Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Weekly Column: Losing and finding meaning in Christmas

It's been awhile. For no other reason than that I'm very busy, and I've seemed to lose interest in blogging. There are other writerly things going on, perhaps one day I'll sit to write about them. For now, a weekly column, also still happening. Wherever you are, I wish you a peaceful, contented holiday season!

Losing and finding meaning in Christmas

Ask anyone over the age of 40 these days, and they will tell you that Christmas isn’t what it used to be. Most of us have special memories, not of extravagant gifts or trips, but of simple things like a box of Christmas oranges being passed around at a community supper or the delight in being given a box of Pot of Gold chocolates.

The reason these things were thrilling is that you could only get mandarin oranges in December, and kids weren’t given treats in their every day transactions.

It’s difficult to make something special when our routine is full of daily rewards for doing regular things. You did your homework? How about a candy? Getting groceries with mom? You must need a sucker!

As parents and grandparents, we’re under enormous pressure to top the Christmases of old. But how can we recreate a magical feeling that we can’t quite define? And how can we reclaim the holiday for ourselves, and make it meaningful, when it seems to have become a runaway train of commercialism and debt?

It’s not only the expense of trying to capture the perfect Christmas memory that’s the problem. In fact, if money could do it I might give it a whirl. But you won’t find contentment at the bottom of your wallet, and what joy your gifts bring to others will slowly fade and by mid-January we’ll be back to the old grind with nothing but a mountain of bills to show for it. Will our kids remember these as “the good old days?” Probably, because they don’t know any better. And perhaps every generation has looked upon the next with a certain degree of gloom. But I ask you to sit in a quiet hall and listen to children sing Silent Night and not be moved to make Christmas more meaningful than just the bonanza of gifts and waste that it has become.

It’s not gifts we seek at Christmas, most people would agree. In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff hits the nail on the head, saying: “The Christmas presents, once opened, are Not So Much Fun as they were while we were in the process of examining, lifting, shaking, thinking about them, and opening them. 365 days later, we try again and find that the same thing has happened. Each time the goal is reached, it becomes Not So Much Fun, and we’re off to reach the next one, then the next one, then the next.”

Okay, if what’s in the box doesn’t matter, why do we do this? Why do we believe magic can be purchased, wrapped and given? Were our childhood Christmases so happy because our gifts were better in those days? Or was it because we didn’t get new things year-round or put up the tree in November?

Many of us preach that giving is much better than getting, but we should question why we feel the need to go over the top year after year in search of some emotional connection that is fleeting at best.
If we know we can’t really outdo ourselves year after year, why do we continue to try? Isn’t it a tad defeating? And is that contributing to the sense that Christmas just isn’t what it used to be?

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding writes: “It is just so stupid, everyone exhausting themselves, miserably haemorrhaging money on pointless items nobody wants: no longer tokens of love but angst-ridden solutions to problems…What is the point of an entire nation rushing around for six weeks in a bad mood preparing for an utterly pointless Taste-of-Others exam which the entire nation then fails?”

It’s not all so negative as that. When we overspend on gifts we are trying to tell each other, hey, I love you. I heard you say you like purple so I got you a purple scarf. Or, hey, I want to show you how special you are by spending much more than the agreed upon limit, for what says love like the burden of debt?

A recent report in The Atlantic (December 2017) states that $70 Billion worth of gifts are returned every Christmas in the US, and that 30% of gifts go to waste. Are we putting ourselves further into debt in an attempt to show love, while those very tokens of love are unwanted? Why is this happening?

It’s happening because we all want to regain that feeling of childhood wonder. We’re just going about it the wrong way. Christmas will be magical again when we can honestly say we spent more time than we did money, that we made it a special season for strangers not just ourselves, and that we sought to reconcile with those with whom we’ve fallen out. 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Weekly Column: Frugality of Minimalism?

Pick a path: frugality or minimalism?

An interesting question was asked on the personal finance blog ‘1500 Days to Freedom’: can frugality and minimalism co-exist? If not, which side do you choose?

Assuming that you’re reading this column because of a genuine interest in saving your money, what are your thoughts on the subject?

At first glance, many might assume that frugality IS minimalism, in a sense. After all, isn’t frugality buying what is needed when it is on sale, not being wasteful, saving for wants, and saving for a rainy day?

The short answer, it turns out, is frugality and minimalism do not necessarily go hand in hand…but they should.

How many times have you found yourself buying something because it was on sale? Did you know you wanted or needed the item before the reduced price caught your eye? Is it actually frugal to give in to that spendy urge and purchase things that are unnecessary?

By definition, frugality is being careful about spending money or using resources when you don’t need to. In other words, it’s frugal to turn out the light when you leave the room, keep the furnace turned lower overnight, and put your satellite on a seasonal break for the summer when you are mostly outdoors. Frugal people try not to pay interest, they might carpool, or drive vehicles that have better fuel economy.

A frugal person isn’t easily tempted to overspend, just to have what others have. Being frugal often means being efficient with money—shopping sales, doing some DIY, or buying bulk. People come by their frugality for different reasons. Some have experienced hard times or were raised with a prudent outlook. Others are saving to travel, retire, or be prepared for emergencies. There are any number of reasons to be frugal. Are you?

If you see a reduced price on something that you will need and use, it’s frugal to pick it up when it’s on sale. But let’s be honest, how many of us have corners of the garage and closets that are dedicated to these impulsive purchases that didn’t end up being necessary? And have you ever donated unused sale items that proved to be more clutter and less useful than you anticipated?

This is where minimalism comes in. Based on the idea of less being more, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

At first glance, the idea of ridding oneself of waste, distractions, clutter and consumerism seems like a very frugal thing to do. The website defines minimalism as a lifestyle that is sustainable, frugal, debt-free and natural. I would go one step further and describe it as a mindset that rejects material consumption, without the sense of deprivation.

But, as pointed out in the post by 1500 Days to Freedom (Ask the Reader: Frugality vs Minimalism), there are ways in which having a minimum of possessions can lead to unnecessary spending. Have you ever purged your home of unwanted and unused clutter only to later look for something you need and realize you’ve given it away? We’ve probably all had to rebuy something we once owned. In fact, the fear of that happening is what prevents many people from letting go of the clutter in their lives.

Being a staunch minimalist might also mean only buying things when they’re needed, rather than when they’re on sale. If a person doesn’t have room to store bulk items, tools, and the like, they might have to pay higher prices because they aren’t necessarily buying things on sale ahead of time.
The perfect example is paper towel. A frugal person might buy the Costco bale of hand towel and store it for a year before it’s all used up, but at a savings of several dollars. The minimalist might only buy one roll at a time, spending much more per roll, but avoiding the clutter of such large quantities.
The frugal minimalist, though, realizes that when there’s a year’s supply of paper towel in the basement it gets used wastefully because everyone knows there’s plenty more where that came from. The frugal minimalist (or the person that just can’t afford disposable cleaning products) tears up old towels and t-shirts for cleaning rags and saves that money altogether.

While many frugal people might consider themselves minimalists by definition, and minimalists might pride themselves on their frugality, there are instances when neither is true. It pays to re-examine our assumptions about how and why we spend our money.

Getting a good deal doesn’t mean it’s a wise purchase. Refusing to spend until it’s an absolute must can be a costly mindset. Somewhere in the middle is the prudent saver, on the path to financial security.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Weekly Column: Back to School, Not Back in Debt

Back to school, not back in debt

Many parents will agree that once your children are of school age, it’s tempting to spend more on what they wear. It’s natural to want to look nice, and supporting particular brand names and styles may be a part of what makes you feel confident and happy.

When the price of oil tanked in 2015, though, many local families had to reconsider their wants versus their needs. We need to pay the mortgage and other loans, utilities, groceries and bills. But do we need brand name clothing, new furniture, the trendiest shoes and that warm vacation?

People in the area were faced with hard decisions. Many are facing uncertainty to this day. And yet.
And yet, when it comes to our kids, we often give in to the urge to treat them to one more movie. One more camping trip. One more trip to the mall. We do it because we love them, of course. We want them to know they’re special and we shower them with things and experiences so they remember a happy, nourished childhood. These are good things, all of them.

Sometimes, however, we need to remind ourselves that it isn’t the stuff or even the vacations that make the memories or enhance the childhood. It’s the little conversations we might have on a drive, or their pride at having helped on a project, or the way you patiently taught them a new skill. None of these things need cost much money. Particularly if you haven’t the money to spend.  

With that in mind, as you consider your back to school shopping this year, remember that the delight and anticipation you may feel on your child’s behalf is exclusive from what they actually need for school.

If they have a closet full of clothing, how much do they need to survive another school year?

Providing they haven’t outgrown everything they own, couldn’t you get by with just a new piece or two of clothing and watch kijiji, the second-hand stores and clearance racks for whatever else they want?

The same goes for electronics. Although there are back to school sales happening, you must first consider whether the product is mandatory. In most cases, the school provides any compulsory technology. If that’s the case, do you really need to spend hundreds of dollars on iPads, laptops and headphones? Or will what you already have suffice?

Remember, if you’re going into debt buying things that aren’t needed, you have no one to blame but yourself. The buck has to stop somewhere. has some suggestions on how to stick to your budget this year:

·         How much of your back to school list can already be found in your home? 
What can be reused from last year? 
Is there any reason not to reuse backpacks, water bottles and lunch kits? 
If you have supplies that you aren’t going to use and don’t want, donate them so another family can use them.

·         Identify how much you can realistically spend this year. Don’t forgo making essential payments in order to buy unnecessary back to school gear.

·         Put needs before wants. Your child might want new sneakers but need a winter coat. Don’t leave the rational thinking to your offspring. If you watch for sales you might get both, but put essentials first.

·         Never pay full price. If there’s something your child wants, teach them to wait for a sale. This may mean wearing last year’s jeans on the first day of school—a lesson in delayed gratification and hardly a life-threatening experience. What doesn’t kill them will make them stronger.

·         Use cash. If kids can literally watch the money disappearing, it will help them prioritize their own desires. No matter their age, children can learn that when the money runs out the spending must stop.

·         Buy in bulk with friends, if you’re certain they’ll pay their share. It’s tempting to split bulk quantities of notebooks and pens with another family, but you’re no further ahead if they stiff you for their half. Enter into these types of agreements only with trustworthy, like-minded folks that won’t leave you footing the bill.

The passing of the school year is as momentous and noteworthy as a birthday, and is becoming just as emotionally loaded. We want to give our kids the very best, from back to school, to birthday parties, to Christmas, and all the days in between. Having experienced the economic slowdown of the past few years, though, local parents must be selective on how they spend their hard-earned cash.

We’ve been in debt and faced uncertainty before. Don’t let a new school year break your resolve to stay on budget. Teaching kids to handle money responsibly is as important as anything they will learn at school.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Weekly Column: Summer Fun in the City

Summer fun in the city

The end of the school year has now come to pass. Many of us have looked forward to it and limped across the finish line dragging an empty lunch kit behind us. No more school lunches, field trips, hot meals, morning race to the bus or struggle to get kids to bed on time. Summer is bliss.

And, of course, summer is expensive.

At the risk of repeating myself, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to give your kids precious childhood memories. And while most parents strive to give themselves and their kids a few momentous experiences in a year, it’s really what we do together day-to-day that creates the overall tone of our lives.

The summer months look different for everyone. Many people will continue to juggle work with parenting, with the additional cost of summer childcare. Others will find themselves suddenly bombarded by their kids who are used to being stimulated at school every day. And for those that stay home with their littles, not much will change except for a desire to enjoy the summer weather and break up the monotony of the usual routine.

No matter the differences in our schedules, we are all left with the question: how can we create a memorable, fun summer without constantly overspending in the process?

Plan weekly themes

Sit down with the calendar and organize your summer into weekly blocks, taking into consideration any travel you might already have planned. How much time is left over? If you intend to spend most of that time locally, now visit some websites to begin filling in your spare time with free activities. Don’t forget the smaller towns surrounding Lloydminster—these places have unique activities and so much to offer without your having to travel far or stay overnight.

The Community Events Calendars found on the Lloydminster Library and City of Lloydminster’s websites are also good places to start. Midwest Family Connections and the Grace United Church have free programming available for children, and don’t forget the many playgrounds and parks in and around Lloydminster.

You might choose an age appropriate book for your children and use that as a jumping off point for crafts, games and movies. Let your child’s interests guide you. Charlotte’s Web could inspire some colouring, as well as a visit to the petting zoo or a local farm. At the end of the week, review what you learned together and what the highlights were before introducing the next week’s theme.

Ask around and incorporate local events into your weekly plans. Parades, chuckwagon races, rodeos and festivals of every kind will be passing through local communities. Pick and choose where to spend a bit of your summer budget and you will soon find that empty calendar filling up with lasting memories.

Now that you have an idea of what your summer will look like, are there any broad stretches with nothing to do? You might book swimming lessons or a summer camp, but remember that those boring days also build character. Constantly entertaining children doesn’t allow them to self-sooth and play and imagine. At the same time, be wary of allowing video games and TV fill their summer hours.

Have variation

Anyone that’s spent much time with kids knows that variety and a back-up plan are essential. Is everyone tired of the same old routine? Try some spontaneous fun like backyard camping and sleepovers with friends. Sometimes an impromptu wiener roast is even more fun than a planned event, and is usually cheaper and less work at the same time.

Car pool, pot luck and coupon

No one wants to come across as cheap, but if anyone in the Midwest hasn’t admitted times have changed perhaps it is up to you to fill them in. If you have friends you prefer to travel with, adjust schedules so you can ride together when possible. Keep coupons in the vehicle for any drive-thru you may find yourself visiting. Of course, pack your snacks and plan your meals, but save on those little treats wherever possible. Communicate with other adults and see if a potluck picnic can shave any of the cost off your day-trip plans.

Embrace the summer

Summers in Canada can be dreadfully short. We don’t want to take any of the fun out of these warm weeks by discouraging our kids or pinching our pennies too hard. But the reality is, there is always another reason to overspend. Many of us are still paying for Christmas. Don’t add to your problems by going overboard this summer.

With a bit of planning, parents can bond with their kids at local attractions while teaching them that adventure is a frame of mind. Find meaningful ways to connect while still spending responsibly.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Weekly Column: Planning on a Pet?

Planning on a pet?

Pets can be an essential part of the family. Just about all of us have fond memories of a childhood pet and playmate of some sort. Beyond companionship, having a pet teaches children responsibility, encourages compassion, and may even help prevent some allergies. If your kids are begging you for an animal to care for, all of the positives make it a hard proposition to resist.

There are many benefits to having a pet, and if the right one comes your way it is wonderful to welcome a new member into the family. Too often, though, families don’t take the time to evaluate whether an animal fits their lifestyle. As well, leaping into pet ownership without fully considering the cost is folly. No matter how alluring the idea of a pet might be, there are a number of things to save for before you take responsibility for another life.

All creatures, big and small…

…cost money. Before beginning to discuss what kind of a pet to get, you must first sit down and decide what you can realistically afford. Being led by your heart, or your kid’s, can lead to heartache if you find that a huge purebred dog and his vet and feed bills are bankrupting you.

 If you’re trying to keep a low budget, you might go the route of a fish. After the initial costs of setting up an aquarium, which you might find used, remember you will still have filters to buy and a tank to keep clean. Plus, you can’t hug a fish.

Pets also take time. Have you got the time and patience to house train a puppy? Or is the more aloof and independent house cat a better choice?

Do you work long hours, and will the animal be alone too much? Before you commit to the care of a beast, large or not, have you considered how it will affect your vacation plans? Have you got someone to do your chores while you are away?

And what of containment? Will you need to build a fence, in the case of an acreage owner that desires a horse or some sheep or goats? Where will you get your winter feed? Will these animals eventually need sheared, shoed, or sheltered? Who will do this, and how much will it cost? Are you comfortable taking on these tasks yourself?

And what of transport? Do you need a trailer, if you’ve gone big? Will you need help training your pet? If your kids are horse crazy, perhaps it is best to find someone with horses and give the kids a chance to work with large animals before you commit to the work and expense of keeping your own.

Man’s best friend

There’s no denying the comfort and companionship of a dog. Before you consider bringing one into your family, though, have a realistic look at what feeding and housing the animal is going to cost.
Many breeds have had costly medical conditions bred into them. Have you researched the common problems that come with that expensive pedigree? Are you passionate enough about the dog to sacrifice vacations and shopping trips down the road if you end up with enormous vet bills? Or would you give a mixed breed from a shelter a chance at a new life?

No matter how you slice it, there are costs associated with getting a pet. If you are unsure of making that commitment, there are still ways you and your kids can get involved with animals.

Volunteer, pet-sit, dog-walk

A great way for a family to decide if pet ownership is right for them is to look after a neighbour’s animal while they are away. Do you find it rewarding? Or does the responsibility cramp your style? If the kids can’t be bothered it is a good indication of what will happen when the “new” wears off a pet of their own.

The SPCA offers many opportunities for volunteers, from helping with fundraising to walking dogs or fostering animals that await adoption. Animal-loving kids could also ask for donations to the SPCA in lieu of birthday gifts—these kinds of actions exemplify a child committed to loving and caring for a pet long-term. If your child is serious and passionate about getting an animal, it can be a tremendously enriching experience for him or her—and one that deserves a spot in your family’s budget.

There is no denying the joy a pet can provide. For many families, saying goodbye to an old pet is devastating. When considering adding to your family, you must realize the costs and sacrifices that come with the fun and games. Choose a pet that you can afford to care for over the long-term, and enjoy every minute of that special bond.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Weekly Column: Advice for the weekend warrior

Advice for the weekend warrior

When the snow melts in the spring, many homeowners look around their property with renewed energy and see a number of projects that need attention as the days get longer and warmer. Whether it be painting a fence, replacing some windows, rebuilding a deck or installing flowerbeds, it is all bound to cost money before it gets done.

Anyone who makes their living in the oil patch knows that when there’s time for these projects, there usually isn’t money. And when you’ve got the money, you are working and don’t have the time. 

Spring break-up is a great time for that “honey do” list, but when your work is shut down with no definite date of return, it can and should be a time of conservative spending.

Of course, not everyone is putting in the extreme hours and distances of the oil patch workers. If you work a nine to five job with weekends off, the last thing you might want to do is get home from work and change out a toilet, or spend your weekend off struggling with a home repair.

And then there’s the farmers. Making hay while the sun shines is more than just an expression. It’s a way of life. Those jobs around the house, no matter how big or small, have to wait until the cows are out to pasture, the crop is in, the haying is done, and the list goes on. When there’s a break from the most urgent work there are still fences needing mended, machines needing serviced, and probably some tinkering do in the shop. 

You get my point.

What everyone has in common is that home and yard maintenance often gets left until the last minute. And when it does, it can cost significantly more to do when you are unprepared and disorganized.

Gathering the supplies to do a job around the house or yard can take as long as the job itself. Also, trying to purchase the necessary tools and hardware at the last minute is bound to cost more—if you can find it at all. Save yourself a headache by making some lists and shopping around. This can not only make the job go more smoothly, it can also save you time and money.


When deciding what jobs to tackle at your next opportunity, prioritize the most vital ones and leave the cosmetic touches for later. Yes, it would be nice to get that fence painted, but if you have a drip somewhere that has the potential to become a costly, inconvenient emergency, deal with it first. Once you have a good list itemized from most important to least, you can begin budgeting and pricing out materials for all of what you need.


At some point, most everyone has been caught off guard by the price of materials when they start a project at home. You can lessen the sticker shock, though, if you do your homework and call around for quotes on supplies. Whether it’s lumber or windows, a large price difference might exist between stores. Leaving your shopping for the weekend, also, might greatly increase your costs if some of the competition is closed. Make the effort to shop during the week if it will save you a great deal of money.

Likewise, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Check out kijiji and online trade and sell groups before you pay full price at the hardware store. Know your prices and decide if used is right for you. As well, consider listing anything you want to get rid of. That lime green tub, toilet and vanity combo you hate might be the retro look someone is going for.

Get your supplies and tools ready for when you have time to tackle the job. If that basement bathroom reno is waiting for a day of rain, have everything on hand if at all possible. Don’t spend your precious day off rounding up the necessaries.

Lastly, know when you’re in over your head. There are many home repairs and renovations that need to be up to code. Don’t create issues that will cause you, or a future buyer, costly problems down the road.

Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you have overpaid for things. When it comes to home maintenance and repair, you already don’t want your free time taken up with difficult and expensive extra work. Do your research. Figure out ahead of time what it’s going to cost. Set money aside for the project, then do your shopping, and tackle the job in a strategic way. Getting the most urgent tasks off the list will leave time for the cosmetic ones, and maybe even some rest and relaxation when the list is completed.