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.

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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!

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!

Stocking Your Kitchen, Dollar Store Style

It was a joke in my house that I would finally be ready to move out once I had a good cheese grater. I tend to put cheese on  pretty much everything I can. So I figured that once I had that grater, I was good to go. I mean, of course there are other things that are important in a kitchen (like stuff to cook with or eat off of), but I was going to be sharing a house with other people. I’d probably never need to buy any of that stuff!

Oh, how very very wrong I was. While yes, I did have my trusty cheese grater,  I don’t own plates (long story there). I do have wine and Martini glasses, and some Batman cups, but no real drinking glasses. And sometimes, my roommates would be in the same boat as me. Many times in the last 7 years, my roommates and I ended up at the mall, standing in a kitchenware store. Now, this is one of my favourite store today (it has these cocktail shakers with drink recipes right on there, so I can pretend to be fancy and make a Martini), but it was terrifying back then. $25 cutting boards? $150 knife sets? $125 for an ugly dish set?!?! How the hell is a person supposed to afford to actually use their damn kitchen?

Dollar stores, that’s how!
Now, not everything you need for the kitchen can be found there. I mean, you’re not going to find a giant stand-up mixer and food processor there (that’s what kijiji and Facebook buy-sell groups are for). But there are a tonne of things I never thought to go looking for there, that are actually quite awesome, especially for those of us on very tight budgets.

Diningware

Plates, bowls, cutlery, things to drink out of……….. these things are pretty much essential to every kitchen. Most good dollar stores will have plates either for a dollar, or two for a dollar. Same goes for drinkware. Some places I’ve been to have had sets of cutlery for a dollar, meaning you can possibly get four of one thing (forks, knives, spoons) or one of each for that price. Getting a “dining set” (bowls, plates, cutlery, drinking glasses, all X4) can cost more than $100 in some stores. At a dollar store, you can get all of this for as little as $10.

And don’t forget those little extras. Many stores sell cheap steak knives, wine glasses, Martini glasses, fancy looking drinkware, and anything you can take on a picnic or use outdoors (ie, stuff that won’t break if you drop it, which is essential to have if you have random people using your stuff all the time). As a connoiseur of cheap and boxed wines, have a few wine glasses in the cupboard is an essential to me. I also like to have two martini glasses, for the odd martini or Cosmopolitan (there are some great pre-mixed virgin versions out there. Sometimes, while writing, I like to pour one and pretend I’m some fancy, pretentious writer whose penning what they believe is the next On The Road).

And yes, that non-breakable stuff IS essential. Do you ever plan on having friends over? Throw a small dinner party or BBQ? Don’t want to serve everything on paper plates? I keep about 10 blue plastic plates in the cupboard, for when we have guests here. They all match (so it looks like a real set), they’re sturdy, and if someone drops something there is no sharp glass or ceramic to clean up. These are also great when you have the one friend who is a spilly drunk (we all have one), and they insist on pre-gaming with you, or watching the Oscars with you, or helping you through a bad break-up. These are not the times when you need to be worrying about digging glass out of the soles of peoples’ feet. Having a non-breakable option that you can both use (as not to single them out or make them feel weird) is perfect for these times.

Cooking Basics

Why the hell anyone would ever spend $25 on a measuring cup is beyond me. I mean, it’s a cup that measures things. You can get measuring cups in all sizes at dollar stores. Same goes for measuring spoons. There are basic ones, some with pretty designs, and even some that are part of a larger set of kitchenware. For the last few years, I’ve been helping my parents collect the Betty Crocker collection from Dollarama (they have a thing for red appliances and utensils). They have every size and shape of spatula, mixing spoon, ladle, and those weird slotted spoon things with tines on the side that you use to serve spaghetti.

Need a can opener? Dollar store! Vegetable peeler? Dollar store! One of those screens you put over a pan so you can cook bacon without grease flying everywhere? Dollar store! Just in the last year I’ve bought strainers, knives, canisters, large serving bowls, mixing bowls, and tupperware there. Like to bake? They have baking accessories too!

And for those of you who like to make holiday-specific foods, this place is amazing for that. For Valentines Day, they bust out the heart shape baking pans and cupcake pans. Christmas time is great for cookie cutters and cake pans. And every single holiday somehow has cupcake wrappers and little toothpick things to decorate them with. Why spend a small fortune at some craft store getting baking supplies when you can get them for a fraction of the price at the dollar store. This is also a huge help to anyone who ever gets roped in to doing the obligatory bake sale fundraisers in your school’s student centres.

Groceries

I have a thing for rice crackers. No clue why, they’re just amazing to me. But they’re like $3.50 a package at the nearest grocery store. They’re only $1 at the dollar store next to my work though. And it’s not just snack foods they have there. I’ll pick up canned goods, boxed meals (like off-brand tuna helper or hamburger helper), macaroni and cheese, and even Rice-a-Roni. A can of peas, can of corn, some boxed tuna casserole, a can of tuna……. less than $5 gets you the basics for a meal (just add milk to make the boxed meal). It may not always be the healthiest meals you can make, but you can feed yourself on dollar store groceries.

You don’t have to feed yourself entirely on dollar store foods, but their groceries can seriously help stretch you budget. There are three dollar stores within a short walk of my house (well, discount stores, but most things are around $1. Hell, even Dollarama doesn’t sell everything for $1 these days!). At one, I can load up on cheap spices, boxed meals, and rice crackers. Another has a great canned good section, and cheap candy (I like to keep emergency chocolate bars in the freezer). And the little family owned place near campus is great for a very diverse selection of boxed foods and spices. The owners are from Bangladesh, and like to keep affordable Asian foods on their shelves for students. I can get tandoori spice, powdered chow mein mix, canned hummus, and a whole line of Indian-inspired boxed rice and noodle mixes.

Of course, you should always compare prices before settling on dollar store foods. While the stores near me can’t be beat when it comes to mac’n’cheese and canned mushrooms, bread and noodle mixed (like Sidekicks) are sometimes cheaper at the grocery store just down the plaza.

In The End

Are there things you can’t get at the dollar store that you will need for a kitchen. Definitely. Most of them can be found at discount stores, liquidation stores, or online (try sites like Kijiji, or search for buy and sell groups in your area on Facebook).  Toasters, coffee pots, microwaves, toaster ovens, and any other small appliances can always be bought on sale somewhere. But for the bulk of your kitchen, you can get what you need for very little money.

Now, at times you may need to get a little creative in your buying and usages. You may wind up with mismatched place settings, or a set of serving bowls all in neon orange plastic. But, you can also get creative with your cooking. You can take regular recipes and switch out ingredients for cheaper ones sometimes. And expensive looking chicken dish could actually be made with clearance and discount products. I do this quite regularly, and hope to teach you some of my favourite swaps. Also, while I try things out, I may take you along on my culinary experiments to see how things work out for me. (Warning: it doesn’t always work out well. That’s why they’re just experiments and not masterpieces.)

Basics of the Budget

The first few weeks of school are pretty damn exciting. There’s welcoming events, moving, meeting new people, new classes, and, for a growing number of students these days, a giant student loan deposit in the bank. For many students, that lump sum payment is more money than they’ve ever had at one time.

Having that much money all at once can be a little overwhelming for some. Seeing that there are possibly thousands of dollars in your account can feel like you will never run out of money this semester. Once tuition is paid for the term, everything that’s left seems like fun money. Suddenly you can eat out, hit the bars, shop, and do all the things real grown ups like to do.

Except, you can’t.

You see, once that money is gone, IT’S GONE. Unless you have another source of income, you have to make that money last you. Hell, even if you DO have another source of income, you can’t run around blowing money on every little whim. You have to make (and stick to) a budget.

I know, that’s such an evil little word. “Budget” means “I have money, and I want to spend money, but I’m not allowed to spend money, so life just freakin sucks”. It also means, though, “I can afford to keep my bills paid off every month, have a bit of money to play with, don’t have to live in fear of eviction or not having money to spend on food, AND I get to practice this whole ‘being a grown up’ thing a little more”.

Before we get into how to make one loan payment stretch a whole semester, let’s go over the very basics of what a budget is, and how you can make one of your own.

1) Figure out how much it costs you to live every month.

Do you have to pay rent the first of the month? What about utilities (heat, electricity, water)? Internet? Phone? Look at every single thing you have to pay for every month. This isn’t just your living expenses, either. If you have a car, then you need to include any bills for that. If you have a balance on your credit cards, then payments need to be included too. Basically, any bill you have that needs to be paid off every month needs to be included.

The easiest way to do this is to just make a list. On one side of the page, list out all these expenses. On the other side, put how much they cost. Do you have something, like a cell phone or internet bill, that is a little different each month? Err on the side of caution, and write down what a more expensive month would cost you. Now, add everything up and…. voila! You have your basic bills!

2) How much money do you actually have?

Take into consideration every single way you get your money, whether it’s student loans, a part-time job, or an allowance from your parents. If it’s money coming in, then keep track of it! Again, just make a list of everything and add it all up. Do you have enough to even cover the costs of your basic bills?  If not, go right to step #6. If you do, then just read on.

3) What’s left for everything else?

I know, you want to take everything that’s left and go have some fun with it. And you can…….. possibly, in moderation. First, you need to figure out what you’ll need to spend on food every month.  Don’t kid yourself and say, “I can live on $5 a day” or “I can eat nothing but ramen all term”. Go to a real grocery store, look at the food. Figure out what you need, and budget for it.

Once you have food covered, then you can look at spending some on a little fun. Just don’t spend it all at once.  While it might feel great to go out one night and buy drinks for all your friends, that could cost you your whole month’s budget, leaving you stuck at home the rest of the month while everyone else is out having fun. Wouldn’t it feel better to just have a drink or two, and then save the rest for………. more nights out? Or a bit of shopping? Maybe you have a latte addiction you want to spend it on, or like to take cabs everywhere. You need to account for, and prepare for, all of this in your budget.

4) Where can you cut your costs?

Buying a coffee (or seven) every day can get pretty damn expensive. Same goes for taking cabs, eating out, using vending machines, and dozens of other things we tend to do every day. If you find yourself guzzling coffee, invest in a coffee pot and a few good (and large) travel mugs. If you cab it everywhere, grab a copy of the local public transit schedules to keep with you. All of these little things can start to add up and really eat away at your budget.  You need to find a way to cut back on these expenses, without totally depriving yourself (but that’s a topic for a whole other posting).

5) No matter your age, but a little something aside and try to be prepared.

You don’t have to open an RRSP and make big monthly contributions right now, but you should be saving something. Many students think that just because they’re not saving for retirement right now, they don’t have to save for anything. Well, that’s just damn wrong.

Do you want to buy Christmas gifts? What about big expenses, like clothes for a formal event or wedding? Will you be needing to get plane, train, or bus tickets once a semester? These are all things you need to plan for now. Saving part of the cost each and every month makes it easier to handle than letting it eat up a huge chunk of your budget one month.

Also, it is always a great idea to stash some money away for emergencies. Pretty much all the experts agree that you should have at least 6 months living expenses stashed away, in case your cash flow stops coming in for whatever reason. I know that seems like a lot, so just start small.  But a little aside at a time. Throw your change in a piggy bank. Have a portion of your pay check put directly into your savings. You can build up this emergency fund bit by bit now so that, when you need it most, it’s there for you.

6) Don’t have enough money to pull all this off? 

Well unless you find a way to cover all your costs, you are pretty much screwed.  There is no way to sugar coat this: you need to get off your ass, stop reading this blog, and go find more money NOW. Apply for scholarships, bursaries, grants, anything you may qualify for.  Start applying for jobs. Get (more) financial aid. Ask family members for help. Believe me, the LAST thing you want to do is start making up the difference with credit cards! At first, you think “Well it’s just a few hundred dollars, and I can’t just NOT buy groceries, so I’ll pay it off when I get more money”. The next thing you know, you’re getting ready to graduate, and have thousands in credit card debt ON TOP OF your school debt.

It’s not going to be easy, but there are ways you can get more money each month. Talk to a financial counsellor (if your school provides them), or someone you know who is great with money. There are also a lot of great resources out there (Gail Vaz Oxlaid, The Wealthy Barber, bank websites) that can give you more ideas and help than I ever could.

So that’s it: your basic budgetting. Now that you have it on paper, try to stick with it. I admit, it won’t always be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.