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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Keeping warm when the cold hits

Living in Canada has lots of advantages; living in warmth is not one of them. So if you are having difficulties staying warm on a budget, read on.
If you do not live in residence or at home, you are most likely paying for your own heat, which means that you do not want to ‘crank up’ the heat and be hit by huge bills at the end of the month.  If you have housemates, it’s time to have a meeting so that everyone in the house is on the same page. 

First of all, turn down the heat whenever nobody is in the house: if you are all away for the holiday, keep the heat on low, so that the pipes do not freeze, but not warm enough to be walking in indoor clothing.  Assuming most of your classes are during the day, the heat should be turned down during the day while you are keeping warm in class.
Second, seal any place that would leak heat.  That means around old windows, under outside doors. and electrical outlets – if you feel a cold draft in these areas, there is air leak.  Search online for the best way to seal these areas and talk to your landlord for him/her to pay for the material if you do the work (this is a typical agreement between tenants and landlord since both have a gain). 

One place that houses lose heat is windows – the glass itself is only so insulating.  Blocking all windows is not a good option since you will lose both natural light (which saves you electric light costs) and heat from the sun.  However, once the sun is down, the only thing your windows do is leak heat – therefore, close the curtains and thick curtains, insulated curtains are best.  Quilts, duvet, extra comforters, or thick winter blankets can work.  Make sure you only use them once it’s dark outside.
Remember also that the temperature you keep your house or apartment at does not have to be quite as high as the home your parents live in.  Wearing an extra sweater and slippers (or indoor shoes) inside is not a great inconvenience and can save your money. Area rugs on (all or) most floors in your home will help your abode feel warmer (the temperature will be the same but the feeling will be warmer because a rug is more insulating than a floor): this is especially true of bedroom floors in the middle of the night!

At night, since you are under blankets and we typically sleep better breathing slightly cooler air, decrease the heat a little at night.  To keep your bed comfortable, wear thick sleepwear and use extra blankets.  Much body heat can be lost through the head, so wearing a cotton or warm hat or a hood is not a bad idea.  I find that having (clean) socks at night help me be comfortable in bed and I find flannel sheets to feel the warmest when I get into bed (fleece sheets are also available nowadays).  Warming up a rice bag in the microwave and putting it in your bed (close to your feet) will also keep your warm and help you fall asleep.
Keep the heat you produce: if you are using the oven to bake, after your turn it off, open the door wide open (you may want to make up a mechanism to keep the light of the oven off so you don’t waste electricity) so the remaining heat is used to warm up the inside of the house and not an outside wall.

If you are very strapped for cash and are living in a large house, close off some of the rooms and turn off the heat in these.  For example, you can share bedrooms from December to March to decrease the heat costs of the house you live in. The unused rooms can be used by all for storage of your summer stuff (bikes, rollerblades, etc.) so that the used bedrooms are more spacious.  Choose the least insulated room(s) to close for the cold season.
Finally, if one room is much colder than the others, do not increase the heat for the entire house because of that one room; either insulate better that room (find out why that room is colder – maybe it has 3 outside walls), or add a space heater (make sure it’s a very safe model) for that room alone.

Although these ideas will not cut your heating costs down to zero, they will make winter more comfortable – for you AND your wallet!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gift giving on a budget

Gift giving season is coming up, especially is you celebrate Christmas.  This can be a source of stress for every student: final exams are coming up, but you also feel the pressure of getting ready for the holidays, planning (perhaps) to travel home if you live away, gift buying, and parties.  That’s a lot to handle all at once, especially if you are a first year student and had exams in January in high school.  This is all new.

I can’t really help you with exams – chances are you are taking English or History, and I took Math and Physics about hmmm… 20+ years ago!  But I can help you diminish the financial stress of gift giving.

A first rule of gift giving as a student: it IS the thought that count.  And family and relative are grateful that you are studying at a post-secondary institution, and that you will see them during the holidays (especially if living away from home).  Everything else is a bonus.

However, if you ARE planning some presents for family and friends, here are a few tips for keeping it under budget (and remember that if your parents are contributing financially to your education, you are, at least in part, spending their money on presents!).  Here are some ideas for gift and gift giving (in general – these apply for birthdays, holidays, events, etc.)

1.    Small is adorable: small gifts often mean more than an expensive but tasteless gift.  Think of a cute computer memory key, delicate barrettes, a mug matching the recipient’s taste.

2.    College loot is trendy: your family is proud of your education and career choice.  A ‘University of Winnipeg’ mug will remind them of you every day at breakfast.  A ‘St-Lawrence College’ t-shirt is perfect for mom’s gardening hours in the summer.  These gifts also show your family that you appreciate your education.

3.    Kids like to DO stuff: a gift to look at is ok, but a gift that children can use is better.  Think of a new box of markers, some play dough and cookie cutters, a puzzle or a book.  All of these can be used for months if not years, and are engaging gifts.  They are also very reasonably priced. 

4.    A newborn does not need much, and probably has a hundred new sleepers by now.  For a baby, I try to find a book in which the main character shares his/her first name with the baby.  To make my search easier, I search for that name on Amazon.  Even my niece Livia received a book with her name in it.  For more uncommon names this can be difficult though.  

5.    When I was a poor grad student, I made (on my computer) and printed (on my own printer) a calendar with photographs of my grandmother at different ages.  My grandmother received the first copy, and then all my aunts and uncles (on that side of the family) received one as well.  This was a HUGE hit and it only cost me the price of paper, ink, and having the pages bound with spirals.  I put the photos and calendar table on pieces of 8 ½ x 14 inch (legal) size paper, one page per month.

6.    If you bake, a huge batch of cookies divided in small packs of 6 cookies are easy to transport (as opposed to cupcakes) and cheap.  Ditto for mini banana bread loaves.  If you are home early, you can even bake at home instead of in residence or at your rental apartment/house.

7.    Food is always popular.  Fill empty jars of spaghetti sauce (start collecting now) or peanut butter jars (make sure the recipient has no allergies) with candies or trail mix from the bulk store and label them.  These will be sure to be a hit because you can tailor the content to what the recipient likes: caramels, nuts and chocolate for dad; spicy and savory snacks for sister, gummy bears for little brother.

8.    If you need and have the time (this is very time-consuming), knitting scarves is simple and can be done with one skein (ball) of yarn purchased on sale.  If you have a long commute home and are not studying, this may work (I did that on the subway in Montreal – it was too hard to study but knitting worked)

9.    If you are giving gifts to fellow college students: a food ‘kit’ is fun, funny, and inexpensive: a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jam; microwave popcorn and 2 liters of soda; trail mix or dried fruit mix (see no. 7); corn chips and salsa; favorite chocolates; a mug and hot chocolate mix (you can add a bag of mini-marshmallow) .  Remember to avoid perishable, especially before a holiday when people are more likely to go home and not eat the food right away.

10.  An insulated mug is a great gift for most people: people on the go, students (even in high school), housewives, retired people.  A water bottle with a drinking spout is a good alternative for kids.

11.  If you are shopping specifically for Christmas, an ornament is a great and not-too-expensive gift.  Most can be found for less than $10 a piece, and several for less than $5 a piece.

12.  For a birthday, I like to put together a list of ‘what happened on ….. (date)’ sheet, and print it.  Simple but thoughtful.

There are obviously many more ideas like these – please share them on my blog!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Food: buy on sale, buy for cheap

I don’t clip coupons.  I also do not spent hours (or even minutes) looking at the grocery flyers that come to our house.  I am busy, and so are you (not to say that coupon clipping doesn’t work – it does!),

I do, however, buy food on sale.  I go to a discount grocery store close to home.  Not every item is the cheapest, but overall, I know I’ll get the cheapest grocery possible at that store (because I refuse to go to a ton of stores).  As well, once in the store I will check all the items on sale – this week was fish – and fish freezes well so I bought enough for 3 meals (different types) and froze it as soon as I got home.
I also needed cereal for the kids.  Now, follow carefully here to see my method: we were low on both sweet cereal (which we use as a toping on regular cereal) and regular cereal.  We were down to Cheerios and Mini-Wheats for non-sweet/regular.  This doesn’t mean that we NEEDED Corn Flakes.  Nobody ever NEEDS Corn Flakes – you may need a non-sweet cereal, but surely not a specific one (unless you have severe food allergies).  So I went to my regular, discount grocery store and looked at what was on sale: Rice Crispies were on sale, not Corn Flakes.  Ok, my kids like Rice Crispies so that’s what I bought.  For sweet cereal, my son wanted Sugar Crisps, but they were NOT on sale.  Corn Pops were on sale so that’s what we bought – he was slightly disappointed, but I explained that the next time Sugar Crisps were on sale, we would buy them; why spend an extra $3 for the regular price when I know that within 2-4 weeks, they will be on sale?

One thing I know is that cereal is always on sale – that is, some cereal is bound to be on sale every week – more or less.  As long as you are willing to buy what is on sale instead of what you had in mind, you will save money.  Or you can wait a few more weeks to buy what you really wanted.  There cannot be a need for a specific cereal when another one will do.
It’s the same for most non-perishable: there is typically some tetra-pack juice on sale, some cereal, some cans, etc.  There is also some meat (fish and chicken included here) and some vegetables on sale.  You are bound to save money by eating chicken this week if on sale and beef next week, instead of insisting that you do it the other way around.

In your food budget, there will be time when you need to buy more than others: for example, when there is a sale of a perishable that you will use for sure (before it goes bad!), such as pasta or canned soup or beans.  As well, the beginning of your ‘cook-for-yourself’ life, you will need to buy some basics: spices; staples such as flour, rice, pasta, cereal, a few canned goods, frozen vegetables, etc.  So for most students, because cash flow can be limited (as well as total amount of fund), it is wise to keep aside $3-5 per week so that when a sale comes up, you can take advantage of it.  As well, plan for the higher cost of stocking your kitchen when you start cooking on your own (when you move away from home or out of residence).

Now cook and be merry!