Category: Philosophy


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?

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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?

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Cutting down on your spending money may seem like a big sacrifice. In a consumer mindset, it’s easy to equate spending money with having fun. But I’ve found that reducing your spending does not have to equal reducing your fun. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at common areas where it can be easy to overspend and provide some free alternatives that are just as fun and entertaining!

Sport and Exercise

Free classes in the community

This past weekend, I attended a free yoga class. Yep, FREE. As a society I believe we’re taught to be distrustful of free stuff. For example, when I told my barista that I’d just attended a free yoga class across the street, he replied, “Free? Nothing’s free, what’s in it for them?”

Thankfully, some companies understand the value of product exposure and good will. The class was hosted in their store an hour and a half before opening time. It cost the company a teacher for one hour and it cost me nothing! Yoga can be a very expensive pursuit and can easily cost you $8 – $15 per session. Take advantage of programs like this in your neighborhood and save some money.

Local community centers also often offer free “teaser” classes where you can try out a new activity or class.

Take advantage of low-cost or free sports

There are a lot of sports out there that cost little to no money to participate in. Taking up any of these sports will greatly cut down on your sporting expenditures while still providing the exercise and competition you desire. Tennis, for example, is essentially a free sport. Aside from the modest start up costs of a racquet and balls, court time is generally free.

If you’re looking for a partner to play with or looking for someone of similar skill level, sign up for Juump. Juump is a free service that allows you to meet other tennis players in your area. You can meet new friends, see who plays at your favorite court and invite people to play with you.

Almost any sport can be free or nearly free if you get enough people together. Some of the best games of ball hockey I’ve ever played have been casual games played in the depths of parking garages with my friends rather than on a regulation court! Ultimate Frisbee is another great social game that can be played in a large group and is accessible to people of all skill levels.

Exercise outside of the gym

In my opinion, paying for a gym membership is a waste of money for most people. Many exercises done at the gym can be done just as effectively at home. Craving the treadmill? Go for a run. Ready to pump iron? Invest in a resistance band. There are a lot of exercises that can be done right at home with minimal equipment as well. My first experience in a ‘gym-like’ environment was at a friend’s house in high school. Many of our exercises did not use equipment and instead, made use of common household items. Doing some dips? Kitchen counters are a great height!

Swimming is another great form of exercise that is also easily found for free.  In the summer, hit the beaches and free outdoor pools.  If you’re a student, you can usually swim for free year-round at certain hours during the day at your university’s pool.

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In the end, being active and living a healthy lifestyle does not need to cost a lot of money. Next week I’ll take a look at some free and fun entertainment options. Leave a comment or email me if you have a specific topic you’d like to see covered in the future.

Getting rid of the backup rug

Up until 2 weeks ago, I had a rug propped up against a corner in my living room.  I bought it 2 years ago when I lived in an apartment with hardwood floors.  I ended up vacating that apartment rather unexpectedly due to a fire, and aside from a brief appearance in my condo, I haven’t used the rug since then.

I kept it for a while because I liked the colours.  It had taken a long time for the bf and I to choose the rug in the first place.   Then I told myself that it was a waste to get rid of it, because surely I would live in a place with hardwood floors again one day.  It would be my backup against potential rug-less catastrophe! It didn’t fit in my downstairs storage locker, so it sat, unused, in a corner of my living room.

I had pictures to hang on the wall beside that corner. If I could hang the pictures up, I could also get rid of the box that they were in. But I told myself that I had to wait until the rug was out of the way.

I had a side table in my storage locker which would have been perfect in that corner. If I had the table, I would have more usable space in the living room, but instead, the table sat unused in my storage locker, because the rug was in the way.

Eventually, I realized that keeping the rug wasn’t netting me any benefit.  Instead, the unused rug was preventing me from enjoying and using other things that I owned. I didn’t have just one useless object, I had many!  As soon as I realized that, the rug was listed on Craigslist.

It’s always hard to get rid of things, but in this case, the benefit was immediate and exponential. Up went the pictures and in went the side table. Now, I have a useful, decorated corner instead of a giant rolled up rug!

What STUFF do you own that’s holding you back?  Maybe it’s an old “backup” TV you never use or an empty dresser you keep “for guests”.  It could be clothes you no longer wear or books you wouldn’t re-read.  Consider selling or giving away the things you don’t use or need in order to de-clutter your life and get more use out of your other possessions.

In terms of overall financial health, your net worth is a great indicator of overall success. To calculate your net worth, add up all of your assets (things that are worth money) and subtract your debts (loans, etc). Each month I share my net worth to help illustrate our financial health.

February is a good example of a normal month. I paid down debt. My investments grew moderately. I spent to my budget. As a result my net worth increased by approximately $1200. It would have been more, but unfortunately our Condo fees increased by 20%  retroactive to January 1st, so we owed a bit of money.

Benchmark Your Net Worth

It’s great to say that my net worth increased by $1200, but what does that mean exactly? Would this be a success if I took home $5000 in income last month? No! Looking at your net worth as a percentage of your income is a great way to benchmark your progress. In my case, an increase in my net worth of $1200 represents approximately 40% of my net income in a month. 40% is now my benchmark; I think I can do better and will set a goal of 50% over the long term.

Here’s a breakdown of my net worth for the month:

Assets:

Assets Previous Month Current Month Change (%)
Cash $6,311.61 $6,101.60 -3.3%
RRSP $5,865.96 $6,092.45 3.9%
TFSA $1,439.26 $1,553.03 7.9%
Condo $258,0000.00 $258,000.00 0.0%
Personal Assets $500.00
$500.00
0.0%
Total Assets $272,116.83

$272,247.08 0.1%

Liabilities

Liabilities Previous Month Current Month Change (%)
Credit Cards $1,075.45 $849.52 -21.0%
Family Loan $14,853.57 $14,853.57 0.0%
Student Loan $5,400.91 $4901.65 -9.3%
Mortgage $238,748.64 $238,356.97 -0.16%
Total Liabilities $260,078.57 $258,961.71 -0.43%

Total Net Worth: $13,285 (+10.4%)

It’s not much, but considering where I was last year, I can’t complain. Check out The Financial Blogger for a look at a net worth with some serious money!

Meet my four jobs

I have four jobs. Thats right… four.  Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t work 80 hour weeks! Most of my jobs require very little effort and provide a much bigger return. Meet my four jobs:

My full time job

Currently I’m working as a software developer. This is the job that gets the basics done – One paycheck covers all of my bills plus some money for spending and saving and the other paycheck is used for retirement savings and upcoming tuition expenses.

I’m only going to have this job until May, at which point, I have to take my remaining classes. However, I have lined up a job which starts in May but is half-time, allowing me to take classes while I work. Since my living expenses are so low and since I will not have to save for tuition expenses any more, working half time will still pay for all my basics plus allow me to save a bit as well.

My part time job

I’m on the casual list at the hospital. 2-3 times a month, I’ll come in and work. I choose when I work and I don’t take more shifts than I feel like. And it pays $20/hour!  The main reason I keep this job is because of the flexibility and the high (for a part time job) pay.  If I ever need extra money, this is my go-to job.

It’s not related to my current field of computer science, which is why I will not use it to fund my cost of living while I am in classes. But since I can choose when I work, I will keep this job indefinitely.

I use this money to put extra payments towards my student loan, to save towards my next condo, and to save money for upcoming living expenses while I’m in school.

My contract job

I write for a scientific organization as a contract writer. Once a month, I write one blog for their website. It’s fun because I like to write, the topics are engaging, and it only takes me a few hours of concerted effort per article. It pays by the traditional per-word standard of freelance writing.

I use this money for luxuries – colouring my hair for example. I also put some of it aside for dividend investing and sometimes I’ll put some of it towards student loans as well.  I take a little bit out for spending.

My casual jobs

I write for a local music magazine website as a concert reviewer.  I don’t get paid, but I do get free concert tickets.  I haven’t had to buy concert tickets in ages.   For a bit of writing, usually half an hour to an hour, I get my entertainment for free and I get to express my opinion about music.  I often get more than one ticket as well, which makes for a free date night or a free outing with friends!   The value of the tickets range from $10 to $60 per ticket.

I also pick up mystery shopping jobs.   Often, these shops are for restaurants.  I get a set “allowance” and instructions on what type of foods I have to order.  For example, I might have to get one drink and one appetizer.  Whatever money I have left after paying for those items is my profit!  The value of the meals and drinks range from $20 to $70, and my profit usually ranges from a $5 to $20.  After my visit, I write a short report, which takes about one hour.  Again, for a bit of writing, I get more of my entertainment expenses covered for free.  Many of these visits even require you to have a dinner guest, which makes for another free date night!

It’s worth it!

The key thing to note is – most of those extra jobs serve a specific purpose. They are flexible, thus allowing me the opportunity to make more money when I need to. They provide me with entertainment for free, or opportunities to eat out for free. They allow me to write and to express my opinion. These are things I enjoy or value!

In the short term, my extra jobs let me minimize my spending requirements and save more for things like tuition and retirement. In the long term, my extra jobs are a buffer against an uncertain job market and unexpected life events.

Creating a new normal

I’m big on doing “the little things right” – pulling the shower curtain closed so it can dry properly, closing lids of containers after I use them, turning off the lights when I’m not in a room… and more!  My mind is often organized as one giant checklist that I like to periodically refer to.  That’s the way I am.  I am forever thinking about the little details.  But not everyone is wired that way.  Many people simple don’t connect leaving a room with turning off the lights.  It’s just something that doesn’t enter their minds as they go about their daily life and that makes it hard to change.  As someone who likes the “little things” done, sometimes the best way to encourage people to change is to create a new normal.

When I started at my current job, the sugar jar was always left open.  I am not sure why.  To me, an open communal jar of sugar evokes images of all sorts of nasty things falling into the jar, getting mixed in with my sugar, and ahhhhhh… But I’m anal like that!  There are good reasons to keep the sugar jar closed though: (1) the sink is right beside it, and you wouldn’t want water from dirty dishes getting washed to splash into the sugar (2) there’s often baking set out in the kitchen, so there are usually crumbs on the counter which could attract bugs – an open jar of sugar is prime bug food!  So how to change the situation?

At other work places I’ve been to, people will often leave notes.  “Clean up after yourselves!”  “Remove food from fridge after one week!”

But it’s been shown that notes and signs decrease in impact after each viewing.  Plus, it’s kind of passive aggressive…

Instead, I decided to close the sugar jar each time I was in the kitchen, even if I was not using the sugar.  By closing the sugar jar whenever I saw it, I ensured that when other people came to use the sugar jar, they would find it closed.  So if they wanted to use it, they had to open it.  After a week or two, I noticed that the sugar jar started being closed when I passed by the kitchen.  After three months, I never found the sugar jar left opened.

What happened?

I don’t have a scientific explanation.  I would speculate that by setting a new standard for what was “normal” – in this case, the state of the sugar jar as closed rather than open – people became more reluctant to leave it in an abnormal state.  By forcing them to open the jar, it also drew attention to the closed state of jar when they found it.  Afterward, perhaps they felt guilty or perhaps they were just instinctively reacting to the environment.  Either way, it works!

Recently, I took a weekend ski vacation to our nearby mountain – Whistler. As you know, the trip turned out to be a complete success, however it certainly did not go according to plan. My experiences in the lead up to the trip really got me thinking about the difficulties of planning a trip with your friends, particularly where money is involved. It seems to me that everyone could benefit by establishing some common courtesy rules when planning a group vacation. We ended up losing three friends in the process and I don’t wish that on anyone.

The Background

Since the trip to Whistler was a birthday present, the gf decided it would be great if we could bring up a few of our friends and make a weekend out of it. So, we invited a few friends and went about planning the trip. The friends that we chose were great to hang out with, but have a very different philosophy than I do when it comes to money. In the end, the process made us so uncomfortable that we decided to go it alone and plan our own trip. We haven’t spoken since.

Situations like these are completely unnecessary and avoidable and I want to make sure everyone has the tools to prevent this from happening to you! Reflecting back on the experience, I believe that the following rules should be applied when money is involved between friends and offer the following examples of how it went wrong for me.

Agree on key parameters

Defining what you want the trip to look like is key. Will this be a trip where 10 people pile into one hotel room, or will you book a private condo with enough beds for everyone? Some friends will like the idea of cramming into one room and splurging on entertainment instead of sleeping quarters.  Other friends may prefer the luxury of a hotel room or want specific luxuries, such as a hot tub.

What went wrong: We did not agree on these key issues up front. Our friends ended up taking the lead on booking accommodations and booked an expensive private rental, with hot tub and private bedrooms for everyone rather than the much less expensive, but admittedly more crowded, Living Social hotel deal that we found.

Designate a lead planner

There is nothing more confusing than having five different people trying to make one decision. Identifying a leader early in the process will help avoid confusion and provide for a clear flow of information.

What went wrong: The gf began planning the trip, but then left the accommodation planning to our friends. Our friends did not live by the first rule!

Don’t ask to be repaid before the trip

Just as you designate a lead planner, often it is easier to have one person pay all the major expenses and then be reimbursed later. This lets all of the expenses be divided up fairly, assuming you have already implemented the first rule. Do not expect to be reimbursed immediately, especially if there are a lot of people coming!  It’s just not realistic.

What went wrong: Our friend offered to put the charges on their credit card, and then expected to be reimbursed immediately because they claimed their credit card bill was due a week. If you carry a balance on your credit card and will need to be paid right away, it’s best not to put more expenses on your card.

Treat your friends like friends

The most important rule when planning anything with friends is to make sure you treat them like friends! In order to apply the rules above, there needs to be a base level of trust and maturity between all parties. In our experience with this trip, we found out that our friends were not really that great of friends at all.

Please share your stories below if you have additional rules or stories about planning trips.

Growing up, I lived the rural lifestyle. I grew up believing that part of becoming an adult would involve owning my own car. To some extent this makes good sense in a rural setting when dealing with sporadic transit and long distances between amenities. However, for a growing urban population the necessity of owning a car is something that should seriously be questioned.

Car Ownership

After I graduated from university and landed my first well paying job, I was very excited that I had finally ‘made it’ and could start to make some of the purchases I had always dreamed of. After researching and saving up money for a few months, I purchased a 2002 Suzuki Esteem wagon. Over the year that I owned the car, $400 each month went towards the maintenance, insurance and gas. However, as my girlfriend and I started to question the many necessities in our life, I started to question the ‘need’ to have my own, dedicated car. I live in a city where transit is good and my neighborhood is ideally situated for walking to many amenities. The only time I felt that a car was really necessary (or at least a big help) was our bi-monthly grocery shops.

Car Sharing

So, how do I save money by not owning a car, yet have access to one whenever I need? The Car Sharing Co-ops! Car sharing is becoming increasingly popular in larger cities for its financial, logistical and environmental benefits to its members. Co-op members share the costs of buying and maintaining a vehicle through an initial membership fee and ongoing low rental rates. This in turn benefits the environment by decreasing the number of cars on the road. I belong to the Co-operative Auto Network, in Vancouver BC. , I pay a low $3/hr rate plus mileage ($0.40/km for the first 35km and down from there).This includes gas, insurance and roadside assistance in case I should ever have the misfortune of breaking down on a grocery run at no extra cost!

Note: There is a $20 application fee that is waived by a referral. Contact me for one if you’re thinking of joining!

Here are some other car sharing companies and co-ops you may want to check out.

Zipcar – Available across North America
Autoshare.com – Available in Toronto, Canada
CarSharing.net – A great resource detailing car sharing organizations near you!

The bottom line

My monthly bill to use a car approximately once or twice per week is under $200. Over the course of a year, I save a guaranteed $2400. When I use the car less, I save even more. For me, the tradeoff from car ownership to car sharing has definitely paid off; I now have twice the money to allocate toward things that are more important to me which makes a huge difference to my monthly finances.

The art of gift giving

I’m a strong believer in doing things purposefully. Gift-giving is one of those things! For me, gifts are always freely given. That means, if someone gives me a gift, it comes with no strings attached, no expectations, and no presumptions. Likewise, if I give a gift, I expect nothing in return. Most importantly, I give the gift because I want to.

That might seem like a strange thing to emphasize, but think on your daily life.  How often do you feel obligated to give gifts?  Probably more often than you would like.

The Office

The office is a prime culprit for unwanted gift giving and gift receiving. When I worked at my first post-university job, it was in a lab of 20-odd people. There was a constant stream of birthdays, engagements, babies, anniversaries.

For birthdays, everyone was expected to “donate” $20 a year to fund the purchase of cakes. I don’t even like cake! And usually, there was too much cake and we would leave a quarter of the cake or more out in the communal kitchen for anyone to eat. I never understood why we couldn’t at least pay less and have less cake left over…

For other occasions, people were expected to “give” $5 or $10 or even $20 towards the latest special occasion. Gift cards would be bought, toys for new babies, appliances for weddings. And of course, we’d pay for their next lunch!

Eventually, I realized that these were not gifts. If these were gifts, I would have gone out and purchased cake or presents for these people without being forced to! Instead, these were enforced, expected purchases that the working world had somehow embraced.

The family

My family is not very close to certain relations. However, when I was younger, we would still exchange gifts. My parents would agonize over the costs of the latest gadgets and reluctantly buy my cousins a new digital camera or phone. My aunt and uncle would give me jackets or bags that looked suspiciously out of place on a 12 year old. And for the rest of the year, we would not speak to each other.

If not for the expectation that we would exchange presents, due primarily to the fact that we were family and lived within a 10 minute drive of each other, we never would have bothered. My mom didn’t like my aunt and thought my cousins were rude. In turn, my cousins regarded us as the poor relations that they suddenly and unfortunately had to put up with.

I think everyone was relieved when us kids grew too old for constant presents. But why wait that long at all? If you’re giving presents to people you don’t even like… why bother? It’s no longer a gift. It’s just a charade.

Gifts Are Freely Given

Anything else – envelopes passed around the office, the box of chocolates you keep in the closet “in case” people stop by with an unexpected Christmas gift, the oddly coloured sweaters you give to cousins you never see… These are not gifts. Let them go!

Even worse, for some people, receiving a gift brings about the expectation that they must give a gift in return. I say – if any one gives you a present, it should have been given freely, without expectation. If it wasn’t, it is not your concern. Accept graciously, and move on.

And when it is time to give a gift, do it graciously as well. When I left my first job as a cashier at a dollar store, I gave one of the girls a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Why? Because she had a keen interest in the subject matter and because I would miss her! I never received anything in return, nor did I expect to.

So let’s take back the art of gift giving. Give because you want to, because it makes you happy! Receive presents graciously and without fear of expectation. Gifts are freely given.

The Outlier Model

In Wikipedia1, an outlier is described as:

“An outlying observation, or outlier, is one that appears to deviate markedly from other members of the sample in which it occurs.”

What does that mean for personal finance?  For living simply?  For life?

For me, it describes much of what I hope to accomplish.  It means that by doing things differently than the “average” North American consumer, I hope to end up in a different place than the “average” person.

The average Canadian looks something like this:

So judging by those numbers, the average Canadian will work the majority of their lives, save very little, and retire rather late, with perhaps 15 years left of questionable health to enjoy their hard work.  With those numbers, why would anyone want to be average?

Instead, I want to choose to be different.

  • I will not be tied down to a 9-5 job.  Instead, I will be dynamic and maximize my income and skill set.
  • I will not work to buy Stuff. Instead, I will build assets that will pay me.
  • I will not work until I am too old to enjoy life.  Instead, I will make work unnecessary.

How I am going to accomplish this?

  • Save the majority of my income.  Right not, this is tougher because I’m going to school, but going to school…
  • Increases my skill set.  When I finish, I will have a higher paying skill set than my first undergrad.  This is let me…
  • Earn more income.  Not that money is everything, but it helps while I…
  • Reduce my expenses.  Right now, I only need about $800 to meet all my expenses in a month.  But I think I can do better.  The less I need, the more I can …
  • Invest! I put money away in RRSPs and savings which I use to…
  • Buy more assets.  The bf and I own a condo which we rent at a profit.  I intend on owning more.  This year, I am buying dividends which will spawn more dividends.  In the end, all these things will...
  • Pay me money.  With more money, low expenses, and an increasing asset base, I will not have to work.  I will be self sustaining.

And that is the ultimate goal.  The fun part will be getting there!

[Author’s note: This post should have probably been my first post on this blog!  But it wasn’t, so here it is now.]

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1 Grubbs, F. E.: 1969, Procedures for detecting outlying observations in samples. Technometrics 11, 1–21.