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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wrapping Paper

Although I am frugal to the core, it’s the environment that prevents me from buying wrapping paper for presents.  I just had a celebration with my family and while my dad was putting away used wrapping paper for the garbage, I was grabbing the largest pieces to reuse at a later date.
The truth is, wrapping paper has too much ink to be recycled – if you check your city’s guidelines for paper recycling, chances are there is a notice to NOT put wrapping paper in your recycling bin.  So it is produced by factories, producing pollution in its production, then shipped to the stores (again, producing pollution in its transportation), and then it ends up in the garbage because it cannot be recycled.  OK, you can say that many products create as much pollution in their making and transportation.  However…
We buy wrapping so that it can be ripped and thrown out.  There is no other reason to buy wrapping paper.  As well, most of us (c’mon, be honest), wrap presents HOURS before they are opened, not days or weeks!  So all this pollution for a few hours of looking at boxes that look pretty.  Really? is this reasonable?
I have, for the past few years, refused to buy wrapping paper.  It’s a matter of principle and what I am doing instead is not pollution-free, but it’s a step in the right direction.
So what do I do instead? A variety of things.  Read on.
- I use colorful paper we already have at home: catalogues are great – glossy, colorful, and they end up in the recycling bin at the end anyway.  I try to match the catalogue with the recipient (my youngest daughter gets pages of the American Girl Doll catalogue).  Is it environmentally perfect? No.  I should not be getting these catalogues in the first place but look up what I want on the internet instead.  But assuming that we do receive the catalogues, it’s good.
- I use newspaper pages.  They ARE boring, but I tie a colorful piece of yarn (from my knitting projects) so it’s not so bad.  The newspaper hides the content of the gift, which is the most important role of wrapping paper.
- I use packing paper.  This is the paper that comes in boxes when we mail-order something (like from Amazon).  The paper is plain, of boring color (beige, white, grey, brown) but it’s not printed.  I flatten the paper with my hands, cut to size and wrap the present.  Then I use markers to write celebration messages, the recipient’s name, etc. all over the paper.
- I reuse gift bags and wrapping paper.  I keep gift bags and large pieces of wrapping paper that I receive and re-use them.  I am careful when opening presents to preserve the wrapping paper and I am also careful with the tissue paper used in gift bags so I can re-use it.
- Finally, I’m very creative; I use colorful boxes such as paper tissue boxes (so I only have to cover the opening); I use used mylar balloons that I cut to use a wrapping paper.  I use remnants of fabric that I have around the house (ok, this only work if you sew).  Brown paper lunch bags are great – they are very cheap, they are not only recyclable but also compostable.  Snail mail envelopes – large ones, used, can be decorated.  Plastic shopping bags, from stores: if it’s a ‘status store’, like Aeropostale, I love using these bags for nieces and nephews; as well, Target store bags are white and red, very Christmas-y.  I also use old posters and old calendars with pretty photos.
So, next time you need to wrap a gift, think twice: about the environment, and about your wallet!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Be Inspired

Making saving money a game is what works for me – I use it as a challenge!  How can I make dinner without buying anything for the next three days, using only what I already have.  Can I repair my clothes this weekend so I don’t need another pair of jeans?  Can I have fun Friday night without opening my wallet? These are all challenges for me.

I do, however, have many friends for whom being frugal is not a primary concern.  For one thing, we do not discuss much our finances with one another; as well, it is very possible that they their budget is very different than mine.  I also have friends with whom I have very honest and forthcoming about my frugality and we share tips often.  However, when I need a little inspiration, I often look online for articles, blogs, and videos of VERY frugal people.  I also read books about budgeting and how to make ends meet.

One series that I have enjoyed on YouTube is Extreme Cheapskates (we do not have TLC at home); some of the extent to which some of the cheapskates go to in order to save a few pennies is WAY more than I would do.  However, it’s fun to debate internally whether or not I would use their tricks.  Another show, shown only on the Internet, is Cheapsters, where frugal contestants compete in challenges to be the winner of the cheapsters and a prize of $10 000.  The first season has challenges such as making a very cheap but tasty meal; decorating an office with items from the dollar store; dressing for a formal event at a second-hand store, and the likes.  However, the second season is not as good; the challenges are a bit silly, such as finding quarters in a room with many sofas and racing to get coupons.

Books that I like to read come mostly from the library.  For example, I just finished reading The Cold Hard Truth about Men, Women & Money by Kevin O’Leary; yes, Kevin, the ‘mean’ guy on Dragon’s Den (CBC television).  Mr. O’Leary has a fantastic chapter about the investment of your post-secondary education and whether the investment is worth it or not.  Although I do not agree with all his advice (he barely considers living at home but discourages you from seeking a degree which will not land you a job), he also has good advice, such as working part-time even if it means not graduating as fast, if that means not graduating in debt.  A very good read.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Healthy and Hearty Breakfasts the Frugal Way

It’s very tempting to eat out for breakfast when you are in a rush because of an early class (or a late night studying) and you are famished.  However, breakfast food is cheap and it breaks my heart to spend $7+ for breakfast when you should be able to make it at home – fast – for a few pennies (or nickels now that we are doing away with pennies).  Here are a few ideas.
Oatmeal: I’m all for instant oatmeal because it’s fast; however, it’s high in sugar and not so healthy.  If you use only half a package of instant oatmeal (the flavoured type), add the same amount of plain quick cook oatmeal, milk (not water) and you microwave it, it’s much healthier.
Eggs: eggs a fantastic source of cheap protein.  However, cooking them in the morning is tough since it makes a mess in the pan and it takes time.  Another option is to cook ahead of time your eggs when you do have time.  My favorite recipe is ‘egg in a hole’; you make a hole in a slice of bread (eat the small piece of bread); prepare a pan like you would for cooking eggs (melt butter, etc.); place the piece of bread in the pan and add the eggs (with intact yolk, or scrambled) by pouring it over the hole (yes, part of the egg will leak under the bread, but a large amount will cook in the hole, in the bread and around the bread).  You can batch cook these, especially if you scramble the eggs.  The advantage of this dish is that your bread is cooked with the egg – easily reheated in the microwave on a rush morning.
Pancakes: I love pancakes, and I’m often too lazy to make them from scratch.  I buy the complete mix (to which you only add water – no eggs, no milk) which is cheaper by portion since you only add water.  To make my pancakes healthier, I add a bit of plain oatmeal (regular or instant – whatever I have) and some wheat bran (which I use in other recipes so it’s on hand as well).  If I want more crepes than pancakes, I add more water to make the batter thinner.  Easily cooked in batches, I save the leftovers in a container in the fridge and microwave in the morning.  Real maple syrup is expensive on a student budget; if you can’t handle the fake stuff, go with jam, PB or chocolate sauce instead.  If you are having crepes, savory topping are great too: grated cheese, ham, etc.
If you have more time and love to cook: of course, if you have time to spare once a while, you can prepare breakfast burritos, egg XXmuffins, etc. to freeze and reheat later.  Frittatas and quiches are also great breakfast food.  If you enjoy baking, even if it’s only the cake mixes, you can whip a batch of oatmeal or bran muffins (from a mix) and either offer some to your friends or freeze in groups of what you would eat in a day (for me it’s two: one for breakfast, one as a snack).
Leftovers: we often think of breakfast foods as toasts or other starches, eggs, and perhaps cheese and ham.  However, any food you enjoy in the morning is breakfast!  Cold pizza, left-over pasta, anything goes!
Continental breakfast: if you are typically in a real rush and can’t be bothered to cook ahead of time, there is always continental breakfast: stock the fridge with small yogurts and partition dry cereal in small bags.  In the morning, grab a banana, a yogurt and cereal – a complete breakfast!!
Bon appetit!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Things to do Between Semesters that Will Save You Money in the Long Run

The winter holidays, or Christmas break for many, is a welcome rest for most students.  Some of you will head home for a week or two, some will enjoy some leisure time, and some will work for pay.  I have a post about working from 2013 you can view here: .  For most students, there is at least some leisure time involved.  This leisure time can be used for rest and fun, but some can be used to learn skills that will save you money as well.  Here are some skills that you can learn during the upcoming break (or any break – summer is a great time to learn these too!):
1. Learning to cook.  Cooking is a skill that, if you enjoy it, can become a hobby AND save you money since you will be able to eat healthy (get sick less often); eat cheaper than with frozen food; and avoid restaurants if the food you cook is good. If you live in residence now and will be moving to shared accommodation for the next school year, this is an essential skill!
2. Learning to use tax software.  Learning to do your own income tax will save you money for years to come – I’ve had accountants do my income tax and make mistakes that either I or Revenue Canada spotted.  Starting to do your own income tax now is a good idea because you most likely do not have a lot to report: income is minimal, and you main deduction is your tuition fees and book credit.  Tax software that your parents use typically give a family enough licence to include your income tax report at no extra cost.
3. Scrounging what you need from your parents’ house: ok, not a skill in itself, this is a good time, if you are going home, to look through your parents’ closet, garage, and linen closet to find things that you need or want and that they do not use much.  This can include a table top fan for when it’s too hot, extra blankets for the cold season, towels and other bathroom items, etc.  Make a list of what you could use before you head home, just in case your parents have extra of these.  Once you are home, take note of items in your parents’ home that could make your life easier and then ask!
4. Buying in bulk: again, although this is not a skill, this is something worth doing while you are at home with a larger group of people than just yourself: maybe a 6 pack of toothpaste is not what you’d like to buy for yourself, but if your dad buys it, you can pay for your share (1 or 2 tubes) at a discounted price; hey, maybe he’ll just GIVE you the toothpaste!
5. Learning your favorite recipes from your parents’ repertoire – yes, this is very much like skill no. 1 (learning to cook) but it’s actually a tad different: if you learn the few recipes that remind you of home, you may be less homesick and enjoy that great taste too.
6. Selling your textbooks (and/or other study equipment such as a lab coat): if there is a course you just finished and is not a prerequisite for another one, or a book you will not refer to later on, sell it now.  Next year, there may be a new edition required for the course you took so selling a textbook fast is very important.  Put up ads in social media, where you are now AND where you go to school, and prepare a few posters to post once you are back at school so that the posters are up as soon as you get back to campus.
7. Start studying the courses for the next semester.  Ok, this will not directly make you money, but if you can be ahead of the lectures, you will be less stressed during the semester, can avoid hiring a tutor, and overall do better next semester.
8. Repair your clothes; a holiday break is a good time to make your clothes looking good again.  Repair what has been slightly torn, add buttons, fix hems or shorten what is too long, add patches to torn knees and elbows (elbow patches are in right now) and use a small razor to get rid of piling on sweaters.
9. Scout for a new part-time job for the next term: look online to see what is available; advertise on social media so that a friend of a friend may hear that you are looking for work.  Prepare a few resumes, one for each type of job you are considering applying for: food services; retail (non-food); tutoring; etc.  Prepare a few posters for tutoring around campus and close to high schools close to campus – list hourly cost, location (library, etc.), subjects and specific classes – don’t forget credentials such as an A or B+ in a course, or upper year status if relevant.  You can play an instrument? Prepare a flyer for private lessons – even only two lessons a week can easily give you $40-$50 per week (and that’s your groceries!).  Unless you live in Vancouver or Victoria, shoveling snow for neighbours can be a good way to earn some cash: prepare a flyer and make copies so that you are ready to drop them off in mailboxes as soon as you can in January.
10. Scout for a summer job, especially if you are planning on being at home for the summer.  Look around; find how to apply for jobs NOW, so you waste no time in March applying for jobs starting early May.  Think about the type of industry you’d like to work in, but also the type of job that will help you find permanent employment after you graduate.  Decide if you’d like to work at the university and if it’d be a good idea to start in January (part-time) to secure a summer job.  Check deadlines for bursary-based positions and check for jobs at your parents’ firms (they often favour children of employees).  Also, check for specific chain companies (retail; food industry) since they often have a centralized application process.
11. Learn a new skill that can lead to new employment.  For example, take a bartending course.  You don’t need to drink or enjoy drinking to take the course.  But students who have this course are not common, so working around campus at a student bar will be much easier with the course.  Another course may be First Aid and CPR (needed for many jobs where you are responsible for people, including babysitting and working in a day camp); lifeguard (if you already have some high levels of swimming certificates); gymnastics coaching  or other coaching.  Of course these courses may not all be available over the holidays, but you can line one up for when school starts again, when it’s not as busy as during mid-term exams or final exams, or even for right after final exams or during reading week (February break).  And finally, a skill does not have to be learnt with a course; you can learn to repair bicycles in your garage – this may lead to a job at a bicycle shop in the near future. 
12. Get a haircut!  If you have a friend at home, or a parent or relative who would like to cut your hair for free, this is a great time to do so – lots of free time and it’s free.  At the same time, ask for tips about how to give yourself a trim (especially for bangs), and get a haircut that does not need a lot of maintenance. 
13. Get your driver’s license.  This may be a good time to make an appointment and finally get your driving test done.  While having a driver’s licence is not money-saving per say, it is something to get off your list of ‘to-dos’ AND you may need a car at your first full-time job.  It’s kind of hard to test-drive used cars if you can’t drive.
14. Start a new and CHEAP hobby.  This is a great time to learn a cheap hobby and luckily for you, basic crafts are back in style.  Now, do not start investing lots of money and time in expensive scrapbooking!  However, knitting (especially with small needles and fine yarn) takes a long time and is not expensive (see if you can get free needles from a relative); same for crochet and embroidery.  Finding a cheap hobby will fill up your leisure time without spending lots of money at the mall or at bars.  Other good options are writing a blog (blog pages can easily be found for free); learning to cook (don’t try filet mignon; pasta is great!); upcycling clothing and furniture (the basic materials are free), running, cross-country skiing, bicycling (on your high school bicycle!), or drawing.
So whether you will be making money during the winter break, you also have options that can save you or make you money during the following semester as well.  For the meantime though, study well and show your knowledge during your final exams.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cheap and Healthy Snacks

Most people spend wayyyyyy too much money on snacking, including coffee and a pastry from the coffee shop, the snack from the machine around 4pm when you are heading home or to another class, the mid-morning snack you purchase because you skipped breakfast (wanted to make an early class).  These add up quickly.  Here is a list of instant snacks that are healthy and, if purchased at the grocery store, are pretty reasonable in cost.  Make sure to leave one or two in your school bag to make sure you have an emergency snack at school at all time.

- an apple, an orange, a banana: easy to eat, fat-free, and always healthy

- raw carrots (buy ready to eat bags and divide in small bags, ready to grab from the fridge); English cucumber slices (no peeling necessary, just wash and slice); raw sweet peppers; celery (for a crunchy and low-calorie snack if you eat because of nerves)

- canned fruit in juice: open and partitioned in smaller containers

- high fiber, low-sugar granola bars – buy in boxes at the grocery store (much cheaper than by the unit)

- hard-boiled eggs: cook 2-3 at once and store in their shell, in the fridge (don’t forget to label them)

- nuts – full of protein! be considerate and ask your class neighbours before opening your snack – they could be allergic.

- raisins and other dried fruit.  Even in small, individual serving size boxes (instead of buying them in bulk), they are cheap.  Large bags of trail mix at the grocery stores are affordable – just remember that a portion is actually quite small since they are full of protein (and some fat) and fruit (and sugar).

- dry cereal: granola cereal, or larger piece cereal (such as square piece cereal) are easy to put in a small bag or a container; they are typically low(ish) in fat, low in sugar (don’t buy the multi-colored ones!), and full of added vitamins and mineral.  Much healthier than chips or chocolate.

- store bought muffins and cookies: if you have a sweet tooth, these are as healthy and much cheaper than the ones purchased at café and restaurants.  They are also often in much smaller servings (but the financial savings are per gram), keeping your waistline trim as well.

Even buying single-serve bags of snacks from the grocery store, although not completely frugal, is cheaper than buying from a café, a cafeteria or a machine.  A cheaper option would be to buy a large box of the snack and partition it at home.

Businesses prey on the busy student; don’t be a fool – bring your own food, and stash a couple of emergency snacks in your backpack.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Going AWAY to post-secondary school is a privilege, not a right.

In many middle-class families, there is an assumption that puts us on a dangerous financial path: going away to college or university is the logical step after high school.  This is often seen as a ‘right’, rather than a privilege, in certain circles, and you may feel like an outsider if you cannot afford it or if you choose to live at home for your studies.
Please do not feel bad.  In large parts of Canada, the norm is to live at home during college and university.  In Québec, for example, the culture is that as long as you can, you live at home during your studies.  I remember my mother saying: ‘there are four universities in Montreal: choose one!’  We did not even live on the island of Montreal, but in the suburb, and my commute while going to McGill WAS long: 30 min by car (if no traffic) to reach the island of Montreal, and then 45 min by subway to reach campus.  Twice a day.  Five days a week.  For three years.  And I survived!  I did not have to worry about meals much (Mom was happy to cook dinner for the two of us), laundry was in-house, the house was warm and I didn’t have bills to pay except for tuition, books, and my own expenses.  I could commute with my mom who went to Mtl every day for work – she would drop me off on her way to work – and later I purchased an inexpensive car and had to pay for gas, maintenance, insurance and the like, but it gave me much more freedom than commuting with Mom.
In many other Canadian cities and cultures, going ‘away’ to post-secondary education is rare.  In many families where children live at home until they marry, children also attend college and university locally.  Just like my attitude in Montreal was, many people feel that learning to live on your own is something you do when you can afford to do it on your own; i.e., without your family’s financial support.  I moved away for my master’s degree, for which I had financial support from the university, as a research assistant (RA) and a teaching assistant (TA).  Even though the university experience while living at home is different from that of students living on campus (or at least away from mom and dad), it is DIFFERENT, not better or worse. 
Every college/university experience is valuable and can be wonderful; moving away from home is just a very optional and small part of it.  Enjoy YOUR experience, wherever you live.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Working Part-Time: the Best Job for You

I have not touched the subject of working part-time during post-secondary studies at all in this blog.  Over a year, more than 50 posts, and not a word about work.  Isn’t that strange? It should be.

So here we go.  My first post about working part-time during post-secondary education (I’ll post another time about summer jobs).

Working part-time is a fantastic way to increase your budget during your studies.  With the number of class hours lower (in general) than in high school, and a more flexible schedule, finding a part-time job is not as hard as before.  As well, many companies like hiring the ‘more mature’ students because, contrary to high school students, they are more organized, have proven to have a head on their shoulder (after all, an institution of higher learning has given them admission) and they are more flexible and more in control of their own lives than high school students (they do not ask mom and dad’s permission to come home after 10pm).  Finally, for many of them, this job will not be the first one.

So what is the best job for you? I would like to use the idea that Trent at the Simple Dollar explains: your hourly wage. 

The amount you get paid for your job is very important in choosing a part-time job.  With limited free time, you want to find the highest paying job you can obtain.  However, what Trent explains, you have to differentiate between what you get paid (like $15/hour – pretty good for a student) and what your ‘real’ hourly wage is.

For example, let’s say you can secure a job, let’s call it job A, at $15/hour.  The work is 4 days a week (or four evenings), for 4 hours each time.  So, a total of 16 hrs per week.  There is another job, job B, at $13/hr, with similar conditions such as 4 x 4hr shifts (16 hrs per week).  However, job A requires you to take a bus to get there for a total of 1hr of travel to get there and 1hr of travel to get back, while job B is 5 min away by foot.  Because your bus pass is included with your school fees, you figure that taking the bus doesn’t add to your expenses, so job A still seems to work.

But let’s change the calculation here: job A takes you 6 hrs for each 4 hrs shift because of travel.  So 4hrs x $15/hr = $60; however, this costs you 6 hrs of your time, so you are only making $10/hr ($60 ÷ 6).  Oh oh, not such a good hourly pay anymore.  This doesn’t mean you should not accept job A.  You will still make more money, overall, with job A ($240) than with job B ($208) per week.  But, you have to account for the extra time you will spend traveling per week (8 hrs) for job A.  Can you afford the extra time? Are you a night owl who needs to read a good book in order to fall asleep and could do that after work on the bus? Can you study on the bus (solving physics problems may be difficult; reviewing Spanish verbs? much more do-able) or do you need to transfer 3 times? Could you use your bike to commute to your work and get some exercise at the same time?  All these factor in. 

Besides the hourly wages, you should look at the type of work you’d be doing.  Is it hard physical work that will leave you exhausted and not able to study? Is it stressful work that will bring your overall stress level too high to be an effective student? Not every type of work is equal and some work is better suited for some people.  For example, someone battling an eating disorder can find it difficult to work in a fast food place.  Someone who is very shy may find it very stressful to be a sales person in a store.  Someone with health problems may find it better to work at a desk instead of standing up.  You need to find a job that not only works for your schedule, but also the type of work you enjoy and finds engaging.  As an undergraduate student, I worked as a teaching assistant for students learning French at McGill – many students came to Montréal so they could learn French but wanted to study in their first language (English); therefore, FSL courses at McGill needed many teaching assistant, more than their French department graduate students could offer.  I got hired.  I enjoyed it and found it gratifying to use my knowledge of both official languages for my work.

As you can see, there are many aspects of a job to consider before accepting one; however, remember that even if you find out after a few weeks that you don’t like your job, you can leave.  Of course you need to give proper notice (typically two weeks), but you are not married to this job – if it’s a bad fit, move on.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don’t Throw it Out, Clean it!

Many items in my home seem to be ready for the dump: some shoes; the shower curtain AND bathroom rug; oven mittens; a few water bottles; white leather sandals; gloves, a baseball cap, and my kitchen garbage can.
However, I have learned over the years that many of these can be cleaned and used for many more years.  Cleaning them is cost-saving AND better for the environment than throwing out AND buying new; throwing out adds trash in garbage dumps; buying another item means it has to be manufactured and this not only uses new materials (plastic, etc.) but these materials require some type of transformations to be made into the product you are buying.
So can you clean everything? almost!  Let’s start in the bathroom: you can wash and disinfect almost anything in there.  A grimy shower curtain is easily thrown into the washing machine (you can use the shortest cycle – and hang dry in the shower!) and it will come out clean, especially if you do this every few months.  While talking about shower curtain, remember that no matter how expensive a shower curtain you buy, it will become full of soap scum at about the same rate so skip the designer one and buy the one from the dollar store. I do the same with the bathroom rug – but not at the same time as the shower curtain!  Use the cold cycle if you have a rubber-backed rug because heat dries out rubber.  Do NOT put in the dryer.  Finally, make sure to wash the toothbrush holder every week; the slimy stuff that’s in it is from non-rinsed out toothpaste from someone’s mouth  - enough said. Make sure to have more than one toothbrush – by letting your toothbrush dry between uses (best done by alternating the use of 2 toothbrushes), you are preventing the growth of bacteria on your toothbrush.  This is especially important when you are sick and trying to GET RID of bacteria!  And when a toothbrush is too old to use (dentists recommend every 3-4 months of use only), clean it well (disinfect with rubbing alcohol) and save as a cleaning device (and label as such).  Use a shopping bag to line the trash basket in the bathroom so you don’t have to touch anything when you empty it, and to ensure that it remains clean(er).
In the kitchen, wash the draining rack and its tray, especially its tray; soap scum accumulates and can turn someone’s appetite.  Wash the sink at least once a week – use a scouring powder and scrub a little (use an old toothbrush to get in the drain area).  All it takes is 5 minutes and you are reducing considerably the amount of germs and bacteria on your food and dishes. Water bottles should not use indefinitely, especially the ones that are meant for single use; the degradation of the plastic in the sun can add chemicals into your drink.  However, kept cold they are generally safe, and you can use them a few times before tossing them.  Keep them clean with hot water and soap, rinse well and let dry before using again.  The reusable ones need cleaning too: use a brush made for this purpose (less than $5), lots of soap and hot water.  You may need a bit of soaking with a bit of bleach and hot water to disinfect them well – if you use bleach, make sure to wash with soap and rinse well before use.  Still in the kitchen, oven mittens, dish cloths and dish towels all go in the washing machine.  Finally, the kitchen garbage pail can take on some awful odors after a while; scrub with water and soap (dish soap is fine) and let air dry before putting in the next garbage bag (oh yes, use a garbage bag!). 
Some clothing and bags may seem extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clean: shoes, boots, sandals, and anything leather or suede, and ball caps because they contain cardboard or plastic in the bill.  To clean most types of shoes, brush with an old dry toothbrush first to get rid of surface dirt.  Then, to wash the deeper dirt, clean with dish soap and an old toothbrush.  This can be done as a spot clean, or for the entire shoe (they are of limited size!).  Fabric shoes, after this treatment, can be washed in the washing machine; this will help refresh the inside of the shoe as well as the outside and therefore transform putrid-smelling athletic shoes into less offensive equipment.  I have completely immersed and washed leather shoes before, with very good success.  Suede is more delicate; however, if they are so dirty that you cannot wear them anymore, give it a try – they may not end up with the same appearance as when they were new, but they may end up with acceptable looks – at this point, you have nothing to lose.   Try the washing of your baseball cap with a brush and avoid soaking the bill; you can still lightly dampen the fabric of the bill, just don’t immerse it.
Washing and cleaning everything is what people three generations ago did, when housewives had more time than money and when common goods were not so cheap as to be seen as disposable.  On a student budget, shouldn’t the same principles apply?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Motivation: my Health and that of Others

When I lose motivation to stay frugal, I often remind myself that often, being frugal is also better for my health and the health of others.  Don’t believe me? Read on!
Whenever I reach for a piece of fresh fruit or I cook from scratch, I avoid extra fat and salt in my food, as well as a bunch of preservatives in my body.  Whenever I decline a night on the town, I ingest fewer calories and alcohol and often I avoid damage to my eardrums.
When I choose to walk or cycle over calling a cab, I exercise.  When I walk, I meditate on my life, my choices in life, my life goals, and plan in my head my next few steps.  Sometimes I listen to music; sometimes I listen to birds around me.
A simple life also has positive mental health effects: less shopping means less clutter which means a quieter mind.
When I go running outside instead of going to the gym, I get fresh air; I also get a better mental break (studies have shown that time outside helps mental health) and my eyes get the rest from near focus, which all eyes of readers and computer users need.
When I choose volunteering instead of shopping as a hobby, I serve others which makes me feel worthwhile, and prevents depression that so often is triggered by the extra pressures and stresses of undergrad life.  Helping others gives me social contact, not a superficial one, but a deep, caring one.  It also makes me appreciate what I have and keeps me motivated to enjoy my frugal life.
Overall, being frugal lets me stress less because I’m not stretching my budget as much, and I get overall health benefit

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Try Free Before Paying

Very often when we want something, we go straight for what we think is best quality or the ‘best’ choice for us, without looking at the expense.  After all, why pay $25 for something that is mediocre when we can get something really good for $32? The other argument is that you may not want to spend $25 to later find out you need the extra that the $32 device offers.  However, if you could try something for free, you would not be out any money if you changed your mind about buying something.

Often what we want is available for free.  Maybe not exactly what we want, but a good substitute, and for no money!  Even though they may not be what you want, the savings are tremendous and if you later choose to buy something, your first trial would have cost you nothing.

Here are a few examples of what you should try for free before spending money.

- Apps for your phone.  Often there are less fancy equivalents to non-free apps; they the free one first and only when they do not do the job should you choose a paying one.  And remember that there are many free ones to try for each purpose!

- Information: there are so many sources for free information nowadays, that subscribing to a paper newspaper is almost obsolete (ALMOST).  You can get your news from the internet, the radio, TV, free newspapers, etc.  I still like some paper news once a while, but only when I need to look at something more in depth.  You can really keep track of what is happening in the world without paying a cent.

- Movies; if you want to see a movie that is not recent, why not try borrowing it from the library (the school’s or the city) or a friend or even see if you can get it online (Netflix?) before buying it.  And even though the large video rental stores have closed, there are a few smaller ones still open; renting is cheaper than buying.

- Books: books, including recent ones, are the main focus of city libraries; borrowing a book is no more complicated than going to the library and asking for it.  You can often reserve the book online first and get an email when it is available.  I have a friend who used to say that any book worth reading is worth owning; I disagree.  Many books are worth reading and a few are worth reading multiple times; only the latter are worth purchasing in my opinion.

- A night out: entertainment can often be had for free if you look hard enough.  Many cities offer movies in the park throughout the summer (yes you need to mind your money in the summer too as it affects your overall budget!). Universities often offer performances for free throughout the year – or check out the dress rehearsal! If you volunteer as an usher at the local theatre for the performance nights, you automatically get to see the show the nights you are working.  Libraries often have poetry readings.  A book club will keep you reading and discussing fun books.

- Food: yes, even food can be free, although not all the time (or not enough so you can survive).  Many events, especially in September when many clubs are eager to attract you to join, will offer free food in exchange for you going.  It is NOT dishonest to attend these functions mostly for the food – the clubs expect that, and are offering food to lure people to try a club, or at least consider it.  Unless there is a club you are morally opposed to joining before you visit, ‘club’ hopping for food is perfectly legit. Once you are a bit more advanced in your studies, you may notice that many seminars at your college or university offer free food.  In an engineering department I knew, weekly lunch-time seminars included pizza (1 slice per person) and soda.  At another university, the physiology seminars always had free donuts for the eating (and a few left after the seminar).  Unfortunately for first year students, these are typically of a level reserved for graduate students or at least upper-year students.  Grabbing food and not attending the seminar is not only rude, but professors attending will remember you and your relationship with people grading your assignments or from whom you will later want a reference letter is not good policy.

- Food at the supermarket or from other vendors: although more and more rare, some supermarkets have promotional product demonstrations where you can sample the food for free.  Although this does not constitute a full meal, it’s a great appetizer.  And yes, it is ethical to have some of the samples even if you have no intention to buy the product.  The same often happens at farmer’s market; you won’t get to make a meal from the food, but you’ll get a taste, which is always pleasant. Many products are available for a taste at cultural fairs where vendors present their products.  Check out the local paper for these.  This past weekend, at an art fair, I sampled some dip on crackers, 2 types of local cheddar, shortbread cookies and hot sauce (given to me on a cracker).  Although it was far from a meal, it was fun and it filled my 4 o’clock snack spot!  I also did not feel the need to buy a snack from a vendor since I could taste a few delicious items.

- Clothing: yes, this is a hard one (do you really want your cousin’s old undies?) but some items that will not be worn often can be borrowed for free.  Recently, my daughter lent her prom dress and shoes to a friend who was going this year as the date to someone graduating.  If you let family and friends that you will need a winter coat this season, you may well find one coming your way (used, but warm).  My mom and step-mom both have small feet like me so we often exchange shoes that are still good but that we don’t wear anymore.  As a graduate student, my husband inherited my dad’s old skies so our cost for skiing was considerably reduced.  We even do this now that we have good paying jobs and our own children; I receive many pieces of trendy clothes from my younger sister – and I send her way all my daughter’s clothes when she outgrows it (my nieces are younger).  It’s good all around!

- Furniture and appliances: of course you can get quite a bit from family (see the post of June 19 2014) but even once set up in your dwelling away at school, you should ask friends who live close by if they happen to have the item you are looking for; an extra bookcase may have been left by a previous housemate and is taking too much space at a friend’s place.  I received a very sturdy wooden bookcase for free from a fellow student; I repainted it black to hide the pale pink it was originally.  April, during exams (if you are done yours or need a break) and just after exams, is a perfect time for scouring around the ‘student ghetto’ around your school for free items.  As well, many students bring a toaster or a coffee maker to their first shared house/apartment, so these dwellings often overflow with appliances.  Before buying a new blender, ask your friends if they have too many!  And only if the one you get for free is not adequate should you try to obtain one by a paying method!

Generally, try a free option before opting for a paying one.  You literally have NOTHING to lose!

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Cost of Being Sick

I recently needed some emergency surgery and the recovery gave me some time to ponder about the cost of being ill.  Thanks to the wonderful no-cost-per-use health care system that we enjoy in Canada, I did not have to pay for my stay in hospital, the surgery, and the pain medication I received while there (or the meals for that matter).  However, there were a few financial and personal costs to this unanticipated event.
First, I had to be transported from home to the hospital by ambulance.  If you have never taken an ambulance trip, beware: there is often a cost that is billed to the patient afterwards.  Mine is $45 (obviously that is not the entire cost of an ambulance trip; it’s just the portion charged to the patient).
Second, there were some costs to my family: once admitted for an overnight, I needed some basic supplies: toiletries, reading material for something to do during my recovery, some clean clothing (underwear, shoes) etc.  While these were found easily at my home, it required someone to come to the hospital to visit me (the visit was lovely).  Financial costs included transportation and parking (many hospitals are downtown and parking can be very expensive).  Even without the need for some personal effects, my family (and yours possibly) wanted to visit and make sure I was all right.
Third, once I got back home, I had some prescription medication to take for a few days (your medical insurance from college/university/your parents should cover most of the cost); I could not do anything physically taxing for a while, including cooking (yes, you need to stand to cook and I needed to sit or lie down mostly) which increased our food expenses.  I also had a special diet for a few days (increased food expenses).
Forth, I had to miss a few days of work because of the surgery (even though it was minor surgery, I was ‘lucky’ my time in the hospital was mostly over the weekend – it minimized my missed work time); now as an adult with a job and good work benefits, I did not lose any pay for my sick days.  However, with a job paid by the hour, an hour that you do not work is an hour you are not paid.  If you have to miss some hours at your part-time job, this will hurt you financially.
A close friend broke her leg in university.  Even though all her medical costs were covered (except for the ambulance cost), the cost of the crutches was $25, the plastic cover for the cast had to be purchased in order to bathe (another $25), and she needed a cab to get to classes every day because it was winter (the slippery sidewalks were too dangerous on crutches).
Finally, the time missed from classes will have to be made up in terms of time studying; this can eat up into your work time or your social time.  However, if you are homebound but not feeling too bad, you can study from home.  I was once sick with the flu over a long weekend and while getting better, I decided to avoid my long commute (it was winter too) and avoid other people’s germs.  I stayed home and called the prof of each of my lecture 20 min before the start of the lecture to ask what he was going to cover during class; the professor would tell me, and I would study the same content at the same time in order to stay current.  If I had a break between classes, I would nap.  I did this for an entire week and it really helped me with sleep AND not falling too much behind.
Illness and injuries may be treated for free in Canada, but there is a time and financial cost to having health problems.  Of course many health problems occur with no fault of our own; however, some can be prevented: eat healthy; exercise; get enough sleep – these habits will give your body the immunity it needs to fight viruses and bacteria.  Exercise well, not carelessly, and wear your protective gear, to avoid preventable injuries.  Of course, these precautions will not guarantee perfect health, but at least it will promote it.
I wish you a semester of healthy studying!