Archive for July, 2010

A dream is a wish your heart makes…

The girls and I have been dreaming. We’re dreaming of going back to Walt Disney World in Florida.  We went about six years ago and had a great time.

Now we’re making plans to return in 2011 – when we’ve saved up enough money to go. Yep, this time we’ll do it right.

I’ve dusted off the draft 2011 budget, and I’m confident we can pull this off in 2011. Truthfully, I have no idea what the cost will be, but I’m hopeful $6K will get the job done, and do it up right.

We sent away for a free vacation planning DVD. We’ve only watched a little bit of it. Would love to find a travel agent in the city with a specialty for Walt Disney World so we can get some insider information too.

When we visited previously, we stayed in a hotel off the grounds. We had nice rooms, free shuttle to the park and free breakfast. It was a pretty good deal. This time I’m wondering if it’s worth the premium ticket price to stay in the park. With at least one kid who tires easily, there may be a value in being able to go back to our room midday, have a nap or a swim or anything to renew ourselves, and then head back out if we wish.

Late last night when I started watching the DVD, I got all choked up. They sure know how to turn it on don’t they? I seriously can’t wait to go back with the girls. Just the three of us. We’re buying silly mouse ear hats.

Each year Disney seems to offer last minute specials. I’m hopeful they keep that up in 2011. Airfare will be inexpensive, as I’ll have enough points to cover our three flights. We’ll have to pay the taxes and freight of course, which seems to add up to an extraordinary amount, but still a savings. We’ll have to pay somebody to look after the fur babies here in Toronto.

We can’t start saving. Not yet. We can start planning. It’s exciting to dream and know that a realistic financial plan can actually make it come true! It’s probably 15-17 months away, but I’m excited already. That must be a hint of the liberating feeling that being debt free brings.

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Is your lover your financial partner too?

Earlier this week, Gail Vaz-Oxlade posted a sticky situation from one of her readers. While the situation wasn’t exactly unique, it did get me thinking about my own experiences being in a relationship, and how the management of money can indeed be sticky.

First, here’s the bit that made me go hmmm….

My partner does not fully support the “getting out of debt” plan.  He says he does but then really doesn’t embrace it.  We have no joint debt however we do have our own from our past lives. We also have a joint bank account for “joint expenses”.  I am just starting this journey and am quite able to do it on my own, but how do you deal with this situation effectively while contributing jointly?

This really got me thinking.  My first, gut reaction was this relationship can’t withstand this tension. It may be an annoyance and a source of frustration now, but add three to five years on this, and you’ve got resentment, bitterness, blame and all sorts of nasty things.

It made me think of the financial arrangement I had in my most recent relationship. It was an arrangement that I totally agreed to and encouraged in the beginning, but as it played out, it created tension for me. I was cohabitating with my boyfriend. We weren’t married. We signed a co-habitation agreement (at my insistence) before moving in.

Here’s the Coles Notes view of our arrangement:

  • the home we purchased was to be a 50/50 deal when the final mortgage payment was made. He had more of a down payment than I did, I earned more money than he did. We agreed I’d pay more toward the mortgage payments so that when the last payment was made, we’d both have invested 50% ownership. We created a spreadsheet to detail each payment, and how much equity we both held with each payment.
  • household expenditures would be split evenly down the middle. This meant utilities, cable, phone, repairs, renovations, home decor, lawn and garden expenses, booze and groceries. This was a pretty good deal for me because there was one of him, and I had one teenager residing with me when we entered into this relationship.
  • any previous assets we held were ours and ours alone. This included my rental property, an inheritance he held, our individual RSPs, etc.
  • financial responsibility for my children was mine. After all, they still had a Dad and he had a responsibility for them as well.
  • before we moved in, he had purchased a used vehicle, and I offered to pay him monthly in order for the vehicle to be jointly owned by us both. I sold my vehicle.

For the first while, this arrangement seemed totally reasonable and equitable.We communicated about money. We communicated about financial priorities.

Eventually though, despite being partners in a relationship, we were living two distinct financial realities.

He was able to save money. I was digging into my line of credit.

He bought his lunch every day at work from his own coffers. I made mine and took it with me from our jointly purchased groceries.

My eldest went away to college, and I was paying half the bill, along with her Dad. I had to borrow in order to pay for tuition, books, residence, meal plan, etc.

When we went out for dinner as a family, I was paying for my meal and either one or two more. He was paying for one. He wanted to dine out more often. Eventually I had to say I couldn’t afford it.

Same thing if we wanted to go to a show, or a theatre production or any event. His cost of admission was one, mine was two or three. Again, I had to say that I couldn’t do it.

At first I think he thought I was kidding. I had my own spreadsheet and had calculated my budget a year ahead. I knew I wasn’t kidding. I was at the end of my financial rope. He wanted to do more stuff (that came with a price tag, like travel), I had to pay for hair cuts, school clothes, winter boots, school trips, bus tickets for kids, etc.

If things needed repair around the house, or we spotted something that was just ‘nice to have’, I had to be the bad cop. I couldn’t save a nickel, and he was plowing money into GICs. We lived in the same house, ate the same food, drank the same wine. Eventually, I drank more wine.

I realized that the plan I totally embraced and agreed to was making me crazy. In theory, it sounded equitable. It looks equitable still. I think it’d be good for roommates, perhaps not lovers/partners.

There is some notion in my head that says if you’re going to be with me, we’re going to share our lives in every way. My life is complicated. I have two daughters with chronic diseases, and although they’re having a great year health wise, there will be times when things get pretty dark. It’s just a matter of when, and what the scope is. On the financial side, I feel like I’m being wishy washy when I say I want to be independent financially and not have to depend on somebody else to sustain me, but I don’t want my lover/partner to live a distinct financial life from me either.

I didn’t like going out to dinner trying to calculate my portion and making the wait staff deal with settling our tab as a family in the same manner as they would when four colleagues go out for drinks after work. I didn’t like my daughters witnessing it either.

We told everybody we were a couple, but really, we were more like friends with benefits. We told people we were partners. Why didn’t it feel that way?

This wasn’t the only reason the relationship didn’t survive, nor was it even an issue in our relationship that I spoke about. But I do think about this often, and how it bothered me to live with a plan I thought was perfect.

Am I a princess? Am I too independent? I’m expecting some heat again.

The finances seemed simpler when I was married. We both came into marriage with nothing, and everything we had was ours. Sure, we messed stuff up and bounced cheques in the early days and made some stupid decisions, but it was all from a united front. The deal I signed up for after marriage didn’t suit me at all.

I have this need to feel safe and know that those I love are also safe. Hence the fierce independence thing. If I don’t depend on you, you can’t hurt me. I’ll take care of myself, thank you very much. Truthfully though, it does sound like a nice idea to be able to be in a situation where I’d be cared for, and I could trust that. I don’t mean just financially, I mean in the broadest spectrum possible. Some of the elements of our arrangement made me feel like an island.

This is a big part of the reason why I choose to remain single for now, while the kids are at home. My priorities are for our little family. My pea size brain isn’t big enough to figure out how to incorporate somebody else in there.

That’s why I think the sticky situation noted by Gail’s reader is particularly sticky. Unless there’s a mutual resolution, I think it’s doomed.

What do you think of it all?

I’m paying less for heat! Woo hoo!

Just like they do every month, yesterday the postal carrier dropped the bill for Enbridge Gas in the mail. (These are the nice people who make it so we can heat our home, heat our water, etc).

There was a pleasant surprise when I opened it.  How cool to have a good surprise in a year of increased house insurance rates, increased cable bills, increased interest rates, etc.

Seems I’ll be paying about 24% less for heat in the 12 months to come than I did in the 12 months prior. I’m very excited about this!

Here’s how the scenario shook down:

A year ago, I bought out my ex-boyfriend from his financial interests in our home. He moved out. I took over the existing mortgage, and took out another mortgage loan to pay him out. Since this is in the books as a property “sale”, the utility companies just assume I’m a new resident. There’s no sense arguing with them about this, their computers don’t have a compromising logic model – there is either the existing customer or a new customer. Full stop. Since I suddenly became a new customer, they determined what they thought was the amount of heat I’d use over the course of a year, and billed me in equal 12 month increments.

Up until now, I’ve been paying 78.00 per month.

Normally, I’m not a fan of equal billing. Previously, I never opted into equal billing simply because I hate it if some big corporation is sitting on my money. I prefer to sit on my own money. A year ago, I was just nervous enough about my financial stability that equal billing provided me with some absolute knowledge about one expense line. I went for it.

Fast forward to yesterday. I opened my bill and Enbridge has given me a bill with the advice not to pay it. Why? There’s a 154.99 credit. What’s even better than that is they’ve used my last year’s usage and determined a new monthly equal billing rate for the next twelve months. The new rate is $59.43.

Still, with this credit, not only does that mean I don’t owe Enbridge any money in August, it also means that I’ll still have a credit by September, and only in October will I have to ante up $23.30 for heat. I get to go into the winter paying $59.43 a month for heat?  You can’t imagine my joy. Before you mention it, I totally get that the credit is my money. I overpaid them in the last 12 months. However, it still frees up budgeted money in the remainder of this year that I can use elsewhere.

Although small, the just over $200 financial boost from this will help boost my debt repayment for this calendar year. I have the added assurance that until August 2011, I know what my hydro bill will be.

This year I’ve grumbled when the cable rates went up, when my house insurance was increased and even when a loaf of bread went up in my discount grocery store. I’m gonna take this little bonus as good karma. Thanks Enbridge for making my day!

Feeling the love!

The two kitties, still with their Momma

Wow, you are all so amazing. Thank you for your positive remarks on a post that I was sure would draw some criticism yesterday.

I did toil over the decisions I made about driving lessons, drama camp and kitties. It may appear as if I made a snap decisions, but all three have been on my mind for a while. Regarding the kitties, Jolie commented that “pets can really add a lot of joy to life.” This is true. We get so much enjoyment and pleasure from Daisy and Zoe now, we’re just overjoyed with the prospect of adding to that when Moo and Nameless come home next month some time. Despite the enormity of what seems to be our regular monthly expenses, we don’t spend a lot of money on adding to the richness of our lives. Our entertainment budget has been $40/month since January. Pretty slim pickings. I’ve noticed that even Gail Vaz-Oxlade puts couples/families who are in worse fiscal shape than I am on a minimum of $100/month. I could learn a few more lessons from Gail, I think.

No, I don’t think two kittens are entertainment. I take being a pet owner very seriously. I know the responsibility.

Makky’s Mom remarked “life is meant to be lived”. We’ve led a pretty dull life this year so far. Not deprived in any way, but it’s been lean.

As I review the extra expenses to come, I’m happy that none of it is on stuff. The expenses are around being richer in our lives, about adding love (even if it’s furry love), adding to the girls education or experiences to help position them for a better future. Sure, I’ve struggled with wanting stuff over these past months, and I expect I still will in the future. The difference is I don’t give in to the wants like I used to. The girls are getting quite disciplined too.

On the weekend the youngest and I had to go to the local mall to pick up a mattress pad at Zellers. This was a need, not a want.  Lucky for us, they were 50% off. At any rate, while in the mall we stopped into Winners. Perhaps not the brightest move, but there we were. Both of us tried on clothing. Two dresses I tried were magnificent. Even felt like a brunette Marilyn Monroe in one. I had no internal argument with myself to bring either dress home. Recalling the turmoil I had over a much costlier dress at Banana Republic earlier in the summer, I’d call this progress. The youngest also found a top she was mad about. Without me mentioning anything she said “I love this top, it looks awesome on, but I really want two kitties more.” She gets that we can’t have it all. We can have what we want, as long as we plan for it and make the right choices. We left Winners empty handed, and had fun trying stuff on.

My struggle is the line between being responsible/accountable for racking up consumer debt that showed a balance of -$13,579.29 on January 1 of this year, and understanding how precious life is, having lived through about six years of significant stresses and family illnesses. This past year the girls have been healthy, I’ve felt almost stress free, except for a bit of worry over money. The balance is to find the sweet spot where we live a little and have some fun, but continue to be responsible for our financial affairs.

I’m rock solid sure I won’t have any consumer debt at some point in the near future. I see that happening because I have a plan and I’m working that plan. Once that’s gone, I’ll still have a big, fat mortgage debt. I’ve accepted that reality.

You’ve reminded me the importance of the balance. That’s what I’m thankful for. It’s okay to live a little, as long as it’s responsibly. Wish I could send you out a big hug. I really mean that. It’s generous of you to listen to the thoughts in my head and weigh in.  Still, I hope you’ll bring the heat when you think it’s necessary. That’s feeling the love too.

Flexing the budget

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last seven months, it’s that flexibility is needed when budgeting. I’ve made a few decisions this month that will test my ability to move things around a bit in the months to come.

Last month I mentioned my ex-husband was promoting the idea of Driver’s Training for both girls. The ticket price for this proposition was $800 each. While I do think it’s a good idea, in principle, I couldn’t support sending both girls. I did, however, bite the bullet on sending the eldest. In order to pay for this, the ex will cut my child support payment by $100 for four months. This makes it easier for me to manage it. As a compromise, I did take the youngest to the used book store, bought her the Ministry of Transportation’s Driver’s Handbook for $7.95 and promised she could get her G1 this year, sometime. That promise comes with a $120 price tag.

The next decision has to do with the youngest. She’s at the top of her Drama class in High School, and has been for two years. She loves it, and seems to have a natural aptitude for remembering lines and generally being dramatic. While some of that comes with the territory of being a 17 year-old-girl, it is something that adds richness to her life. I’ve hunted around for opportunities for her to take additional drama training at professional theatre companies, but have come up primarily with awesome sounding programs that cost about the same amount as a reliable used car. Last week I found a program at a Toronto, professional company geared directly to her age group for $600 for two weeks. I signed her up. She starts today. At 17, this will be the first “day camp” type of adventure I’ve ever paid for for her. I know all sorts of other kids who do this kind of thing routinely, and for a much heftier ticket price. Regrettably, the ex-husband declared being tapped out when I asked him if he cared to contribute, but I was prepared for that. In his defence, I did book it without consulting with him in advance, which knowingly left me in the “at your mercy” position.

The next thing this month wasn’t really a decision, but a bit of a costly accident. When I was taking my youngest to SickKids for her routine check-up on Wednesday, I lost our public transit pass. Ten more days to go until the end of the month we’ll have to ante up for. Drag, but at least it was closer to the end of the month than the beginning. I also lose the opportunity for the tax benefit for this thing if I can’t submit it with my 2010 taxes. Dang!

Finally, and I expect to take some heat from some of you over this, I made a decision to expand our little family by two. A friend of mine has a cat who had kittens in early July. There are 8 in total. Our home is currently blessed with two fur babies. Daisy is over 15, and in reasonably good health, except for a touch of arthritis. Zoe some of you have met here, who will be two soon.

I’ve half joked that my future plans include becoming a crazy old cat lady. Why wait? Why not admit the craziness now?

These two are so adorable, and they’re already siblings. It’s just a perfect set-up. The future financial hit is obviously an increased demand on vet bills, cat food and cat litter. In Toronto, pet’s also need to be licensed. The one on the left will be named Moulette, or Moo for short. She has black and white stripes on her body, which is impossible to see from this shot.  The little tabby (gender unknown right now) is nameless for now. Suggestions? I think my daughter likes Gus for a boy, and Mia for a girl. I’ve promised her she can pick the names.

Seems a good time to look into pet insurance options  😉

Other than those four things, we’re cooking along swimmingly here. Looking forward to having the new fur babies home. No date on that yet. They’re a bit too young to leave their Momma. Today I’ll be heading to the bank to re-negotiate the interest rate on my line-of-credit.  Wish me luck.

Customer Service, 5¢

It’s been just over a year since the City of Toronto implemented a mandatory charge of 5¢ for every plastic bag distributed by any store in the city. The CBC is reporting the program is a success thus far.   The primary objective of this new fee is to divert plastic from the landfill. It’s a worthy cause, and I’m fully behind it. Prior to living in Toronto I had reusable bags and used them often. Now, I carry a little reusable bag with me almost everywhere I go. I haven’t handed over many nickels in this last year.

What urks me about this new fee is the disappearance of customer service and teller patience that seems to have accompanied it. As soon as more and more folks started bringing their own bags, retailers who formerly  packed your purchases in their bag stand idly by and watch impatiently while you juggle things yourself. When the new fee was initiated, this was true almost across the board.

Now that the fee has been in place over a year, there’s really only one retailer that seems to be a holdout on this – Shoppers Drug Mart. When I’m at the pharmacy counter, and I put my reusable bag on the counter as I surrender my credit card for a couple hundred dollars in prescriptions, they typically put my purchase in my bag. However, at the front of the store, if I’m purchasing milk or some other items, it seems near impossible to get that service.

This issue is amplified for me at Shoppers. Usually I haven’t put all my items on the counter yet and the cashier is asking “do you have an optimum card?”  Well yes, I do, but let me unload what I have in my hand first, then let me open my handbag, then fetch my wallet, then peel out my optimum card. Of course I never say THAT, I just say “yes” and get on with handing it over after I’ve unloaded my stuff on the counter.

With that first question of “do you have an optimum card?”, I get the distinct impression they’d like me out of there as fast as possible. It’s all transactional, not very warm and fuzzy. If they waited five seconds to ask me, it wouldn’t feel like such a pressure cooker.

As I drape my reusable bag across the counter, rarely is it filled by the cashier. I used to say “I brought my own bag for you” in hopes that’d work. Nope, didn’t.

It’s what happens next that makes me a bit crazy. Once I’ve paid and they’ve handed me the receipt, I now have three things to do to organize myself: put my change in my wallet, put my optimum card back in my wallet where it goes, put my wallet in my handbag and zip it up. In my experience, during this time the cashier stands impatiently and cocks her head around me to make eye contact with the next customer. The next customer starts breathing down my back while my reusable bag and purchases are still sitting on the counter. Essentially the cashier is saying “I’m done with you, now move along”. This tactic makes lousy lovers, and terrible customer service. Yet, it persists.

By the time I put my handbag on the floor, then start packing up my purchases, the cashier is already scanning the next customer’s items. At my Shoppers, the counter isn’t very big, this adds a bit more misery to the whole scene.

This. drives. me. nuts.

How many seconds would it take to just give me the breathing space to pack up my purse then my items? Better yet, why not use the time to pack up my purchases for me?

On the rare instance I’ve forgotten my own bag, and have to purchase one of theirs for a nickel, order is totally restored. They have that workflow down pat. When I have my own, it all goes to pot, it seems.

I’m totally behind this charge. I think it’s an awesome idea. We should start adding a similar fee for bottled water too and divert some of that plastic from the landfill. I’d just really like a bit of old fashioned customer service when I check out. Do I have to pay a nickel for it? Some days, I just might.

Can we make $50 last 11 days?

photo credit: thedailygreen.com

Ever since I started plunking money into an envelope for our grocery spending, I’ve worried that we’ll get to the end of the money before we get to the end of the month.

Actually, this happened, once. We survived a couple days with no money in the grocery envelope. Nobody starved. There was lots to eat in the fridge, freezer and cupboards.

This month, I likely have the least amount of money left for the most amount of month, with only $50 to last us until the end of July. Weirdly, I’m not worried about it this time!

Why this sudden sense of calm? I give all the credit to the meal plan I prepared near the beginning of July. This is a habit I fell out of, and picked it up again this month.

Rather than panic at what looks like a small sum, I can look at my meal plan on the fridge, which takes us until July 25th, and be confident that I already have most of the ingredients that are required for each meal. Sure, I’ll have to pick up the odd fresh head of lettuce or red pepper, but that’s pretty cheap these days.

While there are still six meals to prepare after this current meal plan runs its course, I’m the one who will craft the next one, so you can bet I’ll create a plan that helps me take advantage of the groceries on hand.

There is another factor which may give me a sense of calm about our grocery budget this month. For one week each, both daughters are visiting their father. One less mouth to feed for a total of two weeks. That too adds up to something.

Still, the meal planning is a great relief for the stresses over meal preparation, and now I’m thinking it’s a great budgeting tool too!