Tag Archives: budgeting

Common Sense Food-Shopping Adds Up at the Bank

I’m a writer. A broke-ass writer, it’ll probably say on my tombstone. This means I’m cheap at my very core.
For centuries, writers have toiled for the mere sake of writing. Usually, writers earn crap wages, supplement their calling with “jobs,” and that’s the way the cheap-eatin’ cookie crumbles.
Me, I’m okay with that. If I work too much, I may not have the time to write something brilliant (yuk-yuk-chuckle), even if it doesn’t pay, because, without the writing, I don’t maintain my craft, I don’t keep kicking wordy ass, and life gets complicated in a hurry. And, sorry, but those other jobs? Not what I enjoy. Writing, I love.
So, choices get made.
I know, there’s this whole “Buy ethical food! Organic is everything!” kick, but a lot of those folks pushing that lifestyle and those food-buying habits CLEARLY don’t live on MY budget.
And I’m a foodie, so, y’know, fuck ramen.
Sometimes I buy ethically, sometimes I don’t. In my perfect wet-dream reality where I sleep on sheets of gold, with pillows stuffed of angels’ feathers, get cocoa-butter slathered on my ass daily, and all that, I’m buying local, 100% organic small-grower foods.
In this reality, though, my happy place sings when I see a can of Suraj’s chickpeas for sale for 67 cents. Screw your expensive ethics, buddy.
At least I know what my financial reality includes, and when I do shop, I shop where my bucks stretch the furthest.
Today, I made a Twitter comment slagging the local grocery chain “Save On Foods” as being a complete joke, and was surprised how many folk replied. Half agreed, the prices are 10-20% higher than elsewhere, and for no justifiable reason — the generic brand is shit, the other stuff includes your average staples to be found anywhere. Whole Foods is similarly priced, but they have products I feel better about buying when I do know for realz that I’m overspending.
The reality is, I think a lot of people fail to note how much they’re overspending on groceries. When prices have already increased an average of 5% this year, are you sure you’re being thrifty on your food choices?
I save a lot of money just by making my own things, like homemade tzatziki. Doing the math today on the fancy house-made tzatziki sold by Whole Foods versus mine, which is made with real organic Greek yogurt, lemons (not cheap vinegar), and high-quality olive oil, I found mine costs $6.50 for a litre volume of it, versus $6.30 for a QUARTER of that at Whole Foods. And those savings take all of 20 minutes to make happen, and it lasts a month in the fridge.
Hummus, another example. I make my own beans, use more of the boiling liquid/brine for thinning for consistency, no olive oil, etcetera, and I think I make some of the best hummus you’ll ever try, again at about 30% of the purchase price for commercially-made hummus, and it keeps two weeks but can freeze for up to three months. (Meaning I’m saving 70% or more every time.)
Furthermore, when it comes to any kind of beans, and I’m using a lot for soup or something, I hydrate and cook my own — often for 75% or more off what canned beans costs, then I put extra beans in their liquid, in Ziploc bags, and freeze them for up to 3 months — which I then thaw and use as I would from a can.
Some boxed wine can actually be terrific and really saves you money (30% or more) if you’re a 1-2-glasses-a-night person. Then, save yer moolah for a nicer bottle with a splurge item on the weekend.
Whole chickens — even if you buy already-roasted ones at the Supermarket — are a huge budget-saver. While the ready-at-the-market roasted birds are usually 1.2-2 pounds, for $7.99-11.99, I can get a 5-7 pound chicken (Vancouver, visit Poultry Land on Granville Island) for $15 or so, a really good Halal / Kosher bird, and the amount of meat that comes off that is phenomenal. But, face it, that smaller, less-economical chicken can be a lifesaver when you want a healthier meal on a weeknight. Grab some salad fixings, a nice bread, and make it go further.
Whatever’s left of those roasted chickens gets frozen in small packets for salads, sandwiches, tacos, and more. Chicken bones get simmered (frozen until then) for stock, and I can make a good 20 LITRES of stock, which I then cook down to a super-concentrated 1 cup or so and freeze for a LONG time. I mix a tablespoon of “stock” with a cup of water, and then I have stock for all manner of uses — instead of paying $4 for a LITRE of the supposedly-fancy stock I think is real boring. That’s about $80 worth of “fancy” stock, plus all the chicken that can go in salads and other meals, for a total of $15 an an afternoon of work (which is really only an hour or so of labour, just a lot of waiting for shit to simmer — watch movies!).
Now and then I plan burrito factories. When you get wraps on sale, buy them, freeze them, and get ready to make wraps and burritos. You can do classic chicken-and-bean, Indian chicken curry, whatever, but I generally find I can use good food, control the calorie & nutrition count, and provide myself with up to 20 freezable lunches for under $2 each. Just make sure it’s drier stuff you’re putting in there — nothing soupy or it’ll be a mess later.
Let’s face it, the cost of living is skyrocketing. Somewhere between making ethical food choices and fiscal ones lies the perfect medium.
I buy nice local produce when I can, I save in other areas, and make compromises or plan ahead to get savings. An example of planning ahead is, by knowing a great quality produce shop I love has “customer” day on Wednesdays, I shop there and save 10% on everything… mostly quality local stuff, and that’s where I get my organic eggs, rice, and other things that never go on sale otherwise. But, THERE, I know my coconut milk costs 20% more there than another store’s prices, so even saving 10% means I’m throwing out money, when it comes to buying the coconut milk.
So, be intelligent. Buy what’s cheaper there. Buy the other stuff elsewhere. Yeah, it’s work, but it’s YOUR money and YOU had to work for it, so why not SAVE it with a little work now too?
It’s really about realizing how many products you buy on any given shopping trip and how much each little item can blow your budget. Add the difference up. Just today, one pack of pita bread was 25% more across the street. I saved $1 on that one item. Imagine how much that adds up in a single month, a single year. I live in an exorbitant city on an underwhelming income, it adds up a LOT.
Know how the saying “getting nickel-and-dimed” means a person’s pissed off at getting price-gouged? Well, we nickel-and-dime ourselves daily. Think more about everything you spend, and who sells X item for less, make some effort, and you might see a huge difference in your bank account. God knows I have.

The UnSpending Christmas = More Fun, Less Worry

Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!
I giggled to death when a friend on Twitter, a member of Vancouver’s crazy Vespa club (“The Worst Scooter Club Ever”) and an awesome artist, Mark Pilon, decided to bring my Christmas tree to life.
I give you the Killer Christmas Tree — we’re currently securing film rights. Think death and jingling bells.
Obviously my place is decorated for the holidays. I’m getting into Christmas-cheer mode. I’ve even come to terms with the fact that, as much as I love the people in my life, no one’s getting “real” gifts. I’m making a lot of candy so as to spread the cheer this year, but that’s about it.
Fiscal realities, baby. Ho-ho-fuckin’-ho.
It’s tough to come to that place of accepting that your finances just don’t allow for the “traditional” Christmas, but it’s a damned good thing to accept, given the economy. I refuse to spend the next four months living with fear and regret for seasonal over-spending.
The best gift I can get this year? Knowing my utilities are finally paid off. It’s been that kind of autumn, and I know I’m not alone.
And, hey, I can do that, finally. It’s great!
What does it leave me for the holidays? Well, I can buy some wine, entertain a few people I care about, have coffee with some other friends, and that’ll be all it wrote.
Once upon a time, though, that was the point of Christmas.
It was about making paper-chains to decorate trees, and popcorn strings, doing snow angels, hoping Santa brought some $50 gift you’d been dying for, playing charades, drinking punch, and throwing snowballs. That was Christmas.
Then Hallmark and Best Buy and Sears and Apple and everyone else said, “Hey, here’s a great merchandising opportunity!” and we’ve been proper fucked since.
People used to be happier with less.
Now we have moreMOREmore and we’re more unhappy than ever. Cue the Prozac and Ambien and Halcyon and Lithium, eh? The medicated gift that keeps giving?
We spend, spend, spend under the delusions that the latest version of X-gadget is exactly what’s been missing in our lives. A purchase, then a week goes by, and, nope, that didn’t Spackle the little hole in our hearts either. Whatcha got for me NOW, Apple?
Commercialism isn’t the answer, and I think we’re finally figuring that out, thanks to economies around the world continuing to collapse like shaky houses of cards, but the problem is, we don’t have a fucking clue what the question is anymore.
Where’s happiness? What’s tradition? Where are we going, and why have we been trying to leave this Place anyhow? Why’d we ever start believing joy was found in a box on a shelf in a big store?
Christmas should be about finding that child inside of yourself, really meaning it when you tell people at cocktail parties that it’s nice to see them. It’s about walking down streets and smiling at decorations, admiring the shimmering lights dangling from trees at night, or stuffing a few extra boxes into a Food Bank hamper.
It’s about wishing for peace and love in the world, bundling up against the elements, singing stupid songs, loving a hot beverage, board games, and slowing down long enough to enjoy those slippers you’ve recently invested in.
I’m really looking forward to dropping by a party with hundreds of people tonight, just because I’m hoping I see a lot of folks I’d love to wish well before the year draws a close.
It’s been a long time since I cared about seeing people, especially in large groups, or wishing them well, or congregating with mass numbers of any kind, but tonight I’d like to do just that. There are a lot of reasons I care this year, but most of them aren’t really for public consumption.
The main shareable reason I care about seeing people is that I know I can’t afford to spend my way to a “happy” Christmas. I can bask in the seasonal glow, though. I can just be there, participate, and be welcomed. That’s seasonal enough for me.
And this year, I think that’s exactly the kind of Christmas I want.
Somewhere along the way, industry, media, and commercial interests have stolen Christmas. They hijacked it and turned it into something that filled their tills and propped up their bottom line, and we lost the soul of the holidays.
The recession, this endless economy, it’s a gift, in a way — it’s our opportunity to say Christmas Is Not For You, Christmas is For Us. It’s for our tradition. It’s for remembering a way of life and a time of easy fun. It’s about movies like A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. It’s about Bing Crosby and ho-ho-ho. It’s for candy and mulled cider and giggling children. It’s for snowflakes and cookies and slippers and blankets.
And it’s not too late. With social media, we have more communication between us than ever before, and we can declare new priorities, focus on the right things, and take back traditions and our quieter times.
If, that is, you’ve reached the same not-gonna-take-this-anymore threshold as I have.
Me and The Killer Christmas Tree, we’re bringin’ Christmas back.
Next: Sunday might be time to make popcorn strings. It’s…. been a while, and the tree does look a little nekkid. Maybe that’s why he’s so angry-looking… shrinkage. Poor balls.

A Sly Smile Kinda Morning

The sky is an iridescent grey, at once inspiring and eerie.
My day is stretched before me with a loose idea of all the things I have to do, mostly of the meetings-and-appointments sort. A murky mess sits at the bottom of a mug I wish was filled with fresh black coffee. I just shrug at its emptiness and type on.
Inside, calmness has settled in. A calmness I probably haven’t felt in a number of years.
It began yesterday morning with a kind of prescient feeling about how much I could or would get done during the day. I blew that out of the water and settled my to-do list with great authority, meeting and beating all aspirations for the day.
At the end, I decided I’d finally take a look at my finances. For the first month of my unemployment I’ve applied the Ostirich Approach to my situation — only after I’d taken a hard look at the bottom line of what I would need to live on each month, and had the vague notion I might be okay until June. Then, I buried my head, spent as little as possible, and just did my shit, with the assumption that Spending Almost Nothing was all I needed to do.
Much of what I did spend was covered by “found” money — gifts from a couple kind people. (You fucking rock.)
I knew when the month started it would be tight and was 95% sure I would either be deferring my loan payment or telling my landlord I needed an extra week to pay the rent. I mean, the reality is, the first month of unemployment is ALWAYS the hardest.
I was in the situation of having had a bad-spending winter, followed by the Olympics crushing my savings, and had NO idea that a complete lay-off loomed. I thought I’d lose a day of work a week — I was praying for it — as we’d applied for the Workshare program (spreading a lay-off throughout the company, with the government paying 55% of the one day a week each employee gives up).
I never thought I’d be laid off entirely this year. And after a year spent rehabbing a back injury and two years of having to replace entire wardrobes with every season due to weight-loss, and that I’ve been making lower-middle-class income in one of the world’s most expensive cities… well, yeah, no savings either.
But I managed to get enough ducks in a row as soon as the “OMG, lay-offs might be coming” fear that hit around March 24th, before finding out on the 25th that I would be entirely laid off, likely the next day, that I sort of had a fighting chance.
I was also insistent with my employer that the additional 3 days of work at the end of March would make the difference between me surviving until June at least.
And it did.
I finally scrounged up everything I had last night — not including a little emergency money I’ve set aside or what’s on my Visa — and know I can pay rent AND groceries until the middle of the month, without even receiving my government employment insurance benefit. AND I keep what little safety net I have intact.
That changes everything.
I feel like it’s the stamp of approval. “Go forth, Steff,” it says. “All will be well.”
I know, I’m supposed to be all embarrassed that my money’s this tight.
I’m supposed to be ashamed.
Wealth is a sign of success and position and talent and brains, isn’t it?
Fuck you.
Fuck ANYONE who thinks I need to be ashamed that things have been so close.
I’ve NEVER been irresponsible with money. All I’ve been guilty of is being average with money. At my income, spending an additional 10% every month cripples you in a hurry.
I am NOT my adversity. FUCK that.
Try losing 70 pounds and having to buy new wardrobes every three months, or getting so severely injured you spend a month laying on a floor and for months have to take cabs and pay 20% more in groceries  just for the convenience, because you’re in too much pain to bus from a further, cheaper store.
That I’m even paying rent tomorrow without any interceding forces makes me more proud than you’ll ever fucking know.
Fuck anyone who thinks money and whether someone gets through a jam financially is a reflection at all of that person’s intelligence, ability, talent, or resilience. Money is as much about luck and selective adversity as it is savings abilities.
Some people just have more things to overcome. In my life, money was always the villain. That line between getting by and barely surviving is thinner than most people might realize.
For once, money doesn’t feel like my villain anymore.
I’ve got rent, baby. And food. And I’m gonna buy me some wine and a steak tonight to celebrate.
[shaking head]
Yeah. I don’t know… I feel like I have to say more:
So many of you need to feel what kissing poverty is like. You need to feel how much it hurts inside when you’re terrified about paying the rent or you’re sure you’ve got to resort to drastic measures to get by. You need to know what it’s like to think hope is too expensive a luxury for your position. You need to imagine what that fear’s like when it’s not just you it affects.
You need to know how hard it is when money’s not within your grasp. Everyone needs to feel that.
I hope I never feel it again. And I hope I always remember that pain. I hope I always have the empathy I wish more people had shown me earlier — but so many are showing me, even showering me with, now.
Today is a day of gratitude, goodness, and calm. For me, at least. You? You can choose that, too.
Take a minute to think about what you really have, and pray you never come close to losing it.
Some fears aren’t fit for anyone. But gratitude is one-size-fits-all.
Beyond the talk of money? My future’s looking great. What a ride this summer will be. Stay tuned.
PS: Methinks unemployment might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to me. Wait’ll you get a load of me, baby.

Every Day I Think About Money

I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately, for obvious reasons. My theme song is the Stereophonics’ live track, “Every Day I Think About Money.” A couple days back I was elated when I was able to pay for 95% of my groceries with the coin I extracted from my piggy bank. (And, yes, it really is a piggy bank. It’s an upscale pottery pig, a high-falutin’ pig, but it’s a clay porker-broker indeed.)
These days, any self-worth I have comes from me. I can’t pad things with purchases. I can’t buy a little somethin’ somethin’ to make myself feel better. Others keep trying to spend money on me, and every time they do, a little more of my pride whittles away, despite the fact that I know they’re just trying to enjoy some time with me and see me satisfied. And, yes, as Marcellus Wallace would say, that’s pride fuckin’ wit’ me.
I’ve always been a proud person. I learned it from my mother. She was broke in the three years before her death, and we didn’t have a lot of money in my teens, either, but through it all, my mother never looked destitute, and she sure as shit never acted it. I try to live up to that. Sure, I falter at times, but such is life.
It’s easy, though, when you have money to spend yourself to a supposedly better state of mind. It’s easier still to try and spend your way out of guilt towards a loved one when you’re not being the lover/parent/spouse/friend you think you ought to be. I think we’ve all done this in the past. It’s too easy to not have done it.
We like to confuse the issue and pretend it’s generosity we’re providing, but it’s really not that. It’s absolution.
Back in the day, the Catholic Church filled its coffers by selling salvation. For a lofty price, you could contact a bishop and acquire yourself a church-sanctioned piece of salvation; as if giving God money could cause him to avert his judgmental gaze from you.
Nothing’s changed. We’re still the same. We “give at the office” so we can justify all our transgressions elsewhere. We buy our lovers gifts because we don’t have the time or energy to be with them, or worse, because we’ve lied to them or betrayed them. Well, it ain’t workin’. It’s the financial equivalent of trying to pull off a Band-aid slowly. What the fuck you thinkin’, Willis?
Money may make the world go round, but it also keeps the shrinks at bay long enough to delude ourselves that things aren’t really what we know they are.
The good thing about being broke like this is that I’m forced to go inside myself more and see what it is I value about me, to try and remember the simple things in life that bring me pleasure. Lying on a sofa on a dark, warm summer night with some music playing and just the streetlight slipping in through cracks in the curtains. Finding a nice bunch of economical ingredients and creating something new and wonderful in the kitchen while still making budget. Taking the long ride home on the scooter while dangling my sandal-clad feet off the side to get a breeze through the toes. Singing to myself and switching up familiar melodies with new phrasing and note combinations. Reading a good book in the bath.
And few of those cost any money, and whatever does cost money is something I’d be spending anyhow, so I just spend it wiser, is all.
I’ve been trying to avoid going into stores for the past few months, because this money-being-tight thing isn’t a recent development — it’s just more intense now than it’s ever been. But stores are made to make us want all the things we don’t have. That’s their nature. What’s worse is there’s a science behind marketing that most people are ignorant of.
Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at how it’s laid out. The meats on one side, the veggies on the other, and to get to either, you must pass all the processed and packaged shit that comes with higher markups. The lighting’s dimmer over the processed aisles, too, by some 30%, so you have to focus more to see what you’re looking for, and in so doing, you’re more likely to purchase something you don’t need. The brightest lighting, though, is over the checkout counters so you’re hyper alert and pay the right money, plus you move and act quicker so they save time on every transaction.
I’m on hyper-vigilant stand-by mode every time I enter stores these days. I’m conscious of my knowledge of marketing and subliminal sales tricks so I can try with all my heart to not spend a dime more than necessary. And I’m also conscious in reminding myself that it’s how I live my life, not what I fill it with, that brings me joy. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I’d love to get new headphones. My toaster oven has a Mensa-issued turn-on switch that requires a secret handshake and multiple acts of finagling just to get the fucker to toast. I’ve lost so much weight that all my clothes hang on me, and my pride’s taking a hit (fuck you, Marcellus; it is what it is).
But in the recent months I’ve acquired something money could never bring me before: Resourcefulness. Self-knowledge. Strength of self. A kind of inner peace I didn’t know existed.
Yeah, I still hate the 28-year-olds driving cars worth 30 times what my scooter’s worth, but I also know the looks of envy I get from them when I pull up at a stopsign in shorts and a t-shirt on a sweltering day, tapping my feet and singing to myself under my helmet. I glance over and a grin spreads on their faces as they nod, wondering why they’ve bought into the myth of the fancy car and the big monthly payments.
We each find happiness in different ways, but I’ll tell you one thing: It ain’t on your Visa bill, baby, nor is it in the cracks of your couch.