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Monday, February 23, 2015

Shopping Is NOT a Hobby

Got a bad grade on an assignment? buy a CD to feel better.  Get a good grade on a lab report? treat yourself to a new sweater.  Having a bad day? a designer coffee will fix everything. 
Is that how you behave? No wonder your finances deserve a D.  Shopping is NOT a hobby, nor is it ‘therapy’ (the myth of ‘retail therapy’ is just that, a myth).  Shopping, when you live on a tight budget, should be only done when items are needed (and the fewer the trips, the more you will save on time; the fewer the trips, the fewer the number of temptations for buying things outside your budget).
If you feel good, find a fun and cheap way to celebrate.  For one thing, you already feel good, so you don’t need anything else to make you feel good.  So enjoy a good book and a break from studying.
If you feel bad, let’s look at the cause and, independently, how to feel better.  I’m not talking about curing clinical depression – that needs much more than a good coffee, or a pep talk.  Depression is a disease, NOT a state of mind that people need to snap out of.  However, if you feel blue, a bit melancholic, it isn’t spending that will make you feel better.  There are several studies that have shown that activities that make us feel valuable are one of the most effective ways to feel good and happy.  I remember, as a grad student, feeling lonely when my boyfriend had to work for weeks at a time at a project out of town, including weekends.  So I found some volunteer work to do, and at the end of my shift, I felt I had made a (small) difference in the world and I went home happy. 
Find your happiness outside the mall.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Don’t Buy anything Beyond the Minimum – The STRICT Minimum!

Saving money is easier when you don’t buy anything… Of course this is almost impossible because you’ll need at least a pencil and paper, some food, shelter, etc.  But what is the strict minimum?

A place on which to sleep.  It does NOT need to be a bed, unless you already own one that you can easily (cheaply) move to your university home.  Think outside the box!  If you sleep well when you go camping, perhaps a camping mat with some linens on top would work well for you; I sleep extremely well on my couch and if it were easier to move that, I’d take it as my ‘bed’; how about a mattress on the floor? an inflatable mattress? a futon? a hide-a-bed? a twin or double bed may be the conventional place to sleep, but it’s not the only one there is.  A sleeping bag as bedding works IF you can wash it once a while, especially after an illness.  If you can’t easily wash and dry it, a sleeping bag liner may work, or buy two sheets (one for under your body and one on top) and use the sleeping bag as a comforter.

A place to hold your clothes.  This does not mean you need a dresser or a closet (not all houses have closets – older ones often do not.  I know a foreign student on a budget who used free cardboard boxes in her room to store her clothing.  It didn’t look very attractive, but it worked and she did not need to try selling furniture when she moved back home.  Try boxes; plastic bins (transparent ones are practical); putting ALL your clothes in your closet, if you have one (my nephew does this – he has some cubbies for socks and underwear); hooks on the wall for some clothes (coats, jackets, towels, jeans, etc.).

A place to hold your other ‘stuff’.  What other stuff? school stuff and toiletries.  Of course, the same arrangement as your clothes can be used: cardboard boxes, bins, etc.  As well, books can be placed neatly in a pile on the floor, pens and pencils can be stored in smaller empty boxes (think of cracker or tissue boxes) or empty cans (or frozen juice concentrate) or mugs.

A place to study.  My daughter and niece both like to study in their bed; the spread out their books, their laptop and their notes around themselves.  Neither of them needs a desk!  I work better with a flat surface in front of me and I don’t like having my computer on my lap unless I’m writing from memory only – and not with a book next to me.  However, the kitchen table works for me, as well as my coffee table – a desk is NOT a requirement.  If you want a flat surface, look for a table, a shelf you can mount on a wall, or one you can anchor in a corner. 

The Internet. Nowadays, it’s difficult to pursue a degree without the use of the Internet.  However, having access to the internet does NOT mean that you need it where you live.  The school where you study most likely has wifi available to all students registered with them.  This means that as long as you are on campus, you have free internet.  If you are on a budget, plan on working in the library instead of at home.  As well, many small restaurants have free wifi: McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, etc.  For the price of a coffee, you can use the internet after the library has closed.  Assuming that you only need to work very late once or twice a month (with internet access – you can do lots of studying without it!), that’s about $3/month, much cheaper than paying for home internet.

Textbooks.  Yes, you need access to textbooks – but access does not mean you need to own the textbooks!  Many schools have most textbooks on reserve at the library or older editions (perfectly good for studying) on their shelves.  Textbooks are often $100+ each, so the inconvenience of going to the library to study may well be worth $500 per semester (5 courses).  Other options for textbooks: buy a used one – even a previous edition if the professor okays it; buy it with a friend and alternate who takes it home at night (or alternate with a housemate taking the same course – if you are in residence, this is even easier!). You can now rent textbooks (google it online) or find some textbooks online.  If you have a similar textbook (same topic), as the professor if it’s ok to study from it instead of the recommended textbook.  I have once used a free copy of the previous edition of the required textbook and simply made photocopies of the assigned problem set (that was the main difference between the different editions).

Food.  Of course you need food – many of my other articles are about finding cheap food so I won’t dwell on this now.

Shelter.  Obviously you cannot live in the streets while going to school (or at any moment in your life!); it’s not safe and is very unhealthy.  However, if you cannot live at home or with a relative, having your own bedroom in a student house or living in residence are not your only options.  Look for a shared room – if students can manage in a shared room in residence, surely that can be done in a house or an apartment.  Look for a room at someone’s house (not a student house); since you are not sharing equally the entire cost of the house, the rent is often cheaper (you may not have access to much more than the kitchen, the bathroom and your room, not the entire house).  Think of unusual spaces in houses: can you partition the living room and use part of it for a discounted rate? Can you use a winterized porch in someone’s house (if there is another outside door) or part of an unused basement? If you have access to an RV, would the rent in an RV park be cheaper than renting a room somewhere (assuming you live in a somewhat sunny area – Vancouver?)? You can also housesit for a family who is going out of town for a while, but unless you have a stream of housesitting jobs, this won’t work even for a semester.  However, it may for a summer semester, or it can help you offset your travelling costs for a few weeks.  If you are doing a co-op program and need to move to another city to work, look for the alternate shelter as well, AND try to sublet your room while you are gone from campus.

Clothes.  You obviously cannot attend classes naked, but you did not start the school year naked either.  Use your old clothes and only purchase items that are needed because without them you 1. are too cold (such as winter boots) or 2. you cannot get part-time employment.  I will write about getting dressed for a job interview at the end of your degree in another article.  If you need clothes to keep you warm, ask around first – most people I know own extra hats, mittens, even winter coats that they do not wear often or at all.  Winter coats are expensive items so try to get one for free if possible (it’s harder with boots because of the different sizes).  Unless you are down to fewer than 5-6 pairs of socks (same for undies), you don’t need to purchase them.  Three pairs of jeans and 4-5 tops should work for most of the school year.  You are not in school to be a fashion plate but to study.

A phone.  Unless you live at home and can use the home phone, you’ll need a phone to communicate with classmates and family.  Get the cheapest plan, even if you can only text.  It’s often enough.  You can use Skype on your computer, for free, for phone calls.

A computer.  Unless you are learning skills that are very hands-on, like woodworking, most likely you will be required to have full access to a computer.  If you can use the family computer at home, perfect!  However, most people need a laptop computer to work on.  Find a good deal well before you start university (otherwise you may be rushed to buy one and will end up buying something more expensive).  Also, unless you need specific software for your course (engineering studies often require these), a text editing software, slide show, spreadsheet and internet browsing may be all you need.  Don’t go overboard with the fastest PC around and consider using your older sister’s discard.

Transportation to school.  If you live close to campus, walking will be fine; as well, many university fees include a bus-pass so you should be able to commute for free.  If you are too far to walk and the bus isn’t free, consider a cheap bicycle (or a hand-me-down one); once purchased, they are free to use.  Make sure to dress appropriately when it’s cold (ski goggles keep me from crying when the wind is strong).  If you have the choice between a long commute and moving to campus (or close to), look at the costs: I choose to live at home, in the far suburbs of Montreal when I attended McGill, because a used car was much cheaper than renting downtown Montreal, and even if I had some ‘wasted’ time in my commute, I did not need to work part-time during the school year because I lived at home and ate there too (my parents did not charge me rent nor food money).  I made enough money during the summer to cover all my costs.  If you are living away from home to attend school, travelling back home once or twice a year is almost a necessity (I say ‘almost’ because you can survive without in most cases); minimize the cost by sharing a car ride with someone else, or flying when the prices are low (and not checking luggage).  Transportation can be very expensive and you need to add this to your budget BEFORE moving far away from home to study.  Another option is to limit drastically your visits home; international graduate students, on a very low income, often do not go come every year.

Communication with family.  It’s very depressing, literally, not to have any contact with your family if you do not live at home (if you live at home, I’m assuming you speak to them for free!).  A cell phone is ok, but plans are not cheap.  Free ways to chat are great: use Skype or Facebook messenger, or use your email.  Pen and paper letters are fantastic too – when I lived in Poland for 18 months, my mom and I wrote letters to each other, 2-3 per month.  I still have copies of them and enjoy re-reading them.  A letter within Canada costs less than a dollar to mail.

We sometimes have to rethink what the bare essentials are – and start there.  Start from the ground up to decide what to spend money on, not from what you enjoy living at home and trying to cut down.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Frugal Reading Week

I remember one prof in university who gave a midterm exam just after Reading week (or February break); the students complained bitterly.  His reply? it’s called ‘READING week’, not ‘vacation-in-the-sun’ week.  Go and read!
Ok, he was not the most fun or loved professor.  However, Reading week was designed (or so says the urban legend) to decrease depression rates in university students in the winter.  Students are stressed, there is not much light outdoors, and depression rates sore.  Bring on Reading week, some students go home, some rest, some go on vacation, some catch up on assignment and studying.  If you are one of the lucky ones who do not need to study too much, you are probably looking for a nice but budget-wise vacation.
Prices for sunny destinations and even ski resorts go up during Reading week, just like they do during March break, Christmas vacations and Easter.  The tourist industry is very well aware that students want a good party during Reading week and that many professors go golfing during that time too.
However, there are still some frugal options for you.  Here are a few.
1. Stay put, but pretend you are a TOURIST in your city and visit all the good sites.  The large expenses of traveling and lodging are non-existent, your bus pass probably gets you everywhere you want to go, so besides attraction entry fees and a few restaurants, you can pretend to be a tourist for very little money.  You can do something similar in your home town if you don’t live at home, with the added cost of going home for the week.  Also enjoy cheaper activities since you do not have the constraints of schedule classes: matinee movies (cheaper), cheap meals at the pub one night, etc.  Make sure to carry your student card everywhere, it may allow you to get discount prices.
2. Go VISIT A FRIEND who studies somewhere else.  I had a friend who did an MBA at Harvard and to this day, it’s the only time I’ve been to Boston.  However, I had a great time visiting with her, saw some stuff on my own for a couple of days (our reading weeks did not match) and had dinner with her in the evenings.  You can do the same with a friend at a different university, enjoying the free lodging and great company.
3. Dive head first into your favorite PAST TIME; you know, the one you never have enough time for? You now have a week where there are no classes.  Even if you need to do some studying, plan a couple of blocks for 2+ hours to devote to crafting, video games, or cross-country skiing.
4. Enjoy the OUTDOORS! Unless you are in British Columbia, winter is cold this year, so embrace it! Get used skates and learn to skate. Borrow cross-country skis and go for a ‘walk’ on the snowy sidewalks or in a nearby nature area.  Go sledding with friends and enjoy hot chocolate.  One cannot be totally miserable playing outside even in the cold.  Just make sure to use the ‘onion’ method: lots of layers of clothing, and make sure to cover all exposed skin.
5. Finally, just TAKE A BREAK and relax.  Read a book that is not a textbook but that you want to read just for fun. Go for a walk.  Start exercising, just like you wanted to do back in early January. Bake a cake.  Watch 3 movies in a row.  Breathe.  Meditate.  Take care of you.