Friday, 30 December 2016

Weekly Column: Live a Simple Life

Once again, these columns get posted here a few weeks behind their publication in the local paper. I hope everyone reading has enjoyed a wonderful holiday and has a safe New Year!

Live a simple life

As Christmas approaches it’s easy to feel crushed by the noise, glitter and encroaching clutter of what should be the happiest time of year. Let’s face it, even at the best of times there’s a lot of pressure to have “the most” and Christmas is when our consumerist and materialistic demons really rear their ugly heads. There is pressure to feed everyone the finest meal, have the cleanest home, put up the most Christmas lights, be the most cheerful and, of course, have the most gifts under the tree.

Less is more

Parents, think back on your childhood and recall: was there a most treasured gift that you remember being truly excited about? Why do you think it stands out in your memory? Probably because it was something new and all your own that you had anticipated and waited for. How long do kids nowadays have to wait for anything? How is it possible to give our kids that same magical experience when their rooms are already overflowing with toys that they may or may not appreciate? Here is a hint—it’s not by indulging them, everyday of the year, with treats and “stuff” and creating an even greater expectation of what is special.

Simplify

Though likely too late to make any drastic changes this year, the busy weeks leading up to Christmas are a good time to consider what is working in your lifestyle and what is dragging you down. If the holidays present themselves as yet another example of your inability to make everyone happy, it’s a good indication that things have gone off the rails. But how to get things back on a more meaningful, intentional track?

Minimalism is a lifestyle that might, at first, scare the designer jeans off a person used to hunting for and buying new possessions. But don’t panic. Minimalism is different things to different people—but most agree that it is the unburdening oneself of excess and waste. Whether it is excess belongings, noise, distractions, or obligations, minimalism is meant to allow you to focus on what is left behind once those excesses are shed. For example, people, relationships, hobbies, travel, learning. A minimalist lifestyle is one that is sustainable, frugal, debt-free and natural (mnmlist.com).

Comparing apples to oranges

Let’s say you’ve taken a cut in pay over the last few years but you’re still kicking. You have maintained most of your old habits while making a few cutbacks to get by. No one knows what a struggle it is to maintain. The kids still have their designer labels and your Instagram account is still zinging with pictures of family trips and home d├ęcor and the tree buried in gifts this year. The debt is piling up or at least not receding, and there is no real plan how to stop the interest from burying you someday in the future. What’s worse, there is a sense of dissatisfaction that permeates the lifestyle. There is never enough time with your family because you can’t possibly make enough money to keep everything chugging along. You are exhausted, and it’s no wonder.

No one is saying you have to ditch your life and move into a tiny home. Adopting a more minimalist attitude could be as simple as purging your home of all the unwanted, unnecessary items that you have to clean and keep tidy to maintain your sanity. It means not buying anything to fill those empty spaces. Unburden yourself, also, from the interruptions of social media notifications that give a false sense of busyness and distract you from your face to face relationships. Don’t text during meals, family time and visits with friends. Allow your kids to be bored and entertain themselves. 

Imaginations are being stunted by the constant screen time offered to keep them under control. If activities 6 nights a week are exhausting the budget and family, commit only to the most vital extra-curricular activities and focus on quiet, simple time together instead. Notice what makes your family feel positive and content, and do more of those things.

Find your balance


It is one thing to choose a more minimalist lifestyle because it suits you, but quite another to have it thrust upon you by unforeseen circumstances like job loss. There is a silver-lining, though, when you consider that rejecting consumerism can also mean embracing a life where you invest yourself in meaningful relationships and experiences instead of trying to keep up with the neighbours. Once the preoccupation with having more and better things is behind you, you will find the time and clarity to explore what gives you a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, outside of the consumer rat race. Here’s to a 2017 filled with a minimum of things and the maximum of joy.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

2017: Bring It!

As usual, I have no wise words about the turning of the page into a new year. Nor any beautiful photos or inspiring message about Christmas. The season of giving. I fear we spend our time and money giving to people that don't need anything, and neglect those right under our noses who need so much.

There is never the time I want to give to this blog. With that in mind I am just going to get to the point. I had a quick read through last year's un-resolutions and thought that I would report on how we did. Lastly, I'd like to set my sights on where I'd like to see the next 365 or so days take us (until I once again sit here to reflect on what we did and didn't do).

2016

Record Keeping:

Without realizing it, I did manage to set up a decent (enough) system to keep Husband's bills etc straight. There were no major upsets when it came time to do taxes and our accountant has helped me set up interim payments so that we hopefully won't end up owing money at the end of the year. This is major, as unexpected debt is the last thing we want.

I did well through out the winter keeping track of household spending, doing menu-plans and reporting on the blog. That exercise alone helped us save hundreds if not thousands of dollars over the year. Going through statements and reducing fees, cancelling satellite subscription, reducing our cell bill, the list goes on. If you haven't done so, commit an afternoon to reducing fees. Research a more affordable (but reputable with good coverage) home insurance plan. One phone call saved me something like $700 last year. If you have been thinking about making changes, take the time to do it.

I also wanted to do better with pictures for the blog. In fact, I want to do better with pictures of my kids' life. Once these cell phones go obsolete, and they will, my kids will not have a record of their childhoods. Not only that, but the grandparents in Newfoundland get very few pictures and I want to do better. Luckily, Santa found a barely used camera that I had been wanting. Now to learn how to use it properly!

2016 saw some purchases that I had not anticipated. One was a new truck for Husband's work (very much needed) and the other was a new camper (very much not needed). It is always a push/pull between my viewpoint and Husband's as far as goals and saving. In the meantime we sold our old camper and the new one will be used in Husband's line of work so it will eventually start paying for itself. We compromised on the layout of the RV and found one that was under the budget I had insisted upon. So it was something I was comfortable doing although I would have chosen to save and pay cash (we financed it but have a plan to pay it off very early!).

As a result of these purchases coupled with a real scare when a company took months to pay us for a large invoice, I got extra serious and motivated about our budget. It surprised me to look back on last year's goals and not see anything financial. But increased blogging, the near miss of not being paid, then getting a regular column in the local paper really brought about my increased interest and determination in the budget department.

2016 was a year where I tried many new homesteading activities. We had pigs, meat birds, were given rabbits, had our first lambs and continued to garden. I have had no time to sew. It was exhausting and fulfilling. I recognize how hard it is to do all of the travel and play that my Husband would like when we have so much work at home. It was also very overwhelming with him gone for months at a time. There won't be pigs this coming year but I feel that meat birds are a necessity.



The wonderful opportunity to read a novel in progress for a bloggy friend also inspired me to make writing more of a priority. It was always my goal in life. Having a weekly column has allowed me to schedule in writing time. While harder for me to get around to blogging, it has motivated me to insist on some quiet to write. In this sense I have made much better use of my evenings (at least while Husband is away) and I have been reading another friend's novel lately. When that is done I hope to WILL return to my own writing as a priority. It is important to me to encourage and help this friend but I also realize that if I don't put myself first my own plans will once again go by the wayside.

2017--You are Mine, All Mine!

No, not really. But for the first time in years I can feel myself becoming part of the conversation again. I have written at length about my interests and personal goals (heck, that's the point of this blog). But many people, women in particular, will understand the subtle ways that our own identity can be sucked into work/responsibility/caring for others/meeting expectations without having time to reevaluate what we really want. I am almost 40 and it is time to be a complete person again.

I want to emphasize that it is no one's fault but my own that I continually put others first over the years. I have had many opportunities to do things where I have chickened out or felt that I shouldn't. I am not griping about my wonderful life. Many of my homesteading "slow" living goals are what consistently take away from the time I might instead spend writing/exercising etc. The trouble has been for me to find balance and not feel guilty for wanting a little time to myself. But making time to practice writing, exercise, apply face moisturizer, dress with some semblance of care...none of these things are selfish. None of these things require much more than better organization, some boundaries, and the ability to say "no". This is "my time".

I have been providing childcare for a friend on a part time basis. It is a win-win since my little O loves to have playmates come over a few times a week. The kids are sweet and it keeps me motivated to get everything done before and after they are here. In the fall my little O will go to kindergarten every day and I (if we can afford it) plan not to do childcare and, instead, keep those whole days to myself so I can write. To create. To work with my brother at the farm. To be a helpful part of this community. Probably the year after I will rejoin the workforce, so this year, 2017, is a year that I want to focus on writing and personal development.

With that in mind, I have registered for an online writing course starting in January. I am beyond excited and nervous about the class. This brings me to another goal, which is SCHEDULING. With a little boy in skating lessons and my part time childcare job and my weekly column, plus my commitment to this blog, homemade food, daily exercise and my animals and firewood etc, keeping a tight schedule will be essential. I may not find the time to report our spending on this blog. I may not return to entering every expenditure in spreadsheets like I did so faithfully last year. But my commitment to a frugal, practical lifestyle remains just as strong. My commitment to my family is stronger than ever. And 2017 will be the year, barring any unforeseen disasters, where I can focus on myself as well as my posse. I am so ready for it!


Monday, 26 December 2016

Weekly Column: Countdown to 2017

This column hit my local paper about a month ago--although Christmas has now passed I hope it's still relevant as we enter the new year. I hope everyone has a safe and happy celebration!

Countdown to 2017

What kind of a year would you like 2017 to be? Let’s hope it’s peaceful. But on a personal level, what do you want for yourself and your family in the coming year? Obviously, good health and time together will top the list but how does “stress-free” sound? If you could put some effort into preparing for the financial challenges you will face in the future, would you? Remember that if you keep doing what you’ve been doing you will keep getting what you’ve been getting. If money has stressed you out in 2016, what changes are you willing to make so that 2017 doesn’t follow that same path?

December may be an impossible month to think of having a shopping ban, but January is well suited to some frugal cutbacks. Who wants to see the inside of a store in January, anyways? But what about the Boxing Day sales, you might ask. Unless there’s something you’ve been waiting to buy on a fantastic sale, avoid spending more after you’ve already blown a wad on Christmas.

Is there really anything you need? If so, Boxing Day is a great time to buy if your item is significantly reduced in price. But how many other “deals” will you be unable to resist? It’s a slippery slope when money is tight. Remember that by the time the credit card bill arrives in January the “new” will have already worn off your impulsive splurges. Will you regret it then? Maybe it’s best to avoid the sales and the buyer’s remorse that comes with them.

Do some winter reading

Prepare for a more financially stable 2017 by reading about budgets, reducing debt and saving. Keep these issues on the forefront of your mind—there’s much inspiration to be found on blogs like Mr. Money Mustache (language warning!), written by a retired 30-year-old. Frugalwoods is another great read, following a family that saves over 70% of their monthly income with extreme frugality. Do you need to be so radical? Of course not. But if you’re struggling and don’t know where to start, reading about people who have gained control of their finances is very motivating. Likewise, some financial classics such as Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin, Debt Free Forever by Gail Vaz-Oxlade or David Chilton’s The Wealthy Barber are as relevant now as ever (get them from the library!).

Pay yourself first

After your bills are paid, and before you buy yourself or your kids any extras, have money automatically transferred to another account. Earmark this money for an extra mortgage payment, investments, emergencies. Whatever you decide, don’t go to the trouble of reducing your spending without actually putting the savings to good use. It’s very possible to reduce spending in some areas only to have it trickle away in others. Make a plan with concrete objectives and follow through with action.

This isn’t a New Year’s resolution

We all know what happens with the promises made over champagne on New Year’s Eve. By February the gym membership is a waste and you’ve resumed all your old habits. Unless you immerse yourself in some education and develop new attitudes to money, 2017 is likely to be as stressful as 2016 was. Be proactive. If online shopping is your weakness, unsubscribe from mailing lists and limit your internet time. If apps like Pinterest make you yearn for more stuff, remove them from your phone or suspend your account. Instead of meals out, connect with friends over a cup of coffee. Turn no-spend days into no-spend weeks. Graduate to entire months where you buy only the essentials. Challenge a friend or relative to a shopping ban. And remember, when you feel pressured to join in on expensive activities that you can’t afford, “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t need to explain or justify that decision. Real friends will respect that. Spending to be accepted is not only foolhardy, it is chasing approval that you can’t sustain.

Finding a new normal


This is not to say that the financial woes of the last few years are simply a consumer problem. People took a significant financial hit and it takes time to recover. But recovery will come when you can consistently spend less than you are making. Create habits that save you money. Get creative about earning more. Do something with the surplus—build an emergency fund, snowball your debt, plan for your retirement. Invest your time in people that enjoy you for who you are, not for what you own. New “stuff” does nothing for your future. It gives a fleeting sense of accomplishment and a joy that quickly fades. It leads to more stress. Start preparing now for a 2017 that takes you down a more simple, stable financial path.

Friday, 23 December 2016

A Good Reminder

On Sunday Husband and I had planned to take 6 year old J on a three hour road trip to see my lovely and talented friends in a play. It was a Christmas show and, I thought, the perfect opportunity to introduce him to the magic of live theatre.

Well, as life often does, a wrench was thrown into our plans when Husband became ill with the flu in the night on Saturday. He was not up for the trip come Sunday morning. So I went from a leisurely day riding shotgun to having to drive a truck to (and around in) the city. Particularly parking downtown! ACK! Picture the Clampetts approaching Beverly Hills, if you will :)

I also had to do the chores and fuel the truck before we could go, and drop off O at gramma's for his playdate. My morning was quickly getting behind schedule but soon enough we were on our way. Adventure awaits! We had planned a lovely lunch out (somewhere with nuggets and fries, J promised me lol) and a walk through Toys R Us to find a Christmas gift from J to O.

We were over an hour away from home when I realized I had forgotten my purse. Thankfully, I had shoved a $50 bill into my pocket that morning so I could pay my friend for the tickets as she had bought them for us. Very, very quickly, my mindset went from a fun day together with my boy to "Oh my goodness, what if something goes wrong I don't even have my ID or credit cards!"

I quickly realized how fortunate I was to have any money at all on my person. Yes, I had a cell phone and could call my friend and meet her before the show to borrow money (I actually did, afterwards). But I had the opportunity to finish that drive, spend the afternoon in the city, and drive home, all with the sense of being vulnerable should anything go wrong. I didn't have a mastercard in my hand to wave around and fix whatever came my way. Without a purse it might be hard to get anyone to help us if we needed it. In fact, people might not believe my story at all. Without ID I might be accused of stealing the truck, kidnapping the child, God knows! (Yes, that is how my brain can amplify a simple problem in to a calamity! LOL)

Believe me, I know that many people would be grateful to have a $50 bill in their pocket right now. In no way am I trying to be ignorant. It was a wake up call to me, though, to return to the feeling of not having any money that I remember from when I was young out on my own. And even when I was young and broke, I had a huge safety net in that my parents had money and food if I ever needed it. So many people have no safety net at all.

Normally we travel with snacks and drinks. J even suggested he pack his lunch kit and I agreed. But the hectic morning got the better of me and I grabbed my coffee mug and off we went. "If you get hungry I'll buy you a bag of chips," I told him as we raced out the door. Once I realized I had no purse, I explained to J that we wouldn't buy his brother a gift that day. "I was just going to say that," he gamely agreed. He is such a grown up little boy! $50 is more than enough to feed us two meals each but I wanted to have a bit of money in case I needed it and I had planned to stop for some fresh veggies to save me a trip to town later in the week. We stopped at a Smitty's for our lunch and I was quickly dismayed to find that there is very little on the menu for under $14. Yes, I could have ordered toast or a bowl of soup. If I was really in a situation where I only had $50 to get by we would have been purchasing our lunch at a grocery store. Anyways, I had poutine for $7 and J got his nuggets and fries with an apple juice for $6. So we were then down to $37.

During the show's intermission J insisted he needed a drink. Water and juice was $3/bottle as was coffee. There went another $6 (for what it's worth, he got the juice. Yes, that's too much juice for a kid in a day. If you want the truth, he also had a juice at supper. It was a total free-for-all day). So by this point we were down to $31 and still had to pay for our parking spot in a pay lot. I had parked at Toys R Us because I felt more confident parking the truck in the larger lot; although it was completely packed with Christmas shoppers I did manage to park with no problems. After the show I borrowed $20 from my friend just to be sure we would get home okay.

If you make a $10 purchase at Toys R Us your parking is free, so we did look around but there was nothing for under $30 that we could decide on and the budget is $20 max. Needless to say it didn't hurt my feelings to say to heck with shopping, at this point, and just get on the road home. The parking came to $7 and part of me wondered if it wouldn't have been smarter to pick out a $10 item for a future birthday party and at least have that to show for the experience, but in the moment it was more important to me to save that $3. With my purse along I might have bought a $30 gift and considered the free parking a savings on the gift but I didn't have $30 to spare.

Our day out was still great. J got a wonderful backstage tour and he was fascinated, as was I, with all the bells and whistles of a real theatrical production. The show was fantastic. For a 6 year old to watch real actors at work in person was, to me, priceless. There is such a difference between mindlessly watching TV and taking part in the intimate atmosphere of the theatre. I am so very glad we were able to do it.

As for sitting in the discomfort of not having my credit or debit card to back me up for a day, I am glad I had the opportunity to really think about what so many women are facing. Sure, it's men too. But as a woman alone with my child on the road with no ID and very little money, it didn't take much imagining for me to put myself in the boots of a woman who has had to flee abuse with only the shirt on her back and no idea where she is going. Of course I didn't feel her fear or anguish. But I could imagine her vulnerability and it reminded me to reach out, often, to my local women's shelter and donate gift cards and hygiene products to help those that find themselves in need.

I write this from a position of incredible privilege. An afternoon with only $50 ($70, actually)? Pfffffft!! So many people would love to have a vehicle in good working order, a full tank of fuel and $70 to help them get where they are going.

I save our pennies year round so that we can splurge on little excursions like Sunday's. I am so fortunate to be able to pick up and go on a 6 hour round trip on a whim. I am so aware of that. What I wasn't aware of was how secure I feel wherever I go because I have a credit card and access to emergency funds. Spending a day feeling insecure was a good reminder why I do what I do to save money. It was a reminder that others aren't fortunate enough, for whatever reasons, to have that sense of security. So many people live with insecurity and stress all the time. It was a good reminder to do what I can to help those who could use a hand, and an excellent motivator to keep squirreling funds away in case of emergency. Not to mention a reminder to double check that I've got my purse :)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Weekly Column: Budget your money

Budget your money

Here is a question for you: do you know how much money you need, every month, to cover all of your expenses? Do you know exactly how much money you will bring in every month? If you answered yes to both of those questions, there’s a good chance you budget your money. Even if you don’t budget, knowing how much money is coming in and going out is the first step in gaining control of your finances.

Granted, income and expenses can fluctuate month-to-month. Anyone in the oil patch (or agriculture) knows they might be eating chicken one month and feathers the next. Never has that been more true than the last couple years in the local area.

“But it stresses me out,” you might say. “My spouse won’t follow a budget even if I make one,” others complain. “We never get ahead no matter what we try,” is another familiar reason to give up.
But the fact is, working out a budget is the fastest and simplest way to get ahead financially. It allows you to set goals and take real steps towards realizing them. It will point out where money is being lost and give you an opportunity to stop hemorrhaging your hard -earned pay.  

List income, expenses and spending

Track your spending for one month (two or three is even better). Go through statements and use a spreadsheet or online worksheet to keep track of your numbers. A great resource is http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/resources/guide_to_building_budget.html. In those guidelines, find a link to Gail’s interactive budget worksheet and fill it out.

Set savings goals

If you do not have any savings it is paramount that you begin an emergency fund. This is a fund that would cover all of your bills and expenses for 3 to 6 months. As many people found out the hard way when oil crashed, a 6-month emergency fund may not even be enough. Go through your list of expenses and see where you can make cuts until you have an adequate emergency fund.

Now the fun part. List some things you want to work towards. There are three types of goals: short, medium and long-term. In the short-term you may need a new phone or want an ipad. You could price these out (hopefully waiting for a good sale or promotion) and decide how long it will take you to save that much money. Remember, be realistic when setting goals. If you only have a few bucks left over at the end of the month this may take awhile!

A medium-term goal might be saving a down payment for a vehicle or house. The bigger the sum you want to save, the longer it will take. In the long-term, it is also wise to put money aside for retirement and your children’s education.

Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Just the simple action of tracking your spending for a month or two will likely expose areas where you can save money. Divert the money into savings rather than letting it run through your fingers. Let’s say you’ve got $100 leftover at the end of the month. After you have your emergency fund topped up, decide how you will divide that $100 between your short, medium and long-term goals. You may be so inspired that you are able to find further places to cut spending, or might find new opportunities to earn more money.

Pay yourself first

If you wait for there to be money leftover, you will never feel there is enough for you to contribute to your savings. Remove the money before you even see it and get used to living off what is leftover. Be realistic, though, and don’t run up your credit cards because you are leaving yourself short of money.

Learn from your budget

Now that you have taken the time to track your spending and list some goals, what is your budget telling you? If your housing is costing you more than 35% of your monthly income, you may need to find a cheaper accommodation or take in a roommate. Likewise, if that second vehicle is unnecessary and the payments are bringing you down, you might want to think about selling it. Following a budget will give you an idea how much you can spend in a month. Once that amount has been spent, it is time to cut back until next month.

Over time, it gets easier to stick to a budget. The urge to spend impulsively gets tamed and looking ahead to your goals becomes as satisfying as the short-term gratification of a shopping spree. Write a budget that works, eliminate unnecessary spending, and get out of debt. It’s a dream that can be your reality if you make the effort and commit to a budget today.