Monday, August 29, 2011

Gift giving on a budget: Home sweet home

Wherever you go, summer tends to be the season of BBQs at friends houses. In Quebec, it’s also the season of housewarming parties as July 1st is our provincial moving day. This is a phenomenon unique to this special region when everyone across the province who is seeking to move, packs up & heads out on the same day… which is timed perfectly with the national celebration of Canada Day. While every other province celebrates with parades of red and white maple leafs, Quebec’ers have no time as they are rushing between addresses. You are more likely to see a mattress being carried down a street than any floats.

This summer I attended 4 housewarming parties and while they are usually BYOW events, I cannot show up without a hostess present. In fact, from doing all these entries about “gift giving on a budget” I am now convinced that I’m a southern belle living in Montreal. Lemonade anyone?

Throughout my usual grocery and household shopping trips, I tend to stockpile on household items that I can use in gift baskets intended for new renters or home-owners. I do this by taking advantage of buy-one-get-one promotions or coupons on items that I tend to purchase for myself. My favourite items are Glad plug-ins, picture hooks, giant rolls of paper towels, and Scrubbing Bubbles cleaners.

In each basket, I always put in one fun item that suits the recipient’s personality: napkins printed with $100 bills on them, dishwashing gloves branded Domestic Goddess, a pot scrubber shaped like a long-stem flower, or a Style at Home magazine. These are frivolous purchases that I make with my weekly Fun Money. The actual baskets are always the cheapest, but most stylish part of the gift and these are sourced from Dollarama. I’m always impressed with the store’s amazing selection of photo boxes, garbage cans or weaved baskets… and all for just $1. The overall cost of each basket fluctuates, but $15 is a reasonable estimate.

Any other suggestions for hostess gifts? I’m always planning and fortunately, socializing too!


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book review: Debt-Free Forever

Debt-Free Forever
Take control of your money and your life
Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Til Debt Do Us Part is my favourite show on SLICE (ok, it’s likely my favourite show ever) and Gail Vaz-Oxlade is definitely the reigning queen of personal finance, so it was with great anticipation that I finally read her book Debt-Free Forever. The delay was due to a long waitlist at the library and while Gail misses out on the revenue from an incremental book sale, I think she’d give me bonus points for borrowing a copy for free instead.

It’s hard not to give her book an A+ rating and I did take every word that Gail wrote to heart. That being said, it wasn’t the right book for me. After finally paying off my debt last December and diligently using money envelopes to save up for my spending needes (which serves the same practice as her money jars) since last August, I’ve already adapted most of the good day-to-day money management habits that Gail endorses. At this point in my quest for financial fabulousness, I’m more interested in how to make my money work for me.

Who doesn't go shopping with their money jars in tow?
Trust me, it makes you spend less!

If you’re currently in the red or scared of the b-word, then Debt-Free Forever is the ideal no-nonsense book for you and Gail sternly walks you through a path to be debt-free forever. Grab a pen and calculator while reading this book as Gail will teach you:

1.      How to face-up to your debt
2.      How to prioritize your goals
3.      How to build a comprehensive & balanced budget
4.      How to snowball your debts to pay them off faster
5.      How to shop consciously
6.      How to plan for the long term & rainy days

There were definitely a few things that Gail motivated me to look into. The first is my credit history. While I was reading this book, CIBC contacted me to inform that they had reason to believe my personal information had been compromised and they were issuing me a new VISA. Following Gail's advice, I then put a flag on my name with Equifax Canada and TransUnion Canada so that these bureaus would have to contact me first if anyone requested a copy of my credit report… and while I was at it, I asked both agencies to send me mine. After all, Gail says it’s free to get your credit report once a year and every savvy woman should keep track of her score.

The next piece of advice was to plan like a pessimist. At the moment, I don’t have life insurance as other than my furry friends, I don’t have dependents. What I’ve never really thought about is disability insurance. I know that I am covered through work, but I have no idea how the policy is distributed or defined. Gail points out that you need to know “what’s the definition of disabled and how long you will be paid.” There is a big difference between being covered for “own occupation” (ie. the job that you are currently doing) and “any occupation”. The latter is a tricky situation as the insurance company may agree that you are no longer capable of doing the job that you had when you became injured, but because you are still capable of being a parking lot attendant they will not pay you insurance. Yikes!

Gail says that if you write your own name and those of four friends on pieces of paper, drop them in a hat and then pull one out, there is a 92% that that person will become disabled in some way. There is no way of knowing if that person could be you. But there is a way to know what your insurance policy covers and a way to plan for your future should such a dire situation occur. The first step is to request your complete and most recent disability insurance policy from your HR rep as you really cannot afford not to.

After a year of using my money envelopes, I have to admit that they are getting a pretty worn out and Gail’s jars are just that much cuter. As of today, I’ve made the switch and my Grocery & Household funds and subsequent Mad Money funds are now in masonry jars as my honourary toast to the money maven Gail.

Confession time: The Eye Candy is the one who printed those spiffy labels.
Even he knows follow Gail's rules 100%.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

With the money I'm saving, I'll need books for a beach vacation soon.

This post is dedicated to the fun & fabulous blogger Annabelle over at The Shopping Detox who is the sassiest and funniest librarian that I've ever encountered. And she's frugal too!

When was the last time you visited your local library? I’ll admit that until I started a regiment of tight budgeting last summer, I hadn’t borrowed books from the library since my days as a zealous Girl Guide researching random subjects in an effort to earn badges. Even throughout university the library was simply a quiet place (most of the time) to get my work done. For all my reading needs, the bookstore was my go-to retail destination.

I pulled up my online order history with Chapters Indigo just for fun and in 2010, I purchased $520 of books and $340 in 2009. Granted, some of those purchases were gifts (e.g. the Kobo for my Eye Candy’s birthday), but they don’t factor in my impulse in-store cash purchases so they are a still strong indicator of how many books I was buying. Yet, in an effort to shop less & save more, these book purchases have become a thing of the past. Other than my Mum’s recent birthday gift for $27, I have not made any other book purchases. In fact, Chapters Indigo must be wondering where I’ve gone! Instead the local LaSalle librarians know me by name.

About 2 months ago, the Montreal library network upgraded their online catalogue to include every book in every borough regardless of your “home” library. Assuming you already have your free library card, your first step is to visit their Nelligan catalogue at and log-on with your username & password. (This should not be confused with visiting Hotel Nelligan which remains my favourite rooftop terrace in Montreal.)

Now it is possible to browse for your favourite titles and a reservation is just a click away.

Obviously I searched the Financially Fabulous guru herself,
Gail Vaz-Oxlade for the purpose of this demo.

Obviously I also reserved some much-needed chick lit.
A girl can't be good all the time.

The best part? You chose what local library you want your book shipped to and the librarians will call you when your book has arrived. In fact, it’s become a joke with my colleagues now as there is a high chance that when my cell phone rings during a meeting, it’s the library calling.

Today was no exception as I was thrilled to receive yet another call. I waltzed into the library after work and was handed my much-anticipated stack of reading material. The library is the ideal place to indulge my impulse shopping without paying a penny. After all, my tax dollars are hard at work here.

My "purchases" this month from my local library.

I currently have 10 books on loan –  while this may seem excessive, I do read at least a book a week so a girl needs her stockpile.  I've already half of them and I'm now writing book reviews for the upcoming viewing pleasure for my Financially Fabulous friends.

Once you’re at the library, feel free to browse some more. Why not also borrow some DVDs for rainy day viewing or CDs with songs of the world to set as background music for your next ethnic-inspired meal? Just make sure you keep track of due dates as Montreal charges $0.25 per day per book as a fine for your tardy material.

While that fine won’t break the bank, I’m more fearful of the stigma of being that girl who can’t even return her books on time. Fortunately, extending your loan is also just a click a way so be sure to bookmark the Nelligan catalogue site.

Don't forget to renew! And in the summer, Montreal
gives you 6 weeks to enjoy your book. What's there not to love?

Happy reading!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gift Giving on a Budget: The Mom edition

Come on Barbie, let’s go party! Yesterday was my Mum’s birthday, but we actually celebrated last weekend when the entire family was together in Oakville.

My Eye Candy & I took care of the BBQ’ing so she could just enjoy the evening with everyone. We put together our favourite summertime meal: ribs on the BBQ, chopped Moroccan salad, crispy sweet potato fries and finished it off with apple crumble from The Big Apple plus my new favourite recipe for 53 calorie brownies that are Rocco made & even Dr. Oz approved.

When it comes to the present that I gave her (other than just my presence), a girl has to have a budget for gift-giving and there are no exceptions to the rule… even when it comes to your mother! There is nothing in this world that my Mum doesn’t deserve so my plan to give a $70 came with extra pressure as it had to be thoughtful and priced just right.

On my last trip home, my Mum mentioned that the only drawback to my new love for the Montreal library is that I don’t pass along books for her to read. This made the choice of a gift simple as I logged onto and found 2 books that have her name written on them.

The first is Every Boy’s Got One by Meg Cabot as this light-hearted chick lit had me laughing aloud. The story is written in a series of journal entries and e-mail correspondence between a mother and daughter as the daughter is gallivanting across Italy for her friend’s wedding and searching for her own love. The content in the e-mails reminds me of the ones that my Mum would send during my own European travels (“got to go my Love, your handyman father is currently stuck in a tree”) and I’m sure she’ll have a good giggle from this book too.

The second novel is I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson. I’ve not read it, but I’ve seen great reviews for it and the plot is appealing. One of my favourite stories that my Mum would tell my sister and I growing up is about her trip as a 13-year old to L.A. with her family. She told us how she spent the entire vacation convinced she was going to meet Davey Jones from The Monkees. I Think I Love You is about a different Dave – as it’s about a woman’s fanatic teenage love for David Cassidy of the Partridge Family and her quest to meet him. I’m hoping this book brings back fond memories for my Mum (and not necessarily the urge to write fan mail to Davey Jones).

To purchase the books, I used my iRewards card with Chapters for the last time (it’s about to expire & I have no plans to renew, and Chapter’s is now offering a new Plum reward system that’s free to join) and a coupon code for $5 off. My order came to $26.79 with only a $1.28 tax so I still qualified for the free shipping.

But that’s not all. I also arranged for flowers to be delivered to my Mum on her birthday so she could wake up to the morning newspaper and a vase of flowers on her porch. I wanted to buy the flowers through Acorn Flower Shoppe in Oakville as I like to support local small businesses and they’ve always done beautiful arrangements. I was a bit put-off by the prices, but with some expert Google’ing I found a great deal for the flowers through the website of the mall where the flower shop is located. For $42 including taxes, delivery and the flowers, my Mum will receive a birthday bouquet of sweet splendor.

The total spent for my Mum’s birthday present is $69 which sneaked in at just a dollar less than my budget. I’ll be putting that loonie towards her Christmas gift!

How much do you spend on birthday gifts for family and friends? How do you set a budget for the present?


Friday, August 12, 2011

Clearing up the paperwork mess with Mazda Spinelli

TGIF! My Eye Candy & I are enjoying the last day of our staycation before the weekend hits and then it's back to reality on Monday. We opted not to take an elaborate vacation this summer as we're both trying to build up our vacation savings to take some epic future trips (more details to come!). Instead, we've taken the week off with no set plans and no where to go. We did make the trip down the 401 last weekend to see my family at my parent's place. Their home is affectionately known as Barbie & Ken's Seaside Resort as (1) those are their names and (2) their house & garden makes you feel like you're in an episode of the OC. En route back to Montreal, the EC and I (with Fergie too!) spent 2 nights in Ottawa touring our nation's capital and simply disconnecting from it all.

In addition to taking little side trips, one of my favourite things about staycations is that you can get some personal to-do's crossed off your lists. Yesterday, we spent 45 minutes at the SAAQ sorting out our administrative mess with Mazda Spinelli. If you remember from my recent post, we realized that the car registration was only made out to my Eye Candy even though we both purchased it. As a result, the $500 student bursary that I had qualified for as part of our purchasing agreement was not applied to our sale. I was very frustrated with my sales rep's laissez-faire attitude towards the mix-up and disappointed that the onus fell completely on us to sort out the paperwork with the SAAQ.

It wasn't as easy I had understood (from both the SAAQ website and advice from Mazda Spinelli) as there is only a 24-hour window once a car is registred to correct mistakes. Instead, my Eye Candy had to donate half the car to me. Now, please don't think this is a generous gift from my boyfriend because like I wrote, I'm already paying for half of the vehicle.

It took a pile of paperwork, the issuance of new licence plates, and $86 to make the transcation. There is also the chance that Revenue Canada or Quebec will audit us, but our attendant said this would be unlikely since we both reside at the same address and have financing paperwork with Mazda Spinelli prove we were correcting an error on the registration. 

Once we had our new registration, we went over to Mazda Spinelli to pay an impromptu visit to our sales rep Jeremiah. I'm pleased to report that  he immediately processed all the paperwork needed for my $500 bursary and issued a cheque to cover the $86 transcation fee. In the end, we lost our personal time sorting out the administrative mess, but at least we were not out of pocket for the error. Besides, the Lachine SAAQ is a beautiful destination spot. 


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Case closed.

It's time to do my victory dance as my speeding ticket has been dropped! I arrived home this afternoon to find another letter from the court houses of Deux-Montagnes. I expected it to be a confirmation for my a new date in court (to read about my initial snail mail ordeal, click here), and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately notice that a date was missing from the letter.

It was also the ideal opportunity for me to practice my French as I had to re-read it several times aloud to my Eye Candy to finally understand that my particular court case had not made the prosecutor decide to retire, but rather to withdraw the charges (who knew retraite had so many meanings).

The letter doesn't state why the charges are dropped, but it is likely that the prosecutor reviewed my file and also realized that the police officer had not actually recorded the speed at which I was driving and the speed in which I was supposed to be driving. It is also highly likely that he stumbled upon this blog and realized that I was planning on leveraging 18 years of Law & Order viewing as my defence strategy and wasn't prepared to handle the wrath of me pretending to be Jack McCoy.

Cue the Law & Order theme song for my
victory dance please. Source

Regardless of what cost-benefit-time analysis the prosecutor did, I am relieved. I no longer have to handle the stress of an impending court date, do not have to take time off work to appear in court, my budget will not be hit with a $110 - $210 fine, and all my driving merit points are in tact.

I'd like to be able to offer tips & tricks on how to fight speeding tickets, but I think that my case came down to a police officer who made an administrative mistake and perhaps a prosecutor who took pity on me since I was  pulled over while turning into a funeral home. That being said, if you have a speeding ticket that is legitimate, I don't recommend pushing paper simply in the hopes that your charge will eventually be dropped. The loss/pile-up of snail mail during the Canada Post strike made me realize how quickly a speeding ticket can become serious and costly. From the initial $110 charge, to $165 for failing to pay within 30 days, to $210 for failing to show up in court, and finally, to the loss of your driving licence if a fine is not completely paid within 30 days of a second written warning.

If you do plan to fight your ticket, my advice is to make photo copies of all the documentation for your own records and a copy to send in with your response. Your letter should clearly and concisely state why you are disputing the charge and attach your proof. It is also a good idea to call the courthouse or prosecutor's office and request them to send over your  complete file in case the police officer recorded other information that is not on your ticket. If you don't receive a response within 14 days from sending your letter, you should also follow-up directly on the telephone to find out your case's status in order to avoid late charges. 

All that being said, my best advice is avoid the speeding all together and always be extra alert for school zones. I've also realized that when I'm on route to something as emotionally draining as a funeral home, I won't be in the driver's seat.


Monday, August 8, 2011

ING has extended their $100 bonus

Good news! I realize that when I wrote last month about my decision to switch my CIBC chequing account (which charged me $13 for the pleasure of using their services) to an ING Thrive chequing account (which gave me $100 to thank me for being their customer), I didn't leave you much time to make the switch as well. 

Fortunately, ING has extended their promotion so if you open an ING Thrive account and have your payroll automatically deposited into it by August 31st, you'll receive $100 bonus. The best part is that there are no monthly fees, free first batch of 50 cheques, free ATM access, and several other wonderful benefits explained in full here. To set up my account, to add my payees and to send in the paperwork to my HR department, it took less than 20 minutes. In the words of Gwen Stefani, what are you waiting for?

I must ask, what are you waiting for? photo source
I have been a fan of ING's savings accounts for years (mostly because I can nickname the account anything I want) and I am now pleased to be doing my daily banking with them. Using their handy ABM locator (available online or on your iPhone as an Ap), I have found 2 machines within a 2 minute walk to work and 1 behind my condo building. So the inability to access your cash quickly is no longer an excuse not to bank with ING. 

The only hiccup that I have found so far is in regards to e-mail money transfers. I did receive one recently from a friend who banks with the Bank of Montreal and when I accepted the e-mail link, I could only deposit the money into a CIBC, RBC, TD Bank, PC Financial, or BMO account. I phoned into ING to explain this dilemma and they took my call within 35 seconds. The rep explained that at a head office level, ING is working to be added onto this network list, but for now, the big banks are purposely excluding them. She said that their service and products are so good that the other banks are going out of their way to make the lives of ING clients difficult whenever they can. I found her explanation to be amusing, although not that helpful. My Eye Candy has not made the switch to ING as he has several automatic payees each month from his account that makes the $100 bonus not worth the aggravation so I simply deposited my friend's e-mail money transfer into his CIBC account and he wrote me a cheque. This is the only setback that I have experienced so far using ING chequing and in the grand scheme of things, it is not a big deal.

While you're at the ING site setting up your chequing account, why not start a savings account too? And if you're related to me, I suggest you call the account Cuba! or Havana Nights and start contributing $25 weekly to begin saving for our family fun vacation next April. The best is yet to come as if you use my Orange Key number 31643528S1 and deposit $100, ING will give you $25 and me $25. We will both $25 closer to the sand, sea, and sunshine.

No riddle me this, when was the last time someone gave you free money? 


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My first eBay purchase

I have made my first ever eBay purchase!

Over the last several weeks I've become distraught at the amount of crystals that my 3G iPhone case is losing. Because seriously, a fuschia hot pink bedazzled iPhone case is only tacky if it's bling is missing. I've had it for over year, but I was still reluctant to go back to the boutique where I made my first purchase as it would be $40 hit to this week's Fun Money.

Fortunately, my favourite friend was visiting over the weekend and she introduced me to the wonders of eBay. With her help too, I found the perfect replacement case. Not only is it pink and bedazzled, but it's zebra print. My new case is bling and zazzy rolled all into one!

I could have waited 2 hours to win the bid at $0.25 USD for my new iPhone case, but I opted to buy it immediately as the excitement took hold of me. For $1.00 cost and $7.50 shipping fee (all paid on VISA via PayPal), my new case will arrive in a couple of days. The best part is that my ideal purchase for less than 25% the price of retail. Where has eBay been all my life?

Out with the old...

And in the with new!