Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Weekly Column: New School Year, New Spending Plan

(Obviously, there's been a delay between my writing this for the local paper and my actually posting it here!)

New school year, new spending plan

Do you know exactly how much income your family has available every month? Do you know, within a few dollars, how much of that will be spent? Many people will answer “all of it” but might not know where all the money goes. If you are one of those people, creating a spending plan will help you track those dollars and also let you hang onto them for a lot longer.

Budgeting fatigue

Just like the word diet, talking about budgeting gives people a negative outlook as though they will be forced to sacrifice all the things they enjoy. Saving receipts and doing math might feel like one more nasty job at the end of a long day. But it is worth it to find out where your money goes every month. Use your bank statements and credit card bills and track all the cash spent by family members for a couple weeks (a month is better). Try one of the great budgeting resources found online: (this one puts all your expenses in a pie chart) or . Find a template that works for you and get started.

Budget vs spending plan

Once you know how much money comes into and leaves your household in a month, and you can see on paper whether you are coming up short, it is time to make a plan. The Money Mentors website defines a budget as “a spending plan that helps you get as much as you can from each dollar”. Seeing your expenses listed on paper can point out waste and unnecessary spending that might otherwise go unnoticed. Use a budget as a tool to cut excess costs, saving money for the things you want. It might not happen in the short-term but with hard work and persistence you will get there.

Write a list of some things you would like to purchase: a new vehicle, a house, a family vacation. Perhaps you would just like to build a small and large emergency fund for your family’s peace of mind. Put a dollar figure on each of your goals, then turn to your interactive budget worksheet and look hard for places to trim your spending. Remember, you will need to tackle outstanding debts, particularly credit card debt, before you get to the fun part of saving for your goals. But if you can free up even a few extra dollars a month, it will help get you where you want to go.

Easier said than done

If you’ve been underemployed for some time it must get frustrating to be told to budget better and everything will be alright. But making a plan and sticking to it gives a sense of control in uncertain times, which helps morale and prevents getting into a deeper hole than necessary. There are so many reasons to start tracking your money, one of which is only four months away: Christmas (no one wanted to hear that, sorry!). If you are out of money at the end of the month now, December will be no different…aside from the additional spending, that is. But if you can set aside some money every week starting now, hopefully you will avoid going further into debt with Christmas expenses.

And then there’s hot lunches

If you have school aged children then you’re familiar with unexpected and urgent last minute requests for money for sports, crafts, the list goes on. Have you made room in your plan for these unforeseen costs? Avoid derailment--factor a small amount of cash for school expenses into your budget even if it means going without your drive thru coffee every day. Focus on your long-term goal—a vacation, a massage, being debt-free—no matter how big or small your goal may be you’ll only get there one small step at a time. If certain costs are inevitable you must factor them into your list of expenses or you won’t see the results you are hoping for.

No matter what you call it, a spending plan or a budget, this is the way that people get themselves out of debt. Do you know a family that seems to weather every storm with relatively little change to their simple lifestyle? Do they still manage to have a vacation and pay their bills although their income has taken a hit? Are they independently wealthy or, more likely, do they plan how their money gets spent every month? Do they foresee upcoming and unexpected costs and save for them in advance? If you think that family would be comfortable discussing how they handle their money, approach them for tips and advice. Treat the new school year like a new beginning and start planning for the costs that are just around the corner.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Oh ya, I have a blog

The days are flying by around here. Our lives have gone from the slow dull grind of toddler monotony easier-to-stay-home-than-go-out-and-risk-a-meltdown (mine, not theirs). Suddenly, here we are with one kid off to school everyday and me and the other guy busy with sheep and pigs and the house and yard and even trying to do some sewing ;)

I feel like I am not sure what this blog is about anymore. I know I've mentioned that before so I won't go on and on. There's been no time to keep up with budgets and spreadsheets but as the garden and animals wind down for the year I hope to get back at it. I have lots of crafts and projects on the go that I'd like to share. It's a matter of figuring out how to put pictures on this blankety-blank blog! I've been out of the workforce a few years now and keeping up with technology is a real pain in my side. Most days I am tempted to do like my dad and reject it altogether (except that he literally has to get someone to change the radio station in the tractor for him). I guess I don't want to go that far with it.
But there's a fair amount of cursing happens at this desk :-)

For the longest while I had lost the camera. When I found it I promptly lost the cord to charge it. Now I have found the cord but the camera is at my mom's, where I took it to take pictures of my sweet baby nephew but forgot to. I am not even making this up. So although I have decided to say to h=ll with using my iphone to do pictures for the blog, I still don't have pictures until I get used to carrying a camera around again. Once I have it, that is.

We had our chickens butchered a few weeks ago. In my quest to teach my boys about where their food comes from I have created two part-time vegetarians. I suspect there will be more unintended consequences along my parenting journey, but we have 3 pigs nearing the end of their tenure here and I don't want to turn them off bacon for life. Although, "more for me" is a thought that does cross my mind.

The year's garden did well. I did not, however, succeed in keeping better records of what I grew and how much I harvested. I did not really even get pictures of it. But the yard is maturing and the spring will be a time to put some needed work into infrastructure by way of more stepping stone paths and hopefully the larger garden spot that I wanted this year but did not get. After that, the focus will be on maintaining what I have--better weed control--and getting the pond pump running. We had a very labour-intense spring this year and I hope never to repeat that. Some projects are to be expected, even wished for, but the work installing the rocks on our pillars and basement was a strain. Very expensive, very time consuming. Glad to have it done, though!

Front door: before

Front door: after 2 coats of paint


Well lookie there, I just figured out how to put up a couple pics. Hopefully this is a sign of more good things to come :) I will put up another picture of the front door makeover when I finally get that last coat of paint done. Hope all is well for you :)

Monday, 12 September 2016

Weekly Column: Is your young adult ready for the real world?

Is your young adult ready for the real world?

Many young people are looking forward to leaving home in the next few weeks. Having graduated high school, they’re embarking on the next chapter in their lives: post-secondary education or the work force. Many may have already experienced working at a part-time job. Perhaps mom and dad encouraged them to save, discussed finances, opened up an RESP and have made sure their child is literate with money. But there are young adults out there who’ve never been taught to set aside money for necessities, emergencies, and the future—before spending on entertainment and “stuff”. Do young people read the paper? If they do, this column is for them!

Most people admit they have some regrets in their financial pasts. Whether it is not saving for retirement or a bad credit situation, these regrets can add stress to your life for a long time. Ensuring your children have an understanding of how credit works and illustrating for them how their savings will grow over the years is as much parenting as teaching them to cook and do laundry. Basically, you know your child is going to be an adult with bills and payments and income. Is that child equipped to make good decisions that benefit her future and will she have security as she sets out in the world on her own? There are some ways you can help.

Money Mentors is an Alberta based, not-for-profit credit counselling agency. It aims to help families and individuals recover from financial crisis and move forward in their lives. They offer credit counselling, money coaching, retirement planning and teach financial literacy and, best of all, it’s free! Their site offers free online resources on a number of topics—debt management, choosing a credit counselling agency, organizing your finances, to name a few. They can teach you to set investment goals, write a home budget, or roll down your credit card debt. They offer free online courses like Budgeting Boot Camp and R & R Retirement. There is a course on this site for everyone if you have a computer and a few hours to dedicate to your financial well-being. If you can’t immediately get to the free courses, go to Resources on the top of the page and find Free Online Courses there.

Budget now, profit later

The Money Mentors site is intended for people in every stage of life, do give it a look—you are bound to learn something that helps you reach your financial goals. For the young adult today this site is a convenient way to review some money basics that might not have felt relevant while they were living with mom and dad. But the decisions they make in the next few years can either haunt them or benefit them for a long time to come. We could all heed the advice found on the site: 
1) track your spending 
2) automate your savings
3) save loose change 
4) learn to comparison shop 
5) avoid spending triggers
6) consider buying used 
7) save windfall income 
8) institute a waiting period before you buy 
9) consider the cost in hours you will work to pay for it 
10) be content with what you have.

Credit crisis

Many stores make credit seem so easy. 0% down, no payments for 6 months, we’ve all heard the appealing ads. It’s a great deal if you know for certain you can pay the whole bill off before you are charged the exorbitant interest after 6 months. A nightmare situation for a young person is buying their electronics on such a plan, heading off to university where they find they spend more money than they planned on social life and miss their first several payments. Now they have student loans, consumer debt, possibly no job, and a few years ahead of them where these credit issues are going to snowball into a problem that effects whether they can buy a house, start a family, and ever feel secure. Contrast that with a young adult who knows how much money they have available to them every month, pays the bills first, stashes a bit for emergencies or savings, and lives simply on what’s left over.  

It's never too late to learn

Sites like are refreshing to find in an online world where everyone is selling something. If you have been struggling to make ends meet it is worth your time to try a free online course and read through the resources there. Make reading and learning about financial fitness part of your routine and the good habits are sure to follow. If people starting out in life can get the financial knowledge they need before making poor decisions, who knows how far they can go.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Weekly Column: Preserving the season's harvest

Preserving the season’s harvest

Growing your own food is a great pastime because it gets people outside, provides exercise, puts you in tune with the changing seasons, and rewards you with delicious produce in the end. While just a hobby for most nowadays, it wasn’t that long ago that local families relied on their gardens to provide the bulk of their winter food supply. Although not usually a necessity anymore, given the year-round selection in grocery stores, many people still preserve their garden’s bounty so they can enjoy the fruits of their labour in the winter months.

Not a gardener? No problem. Trot yourself down to your local farmer's market and meet the folks that grow good food. You may feel that homegrown food is pricier than that at the grocery store, and maybe it is. But consider the labour that goes into growing, cleaning and setting up for a local sale. Consider that what you purchase has been locally grown and picked fresh within the last day or so. Compare this with grocery store produce that has been picked too early and trucked in from out of the country. There’s no comparison in flavour or quality, and if you would splurge on an ice cream cone don’t deny yourself the healthy pleasure of fresh vegetables. Like the saying goes “you can pay your farmer now or your doctor later”.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself with an excess of fresh food and aren’t interested in preserving, don’t let it spoil on the counter if you can’t eat it all. Share with your neighbours, trade for other vegetables, or donate the surplus to a food bank so that it can be enjoyed at a free community meal.

Getting started

Even if you’ve never preserved food, there’s likely a method that will suit your tastes and abilities. Check out recipe books at the library or ask veteran cooks for their favourites. Be wary of what you find online: use only trusted sources that follow USDA guidelines. Pickling and preserving is not difficult but don’t take chances with botulism or spoiling your food.

slow roasting tomatoes

The Company’s Coming: Preserves cookbook by local author Jean ParĂ© is a great starting point for novice cooks and don’t forget to watch for cookbooks at used bookstores and thrift shops. While you’re thrifting, keep an eye out for boxes of good quality jars intended to withstand the heat and pressure of canning. Frugal home canners will note that the cost of jars is ever on the rise. At around $10 for a dozen quart sealers, it’s not cheap to start canning unless you can source your supplies more affordably.  You can buy lids and sealer rings separately for a substantial savings over the jars and lids you find at the grocery store at this time of year.

 If you’re cutting back on how much you preserve as you get older, perhaps you can think of someone that would appreciate some of your extra canning supplies. Likewise, if you’ve been given food in jars kindly wash and return them to the source in hopes that you might get lucky twice.
The price of sugar usually skyrockets when it’s time to make pickles and jams. Buy extra when you see it on sale, or even at regular price because it’s bound to get higher all season. Stock up on turmeric, mustard seed and other spices in the ethnic food aisle rather than the basic spices section—the bags are bigger and usually much cheaper.

A healthier option

Many would argue that the process of first growing, then preserving, their own food is of no savings at all once you consider your time and effort. On one hand, this is true. Buying canned vegetables and store bought pickles is quick and easy, and sometimes cheap. But if a person truly enjoys the time spent outdoors working in the fresh air and looks at it as a pastime that prevents costlier diversions, the benefits soon outweigh the costs.

Knowing what goes into the food your family eats has never been more important with chemicals and BPA so prevalent in commercially made products. Home preservation is another way people can take control of their diets and budget. There’s growing interest in the health benefits of fermented foods and the simple pleasure of handling your food from garden to table. Watch for deals on your canning supplies and enjoy the flavours of summer year-round for less.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Don't Kiss Your Chickens, Do Kill Your Darlings

It's been hard to write an original post lately. I put up my weekly columns mostly to keep some traffic happening on the site. But I've realized what keeps me from posting is that I had begun a post about the ridiculous advice I heard on the radio the other day "Don't kiss your chickens". The advice is good--the need for it is ridiculous. I wanted to draw the correlation between a society that puts Donald Trump in a race to be leader of the free world and a society that now sews diapers so that chickens can come right in the house, and where people actually need told not to kiss their birds. Because that will make you sick, you see.

And the post wasn't working out very well; it wasn't witty and I don't understand the American system well enough to preach about it here and, frankly, who cares what I think about Donald Trump and chicken kissers.

But it did get me thinking abut the writing process. I've committed to writing more. Writing daily. I want to take myself on a writer's retreat next year for my 40th birthday and I want to have a few pieces that are worth working on with focus. I finally realize that when I am hung up on a concept I just have to let it go and keep on writing. I've been writing in the evenings even though I know that, so far, none of it is very good. But I have to keep trying so that (hopefully) soon something decent crosses the page that I can delve into and turn into something real.

Rather than treating every idea like it must be "the one" and then panic when it turns out to be nothing, I'm trying to exercise my skills and use some prompts and practice making stories come to life. And I'm trying to stay calm that, so far, inspiration is nil. But like trying to sort out a blog post that wasn't working, sometimes it's best to just get on with it and let those darlings die so you can move forward. So that's what I'm doing :)

How is everything with you?

Weekly Column: Outfitting Kids for School

Dress for Success: Outfitting Kids on a Budget

Although parents may not want to think about it, back to school is just around the corner. Putting off getting prepared, as in most things, might end up costing you extra money. The time to start watching for sales on clothing is now. But where to look?

Take Inventory

Go through your children’s closets. What do you need for shoes, boots and winter clothing? Do they need a few new things to spruce up their back-to-school wardrobe? Try to purchase a size up to account for sudden growth spurts. Make a list of what you are watching for and stick to your list.

Shop off-season

Just as your kids are busy wearing out their swim trunks, shorts and flip flops, stores are beginning to clear out their summer stock. Now is the time to watch for next year’s sizes at a reduced price. Yes, money is tight and you need to gear up for school. But you will be buying these things next year—don’t wait and pay full price if you can help it. Similarly, watch for winter boots and snow suits if you have no alternative but to purchase new. But remember, you must only buy what is needed.

Online, New and Used

There are great clearance deals to be found online. Factor in the cost of shipping, though, and consider if it is really saving you money. Could you support a locally owned business instead? If your budget is tight this year, use great discretion when shopping online. Wait a day before going through the virtual check out. You may find you are not as impulsive after a good night’s sleep.

Are you fortunate enough to be offered hand-me-down clothing for your kids? Have you shied away from accepting in the past? Look at it this way: most clothing is made in poor countries with dismal working conditions. But when you buy or accept used clothing you reduce the demand for more of it to be produced. You also delay that item being taken to a landfill. Sort through hand-me-downs; keep what you can use and either donate or give away what you can’t. If you have invested a bit more money in some items for your children, you might want to list them on kijiji or have a garage sale of your own to get some money back. Feel good that you are passing on some savings to another family while saving a bit for yourself.

Are your children fashion divas? This is an excellent opportunity to teach them about the value of money. If they insist on the brand name ball cap and shoes, let them see how much money there is per child for clothing this year. Allow them to help decide how that money will be allocated. Allow the child to perform extra chores and try to find a compromise between new and used that works for everyone.

Thrift stores, garage sales and second hand sites

For those not blessed with a large extended family or friends with older children, there are still many ways to save on kids’ clothes. Local thrifts stores like For the Interval Store, LABIS Second Chance Clothing and The Olive Branch all donate the proceeds of their sales to great local causes. You might need to keep checking back to find what you are looking for, but you are likely to save a bundle. The same can be said for cruising garage sales and online sites like kijiji or different Facebook groups.

How much is enough?

Having less money is stressful but it gives everyone a reason to examine their priorities. How much do we really need to be happy? How much, realistically, should we spend on clothes for our kids? If they are warm enough, clean, well fed and loved, are those brand name clothes going to make them better people?

Downsizing the budget for kids clothing doesn’t reflect on your parenting. Having a couple outfits for school and a set of play clothes to change into afterwards teaches kids routine, responsibility, and respect for their belongings. If kids learn to fold their once-worn clothing and put it away for tomorrow, parents might spend less time doing laundry—an added benefit. Is it really that radical to suggest that we buy our kids clothes only when they actually need something? Ask yourself this: would you rather your kids have designer name brand clothing now, or an education savings plan later? Is keeping name brand clothing on their backs threatening the roof over their heads? Having your children dressed stylishly in stain-free, good quality clothing can be done on a tight budget if are always watching for great deals. The more effort you put in, the more you will save.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Weekly Column: Convenience Costs

Convenience Costs

It seems that people are living at a faster pace these days. An interesting question might be: what came first, the hectic pace or the drive thru? Did we begin cramming more activities into our everyday lives and thus require a faster way to pump food into our bodies, or did the availability of cheap food-on-the-fly allow us more time for the things we want to do? While picking up take-out and hitting a drive thru have become a daily or weekly ritual for some, hopefully we can all remember a time when that wasn’t the case.

If fast food wasn’t an option

Imagine for a moment that grabbing supper on your way home was not an option. Or, if the only alternative to cooking was a sit-down restaurant meal that took an hour or more to prepare. Would it be more convenient to eat at home? If fast, ready to eat food did not exist would you make any changes to your schedule? Would you cut out a few activities that right now seem essential, or would you put more effort into preparing for the week?

Of course, fast food is here to stay and, likely, so is the busy lifestyle that most people have adopted. It is not easy to work all day, pick kids up from school or day care or sports and arrive home to a whole new set of chores and demands. If there is an evening every week where you work late, the kids have activities, or you have plans of your own, how do you prepare for this?

Beat the temptation to order in by cooking double batches and freezing portions for busy evenings. Thaw your supper while you are out, then reheat it when you arrive. But your kids are starving animals after sports? Let them eat some of their daily recommended servings of fruit and vegetables (which you prepared yourself, earlier) while they wait. Better yet, distract them with a few chores while supper cooks.

But what to make?

Mixing up a few pounds of hamburger does not take long and can yield several meals: freeze meatloaf and meat balls for later and BBQ some homemade hamburgers for a treat. While you are doing that you could also brown some hamburger to use in chili, lasagna, shepherd’s pie or other casseroles.

But meat is expensive, you say? Yes, it is. But if your back up plan to feed your family when you are tired is hitting the drive thru, you have probably become accustomed to spending around $40 per meal for a family of four. That $40 could feed your family home cooked meals for several days if you are organized and plan ahead. Saving $20-30 on a meal is like putting in more time at work—except that you can “earn” yourself that money from the comfort of home.

Fast meals like bacon and eggs, beans and toast or soup and sandwiches are no less healthy than drive thru. If you would rather some vegetarian options, or if going meatless is something you are interested in trying, there have never been more recipe ideas online. Start looking!

There must be a healthier way

If someone told you they could feed your family healthier food for a fraction of the cost, would you be interested? If they said that a time commitment of a couple hours per week would make you healthier, save money and possibly bring you closer as a family, could you find the time? Cooking at home is not necessarily a family activity but you can involve the kids by having them chop or wash veggies, set and clear the table, or even help with the cooking if they are old enough. When all members of a family are going in different directions it can be hard to connect with each other. Committing to eating together at a table as often as possible is good for your relationships as well as your budget.

It’s not a step back in time

It is no one particular member of the family’s responsibility to prepare the food. If you can eat you need to learn to feed yourself. If you are a parent and have your kids in activities to strengthen their bodies and people skills, consider this another opportunity for their growth. Teach them the difference in value (both nutritional and monetary) between a fast food meal and one you prepare and eat together. If you seriously do not have the time, ever, to prepare food for the work week it may be time to re-examine your schedule and priorities. There may be times you need a fast meal on the go, but hopefully you can find a way to slow down and eat at home more often.