enjoy for longer than the duration of the meal: a book? a CD? a new shirt? it’s very seldom that a meal out seems the best value for me.  Bon appétit!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why be frugal? Motivation

After weeks and maybe months of being frugal, we often want to give up and live the life we see others living.  Being frugal can be hard – especially if everyone else ‘seems’ to be having more fun because they are spending more.  So how do we stay motivated? a few ways…

- First of all, be realistic about your classmates and other students; you may think they are spending lots of money, but it’s possible they are raking high credit card debts or that their parents have lots of funds for them.  It’s also possible that they spend less on something you spend more on (maybe some other students have free textbooks from big brother or sister, or they have very low cost traveling back home).  Regardless, remember that you should be happy with what you have because you are content, not because others have more or less than you.

- Keep in mind your ultimate goal: being debt-free (or close to) after you graduate is the best reward you can image – yes, it may be 3 or 4 years away, but imagine the reverse situation: you finally get to work full-time with a decent entry-level salary, but you need to spend $400-$800 per month on debt repayment.  That monthly payment could be going to a great retirement fund, new furniture, a down payment on a house, a car or an apartment you don’t need to share.  But instead, you need to make student loan payments. The problem with spending money you don’t have yet, is that there is no guarantee of how easy it will be to repay – first, there will be some interest to pay on the loan, and second, if you can’t find a good paying job, paying your debt may take a huge chunk of your take home dollars.

- Reward yourself once in a while – and make sure it does not involve a huge amount of money (like the person on a diet rewarding herself with a huge piece of cake!): go out with friends once a month; buy a book at a second-hand store; buy one fancy coffee. 

- Dream a little: Write down your financial goals and put pictures up of the first luxury items you will buy once you graduate and have a good job: a cashmere sweater; an espresso machine; tickets to a musical.  Put this up in front of your desk or where you put down your purse or wallet at the end of the day to remind yourself constantly of why you are being frugal.

- Find a friend who is also cash-strapped and commiserate together – it will seem less hard if you don’t feel that you are ‘the only one on campus who does spend reading week on a resort’.  Laugh quietly at the fashion-slaves surrounding you (in a nice way, just to vent), and feel re-energized in your pursuit of a frugal degree.

- Give yourself a challenge – a no spending day (not a penny comes out of your wallet or your credit/debit card today) or a no grocery day – all your food comes from your home, no grocery shopping. 

For me, one of my motivations is my go-to book.  It’s the book I read when I get discouraged about stuff, financial or other, when I think I just can’t handle things right now.  My go-to book is a biography of a mom raising 3 daughters and a son, one of the daughters having cerebral palsy at a time when disabled kids were placed in an institution and forgotten about. I only need to read one chapter of that book to feel that if this woman could do with so little, I could certainly manage with what I have.  Find an uplifting book or song that gives you the drive, the courage and the perseverance to continue.

Perseverance is the key here – an extra day without shopping, an extra day without gourmet coffee, it all adds up.  Do not give up, and if you ‘lapse’ sometimes (we all do), it’s just extra motivation to keep on going.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Learn to drink tap water

For many people, any drink that passes their lips must have a flavor: coffee, soda, juice, etc.  However, all of these carry a cost: both caloric AND financial.  Whether you purchase your drinks from the grocery store or the local café, the vending machine or the cafeteria, a few coins are required for each drink.  The only drink that is not charged by the cup (or bottle) is tap water.  Tap water is free in Canadian restaurants, on campus, and in residence.  In your apartment, a cup of water may have a financial cost if your water bill is not included in your rent – but a glass would be less than a penny. Best of all, tap water has no calorie, no aspartame or other artificial sweeteners, no caffeine (ok, this may not be an advantage when trying to complete an assignment!), no artificial color or flavour.  It is healthy, keeps you hydrated, and can be found anywhere you are on campus (including washrooms).  Tap water does not produce plastic or metal waste if you use your own bottle or cup (as opposed to a disposable cup or bottle).

You find plain water boring? Try a few of these:
- For every drink that is not water, drink a glass of water first – this will slow your consumption of other beverages overall.  It’s also a great tip for not getting a hangover while drinking alcohol – the hangover being caused mostly by dehydration.

- Add ice to your tap water – very cold water is much more refreshing than room temperature water, and often appealing drinks are sold very cold in the summer, making them irresistible.  If getting ice throughout the day is difficult (although most cafeteria with fountain drinks have ice cube available at the same machine), fill one third of your bottle with water the night before and freeze it – in the morning, add cold tap water to the bottle and the water will stay cold for longer.
- Add a slice of cucumber or a wedge of lemon or lime to your water.  One piece will last the day even if you refill often, and will make it seem much more ‘designer’ than plain tap water.  Yes, this adds to the cost of your water, but does not bring it up to the cost of soft-drink or even bottled water.

- The container you use often has an impact on the overall beverage ‘experience’; if you like a drink with a straw, buy an insulated glass with a hard plastic straw.  You can also choose from a variety of different drinking cups with different spouts – choose what you enjoy the most and even ‘invest’ in a few different types.  Insulated containers prevent too much temperature variation.
- Keep in mind that the tap water from home most likely tastes different than the one at school – this is especially true if you are in school outside your home time.  Don’t reject the new tap water because you don’t like it at first.  Just like the one at home, you will come to like it once you get used to it.

- If you don’t like the taste of the chlorine in your water, let it sit, uncovered, for a day or so; most of the chlorine will have evaporated by then.  You can also do the same but in the fridge if you want colder water.
- Filtered water is still cheaper than bottled water so invest in a carafe that has a filter if you like the taste of water better this way.

- Order water in restaurants; you are already spending money on food and service, save a bit on beverage.  Order it with a slice of lemon and lots of ice – it’s still free!  And don’t be fooled by the ‘bottom-less’ drinks (or free refill); the first drink is typically around $4, so the free refills are not worth it – a case of 12 soda cans is around $4 in the grocery store!

So… drink and be merry!