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Photo by: whitetiger8370

When I say times are tough, it’s not exactly news. My family, like a lot of others in North America, is not only  frightened of investment losses and impending layoffs, we’re already feeling it. Since money is sparse, my parents and I have decided to “cancel” Christmas. No gifts!

My mother is a supervisor in a large corporation’s travel department. She oversees corporate travel and their clients include an ailing North American car manufacturer, a bailed out American bank and an investment bank that filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Business in 2009 isn’t looking very good and there’s a real chance she’ll get laid off in the new year.

Knowing this, my parents are trying to save money just in case. Mom’s near retirement, but not quite ready for it. She doesn’t like the idea of not doing anything, especially if early retirement means less desirable health coverage.  In efforts to save money, we agreed we wouldn’t get Christmas presents for each other. While others may find this a terribly sad, I’m actually looking forward to Christmas this year—more than other years. Two less gifts to buy means less time in a crowded shopping mall. That means more time with loved ones.

Your two cents: I know we’re not the only family approaching the holidays differently. Are you and your family changing your holiday spending habits this year?


I’d like to be more like Barbara Raab. The NBC news writer temporarily traded her in her job to teach journalism at a public university. Although she took a big pay cut, she manages it in large part to her lack of stuff:

To me, having and wanting “things” just means more “stuff” to take care of, and I don’t want to be bogged down by “stuff.” Other than a second bedroom, and my own personal washer/dryer (sadly, my building does not allow the latter or I’d have it in a heartbeat), I can honestly say that I have pretty much every “thing” I want, so even though taking a giant pay cut to teach at a public university isn’t easy, I knew I could make it work for a short time without a lot of pain.

I’m in the process of moving and if my constant relocations (nine in four years) have taught me anything, it’s that I have a lot of things. This stuff is not only plentiful, but it’s also, for the most part, unused. Although I’m pretty good at avoiding the “stuff traps” at the mall, I’m still guilty of stupid souvenirs and buying too many pens. I’ve even impulsively bought records despite my lack of a record player. I am reminded of these stupid purchases every time I pack my things up and move.

Packing up and moving is a pain, but at least it forces us to stop and take stock of our belongings. We have to go through every nook and cranny of our homes and separate the things we want to lug across town/country/world from the things we don’t.This is a healthy thing. Not only do we get rid of excess in our homes, but it reminds us to think twice when we feel the impulse to buy something we don’t really need.

Stuff really weighs us down. For me, it’s an overwhelming psychological weight, the same kind of feeling I have when my apartment is so messy, I don’t want to spend time in it. It’s also an economical weight that eats away at our back accounts that has little or no return.

My goal for the rest of October and November is to get rid of stuff. So far, I’ve donated a box of kitchenware, set aside a box of books and CDs to sell or give away and freed a bag of clothing for donation. The stuff that I really hate is paper. I’ve got receipts, bills and bank statements that go back five, six, even seven years. They don’t take up much room, but when I get that organized, I’ll feel a lot lighter.

What’s weighing you down?

Photo by: E-Rocks

After waiting it out, I finally booked my flight to Vancouver. In about 10 days I’ll be flying off for a week-long vacation. It’ll be the first vacation I’ve had in two years and the first since I returned from Hong Kong. Because of this, I’ve convinced myself that I deserve it. But after reading Gail’s blog entry, “How Did We Get Into Such A Mess,” I feel a little guilty. She writes:

There are also a fair number of people who feel entitled. “I work hard, I deserve a vacation.” If I had a dollar for every time someone has said this to me, I could cruise around the world…twice. People believe that just because they want something they have a right to it, regardless of whether they can afford it. That’s how Buy Now Pay Later became such a hit. “I want it. I have to have it. If I can’t pay for it, I’ll just find a way to get it without paying for it.” Then when the bill comes due at a whopping thirty-something percent, people whine about how rapacious the rates are.

Of course, we all know that Gail is right. But it’s not that I deserve a vacation less than someone who is debt-free, I just can’t afford it as much as someone else. To answer my own question, I feel like yes, I do deserve a vacation, but at what cost?

There’s a part of me that feels immensely guilty for taking a week-long vacation. Instead of spending $1,500 on a trip, I could be contributing that to my debt. But the sad fact is I won’t be out of debt for a few years still. Am I not supposed to go on vacation until I’m completely in the black?

This is when I think the “everything in moderation” belief comes to play. I’m not going to another continent and staying in expensive hotels. I’m going to British Columbia on a seat sale, staying at friends’ places/hostels and have a planned budget. If I pay everything off without paying interest, should I still feel guilty?

What would you do? Would you still go on vacation despite being in debt? Would you put your vacation money towards your debt?

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Photo by: iboy_daniel

OK, I did it. I bought a new laptop and an iPod Touch. But really, the iPod Touch was free, thanks to a back-to-school sale. I didn’t want to do it but I really needed a new computer. My previous laptop was quite old, dating back to January 2003. I took good care of it, updated its RAM a couple years ago and it has served me well. I don’t know any other laptop that has lasted as long as mine did. Unfortunately, in recent months, it slowed down significantly. I knew it was nearing the end. Then yesterday, I decided it was time to move on.

Now $2000 later, I have a new MacBook and iPod Touch. It’s a large figure, more money than I’ve ever spent on anything. My car down payment was $1000. My flight to Hong Kong was $1200. My apartment’s deposit was $1100. $2000 just might be the most I’ve spent at once. I will get a $319 rebate for the iPod, but still, why does it hurt so much?

One reason may be because I’ve been spending a lot of money lately. I just returned from a wedding in Calgary and I’m planning a vacation next month. I had to go to the wedding, I haven’t been on a vacation in two years (and we can only go next month) and I need a laptop to work on. Being frugal has been an exciting and productive experience so far, but I think I may have fallen off the wagon. I’m getting back on it, but I realize that trying to find the balance between getting what you need (family obligations/a break/professional tools) and what you can afford are more difficult than I anticipated. I just wish I could have spaced these purchases out more.

Lesson learned: There’s always going to be something you need to buy. If you can, spread the purchases out to soften the impact on your wallet.

Photo By: independentman

This article in today’s Globe and Mail reminded me of a dining experience I had earlier this year. Along with three friends, I went to a well-reviewed restaurant in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

Despite its location in the city’s artsy yet poorer neighbourhoods, our party of 20-somethings was the youngest in the restaurant. It may have been because of this that we had horrible service. We saw other people seated after us place their orders well before we did–at least half an hour after we sat down. Our server, who claimed to be new to the establishment was curt, neglectful and even borderline bitchy when we asked about the excessive sediment in our wine.

For the most part, our food was fine. Had our service been better, we likely would have ordered another bottle of wine, just like we would have ordered dessert. Instead, we asked for our bill after the entrees. The service ruined an otherwise OK meal. We have vowed never to return to the restaurant, but we still left a decent tip of at least 17%.

If presented with this situation again, I would not tip that much again. We probably should have discussed our “beefs” with the manager, but by the time they took our entrée plates away, we just wanted to get the hell out of there and forget about the whole thing. Clearly, I haven’t forgotten about it.

In the newspaper article, an exerpt from Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, the author describes seven types of tippers. On that night, I believe we were “Flat Tippers.”

This is how he describes them:

“You could spill hot soup on their baby or treat them like the Sultan of Brunei, they’ll always tip you 15 per cent.”

If you had planned a nice dinner out and received service like we did, what would you have tipped? What do you tip for good service?

It’s July 11th! That means it’s Apple iPhone day. At 9 pm EST, you can get an iPhone for the first time in Canada, but do you really care? I love Apple products, but you can count me out. The idea of signing a three-year contract with Rogers gives me shivers, and I’m not the only one. As the only service provider for iPhones in Canada, Rogers has been accused of being corporate jackasses with some of the most expensive service plans in the world. While some Apple freaks will still pay top dollar for usage, many would-be consumers have put their foot down, signed petitions and vowed to boycott the Rogers’ services (and in turn th iPhone) on principle. Why should we have to pay more for inferior service plans?

I find the controversy over the Rogers plans to a be fascinating peak into the world of business, supply+demand, Apple fanatics and the power (or lack of) consumer anger. Here are some my favourite links about the iPhone, Rogers and technolust:

Rogers, Apple iPhone and disgruntled Canadians: Blogger Nancy Zimmerman explains the kerfuffle that is the Canadian iPhone story.

Rally online today: The people behind are organizing an online rally against Rogers’ service plans for 10 am EST today. They’ve got the support of Liberal MP David McGuinty’s

Technolust: Today’s podcast from The Current examines technolust and why Appleholics have to have the newest products.

CBC’s iPhone iNdex: An interactive map that compares iPhone rate plans around the world. Guess what? Rogers’ plan for Canadians is the second most expensive in the world, second only to Vodaphone’s plans in Italy.

Why are Canadian cell phone plans so expensive?: CBC’s science and technology writer, Peter Nowak explains why Rogers’ iPhone rates are so expensive compared to the rest of the world, why there is no unlimited data plans, why Canadian mobile rates are generally more expensive and what the future of Canadian cell phone competition will look like.

How to cope with gadget envy: Still want an iPhone despite Rogers’ ridiculous service plans? Resist and read Get Rich Slowly’s great advice on how to avoid falling into technolust.

Photo By: gromgull

My mother likes to boast that we have a really close relationship. We do, but we also disagree on a lot of things: music, bottled water, people. But more than anything, we disagree on how we spend money.

A few weeks ago, we argued over the purchase of a new umbrella. My mother’s method of consumption is: buy many for as little as possible. She suggested I go to the dollar store to purchase one for $1. Although they’re guaranteed to break easily, she’d rather spend $10 on 10 cheap umbrellas.

I love the dollar store. Dollarama is my go-to place for tin foil, party decorations and even drinking glasses. But umbrellas are different. If I learned anything while living in Hong Kong, it was that a quality umbrella is one of the most important things you could own. Through typhoon wind and rain, my trusty Eddie Bauer umbrella was my best friend (thanks to Dana who sent it to me).

With that in mind, I argued that spending $15 on a good quality umbrella that will not break is a better choice. Mom thinks that’s an unwise financial decision, especially for some one in debt like me.

I know that spending $1 now is a much smaller expense than spending $15 is now, but is it really saving money overall? For me, spending 10 dollars for 10 umbrellas is not only a waste of time (imagine making numerous trips to the store just to buy a new umbrella every couple of weeks,) but it’s a waste of resources.

When we all should be trying to reduce our ecological footprint, I think buying 10 umbrellas and throwing out nine) over buying one good umbrella, is bad for the earth. Also, one of my goals for 2008 is to declutter. The idea of having multiple umbrella carcasses in my apartment is a lot more annoying, stressful and unnecessary than purchasing one superior product for a few dollars more.

I haven’t actually bought a new umbrella yet. But I think this is an important debate regardless of what you’re buying. It goes without saying that there are times when quantity trumps quality, like when the quality is barely distinguishable (eg. generic drug brands). But what are your standards? When is it worth paying more?

Photo By: Andrea Chiu

I am usually a smart shopper. I don’t shop to kill time. I don’t shop without a list. I never pick up candy at the cashier. I don’t buy things impulsively except for one time. This one time, I bought a car.

I think it’s fair to say that of all things to buy without really thinking about it, a car ranks high up on the list of things NOT to buy. To be fair, I did test drive a number of models and thought about my options. I talked the the salesman down to a price I was comfortable with. In this respect, I was a good shopper. What I didn’t do was really think about how much I needed the car.

At the time, I was living at my parents in Markham, a suburb of Toronto. I was on a contract at a company in North York, at a location not accessible by public transportation 24 hours a day. This was important because I would often have to start as early as 6 am. It didn’t make sense to move into a downtown apartment. It made more sense to stay at my parents’ and get a car. I wanted to have a car and the freedom from driving my own car so badly that I didn’t think about which would be the best way to get one. I ended up signing a four-year lease.

If I had continued to work at the company, it would have made sense. I didn’t. Since I signed on the dotted line, I’ve worked downtown for a year. I’ve moved out of my parents’ house and now in addition to paying rent and student debt payments, I pay monthly car payments and insurance. I pay more than $400/month for a car I drive twice a week.

I needed a car for six months and I leased one for four years. Instead of leasing, I should have better examined car sharing programs, renting or buying a used car. My decision to lease a car lacked foresight.

Lesson learned: Don’t sign a long term contract for a short term need. Just don’t! Trust me.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the car. I love having it for weekend getaways, supermarket trips and visiting my parents. It’s fuel efficient, easy-to-drive and has a special place in my heart as my first car. Most importantly, it’s taught me to fully examine how much I need something before I purchase it. It’s a valueable lesson, and for me, a costly one.

Photo By: Shannon Mollerus

As I type this, I realize I am becoming what we call a “see lai” in Cantonese. See lais are typically stay-at-home mothers or grandmothers who go to the market and comparison shop for everything. They will argue for every penny. They study grocery store fliers, know the price of milk at more than one store and always check their grocery bill.

I did check my grocery bill last night, even though it was a whole 26 hours after I left the store. I know I should check the bill before leaving the store, but after spending an hour at a busy supermarket, I usually just want to get the heck out of there. I learned my lesson when I realized the cashier had charged me for toilet paper twice. I doubt she did it on purpose but it still made me a little angry, especially since at $11.49, it was the most expensive item on the bill. So I called the store, they apologized and said I could come in for a refund. She politely added that next time, I should check before I leave. Point noted.

Lesson Learned: Check your grocery bill thoroughly before leaving the store.

As other blogs and media have pointed out, it’s also important to watch the prices as the cashier scans in your items. Chances are, you’re being charged a different price from the displays in the store and it’s more likely in favour of the supermarket.