Sunday, 23 April 2017

Managing Post-Secondary Education


There was a time when going to university didn't involve going into debt, or at least not the kind that would take years to pay off.    At some point, post-secondary education ceased to be an extension of the public school system and became a kind of corporate venture.   Bean counters moved in.    Courses and programs were offered even though few or no positions were available for graduates yet at the same time popular wisdom seemed to be that a degree or two was necessary for career advancement.   Parents, with all good intentions, advised their children to follow the pattern that had worked for them.   Trade school was often seen as the last resort for students who couldn't cut the academic courses.  

University education also has a value that has nothing to do with job prospects but that is not as easily measured and valuated.    If university education is your choice, know that there is a level of maturity required to get a degree without incurring horrendous debt, and it is not possessed by most eighteen year olds.

Some big picture advice involves living at home as long as possible, hopefully with supportive parents.    Once you leave home, everything costs.   Adding a spouse and children places you on a trajectory where stepping off to continue/pursue post-secondary education involves difficult choices.  Canvas your friends and acquaintances.   Returning to university with a spouse and children involves a considerable change in lifestyle as well as helpful parents and in-laws.

Find a job that makes accommodations for students with flexible hours and an understanding boss.   Work one day a week at your busiest times and up the hours on holidays but be reliable and hardworking on the job.   It's only fair.


Here are some smaller tips, direct from a university student with no debt:

- don't buy textbooks until you are sure you actually need them
- try to share textbooks with reliable students.  Make a schedule to exchange
- buying your textbooks used and on-line is usually cheaper or even better see if they are available from the institution's library.   Even if they are only available  on reserve for two hours, work with that
- Culinary programs often sell students' products cheap 
- farmers' markets may set up shop on campus but don't get caught up buying a lot of logo'd products at the campus shop
- hang out with frugal students; go to fun pot luck type of events with your cohorts
- College departments may arrange social events that are slightly relevant. eg.  Archaeology department may screen Indiana Jones movies
- use campus computers for free.  Printer costs are usually minimal.   Wifi is free on campus;  get the code if one is required
- Don't live on campus;  it's usually not a good idea financially or academically
- Bring your own water bottle; many campuses have refilling stations conveniently located
- If you buy coffee on campus bring your own container.   There's usually a discount.
- Campus gym is usually available for free at certain times
- You may be required to pay for a transit pass; use it if it is feasible.  Or carpool
- Most campuses now require that you have extended health care or purchase theirs.   This would be the time to arrange a dental or vision check-up

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Travel, As You Like It

Skellig Michael

I love to travel and have enjoyed doing so a considerable number of  times.   Not as many as perpetual travellers, otherwise known as Global Nomads.  Nor even as much as those who travel half the year or some similar ambitious percentage of their time.  I've always had family commitments (aka children) and now two dogs (similar commitment to children it seems) that have limited the length of time of travels to four weeks maximum.  

But yet I have been to many places that were on my wish list of places to see.   Probably close to a dozen times to Europe, including one time too many to Paris.   Australia and New Zealand,  England, Scotland, Ireland,  Mexico, Hawaii, much of Central America . . . But that doesn't mean I have run out of places to go.   Some of the places I have liked too much and have returned.   So if you want to be a traveller, start early and go often.   Don't wait until you can go First Class.   Especially when you are young or even youngish, you will be more accommodating of less comfortable beds and less quiet environments.  

One enormous advantage now:   The Internet.   You can check places out, make reservations, do virtual tours and  compare prices.   All that used to be impossible in the days when you had to go to a travel agent and hope for the best.

One main lesson I've learned:   When  an activity/sight/museum is something you really want to partake in, pay.  Don't consider the price.  (unless truly outrageous and even then . . .).  Especially if it's a case of 'I shall not pass this way again', do it.  When that isn't the situation, don't.   I never paid to ascend the various levels of the Eiffel Tower;  it just wasn't something that interested me.   

The second lesson is Know Yourself.  What's really important to you?   Why are you travelling to this destination?     If you are going to Granada, Spain to visit The Alhambra you had better make sure you have arranged tickets (in advance) and accept the cost of doing so.   When I wanted to visit Skellig Michael (and this was before it was featured in Star Wars - The Force Awakens)  I didn't quibble about the $50 each charge for a seat on a splintery wooden bench on a hastily converted fishing boat chugging eleven miles out into the Atlantic Ocean to that fascinating island.

There are often/sometimes cheaper ways of accomplishing the same thing.   Cruise ship excursions are a notorious example of over-pricing.   You can (almost) always do (much) better yourself through making arrangements though a local travel firm or even hiring a cab to take you there.    I paid half the price for an excellent two day tour in and around St. Petersburg after carefully checking on-line reviews and details.   

A lot of travellers' money can go to over-priced restaurants.   I enjoy my own cooking and almost always go for accommodation that allows me to do that.   I've paid for too many mediocre yet over-priced meals over the years.   Nowadays I tell myself that I will wait until the next all-inclusive resort stay or cruise to indulge my gourmet fantasies.   Plain food will be less likely to upset your stomach on an active, moving around a lot type of  travelling. 

Pack light, very light.   A large suitcase is an impediment.   Nobody will notice what you wear and if you're changing locations, you're seeing different people who don't know what you wore yesterday.  Quick!   Can you remember what your spouse (or teacher or boss) was wearing yesterday?  The day before yesterday?   I didn't think so.

If travelling is your dream then you won't mind eating a few (many) meals of beans and rice or the equivalent.   I never did.   

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Your last $10

Some seemingly trivial  things stick with you for years.   The reason probably says something about ourselves.    I watched a news program many years ago -- at least 15 years -- that I have thought about, and talked about,  more than a few times.  It featured  an American family that had fallen on hard times.   I don't remember the details other than they lived in a mobile home park and had children.   I can still visualize the young woman, dark blonde hair and a round, distressed face.    They were down to their last ten dollars; no food in the house.   She told the interviewer that she only had enough to go to the store and buy a pack of disposable diapers for the baby.   Then they would be broke and hungry, presumably until the next wage or government assistance cheque arrived.

I wanted to reach out to her through the television and say, NO!  The last thing you need to buy with that ten dollars is disposable diapers.   That kind of thinking is a large part of the reason you're in this present situation.  Would she have listened to me?   Was she already relying on learned helplessness to try yet again to implore someone, anyone to save her family.

What should she have done with that last ten dollars?   What would I have advised her to do?     This website, 50 lbs of Beans and Rice took up a challenge and purchased 25 lb bags of each for $21.98.   This article is from 2010 and there will be some inflation so I will tweak the figures a little and advise our subject to  buy half of that for $11.  Assuming inflation has increased her $10 to $15,   that leaves $2 for some bulk spices and $2 for some bulk oatmeal.   The author of Beans and Rice post writes that the 25 lb. bags would feed one adult for 40 days.  Half that should take care of the broke family for at least a week or so.  Boring but doable in the short run.  In any spare time plans could be made for a vegetable garden.   You can check out the details for yourself. 

All in all, more useful than a box of disposable diapers.   The unfortunate mother could make some cloth ones from old towels or tea towels.    Desperate times call for sensible measures.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Why stop budgeting?


I have to admit the title of this blog--and the book-- is designed to grab your attention.  Lots of people swear by budgeting and I have to admit that when you are inputting your data and filing receipts and adding up columns of figures you are not spending.   But other than that I consider there are definite negatives.    I could make the analogy to dieting, something that many nutritionists now agree doesn't work.    You deprive yourself for a short period of time to fit into a dress or other worthy-to-you goal and then you relax, go off your diet and enjoy your life again.   Short term pain but usually not long term gain.

Budgeting can be like a diet.   Lots of calculating, weighing portions (expenses), trading off chocolate cake . . . for the rest of the meal.   You miscalculate (cheat) on portion size because who could live on that minuscule amount.  You don't like kale but force yourself to eat it.   You avoid social and family functions -- too many embarrassing explanations.  

The problem:   You're following someone else's blueprint.   Their goals are not your goals.   You're being forced to do something -- and you're an adult.   Then there are the categories;   an awful lot seems to end up in miscellaneous.   You buy a hot dog and drink at your son's baseball game.   You pull out your little notebook and dutifully write it down . . . and hope no one notices and asks what you're doing.  Now does that go in the Food category, the Entertainment category (even if your son's team lost and he cried) or does it go in the Children category.   Could you put it in the Health and Wellness category because you and your son had a nice session wherein you built up his self-esteem and reminded him that everyone loses sometimes?

Or your daughter has a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to go to try-outs for a tennis scholarship.   It could change her life, make a difference for her, set her on her path for success BUT it isn't in your budget.   And you have willpower.  And you'll regret it forever.


A more useful habit than budgeting is the not shopping habit.   And it doesn't take any time, in fact it adds to your available time because you're not doing it.   In general, not budgeting works better for those people working towards early retirement or some other goal that you want so much you can almost taste it.    Analyze each expense as it comes along.   Do you really need it, can you get it cheaper elsewhere, can you borrow it?    Use your creativity.   Think!  The internet is great for coming up with solutions.  Some categories, like cable, you might want to delete entirely.

Once you have considered each purchase carefully, keeping in mind your list of dreams, let go of your anxiety.    You're good to go.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Breathing Room Money


I've heard this called something else involving a common expletive but you know what I mean.   Some people also think of it as a financial cushion or an emergency fund but it is more than that.    It's for the more major hiccups on the road of life that for some people end up being a chasm  from which it takes years to claw their way back up to the road.   I read an article a while back in (I think) The New Yorker about people who went from parking ticket to destitution and jail in relatively short order.   I think the article was more about the country's justice system and the delegation to private collection agencies and their unreasonable power.  For people living on the margins financially and earning $7 an hour a $200 parking ticket is an impossibility.     When tickets are farmed out to a private service with few scruples it becomes nightmare.   Every month without full payment adds a $35 service charge plus interest.   Other made-up charges accrue and before long the amount owing is in the thousands.   A couple of months in jail for failure to pay means eviction from your home and your children in foster care.    You develop a chronic illness in the jails and your children pick up criminal habits while in care.  Was the $200 parking ticket worth it to the state?

Usually 3 to 6 months is suggested as a financial cushion.    Back in the days when money was worth more I had the goal of accumulating $10,000 as the amount that I figured could support my family for a year of frugal living.   Attaining this goal was a tremendous relief.    I couldn't imagine a calamity that I would not be able to solve in a year's time.   For me it was similar to what some people feel with an insurance policy but for me, I knew for sure the money was mine and would be there for me should the need arise.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Twenty-five percent gratuity


Tips (or gratuities) can be a controversial topic.   Some parts of the world, like Australia, don't subscribe to this custom which is viewed as something Americans dreamed up.   Others, like France, include an automatic service charge of around 20%.   Watch out that you don't add an additional tip if you are visiting.    Some travel guides recommend that in addition to the included service charge you round up the bill so that if it is 18.20 Euros (probably not much of a meal in France) you leave a 20 Euro note.

In Scandinavian countries tips were called drikkepenge or drinking money.   It was often the coin change from a bill and the idea was that the server would accumulate enough over the course of an evening to have a few drinks himself after work.  Wikipedia has a country by country guide which can be useful for world travellers.

Some jurisdictions justify a lower minimum wage for servers under the theory that they will end up with more than that by including tips.    Generally, servers in mid-range eateries expect to double their wage with tips; higher end restaurants and bars and expect exponential returns.   Most only declare a portion of the tips received - 10% is standard.   The tips received are distributed by an internally decided formula so that bussers, hostesses, cooks and dishwashers share in the largesse.  Some establishments have servers tip out on their gross sales which can be unfair if a large table doesn't tip at all.   The tip portion for the rest of the staff comes out of her other tips.   In a less than friendly restaurant there's room for abuse and revenge.  

Cruise ships add standard amounts to each passengers bill--something like $14. per person per day.   On a two week cruise a couple would pay almost $400 in gratuities.   An additional 18% is charged on bar purchases.   Most people appreciate the service provided by staff but there can be some resentment at feeling that customers are making up for low wages paid by ships flying flags of low wage nations.

I've read that in New York City, twenty-five percent is the standard gratuity in restaurants.

One objection that is raised concerns the many low wage occupations that do not receive tips.  What is the solution?

Friday, 10 March 2017

Spending Fast

Some people choose January as the month to go on a spending fast or buy nothing month, but any month would work.  You can't avoid paying your rent or mortgage and other key expenses but  all non-essentials are eliminated.   Of course, deciding what is essential can be difficult.    You have to be honest with yourself.   Would your life be seriously impacted if you didn't buy x?   Can you borrow it?   Can you buy it used?  Those are all preferable to retail price plus sales tax.

We all have our particular weaknesses and it is best to acknowledge them.   I have no particular interest in tools or cars but a shiny new catalog from LL Bean can definitely tweak my interest.  My intention was just to look but before long I found something--actually a few somethings--that would definitely enhance my wardrobe.   Fill gaps.    Go with something that was lacking something to go with.  

The Current U.S/CAD exchange rate is one thing that definitely gives me pause but LL Bean does make good quality long lasting clothes.   I would be getting my money's worth.    Pause . . . pause.
Trying to decide what to do I was reminded of the time an aunt sent me home with a good three quarters of an enormous Black Forest cake that was left from a social occasion she was hosting.   How many calories did that contain?   How many snacks and desserts and little side pieces would I end up eating from it?     In a burst of inspiration I picked it up, ran out to the garbage bin (in my slippers) and tossed the cake in.    It was an enormous relief.    I decided to recycle the catalog, but quickly.

A fast of any kind is meant to be short-lived.   A trial run in case you were ever in serious trouble.   Valuable information  is provided to see just how low you can go.  But you're in charge and get to decide what you missed the most and don't want to do without.