The Goal Setting Challenge

Amazingly Awesome Boyfriend has quite a bit of debt. Not as much as me (thanks Student Loans!!), but still quite a bit. When he moved in with me the beginning of the month, we agreed that I would handle all of the finances. Because you know, Criminology majors are known for their fancial prowress??

Considering how much debt I have (but how much effort I’ve put into making all my bill payments and paying some things off in the last few years), this is pretty much like the extremely near sighted leading the blind.  So, I’ve started to do what any responsible failed grown up would do: I’m marathoning Princess and anything else Gail Vaz Oxlade has put out on TV. I’ve got my little pad of paper here, taking notes on things she recommends to help people realize how much debt they’re in, and how they can get out of it.

A lot of it is simple: make a budget, get your credit report, have a resume. I’m good at these things. I’ve been working on a budget with AAB, and am pulling out old resume templates to show him the info I need to put a resume together for him. I even found where we can get our credit reports and scores, and am working on that for both of us.

The one challenge that always  stumps me, though, is the Goal Setting Challenge. The challenge itself is quite simple. Gail has the girls look at their life, and what they are doing to earn money. Quite a few of them have started and dropped out of a few different college programs, some are working the bare minimum amount of hours they can, and others just have absolutely no direction in their lives. So Gail has them sit down and look at what they want for a career, and how to set goals to achieve this. Some of them get to try out a career, others get a kick in the butt to go out and get a new job, and a few have gone on to get the requirements needed to advance in their current jobs.

That is where I get completely lost.

You see, since my goals and dreams fell apart years ago (THAT’S a long story for another day!) I’ve had one hell of a time trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life. That’s pretty much step one of setting a goal for this challenge: knowing what the hell your goal is!

I’ve been putting myself out there with resumes, but as time goes by since graduation it seems like I’m getting fewer and fewer responses. I have no clue what it is I want to do with my life if I could have a dream job. And even if I could figure that out, I have no clue how I could afford to go out and get qualified for anything. The career I’m in at the moment has absolutely no way for me to work harder towards advancement, because about 95% of all upward mobility is based on seniority (and I’m near the bottom of the bunch for that).

So what the hell do I do?

This is something I’ve been looking at for myself a lot lately, Sunshine. Basically, I’m a Lost Girl. As fun as that title makes it sound, it’s not all rooster crows and Bangarang here. I’m looking at having no career, no direction, and no purpose in life. It’s damn scary!

So, you’ll see a bit more from me about this whole goal setting thing while I try ot figure out how to make it work for me. And maybe soon, I’ll tell you about that whole “I had a career in mind and worked towards it, only for it to completely fall out from under me, leaving me kinda dangling here wondering what the hell I’m going to do with my life” story.

Maybe.

Job Search Frustrations

My hours at work have been…… well…. pathetic. I was lucky to get called in for an extra shift this week, bringing my total hours for the week up to 9. Yes, you read that right, NINE whole hours this week. My paychecks are so tiny, I’ve had to dip into my meager savings just to pay rent. So, once again, I’m looking for a job.

Now, a little background for my newer readers: I’m actually an adult woman (in my 30s), with a lot of education. So far I have a BA(H) in Criminology, and am doing the paperwork to try and get my BA in Psychology. I have a Certificate of Office Administration, certification in Microsoft Word and Excel, and a bunch of job experience. I’ve worked offices, research labs, volunteer office work, and customer service. I’m polite, cheerful, professional, and can create the most complex organizational schematics you could ever need to keep all of your responsibilities in check. I don’t miss deadlines, I don’t mess around on company time, and I don’t slack off when stuff needs to be done.

And I just keep getting shit on.

Looking for a job today ain’t like it was for your folks, Sunshine. In this town, when my parents were in high school, you didn’t even need to finish high school to get into the local car plant. Most people just assumed they’d leave or finish school, and just get a job in one of the plants. Today, IF you’re lucky and IF they have enough Temp Part-Time positions available, you MAY get in part-time but ONLY if you’re a college or university student in good standing, taking full-time classes. And even then, you’re not guaranteed to be kept on the whole time you’re in school. There is actually an age limit on how old you can be in this program. So if you don’t jump right into schooling right out of high school and land one of these jobs, you’re screwed.

Back in those days, you put on your nice shoes and “pounded the pavement” to get your resume out there.

“Well, all you need is to get yourself out there! Go inside, introduce yourself. Hand in your resume in person. Get out from behind the computer and make yourself known!”

Any idea how sick to death I am of hearing that?

Where I work my VERY part-time job, we don’t take paper resumes. Like, at all. It doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how presentable you are, or how badly you need a job. Everything is done online now. You go to our website, follow the links, fill out some forms, and submit a resume. The only way you EVER get to see anyone face to face is, after all that, you get called in for an interview.

And we’re not the only ones who do that. EVERYONE is like that now.

“Get out from behind that computer! Go introduce yourself!”

Or why don’t you do something a little more helpful, Kind Elderly Relative, like getting me a job, or shutting the hell up?

I’d say that around 80% of my actual job search is online these days. I have a bunch of sites bookmarked that I check at least once a day for new postings: job search sites, company websites, government websites, temp agencies……..

“Don’t just check the agency’s site. Just go sign up with them. They’ll get you a job right away!”

Really? Because I’ve been signed up with FIVE agencies for a little more than a year now. One got me a six week gig a little over a year ago, and not one has found anything for me since then.

“Well then, maybe you just need a little more training. Go take some classes, upgrade your skills.”

What a great idea!  I’m just going to go out to the Education Tree and pull some of that free knowledge down for myself! Honestly, even using free websites like Coursera, you can’t get all the training you need without shelling out some serious cash. And all that education I already have? Well honey, it sure as hell wasn’t free.

Still, I’ve gone out for more training. I’ve signed up with government agencies that help the unemployed, I’ve taken their classes. I’ve gone to resume workshops, typing classes, Microsoft upgrading seminars, mock interviews……. I’ve done it all! And now, I can type up one hell of a resume that no one will read, and practice for all the interviews I won’t get!

“Maybe if you’d stop sitting around at your computer, complaining and being lazy, you’d have a job by now.”

My job search is not a fun hobby. NO ONE’S job search is fun! On top of my part-time job, I put in anywhere from 20-50 hours a week just in my job search. That’s time spent looking through websites, personalizing cover letters, writing emails, and tailoring my resume to positions. I go to job fairs, networking events, and free classes and seminars at local schools. I do online free courses in things like Conflict Resolution and Basic Accounting to fill in holes in my training. I am NOT sitting behind a desk, marathoning Netflix and eating Cheesies while I whine about being broke.

And neither are the majority of people out there in my same position.

Yes, we all have our times when it just overwhelms us and we need a break. There are days, or even weeks, where there’s just no new postings out there to apply to. There are the weeks you get 7 interviews, and are driving or bussing all over town. Then there are the weeks where you’d give anything just to hear the phone ring.

My darling Sunshines, you are not alone in this search. I know it seems like everyone out there has a job, and advice, and opinions, and they all want to help, even if that “helping” just makes things worse. I know what it’s like to have no one around who really understands what it’s like to spend 9 hours typing cover letters and researching positions, just to have people look at you like you’ve done nothing all day. I know the loneliness, the despair, the feeling like there must be something wrong with you because no one out there seems to want you.

So just know that you’re not alone in all of this. I’m here, and there are plenty more of us out there too. Just keep on shining, and someday maybe we can all blog about how great things are for us, and how these tough times made it all possible.

A Quick Word

I’m sitting here, waiting for my hair dye to do its think, checking Pinterest on my phone. While looking up pins on budgeting, organizing, and getting out of debt, I found a common theme to a good 80% of pins, and it is really starting to piss me off.

Now, let me start by saying that these people who write these articles and make these pins really do mean well. They’re passing on things what really worked well for them, and hoping they’ll work for the rest of us.

That being said, holy tap dancing squirrel turds, these posts are hurting my brain!

“If you want to save money every month, just cut back on your cable bill! Why  pay all that extra for premium packages, when you can just spend a bit more for a good Internet package and stream everything!”

(Well, I already do that. If my current place didn’t have basic cable included in the price, I wouldn’t have it. Haven’t had cable for myself in years.)

“Who needs fancy take-out coffee every day when  you can buy a Keurig! You can make your own coffee and drink it at home instead of spending $5 on a cup of coffee at a coffee shop every afternoon!”

(First off, who the hell is spending at least $25 on coffee each week and wondering why they have no money? I’ve been brewing my own damn coffee for years. Having coffee from a coffee shop is something for first dates and the odd especially crazy day at work. And even then, $5? Hell no! My medium one milk two sweetener is $1.50 at most!”)

“Do you really need a newer vehicle? There are plenty of good, reliable used cars out there! Why not trade yours in, and sink that extra money into your loans?”

(Probably because I can’t afford a used car, let alone a new one to trade in for a used one. I walk, and when I can afford it, I take the bus.  I know that car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance are expensive, so I don’t have any of those!)

“Set a plan and go big! Sure $100 a month towards your debt seems like a great idea. But what about $1,000? Or $2,000? Or even $5,000? Sounds crazy, but going all in like this is the only way to tackle bigger debts sometimes!”

(Some months, I don’t even make $1,000. How the hell am I going to make $900, but pay $2,000 on one debt? And if I was making enough money that I had an extra $5,000 to throw down on my student loans, I don’t think that loan would be as huge of a problem to me as it is now!)

Are you seeing the trend I’m seeing here?

All of these articles that I’m finding online about paying down your debts seem to think that we are all actually making enough money to do it their way!

Now, I’ll be straight up and honest with all ya’ll. I did 5 years of university, going full year instead of just two semesters, all with student loans. Then when I got out of school, I had a hell of a time finding a job. I lived off my credit cards for a while. Now that I have a job, it doesn’t pay enough to pay all of my bills AND leave me money for things like groceries and bus fair. So I still find myself putting things like groceries and cat food on a credit card. I have so much debt that it feels like I will never get out of it.

That being said, I’ve already made most of the changes these articles are talking about, much like many of you out there have too. We don’t go out buying new cars, and expensive cable packages, and designer clothes. The whole reason we’re reading these articles is to figure out how to do more than we already are doing. We’re already scrimping and saving and living on the bare minimum. We want to know what else to do.

These articles make it all seem so easy too. They have titles like “How I Paid of $60,000 in Debt in A Year” or “I Paid Off $27,000 in 6 Months”. I don’t even make that much in a year, and you’re telling me how easy it is to pay out that much extra in a matter of months?

In the end, I still keep reading these damn articles. If you read them close enough, reading between all of the crap you’re probably already doing, you can still find random little nuggets of hope that you too can work off your debts. Like me, though, you just need to keep in mind that not every suggestion will work for everyone. I couldn’t move back in with my parents, no matter how many times they offer that as a solution to my rent problems, because I’m a 34 year old stubborn woman who just wants to be able to afford her own place. While my current situation is less than ideal, it is still more independent and “grown up” than moving back in to my old bedroom at their house. For someone who lives in an area with horrible internet provider options, or no cable hookups, a satellite may  be your only option for at-home entertainment. And video game systems, while a pretty big expense for we broke-as-hell folk, the hours upon hours upon hours of entertainment some video games and Netflix can provide may be worth the expense.

What I’m trying to say, Sunshine, is you know what I’ve said before: you know what works best for you. While I need my crappy little room in a student rental and a big collection of booze and cheap wine to get me through this crazy little thing we call life and adulthood, your needs may be different. Just be sure your needs are within your means, and you can do this. No buying $40 bottles of wine when you can only afford a $5 bottle; no buying designer threads when you’re on a Goodwill budget. You figure out your best path to a debt-free life, and you work it the best you can.

And whatever you do, NEVER compare yourself to the people who paid off $60,000 in a year. Unless you have that much disposable income to throw down on your debt already, you are in a much different boat than them. And just because their boat is bigger DOESN’T mean they’re better off. Remember: it was the people in those little life boats that survived the sinking of the Titanic, not the people who were still on that massive ship. The size of your ship doesn’t prove your worth.

So keep your heads up, Sunshine! We can all get through this together!

Time to Buy Your Textbooks!

Beginning of every semester, the dreaded textbook list comes out. No matter how interesting the class, how interesting the textbook, how interesting the knowledge is, no one wants to shell out hundreds of dollars on books they will barely ever use. I love books. I collect books. I have a big collection of Stephen King and William Gibson books taking up a whole shelf on one of my bookcases. And I have bought textbooks that cost more than what I spent on that entire shelf.

You don’t have to spend hundreds (or into the thousands, for some people) on textbooks every semester. I didn’t know most of this until my final semester of University, but there are a tonne of ways to save money! Here’s some to help you out.

Check Your Library

At my school, the professor always had one copy of the textbook saved at the library. We weren’t allowed to check it out and take it home, but we could use it in the library. I saved so much money once I figured that out! There will always be those textbooks marked “recommended” on the syllabus that you really don’t want to buy, but often times do. I just went to the library, spent a few hours reading and taking notes, and saved myself $180 on two books we barely used. Check with your professors to see if they do this to. From what I’ve been told, many schools do this.

Thrift Books 

I found this site while looking for a cheap place to buy novels online. I found this place to be usually cheaper than Amazon, and they have a tonne of textbooks! While helping a friend look for a cheaper alternative to her $200 Forensics textbook, I found it on here for $35. That’s a savings of $165!

Textbook Revolution

Now this site is doesn’t have a whole tonne of books on it. But the textbooks on there are free, somewhat. Each textbook link takes you to an outside site to download from. Some are free. Some you have to pay a fee for. While I didn’t find any textbooks that I have used in the past, I did just find a bunch of books on presentations, statistics, and conflict resolution that all linked to the same site. That site has a 30 day free trial if you link to them through this site, which means you can just download everything you need without paying the $3.99 monthly subscription fee.

WikiBooks

Be careful with what you find on here. WikiBooks, while a great resource, is just like Wikipedia: anyone can create an account and edit its content. There also isn’t a whole tonne of content on here. That being said, this is a great site for those times you don’t understand a concept, and just need extra clarification

BookBoon

This site is almost completely lacking in Arts & Social Science books, but they still have a tonne of great textbooks. Everything in their “Textbook” section is free, thanks to their sponsors. And everything in their “Business” section has a small cost. From what I saw while poking around, they have a monthly fee you can pay to get all the business books you need for less than $5. That might be worth it for some people out there.

Free Book Spot

Now, I’m addicted to this site even though I’m not in school any more. The amount of textbooks they have on topics I had wanted to study in school but couldn’t find a class for is just huge! Just clicking on the “Sociology” section brought up three or four books on serial crimes (a major topic of research for) that I couldn’t find in the libraries in my city! This site is fantastic, and is definitely worth looking through if you want to find textbooks online.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg has an online catalogue of more than 50,000 books. Most of them are not textbooks, but this is still a fantastic resource. I used this my final semester when looking for literature in a few English classes. Just bare careful, this site tends to be a huge time suck, trapping you in its clutches for hours while you look through lists of related books. Browse at your own risk!

eBookee

I find this site bizarre and can’t seem to close the tab it’s in right now. It has a real old-school look and feel to it. I haven’t found any useful textbooks on it yet, but I did find a whole bunch of books that I’ve heard of and possibly wanted to read at some point. This site may take a while to get used to before I can figure out just how useful it is.

Renting Your Textbooks

Now this is one thing I could never bring myself to do. I tended to be quite hard on my textbooks sometimes, and some sites have strict policies on damages and penalties. This is great is you don’t transport your books to class much, can keep them safe, and don’t mind not being able to write or highlight in your books.

  • Textbook Rentals has a huge selection, and categories that make it easier to find what you’re looking for. This is the first site I’ve seen with an easy to find Criminology section, which also had textbooks that I actually used.
  • Cheapest Textbooks is very easy to navigate if you have the book list in front of you. It also has options to buy or sell your books, and FAQ pages to help you figure out if renting or buying is the best option for you.
  • Book Renter seems to have a pretty big selection too, and has the same navigation options as Cheapest Textbooks, letting you search for books my name, author, or ISBN. The browsable categories at the bottom were really weird to move through, and didn’t have all the options I needed.

Second Hand/Used Textbooks

If you don’t want to give out credit card information online, or don’t have a credit card to purchase or rent your books with, then there are other ways you can still buy second hand textbooks.

  • Many schools have a used book store, or certain days when they have used book sales. Just make sure you are getting an edition of your textbook that you can use. Many people get rid of old textbooks after the professor has announced they are switching to a newer edition.
  • Facebook groups are awesome once you find the ones you’re looking for. I found three groups for people looking to buy and sell their textbooks. A lot of times, they even threw in their old notes, or had advice about the class or professor.
  • Online buy and sell sites like Kijiji often have people on them looking to sell their books. For some reason, I’ve always found that the books on there are more expensive than the other Used Textbook options.
  • Check with friends and classmates to see if they’re willing to part with their old books. Again, if they took the class before you, they may have some advice on how to get through it best. And it helps to know who you can go to when you need help understanding something, too.

Well, that’s all I can think of for now. Does anyone else have a great resource for saving money on textbooks? I love hearing from you all, sunshine!

A Crash Course in Credit

I once knew a woman, a very smart woman, who got a credit card her first month of University. The credit card people were set up with with a booth in the student centre during all the welcome week activities, during clubs week, and randomly throughout that first entire semester. They had a cute little spiel ready for students, telling them that now that they’re adults they need to learn how to spend like adults. They didn’t ask these students if they had a credit card already, or if they knew how to use credit. They didn’t explain interest rates, or cash back fees, or penalty fees. And they apparently didn’t explain how payments work, either.

Later that year, while hanging out with this woman in the library, her phone rang and she ignored it. She seemed to be ignoring calls quite regularly, actually, so I asked her about it.

“Oh, it’s just the collection agency again. I told them I don’t owe them anything, so they should stop calling, but they don’t.”

After asking her a few dozen times over the next week, she finally told me why they were calling, and why she claimed she didn’t owe them anything.

“I had a credit card, and it got maxed out. But I don’t have the card any more, so I don’t have to pay it. They said that when I got it. It’s not my responsibility, and they can’t keep harassing me.”

Was it stolen? Lost? No, it seems that when she had maxed the card out, she then cut it up and destroyed it. Now, when she had signed up for the card, they had told her that if any charges were made and she didn’t have the card, then she wouldn’t be responsible for any charges made. Of course, they meant that if the card was stolen, and someone else used it, she wouldn’t have to pay for what they bought. That’s not the way she understood it, though, and she never read her paperwork for clarification. She honestly thought that she didn’t owe any money to the credit card people (or the people at collections) because she cut up the card. And no amount of trying to explain that credit card companies do not make money by giving away free money would convince her otherwise.

So here she was, just a year into her post-secondary education, with student loans already mounting, and her credit already being ruined because of this one credit card.

So, how do you avoid this? Well, I may be both the first AND the last person you would ever want financial advice from. I didn’t read my paperwork when I got my student loans, I don’t make enough at my job to pay my rent AND buy groceries, so groceries have been going on a credit card that is almost maxed out. I have multiple cards, with balances, AND a line of credit to help me pay them all off. Basically, I’m financially screwed right now. I also know exactly what I did wrong, and when, and can point out every single mistake I made so that others can avoid them.

So, with that in mind…..

Know Your Interest Rates

There are no interest-free cards out there. Every card has an interest rate, and most start out around 19.99%. That means that, for every purchase you make on your card that you do not pay in full at the end of your billing cycle, you will wind up paying an extra 20% on that purchase. So those jeans you just had to have because they were 30% off? If you don’t pay them off in full at the end of the month, they were only 10% off. And if you don’t pay them off by the end of the NEXT month, you paid an extra 10% on them.

For every purchase you make, you wind up paying interest if you don’t pay off your card in full at the end of your billing cycle. And if you keep carrying a balance, you keep gaining interest. That initial $100 purchase gained $20 after the first month, bringing it up to $120. Now the 19.99% interest is being charged on the $120. So now you’re paying $23.99 in interest that month, making your bill $143.99.  The next month the interest goes up to $28.78, brining your total owed up to $172.77. See how the amount goes up every month? Every time you don’t pay your credit card bill in full, the amount you owe goes up. And then the interest is paid on the total amount you OWE, not the total amount you SPENT. You may have only spent $100, but three months later you’re owing more than $170 because of interest charges.

Fees, Charges, and Penalties

Some cards have an annual fee attached to them. At the moment, I have a card with an unusually high credit limit, which I carry a pretty high balance on. I pay an annual fee of $25 in order to get a lower interest rate (11.99%, as opposed to the 21.99% the card had before). This annual fee means I save roughly $100 a month in interest fees per $1000 in balance on the card. Since this card carries a high balance, which I cannot pay off very quickly, the annual fee makes sense. If I were to be carrying no balance on the card, or a balance so small that the saved interest did not matter, then paying a fee wouldn’t make any sense. So check to see if any card you’re looking into has any sort of annual fee.

Some cards have fees or charges that differ depending on how you use them. A card might have an interest rate of 19.99% for any credit card purchases, but 23.99% for any cash advances. I didn’t know there was a different interest rate just for cash advances in my first year of university, and took out quite a few one semester when my cash flow ran dry. Looking back, that was a completely stupid idea.

There can also be penalties your credit card company will hand down for things like late payments, short payments, or no payments at all. Want a little more incentive to pay your bills on time every month, other than the threat of financial penalties? How about lower interest rates, better loan prospects, high credit ratings, and a much more understanding bank? I was able to get my card switched to a lower rate with an annual fee because, even when money is ridiculously tight, I make sure I make my payments on time every single month. Banks and credit card companies like to reward things like that.

You NEED Good Credit!!!

Credit cards count as “bad credit” when you have your finances assessed. If you carry a lot of credit card debt, don’t make payments, or have things wind up in collections (your credit card company sells your debt to another company, they harass you until you pay everything off, and you get massive black marks on your credit report for years), your entire credit score is effected. Now, I don’t know much about how to read or assess credit scores. I had it explained to me once, but right now I’m too scared to get my credit report. Between the credit cards, line of credit, student loans, and my extremely low income, it can’t be too wonderful. I know it won’t be too awful either, though. My student loan is read as a different type of credit as my cards, and I’ve always been on time with my payments, which are all good things. But right now, with my debt, I can never buy a home, or get an auto loan, or a small business loan.

Every little bit of credit you get affects your credit score, which affects how much money banks will be willing to lend you. With a good score, you can buy a house with a decent interest rate, maybe buy a nice car too. With my credit, I might be able to buy a house in a few years, but my interest rate on the mortgage will be pretty high. And for my friend who just cut up her card, she let things get so bad that she can’t even get a mortgage at all now!

Rewards Cards

I got an American Express just because I can collect Airmiles with it. I only use it places where I can already collect Airmiles with my Airmiles card, so I wind up getting double the Airmiles. I’m a very active points collector, though. I save up Airmiles to spend on their website on things I really want, like an expensive straightening iron or a big fancy mixer for the kitchen. I collect Optimum points from Shoppers Drug Mart in an almost obsessive manner. I have almost 3 times the maximum points level right now, and just keep saving. I know that in January, my hours at work will be cut drastically, so I use the points then to buy things I need but can’t afford. I also have a credit cards that collects Optimum points as well.

If you know you will be paying off the card, then go ahead an get a rewards card. Just make sure it’s for something you will actually use. Why collect flight miles if you don’t fly?

 

So that’s just a bit of what I’ve learned over the years, from screwing up my own financial situation so badly. I hope it helps you out, so you don’t wind up like me, sunshine.

Eating on the Run – Snacks vs. Fast Food

I work in a small plaza near the few more small plazas. Normally, my schedule allows me to plan meals around my shifts, so I can eat before and after work. During our busier times though (summer, holidays, any time families are forced to spend time together and therefore drink), my schedule can get a bit hectic. There have been times where I have planned to be there for a 4 hour day shift, only to have it changed to an 8 hour day and closing shift once I get there. Or I’ll have a day off, and get called in at the last minute, meaning I have no time to eat.

In the beginning, I’d just grab something to eat on my breaks. I’d run to Wendy’s and grab a combo, or to Timmie’s for doughnuts. Over time, though, that got expensive. And the amount of money I was spending on last minute food was just ridiculous! At anywhere from $5-$9 for a combo, 2-3 times a week…….. and this is when my monthly food budget was less than $150. I was spending most of my budget on junk that made me feel like crap, made me sluggish at work, and just made me feel tired all the time.

For a little while, I started going to the grocery store in our plaza on my lunch break. I could grab a bag of salad, some bread and peanut butter, and a soda or energy drink if I needed it. Still, though, it was starting to add up. I always have salad fixings in my fridge anyway, so spending $2-$3 for a bag of salad just to eat at work didn’t make much sense. I regularly buy bagged salads anyway, and just add more stuff to them to make them in to gigantic monster salads (spinach, cucumbers, peppers, and alfalfa sprouts are great in a Caeser salad, btw). Having a whole bag just for work seemed…….. wasteful. And I couldn’t just keep my bread at work. Even if I was called in or had my shift extended three days a week, that loaf of bread would go mouldy before I was finished it.

So what can you do when you have an erratic schedule? Or a schedule where there are no real breaks? This is a huge problem for both students and young professionals these days. With the every increasing demands on our time, many people just don’t have time to eat a real meal, or go home for dinner, or have any meals at home some days. Sometimes, it’s not even a whole meal you want. Some days, all you need are a few snacks to get you through the day until you can get home to your kitchen (and your box of wine, if you’re like me).

Fast food and convenience store are, well, convenient for this. The 7-11 off campus was like a second home to me, even after I got my first degree. In addition to the regular convenience store fare (chips, cookies, soda/pop, energy drinks), they also have the grill and hot counter, and a small ready-made section. I could go there for a breakfast sandwich and coffee in the morning, a salad and wrap and coffee for lunch, an afternoon coffee or two (I really love their coffee for some reason), and then grab hot dogs, taquitos, chicken wings, potato wedges, or even a pepperoni pizza for dinner. No one can live like this every day though. Aside from the very obvious strain on your wallet (that day is close to a $30 day just at 7-11), there’s strain on your body. Even getting what looks like a healthy wrap or salad somewhere like this, there is so much extra stuff thrown in there that brings up the not-totally-healthy quota. My usual salad from there is a Caesar salad, which comes with hardboiled eggs, crumbled bacon, a large package of dressing, chicken strips, and grated cheese. There is no way I would put ALL of that on a salad at home!  Don’t get me wrong, I love their food. But after eating enough of it, I just feel sluggish and blah. I can’t concentrate after a few chili-cheese Big Bite hot dogs, and I just want to nap. Not exactly what you want to feel like on a busy day.

So, I started keeping snack-type foods at home. Before leaving for a day shift, or a class, or a meeting that everyone swears will only take half an hour, I throw a few snacks in my bag. That way, if my day goes longer than I had planned, I’m still prepared and won’t be tempted to shove a whole bacon and mushroom pizza into my gluttonous face-hole. When I first started doing this, I had no clue what to bring with me. I tried bringing salads (too bulky), chips (too easily crushed), or leftovers from last night’s dinner (too stinky or needs to be reheated). But I didn’t always need my emergency foods. Sometimes, a 5 hour day shift just stays as a five hour day shift. So, I’ve found some foods I can easily pack, keep in my locker or fridge at work, or even just keep around the house to grab when I’m about to run out the door. Now, everyone’s own choices will differ according to taste, allergies, and budgets. But here’s some suggestions of things you can easily throw in your bag. And remember, you can mix it up each day. Keep a few of these at home, and grab a different combination every time.

  • Fresh fruit. Aside from apples and the occasional summer watermelon, I’m not a big fan of fruit.But for those of you who are, this is a great choice you can keep with you. Apples, oranges, and bananas are the basics that every one of us probably had thrown in our lunchboxes as kids. Expand you palate, see what’s on sale, be a little adventurous. Pear, mangoes, pomegranates, and peaches are great and healthy choices, and tend to go on sale when they’re in season. And that’s a big key to staying in your budget: buy what’s in season!
  • Veggies are another great option. I like to make a bunch of celery and carrot sticks on Sundays, and then portion them out into snack sized zipper lock bags (you can get boxes of these at the dollar store). I keep a jar of peanut butter at work, and can just dip my celery in there for a treat. Peppers and cucumbers are another go-to for me too, but these are softer and usually require a small Tupperware container, which takes up more space.
  • Granola bars, snack bars, energy bars, protein bars…… I’m a big fan of bars. I bought a box of 30 protein bars at Costco once (after reading the labels on every single freaking box there. I’m a nightmare to shop with sometimes), and I love one of these on stock days at work. Just be sure to check the nutritional information from time to time. Some of these bars are just chocolate coated sugar. I’ve actually found some that are nutritiously worse than some candy bars. And some so-called “protein bars” have less protein than a no-name granola bar, but at three times the price! So shop carefully when it comes to these.
  • Individual soup packets. I love my Cup-a-Soup! I keep a large travel mug at work, just for a nice package of vegetable soup after a long walk in to work in the snow. These do require you to have something to put the soup in, and a way to heat the water, so they’re not ideal for everyone. Another option, if you have access to hot water, are those soup cups. They’re basically Styrofoam cups or bowls with noodles and soup mix in them. These are good too, have a lot of flavour options, but the sodium content on most of these is just ridiculous. So if you’re someone who gets sleepy or sluggish after a salty meal, or have health issues that require a low-sodium diet, be careful with these.
  • Cheese strings!! Or those little mini cheese wheels that come in the waxy covering. Or the Laughing Cow cheeses. Or those little individually wrapped mini cheese blocks. Actually, any cheese can work for this. I always keep cheese strings in my fridges at home and at work. If I run low before my next grocery trip, some sliced marble cheese in a zipper lock bag works great too. Just don’t forget these in your bag for too long, especially if you’re in warmer temperatures. Nothing sucks more than reaching your hand into your bag, and pulling it out covered in melted cheese.

These are just a few things we keep at my house, that I would recommend. They are convenient, usually cheap, and can be found in most grocery stores. And there’s many other options out there that I haven’t mentioned here. If you’re lucky enough to be near a grocery store that has an “International” aisle, or even a small international grocers, they seem to keep many different items that are great for throwing in your bag on a busy day. I’ve found a whole new world of ramen noodles (not just your basic Mr. Noodle), and have even started experimenting with ramen soup recipes a friend got from her parents when she went home to Vietnam for a visit.

So, what are some of your favourite convenience items? Have any recommendations you’d like to share with us? Leave a comment, let me know what you like to snack on when your day just doesn’t have enough hours for three square meals. I’m always looking for new foods to try!

Reading and Understanding Your Lease

A lease is a legal document. Legal document. That means that once you sign it, you are bound by it. So you would think people would read through these things before they sign them, wouldn’t you?

After getting burned by a bad lease once (they sold the house out from under us and forced us to move out with less than one month’s notice, which was perfectly allowable under a clause in the lease), I’m a little pushy when it comes to leases. I think everyone should not only read through their, but have to read through it with their landlord there to answer any questions or concerns. You need to make sure you understand what it is you’re signing, before you go ahead and sign it.

Now, before we get into specifics of your lease, there is one thing you need to know above everything else: you need a copy of your lease. No, I’m not being a smart-ass here. I mean after you read through it and decide to sign it, you legally have to be given a copy of your lease for your own personal records. And you damn well better keep that thing, too! You may need it if things go sour.

Finances: Your Basics

There are a few things you absolutely need to have included in your lease, such as how much you are responsible for paying each month, and when you move in. Most places will have you give them a security deposit, which is usually equal to one month’s rent. Legally, if the place is in good repair when you move out, you get this back. It should state all of that right in the lease.

Now, what you pay each month should be in there. What is your monthly rent? Does it include utilities? Right now, I’m lucky with the lease I have. I am renting a room in a house (currently have 3 other roommates, with room for one more). For around $400 a month, I get my room, all my utilities paid for, basic cable, unlimited internet, on-site laundry, on-site parking, a backyard, and some of the furniture here is also included.  Most places are not this amazingly great, though. Always check your lease to see what, if any, utilities are included in your lease. You may have to pay for your own internet, or electricity, or for all your utilities separately.

Also, you need to know any and all penalties in the lease. Some landlords throw in a charge for bounced checks, late payments, damages above and beyond the security deposit, or other such things. I knew one person whose roommate got hit with a heavy fine for smoking in his room, when the lease clearly said there was to be no smoking in the house.

Length

So just how long is this lease for? In college and university areas, many landlords have an 8 month option and a 12 month option. If you’re only going to be around during the regular school year, make sure you’re not signing a 12 month lease! Even if you move off site before the lease is done, you are responsible for the payments.

You should also see if the lease mentions what happens after the lease is up. Some landlords make you sign a new lease for a full term. I’ve known others who automatically transition the lease to a month-by-month lease, meaning you can move out any time you want with only one full month’s notice.  Know which one your landlord requires, in case you like the place enough to stay there multiple terms.

Boundaries

This is one part of the lease a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to. After getting burned by our previous landlord, my then-roommate and I made sure to go through our lease with a fine toothed comb. There were some things in there that made me laugh, which apparently had to be included after bad experiences with former tenants. No storing tanks of butaine, propane, or any other highly explosive or flammable gases in the apartment. No waterbeds. No keeping of fireworks on site. No creating compost piles in the livingroom. I shudder to think of the reasons why they had these rules!

There were also a few things in there that were really, really important to know. If we wanted to leave before our lease was up, we were not allowed to sublet the apartment to anyone else, and would be held responsible for all payments. We were not allowed to have any pets at all, not even a goldfish in a bowl. There was even a clause about the number and frequency of overnight guests (which is a long story you will probably hear about involving our upstairs neighbour and the grow-op).

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, things go wrong. Pipes clog. Stoves catch on fire. Homes get vandalized or broken into. I can remember a few years back, on my damn birthday, I was living in a basement room in a house. I could hear something hitting the back window, and young voices outside. It turned out to be two local teens (15 years old), who decided to draw all over the back of the house with a giant Sharpie and dig random holes in the backyard. I called the police, and listened while the boys were questioned (“Why were you drawing on the house?” “Duh, we were bored. And like, we didn’t know people live here.” “What about the car in the driveway, and the for rent signs, and the lights on in the house?” “We didn’t see any of that. Can’t we just go?” It was comedy gold). Afterwards, I had to contact the landlord. Thankfully, it said right in our lease what to do if something like this happened, since our landlord lived a few hours away. I took pictures of the damages (why do young boys like to draw dicks on everything?), and sent an email to the landlord, telling her what happened, showing her the pictures, and giving her the information from the police that I was asked to pass along. We were able to get the house cleaned up and everything taken care of in a matter of days.

Your landlord should include some sort of contact information in your lease. In larger apartment buildings or dorms, you might have on-site management who can take care of things right away. In other situations, you may have to make a few phone calls or send a few emails. Either way, how to take care of things like this should be in your lease.

Now that you know all of this, go take a quick read-through of your current lease, if you have one (and you kept a copy of it). And the next time you rent or lease some place new, you’ll know a little of what to look for in that document.