Saturday, June 25, 2011

Closet clean-out

I am spending the Quebec long weekend at my parent's place as Barbie & Ken's Seaside Resort is always a lovely spot for a mini-getaway. While I planned on sipping wine by the lake, soaking up the sun, swimming in the pool and losing myself in a good book, the weather is uncooperative and it is gloomy outside.

This is not the same house that I grew up in, but there are storage bins full of my childhood momentos and as a rainy day activity, I decided to revisit my treasures. They are meticulously organized as when I moved out five years ago, I took the time to purge my closets and I was careful to leave behind only a few neatly stacked containers. I am still holding onto the usual stuff: memorable projects from kindergarten, miscellaneous medallions, photo albums from grade 12 grad formal, and of course, my favourite toys. While these bears and dolls are not on display (except for today's photo op), there are a few items that I will never part with. These include the Care Bear Wish Bear that my grandparents gave me as a little girl, the Cabbage Patch doll my that Gramma Jo gave me for Christmas one year that I promptly named Baby Jo, the well-snuggled Puppy Surprise dog that stores 5 little babies in her tummy, and the flower pot of Fairy Winkles that I begged for on my 7th birthday.

Back row: Wish Bear (L) and Baby Jo (R); Front row: Puppy Surprise (L) and Fairy Winkles (R)

I did come across another bin of plush toys that I accumulated over my teens/twenties that have no sentimental value. I decided to give the nearly-new TY and GOODY stuffed toys to the Salvation Army as these items deserve to be loved by a little girl who will adore them. But, I must confess, before packing up all these items for the donation bins, I did do some searches online to confirm whether or not my Beanie Babies are worth anything.

Does anyone else have a secret Beanie Baby collection? These were popular in the mid-90s and everyone gave them to everyone for birthday party gifts. My Mum told me they were about $9 each and parents would buy special tag protectors since the Beanie Babies would be worth something some day.

NEWSFLASH: that someday is not now and my Beanie Baby collection is worth zilch. I looked up every single one of my Beanie Babies on E Bay (from Nip the cat to Prickles the hedgehog) and I found hundreds of sellers auctioning off the same toys for $3 - $7 each.

Prickles, Circa 1996 with a current E Bay price of $5.00
Nip: Circa 1994 with a current E Bay price of $5.84
It appears that Beanie Babies have depreciated in value over the last 15 years and they are hardly scarce items. While I could hold onto my collection for another 15 years, I decided that Nip, Prickles and the rest of their friends will be donated. There are smarter ways for me to make money than holding onto my Beanie Babies  and call me silly, but these "collector" toys have never even been played with and I think that every toy deserves that at least once in its plush lifetime. 

As for my well-loved Wish Bear, Baby Jo, Puppy Surprise and The Fairy Winkles? I think they are coming home with me to Montreal.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Storage Wars

I'm finally storage locker free! 

You might be asking yourself 'how does a mid-20-something gal have so much stuff that she requires a 8'x8'x8'storage locker in the first place and why is this equally budget-conscious frugalista spending $143 each month for someone to store her stuff?' Well, please let me back-up and explain. 

When I made the decision 18 months ago to move in with my Eye Candy, I had been on my own in my own condo for a few years and we had the task of combining 2 adult apartments into one. I had a shabby chic collection of furniture that I had inherited from my Gramma before she moved into a retirement place; meanwhile, my Eye Candy was back in Montreal after years of living in & out of hotels for his consulting roles and was in the process of purchasing furniture & decorating his place. In most ways, his condo represented a blank canvas for us to fuse our tastes together and set-up a home for two.

In Quebec, it is quite common for couples to live common-law instead of getting married. For every 1000 adults in the province in 2010, only 2.9% are married versus the provincial rate of 8.2% in 1970 and it is well below the national average of 4.7%. With that being said, living together in Quebec is quite a significant and serious stepping stone in a relationship. I was incredibly excited to be moving in with my Eye Candy and confident in my decision. After all, I was in love. But because I was head over heels in love, I opted for a storage locker. 

Storage lockers are the modern girl's pre-nup. 

I had seen too many friends get burned by boyfriends after they moved in together and discovered that Prince Charming was far from being a knight in shining armor. In too many cases, these ladies had sold their condos and furniture to set-up their love nests, and when the relationships turned sour, they were left homeless and had to start from scratch. I opted to take on a $143 monthly expense to keep my condo tightly boxed and dismantled in a storage locker. This represented my safety nest, and in some ways, my independence. 

But with each day that passes with my Eye Candy, I continue to fall a little bit more in love and while life was good when we were dating, living together is incredible. 

I decided a few months ago that I would give myself the deadline of August 31st to clear out my storage locker. My Eye Candy and I are going to continue to live in our condo and there is no need for me to hang onto a second bedroom set, living room furniture, dining room table, desk, tv, and so-on. 

Fortunately, the timing worked out perfectly as my sister is about to take the same step in her relationship and has just finished off grad school, moved out of my parents' house, and is now setting up her first apartment with her boyfriend in northern Ontario as they both start their first jobs. 

I was more than happy to have movers come and take my locker to her. They are getting a shabby chic start to their new life together and I'm getting a $143 to move into my investment account each month. I also passed along to my sister a copy of A Good Girl's Guide to Living In Sin as a checklist of things to consider as her relationship and lifestyle moves forward and changes. 

There is a lot that I could have done with $143 each month for the last 18 months instead of storing furniture. But in the long-run, this was a small price to pay in order to feel confident in my decision to co-habitate sans mariage. After all, living with the man of your dreams should never get in the way of a girl's dreams. I stopped considering my storage locker as a safety net ages ago, and instead, it became more like a baggage weighing me down. Today, I am not only able to achieve my own financially fabulous goals, but I'm working with my Eye Candy to achieve our shared goals and this is the best security that a modern girl could ask for.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer lovin' goals

I meant to post this yesterday to correspond with the summer solstice, but unfortunately, I was dealing with a sick little puppy. Yesterday when I picked up Fergie from The Spa for Paws (my Eye Candy is away on business), I found out that she had a fever and gastro so I rushed her to the animal clinic where we waited 2 hours to see a vet, and $127 later, we went home with new food and antibiotics. (The *surprise* costs of a dog will be a whole other post soon.)

...But back to the original purpose of this entry. These are the goals that I plan to accomplish over the summer. This season will be more than just sipping daiquiris by the lake!

Financial & Fabulous
1.   Save $2000 in my Girls Just Wanna Have Funds Investment account.
2.   Save $1000 in my Vacation Fund.
3.   Figure out exactly when I’ll max out my RRSP contributions for 2011 (soon, I think!) and make a plan for what to do next.
4.   Get advice on how to/where to find a personal financial advisor and set-up a short-list of professionals to start meeting with.
5.   Celebrate a year of successful budgeting! Create a summary for the year and evaluate the % of my spending per category versus my income.
6.   Start calculating my net-worth.
7.   Determine if setting up a THRIVE chequing account with ING in exchange for a $100 free is worth the hassle of changing my direct deposits and bidding sayonara to CIBC.

Fun & Fabulous
1.   Cross off all 30 items from my Thirty Flirty List.
2.   Enjoy at least 2 long weekends at my parent’s place which is affectionately known as Barbie & Ken’s Seaside Resort.
3.   Pinpoint our next vacation spot with my Eye Candy and start planning + budgeting.
4.   Roadtrip to Pembrooke to visit my favourite sister.

Professional & Fabulous
1.   Update my resume (it’s been too long and I need to reflect on all that I’ve accomplished).  
2.   Create a Linked-In profile.
3.   Attend at least 1 industry networking event. I hate forced socialization so this will be a major accomplishment for me.
4.   Maintain a work life balance which means being focused, fun & productive when I’m at work, and leaving before 6 pm to enjoy the evenings.

Fit & Fabulous
1.    Run 250 km in prep for the Montreal half-marathon.
2.    Figure out what half-marathon is next on my list. Disney’s Tinkerbell Run seems tempting!
3.    Start my certificate to become a spinning instructor.
4.    Continue to bring my lunch to work everyday.
5.    Eliminate Diet Coke from my diet once & for all. I’ve fallen off the bandwagon.
6.    Upgrade to swimming the Olympic distance for my girls team with 3 Vitesses.
7.    Overcome my fear of biking… well, it’s really my fear of falling.

Well there you have it! This is what I’ll be working towards while thoroughly enjoying the summer sunshine.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's in your wallet?

While cleaning out my wallet to organize my receipts, I couldn’t help but realize the amount of gift certificates that I carry around with me: Lululemon, The Keg, Second Cup, Tim Hortons, Sears, Forever 21, and The Running Room. These are either wonderful gifts that I look forward to spending or store credits from purchases gone bad. But then I started thinking, what if I didn’t want to shop at any of these stores? Take for instance my $50 at Sears – I cannot remember the last time that I even entered a Sears store so for all intents and purposes, this card might be wasted.

And it wouldn’t be the only one.

A reported 75% of Americans gave cards valuing $145 as gifts last Christmas and with a reported redemption around 10% - 19%, buying a gift card for someone gives more to the retail store than it does to the recipient. Check out this 2007 New York Times article from Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt to read about Best Buy’s $16 milllion windfall.

I recalled reading about a Canadian company called CARDSWAP and decided to check it out. With Father’s Day approaching, I was hoping to swap my Sears card for a manly gift certificate like The Home Depot. My dad is difficult to buy presents for as he likes to spoil himself with elaborate additions for his at-home workshop. He is like Tim the Tool Man Taylor (but with fewer explosions) so a Home Depot card in his wallet would not go to waste.

It turns out that CARDSWAP is different than I expected, but I am going to try it anyways. Rather exchanging one gift certificate for another, the company writes you a cheque for up to 90% of the value of your card. All you have to do is register the card with them, pop it in the mail using a pre-paid shipping label, and wait by your mailbox for your money. While you do not get 100% of the funds, in a case like my Sears card I think it is worth it. I don’t have any intention to purchase something from the store and I’d rather have $41 to put in my Mad Money envelope.

On the flip side, if you are looking to buy a gift certificate, CARDSWAP will resell you someone else’s reject at a discount. They have taken the time to verify the value and guarantee it for 21-day. While there are no Home Depot gift certificates currently available, there are lots of good deals posted at the moment:

o       $50 at JackAstors for $39 (21% savings)
o       $100 at Cineplex for $75 (25% savings)
o       $100 at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts for $85 (15% savings)
o       $250 at H&M for $222 (11% savings)
o       $100 at The Brick for $89 (11% savings)
o       $106 at Danier Leather for $86 (19% savings)

I think this CARDSWAP is great idea if you are a regular at a particular retail store, saving up to make a bigger purchase, or planning a weekend away.

The only glitch at the moment is the postal strike by Canada Post so sending my Sears gift certificate in the mail seems a bit risky. I plan to wait until that is all settled and then, I’ll take my $41 to Home Depot (unless a Winners gift certificate happens to pop up on CARDSWAP first).

How many unused gift certificates do you have in your wallet? What do you think of the CARDSWAP concept? 


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gift giving on a budget: Bacardi birthdays

My baby cousin turned 18 years old last month – all 6’2 of him. Here in Quebec, this is quite the momentous occasion as you have reached legal drinking age. As a result, many Canadian teenagers and those from the northeast USA flock to Montreal to celebrate their 18th birthdays on the pubs of Crescent Street.

I picked up a shot glass adorned with the Quebec flag ($4) and a mini shooter ($3), and for $5, I sent the package via snail mail. While he wasn’t joining us in the la belle province to party, I hope I gave him a legitimate case to drink Bacardi on his birthday.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Money management tips & tricks for grads

June is the season of graduation ceremonies so this post is dedicated to all my favourite graduates who are looking lovely in royal blue gowns this week. I’d like to share some tips & tricks for managing money as you make the transition from university to the workplace and into your first home-away-from-home that is bigger than a dorm room.

Live like a student as long as possible.

This is easier said than done as the first batch of paycheques make it tempting to go out and live the highlife with frequent dinners on the town, constant take-out meals, buying a new work wardrobe, jet-setting for vacations, and ordering furniture. However, the longer that you can “live like a student” the sooner it will pay off in the long run.

This doesn’t mean surviving on Kraft dinner and staying at home reading library books, but it does mean:
o       accepting hand-me down furniture to create a shabby-chic apartment
o       making your own lunch for work daily
o       grocery shopping smartly with a list
o       frequenting Wal-Mart for your household basics
o       inviting friends over for a potluck dinner instead of hitting up the local pub
o       indulging in DIY beauty routines

While you may have champagne taste, keep yourself on a beer budget and save! 

Create & stick to a budget

I only started budgeting 11 months ago and I wish I had started the habit as soon as I started working. It gives me a sense of confidence in managing my money and I make smarter choices. I would rather see the balance in my Vacation Fund rise than spend $100 a month at Starbucks. When I started working, I lived paycheque-to-paycheque paying my bills as they came and then I’d go crazy depriving myself to put a huge amount all at once into a savings account. This is no way to control your cash and it is unnecessarily stressful.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade is the guru of money management and I strongly recommend her tools to plan where your hard-earned dollars will go. 

Pay yourself first

I hope that every graduate receives a copy of The Wealthy Barber as a graduation gift, but if you don’t, then please pick-up this must-read. Managing your money can be overwhelming and it is hard to know where to start. I’m still just figuring it out.

But one thing is for sure, the future-me is relieved to know that she’ll retire in style as I’m maxing out my Registered Retirement Savings Plan contributions monthly. The current-me doesn’t even notice as my contribution is taken directly off my gross income and thereby, minimizes my taxable income. If there is one form that you sign with your employer, it should be to sign up for an automatic deduction of 12-18% of your salary into an RRSP. Even if you don’t quite understand what that means, just do it and take some time once you’ve settled into your new life and have read The Wealthy Barber to review your RRSP plan.

Re-read your employer benefits once the ink dries

By the same token, it can feel like a world-wind tour as you sign your first contract with an employer and the 100 forms that come with it. Again, once you feel settled take time to review what you’ve signed and request changes as they make sense. For instance, I was paying $45 a month into a life insurance plan when it finally dawned on me that I have no dependents relying on my salary. The $45 is better spent investing into an RRSP and up’ing my health plan for full dental and eyewear coverage.

Be student-loan free as soon as possible

I paid for my university education with a mix of scholarship and earnings from my summer internships, so I did not have the burden of paying back loans once I graduated. If you do have loans, it should be your priority to pay them off. Based upon your budget and minimum repayment requirement, you should set-up an automatic payment. Time this with the same day as your payday so that your disposable income is reduced right away and you won’t notice a difference in your lifestyle.

Your mode of transportation should be a BMW

Fooled you! BMW stands for bus, metro, or walking. If you’re living in an urban city with ample public transportation now is definitely the time in your life to take advantage of it. As a rule, transportation costs should not exceed 15% of your monthly budget. A 0%-interest loan on a car lease for a MiniCooper may seem like a fabulous way to zip around the city, but consider the hidden costs: insurance, gas, parking fees, and maintenance. Suddenly $73 for a transit pass seems like a bargain.

Take advantage of birthdays & Christmas

Ask for gifts that you really need! Now don’t go all bridezilla as no one likes to be given a checklist to scratch off. When a special occasion approaches and you expect to be spoiled and adored, it is ok to hint for gifts that you'll use and appeciate. Times have changed and young ladies & gents are no longer leaving their parents home right after getting married with piles of wedding gifts so we have to spend our own dollars wisely to create our perfect nest. 

I recommend asking for items that you may have initially purchased on a budget, but would like to upgrade: for instance Egyptian cotton sheets, luxe bath towels, or gardening tools. Likewise, mention your favourite stores so friends & family will know where to shop or where to pick up a gift certificate. I love receiving cards for Winners, HomeSense, Lululemon, Jacob, and The Running Room as these are the stores that I know I’ll hit up at some point for wardrobe additions, condo décor, and sporty gear.

Be VISA’s worst nightmare

Pay your credit card bill every month on time and in-full. If it’s your first time having plastic to swipe and you don’t think you can show restraint, put your credit card in an icecube tray and freeze it. Only defrost it for planned purchases and then transfer a payment over right away. I use my credit card for most purchases  as I get 1% back on all purchases in December and I pay no account fees. Every 2 weeks, I log-on to my CIBC account and pay each charge on my VISA transaction by transaction. VISA must hate me for it as they earn no interest from me and end up paying me to be there customer!

Don’t cave to the pressure to keep up appearances

Chances are your social group is paying for their ballin’ lifestyle with credit and in the end, it will cost them dearly. The average Canadian consumer debt (excluding mortgages) is $26,000 and this behaviour of over-extending oneself doesn’t happen over night.

Don’t feel the need to rush out and buy a leather couch or designer suit simply because your friends are doing the same. You are not being left behind if you take the time to save up for a dream vacation of tango’ing in Argentina, building a quality designer work wardrobe piece-by-piece, or investing your cash to build a down payment. Figure out a way to get your money to work for you and if you haven’t picked it up yet, Rich Dad, Poor Dad is another great read.

I also recommend setting up an account with ING to automatically move money into a saving account with each paycheque. For your first deposit of at least $100, you’ll get $25. This is an incredible ROI! And if you use my Orange Key Number: 31643528S1 letting ING know that I recommended you, I’ll also get $25. Let’s share the wealth!  ING will also give you $100 for switching your chequing account to them and I’m in the process of doing so too.   
Final thoughts

Graduating from university and stepping out into your first job and first apartment is incredibly exciting and understandably, overwhelming. You might hit a few bumps in the money-management road, but if you resolve to learn & control you finances, you are setting out on one fabulously fun road trip.  


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thirty flirty things to do this summer in Montreal

Ready, set, summer time!

Hello my financially fabulous friends! I'm sorry for being MIA over the last week; have no fears,I've not been going on any shopping sprees and refusing to share the details. Rather, I've been enjoying the hot summer sunshine that has finally made its way to Montreal. My Mum visited last week.  We had such a great time exploring the city, our time together inspired this post.   

I'm not going on any major vacations this summer; having just been to Las Vegas and Kelowna I'm still in the process of saving up for my next escape. While my co-workers are sharing plans for their fabulous upcoming adventures and as I reminisce about my July spent in Spain last year, I’ve decided to have fun at home. It will not be a staycation as I’m saving my vacation days for later in the year (hey, you never know where we might go!), but rather this is a list of my must-do’s between now and September 21st.

Thirty flirty things to-do this summer in Montreal
(or at least, inspiration for your own city too!) 

1.  Become a Patio Princess. Having set-up our terrace last weekend and taken the time to indulge in flowers, plants, and a little tomato garden, I plan to spend countless hours here sipping wine & enjoying the sunshine. 

2.  Leave my balcony to see-and-be-seen at the best outdoor patios in Montreal. 5à7 will be my next favourite numbers. SheDoesTheCity has put together a pretty good list that already includes some of my favourites.

3.  Check out the Montreal Jazz Festival. In my four summers in the city, I have yet to take in a show and this is really just unacceptable. Fortunately, the B-52s are giving a free concert so you’ll know where to find me on July 4th. (No, not the love shack!)

4.  Be all cultured and see a play by Shakespeare in the Park.

5.  Frequently wash our new Mazda CX7. Who needs a carwash when a little lady-power can get this chore done for free? Plus, I must confess, I’ve never washed a car before in my life! I’d rather acquire this skill in the summer heat than in the winter.

6.   Since we’re on the theme of cars and confessions, I’d also like to have my first drive-in movie theatre experience.  Bonus points if I can find a theatre playing Grease.

7.   Smell the roses at the Jardin Botanique.

8.   Be a beach bum in Ste-Agathe. Don’t forget your Ombrelle SPF 60.

9.  Indulge in ChickLit. I currently have on reserve with the library: Last Night at Chateau Marmont (Lauren Weisberger), She Went All The Way (Meg Cabot), and My Fair Lazy (Jen Lancaster).

10.  Watch the sunset from the rooftop terrace at Hotel Nelligan in Old Port while sipping a glass(or 2!) of Kim Crawford.

11.  Enjoy the relaxing whirlpools at Bota Bota and a spectacular view of the city from the waters of Old Port.

12.  Mix mojitos! Last summer, my Eye Candy and I, spent an evening trying to find the best mojito cocktail recipe. We must have tried 7 different versions in an effort to find our favourite. Unfortunately we forget which one was the best so we’ll have to try again.

13.  Picnic on Mont Royal and Parc La Fontaine with my Eye Candy and Miss Fergie… complete with a checkered blanket, stylish basket, and wine. (Vino is for me, not the dog.)

14.  Finally spend a fun-filled day at La Ronde.

15.  Get on my bike & ride. Training with 3 Vitesses for cycling started weeks ago, and yet, I've still been indoors enjoying my spinning classes. It’s time to finally start biking up Mont Royal or discover the race track of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. 

16.  Explore Montreal’s spookier side. I love doing haunted ghost walks in foreign cities as there is something fun about walking around a town at dusk and hearing about its darker side. Why not take a Fantôme Montreal tour and find out who or what goes bump in the night?

17.  Main Madness as St-Laurent closes to cars and opens to pedestrians and great time. The best part of this festival is Montreal offering amazing street meat which doesn't require a tetanus shot.

18.  Giggle at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival. Not all the shows are within my budget, but if there is a will, there is a way.

19.  Run! The Montreal half-marathon is September 25th and if I’m going to cut another five minutes off my time (!); I need to become a road warrior. In addition to my runs with 3V, I want to make running along the Lachine rapids a Saturday morning must-do.

20.  By the same token, jet boat along the Lachine Rapids.

21.  Be a master of the grill and create the ultimate go-to summer BBQ menu.

22.  Sip a sampler of beers at Ste-Ambroise Terrace.

23.  Brunch in the Atwater Market. This will be an easy one to cross of the list.

24.  Get a group together and enjoy a Croisière Fieste in the Old Port. I went to the “white out” party a few summers ago and had a blast. It’s time to relive the experience.  

25.  Indulge in haute couture. This is a call out to my favourite fashionista bloggers at FHTS and Behave Fashionably to join me indoors at The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

26.  Swimming! The 3V team trains at Parc Jean Drapeau weekly, and there is something about swimming in an Olympic sized pool that makes me want to be a mermaid when I go up. I’d like to take my Eye Candy’s neice (my BFF) for a trip to the wading pool here.

27.  On a different note, I’d like to soak up some sun at Hotel de la Montagne. I’ve heard co-workers at work gush about this rooftop pool and a day pass seems worth it.

28.  Find the best restaurant for tapas in Montreal and spend time reminiscing about our Spanish trip last summer.

29.  Spoil Miss Fergie and be a regular at the local dog park. With her pelt, she’s sweltering in the sun so evenings and weekends will be our time to chill-out with her furry friends. 

30.  Go to the Jacques Cartier bridge at night for the best view of the city’s Saturday night fireworks. I’m putting The Beatle’s Tribute on July 30th into my calendar.

Hopefully this list is just the starting point of an amazing summer in Montreal. Please tell me what I've missed? I look forward to crossing off activities already.