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Friday, July 25, 2014


How do you know when you are desperate for money? When do you consider yourself poor enough to ask for help?

My first answer is: it depends.  If you are the type of person who finds it a need to download a new song from iTune, I’d answer, ‘later than you think’.  If you are willing to go hungry in order not to burden anyone, I’d say ‘earlier than you think’.

So what does real desperation look like? As a student, it looks like the following:

- You do not have enough money to buy food so you are not eating (and I’m not talking eating out, but you are too poor to buy noodles from the grocery store).

- You do not have enough money to access the material you need to study (you can’t get the textbooks you need or the drafting tools you are required to use).

- You do not have secure shelter, warmth, clothing to keep you healthy in the weather you face every day (could be rain boots, could be a winter coat).

We are therefore describing basic student needs, not anything extravagant.  Notice that I have not mentioned tuition – more about tuition in a later post.

If you are in any of these situation, please speak up – and get help.  Here is where to get help.

- The Financial Aid Office – every university and college has one.  They will work on strategies with you so you can get money that you need (it could be in the form of a loan).

- Your parents – they may be broke, or unwilling to help, but they may have $25 that will help with groceries for 1-2 weeks.  Beware: they may not be keen on helping you if you spent all your money on clothes, partying, and electronics and now have no money left.

- The Food bank: some universities have them just for students.  Most cities have them.  At city food banks, you can usually get one week’s worth of non-perishable groceries per month and they help a large number of people.  Do not feel that you should not use food banks: they are for people who have fallen on hard time, just like others in your situation.  Once you have a job and are making money, you can donate to the food banks that have helped you.  Use the food bank if you need to.

- ‘Soup kitchens’ are organisations that prepare and serve meals to people in need of a hot meal.  Check your phone book.

- Some organisation will GIVE you clothes if you are in need (of course the Salvation Army has some for sell at very low prices as well); St-Vincent of Paul is one.  At our local one here, you can get a loaf of bread and clothing for free.

- Use your university; stay at the library for studying (free internet and warmth and quiet); plug in your computer and phone to charge them; use the textbooks on reserve at the library or another textbook on the same topic to study.  If you need to, ask the secretary for left-over food after a seminar – tell her you are short on money and could use a bite (administrative assistants have lots of experience with students struggling – they may even save you a piece of pizza after a meeting!); check out events with free food.

- Use your social circle to let people know that you are looking for a few items: a winter coat and boots, for example.  It’s unlikely that nobody you know will have an extra item.  Many colleges and universities have clothing drives to help students with warm clothes when winter is near – check out if there is something like this around you so you can get warm clothes for free.

- If you have lost your shelter altogether, go immediately to the Office of Financial Aid; this is a crisis and you need help right away.  Ask a friend for shelter (in exchange for chores around the house and/or tutoring).  Go home (if you can afford it) for a week or until you can figure out what to do.  Do not live homeless; it is dangerous.  You may need to forfeit your semester in order to stay safe.  However, most likely there is an emergency solution to your problem.

Of course, the best idea to avoid a financial crisis is to budget well and to be conservative in your spending, but sometimes there are unexpected problems that come up: your parents suddenly withdraw their financial support; your apartment burns down and you need a new place to stay; you suddenly get ill, withdraw for a semester and need to do an extra semester that you had not budgeted for, etc.  As an adult with a job, you are expected to have some emergency savings; as a student, it is very difficult to do that because your budget is tight with no extra money to put aside (unless you have more money than most – in that case, save!).  However, if you are spending on unnecessary items, keep in mind that whatever reason you have a larger-than-most cash flow may not last and be smart about having a contingency fund or plan.

Also, be aware of precursor clues that you are getting in financial trouble: you money is running out faster than you had expected; you are dipping in your ‘emergency food supply’, etc. 


The bottom line: if you are in a desperate situation, ASK FOR HELP; there is help for these situations and the help is designed to help YOU.  Do not feel bad as there will be opportunities for you to ‘make up’ for the help later in your life.  Right now, you need to stay afloat and stay healthy.  Help is there; use it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Your New City (or Your Old City Rediscovered)

If you have moving to a different city to study, remember that your new city is your home now, whether it feels like it or not.  This means that you can enjoy all the commodities it offers, just like any other resident.  You may need to get a few things organized first, but you are entitled to these.

For example, the public library of a city is a government program offered to anyone who has an address in that city.  Therefore, if you have just moved to Ottawa, you are entitled to use the Ottawa public library (all its branches) for free.  In order to get a library card, you will need to register with the library by physically going to one of its branches (locations are typically displayed on the library’s website) and show proof of residence (an official bill with your address in your new city on it).  If you are moving from a small town to a large city, you will be amazed at the resources you can access at your new library, including having items ‘shipped’ to the library branch closest to you and making reservations.  My library includes audio books, downloadable books, movies and even video games (for various systems!); all these are free to borrow and I can renew them online.

It is often difficult to find a new physician in a new city, but thankfully, most universities offer medical service to their students (you still need to show your medical insurance card, from your home province, to use the service) and these physicians are specialized in all the medical problems that university-age students encounter most frequently (birth control and sexual health; addictions; depression and anxiety) and they can write you medical notes if you need to miss school (including exams) and give you referrals to a specialist in the city. 

Your new city most likely offers some museums and/or galleries.  Take advantage of their newly-found proximity and the cheaper rates you can often get with your student card. 

Take the opportunity to enjoy what your new city offers: remember that you may not be able to live there after your degree: if you find a job right after school, it may take you somewhere else; you may choose to move back home for various reasons (including needing time to find a job while not paying rent); you may want to pursue more studies that are in a different city or you may even want to move to follow the love of your life.  Regardless of the reason, recognize that this time may be temporary and enjoy the festivals that are offered around you, often at very low cost, and definitely at lower cost than later since you live nearby and can enjoy a student discount.  Moved to Calgary? go see a Stampede; moved to MontrĂ©al? enjoy the Jazz Festival; new to Toronto? you’ll have to pace yourself and spread the entertainment over a few years!! 

Finally, remember to enjoy what is local; going downhill skiing if you are at the University of Regina is not frugal, but enjoying seafood in Halifax is a great way to take advantage of local opportunities.

Wherever your post-secondary education takes you, be part of your new town!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Choosing a College or University Well.

Many of you will be either returning to post-secondary education, or starting in it this September.  Not only is education after high school very different from high school, but the social scene is different, especially if you will not be living at home.  For international students (anyone changing country to study, even if the change is ‘only’ Canada-USA), the change is even more important: a new culture, new weather, often a new language, new foods, new social cues, and new legal, financial and red tape structure.  Queen’s University, in Kingston Ontario, has a special program called Atlas which helps international students welcome these changes.  I’ve stolen their diagram of what constitute all the health issues you must monitor when making the changes to post-secondary education.  If you change the middle bubble to ‘success in post-secondary education’ or even ‘success in life’ , you’ll get a good idea of what I mean.

To be successful in university, you can’t just count on academic success; obviously this blog is about doing it cheaply, but you also need to come out unharmed, healthy, and happy.  This is why I promote cutting down the fancy coffees, but not your meds; why I recommend jogging over club hopping, and why choosing a university close to home has lots of advantages. 

When studying more independently than in high school, you may end up meeting lots of different people.  You will be exposed to many different opinions, takes on life, philosophies, ethics, morals and religions.  It can sometimes feel a little overwhelming, especially if you are not sure what your beliefs are.  Luckily, university is a great place to do a few ‘taste-tests’ to solidify your beliefs or to find a philosophy that meshes with you. 

Where I wanted to draw your attention is to a couple of the bubbles:

The Emotional and Mental Health bubble: this is an extremely important one that many people ignore.  If you are treated for a mental illness or emotional problem or both, and that your team is a good one, consider not moving away for post-secondary education.  Two benefits will come from this: 1. you will keep your team of professionals assisting you.  In emotional and mental health, having a team that we are comfortable with is more important than in physical health because so much of mental and emotional health is talking about problems that are very difficult to talk about and because measurement methods involve divulging personal information.  The second benefit of not moving is that the cost will be less, so the stress of being able to pay for your years of studies will be less.  For anyone, with or without mental health problems, this stress can be enormous.  If you are dealing with mental health problems, this stress is by definition something you want to avoid.

The other bubbles I want to draw your attention to are the Social and Interpersonal Health bubble and the Socio-Cultural and Spiritual Health bubble.  Both of these rely heavily on finding peers you can relate to and develop meaningful friendship.  If your culture and religious background are very important to you, finding a city and a university where these are strongly represented should be a priority when choosing a school to attend; you may feel lost without them, and you may feel that you have no one to relate to if you are the lone person of your ethnicity or religion.   So make sure you can feel at ease where your study; it will be your home for a few years, so choose it well.

Remember: choosing an establishment of education should not be an academic decision alone; it should be a mental health and cultural decision as well.