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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.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Have a Plan

It’s a good idea to have a plan of what you will do after university or college before you go.  Not that this plan is set in stone, but going to university to ‘hang out’ is an expensive way to hang out – you can hang out working as a store clerk while making and saving money.

Deciding to pursue a degree in a certain department because you like the subject is nice, but it may not get you to where you want.  Dragon’s Den’s Kevin O’Leary explains in his book ‘Men, Women, and Money’ that there is a passion, and a money-making career.  You can decide that you want to be a visual artist and paint beautiful landscape.  This is a very fulfilling occupation and you will most likely be very happy doing this for hours a day.  However, this is unlikely to pay the bills, at least at the beginning.  So, training for a job, to be employable, is a better financial investment in your education; painting is a fantastic side-occupation and you may want to train for a job that frees you in the evenings and weekends so you can paint, or that is flexible enough that you can eventually work part-time and pursue your love of painting more intently if you have the means.

So, in investing thousands of dollars in education should pay off at the end.  Studying marketing and finances so you can work in a bank is a good plan.  Studying biology because you like animals… not so good.  It’s very important to research what type of paying job (or business you can start) you would like to have, and work backwards from there: you want to work at an animal hospital? Animal Technicians, Receptionists, and Veterinarians are all work there and require specific training.  You want to cuddle animals and play with them? Look into animal training and animal grooming; horseback riding instructor could also be a possibility.

There is an excellent USA-sponsored site that helps you determine what your interests are, as well as defining your skills: .  You can there fill out free questionnaires to determine what sort you career you may want to launch yourself into.  For some people, it’s difficult to choose.  For others, the interests are well –defined and they know what type of work they want to do.

Some careers require a plan ‘B’.  This is the plan where if plan ‘A’ does not turn out as successful as planned (or completely fails), there is an alternative route to follow.  For example, deciding to obtain an undergraduate in biochemistry and then go to medical school to become a cardiac surgeon is a fantastic plan.  However, not all students who apply to medical school get an offer to join.  In this case, a plan B could be:

- Start a Master’s degree in biochemistry and continue applying.  If the Master’s is completed before acceptance into Medical School, abandon Medical School and apply to Nursing School.

- At the same time as applying to Medical School, apply to Optometry, Pharmacy, Physiotherapy and Dentistry and choose an alternate career based on which program has accepted me.

- Start a Master’s degree in biochemistry and continue applying.  If the Master’s is completed before acceptance into Medical School, start and complete a PhD in biochemistry with the goal of a career in medical-type research.

Of course, as your studies progress, you may change your course; maybe biochemistry and medical school are not so attractive anymore so you are thinking of history.  That’s great – better change now thank to complete a degree you don’t like and have to restart another.  But what is your plan with this history degree? History is fantastic to study, but not so good at finding you a job.  You want to be a history teacher? A tour guide for a city? An educator at a museum? All three options would be fantastic to use your history degree; however, becoming a teacher requires an education degree (and this would be preferred for an educator at a museum too) and a tour guide would do best knowing multiple languages.

So work backwards from your dream job – you’ll get head faster I your career.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Get It for Free

When I wanted to furnish my first apartment, as a university student, I did not have a lot of money.  My mother had given me her (very) old kitchen table and chairs (oh, the feel of plastic cushions under my legs in the summer!), and two very old and low-to-the-ground chairs from a seldom-used office.  We had a few plates, a microwave that weighed almost as much as the fridge and had only one power setting, and the dresser from my bedroom; luckily, I was not moving very far.  We did want, however, a few more pieces to contain our ‘stuff’; a desk, a bookcase, an office chair, etc.
Today’s student has a lot more choices as to where to acquire a few objects to make life more enjoyable.  I just had a look at Kijiji tonight.  In the FREE section, there was a working television offered (not flat screen, but if it works, who cares?), an entertainment center, a couple of couches in decent condition, arm chairs, a couple of beds, a computer desk, two pianos (!), all free for the taking.  In all cases but one, the ‘buyer’ has to pick up the furniture, which of course is difficult for a student without a car.  However, for the price of renting a van for a few hours, you can pick up all of these if you plan it well.    In the same spirit, you can easily give away your old furniture if/when you move away from your college town.
Another, more exclusive, group that exchanges items for free is Freecycle.  Freecycle is a Yahoo group so you have to ask to become a member and the main rule of posting on their site is that everything you offer has to be free – completely free, no trades, no exchange, no conditions.  I have given many items  via Freecycle, but have also received many, many items, such as downhill skis and boots, plants, clothing for myself, an electric kettle, unopened milk (someone had an extra litre from a visitor who drank different fat % milk), and bedsheets.   In my area last night, there were offers for a free single bed (complete with mattress and bedframe), a TV, empty wine bottles (if you make your own wine), a blue vase, and hot chocolate.  You can choose to receive new posting in your email, or check their website throughout the week.
With different methods, such as looking online, checking paper ads on bulletin boards, and driving through the student area right after final exam time in the spring, you should be able to find several free items.  The savings will be more if you get an expensive item for free (assuming you were going to buy it otherwise) like a dresser or a coffee maker.   But even little freebies can be welcome if you do not have to travel too far to obtain them.  I have received clothing via Freecycle (for myself and more recently, my children), a curtain rod (perfect size too!), some books, and some plants.  Unfortunately,  I discovered Freecycle after my home was well-furnished; I still donate quite a bit of stuff through it and through Kijiji though, specifying that picking up the item(s) is necessary. 
Just remember that if you can be a bit patient, you may be able to obtain many of your wish-list items for free.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Are Your Bad Habits Wrecking Your Budget?

At some point, I had two part-time jobs, one in the morning and a different one in the afternoon.  With about 45 minutes between the two and a short commute, I would often stop at a fast-food joint during my break.  This (bad) habit not only was not bad for my health, but it also did serious damage to my weekly budget.  Like mine, there are many bad habits that may seem small at first glance, but can accumulate large holes in a tight budget.  Here are some examples:
- Coffee: even a cheap coffee at Tim Horton’s is at least $1.60 each time.  At only three times a week, it’s already almost $5/week…. how much would that be at home? less than 50 cents per week.
- Going over on your cell phone plan limit: it often seems like answering a call or making one is a necessity.  However, many of the calls we make are either non-urgent, or non-important.  Just today, I texted a friend to know if she wanted a shirt I had received but was in a color I didn’t like.  I could have called her from my home line (we have one); I could have emailed her.  Certainly, her answer was not urgent – I was not in a rush to get rid of the shirt, and my friend was not in dire need of an extra shirt.  Keep your cell plan basic, and use free communication methods for anything that is not urgent.
- Snacks: you are hungry going to class but you are late so you don’t make breakfast and buy a pastry first chance you get; or you didn’t think you’d stay on campus this late, and didn’t pack enough food.  Buying instant snacks can be expensive.  The solution is to plan better, and to have emergency snacks in your bag: granola bars; an apple; fish crackers.  Even stopping at the grocery store to pick up a bag of mini-carrots, crackers and cheese will be cheaper to a meal on campus AND will provide more than one meal.  The same is true of your water bottle or your coffee mug; if you leave your drinking container at home, having a drink of water next to you will cost you.  Make sure a water bottle is part of your normal pack at school or wherever you go.
- Forgetting your bus pass: if you use the bus to commute but keep forgetting your bus pass, or you leave your bus pass (or student card if that is your bus pass) at home thinking you won’t need it, you are most likely going to have to pay for the bus if there is a change of plan.  Tie your bus pass to your keys or to your cell phone so you always have it with you.
- Chucking tubes and bottles before they are completely empty: yes, it’s a hassle to get the last drops of shampoo out of the bottle, but if you take the time (add water, shake a lot, and use) for every bottle of every product you use, you will save the equivalent of a full bottle each year or so.  This goes for most beauty products (yes, that last bit of toothpaste too), most soaps (including dish detergent), and the last crumbs of cookies.  I cut in half the tubes of hand lotion and find that there’s a full 3-8 applications left in the tube, holding on to the sides (you can close the tube once it’s cut by inserting one half into the other half).  You can most likely use the disposable razor one or two more times before throwing it out.
- Returning your library books late: I am guilty of this, especially that once in a while, I misplace a library book so even though I’m not forgetting to return it, I can’t return it on time since I can’t find it in time.  I’m trying to find a system that works well for our family, such as having a bag where all books go as soon as we are done reading them, but it’s a struggle (however, I know my library fees are lower than the cost of the all the books we get to read for free so I’m in the clear).  I often spend $20+/year on library late fees.
Of course I could go on and on about habits and how they cost us extra money but you get the idea.  Once way to identify these bad financial habits is to track ALL spending for a week (just write it down in your daily planner) and review what can be eliminated or at least reduced.  I’ve made rules with myself: I do not go to fast-food outlets alone (only with a friend, and then it’s an ‘outing’ that I appreciate); I keep snacks in my desk at work so I never have to go out for a snack; etc.  Find your own bad habits and fix them.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Buying Clothes

Let’s say you need to buy some clothes.  Spending little is the goal here, although making sure the clothes is useful is also very important.  Spending a few tens of dollars extra is worth it if it means having a warm winter jacket that will be comfortable for you during the coldest months.
First, before you run to the mall, ask yourself if you can buy the item in reasonable shape at a second-hand store.  There are many used clothing stores in most towns and cities; between the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Value Village and a few more upscale stores, you should have plenty to choose from.  If you are hesitating about buying something someone has worn before, remember that clothing in a ‘regular’ store has probably been tried on (so worn for a few minutes) by a few people too!  My friends and I used to visit Goodwill stores in different towns we’d visit; it was always a challenge to make a big ‘find’: a vintage dress, an amazing deal on a winter jacket, a silk T-shirt that feels like a dream.
Here is a clothing philosophy: only buy clothing that is easy to care for; no dry-cleaning, no hand washing (except for pantyhose – see below), no ironing (I hate ironing).  As well, spend more for items you will wear a lot, less for items that will only last a season because of the style, or because it’s for a special event.  A cheaper formal dress makes sense since it only needs to last one evening; a sweatshirt may be worn 3-4 times/week, so buy one that washes well or it will not last more than a few months.  This works as well for shoes: splurge on good quality running shoes if you run, but not on a dressy pair of pumps for one night.
When buying expensive items, we buy neutral color and cut: jeans, dressed pants, dressed shirts, jackets and coats will ‘last longer’ if classic cuts are purchased because they will survive trends, but also we won’t get tired of them as easily.  I recently bought a down jacket for the cold and although the light blues seem attractive, I choose a navy one because it will not show stains as easily and I can match it with a multitude of different scarves and hats.  As well, when buying a more expensive item that is not immediately needed (if your boots are not leaking water), look for sales and plan for annual sales: most items are severely discounted at the end of the season – bathing suits are cheap to buy when autumn clothing comes out; winter coats after Christmas.
Panty-hose are very fragile so they don’t last very long.  I found that buying larger sizes means I need to stretch them less, and therefore they don’t rip as fast.  I’m a size small, but buy size large for panty-hose.  The same can be done with thick tights; although just one size larger is enough (otherwise they look too large): buy medium if you would wear small.  I found out the hard way that ‘non-run’ panty-hose are just that: they won’t run if there is a rip, but you can still rip them if you have nails and are careless when putting them on!  Of course once you have panty-hose, washing them by hand is more gentle on them, as well as putting lotion on your hands before putting the hose on (dry hands can be rough on fragile thread).  And if all these ideas didn’t work well and you have a few pairs of ripped ones, they work wonders under a pair of pants for extra warmth in winter (and nobody seems them!).  If this seems like a lot of work, you can simply save dresses for weather when you can go barefoot!
Finally, remember that being a poor starting student is temporary, and so is the casual clothing style.  Enjoy both!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jobs That Will Help You Get Your Dream Job

I’m going here on the assumption that your dream job is why you are in school now; if I’m wrong, either I’ve missed something (please enlighten me!) or you are studying in the wrong program.
Working as an ASSISTANT to your dream job is a great training ‘program’ in which you get paid, earn experience, and test out whether this is really what you want to do.  The experience is what is getting you a step closer to your dream job, so get a reference letter before you leave (or right after).
If you can work as a RESEARCH ASSISTANT for a professor who teaches a class that is very important to your degree, you are receiving acknowledgement (for you and whoever will read your resume later on) from an expert in the field that you are so good in this area that you are wanted for work.  Approach professors in the winter term (yes, now) for a summer position; it may also lead to part-time work comes the fall.  In a similar fashion, there exist many student-work programs where the university-bursary program funds part of your salary and a professor or research lab funds the rest of your salary; this works well because the lab is more likely to hire you since they get you at a discounted salary and you get to work in a field you like.  Most of these are part-time during the school year.
Work at almost any job in the INDUSTRY you are interested in.  For example, after your first year of engineering, you are not likely to be hired to work in an engineering firm as a designer; however, can you replace clerks going on vacation during the summer? This will get you a foot in the door, prove to the employer that you are willing to work your way up (and are not so full of yourself that you only want a top job), and make a summer job a great learning experience as how other parts of the industry you will most likely work one day function.  If you are pre-vet (doing the mandatory undergrad before going to vet school), working at a pet shop, at a dog grooming salon (even if you want to specialize in large animals), or a kennel is a proof to future employers (and vet school) that you are committed and focussed on this goal.
Work in an industry connected to your MAIN FIELD of study. If you want to do math research, working in an accounting firm is not where you want to work.  However, it’s related and that gives you two advantages: 1. maybe you’ll find accounting a lot of fun and if you decide not to complete a PhD, you may decide to retrain as an accountant and 2. it shows that you can work in the general field of math.  Same deal if you work at a science day camp: 1. you may find that teaching science (and math) is fun and you could decide on a change of career and 2. you show that you can explore and teach (and therefore train another) in the general field of math and sciences.
If you are studying anything related to business, working in retail will teach you a lot and look great on your resume; moreover, these jobs are the easiest to get as a student AND you can work part-time during the school year as well.  My sister worked for a few years in a chain restaurant, moving from cashier to manager of the employees.  She learned to work as part of a team, to budget, and to lead.  After her degree in marketing and business, she started working at a bank and quickly moved up to manager, surely thanks to her great previous experience.
Many coop programs are designed that way: you work some terms and study others, but at the end of your degree, you already have experience in your field and fantastic connections to a few companies who may choose to hire you.  In teachers college, the practicums are included in the program.  However, if you are doing a degree beforehand, working at camps or before and after-school care will earn you ‘bonus points’ on your application.  As well, good references from your practicum mentors will help you get the job you want.
While every job opportunity is not the most financially-wise, it ‘pays’ to look beyond the salary.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Using Leftover Food

Left-over foods that you would normally throw out are like free food if you can re-purpose them.  Here are two examples from my own kitchen.
Broccoli Stem Soup
I don’t really like eating the stems of the broccoli; when I cook broccoli, I just like to eat the smaller ‘twigs’ and the florets of the broccoli. The large ‘trunks’ of the broccoli can be tough.  However, I found a way to use them that is delicious: broccoli stem soup. 
First, ‘peel’ the broccoli stems to remove the tough outer skin.  Chop the peeled stems in small pieces.  Heat up approximately 3-4 cups of water in a pot.  Before it starts boiling, add a pouch or cube of chicken or vegetable broth concentrate. Add the broccoli pieces and let simmer until the broccoli is soft.  Take the pot off the heat and, using a stick blender, puree the broccoli and broth together.  Put back on the heat and add roughly 1-1.5 cup grated cheddar cheese (any kind you like; you could probably use Cheez Whiz if you wanted).  Let the cheese melt, stir well, taste and adjust seasoning (salt and pepper to taste).  Et voilĂ , great homemade soup!!
Crumb Muffins
This is a great recipe that uses cereal, cracker and cookie crumbs, or any combination of these.  Whenever you have a few bits of cereal at the bottom of the box or bag (you know when the cereal becomes like a ‘powder’ at the end) or cookie or cracker crumbs, pour them inside a plastic jar or container and seal it.  When all the crumbs together reach 1 cup, you are ready to make muffins.  Do NOT use bread crumbs, cake crumbs, or anything soft or moist crumbs (I tried, it doesn’t work).
First, soak the 1 cup of crumbs in 1 cup of milk, until the crumbs are soft and have absorbed the greater part of the milk (15 + min; you can do this in the fridge and leave for the day).  Add 1 cup of flour, ¼- ½ cup of sugar ( ¼ if using cereal or cookies; ½ if mostly crackers), 1 egg, ¼ cup vegetable oil, and 2 tsp baking powder.  Now, add some ‘bits’: ½ cup chocolate chips, ½ cup raisins, or ½ cup of nuts.  Also add a flavour: 1 tsp vanilla or ½ tsp cinnamon, or 1 tbsp coffee syrup.  Grease a 12-cup muffin mold (or use paper cups in the muffin pan) and fill to 2/3 each muffin holder.  Bake at 3750F for 20-25 min.  Remove from the oven and let cool 10 min before removing from the muffin pan.  Enjoy!  These can be very healthy if you use healthy cereal crumbs for your base and they freeze well.

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.