The magic of coupons.

freedigitalphotos.net

freedigitalphotos.net

There was a time (when I was younger and slightly more financially foolish) that I didn’t recognize coupons as what they truly are, free money.

The real goal here is to be able to do what you want to do and just spend less doing it.

There are a variety of ways to use coupons and sources to obtain them…here are some tidbits I’ve picked up over the last few years.

Some things, you will learn quickly, one doesn’t actually need to pay for. Two that leap to mind are toothpaste and shampoo. Your friendly neighbourhood dentist has $1.50 off coupons for Colgate/Crest for the asking, and have dozens of them – they’re usually happy to give you a few just to find a home for them. After you’ve been going through flyers for awhile, you’ll notice that every couple months, toothpaste will go on sale for $1/tube. $1 – $1.50 = FREE! Some stores (Walmart, for example), will actually apply any remaining discount to the other items in you basket, which means that you have somehow managed to turn a profit. Miraculous, yes? Similar things happen with shampoo…when you find a high value coupon, hold onto it and wait for the item to go on sale.

For products that you like and use a lot, follow those companies on Facebook or Twitter, as they’ll often give out coupons and occasionally free products via social media.

For me, one of my best investments is the yearly Entertainment Book, which is a book full of 50% off and other discount coupons for local restaurants, grocery stores, businesses etc. It’s good from November – November each year, and retails at about $40. $40 is pretty pricey, though. The real secret is to wait until after January, go on the Entertainment Book website, and they’ll have it at 50% off. $20, on the other hand, is a good deal – there are $20 in Safeway coupons alone that make it worthwhile. Even if I don’t use the majority of the coupons in it, there are enough places that I regularly go to make it well worth the outlay. Later on in the year, if you sign up for their bulletins, they’ll sometimes have a $5 special…even if you buy it in July, there are still $10 in Safeway coupons that are useable, making it a net profit, even if you use nothing else. Often I’ll swap the ones I don’t use for the ones I use a lot with other friends who have the book. Given that these are places and things I would do either way, it leaves me more money in my wallet to do other things with.

There are a bunch of sites that offer coupons that you can either print yourself or have mailed to you. A few of them are:

https://www.brandsaver.ca/en_ca/coupons/ (Proctor Gamble products)

www.websaver.ca 

www.save.ca

www.gocoupons.ca

Some of them come as coupon inserts in your local paper (Redplum and Smartsource). There will often be tearpads of coupons in local stores for a variety of products. Take only what you will use – karma, people, karma!

The key with coupons is to use them with a sale, bringing the product from cheaper to CHEAP or sometimes even free (see toothpaste example above)! Occasionally, you’ll find a coupon for a product on another product. Don’t buy a product you wouldn’t use just because it’s cheap (unless you have the intention of giving it away to someone or to the food bank)…there’s no point in wasting space or hoarding stuff.

There are some great coupon websites that will actually do a coupon match for you and let you know where the best bang for your coupon buck is, and they’ll often go store by store. Others list new and hot deals, freebies and giveaways. Brilliance!

Some of my favourites are:

www.mrsjanuary.com

http://extremecanadiancoupons.com/

www.smartcanucks.ca

www.canadianfreestuff.com

Happy savings! What are your best tips to have more money in your pocket at the end of the day?

 

 

5 things that are always worth the money!

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freedigitalphotos.net

I’m all about finding things for a lower price, although I have some parameters – I try to buy Canadian or in Canada as much as possible, and quality is a large factor. There are a few items, though, where I recognize that you should buy the absolute best you can afford. These are items where you know you’re going to use them regularly, they will genuinely make your day better, and you’ll have then for a fairly long time.

1) Bedding.

freedigitalphotos.net

freedigitalphotos.net

You are going to be sleeping for (roughly) 7-9 hours a night. Every night. For the next who-knows-how-many years. That works out to 56 hours a week on average, roughly 5912 hours a year. Good sheets matter. Make your bed into a sanctuary where you can climb into cool, comfortable sheets and let the worries of the day slide off you and go to Snooze Land. Get the best mattress you can afford. A good night’s sleep impacts your general day to day mood and energy level in a way that very few other things do. Make it as good as you can.

2) Shoes.

freedigitalphotos.net

freedigitalphotos.net

Want to forget any problems on your mind? Go for a walk in uncomfortable shoes. Enough said.

3) Skin care that you genuinely like, with SPF.

Take care of your skin now. Start wearing SPF as soon as possible, day in, day out, and your lack of wrinkles later will be the result. If you like the texture, smell and consistency of your moisturizer, you’ll be much more likely to use it.

4) Health treatments

spa towel

Spa days, massages and general physical wellness activities will make you feel better and be a better use of dollars than new clothes or yet another batch of DVDs. Torn between a shopping trip or a spa day? Research shows that the spa day will make you happier for longer than the ‘buyer’s high’ that comes with a spending splurge.

5) Quality tea and coffee.

Unless you’re far more awake than I first thing in the morning (which with the baby has gotten MUCH earlier than before), one of the starts to your day is some kind of caffeinated beverage. Be nice to yourself first thing and start your day off well. Choose tea or coffee that you genuinely enjoy drinking – it will start your day on a much nicer note!

What would you add to the list? What’s worth the money?

The yearly wardrobe update – 6 ways to jazz it up on a budget

shoes!

Photo credit to Sunshine Gudlaugson

A new year, a new series of spring fashions…what’s a girl to do? Stay stylish on budget, of course!

My clothing allowance has taken a plunge since the advent of grown-up-ness…which is kind of ironic, since now I have grown-uppy sorst of jobs and the occasional requirement to look all fancy.  We also have a space crunch, since our adorable turn of the century house is more than a little lacking in the closet department. The combination of these has led me to a variety of creative options to find some new outfits.

1) Option 1, because it’s my favourite annual clothing related activity, is the yearly swap party. For those of you who are new to this, the drill is that everyone goes through their closets and finds the stuff they don’t wear/don’t fit into/hold a deep and abiding dislike for/reminds you of your least favourite cousin, and bring it over to my place, washed and folded. Clothes, accessories, books, CDs etc. It all gets piled in the middle of the living room, and then at the appointed time, everyone dives in and starts trying stuff on and swapping.  Many of my friends have kidlets, as do I, making it an excellent opportunity to get some new(ish) baby clothes and items that are in good shape (only a reasonable amount of teeth marks :) ). I usually make mine a potluck, for sanity’s sake as well as for fun, and there’s wine and food and general good times. Whatever’s left goes to charity

2) The old fashioned route: dye!

This pertains in particular to clothing trends in a particular colour. If you have something that’s white/beige/light grey, and you love love love it but it is just past its prime, this is a solution that can bring new life. Remember those old boxed dyes? I had a white satiny dress that I loved in the store, and loved on, in the slightly dim lights of the dressing room, but became a bit of a show once I tried it on at home in regular light. I hadn’t kept the receipt, and had taken the tags off. My Mom (who is known for keeping *everything*) had an old box of blue dye, and I thought ‘hey, why not?’ And you know what? It turned a lovely sky blue, and was a favourite for years afterwards. There are lots of sites that have DIY advice on the actual process of how to do it, but usually an old wash basin (that you aren’t attached to in any way, since dye stains are not really easy to remove!), some hot water, and a couple of hours are required. If you’re particularly creative, you can put elastics around bunches of the fabric to create cool circle designs, or draw on it in thick crayon to create pictures of slogans.

3) Accessorize! Accessorize! Accessorize! Accessories are cheap. They’re fun. Scarves, bangles, bracelets, chandelier earrings – they even sound fun! A really colourful scarf can do wonders to change an outfit, or a funky hat and boots can give it a completely new look.  And places like Ardene and Claire’s and even some of the dollar stores have a variety of items that are interesting and can jazz up something boring quite cheaply.

The hat makes the outfit! Photo credit to Sunshine Gudlaugson

The hat makes the outfit!
Photo credit to Sunshine Gudlaugson

4) Actually go through your closet. As my coworker Gina pointed out recently, she had a bunch of things that hadn’t seen the light of day in a veeeerrry long time that she genuinely likes. Particularly if your closet is as coffin-like as mine, it’s easy for things to get mired back in the dim recesses and forgotten about. So take an afternoon and spend it on a trip down the clothing version of memory lane. And with the stuff that you just don’t wear anymore or don’t really like, see bullet point #1 and hold your first swap party!

5) The humble t-shirt. My colleague Maureen pointed out that the t-shirt is really an underrated creature. You can get very well made ones cheaply, and a colourful t-shirt can be paired with everything from jeans to blazers to make an outfit come together. And if colour is your thing, it’s far cheaper to pair a trendy coloured t-shirt with a skirt or jeans than to invest in an item when you haven’t really come to a decision about whether you actually genuinely like this season’s ‘it’ shade.

More on swap parties can be found over with Lindsey, another fabulous Canadian blogger:

http://centsandsensibility.ca/2013/03/16/money-saving-thursdays-swap-party/

6) Winners, outlet stores and sales sales sales.

When it is time to buy something new, keep an eye out for sales. If there’s a particular store you enjoy shopping at, join their e-club – they will often offer sales and discounts to email subscribers that aren’t available in the store. Do a web search for coupons and discounts before you head to the mall, and print out the coupons before you leave. And if you are going to choose just one thing to buy, make it something you’ll wear and love. A fabulous spring jacket will have a much lower cost per wear than a turtleneck in emerald green if you’re not a turtleneck person. Try places like Winners, which encompass all labels but at a far cheaper price, and if you wait until seasonal sales  you can score huge discounts on already low prices. Always check the clearance rack first!  (But go on a Tuesday morning so that it’s not a zoo!).

There are a number of other ways to jazz up your wardrobe on a budget – thrift stores, vintage and estate sales are a whole other post!

What’s your favourite item of clothing? Where (or who) did it come from?

The hidden trap of maternity leave: tax time post baby!

Christmas hat babyDecember 22nd, 2011, we had our first daughter – she was due December 6th, and was so late that we had to issue her a chemical eviction notice and I was induced right before Christmas. While dealing with the shell shock that comes along with Planet Newborn, there is for many people a financial hit that goes along with it. I’m very lucky in that my employer tops me up to 85% of my salary for the first four months and 75% for the following eight. (Note to non Canadian readers – we have a year of paid maternity leave at 55% of our salary, to a max of $501 per week (as of March 24th, 2013), and a number of employers add to this as a ‘top up’ benefit to their employees).

Because of the way the tax brackets fell, I ended up making essentially the same amount of money I would have had I been at work, for the ten months I was off. I went back early so that my husband could take two months to be at home with the baby…good for their relationship, a break from the day-to-day for him, and a whole level of context about being at home with a baby that cannot be gotten any other way. (Although the Lone Star song ‘Mr Mom’ comes close).

I had heard of the tax implications that come with mat leave, though, and thankfully went to my HR department and filled out a new T1, which is the form you use to change your tax deductions at the source. Bear with me while I attempt to explain how the morass of Revenue Canada breaks down maternity leave payments, and why you need to pay attention! (And the obvious disclaimer is that I am neither an account nor a CRA employee, so do not take this as gospel as it is not professional advice).

The key to understanding why your cheque is taxed the way it is, is that CRA assumes that when you get a payment from your employer, every payment for the remainder of the year will be that same amount. So if you get a whopping signing bonus, for example, CRA makes the assumption that every cheque will be that high and takes off a crazily high amount of tax.

The inverse problem applies if you’re on mat leave and getting top up payments from your employer as well. CRA assumes that your sadly low EI payment is all you’re getting, so taxes it at a ridiculously low rate. It then assumes your top-up is all you’re getting, and taxes it at the same far-too-low rate. So what ends up happening is that you get two payments with practically no tax taken off, whereas if you’d gotten it in one payment, you would have been taxed at a much higher amount. Let me try this with (completely fabricated, in no way relevant to anyone’s tax situation figures). Let’s say you get $500 from EI and $500 from your top up. You might pay $50 dollars in tax on each payment. (again, numbers COMPLETELY MADE UP). But if you’d gotten a $1000 payment, you would fall into a higher tax bracket and would need to pay $200 in tax instead of $100. So imagine that concept spread over an entire year, and you can see what type of headache might result.

Long story short: cover your butt. Go to your employer and have them take extra tax off at source if you’re getting a top-up, to prevent an ugly tax hangover come the following April.

So readers, anyone else have an unexpected tax time hangover?

Someone else making dinner without breaking the bank! (AKA Mystery shopping madness)

Image courtesy of Imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Imagerymajestic & FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I love eating out. Love it. I’m a passionate baker, but slightly apathetic about making my own meals. Going out for dinner has always been my favourite way to catch up with friends – food that I didn’t have to make and good company, how can that go wrong? Now that I have a husband and a baby, there’s a bit more of an immediate need to feed us all – my previous life of having a bowl of cereal if I didn’t feel like figuring out what to make is no longer feasible, but going out for dinner on those no cooking nights is a huge finance buster!

So how does one eat out when there’s a budget to be met and bills to be paid?

Two words: mystery shopping. I remember the first time I heard about mystery shopping – I had read a book about unusual ways to make money, and it was one of the suggestions. I had, in the dim recesses of my memory, heard about it before, but in the context of a scam scenario where someone had paid money to ‘join’ with a company. I’ve since learned that they pay you and it’s an independent contracting situation, where you pick up jobs according to your preferences and location.

The synopsis on restaurant mystery shopping is this: you go to XYZ restaurant with a friend. You generally will have some parameters on what categories of items to order (often it’s an appetizer to share, two entrees, two drinks from the bar and a dessert to share), but other than that, it’s really up to you. As you have lunch with your friend, ordering whatever you want from each category required, you’re taking mental notes on the food, the service, whether there are fingerprints on the glasses and how long everything takes. I find having a smartphone makes this process much easier.

You have dinner, pay your bill, tip as you usually would, and leave, all the while just being a regular customer out for dinner with a friend or partner. Once you’re home, you fill in the online report and scan and attach your copy of the bill and credit card receipt. About six weeks later, you’ll be reimbursed via Paypal or cheque, depending on the company, whatever the agreed upon amount of the shop was. Often it’s around $75 or $80 dollars. Depending on what you order, this makes for either a really cheap, yummy multi course dinner, or an entirely free one!

I’ve been doing it for several years, and it means that steaks and martinis can happen whenever we have the inclination to go out and can find a babysitter.

There are also other mystery shops for retail items (some entail a small purchase which you are reimbursed for), oil changes, clothing, shoes – you name it! There’s a whole lifestyle that awaits!

Please note, in big, bold letters:

You do not pay a fee to join a company, ever, and anyone who wants you to is not authentic. You do have to pay for things like dinners or small purchases in advance and then you get a cheque or Paypal 4-6 weeks later, depending on the company.

 

Here are some of the companies that I use:

(restaurants, retail and the odd automotive)

http://www.a-closer-look.com/ 
http://www.premierservice.ca/

(Casinos and banking)

http://www.mscreporting.com/login.asp 

These are some other ones that are legit:


http://www.kernscheduling.com/ (
Gas stations, usually require (and reimburse) a small purchase)
https://criny.com/Login.aspx?referrer=/index_members.aspx&query=
(Movies)

https://apply.bestmark.com/?r=BC10765(retail)

Good luck – let me know if you have any questions and what your experience with mystery shopping is, or what you think it might be! What do you do to keep up things you love doing when your budget stages a protest?

 

Cars and transportation – getting around in style!

Image courtesy of Nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Nongpimmy & FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The cheapest solution, as we know, is simply not to have a car. There are the costs of gas, insurance, maintenance, and licencing to consider. Car costs can be sudden and huge. One day, you’re driving to work, and the next day, you have a flat tire on the side of the highway and need a tow truck. Or your transmission has issues or you suddenly need to fix your power windows. My best friend has had the worst car karma in the world and has had all of these issues and more.

On the other hand, there’s the ability to go when you want to go. To not wait for the bus on a frigid Canadian winter evening, or a rainy murky Vancouver morning. It means that you can pick up groceries at the cheap grocery store rather than going to the corner store where the prices are double. And the real pro to having a car is that you’re on your own schedule and can venture where and when you want. There’s no depending on others for rides or mulling over whether you can stay for the next round of Apples to Apples or go for coffee after a great date because you might miss the last bus. This is less of an issue if you live in a major city with late night bus/train/Skytrain service.

Even with all of the associated costs, for me, having a car just feels better. So, how do I make this less of a financial black hole?

There are pros and cons to buying new or used.

I have done both and have an opinion, now that I’ve gone down both roads. I had several used cars prior to buying a new one and loved them all. I bought the new one after I had to abruptly move back to Canada after my father died suddenly of lung cancer. Everything in my life was awful at the time and I needed one good thing to wake up to.

New:

Pro:

*driving a car off the lot and seeing those first kilometres tick over is amazing.

*warranty applies for between 3-10 years (depending on which parts and what type of vehicle)

*security of knowing that it’s reliable and has all of the modern conveniences.

Con:

*it depreciates the very instant you drive away. You’ll magically have lost several thousand dollars just by leaving the parking lot. No other investment is guaranteed to tank in quite the same way.

*new cars are expensive. The insurance is higher, and sometimes they require premium fuel, which is crazily high.

*you tend to be a lot more concerned about where you park in the parking lot, and spend a great deal of time worrying about whether someone has dinged your door.

*basic maintenance costs more. Oil changes have to be done at three months on the dot, whether or not they’re needed, so as not to void your warranty, and there are a variety of things that ‘have’ to be done according to the book, whether or not they’re actually required to run the vehicle at that very moment. (My husband and I have disagreements about this – I see the maintenance schedule as more of a ‘guideline’ than a rulebook)

Overall, having done both, I wouldn’t buy new again….the best of both worlds is to buy something two or three years old. You let someone else take the huge depreciation hit, while still getting a vehicle that is on warranty and runs well. You also tend to be able to get more vehicular bang for your buck…upgrades that would be budget busting in a new car are already included in the price of the used one – and someone else has paid for it!

Here are some miscellaneous tips to lower your car costs:

*drive with less in your trunk. Less weight equals less gas to haul it around.

*fill up with regular. Very few newer cars actually need supreme, and even that ‘guideline’ owner’s manual of which we spoke earlier usually advises using regular.

*slow down gradually and don’t slam on the gas. In addition to being easier on the car, it’s also more zen. And it means people won’t mock you for flooring it only to stop at a red light thirty seconds later.

Alternatives to driving:

Given the impact to the environment and the cost, non-car options are increasing regularly. A lot of the practicalities will depend on individual circumstances, but there are still choices out there!

Car co ops:

Businesses such as Modo, the Car Coop and Zipcar can work really well for people who live in urban centres where they only need a car once in awhile. In a nutshell, you pay a membership fee and a per km or per hour fee for the time you use the car. There are a variety of price points and plans available. I can see this working well for a young professional who lives near a transit line and cycles/takes the train to work and needs a car for grocery shopping once or twice a month or for things like trips skiing.

Cycling:

Cycling has a lot of obvious benefits. Once you’ve made the initial capital purchase of the bike, helmet and any clothing you may want for weather, it’s basically free. It’s excellent exercise, and can be a quicker way to get somewhere than rush hour if you live in a congested area with good cycling routes.

The cons are weather and safety related…the majority of Canada is C O L D for six months or more, and the parts that aren’t cold are usually W E T (see Vancouver and Victoria as examples).There’s also the ick factor of being all sweaty at your destination.  I would also be concerned about safety, as cycling accidents in Vancouver happen regularly, and it’s a ‘bike friendly’ city.  If you’re a cyclist or wanting to get into it, please be aware of your surroundings, and follow all stop signs and road rules. And even then, things can still happen. A good friend, who religiously follows the rules and is an excellent, experienced cyclist, was lit up like a Christmas tree in the middle of the day when a driver turned left into her. She calls the steel plate in her leg ‘Rod’. So while it’s great exercise and very cheap, it does have its downsides.

Transit:

Ah, transit. Love it or hate it, all major cities have it in some form or another. Vancouver has Skytrain, Calgary has C-train, and there are buses and trolleys as well. Transit is cheap, efficient if you’re going to a major destination and can make a car unnecessary if you live in a city core. There are a bunch of passes and tickets that you can buy to make it cheaper. Cons are that you’re on someone else’s schedule, and that it can be impractical if you live in an area that isn’t well served.

Motorcycle:

Most of the cons here are similar to transit…motorcycle accidents can be horrific. They are really, really fun, though, which is a huge pro. And there’s the moment where you pull the helmet off your head and there’s a movie moment where your hair tumbles out and breezes sexily down around you. Or you’ll get helmet head. One of the two. Much cheaper than a car, but only really useable during the spring and summer months unless you live somewhere very mild or are a bit of a masochist and want to freeze in November.

Walking:

No real cons, but it can take a looooonnng time. Oh, wait, there is a con. There’s that part where wet stuff falls from the sky (if one is based in Vancouver), or it gets to be minus a zillion (for many other parts of Canada).

Happy wanderings by whatever form of transport you choose!

Banks – there’s no way around it, so choose one that suits you!

Courtesy of  hin255/freedigitalphotos.net

Courtesy of hin255/freedigitalphotos.net

Choosing a bank shouldn’t be a no-brainer. It’s not uncommon to bank where your parents did – that bank account that they opened for you at the tender age of 5, where all of those generous grandparently cash gifts went, is still the one you use today. While this is the easy solution, it isn’t always the most financially astute one. Canada has a myriad of banking options, from higher-interest online only banks such as ING, to bricks-and-mortar Big Banks like RBC and TD.

While it seems like all banks are the same, the products, services and style of each bank will vary. Banks are more like marriages than dating: think long-term relationship, and then do your research accordingly. Take into account your own personal quirks. My best friend is addicted to movies, and her go-to stress reliever is and always has been Cineplex. Scotiabank has a program that rewards you with points that lead to free movies, and since moving her finances there, she’s found that her movie financial outlay has lessened significantly. She’s also a fan of a program they have that rounds up each of your debit purchases and deposits the difference into a savings account. I realize that a few pennies won’t even buy you that inaccurately deemed penny-candy anymore, but over time, and if you don’t touch it, it adds up, particularly if you’re a hardcore debit user.

Other banks offer rewards that range from Airmiles to flight points to bonuses such as discounted theatre tickets. Credit unions are similar to banks but smaller, and you generally have to purchase shares in them for a small amount. You then ‘own’ a teeny portion of the credit union…it’s like being a member. Credit unions tend to have higher interest rates for bank accounts and lower rates for mortgages. If you are usually local, they might be a good fit for you. The downside is that if you’re in Vancouver and want to make a deposit into your Calgary credit union account, you’ll have to wait…whereas with a Big Bank, you can make deposits at any branch in the country and have it go into your account.

Saving isn’t natural for anyone, and given that in any day, you will be bombarded with various and sundry ways to spend your money, spending comes much more easily. The easy way to save is to automate it – set up your online banking to take money out the moment you get paid and siphon it into a savings account that doesn’t have a bankcard attached to it. And then leave it there! I promise you that if you took $25 from your biweekly paycheque the second you got it, you wouldn’t notice it was missing. (That does presume that you’re working regularly. If you’re working only a few hours a week, different rules apply. Also, if you’re self employed and your income is up, down and all over the place, that will fall into another category as well).