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Monday, June 29, 2015

Fresh Drinks to Refresh You

Summer is a killer for my convenience food budget – by this I mean that when I’m outside and sweating in the too heat, or in my car with NO AC… the ads for ice cappuccino, frozen drinks and the like are very appealing.  And since many drive-through outlets have sales, I can most often get a drink for about $2.00 + tax.  However…
This does add up.  In summer, my desire for these drinks is at least daily.  If I’m at home, I’m 3 minutes away from the Canadian Icon of coffees, and if out in my car or on my bike, the main road I live on has at least 5 places I can stop at between home and my work.    Temptations are everywhere!
Because I am frugal (and honestly, a bit lazy – why leave my sunshine at home and my bikini to get a cold drink?), I have worked in my kitchen to make my own versions of frozen drinks at a fraction of the cost, and no mystery ingredients.  Here are a few.
Ice Capp:
- about 1 cup of cold coffee (left over from the last pot and refrigerated)
- about ¾ cup of milk (we use skim or 1%)
- about 2 Tbsp granulated sugar, powered sugar or chocolate syrup.
- 4 ice cubes
- BulletTM or extra strong blender
I found that my BulletTM doesn’t break ice cubes as easily as I expected so it’s better if I break the ice cubes in chunks first.  To do this, I put the ice cubes in a plastic bag, place the sealed bag on a cutting board, and then hit it with either the edge of a can, the handle of a knife, or a hammer.
After that, put all the ingredients in the blender and blend away.  I like to drink mine in a thermal mug (like the one I use for tea in winter) with a straw coming out through the drinking hole of the lid.  Cheers!!
If you are craving a healthier and less caffeinated drink, a fruit smoothie is probably a better option.  However, know that commercial fruit smoothie has a lot of added sugar to give it the strong taste it shows.  But here we can make it a tad healthier.
Fruit smoothie:
- about 1.5 cups soft fruit in chunks (apples are not good; almost everything else works)
- about 0.5 (1/2) cup orange juice (I find orange juice has a stronger taste than OJ)
- ½ cup (or an individual container) of flavoured yogurts (so that it’s sweetened).
- 4 ice cubes (optional)
- BulletTM or extra strong blender
Read above for advice about ice cubes.  The ice cubes here are optional and depend in part on how thick your smoothie is without the ice and how thick you like it.  Basically, put all ingredients together EXCEPT the ice.  Blend away and check for consistency.  Add ice if needed and blend again.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Price of Buying Cheap Stuff

I stopped at a dollar store yesterday.  I needed some clipboards and some core foam boards.  Each item was around $1 and I figured it was an amazing deal.  Except that…

I needed to decorate the clipboards with scrapbooking paper (which I had purchased previously).  I peeled off the protective plastic wrap to discover that one of the clips was loose from its board.  Fortunately, I had purchased extra clipboards for a later project so I could use some of the extra clipboards for this weekend’s project, return the defective one later, and still have my decorated clipboards ready for Monday.

The foam core boards were something else.  They are normally about $7 at the craft store, so having them for less than $2 was a bargain; or so I thought.  As I starting cutting them with an sharp work knife (I needed to make 6 squares out of each board), the black covering was ungluing itself from the foam AND the foam was breaking instead of cutting.  My squares looked awful. 

So what did I learn from this? Well, cheap is often a synonym of poor quality.  Not always, especially if you find something on sale, but too often I’m disappointed in the poor quality of items I buy.  Most of my clipboards are fine – they are wooden clipboard with a metal clip which is quite robust.  And knowing I was on a time crunch, I made sure I had a couple of extra ones.  And even if I decided to throw out the defective board, my average cost per clipboard is very low.

But what about my frustration level at using poor quality items? What about the angst at trying to solve a problem that should not have been there? What about my panic when looking at my foam squares that are not so good looking and needed in 2 hours?  What is worth it? Possibly not…

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Do You Need to Spend Money to Save Money?

You’ve heard people say that you need money to invest in order to make money.  I won’t argue about that one – I’m not a great investor of stock and bonds (and I should be).  However, I know that sometimes you need to spend some money in order to save some as well (save MORE than what you spend!).  For example…

1. Buying a few KITCHEN APPLIANCES to save on eating out or convenience foods: a blender will do wonders for you if you like mixed drinks; a coffee maker or a French press will help you drink good coffee at home and not go to a coffee shop; a wok will permit you to make delicious stir-fries at home; etc.  You get the point.  Of course these appliances can be received for birthdays and celebrations, but do not put on hold buying a $12 frying pan for your omelets if that means you will eat in for weekend brunch.

2. Buying a BICYCLE to save on transportation.  This is very important if your bus pass does not cover transportation in the summer.  But more than that, a bicycle can make it more convenient for you to get around AND it provides exercise.  However, bicycles come in a wide price range: from just above $100 at your favorite Canadian T*** store to thousands of dollars for a 20 lbs road bike.  However, to be useful, the cheap model works very well.  A used one is an even better deal.  In the same vein, investing in WARM WINTER CLOTHES means you will not mind as much walking outside in winter and will skip using a taxi.

3. You’ll need a few BUSINESS pieces of CLOTHING in order to interview for jobs and to work (unless there is a mandatory uniform).  Regardless, clean pants (I like navy or black)and a couple of button down shirts are not expensive and can be purchased in good shape, at a used clothing store (Value Village has lots).

4. Purchasing a SHOPPING CADDY can mean not having to take a taxi when you come back from grocery shopping.  This depends entirely on where your closest or discount grocery store is, but when I was a graduate student, the bus did not drop me off close enough to home for me to easily carry my grocery bags home every week.  Having a shopping caddy meant I could avoid taking a taxi after a particularly successful shopping trip.  A large back pack is very convenient too, but often more expensive (although it looks much cooler than the shopping caddy).  The shopping caddy is also very useful when using a laundromat.

In general, buying certain items in order to save money (in the long run) makes sense – however, you can see that the items I’m suggesting are not all that exciting to buy!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Saving Obsession that Saves Me Money

I have this one obsession with water: I like to save it and not waste any of it.  It all started when I wanted to wash dishes and it took FOREVER for the water from the kitchen tap water to warm up.  This happened every time I wanted hot water from the tap and I soon discovered that it’s because of the pipe length between the water heater and the kitchen is very long.  I could not let all the cold water go to waste so I started collecting it in pitchers in the kitchen.  My obsession was born.
I do not skip washing in order to save water, and I do laundry as much as other people.  However, I ALWAYS turn off the faucet while brushing my teeth or washing my face and I use the water from my pitchers in the kitchen to fill the kettle, boil noodles or rice, and drink water.  I also wait until there are enough dirty dishes to be ‘worth’ washing them and I use dirty dish water to water my plants.  Outside, I collect rainwater to water my tomato plants and I drive my car on the lawn before washing it so the water used also waters my grass.  I run the dishwasher on the shortest cycle will get my dishes clean.
My husband’s saving obsession is turning off lights.  As soon as I leave a room, he asks me to turn off the light (even if in my head, I know I’ll be back within 5 minutes).  Because I don’t like a house that is dark, I tend to keep a few lights on around the house, especially in winter.
Another of my obsession is to use natural light in winter; first thing in the morning, I open all the curtains and blinds in the house to let the heat and light from the sun come in. As soon as the sun sets, I cover all the windows so that we do not lose any heat through them (we have very large windows). 
You may not have an obsession yet; however, it`s relatively easy to find one.  Pick just one thing that you can focus on: electricity, heat, water, paying fees to exercise, wasted food, etc.  Pick any one thing where you can reduce your consumption, and go all out!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Case FOR Summer Courses

Is taking a summer course a good idea? In most cases, yes.  Even though you’d like to take a break, and yes, a very well deserved break, taking a summer course (or 2) is a good idea.  Here is why.

- A summer course or two will let you catch up on dropped or failed courses, or let you get ahead

If you are behind in your program, summer courses are fantastic opportunities to catch up.  You may not be able to take the specific course you are lacking, but taking another course in your program is also useful because it ‘frees up’ a spot for a class in your upcoming year.  So if you failed History of China 101 and it’s not available as a summer course, taking a geography class you will need this coming semester will give you the schedule space to take History of China 101.  Alternatively, if you are missing an elective, you can get it ‘out of the way’ in the summer a course that is offered; it may not be your first choice for elective, but if you do not have a strong preference, pick a course that is offered and complete it.

If you are not behind at all, but have found taking a full load hectic (and it is), taking a summer course will give you a lighter load in the upcoming year.  Taking two courses during the summer will give you a lighter load for both semesters.

- Summer courses let you concentrate on one course at a time

Some courses are harder than others.  A summer course lets you concentrate on one course at a time, even if you are working during the summer.  A job is very different than taking a course in terms of mental worry.  If you are taking a summer course, you can concentrate on the one topic, one set of assignments, one grade.  The advantage of NOT juggling many assignments and deadlines can be the difference between an ok grade and a grade you are happy with.  I find that a humanities course is a course I can think about while doing menial tasks (mow the lawn, do the dishes) and that thinking time gives me a chance to mentally prepare to write an essay for an assignment – basically, I did part of my assignments while working on something else and then sat down to do the writing part of it.  I could not do that at all with science classes; most of them required sitting down with problems and equations, not thinking time. 

- A summer course may let you graduate early

If you take two courses every summer (assuming three in-between year summers), you’ll have a total of 6 courses completed before your last year.  If all of these are courses requested for your program, this could mean graduating in January instead of May – a semester earlier than everyone in your program!  Even though the tuition saved is almost inexistent (you’ll have to pay for the summer courses), graduating early means that you can start working full-time a semester early, move back home (for a few months) to save on rent, and get a head start on job-hunting (you get ahead of the competition by being available to be hired a few months before everyone else).

Summer courses are not fun; you’d probably rather work during the day and party with friends at night.  However, unless you are working two full-time jobs (one during the day and an evening/weekend one), there is time to take a course, work, AND party a couple of nights a week. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Cheap and Free Activities that Improve your Mental Health.

Taking care of your mental health, your emotional self, can be difficult, especially in your first year away from home.  You miss home and your parents (even if it’s hard to admit). The lifestyle is different away from home.  The studying is much harder than you expected or have ever experienced.  The level of stress is high, and your parents aren’t in the kitchen, ready to listen to your concerns.  What do you do?
Luckily, most colleges and universities have free help for young people: counselling, health care providers, nurses and physicians ready to listen to you.  But what if simply need a few outlets or escapes from all the noise and the stress?  A Caribbean vacation during Reading Week would be great, but unlikely to ease the financial stress.  Ditto for the posh yoga studios or the personal trainer.  Here are a few budget-friendly ideas to find mental peace and feeling zen.
Seek Nature
Studies have shown that spending time surrounded by nature boosts both mood and self-esteem; exercise surrounded by nature has even more effects and the effects are even more powerful if there is water (a stream, a pond, a lake) in the environment.  Most campus have a few green spots, even downtown.  If you feel that you need to study 24/7, try studying outside when the weather permits it, or make your walk to your building via a wooded area.
Hold a Baby or a Pet
Not that a baby or a pet are equivalent (I do not want to insult any parent here), but the effect of holding a young or vulnerable life in our hands puts us as peace and reminds us of what is important in the grand picture.  Offer to babysit late at night – the baby will most likely sleep a lot, but you’ll get to hold him or her a little too.  Offer to pet sit or just take a dog out for a walk.  You don’t know anyone with a pet? go to a dog park and ask owners if it’s ok to play with their dog. 
Play Music
If you play a musical instrument, make time every week (or every day) to play.  It can be a favorite piece, or a new one you want to work on.  Seeing progress on a new project may lift your spirits when everything else seems to be stalled.
You physician will tell you, Public Health Centers will tell you, exercise keeps you healthy physically and mentally.  And it doesn’t have to cost a penny!  If you don’t enjoy the free access to sports facilities where you are, go for a walk, a run outside, work on push-ups or sit-ups, start cycling to school instead of taking the bus, or do yoga with a YouTube video. 
Renew with your Church, Synagogue, Mosque or Temple
You don’t need to be very religious to enjoy a service.  Maybe you grew up going to a weekly religious event ; maybe you’d like to explore your cultural beliefs.  Try it a few times.  If anything, you may feel the peace and the serenity you are looking for.  However, you may find a home away from home, and the strength to rely on a higher power in tough times.
Learning to meditate isn’t hard.  What is difficult is to keep the practice going on a regular basis and the discipline to meditate even when we feel to hurried to find the time to meditate, even though it’s when we are rushed that we need meditation the most.
I never liked gardening; as a child, I did not even play in the sand!  However, buying a few plants and taking care of them has brought me a few bits of inner peace.  Repotting a plant from a small to a larger pot, cleaning up the dead leaves, observing the new leaves and maybe a few flowers open is magical.  In the Spring, I buy a few potted herbs to grow and use over the summer.  I use to have a ‘black’ thumb and now, it’s just dark green… I guess anyone can learn!
As you see, there are many ways to improve your mental health for little or no money.  As students, we often do not see mental health (or decreasing our stress level) as a priority; however, I have seen many students ‘crash’ as they are too stressed, too tired, too bothered by little things.  It IS important to take a few moments once a while to decompress.  You CAN do it without it impacting your budget.  And on a purely financial aspect, feeling blue all the time is not efficient will demotivate you to study, and make you more at risk for failing a class or two.  Therefore, mental distress CAN hurt you financially.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Buying books vs. borrowing from the library

I have an acquaintance who swears that a book worth reading is a book worth buying.  When he told me this, I pondered about it for a while, and then decided against it.  Many books I have started reading I did not like so I never finished.  Other books I enjoyed, but would not read again.  So the percentage of books that I ‘need’ to have on hand, at home, is not that high.  And of these, some are so popular that I’ll be able to find them in the library for years to come.  All and all, the number of books I want to own is pretty low.  Many people like to own books, have them in their house.  I don’t.  Here’s why.
1. For me, reading a book is an experience, just like visiting a museum or seeing a movie.  It’s unlikely I will do it again and again. 
2. Buying a book is expensive and I can read it for free if I borrow it.  Like a large pool – I can buy one or get a membership at a local one.
3. Books clutter my house; yes, they are nice and I do have all my favorites (including some that are out of print and would be too hard to find in a library); but extra books make it harder to clean, collect dust (I hate dusting) and I need to pack them and move them when I move (which I did quite a bit as a student).
4. The environment does better if fewer copies of paper books are printed and sold.  Readership is important, but libraries are good customers of authors.
5. If I buy a book, it’s often second-hand; much cheaper and because it’s been previously owned/loved/read, I’m actually helping the environment by promoting the second-hand goods market.
6. After reading a book that I own (purchased most likely used), if nobody in my family wants to read it and I’m not likely to read it again, I give it away or sell it.  This way, I send it back to make more happy readers while again encouraging the second-hand goods market.
7. When I use my public library, I’m sending a very strong message to my province to continue funding public libraries because it is a valuable service; this means that the more people use libraries, the better services are offered in libraries.  Public libraries are essential to many school children whose families cannot afford all the books they need or want to read.
For all these reasons, I read a lot but choose NOT to own many books.