Latest Entries »

And we are LIVE!

I am finally done (sort of) fiddling with installations and un-installations and just generally showing myself to be an embarrassment to computer scientists everywhere.  Brian and I have our new site and up and running and we’d love to have all our readers migrate over.  I’d do it myself but I haven’t figured out how yet…

So change your google reader links and point them to

I’m working on the email subscribing option…

Let me know what you think!

Updates: Apr17-23

The bf and I are working  on moving our site off WordPress and onto our own domain name and hosting this weekend.  We’ve actually had the domain name for a while, but never got around to it…  Stay tuned!

Onto the new and amazing:

  • Funny About Money talks about the great deals you get at ethnic markets.  I love ethic markets – I do most of my shopping at small markets where I can get whole chickens for $6 and coconut milk for $0.79 a can.  Safeway would charge me $12 for the same chicken and nearly $3 for a can of coconut milk.  I find that rice is especially over priced at Western stores.  I can get 40lbs of rice for $25, typically.  2lbs of rice at Safeway is what, $3.99?
  • Lifehacker is one of my favourite sites.  They posted recently about what to do if you think you’re going to lose your job.  It’s a great list of suggestions for people who are concerned about their job security.  And, it’s not mentioned in the article, but many of the suggestions are also relevant for people who want to leave their jobs.  When I was getting ready to transition from my research job into full time computer science, I did many things like saving up an emergency fund and getting rid of non-essentials.

Living well on less often means taking advantage of situations to the best of your ability.  I don’t mean being greedy or doing illegal things, but I do mean taking and using what’s available to you each and every time.

Getting free food

For example, the office where I work is adminstered by a property management company.  Every day or so, the secretary will put out cookies and sometimes fruits and other snacks in the communal kitchen.  Whenever I see cookies, I take one.  Whenever I see fruit, I take one.  It doesn’t matter if I’m hungry at that moment or not, I still make sure to take one.  Why?  Well, later in the day when my energy starts to sag, I will eat that cookie instead of wasting time daydreaming about snacks or spending money on a bag of chips.  The next day I can eat the fruit that I snagged instead of bringing one from home.  Both of these small actions save me money by simply taking advantage of a small benefit – free snacks and cookies – that my building offers.

I also go to monthly user groups for people interested in bioinformatics (computational biology).  At the end of the seminar, the group provides free pizza to encourage people to stay and network.  There’s always 15 or so boxes of pizza for 10-30 individuals.  I always take 2-3 slices.  I eat 1-2 and save the rest for my lunch the next day.  I don’t try to take an entire pizza, or even half a pizza, but I do take a reasonable amount which allows me to have a free dinner and a free lunch the next day.

Getting free household goods

I usually hang on to coupons until I can get something for very little or preferably free.  I don’t often use coupons in my day-to-day grocery shopping because most of the items I buy are store-brand or consist of fresh produce.  But once in a while, I’ll grab something on sale using a coupon, if it’s really really worth it.  In the last three months alone, I’ve picked up Ziploc bags, toothpaste, toothbrushes and vitamins for free.  The Ziploc bags were $2 each and I had a coupon for $4 off when you buy 2.  The vitamins for $10 on sale and I had a coupon for $10 off.

I saved about $50 by using coupons on these items at the right time.  I don’t go all out and get 10 boxes of Ziploc bags or 15 tubes of toothpaste.  I usually get 1 or 2 of each free item – just enough to save me some money that’s better spent elsewhere.

I also always request free samples directly from companies, whenever they are offered.  For example, Proctor and Gamble give away samples of their products every month or two.  You can get travel sized samples mailed directly to your home with very little effort on your part.  These products are great for the suitcase or gym bag, plus, they come in handy if you suddenly find yourself short on shampoo or detergent!  Sure, you usually have to sign up for spam and advertisements, but if you have an email address dedicated to receiving this kind of thing, it shouldn’t impact your “real” email.  RedFlagDeals in Canada is a great site to keep up to date on freebies like the P&G giveaways.

Getting free medications, classes and dental work

I’m also a big advocate of maxing out your work benefits.  People often neglect their benefits, but they are an important part of your compensation.  When I decided to leave my job and go back to school I didn’t just quit.  I bought a supply of contact lenses and medications, covered by work benefits.  I took as many classes at the university as I could take, fully covered by work benefits.  I even had my teeth straightened – a $3000 benefit! – courtesy of work.

If I didn’t use these benefits, I would have had to spend thousands of dollars of my own money.

Many work places also offer benefits for massage therapists, physical therapy and counseling.  How many times have you had a nagging pain in your back or felt stressed out and wanted to talk to a professional?  Why not go to a therapist, courtesy of your workplace?


Taking advantage of situations saves money and often prevents things from simply going to waste.  Where in you own life can you take advantage of situations?

We are shaped by our choices

During my first degree, I was determined to get experience in my field so that I would not become another unemployed person with a Bachelor’s degree.  When I look back now on the experiences that I gained, there is a very clear connection between the choices that I made and the opportunities available to me.  At the time, it sure didn’t seem that way.

Young, dumb and lacking in experience

My first degree was in Cell Biology and Genetics.  I had entered university without any experience doing anything remotely related to science – I would guess that this is true for most undergrads, regardless of what field they are specializing in.  I had no work experience, no volunteer experience, nothing.  I was also dreadfully afraid of speaking with my profs – the few that I spoke to were aloof or uninterested in taking on an undergrad, even as a volunteer.

Being the lab b*tch

It got easier in my senior years.  Class sizes were smaller so it was easier to get to know the professor.  I found a work study position for 10 hours a week as a laboratory assistant.  It was not glamorous work by any means.  I sorted tips, washed glassware and plastics, and then sterilized the glassware and plastics.  I worked there for 8 months without touching a single experiment.  But it paid a decent amount of money and I learned my way around a lab.

Meanwhile, I was volunteering.  I worked one day a week at the local aquarium and science center as a husbandry assistant.  I really enjoyed this job – among other other tasks, I got to feed the fish!  I also volunteered on campus in the natural history collections.  I became proficient as a taxidermist and got pretty handy with a scalpel and needle.

At this point, I wasn’t feeling too good about my career prospects.  I could clean and sterilize lab glassware, take care of fish, and turn roadkill into museum displays.  Hum.

Putting it all together

My next job was at a pharmaceutical company.  They were hiring a lab glassware washer to work 10 hours a week.  I decided to apply, since the job seemed made for me and I could use the money.  So again, for another 4 months, I washed and sterilized labware.  I was really efficient at washing glassware now though, so I usually finished in less than 10 hours.  I started asking my boss for other things to do.

At first, it was small tasks like helping out with inventory or making solutions.  But it helped to show everyone that I was willing to learn and had a good eye for detail.  I got to know a lot of other employees as well.  One day my boss pulled me into his office and said, “CF, I know you’ve been willing to do more work for us.  Would you be interested in working an extra 10 hours a week?”  Of course, I said yes.  Turns out, they remembered that I used to work at the aquarium taking care of the fish.  They wanted me to take care of the animals used in their pharmaceutical research program.

This put me into contact with two amazing managers and got me the opportunity to learn techniques in cancer research.  I mentioned that I had experience using sharps like scalpels before and pretty soon, they were teaching me how to give injections or slice up tumor samples.

The payoff – An employed college graduate

Those same managers helped me to secure my first job three weeks before graduating.  This was pretty good for someone fresh out of school who never did a formal research internship!  Thanks to my random job experiences, I had a job straight out of university that combined everything I learned in a job – working with animals, cancer research, and surgical modeling.

Taken on their own, those experiences didn’t seem to add up to much.  It was only after I got good at certain skills – using a scalpel or taking care of animals, for example – that other opportunities opened up.

That’s not to say that the choices you make should define what you do, forever and ever.  Not at all!  After a few years, I realized that biomedical animal research was not for me, so I left the field transitioned into computer science.  (There’s a lot of interesting biology you can do using computer science, in case anyone is curious!)

But again, I was able to change careers easily because I of the contacts I had met while doing biomedical research,  computer-related seminars I had randomly attended, and having a job whose benefits included free tuition.  In contrast, a lot of people I know are stuck in the field because they do not take the time to get new experiences and skills.  Their options are limited whereas mine are not.

I never would have predicted this outcome based on my first job, washing glassware!  That’s why I think it is so important to take advantage of any opportunity you have to learn new skills and meet new people.  You never know who you might meet, what new ideas you might pick up, or how you might be able to draw upon those experiences later on.

Updates: Apr 10-16

I had a bad month or so where I was incredibly swamped with writing!  Of course, at the same time, Brian was incredibly swamped with work.  I am exceedingly grateful, of course, but now I’m trying to get myself back on track, setting up a schedule and making sure I set aside time to get all the little things done.

On to the clicky-clicky:

  • A cool new Canadian-made device will soon allow you to control your electronic gadgets from afar, monitor how much electricity each appliance or device is eating up, and allow you to nuke it.  Sustainable, useful, and financially responsible – hopefully it will appeal to the technically-minded out there.  For myself, I am quite happy with the “off” switch on my power bar, but I am glad that the option is out there.
  • You’re bound to get funny looks from family and friends, but it’s important to get into the habit of not spending, as Canadian Dream: Free at 45 discusses.  Staying busy and being engaged really does prevent idle spending.  For myself, this revolves around writing, learning new recipes and going to (usually free!) concerts and events.  But it is true, even when you go out on a “spending” occasion.  For example, the bf and I notice this especially when we go out to the bar with friends.  When we spend less time mindlessly staring at the TV and more time talking to our friends and engaging in conversation, we order less food and fewer drinks.
  • This is actually from a while back, but I never got around to talking about it.  Can you retire on $25,000 or less?  Apparently that’s how much 54% of actual retirees have in savings.  I have that much in student loans alone.  It’s a scary thought, and although PopEconomics points out that most of the people are surviving, I have no intention of spending my days watching hours upon hours of TV.

Cheap eats! Vietnamese noodle soup

Having the most frugal grocery budget in the world isn’t going to help you any if you can’t put together at least a few healthy, tasty, and cheap eats! Every month, The Outlier Model features a cheap recipe idea, along with the cost breakdown.

If you haven’t had pho, or Vietnamese beef noodle soup, truly you are missing out. It is a wonderfully rich, broth soup made with slow simmered beef bones and served with rice noodles and thinly sliced meats. Most people know pho as a cheap meal out, but it’s also an economical soup to make at home, both in terms of time and also money.


What you need:

  • Pho seasoning pouch or block (<$1)
  • beef bones ($2-3 for a giant bag)
  • tops of  daikon and carrots (free! – save these in your freezer until you use them in soup stocks)
  • 1 small onion, roasted ($0.20)
  • 1 small ginger root, peeled, sliced thickly and roasted ($0.35)
  • bean sprouts ($0.30)
  • fresh basil, whole ($0.5 half a bunch)
  • green onion, chopped finely ($0.33 a bunch)
  • cilantro, chopped finely ($0.50 half a bunch)
  • 1 package rice noodles ($1.49 a package)
  • hoisin sauce and chili sauce (<$0.25 per serving)
  • salt and sugar (<$0.10 per serving)

Nice to have:

  • star anise (your flavour pouch should have this, but it’s nice to toss in a few whole)
  • meat of choice – brisket or chicken breast is easy to use, but experiment to see what you like!
  • white onion, Thai chili or jalapeno

Or, tempt fate by "roasting" over a bare element!

Clean and cut in half the onion and the ginger. Roast for a few minutes in the oven or toast on an unoiled pan until browned.

Fill a large pot with approximate 3L of water and bring to a boil. Add beef bones, daikon top, carrot tops, roasted onion, roasted ginger, and flavour pouch or block. If you intend on making cooked meat for the soup, add the cut of meat you are using now.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for at least one hour.

Strain the mixture into a new pot. If you are using pre-cooked meats (slices of leftover chicken, pork meatballs or tripe), add them now. If you had added meat earlier, slice it now and add it to the pot. Put the soup on low to simmer and add salt and sugar to taste.

Blub, blub, blub...

Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water and cook rice noodles according to the package directions. One package makes 5-6 servings of rice noodles.

While the noodles are cooking, wash bean sprouts, cilantro, green onion, and basil. Chop the cilantro and green onion finely. Slice white onion and red chilies or jalapenos.

Divide the cooked noodles into large soup bowls and add broth and meat. Garnish with fresh herbs and veggies and serve with hoisin sauce and chili sauce on the side.

Servings: 6+

Cost per serving: It really depends on how many servings you get, which depends on how much water you used initially and how concentrated you allowed the broth to get.  If you assume only 6 servings, your cost ranges from about $1.40 to $1.75 per serving depending on what kind of meat and how much, if any, you include.

Remember, pho is not meant to be a meat-intensive meal!

Feeling adventurous? Use thinly sliced raw beef and add them to the bottom of your bowl before adding noodles or soup.  Then, allow the meat to cook in the hot soup just before eating.  Or, try other popular toppings, such as tripe or tendon.

Frugal hack: Use leftover cilantro, basil and green onion to top a stir fry or instant noodles later in the week.  If you store washed and chopped herbs in a sealed container, they will keep for quite a while.  At the moment, I have fresh cilantro in my fridge that is almost two weeks old.  It’s still green and crisp!

First yard sale of the year

I’m a big fan of yard sales. I’ve picked up a lot of stuff for next to nothing and even more stuff for absolutely nothing. Brian and I went to the first sale of the year (that we knew about) this morning and. Walked away with a free deep frying “spider” skimmer. (PS – I had to look up what they were called.  If you didn’t know either, check it out.)

Its awesome because I like to make spring rolls and samosas but I don’t have (or want) a deep fryer. I just boil oil and plunk the food into the pot. I’ve always had to use chopsticks to fish out the food but now I can place everything into the metal mesh, fry it, and simply lift it out of the oil via the handle when I’m done. Hooray!

Here’s some other things that are great to pick up at yard sales:

Kitchen stuff

I’ve picked up dishclothes for free, my first electric beaters (I used a whisk for years because I refused to spend the money on beaters that I only used once a month…) and even an awesome waffle maker. I still have and use all of these items.

You can also usually get a decent selection of plates, cups and mugs for free or nearly free. A lot of people have no use for mismatched sets but if you get a nice variety, it gives your place settings an interesting eclectic feel. Random mugs and plates are also great for leaving at work so that you’re not reliant on buying microwave-safe containers for storing lunches. The sale we attended today had mugs and plates for 25 cents!

Board games and puzzles

Love board games. Do not love board game prices. A new board game can easily cost $40 or $50. I picked up a mint copy of Ticket to Ride at a yard sale incentives for $5. Five dollars! The colour cards were still wrapped in plastic!

Its also a great way to pick up an old Monopoly or Scrabble set to get extra pieces or to replace missing pieces from your own set.  And, I’m not sure why this is, but there always seems to be a good selection of “travel-sized” games at yard sales.  Might be worth hitting up a sale or two before a camping trip or long drive?


I get lots of books at the library but sometimes it’s nice to have a book that you don’t have to return. I buy some books new – usually from my favourite 2-3 authors. Other books I get from yard sales!

I remember wanting to read “In Defense of Food” for the longest time but was unwilling to spend $20 on it. I didn’t want to get it from the library because it takes me a long time to read non-fiction. Then one summer day, I found it the hardcover edition at a yard sale… for $1!

Picking up random books for 25 or 50 cents is also a fun way to get introduced to new authors. If I decide I don’t like the book enough to keep it, I sell it or pass it on. Sometimes, you can even find entire boxes of free books to take home and browse.


All in all, I’m pretty happy about getting the frying skimmer spider thing and looking forward to visiting more yard sales as the weather warms up.

As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours.  Shortly after posting about how I became a writer for the Stem Cell Network, I received two possible leads on other writing jobs.  One panned out, the other didn’t (as a freelancer – never count on a job until you actually get the first paycheque!) and as a result, I’ve been running around in circles trying to get things done!  Love it.

It is stressful at times when you’re sitting in front of the laptop, trying to find the words to link this paragraph with that paragraph – but it is also incredibly rewarding, at least for me, in ways that my previous jobs never did.  In the same way, I find my new career in programming rewarding.  There is just something about creating something new and watching it take shape that is incredibly satisfying.

But now I’m wondering if I should give up my part-time job in order to concentrate on writing.  It’s a casual job, so I can choose to take shifts or not, but I do try to work 2-3 times a month so that my skills are not forgotten.  I’m also a little hesitant to give up work just before returning to finish my last year of classes.


It is unresolved as of yet, but I remind myself that it is far better to have decisions about what I want to do with my time than not!  And also apologize for the lack of blogs  🙂

It’s spring cleaning time and I’m not too embarrassed to admit it – I’ve found a lot of cool stuff in the alley.

Once, my ex and I found an IKEA coffee table in perfect condition, complete with all the screws and hardware in a Ziploc bag.  We dragged it home and replaced our hand-me-down from the 60s.  I’ve also found a cute side table , speaker stands, plant pots, kitchen items and boxes of books.   And this is just the stuff that I’ve found – I’m not including anything that I’ve picked up for free via Craigslist!

I’m always amazed at the condition of the things I find.   Usually, they’re perfect.  After taking them home, I do a quick bug check and wipe them down with a bit of disinfectant – it’s as good as new.

It’s a little disturbing to me as well.  Why would people not drop off small furniture items to the thrift store?  I could understand the difficulty of transporting a couch or a bed, but a side table?  Really?  And why weren’t the books donated to the library or dropped off at a community bookshelf?   The Vancouver Public Library, for example, will accept donations year-round.  Even if they don’t necessarily want to put your books in circulation, they can sell it to help generate revenue.  Several community centers and coffee shops in the area also have leave-or-take shelves where people can exchange books.  It’s a great way to exchange books within your neighbourhood.  Many charities will even come and pick up small items like clothes and books directly from your house.

It seems so callous just to leave things out in the alley where they might get rained on or thrown away unnoticed.

Remember – the 2nd step of sustainability is reuse.  Even if you can’t use it, someone else might.

Many people are fortunate enough to have benefit plans which completely cover their health and dental needs. But many other people only have partial coverage and still many others are not covered at all. I used to be fortunate enough to have all of my medical and dental needs covered at 100%. But after going back to school and taking a work placement, my benefits have evaporated. Luckily, Brian’s benefits have recently kicked in, but in the meantime, I have a stack full of medical receipts which I can use towards this year’s tax return.


How are medical expenses tax-deductible?


Medical expenses are a non-refundable tax credit. This means that if you owe taxes for the year, using these deductions will reduce the amount of tax you have to pay. But if you have deductions in excess if your owed taxes, you do not get a refund on top of that amount.

To claim medical expenses on your tax return, you just need to save your receipts over the course of the year, making sure that your receipts describe the service or product you received, the name of the patient (yours or your dependents), the date of the service or purchase, and who received your payment for the service or product. Then when it comes time to file your taxes, you just total up any unreimbursed expenses, and add them to your return.

Keep in mind that in Canada, you can only claim expenses if the total amount is greater than $2011 (based off the 2009 guidelines) or 3% of your income, whichever amount is less. The amount you claim is also less any reimbursement, such as from insurance providers or work benefits.


What medical expenses can I include in my tax return?


It’s not just prescription pills that you can include – orthodontic costs, glasses and contact lenses, and some medical equipment are included as well. Take a look at the Canadian tax guidelines for a complete list of what you can claim and what you can’t. For our American friends, take a look at this US site for details.