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.

Prioritize

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.

Organize

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. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Alignment

It's been too long since I've come to this space to centre myself.

Blogging used to bring me back to my foundation, or at least it felt so. In putting my thoughts and intentions into words here, I always felt clarity and grounded-ness return. I'm not sure of that now, nor am I sure why.

It all has to do with with actually following through on what one publicly declares, and the pernicious contradiction between introversion and the online world. I'm not sure I can go on with it.

At the same time, there are things left unsaid that I feel I will need to write out to understand...about life, motherhood, writing, gardening, and all the things that make me feel whole. And I have no problem sharing that, in fact, it seems in some odd way to help me. And there's the paradox.

It's been a summer of high expectations that no doubt had to fall short in some way or another. When you have such long winters it's hard not to lay the hopes and dreams of the whole year at the feet of a couple unsuspecting months of sunshine and tell them, "work, damn you. Make it all worthwhile!"

But of course summer can't do that. A garden doesn't simply grow and produce without weeds (and oh how many weeds). You can't just hit the end of the school year and drop everything and expect that only fun will ensue. When you abandon all the personal growth you've undertaken and achieved in increments over what seems like years, mowing down on chips and hotdogs and, yes, alcohol, all in the name of summer's freedom, it is hard not to come out the other side bereft and constipated and wondering what hit you.

I guess that's where I am right now.

I began the summer by throwing in the towel on my organic aspirations and buying a jug of Round-Up and poisoning thistles around my yard. You see, the thistle problem here has morphed into a situation that feels really drastic and hopeless at the same time. I haven't taken a single picture of what used to be my pride and joy. And I've felt unable to write about it because I've abandoned a principle that felt so important. And I felt that I've taken this blog and changed it and can't really return to it now that I've broken a sacred trust.

I felt like the couple readers I have would pick up and leave me, which you might.

While I'm confessing my sins I might also add that the spending this summer has also veered from my comfort zone. We've done more camping and I'd like someone to explain to me how food that you cook over a fire is so exorbitantly more expensive than that which you cook inside your home. I suspect it's all those chips. Whatever the case, a couple of shopping sprees where I justified the binge with the statement, "this is what we save all year for, kids!" has left me feeling completely out of whack.

I haven't been living in alignment with my values and it gets me every time.

I think I expected 40 to be an age where, though I might have insecurities regarding my looks and womanhood, at least I would have my proverbial shit together in a mental sense. And lately that just hasn't been the case.

The old truck I drive just cost a bundle of money to fix and the indecision whether to fix it or nix it feels like a twenty-something conundrum. But these situations are going to arise and no amount of writing about budgets and being proactive and the like is going to make the obvious choice stand out. And I guess I thought we were above these situations and decisions. But life still happens to those who budget. And when those who budget justify some major discretionary spending blowouts, coming back to earth hurts.

I allow this to happen to myself too often. I regularly exercise, for awhile, and recognize how good I feel when I eat right. I get more confidence and my body and mind and ideals are in tune with each other. For whatever reason, I derail when faced with temptation. Often, the sweets and sentiment of Christmas. In this case, the indulgence and allure of childhood memories at the lake. Missing from those pictures is the balance that allows me some latitude while also keeping me on the right track.

I can see now, also, that it was a mistake to abandon writing for the summer. I took a class and felt I had made some progress in the winter and spring. But this was an important summer in that both kids start school in the fall, and I felt that hunkering down with them was the best way to savour these days together. I intentionally set aside my writing goals and now feel it's impossible to regain my momentum. I can also see how hard the transition will be in September and I'm already freaking out.

Luckily, there is time. There is time every day to return to exercising. I have time right now to make a smoothie and sit on the deck visiting my guys. And there's a couple weeks yet to establish a routine that will help carry me over the bump in my road where two little boys get on the bus and I am alone for the day. That's a day I've pictured for years, sometimes with longing and often with trepidation. Right now I view it with something akin to terror, because I don't see who will be here alone without them. I don't see, right now, who that person is or how she will manage.

I feel like I allowed two months of summer, with no routine or goals, to derail my confidence and intentional life I'd been living. How silly of me to allow that to happen. But it is easily rectified. A trip to the library, plenty of books and snuggles, fresh air and exercise and some gentle self-care. I really let myself go this summer and I'm disappointed in how I veered from my course in almost every way possible. But it was me who had set the course to begin with, and me that must set it right.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Weekly Column: So What The Hell is a Fidget Spinner?

So what the hell is a fidget spinner?

If you have kids, or even if you don’t, you may have heard of “fidget spinners” that are all the rage right now. Consisting of a ball bearing and some metal weights, these are the next popular gadgets for kids to yearn for.

Remember Pok√©mon? For those older folks, maybe hula hoops are a better comparison. Basically, it’s a toy just cheap enough to make it into almost every household, and leave those without one feeling alienated and alone. Isn’t childhood fun?

On one hand, many parents saw that fidget spinners range in price from seven to $16, heaved a sigh of relief that they don’t cost more, and just bought the darn things. But, on the other hand, the supposed low cost is part of what’s frustrating. They must cost very little to make but are priced just at the cusp of what most people would refuse to pay.

You might say, why is there always an old curmudgeon complaining about the cost of things? Let your kids be kids, buy them the toys, give them a fun childhood!

Old curmudgeon or not, some of us can’t help but look beyond childhood at the implications fads like these have on our kids.

For starters, it’s small and easily lost. Nothing grates on a frugal parent like spending $15 on something that might not see 24 hours of play. Depending on how many kids you have—because who expects their kids to share anything nowadays—you may be looking at a lot more money spent and potentially lost on the playground. This is especially true if they are treated as disposable and more are bought as others get lost or wrecked.

There’s no conclusive research proving these gadgets do anything to improve concentration—it’s hard to imagine how they aren’t considered a distraction. This makes them a gimmick, pure and simple. They’ve been marketed as a “learning device” when indeed they are not. In that sense, they’ve infiltrated our schools and homes using misinformation.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, trendy toys like fidget spinners give rise to a number of emotional hang-ups for kids and parents alike. Were you deprived of similar “cool” toys when you were young? If so, does this make you more or less likely to buy in to the fad? Does your child feel left out, less popular, or picked on because they don’t have what everyone else is playing with?
Because, really, all any of us wants is to feel like we belong. And your child may be begging you for a fidget spinner (or any other toy) not necessarily because they want the item but simply because they don’t want to stand out as being different or, in their minds, less than.

Choose to buy the fidget spinner, if that fits your financial situation. It’s true that they are cheap and seem to provide hours of entertainment, even if some of us can’t wrap our heads around the pastime. But don’t make these types of purchases thoughtlessly. 

Consider the labour and cost that goes into manufacturing them overseas. Consider that mindless spending and the acquisition of whatever is popular teaches your child to put impulse before common sense. We don’t know what economy they will face as adults. Is it wise to let these learning opportunities pass them by?

It’s not that we shouldn’t indulge children with occasional treats and surprises. Not even old curmudgeons want to rob kids of joyful childhood memories. But use this as an opportunity to have thoughtful conversations about spending.

Do you want it based on its own features, or mostly because everyone else has one? Are you willing to do extra chores in order to earn the money to buy it yourself? Do you promise to share your spinner with the kids that don’t have one, knowing as you do how it felt to be left out of the pack?

Frugal people don’t mean to bust your chops over every trivial purchase you might make for yourself or your kids. But we know that we’re making mortgage payments with the money that accumulates when you resist these petty fads.

We can’t help but have the vague sense that kids and adults alike often learn more from deprivation than from reward. Wanting and not getting builds character and encourages empathy, while constant gratification breeds only an appetite for more, and more.


Whether you buy the spinners or not, the next fad is just around the corner. Setting a precedent with your kids that every purchase, no matter how small and meaningless it seems, will be discussed and evaluated and saved for gives you more traction when they later expect a phone, a car, or their education to be handed to them.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Weekly Column; You're (not) Richer Than You Think

You’re (not) richer than you think

 At the height of the oil boom, it seemed like the money would never run out. Companies were competing for capable, experienced workers with higher wages, better benefits, truck and living allowances, and a variety of performance bonuses. 

This money flooded the community in a housing boom that created demand for tradespeople, building materials, and accommodations for employees.

As we saw locally, this created a bustling economy characterized by new businesses, new neighbourhoods and a flood of people moving to the area to share in the wealth. Back then, rather than wondering how to save and invest, the question on our minds was what to spend on next.

Much of the spending that was commonplace a few years ago seems extravagant by today’s standards—or by any standards—illustrated by all the sleds, quads, bikes, boats, and campers that were financed for occasional weekend use, never mind the after-market accessories on the jacked up, chipped, loud trucks. And once you’ve pimped out your vehicle, your own appearance and that of your family must keep up with brand name clothing and toys of their own.

It was a full-time job, just spending that money and keeping up with the trends and purchases of those in your social circle. The shame of it all is how much of that money was spent on things that depreciate or have no lasting value at all, beyond the immediate gratification of having them.

The bank is not your mom

When most of us go to the bank for a loan, we have the feeling that they won’t give us the money if we can’t afford it. But that logic forgets that banks profit from the loan interest no matter what misery we go through to pay it. Unfortunately, looking out for our own financial security is our job, not the bank’s.

Banks and credit card companies hand out credit limits and lines of credit like they are candy at a parade. Being offered it doesn’t mean you should accept it, though, and having it doesn’t mean you should use it.

Consider this: in 1977, Canadians made 118 million purchases on 8.2 million Visa or MasterCards. As of 2015, there were 68 million such cards in Canada, making 3.9 billion purchases. 

Obviously, our spending habits have changed, there are more of us, and the culture is different. But an astonishing 44% of Canadians can’t afford to pay off their credit card purchases in full every month and carry an average balance of $3954.00 (The Walrus, May 17, 2017). In less than 40 years, Canadians have gone from using credit cards for possible emergency use to overspending on them daily.

Additionally, the banks and credit card companies entice us with Airmiles and rewards programs that convince us we are “earning” as we spend. But when you spend to the point of being unable to repay, you have earned yourself a deep hole that is difficult to get out of. No amount of free travel or groceries will help you with the interest payments when you can’t cover your bills.

Have more than you show, say less than you know

For many, the oil boom gave an opportunity to enter the housing market, travel, and accumulate property. The explosive nature of such a thriving economy had a downside, though, which has become clear with some time and distance.

The seemingly never-ending jobs and confidence in the patch lulled us into a false sense of security, and encouraged us to spend like there was no tomorrow. It became easier and easier to be talked into the higher priced sale, no matter what you initially intended to buy, until things crashed and many people found themselves living a super-sized life on a happy meal income.

The past few years have taught us some hard lessons. No matter the overtime, job perks, bonuses or allowances that your work provides you, it’s paramount that your lifestyle be afforded on your actual wage alone. Should those extras disappear, as we saw over the last few years, there’s no way to cover the payments and extravagances that add up over and above that basic wage. Lines of credit come due. Banks and credit card companies want their money and they will come to get it.

We’ve all heard the stories of people that had $10,000/month payments when they were laid off from their oil patch jobs. It’s hard to imagine the gut-wrenching experience those people went through. It’s also hard to imagine that banks continued to lend money and allowed those situations to arise.

You are not richer than you think, even if the bank tells you so. Living within your means and planning for the unforeseen is the discerning choice that comes with age and experience.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Weekly Column: Nurturing Competent Adults

Nurturing competent young adults

It must be difficult to be a young adult these days. Those of us that didn’t grow up with the Internet and social media remember a time where our parents didn’t always know where we were and couldn’t fix everything for us with a simple phone call.  

Are young people still learning to solve problems on their own, given their access to google to think for them and the bank of mom and dad to make their worries go away? You have to wonder, especially knowing that there are now courses in “adulting,” where young people can study online to learn grown up skills. The fact that a generation of people may not know how to follow a recipe, change a tire or write out a cheque is baffling if not scary.

Of course, these are sweeping generalizations. Look hard enough and you will find many young people with great problem solving skills and an independent outlook. But one has to wonder if the general population of millennials—children born between 1980 and 2000—is truly prepared to step into adulthood.

The season of recognition

The next batch of high school graduates is about to complete one phase of their lives, the time where they lived at home and had the daily guidance of parents and teachers to steer them. Looking back, one might ask whether any of us was really prepared for the real world at that age. But it’s also hard to resist comparing kids that have never done their own laundry with the great generation that marched off to war at the same age.

With these two extreme examples comes a spectrum of opinions on what childhood, adolescence and adulthood should be like. Many would argue that kids should be kids and not have to face worries about money, survival or adversity. Many others would argue that shielding youth from these challenges not only leaves them ill-prepared for real life, but also gives them an unrealistic expectation of what their future will hold.

If mom and dad have paid the cell phone bill and bought the brand-name clothes and taught you that you deserve the best that life has to offer, how will you transition to a minimum wage job, and rent, and a boss that might not recognize the special wonderfulness you have always been told you possess?

Cramming for life’s tests

If you are a parent, you might ask yourself how your kids are usually allowed to deal with a problem. Depending on their ages, there is usually a way that you can allow them to safely figure out what to do on their own. 

Whether it’s allowing them to spend their allowance frivolously and then having them sit out the next shopping trip, or transitioning a few bills into their names while they still live at home, and ensuring that those bills are paid on time, there are many ways to ease kids into a more independent role while still being available to advise them.

If your child is now finishing up high school and will be leaving home in the next few months, whether entering the work force or off to post-secondary in the fall, it might not hurt to evaluate some of their skills while they are still home under your care. Take an hour and change a tire together. Check the oil in their vehicle and make sure they can top up the fluids on their own, put air in the tires and boost a dead battery. 

Give him or her an evening a week where they cook for the family. Send them for the groceries with a set amount of money and a list. Stop doing their laundry and making their lunches, if you haven’t already. Show your affection in praising how they are handling these new responsibilities, rather than by doing it all for them.

Children learn responsibility by having rules and expectations. As parents, you have tried to nurture their self-esteem and confidence, but have you given them opportunities to grow capable and self-sufficient? Can they handle everyday problems and challenges, or should you spend this summer preparing them for adulthood?

A new world of independence is opening up to this season’s graduates. They’ve anticipated this moment for years, as have their parents. With the great adventures and new beginnings come new responsibilities. Websites like moneymentors.ca and practicalmoneyskills.ca are a helpful jumping off point if you’d like to make sure your kids are ready to handle their own money.

Creating competent young people is a combination of nurturing their emotional growth as well as their practical knowledge. Kids today have technology to help them, but are at risk of having it stunt their common sense. Giving them more responsibilities will help grow their independence.


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Weekly Column: Are Bank Fees Bleeding You Dry?

Fees and service charges: is your bank bleeding you dry?

Not everyone that reads this is going to bother to find a bank statement or log in to their account to double check what they are paying in bank fees. Unfortunately, many people look at service charges and fees as a fact of life, an annoyance, and refuse to make an effort to eliminate these phantom expenses that slowly drain away your accounts.

The fact is, you should be able to bank for free. In many cases, minor effort on your part would ensure that you could. And even if you can’t bank for free, perhaps you can find ways to save on banking that will boost your bottom line and make a difference over time.

Examine different plans and options

What fees does your bank charge you? Has your life changed significantly since you selected the plan that you use? For instance, if you pay a high monthly fee so that you can use any bank’s ATM, are you actually using different ATMs often enough to make that a cost-effective option? Or could you reduce that plan and only use your own bank’s ATM for free? If this strategy could take you from $20/month down to $4/month, that is a savings of $192/year.

Likewise, if you are regularly into your overdraft, accept the fact and find an option that costs less. Some accounts charge a monthly fee for overdraft protection whether you use it or not. Others charge you on a per use basis, while still others do not charge extra if your account rises above zero at least once every month. If you find yourself needing an overdraft, finding a sensible option might save you enough money over time that you no longer find yourself “in the red” every month.

Minimum balance, minimum fees

Are you aware that keeping a minimum balance in your account often eliminates the fees that your bank charges? Do you know what that magical number is? If you find it hard to maintain a minimum balance and notice that you are often being charged the fees, find an account with a lower minimum balance. Or if you like the prospect of never being charged a fee, maybe an online bank is right for you.

Although many of us like the thought of having a bricks and mortar bank to visit and a real teller to serve our needs, online banks are gaining popularity with lower fees and more flexible options.

Online banks: the way of the future?

It’s comforting to know where your money is. But even if you deal with one of the major banks or a huge credit union, you are still only a number to them. The difference between an online bank and a traditional one is, increasingly, the fees that you are charged and the manner in which customer service is provided. Have you tried to phone a major bank lately? It’s not unlikely that, for people that do email, it’s actually easier and faster to reach someone via online chat or email message than waiting in queue on the phone or never being called back by the associate you’ve been trying to reach.

In every Internet search conducted for the writing of this column, two online banking options jumped to the fore. I’m not associated with either, and people should take the time to do their own research and determine what’s right for them. But both President’s Choice Financial and Tangerine have interesting options available for those willing to try a new approach to banking.

These online banks offer accounts that charge zero fees, with no minimum balance required, and are associated with established big banks so that you can access ATMs in your community.

With the President’s Choice option, you also receive PC points when you use your account. These points can then be used to buy groceries. When you consider that your regular bank does the opposite—charging you a monthly fee and possibly extra for each transaction—this should make discerning savers take notice. You can also use PC or CIBC ATMs without charge to access your money.

Similarly, the online bank Tangerine is owned by Scotiabank and used to be known as ING Direct Canada. It offers no fee chequing and savings accounts as well as a number of other options.
The point is not to sell you on a particular type of bank account, but rather to encourage you to look at your statements and see what you are being charged by banks that do little to accommodate your situation. There are other plans and options out there. Prioritize saving on fees and keeping that cash in your own account, rather than the bank’s, no matter where you choose to keep your money.



Thursday, 1 June 2017

Weekly Column: Penny wise, pound foolish

Penny wise, pound foolish

Many of us feel that we’ve tightened our belts in recent years. We’re spending less than ever and, now that some jobs are returning, a sense of normalcy is back, too. So, with the return of an income and the reduction of spending, why is it so hard to make ends meet, much less get ahead?

You watch the grocery flyers and plan your weekly meals around the meat and produce that’s on special, right? You eat your leftovers and use a rewards card that accumulates points or cash back. 

You’ve stopped eating at the drive-thru and haven’t bought yourself anything in ages. You’ve even gotten ambitious and examined your bills and plans to reduce fees and extra charges. You’ve gone paperless to avoid paying for the paper bill that comes in the mail, while also bundling or downsizing services.

You’re doing all the smart, budget-savvy things, so why don’t you have more money to show for it? Why are you still spending ALL THE MONEY every month, when you feel like you’re working hard to save?

There’s a sad reality many budget-conscious folks are waking up to—saving those pennies, nickels and dimes gets you no further ahead if you don’t do something with the dollars you’ve saved.

In other words, if you don’t move those savings out of your general account, you will spend them on something else. And when people feel like they’re scrimping and saving with nothing to show for it, many will eventually stop trying.

Luckily, a few simple steps will help you turn things around and hopefully give you results in no time.

The first thing you must do is take the time to look at your bank and credit card statements. Are there places you could continue to trim your spending? How much are you saving with the reductions you’ve already made? Come up with a realistic figure that represents this unspent money.

Let’s say, for example, that you cut your $100/month satellite package down to $80. You are saving $20/month. If you’ve eliminated your landline for a savings of $60/month, you now have $80 to do something with, right?

Make it automatic

This advice is not new. David Bach wrote about this years ago in his book “The Automatic Millionaire”. But the strategy still applies: take the $80 you’re saving and have it automatically transferred out of your main bank account before you have the chance to spend it. Make sure that you have a low or zero fee option for automatically transferring money between accounts.  Keep an eye on your bank balances and make sure you aren’t running yourself into the overdraft by doing this—you mustn’t begin spending more loosely because you know there is extra money. The point is to put that $80/month to work.

You may think that socking away $80/month won’t have a huge impact on your financial situation but, the point is, it’s still $960 a year that might otherwise have trickled through your fingers.

What to do with it?

Sticking with our example, you are now consistently saving $80/month. What is your most pressing financial goal? Have you got credit cards that need paying off? Any loans? What is your highest interest rate? 

If you drive an older vehicle, perhaps you should start saving for a newer one, or for the inevitable maintenance and repairs on the one you have. If you haven’t started saving for retirement or your children’s education, you may want to begin now. Likewise, if you don’t have money set aside for emergencies—whether it’s a dishwasher that springs a leak or an unforeseen layoff—your $80/month is at least a start.

Start small, dream big

Stashing away $80/month might seem, to some, an ineffective amount of money. To others, it might seem a lofty, far off goal. No matter your situation, don’t be discouraged by how small you have to start out. Watching a bit of money grow is sure to inspire and motivate you to further curtail your spending and find other ways to save. And when you do, be sure to automatically transfer that money and put it to work for you.

If you were offered an extra hour of work, would you do it for the money? Why not get up an hour early one day and examine your statements and accounts to find out where you are leaking money? 

For most of us, it is simple things like snacks and meals for the kids and impulsive purchases when you aren’t thinking of your goals. Cut these entirely from your budget and transfer that money to another account where it is either invested, saved, or put against debt.


Accumulating month after month, these automatic transfers are your ticket to a better financial situation.