Archive for November, 2010

Recession? What Recession?

On the weekend, I stopped into a few shops to pick up a couple of Christmas gifts. On most of my trips, I was totally on a mission:  knew what I wanted, picked it up, paid and got out.

However, I was in these places long enough to see how crazy busy the stores are. Maybe I haven’t been in a store for a long time? Still, it seemed to me there were a lot of people out, some frayed nerves, and an awful lot of shopping bags. There was one store I went to without a mission. They had sent me a 15% coupon to use for the month of November, as a birthday present. It’s not my favourite store, but my girls both love it. Thought I’d cruise around to see if there were any reasonable stocking stuffers.

I just left with sticker shock, even with my 15% off coupon. Still, there was a very long line-up of people (primarily young women) waiting to pay for their purchases. As I walked down the street to hit The Bay, the street was covered with pink and blue.  Pink bags from Holt Renfrew, and blue bags from Swarovski. I get that there are lots of people with money, I just find it hard to believe that that many people have that much money.

Did you happen to see the videos or news reports from the shopping fiasco’s south of the border. One clip I saw showed shoppers being trampled as the doors opened to a store. It’s just not civilized. Why do we need to knock down, step on and injure another human being to save $10? I’m gobsmacked.

Add to that a little segment I caught on the CBC this morning.  Apparently 62 million Americans hold credit cards. This is down from 70 million a short while ago.  According to Kevin O’Leary, the banks have taken back 8 million cards. In his words “nobody gives up credit“. The average balance in the US is just shy of $5,000. Yet they’re still stampeding their fellow citizens to put more stuff on plastic?  O’Leary is worried because fewer credit cards in consumers hands means the profits of the big banks go down. The financial sector comprises about 20% of the Toronto Stock Exchange. When the banks falter, people’s investments start to dwindle too. O’Leary can likely take a hit – can we?

Perhaps we haven’t all got the message yet. Is it the holiday season that causes people to put any fiscal restraint on hold?

Next week Mr. Carney will weigh in again when he gives his update to the overnight lending rate. Experts predict there will be no change. I expect there will be no change in his heed to Canadians either: reduce your debt load, because I can’t keep rates this low forever.

How do you stay on track at the grocery store?

On Friday, Jacq from Single Mom, Rich Mom asked me a terrific question.  She said:

This envelope / jar thing confuses me.  Wouldn’t it be best to leave out $20 or something just to buy the “essentials” at the end of every month?  You’re budgeting $170 per person / month or close to $6/day per person – it must be possible to bring that down if need be.  You’ve got me really curious to see how to figure this out.

I guess the short answer is, I don’t really have a very good strategy for this, if I have one at all.

At the beginning of the month, I take out $510 in cash, and stick it in the cupboard. That’s the whole monthly grocery budget. I’m not sure how much better I’d do if I pro-rated the money by the week instead – or even a half month. Perhaps worth a try.

Often what happens is this: by the end of the month, supplies of things are at least getting down, and we start to deplete our stores of the every day stuff. When I get our month’s grocery money, I go and stock right up again. Usually this means that I spend more of the money at the beginning of the month than the end. There is no strategy here, just confessing my habits.

I’ll also admit that at the beginning of the month, I think we’ve done without some ‘treats’, and I may buy a tin of hot chocolate, or a carton of frozen yogurt. Not always – just sometimes. I think I have to switch my thinking to add those things to the end of the month rather than the beginning.

In November, I shopped a lot more at Loblaws than I have all year. Why? That’s where my Saturday morning Weight Watchers meeting is. For a couple of weeks, I took my little bundle buggy to my meeting, and shopped after. I felt like I had my Saturday afternoon back. Instead of coming home and then making one or two more trips out with the bundle buggy to shop in the more discounted grocery chains near my house. While I didn’t succumb to any of the extra temptations that a big Loblaws has to offer, their prices are certainly higher. That didn’t help me stay on track in November. I’ll have to shop the bargains at Loblaws when I’m there, and save my everyday shopping to my local Food Basics.

Yes, the youngest and I are Weight Watchers members, and the eldest is a type 1 diabetic.  All of that means that we eat a lot of whole, and fresh foods. Sometimes (not always) that’s costlier. In my neighourhood, I’m surrounded by about five independent fruit and vegetable stands. There’s one that’s my favourite. Normally I can get bananas for .49/lb (the grocery store usually starts at .69/lb). About every third day I’m making a trip to the fruit stand for apples, grapes, celery, spinach, bananas, lettuce, etc. Usually each trip is about $10.

The eldest has also started seeing a personal trainer and nutritionist to try and get her weight down a few pounds (her nickel, not mine). She’s not overweight, but she did gain a few pounds over the summer and she’s finding her clothing is very uncomfortable. As a recently diagnosed diabetic, she’s still finding her way with fitness and blood sugar management. Her nutritionist has made some suggestions for her daily intake, which means I’ve bought a lot of prepared hummus, and All Bran cereal that are now regular additions to our kitchen.  Note to self: learn to make your own hummus.

The final kick for my grocery budget, I think, is the kitties. I take the cat food out of the grocery budget, perhaps stupidly. I spend about $60 a month feeding three furry faces. Two bags of cat food at $27.95 each, add tax and you’re at $60.

In January, I’ve upped our grocery budget to $600. I’ve also eliminated the “booze” budget line in my spreadsheet. I’m hopeful that if I think I’m drinking the grocery money, I’ll do it far less. Good for me, and good for the budget.

What I do reasonably well is check out the flyers, I may stock up on an item that’s a really good deal (like toilet paper last week, for instance). I go out of my way to buy milk at Shoppers Drug Mart for $2.99 rather than pay $4.19 at the grocery store. I clip coupons and order specific coupons online for our frequently purchased items. I’ve also got the day marked in my calendar that my local independent pet store is celebrating their one year anniversary and offering 20% off everything.

How do you guys manage your grocery budget. What tricks do you use that you think I can use or do better at?

November’s home stretch

The grocery money ran out three days ago.

I asked the girls if they wanted to try a “empty the freezer and cupboards” marathon over the next few days. Strangely, they thought that sounded like fun! So, the cupboard cleanout is on! We have lots of good food in the freezer, so I’m not too worried. They seem to plow through about two pounds of grapes a day, and that has stopped as of yesterday. They’ll have to make do with the other fresh fruit options around.

Both girls got a bit of crazy in their eyes and said “let’s go dumpster diving!”  We’ve seen some television shows about this, and frankly, we’re all fascinated. The thought of doing it without a getaway car seems a bit daunting. For me, I’d be a bit chicken, I think. I’d prefer to do it in packs with people who have a bit more experience.

For any of you who are new around here, it isn’t that I couldn’t go spend more money on groceries if we were desperate. I totally can. My goal every month is to make the $510 I set aside in cash for groceries last us for the month. Most of the time, this has worked. It merely means that we don’t whine that what we have on hand isn’t what we “feel like” eating, we make it work. In my past, I’ve blown over the grocery budget by as much as $200 a month for the nice-to-have items, like frozen yogurt, hot chocolate, cookies, snack foods, prepared foods, etc. We just don’t do much of that any more. Nobody misses it either. (Okay, we break down every so often for a tub of Chapman’s Mint Chocolate Chunk frozen yogurt).

At any rate, November promises to finish in the black by a good margin.  That’s a particularly good thing because December will back to red like September and October, with the purchase of the new laptop. (Still love my kitties).

I’ve got a good handle on my Christmas shopping now, and the little Charlie Brown tree is even up. Yep, I caved.

The girls will be away on Sunday, which gives Santa a chance to do a bit more shopping, as well as do some wrapping.

I’m so close to being without a line of credit debt in a few months, I can almost taste the victory. Have a great weekend!  See you next week.

Fitness Centres may have missed Sales 101

A few years ago, my youngest and I had a membership at a big, new gym near our home. I actually wrangled a deal with the manager that I could cancel BOTH of our memberships if my daughter got sick. As a single parent, if my kid is sick, it means I’m not at the gym either.

After much negotiating, he agreed and we signed up.  I paid $54/month each then.

After a while, my daughter got sick, and eventually I was able to go in and cancel, with a doctor’s note. We haven’t been back in about 18 months or more.

Now that my eldest resides with us, and she’s working full-time, she’s taken out a membership (and is paying for it herself). The cold weather is settling in and the youngest and I are thinking it’d be nice to be at the gym again. Strangely enough, as I was walking to the bank during the week, a dude on the street asked me if I’d like a 10 day pass.  “Heck yeah” I said, and he handed me a voucher. “Can I have one for my daughter too?” I asked. He verified she was 15 or older, and handed me a second one.

Last night, we decided to wander down to the gym and have a workout. So we signed in with our new 10 day pass. As we were walking up the stairs to the fitness area, the gal at the front desk came running after us letting us know we had to ‘activate’ our pass. Back we went and stood around for a few minutes. Out comes this young fella, promises to activate our pass, it’ll be “no problem” and only take “a few minutes” I’m assured. I’ve been around a while. When some kid says this to me, it’s my personal assurance that there will be a problem, and I’m gonna sit there for at least a half hour.

He goes into his story about how the 10 day pass is a “temporary membership“, so basically one has to become a member, and the first 10 days is free. If I want to cancel after 10 days, that’s cool. If I don’t, the membership fees kick in. As I’m sitting there with my daughter, and we both have our winter coats on, this crazy idea in my head that this isn’t going to go well is reinforced. I suggest he look us both up in his computer, since we were former members, and perhaps he can just click a button and we’ll be members again. Of course that’s far too simplified. We need identification, signatures, paperwork and credit cards.

I started my protest. I say “when the dude on the street approached me, I asked point blank: is this complicated, or can I just use my 10 day pass and workout for 10 days?” I was told they’d try and sell me a membership (which I expected) and otherwise, there were no strings attached.

So, back to dude at the sales desk. I tell him I came with my daughter for a workout, and in my head that didn’t mean I needed ID, or a VISA card or anything else. I have my headphones and a towel, nothing else. I ask him if I can just go have a workout and I can bring in the whole nine yards next time I come. He goes to check with his manager. Insert another 10 minutes here. My daughter is now being uncomfortable because she sees this as a showdown, and she hates anything that seems like confrontation, even if it’s just a discussion. He returns to tell me he actually can’t find his manager.  After a few minutes he leaves again and comes back announcing the 10 day pass isn’t valid for us to use, it’s only for individuals who have never been members before.

Wow. What a great way to entice former members NOT to return to your facility. Don’t treat them as if you have any of their personal information, and don’t give them any perk to say “hey, we had buckets of your money before, and we miss you, let us give you a little something to remind you why you miss us”.

So, we left and tossed his useless 10 day pass cards on his desk.

Trouble is, I’d like for my youngest at least to have her pass back. Being active is an important part to anybody’s health, but especially hers. I just DREAD the thought of dealing with these sales guys. I’ll be totally honest and tell you all I see are guys who have big muscles and very little in the way of smarts or customer service skills. I mean why would neither the guy on the street who handed out the pass or the sales guy who assured me it’d be “no problem” to activate my pass not ask that one qualifying question first:  have you been a member with us before? It would have saved us all about an hour, and a whole lot of heartache for my daughter.

So today I’m trying to see if I can fit that $108 total back into the budget again for December onward. Trouble is, if I do, I’m going to have to spend another 30 minutes with one of these guys that I’ve already decided aren’t bright, and can’t make any decision without checking in with a manager you never see. I like the gym, I like the location. I just don’t like how complicated it is to get in or out the door.

2011: still under construction

Wow!  Thanks for all your kudos yesterday. Sounds like a few of you were inspired to find a little something to give too.  Hooray!

My charitable giving in the past has been better than it will be in 2010.  Turns out, however, that I was giving away money I hadn’t earned yet. I mean, if a person is charitable and has rising debt, isn’t that an indication that they need to get their house in order? Still, this year I’ve totally learned that I can get my house “in order”, meaning retire my debt, as well as accomplish other financial goals concurrently – like save, and be charitable.

Still feeling great after learning that 5,341.6 pounds of food were collected in Toronto in total for the “Lose for Good” campaign, I wanted to revisit my 2011 budget draft to see what I’d planned around charitable giving.  Seems not much. As I spent only a few minutes reviewing my budget for 2011 yesterday, I realized it needs a lot more work.

My draft budget for 2011 is picking up all the mistakes I made in 2010. For instance, even though I’ve done the analysis and I know I spend just under $200/month on car rentals, I have $0 in the car rental cel on my spreadsheet.  Apparently there will be no gift purchasing, nor any clothes purchases in 2011 either. There certainly isn’t any charitable giving.  Yep, still have work to do.

I am more clear, however, on the cost of our vacation in 2011. While Walt Disney World is having promotions in the late summer, with two girls potentially heading to first year University in September, the timing is awful.  Add another kid who’s photosensitive, and we want to arrive in Orlando as far away from the summer sun as possible.  This means we’ll likely go at Christmas. The impact of that is an increased cost, and the park will be busier.  I always had it in my head that we’d go at Christmas anyway.

The good news is that gives me most of the year to save for it.  Perfect.

My 2011 budget also doesn’t reflect the conversation I’ve had with a contractor to replace my crumbling front steps in the spring, or the fees for applications to Universities.

To my credit, what I did nail in my budget were regular contributions to my TFSA, to the girls savings for post-secondary, and for my RRSP. Oh, I also budgeted $100 in dining out for March, when I intend to get the VISA bill for the celebration dinner I’ll be having when I’m debt free.

Perhaps this weekend I’ll be able to take another run at 2011. At least I’ve learned this year that the budget is a guideline  –  it can roll with the punches when it has to.  Are you ready for 2011?

Feels great to give

There’s a line on my budget spreadsheet that says “charitable giving”. It’s been pretty empty this year, as I focus on trying to pull my head out of the fiscal muck.  Actually, having fewer donations to causes that I care about does NOT align with my values. I have been a reasonably consistent donor to a few causes.  Not buckets of money, but some.

Only now am I starting to return to giving back, and man, it feels SO good.

Today I wanted to share with you one good deed that I was able to accomplish with the help of others, and how that grew.

I’ve shared with you before that I work part-time with Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers has just wrapped up their second “Lose for Good” Campaign.  Recently, I’ve just started working as a leader at two meetings (I’m still a receptionist at one meeting). In the meetings that I’ve been leading, I pledged to my members that I would personally donate $1 for every pound they lose during the last four weeks that I’ve been their leader.

Only part of our $300 haul!

This was a calculated pledge on my part. The two meetings that I lead are small, about 18-22 members in each. I had reviewed their total losses on a weekly basis prior to making the pledge, to ensure that I wasn’t committing to something that I couldn’t actually carry out.  Hey, I’m still a single mom with debt, not that my members know that. In my budget, I had $200 for charitable giving set aside for December. I opted to make the pledge, thinking that I’d be able to do so and stick within my charitable budget.

Last week was the end of the Lose for Good Campaign.  In one meeting, my members lost 76 pounds in four weeks. Not bad!  It is my smallest meeting.  In my second meeting on Saturday mornings, my members lost 90 pounds!  I was totally blown away! As the members returned from their weigh in, they were jokingly saying “we’re going to bankrupt you Tracy” and I just smiled and said “bring it on!”

On Saturday, the charitable bug was very contagious. My colleague at Weight Watchers made a contribution of $40 to help the cause.  Another member, who wanted to remain anonymous, matched my contribution of $90!  Add up all those amounts, and we rounded it all up to a $300 contribution to the Food Bank. My colleague and I then proceeded to take our $300 to the grocery store, and pack up our cart. It occured to me that I’ve never spent $300 on groceries in one fell swoop before.  It was actually difficult to consider the kinds of quality foods and grocery items that we wanted to contribute, and try and keep the tally in our heads as we shopped.

We bought a couple of huge boxes of diapers, some formula and baby cereal.  I was a bit overwhelmed emotionally as I put the baby formula in my cart. I remembered what a hardship it was to lay down $45 when the girls were tiny to get this formula. I can report that it hasn’t gone down in price any since I last used formula, and I was just so thankful to be able to give some of this liquid gold to some other parent(s) to help their journey.  We stocked up on pasta, pasta sauce (both on sale), tuna and salmon, oatmeal and some cold cereals. As we were wrapping up our shopping, my friend said “imagine going to a food bank and not having any coffee?”  I totally agreed, and we threw a few pounds of coffee in our cart.

As the cashier was ringing us up, we told her what the purchase was for.  She was excited.  We also told her we wanted to spend $300.  When the subtotal hit $260, we knew we had more shopping to do.  With apologies to the slightly cranky person in line behind us, I ran to the peanut butter aisle and carried four large jars up to the cashier.  Still having some money left over, we stocked up on some more cold cereals on sale.  The total: $301! The total weight of the food contribution was just over 205 lbs. My contribution went on my VISA card, and will actually leave another $10 left for charitable giving in December.

I was literally on top of the world all weekend with this little adventure. I can’t wait to show my members the pictures of what we accomplished together.

We’re off to University, just for today

Today the girls and I are heading to Ryerson, to one of two open houses they host per year.  The event is to give potential students a look at the campus, the offerings, and then stream them into their field of study and answer more specific questions about course load, costs, admission requirements, etc.

I’m really excited to go!

The eldest wants to study nursing.  She doesn’t actually want a career as a nurse, she wants to specialize and be a Diabetic Educator. In order to specialize, she has to have a medical degree under her belt first.  When she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 21, she was emotionally devastated that none of the nurses who were advising her actually had been in her exact situation.  She found them knowledgeable and caring, but she wanted somebody to say “hey, I’ve been there man, I know you’re feeling like you’ve just been shot from a cannon”.  Her desire to do this for other people hasn’t cooled off.  She’s already graduated from college, but Ryerson will be looking at her high school transcript for admission.  Wow, do I have questions for them!

The youngest wants to act.  She’s been preparing me for this since she was able to talk. She recites whole scenes of movies she’s seen once, and has done so since she had enough patience to sit through one.  The course at Ryerson gets lots of applicants, and they accept just over two dozen students. Yep, I have questions for them too.

Trouble is, I can only be in one place at one time! Ah, the toils of being a single parent with two kids destined for post-secondary at the same time.

In recent news, however, the youngest is feeling like she may do another year of grade 12. She’s destined to graduate this year, and she’s made the Honour Roll every year so far. She just feels like she isn’t ready to go off to University yet.  Hey, I went to grade 13, now an obsolete grade, and I wasn’t ready to go then either. She’s a full year younger than I was.

A few years ago I told both girls they could go to any post-secondary institution in the world, as long as it was in Toronto!  (Mean mother, aren’t I?)  My motivation was to give them a strong base at home, since they both have chronic illnesses and might need it every so often. Additionally, the extra cost of residence and meals times two means the cost would just be overwhelming. Finally, there is an awesome selection of post- secondary schools in Toronto.

Since the eldest is now working full-time, I’m hopeful she’ll have $15K in her TFSA by the time next September rolls around. It is possible, for sure. That won’t cover everything, she’ll have to be on the hook for some of her education too.  Her Dad and I paid the bill in full for her College Diploma. I’ve been plugging $250/month into her TFSA for a year now, since she’s too old to have an RESP. Now that she’s working, she can really pack money into it herself.  She has $10K of contribution room to use up in 2010. (Thank you Gordon Pape for giving me some tips for her TFSA)

The youngest has over $13K in her RESP. Not a bad start.  I’ve recently learned that you can still contribute to an RESP when a child is over 17, but you just don’t get the matching contribution from the Government.  Fine!!  I’ll continue to add my $250/month contribution for her too.  If she decides to do a second round of Grade 12, and apparently more and more students are doing this, it’ll give me another year to save up a few more bucks.

Keep in mind, I’m not “single” in my responsibilities for their education, their Dad is also obligated to assist financially.  The great news is, he’s also inclined to.  What a relief!

I’m excited for today.  I think I’ll pack us a lunch. I’m sure by then I’ll have a bad case of sticker shock!