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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