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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.

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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.

Kitchen tips: How to keep herbs fresh

I love having fresh Thai basil on hand for soups and stir-frys.  But if you stick them in the fridge and don’t use them within a few days, they tend to wilt and then I feel bad about wasting money.

A great way to keep Thai basil fresh is to treat it like a flower.  Cut off the ends of the stems and stick it in a glass of water.  Put the glass in an area that gets indirect sunlight, like your kitchen window sill, and ta-da!  Your herbs will stay fresh for days or even weeks.  I bought this bunch of basil last week and they are still perfect.

This technique is good for stalky herbs like Thai basil and mint.  If you’re lucky and the herbs do take root, pop the cutting into some moist dirt and you’ll soon have your very own basil or mint plant.  I did that myself last year when I had a patio to grow herbs.  I probably won’t attempt it this year because I don’t have outside space and Thai basil and mint don’t seem to do well indoors for long periods of time.

More fragile herbs such as parsley or cilantro need to be kept in the fridge.  To extend their fridge life, wash the herbs as soon as you bring them home and then let them dry in a strainer or salad spinner.  Cut off the ends of the stalks as well as any pieces that are starting to yellow.  Then, chop the herbs coarsely and pop them in a tupperware.  Now you have fresh, washed herbs to use at your leisure.  I did this with a bundle of cilantro three weeks ago, and I still have healthy, green cilantro left over.

Free and Fun: Eating Out

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.  I’ve found that reducing your spending does not have to reduce 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!

Eating Out

Last night, I was out at a local restaurant with the gf. I thought to myself, “how do all of these restaurants stay in business?” It is truly amazing to me how often the average person lets someone else they’ve never met do their cooking for them. As CF rightly pointed out, I do underestimate the actual number of people there are in any given city, but the sheer number of restaurants is a testament to the normalization of eating out. Eating out should be a treat; as Art of Manliness points out, delayed gratification can increase the pleasure of an experience.

Returning to the focus of this series, eating out can be a very enjoyable yet very expensive activity. Here are some simple ways to spend less (or not to spend at all) when indulging yourself for a night out.

Become a Mystery Shopper

Yes, it’s possible to eat for free! I can’t take the credit for this one though. Recently, CF signed up to be a mystery shopper. What is mystery shopping? In the service industry, one of the best ways for a company to evaluate it’s employees is to test them when they’re not looking. As a mystery shopper, you receive a set of instructions about what to look for, but after that you’re like any other customer, except that you have to write a report after. The great part about this, is that this includes restaurants! For what amounts to less than two hours of work, you could be ‘paid’ up to $70 to go out for dinner. Not a bad deal.

Events and Seminars

If you’re a student, you can often go to seminars on various topics and enjoy free food afterward.  Your student society or faculty will often advertise events.  Clubs and other groups on campus will also usually provide free food… if you’re willing to listen to their sales pitch!

Even if you’re not a student, professional associations will often sponsor seminars and networking events with food.  CF goes to a monthly users group on bioinformatics, for example, which is accompanied by free pizza.  It’s a great way to get a free dinner and learn something as well.

Free Lunch

Sometimes, you can just get a free lunch with no strings attached!  At UBC, you can get a free lunch once a week through a non-profit group dedicated to reducing food waste.  You just need to bring your own container!  Donations are welcomed, of course.  Perhaps there are similar programs in your communities!

(Food waste here refers to dented cans, blemished fruits, etc. which may not be fit for retail sale but are still edible).

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I hope that this series has helped you question what is normal and given you some ideas to try out in the coming months. Please message me or leave comments if you have additional tips or alternate experiences, I’d love to hear about them!

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.

This is a great meat-efficient recipe that produces soup stock as a byproduct.  I used daikon (a large, white radish), but regular radishes and carrots would work, as would large chunks of cabbage.  Basically, you want veggies that will absorb flavor well.

What you need:

  • ribs ($2.50 for 4-5 servings of meat, where each serving was 2-3 large ribs or ~2oz of meat)
  • 1.5-2 cups of root vegetables or cabbage ($1)
  • 15ml soy sauce (< $0.10)
  • 10ml fish sauce (< $0.05)
  • 1 tbsp chili sauce (< $0.10)
  • 1-2 tsp sugar (< $0.05)
  • 1 small knob of ginger ($0.40)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed (~$0.06 when bought at $0.79 for 3 bulbs)
  • Salt and sugar to taste (for the broth)

Boil the ribs for 1 hour in a medium to large pot of water.  Add a bit of salt and sugar to season the broth – not too much, as you can always add more later.  After one hour, remove the cooked ribs and set aside the broth – you can use it to make soup later!  If you’re not going to use it right away, let it cool, skim off the fat, and then freeze it.

Chop the ribs up into individual ribs.  If you have a cleaver, cut the ribs into halves or thirds to make it easier to marinade.  Place the ribs into a mixing bowl and add soy sauce, fish sauce, chili sauce and sugar.  Mix well and set aside.  Peel and chop root vegetables into large chunks.  I used half of my daikon for the braised ribs and half for making soup with my leftover broth.

Heat up oil in a small-medium sized pot.  Toss in ginger and garlic.  Add ribs and sauce mixture, and brown for 3-4 minutes.  Then add your veggies, fill the pot with just enough water to almost cover everything, cover with a lid and reduce the heat to a low simmer.  Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.  Taste at half an hour.  Add more soy sauce or chili sauce if needed, and continue cooking.  If you use daikon like I did, you can tell when it’s done because the daikon starts to absorb the colour of the sauce!

When finished, serve on top of jasmine rice.  Yum.

<This is where a picture would be if I could find the picture I took!> Grr…

Servings: 4-5, plus bonus soup broth!

Cost per serving: About $1, not including any soup you might make

Feeling adventurous? Don’t use meat!  An assortment of braised cabbage, daikon, carrots, beans and fried tofu – served with rice – is one of my favourite meals.  If you don’t use meat, skip straight to heating oil in a pot and add the sauces directly to the veggies.  You can buy pre-fried tofu for about $2 for 10-12 large chunks.

Links: What is braising?

Is home internet a necessity?

I am always looking for more things to cut from my expenses,  especially as I prepare to take the final year of classes in my program. Recurring bills are a good target because you don’t just save money once, you continue to save money every month onwards.

I’ve started giving the cable and internet bill the evil eye, as the anniversary of my 6-month promotional price is coming up.  I could cancel and sign up for a new promotion, preserving my current low costs, but I could also cancel and leave it off completely.

Is having internet at home necessary?

Internet is a more tricky issue.  I do agree that in today’s world, internet is a necessity, especially for someone in a computer science program! But is home internet a necessity? I don’t feel like I would be disconnected from the world, because I have a great phone with a decent data plan.  In a pinch, my phone can act as a mobile hotspot that I could connect to wirelessly from my laptop.  There’s also a coffee shop with free wifi about five blocks away, a public library about three blocks away, and of course, I would have internet while on campus.

But in just two months, I’ll be resuming classes in computer science.  It’s my final year in this program and I’d like to do well.  It’s an assignment-heavy program.  Most of the resources are found online.  While much of the material can be saved for offline access, it’s hard to anticipate everything that’s required.

Pros of canceling home internet

If I canceled my home internet, it would save $15 a month, or $10 for the share that Brian and I pay. Over the course of 6 months (the length of a typical promotional price period), we would save $60. It would force me to make more use of the data plan I pay for on my phone, which would be good because I currently only use 1/5 of my data plan allocation.

How could I make it work?

Without internet at home, the most economical alternative would be for me to spend more time on campus getting my work done.  While feasible, I would probably run into issues around meal times.  Do I carry my life with me in my backpack and pack multiple meals?  It’s doable but a bit rough when I already have to carry a laptop, books and a lunch. Do I spend money on campus buying food?  What if I get thirsty or tired – now do I need to get a coffee?

What if I had to do work outside of campus, perhaps on the weekend?  I could go to the coffee shop but then I’d need to buy at least a small drink for $2-3.  If I had to do that every weekend, even only once, that would cost me around $10 a month – and most likely more.

So is internet at home necessary?

With the promotional prices that I get, internet only costs $10 a month for Brian and I, taxes and fees included.  We are getting such a low price that we would not save that much money by canceling the service. An extra $10 a month is useful, but not as useful when compared the negatives.

In fact, canceling the service could cost us more in the long run because there is the possibility of having to go to the coffee shop on the weekend to do work for my classes. It’s also a lot more convenient and economical to do my work at home since I wouldn’t be tempted to buy snacks at school. Food on campus is generally pricey and not terribly healthy anyways.

And finally, our roommate – though fairly tolerant of most of our cost-cutting measures – would probably kill me if I canceled the internet 🙂

So while it seems that home internet is NOT necessary – there are many alternative options but around my home and on campus – the cost of those alternatives would outweigh the cost of having home internet.  Unless for some horrible reason I can’t get a good price on internet when it comes time to find a new promotion, I think internet service will be sticking around my apartment at least a little while longer.

Updates: Mar 6-12

After posting about how I came to be a paid writer, I was fortunate enough to be offered a position as a contributing writer to a local family/health magazine!  The magazine launches in May and I will provide more details once I’ve had a piece published, but needless to say – I’m super excited!

Links this week:

  • This is not a “new” post but was new to me, via Twitter from Caleb at PocketChanged on ways to save on textbook costs during college.  Computer science students are perhaps notorious at wanting to get around “the system” and I’ve definitely used many of those tips myself.
  • Since the economic downturn, many US homeowners are owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.  The New York Times discusses a few new options have become available to help these homeowners refinance.
  • I think I’ve mentioned before that real estate is a part of my early early retirement plans.  LandlordRescue recently posted about alternative real estate investments.

And from Brian:

  • Do you feel like there is too much going on in your life to possibly keep track of it all? With the amount of information and resource at our disposal, storing information and recalling it when it’s needed can be a tall order. Check out this link and learn how to unlock your memory.”

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.  I’ve found that reducing your spending does not have to reduce 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!

Entertainment

Last week I took a look at different ways to cut down on your sport and exercise expenditure. This week, I’ll suggest some free and fun entertainment options when you’re not feeling particularly sporty. It fits nicely with the theme I like to call “places you spend money when you’re not eating, sleeping or working!”

Peruse your local art galleries or museums

Many small galleries and museums offer free admission or nearly free admission. For example, the Vancouver Art Gallery offers admission by donation between 5pm and 9pm on Tuesday evenings (it’s in very very small print at the bottom of the page!). I spent a summer living in France and observed similar deals. At the time, The Louvre offered free admission for students on the last Tuesday of the month. Now, they offer free admission to everyone on the first Sunday of the month. I see a trend: if it happens in Vancouver AND Paris, you can find probably something in your neighborhood as well.

Keep in mind that if you’re looking for art to browse you don’t necessarily need to go to a art gallery. Check out your local art store – there’s nothing wrong with browsing!  Many artists will also display their works at public markets or community events.   It’s a great way to see work from local artists.

Comedy and Theatre Shows

Did you know it’s possible to get free tickets to comedy shows? I didn’t until I saw free tickets being posted by the club itself semi-regularly on Craigslist. CF and I emailed, and ended up getting 6 free tickets!  It does make sense when you think about it; the more people at the show, the more money the club will make off drinks and food. I’m sure the comics appreciate a full crowd rather than empty seats as well. Who knows, you may witness the next Russell Peters!

Many theatres will also offer free passes to shows… if you’re willing to put in a bit of work!  During the summer, Vancouver hosts productions of Shakespeare in the park.  These shows are extensively staffed by volunteers.  If you are willing to volunteer a few hours,  you get to see shows for free!   I have found that this is true for most live theatre.  Support the arts, and you’ll get to enjoy it too.

Local Events

With summer just around the corner, the number of free festivals and events is about to take off. One of the  highlights for me last year was a Fresh Air Cinema viewing of Mamma Mia.  It was shown on a giant projection screen in the middle of the park. Free, fun and an awesome way to spend a summer evening.

Many cities also have music festivals during the summer.  Last year in Vancouver, we had the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, for example.  It was a great party with lots of free music, a great atmosphere and a great crowd.

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Hopefully some of these ideas will spark an idea or motivate you to do some research into activities in your area. There are a lot of options out there waiting for you to find them! Next week, free and fun food. Yep, you can get food for free if you know how. As always, send me a message or leave a comment if you have anything specific you’d like covered in a future article.

Getting started as a freelance writer

When I was younger, I loved to write. While other kids in my class took grammar and punctuation lessons, I took creative writing classes where we wrote stories and printed and bound them into proper books. I submitted poetry for publishing when I was in grade 6. In high school, I went to see Shakespeare in the park and attended writing festivals for young writers.

There’s a (somewhat rueful) saying amongst Canadian children of Asian immigrant parents – You have three career choices: engineering, medicine or accounting. School came easily to me and I had good grades, so my parents encouraged a science education (with the hope that I’d eventually go to med school). University came and went, and I ended up working in life sciences research, specifically in the biomedical research industry.

So how did I end up getting a job as a writer for a science magazine?

I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis at the age of 24 or 25. I knew I wanted to do something different, but I was being torn in a lot of different directions trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I could write, but I had nothing to show prospective employers.

Getting started with writing

I decided to submit a few pieces of writing to the local monthly newsletter of my professional organization. They were always desperately looking for submissions and it was a good way to get the writing juices flowing without any real risk. To my surprise, my pieces were well received and I even received compliments from several colleagues. I followed that up by submitting a longer article for the organization’s national magazine, which is read by several hundreds of people across the country. It was also well received!

Then I tried my luck at blogging and started up a science blog. It didn’t make any money but I was able to write about the things in science that actually interested me – big picture stuff, genomics, evolution, and ethics. I got on Twitter and met lots of other writers and like-minded people. I also volunteered to write for anyone who would let me have my own byline – event listings, music reviews, anything. It was during the height of my blog that I got lucky and caught a break.

Writing as a career ?

I have a reputation amongst my friends for always looking at the job boards and forwarding interesting jobs to people I knew. I like looking at job listings. I’m not sure why! I still do enjoy looking at them. One day, one of my friends forwarded a job posting to me. It was a advertisement for a “science blogger”. I applied, sent a few of my writing samples, and … I got the job! After a six month try-out, I’ve been writing for them regularly once a month.

For me, the key was simply persistence and a willingness to do something I loved – writing – simply for the because I enjoyed it.  I’m not saying that everyone who does something that they love will eventually make a living from it, or even make money from it.  Starving artists, musicians and actors all over the world would no doubt prove me wrong.  But you do yourself a disservice you don’t try at all.

Celebrating neighbourhood stores

Recently, a new grocery store opened up about 7 blocks away from my apartment.  It’s sort-of-kinda-related-but-not-really to the giant grocery store I go to once a month, but smaller. 

The downsides: The prices are a tad higher for some products and being a smaller store, there is less selection.  They do not have a fresh deli or seafood section.

The upsides: The store is clean… OH SO CLEAN!  There are less people, less children (I’m sorry, but the children at Superstore seem universally hellish), and the service is infinitely better.  I actually had both my cashiers thank me for visiting.  At Superstore, you’re lucky if they even say hello.  I asked a stock boy about a price and he actually investigated it rather than just telling me it “wasn’t in his department”.  And best of all, I can walk there!

Importantly, this means that I can trim more money from my monthly car budget!  Currently, we allocate $200 a month towards using the Car Co-op.  Usually, we only spend ~$150 and have a bit of buffer left over.  We put part of the buffer towards saving up for a car of our own (… if it turns out we ever need one!)  Now, by cutting out one of our longer car trips per month we can safely cut down on our car budget, while still preserving a buffer.

I haven’t made the changes yet – the bf and I will wait another month or two to get a better idea of how much less we’re spending on the car.  Then, we will probably put some of the savings towards our grocery budget to account for the slightly higher prices (only if needed – the prices differences may not affect our budget) and the rest towards a savings or investing goal.

For the convenience factor, it’s a bit disappointing that there isn’t a seafood or deli section, but we don’t usually buy deli or seafood from the grocery store anyways.  We live near several excellent year-round farmers and community markets which have high quality deli meats, breads, cheeses and seafood for sale, so it should not have a negative affect on our shopping. 

Overall, I’m super happy at this new development.  I love my neighbourhood and the new grocery market just makes it even better.