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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Want vs. Need

Most of us have a huge list of ‘wants’ in our life: new clothing, new electronics, new music and books, new device, new decorating items, going out for dinner, attending a show, having an evening out with friends, etc.  These are all nice ‘extras’ that cost money and are not mandatory for life in college.
One way to trim your spending is to make a list of ‘needs’ for college/university life.  I’m not talking about making it so spartan that you are just sustaining life, but just enough that you manage to go to school, get decent grades (not buying any textbooks or notebooks WILL decrease your grades), and stay healthy.  If you START with that list and move up from there, instead of starting with your wants and trimming down, you will have a much easier time at keeping your spending to a minimum.  So here is a basic list (to which you may need to add a few things depending on your unique situation).
- housing (you can’t be homeless)
- basic furniture: a bed; containers for clothes and such (could be cardboard boxes)
- a fridge and basic cooking appliances (shared – you need to eat and keep food fresh)
- food
- general school supplies: most likely your own computer; textbooks, notebooks and pens;
- access to the internet (does not have to be where you sleep; could be at school only)
-  specialized school supplies for your program: a musical instrument; specific software; a stethoscope; a camera; art supplies; etc.  (you get the picture)
- clothing for the climate (could include rain gear in Vancouver; warm winter jacket and boots in Calgary)
- hygiene supplies (soap, access to a shower, deodorant, etc.)
- transportation to school
- tuition fees and other school fees.
Everything else is extras.  Yes, this is a VERY basic list, but with all of these, you can survive school and get good grades.  Some of these, like food and transportation to school, are regular expenses – the expense keeps coming back.  Some are one-time purchases, like clothing (surely you do not NEED to buy clothes every month) and most school supplies.
If you start here, and add a few things to make your life more enjoyable, your expenses should be trimmed to the minimum.  Choose a hobby that is low-cost: playing freebee in the park or star gazing.  Make social time cheap: go to a free event on campus. Borrow books from the city or school library.
Start with the bare minimum; it will help see what is really important.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Basic Principles of Frugality; Budget Math 101

There is one grand principle of frugality: do not spend money on something you can live without or you can get for free (legally!).  Basically, do not spend money.  Easy, isn’t it? Well, except you will need to spend some money.  After you have a budget outlining the basic expenses you will have, take a look at your top 4: most likely tuition, rent, books and food.  Look at these and try to reduce your top one that has ‘wiggle room’ (rent) by 10%.  The reason is that if you reduce your largest expense by x%, this will be a larger dollar amount than if you reduce a smaller expense by the same x%.  For math majors, this is obvious; but if math is not your strong suit, here is a breakdown.
annual savings
monthly rent: $600
$60 (monthly)
$60 x 12 months (leases are 12 months long) = $720
monthly food: $350 (that’s generous for one person)
$35 x 12 months = $420 (assuming you are paying for your own groceries 12 months a year)
books, one year: $1000
So even though saving 10% of any expense doesn’t seem very difficult (BEFORE signing a lease), the same 10% can mean something different in dollar amount.  Because tuition is linked to where you live and the program you take, as well as the distance from home, a reduction in tuition may mean an increase in another area.  However, it’s likely that you can volunteer for the smallest room in an apartment at a saving of 10%, or simply choose the apartment (with your housemates) that has only a shower and no tub for an overall reduction in rent for all (to me, a tub is not worth $750 per year).
So before spending money according to your budget, try to trim the budget by a percentage in the categories that are the largest parts of your budget.
And now you have completed Budget Math 101!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cheap cooking ideas and where they come from

Students at St-Lawrence College, in Kingston, Ontario, have been working on a project featuring eating well at a low cost.  Considering that many families live under the poverty level everywhere in Canada, it is difficult for these families to eat healthy when the grocery store is far (thus costing cab or bus fare), when many proteins (cheese, meat, nuts, lentils and beans) are expensive (at least the three former are), and when the adults in the families are stressed by lack of money and are not inspired to cook. 

Part of a larger group with a mission to reduce poverty, the cookbook is just one of their projects (you can visit their website at ). 

I found that the lack of imagination or inspiration is often my biggest barrier to cooking at home; when I go out for food, it’s either because I am tired or because I can’t think of what to cook (it’s easier to choose from a menu than to choose from the recipes that I know).

A great cookbook is often, for me, the key to cooking great food and being excited about cooking.  I love cookbooks with lots of photos (they inspire me) but with easy-to-find and inexpensive ingredients.  I can’t afford filet mignon on a regular basis, or expensive cheeses for that matter.  Artisan breads and freshly made pasta are out of reach on a regular basis.  However, I don’t want to eat cheese that comes from a tube or bread that has a shelf-life of several months (what do they put in that?!).

Which is why I have relied on different budget cookbooks, online and hard-copies.  When I search for a recipe to use up a certain item that I bought on sale, I use the internet. lets you save recipes in your own recipe book online if you sign up (free).  This way I can bookmark recipes I want to try and I can add and read comments from people who have tried the recipe.

When I have a huge crop of tomatoes or rhubarb (two things that are hard to kill so therefore I can grow!), I search for the item name on Google and often find a site that specializes in that ingredient.  This helps me find many recipes which use a larger quantity of the ingredient.

I also often borrow cookbooks from the library.  The library often has the latest cookbook, but it also has specialty cookbooks that I would not purchase because I would not need 105 bread making recipes or 99 chocolate cake ideas, I can borrow the cookbook for 3 weeks, use it and copy down two recipes from each.  I can also ‘try out’ a cookbook by borrowing it before I decide I want it in my own collection.

A type of book that I often borrow from the library is the budget cookbook.  There are many of them, and I find that once a while I borrow a couple, get inspired again and I’m good for a few weeks.  The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook by Erin Chase is one of my favorite because the recipes are realistically made at dinner time, and even if made for one person, provides lots of left-over for other nights or lunches.  If you search for ‘budget cookbook’ on Amazon, for example, you can find a large variety of frugal cookbooks for all tastes, including gluten-free, vegan, Paleo diet, etc.  I personally still really enjoy my beat-up copy of The Frugal Gourmet (Jeff Smith), bought second-hand, that has real gourmet food at a good price, such as his famous-in-our-house chicken stuffed with rosemary and caper potatoes (he passed away in 2004 so you may need to buy it second hand). 

Even if cooking is not your passion, turning it into a bit of a hobby helps enjoying good food at home easier, AND it saves money.

The free and downloadable cookbook from the St-Lawrence students (as a pdf file) is available here: .  It is full of healthy and frugal recipe that sound delicious (I have not tried them yet).  And if you are reading my blog right now, this is the easiest step to a free frugal cookbook.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Post-secondary education is hard

When dreaming about leaving home or at least going to college or university, many of us have this unrealistic dream that we will be happy, make friends, be in charge of our life, achieve success, have fun, and overall have a fabulous time.  However, for far too many students, the reality is different.
First of all, many students moving away from home find that two changes at once (change in education setting + change in housing) to be very difficult.  Being from Qu├ębec myself, where students typically try to remain at home, I can see why these two changes done at once can be overwhelming.  University learning is VERY different from high school – there is a lot more freedom – most profs do not notice when you miss a class, or will not ask why you missed one. You will not be personally offered help if your grades seem to go down.  And your mark, even if you believe the contrary, will go down by at least 20 points from those of high school.  The goal in first year university should be to survive first year without flunking too many courses so that you are allowed to continue.  Living on your own (even if in residence) is a huge step that many teenagers are eager to take, but this huge step, combined with the different style of learning, is often too much at once.
Secondly, several students find that university is not what it’s all cracked up to be: not everyone is nice, relationships are frequent but so are breakups, there are one night-stands that break your heart, drunk experiences that make you swear off booze forever, and failed courses that make you rethink your major.
Third, it is easy to lose your identity at university.  In high school, you were THE guy who could do physics and played football, or THE girl who sang like an angel and could draw. But in university, studying what you are talented at, you will be surrounded by others who are just as talented or even more talented at the same thing(s) as you are.  Even if you did not define yourself by your talents, becoming a small fish in a big pond is difficult, very difficult.  It’s like you lose that identity within a few hours as you enter campus.
Finally, there is all this freedom; you can go to bed whenever you want, eat whatever and whenever you want, nobody checks that you are going to class, and unless you ask for help, you will not receive it.  This amount of freedom, all at once, can leave you overwhelmed.  There are also so many options for courses, clubs (athletic and non-athletic), worship houses, and groups to join, it’s dizzying. 
First year university can be very much overwhelming and a bad experience can either be eye-opening (‘ok, I didn’t do well my first year, but now I know how to manage and will handle it’) or devastating (‘University is not for me; I’ll go home and get a job’).  Be CAREFUL and AWARE: know ahead of time that this can be difficult and be aware of the signs that it’s not going well for you so you can ask for help: failed courses; depression; completely out-of-character behaviour; reckless and/or dangerous behaviour; health problems; loss of memory or difficulty concentrating; purging; self-harm; desperation; binging; irrational thoughts; paranoia.
Additionally, do not feel like a failure if moving away and starting college/university is too much for you to do at once.  Many successful college and university graduates did not do well their first year; many chose to stay home for post-secondary education (for various reasons); many started, stopped, came home, and started again later (at home or not).  You may also be ready to move away from home and be ready for post-secondary education but not be a good fit for residence life or on-campus living.
In my opinion, the way students move away to go to university is too much of a leap; learning to live on your own AND attending post-secondary education is too much of a jump to do at once and while it works for many students, many struggle; some stick with it, and some have enough difficulties to leave with a sense of failure.  We don’t ask babies to learn to roller-skate; we let them learn to walk well before we put them on wheels.  The same strategy should prevail here: move away and work OR start higher education, not both at once.  This is not always possible, depending where you live; however, with online courses being more and more available, a year of online courses or at whatever post-secondary institution is local while living at home may be possible; alternatively, moving away and working will teach you about living on your own without the extra stress of performing in classes.
Finally, do not let high school academic performance predict how you will perform in college or university; the structure and delivery of university and college classes is VERY different from that of high school.  As well, if you are a high achiever, the stress of performing well may be too much combined with the stress of managing the rest of your life (room or apartment, food, laundry and such, financial management, etc.). Take your time; school will still exist in 2 or 10 years.  So will your first apartment or residence room.