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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.