Saturday, 10 August 2013

The thing about salaries...

It's funny going from inconsistent money to a salary. Although my salary isn't massive, the simple fact that there is regular amounts of money being placed in my bank account twice a month is incredible, especially for someone who has always worked either hourly or by contract. The temptations which, only a few months ago, I could avoid because I couldn't justifiably afford them, are now within my grasp, and it has taken me a few months to properly adapt to my newfound "wealth".

The pay schedule in most companies in Canada is really quite fantastic. We get paid twice per month, as opposed to monthly in the UK. This allows me to more effectively budget my finances: my rent comes out of one paycheque, my credit card bill from the other.

The issue is, though my base expenses are significantly lower than my monthly pay, I had two months of large required expenses (furniture and a plane ticket), and one month of splurges which I shouldn't really have done but I don't regret (a show ticket, sporty clothing, and a reunion). In theory, I should be able to put aside nearly $600 per month. In reality, I've been managing about $250. Because I have no debt to pay off, this all goes into a savings account with the highest rate of interest I can find.

Now, you might be a bit confused as to why I'm not using my newfound wealth to it's full extent. When I explain to people that I have a salary but not a car, that equation doesn't always compute.

But here's a question: What if I lose my job? What if I encounter a major expense which I need to cover? If I had a car, if I spent my full wage each month, the answers to these questions would be financial destitution. I am not prepared to put myself in that situation, especially since I can take measures to avoid it at this point.

And I'm glad I have. This past weekend, a small part of my dental work fell out, leaving a small but noticeable gap in my teeth. A friend reckons this will cost around $300 to fix. Four months ago, this would be an expense I couldn't cover. Now I can. And it won't make my day-to-day won't be adversely affected.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Sebatical over

Well it's been a while.

The past four months or so have been so crazy that I have only just recently had a chance to think of this blog again.

I started a new (salaried) job, went on vacation to Colombia, went camping with friends, visited England (through Gatwick South Terminal - still no water fountains!), moved into a new, 2-bedroom apartment, I bought a farm share and a bicycle.

My new job's salary means that I no longer have to worry about week-to-week or month-to-month expenses. The salary is fairly low, but I'm able to live comfortably enough that my freezer currently contains (gasp!) ice cream sandwiches.

In many ways, though, my frugal way of life still exists. And I'll try and get back to writing more regularly about it. About how my main form of transportation is now two-wheeled, about how Colombia is a beautifully frugal holiday destination, and about how my farm share means I have so much locally grown vegetables every week that my freezer is bulging with home made ready-meals. Yum!

But for now, I'd best get back to work!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Tip #24 - Beware of planned obsolescence

It’s that time of year again.

No, I’m not talking of the time of year when I start filling up my volunteering calendar, though that’s happening too.

I’m talking about the time of year when people around the world look at their one-year-old phones, tablets, computers, or gaming device, and think “why on earth did I spend so much money on this? It’s SO OLD!” and proceed to purchase, at great expense, the newest model on offer, tossing aside their current, perfectly functional, device.

Now I know I sound a bit cynical, and sometimes the advancements in technology really are impressive or really do make a positive impact in our busy lives.

But the marketing directors at top electronics and design houses have an extra ace up their sleeve: the concept of planned obsolescence, or in the words of Brooks Stevens, the man who made the idea famous the concept of “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”.

This evil little term is why our relatively new items of clothing or technology suddenly seem incredibly outdated after just a year or two. It I why things are not backwards-compatible (for example, why something saved in .docx may not work on a computer running an older version of Microsoft office, or why the new Nintendo games don’t work on previous GameBoys).

It is also why so many products these days are not ‘built to last’. If something breaks beyond repair, if that breakage was in-built but undetectably so, the consumer has to spend money to replace it. Or why the cost of repairing something is so ridiculously out of proportion to the cost of purchasing a new one, and that you may as well just buy new. Forever.

The origins of planned obsolescence were reasonable enough. It was thought out as a way to get consumers spending again during the great depression. Which is all well and good. But now this system is being applied to luxury items, which many people can ill afford to buy new every year. I know I can’t. But yet there is still pressure. The “ooo, that’s pretty!” or “ooo a new type of camera in the phone which does exactly one new thing and is totally worth an extra $500!” is heard every year.

Unfortunately, planned obsolescence is here to stay. I would hazard a guess that even now, only a couple days after their latest release, the big whigs at Samsung already know exactly what the Samsun Galaxy 5 will look like, and what it will contain, even if they haven’t quite worked out all the technical stuff yet.

So if you want to avoid paying out extra money because of planned obsolescence, here are some useful rules to follow:

1- Purchase something because you need it, not because it’s pretty. A major purchase should serve a useful purpose in your life, one that was not filled by your previous item, or to replace the loss of a previous item.

2- Read the customer reviews. If customers are reporting serious flaws in the product, then it might not be a good purchase! Search for the name of the device, including product number if necessary + customer reviews, and read a variety of reviews from a variety of sites. Read both the top and bottom reviews to get a better picture of the strengths and weaknesses of a device.

3- Get a good warranty. Invest in a warranty that at the very least covers the minimum amount of time you want your product to last. When I purchased my laptop, for instance, I bought a 3-year warranty because I wanted it to last at least three years. It has now lasted 3.5, and though I’m now out of warranty, I still believe I made the right decision.

4- Understand your warranty. Read through the warranty information carefully. If something happens to your item, you need to know who to call, what to do, and what might invalidate a warranty. For example, trying to fix a computer problem yourself, instead of bringing it to an accredited repair site, can make a warranty void. If you respect the warranty, and have a breakage to your item, you should have the repairs made at no extra cost, and you may receive a free replacement, especially if your device is no longer sold.

5- Accept that your items will no longer look shiny and new, and that that’s ok. For years, I had a dumb phone (you know, the opposite of a smart phone), even when smart phones were all the rage. My answer, when people ask how I could live with such a ridiculously low-tech piece of kit? “I use my phone to phone people, and it phones them rather well, thanks very much.” There isn’t really a good comeback to that!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tip #23 - Volunteer

Just over a year ago, I had a conversation with someone about volunteering. I had just been accepted as a volunteer at the London Olympics, and was really excited about it. It seems my enthusiasm wasn't universally shared, however. "Why would you volunteer?" he asked me. "Isn't your time worth something? Why would you work for free?"

It was a perspective I'd never considered before. To me a volunteering role and a job are two different things. You get paid in money with a job, and not in a volunteer position. But that doesn't mean I'm giving away my time for no compensation!

You see, I view volunteer roles as belonging to more of a barter economy. You put forward hours of time and work, and get compensated in material things, such as travel compensation, free lunch, uniform, and other free experiences, as suits. For example, I got to see a free Olympic event over the summer. Other volunteering roles may allow you free access to concerts, expos, or tourism sites. Sometimes you may receive a small thank-you in the form of a gift certificate.

But the biggest and most important compensation you receive from volunteering is experience. So many jobs now-a-days ask for previous experience or multiple references. For many people, the (il)logical loop is, without the job you can't get the experience. And without the experience, you can't get the job. So how to start? One really great way is through volunteering. Are you interested in nursing or helping people with mental health problems? Volunteer at a nursing home or a hospital or on a telephone helpline for a bit. Need management experience? Offer to take on more responsibility within an existing volunteer position.

I always try to have at least one volunteering role all times. This way, I show that I'm an eager worker, I increase my base of contacts and potential references, I add skills to my resume, and I am able to fill any gaps left by lack of employment, if necessary.

I've never understood the concept of my time being valuable solely in monetary terms. In fact, in many instances, the experience and experiences I have received through volunteering roles are worth more than monetary, hourly compensation. They have gained me paid employment. They have opened my eyes to new thought processes. They have allowed me to meet some incredible characters. I wouldn't change them for the world, and I will never stop volunteering my oh-so-precious time, as long as I have time to give.

NOTE: this tip is purely about volunteering. My views on unpaid internships, and forced working for companies who should be paying a fair wage are very different.

Monday, 4 March 2013

A half-rant about passports

Ok, this is just a half-rant. A mini-rant. A rantlet, one might say.

Let me start off with this. I LOVE MY PASSPORTS. I love them. I travel a lot, and for the longest time I didn't have a driver's license, so I needed my passports for ID purposes. I definitely do mean passportS because I have two of them - dual nationality, Canadian and British.

So this is where my rantlet starts. Two passports mean two expenses, to be shelled out at various points during a decade. But it gets better! My UK passport is valid for 10 years, while my Canadian one is valid for only 5 years.

But wait, there's more! Because of the rules about having to have 6 months available on a passport from the end of a foreign travel visit, I lose 1/20th of my UK passport costs, and a massive 1/10th of my Canadian passport cost. Essentially down the drain.

Oh, you think that's it? Nope. Because my Canadian passport was set to expire in August. I have two holidays booked between now and then. Meaning, I had to renew my passport two weeks ago. Less than four months from the new 10-year epassports being available. Oh woe is me! I now have to go another 4.5 years with a short-term passport. Wasting another 1/10th of the cost. Actually, even more, since the cost of the new 10-year epassports per year is less than the current passports.

I happen to be somewhat of a passport aficionado, having stared at different ones all day long during my role at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I have seen 89 different country passports (yes, I counted). I know which countries have strict rules regarding photos, and which don't (UK passports, for example, tend to be rather poor, whereas Canadians have to have special passport photographers take their photos). I've seen fakes, I've seen expired visas, I've seen mistakes. I've seen it all.

But until the day where a 5-year passport actually lasts 5.5 years, and a 10 year passport lasts 10.5 years, without a change in base price, this mini-rant of mine will continue.

A few close friends have commented to me that the "6-month rule" doesn't actually apply to many places; it depends on the country you're entering, but also, it seems, on the method of transportation you're using. An airline may require it, even if the country being entered doesn't.

So two options:
1- check before you go with both the country and the airline/cruise/bus company
2- better safe than sorry, renew with 6-months to go; this may save time and money in the long run, even if it induces mini-rants in people like me!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Tip #22 - Buy a farm share

It's that time of year when you can juuuuuuust about smell spring in the air, but there's still snow on the ground. That time of year when the days are getting longer but still not long enough. That time of year when you start thinking about how nice it will be when fresh fruit and vegetables start growing again.

For those of us who aren't lucky enough to be able to "grow our own" for reasons of time, money, or simple lack of garden space, a great alternative is to buy a farm share or participate in a community farming association.  Community Supported Agriculture programmes are available in several countries and regions. Just google "CSA [your area]" to find one near you. By doing this, I've found CSA farms in many Canadian provinces and US states, as well as in England.

Here's the basic principle:
A farmer sells a certain number of "shares" to individuals in the community.
Individuals purchase these shares in late winter or early spring (aka NOW), providing farmers with starter income for the upcoming season.
The farmer then provides its shareholders with weekly or bi-weekly 'baskets' of produce from the farm throughout the production season. Shareholders usually have to pick up their shares at a pre-determined location.

However, if the farm has a good season, shareholders can make gains too, as the equivalent cost of the produce is higher than the initial cost of the share.

So you're supporting local farmers, and getting discounted produce at the same time. Oh, and did I mention that these farms often use organic methods, and many are actually certified organic? Sounds like win-win-win to me!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is a gamble. If there is a poor harvesting season, or if the farmer is unable to maintain the farm for whatever reason, you may not receive your food. Read the terms and conditions of the shares closely before you buy to make sure you understand the potential risks.

Look around to find a farm which suits your needs. There are certified organic farms, there are some which allow you to substitute fresh produce with preserves, there are some which provide smaller baskets, or more flexibility, or who offer home delivery. Some also provide meat or eggs. Also consider the growing period - some farms grow produce with a smaller harvesting window, so will provide you with fewer baskets through the summer, whereas others will continue into the fall.

This year, I'm splitting a farm share with a friend. Each share should be enough to satisfy both of us and then some. We're getting 23 weeks' worth of baskets, starting in May. You can be sure there will be photos in good time! I can't wait!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Recipe - Whatever cookies

I like to bake. But often I don't have the right ingredients, which can be a bit of a problem. A few months ago, I stumbled onto a really great cookie recipe, which was the first cookie recipe which worked for me (I have issues with cookies not rising properly...)

So yesterday I was in the mood for cookies. I dug out the recipe, and then realized that I didn't have enough chocolate chips. Uh oh! So I adapted the recipe ever so slightly, and here it is: whatever cookies.

I have also added North American measurements... I could have used these last night as I roughly guessed grammes to cup conversions, got them badly wrong, and had to save my dough.

  • 250g (2 cups) plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 170g (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted
  • 200g (3/4 cup + a bit extra) dark brown soft sugar
  • 100g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 325g (about 2 1/2 cups) of whatever (chocolate chips/chunks, dried fruit, dessicated coconut, chopped nuts, bacon bits, whatever you have or whatever's cheap)

1. Preheat oven to 170*C (340*F/Gas Mark 4). Don't preheat to 170*F, that won't work. I tried.
2. Stir or sift together dry ingredients. 
3. Combine butter and sugars and 'cream' together (I did this with a wooden spoon. No need for a fancy mixer!)
4. Add vanilla, egg and egg yolk to sugar mix (save the extra white for pastry wash or similar).
5. Add the dry to the wet and mix until combined (again, wooden spoon).
6. Add in whatever, and mix to combine.
7. Place balls of dough onto a well-greased baking tray. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the edges are starting to brown. Let cool slightly on the trays, before transferring to a cooling rack. 
8. Eat. Enjoy. Share. Yum! 

FYI: My whatever cookies were dark chocolate, raisins and dried cranberries, and they're rediculously good.