Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Recipe: Coconut Chickpea Curry

I often have a hard time finding vegetarian recipes that I like, but this one is fantastic. It was given to me by a coworker who says he throws it together on busy nights and heats it up by the fire when he goes camping. I've found that one batch makes 4-6 servings, depending on the meal, and it freezes beautifully. The ingredients are inexpensive, and the recipe is quite forgiving when it comes to amounts. Tweak it to your own idea of perfection.

Some notes on ingredients

Coconut milk is known for its high fat content, but lighter varieties are available, and the rest of this meal has so much to offer. Tomatoes, for example, are known for retaining their nutritional value throughout the canning process, and actually contain higher amounts of lycopene, a cancer-busting antioxidant, when cooked than when raw. Legumes and rice compliment each other, creating a whole protein that means you won't leave the table feeling hungry. And garlic, one of my favourite flavours, is not only good for your heart and blood, but it also rids your intestines of foreign bacteria and parasites. All in all, this recipe gives great value for your money.

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 tbsp curry paste (or curry powder to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp each ground cardamom, cumin, coriander
  • 1 can chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1 can tomatoes, diced or whole
  • 1 can coconut milk
  1. Sauté onion until translucent, 5 or 6 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, curry paste and spices, and cook for another 2 minutes.
  2. Add chickpeas and tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes or until slightly thickened, breaking up whole tomatoes with the back of your spoon.
  3. Stir in can of coconut milk.
  4. Serve over rice, and pair with a dark green vegetable (steamed broccoli or sautéed spinach are favourites of mine).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Hard Pull

I am excited to learn that there are two types of credit checks that can be done on an individual's credit report: The hard pull and the soft. In a fantastic post at My Money Blog, Jonathan writes:
Money geek slang, who knew? A credit check, also known as credit pull or credit inquiry, is (logically) when a third party wants to examine at your credit history.

The key here, as explained in the article, linked from The Simple Dollar is that a hard pull, often used when opening a new credit card account, sows up as a temporary -5 point demerit in the Byzantine occult world or FICO scores. A soft pull results in no demerit nor is it visible by others.

I remember I got a cryptic electronic call from a company with no phone number and a threat to pay them $50 via a cheque in the mail. No explanation was given why. I Googled the company name (a local company) and called their local line asking to be called back. I received no response except identical and daily automated calls. I reported the event to the local police thinking it was telephone fraud. As a result I found out they were a credit collections firm looking to get a $50 parking ticket paid.

I paid the city directly for the forgotten ticket but later found a ~5 hard pull on my record from them. I have a feeling it was out of spite. My lesson? Pay your parking tickets. Theirs? If they learn it, tell the creditor who you are and why you want $50. Also, leave your phone number.

I wish there was a way to give their record a demerit.

Recipe: Awesome fruit crisp (blackberry, strawberry apple & pear)

Fresh, inexpensive berries are one of the joys of summer. Last grocery shop, I saw blackberries on sale and I just couldn't resist ... unfortunately, when I got them home and tasted them, they were sour. I was very disappointed. They were too sour to eat, but I didn't want to waste them. I toyed with the idea of making a blackberry vinaigrette for a salad, but after seeing that the strawberries we had were going soft, I decided to instead make a fruit crisp. I didn't have enough of any one fruit to do it, so I resolved to use up the sour blackberries, soft strawberries, a couple of apples and a tin of pears that had been sitting too long in the cupboard.

It is amazingly good. Oh my, I love it so much. Crisps are one of my favourite desserts, but the flavours of the mixed fruits are even better than my beloved apple-only crisps.

Anyway, here's the recipe, typed between mouthfuls of crunchy, fruity goodness:


  • 2 peeled, sliced apples
  • 1 can pears (sliced)
  • 1 cup blackberries (sliced in half)
  • 1 cup (or so) sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (or other nuts)
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Dash of powdered ginger
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Layer fruit in greased baking dish, apples & pears on the bottom and berries on top. Sprinkle with sugar and 2 tbsp flour
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine dry ingredients of topping. Add melted butter and stir until crumbly. Spoon the topping over the fruit in the baking dish
  4. Bake 30-40 minutes

Monday, May 14, 2007

Requiem for a Blog

Where do the old websites go to die? I was asked to delete a work-related technical / product information blog today. It was a nice site with a lot of information and resources. I built it over the last few years but now it is gone. The site had 2000 visits a month in a niche market of a niche market. It was free but it sold product and saved me hours each month in technical sercvice duties. Oh well.

'Cute' veggies cost more, waste less

Since our Miniature Schnauzer Wagner was a puppy, we have fed him baby carrots as treats instead of processed meat-flavoured snacks so we don't have to worry about accidentally fattening him up (the idea is from a dog-training book). Wagner loves his baby carrots (as well as snap peas, apples and pears), and since we also take baby carrots in our work lunches and eat them for snacks, it simplifies our shopping.

Since baby carrots are such a staple in our house, I was very interested to see Wisebread.com's recent post about the origins of the treat:

For those of you who don't know, baby carrots aren't really baby carrots. I was surprised at how many people didn't know that when the topic came up at work the other day. I suppose it's an easy mistake to make - baby carrots are small, they're sweet, and... well, they're small. And they're called BABY. Isn't that enough?

Baby carrots are not young carrots, but rather small pieces of carrots that are chopped and whittled down to look like small carrots. They are peeled, and washed, and insanely convenient. USA Today featured an article a couple of years ago about the origin of the baby carrot, and I have to say, I'm impressed.

The story of the baby carrot is an interesting study in contrasts. The baby carrot is the brain child of Mike Yurosek, a Californian farmer who was weary of throwing away tons of carrots every year because they wouldn't sell. Anyone who has ever grown carrots in their garden knows that carrots don't always grow in perfect shapes. Some are bumpy and lumpy and ugly, and even if they taste wonderful, they won't sell in a supermarket if they don't fit that ideal carrot shape.


In 1986, Yurosek came up with the idea of taking the ugly carrots and cutting them into small pieces of more or less uniform appearance.

First he had to cut the culls into something small enough to make use of their straight parts. "The first batch we did, we did in a potato peeler and cut them by hand," Yurosek says. Then he found a frozen-food company that was going out of business and bought an industrial green-bean cutter, which just happened to cut things into 2-inch pieces. Thus was born the standard size for a baby carrot.

Next, Yurosek sent one of his workers to a packing plant and loaded the cut-up carrots into an industrial potato peeler to take off the peel and smooth down the edges. What he ended up with was a little rough but still recognizable as the baby carrot of today.

What is interesting is that the rejected knobbly carrots, once peeled, whittled down to uniform chunks and dressed up as 'baby' carrots then sell for much more than the homely full-sized carrots at the grocery store. What begins as a frugal idea by the farmer turns into a money-waster for frugal consumers. Baby carrots do save prep time, but if you're committed to frugal shopping, it does make much more sense to buy a big bag of regular carrots and peel & chop them yourself.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Making sense of RESPs

While I'm waiting for my baby son to make his appearance (overdue by a day now ... tsk tsk ... naughty baby), I'm spending my time baking, cleaning, reading, napping and planning for our family's financial future. I'm too huge to move around much, and I figure it'll be months before I'll be well-rested enough to think clearly about these things, so I'm trying to make my plans before the new baby-craziness sets in.

Anyway, among the financial issues on my mind is baby's college fund. Will and I would like our baby to avoid starting his working life with a pile of student loan debt, so we plan to set up an RESP (Registered Educational Savings Plan) pretty much as soon as the baby's born to take advantage of the government's 20% matching plan (up to $400 each year) and the fact that the RESP is sheltered from capital gains tax until the money is withdrawn. The idea is that when your kid withdraws the money for school, his income will be so low that he'll avoid paying some or all of the withdrawal tax.

RESPs are a bit tricky though, with all the rules. This is where the PFosphere steps in and clarifies things for those of us who are wrestling with complicated explanations on the government's and banks' websites.

Frugal Canadian has a great summary of the advantages and disadvantages of RESPs, and some info on what happens when you cash out:
  • Income generated on your contributions are tax deferred. This means, you do not pay tax on the income that's earned from the contributions while the funds are in the plan(up to 20+ years of untaxed growth)
  • Up to $7,200 of free money --The Feds give a 20% Canada Education Savings Grant matched up to $400/year. Additional incentives available for low income families and the Province of Alberta.
  • Payments of accumulated income are usually made to the child when they have little to no income(since they are a student) and therefore minimal taxes are due.
  • Contributions to an RESP do not result in a tax deduction on the contributors return. This is a common misconception and is NOT the case.
  • Contribution limit is $4000/year for the beneficiary(aka. the child) to a maximum of $42,000 lifetime. This means that if you have grandparents that want to contribute you as a parent, have to share the $4000 each year. Overcontributions are penalized.
Vancouver Dad has done some of the calculations on how to maximize your RESP:
    1. Contribute the maximum $42,000 to the RESP
    2. Receive the maximum $7,200 in CESGs (Ed. note: Canada Educational Savings Grant - the 20% match I mentioned earlier)
    3. Get the money into the RESP as quickly as possible to maximize the tax-free growth in the plan

    To accomplish this, do the following: Contribute $4,000 a year for the first three years of the child’s life ($12,000), then contribute $2,000 a year up to an including the year in which the child reaches age 17 ($30,000 more, for a total of $42,000).

    This strategy will both enable you to maximize the contributions to the RESP, and net you the full $7,200 in free CESG money from the government (18 years X $400 = $7,200). It will also get money into the RESP as fast as possible, allowing it the maximum time to grow.

    Now the tough part is that you have to balance your RESP contributions with your own retirement fund, not to mention paying down mortgage and other debts. Depending on your income and spending/savings habits, balancing these needs could be tricky. But the last thing you want is to pour all your savings into your kids' college fund, but then have to rely on them to support both you and their own families if you didn't save enough for your retirement.

    To save $4,000 a year, you'd have to bank $333 per month, which is difficult to do in the first year if you take the full allowable maternity & parental leave. I don't think we'll be able to contribute that much right away, but we will start with what we can afford and increase the amount we're saving when we're both back at work full-time. If we have more kids, I don't know that we'll be able to contribute that much for each of them. In that case, we will probably set our goal to save enough for each child to complete at least the first two years of a university degree or technical program at a community college; if they want to continue with further education, it will be up to them to get scholarships and/or save for the tuition.

    Finally, speaking of RESPs, there's a bit of debate on whether to participate in a savings program like the Canadian Scholarship Trust. Canadian Capitalist recommends against participating in such a program, because there are high fees attached, and if you don't contribute every year you forfeit participation (unless you pay back the 'missed' fees later). Instead, Canadian Capitalist recommends going with something like TD Canada's RESP options, which allow parents to choose mutual funds, index funds or a self-directed investment program. According to CC, TD's eFunds offer some of the lowest fund administration fees in Canada.

    My stepson is already set up with a group savings RESP plan (similar to Canadian Scholarship Trust I think) which we need to reactivate by paying the missed monthly dues. Given the six-year age difference between the kids, we will probably go for separate RESPs for them rather than combining it, as the money must be paid out by the oldest recipient's 21st birthday (baby will be 15 by that point). I'm leaning towards a TD RESP account, probably tied to the Canadian Index or a balanced moderate-risk mutual fund (though this should be converted to a steadier, more boring investment when baby hits his teens in case of a market crash).

    According to Canadian Capitalist, it'll take a few months to get the necessary paperwork (birth certificate & social insurance number) to set up an RESP, so we have a little more time to make a decision.

    A frugal way to bank your baby's cord blood

    If you've read a parenting magazine targeted at expecting moms recently, you've no doubt seen page after page of ads for umbilical cord blood banks touting the benefits of storing your child's cord blood so the stem cells can be harvested later on should your kid develop a scary disease like leukemia or sickle cell disease.

    Cord blood banks freeze blood remaining in the umbilical cord after the birth of a baby. Stem cells in the cord blood are then used for research and treatment of cancer and certain blood diseases. The odds are slim, however, that your child will actually need the banked blood, and the peace of mind you might get from knowing it's available 'just in case' isn't cheap.

    Via Vancouver Dad:
    First of all, the price tag for freezing cord blood is about $1,000 CDN, plus an extra $120 or more per year to keep it frozen in liquid nitrogen. Second, there are very few private cord blood banks in Canada. Third, there’s only a one in 20,000 chance a given child would ever need to use his own cord blood in the future.
    One alternative, which I unfortunately didn't find out about until it was too late in my pregnancy, is to register with Canada's only public cord blood bank. Instead of indulging in an expensive and somewhat selfish storage plan, registering with the public bank allows your baby's cord blood to be available to any Canadian child who needs those stem cells. While the odds are slim your baby will need to use that cord blood, they're pretty good that someone's baby will benefit from you taking a minute to fill out those forms. Best of all, it's free to participate.

    Despite the potential for disease treatment, cord blood is thrown away after birth unless you arrange to store it well in advance of your baby's birth. If you want to do it, you need to submit the forms by your 34th week of pregnancy. Unfortunately, I didn't learn about the existence of the program until my childbirth class instructor mentioned it, and I was already too far along to participate. I'm going to keep it in mind for any future babies though!

    In my opinion, organ and cord blood donations should be on an opt-out, not an opt-in basis. I think the public good of having more donations available for those who need treatment should outweigh the squeamishness some of us have when thinking about such things. For those who are adamantly opposed to donating their organs or their baby's umbilical cord after birth, it should be no problem to fill out a form saying so.

    Thursday, May 10, 2007

    How can you tell what work you love when you're just starting out?

    There are some really good discussions going on at Get Rich Slowly and The Simple Dollar regarding money, career and meaning.

    Here's the question, as framed by J.D. at Get Rich Slowly:
    What sort of advice would you offer to a young person just entering the work force? What’s the most important thing to look for in a job? Is money the top priority? Job satisfaction? Is it better to be in a job you love that barely pays the rent, or to be making a fortune in a job that sucks your soul out and spits it on the floor? How can you tell what you love when you’re just starting out?
    Many of the commenters at The Simple Dollar advocate taking time off after high school to figure out what you really want to do. While I'm sure that's a great solution for some people, when your problem is overthinking the decision on what to do 'next' because of feeling overwhelmed by choice, putting off taking the plunge won't necessarily help you figure it all out.

    The fact is that there's a lot more variety in the job market than you're aware of at 17, and when your main work experience to date has been baby-sitting, slinging burgers and maybe some volunteer work, you really have no idea if a career that sounds good is actually something you'll love to do.

    As I said in the comment thread on TSD, if I could tell my younger self one thing it would be to be less afraid to act. While the choices you make early in your career do shape what comes later, the path is much more plastic than I had assumed in high school. If you have a calling, great. If you don’t, pick something you like now and get started on that, whether it’s working, volunteering, travel or some combination of things.

    I'm apparently not the only one who felt despair at the number of interests I had to choose from. A TSD reader left a comment on another post here to commiserate.
    I am also that kid who had so many interests that I didn't know which one to follow. (I changed majors twice in college and lived abroad learning another language for a year.) Now I have a BA and don't know what to do for a living. I have such a hard time deciding what to do, simply because I'm afraid of it not being the 'right' choice or that I'll be sacrificing something else to my future detriment. I can't tell you how many hours I've spent pondering the issue. And now, of course, the irony is that I'm treading water and getting nowhere quickly due to this indecision.
    I think that it can be problematic to set yourself up with high expectations that you'll find the 'perfect' career right out of the gate. If you're an adaptable person with varied interests, and your problem is that you can't decide what to do first or which path is best, my advice is to focus on transferable skills rather than trying to force yourself to choose a specialty right away. If you like what you do, you can always change where you do it, and then you'll never be stuck in a job you hate.

    I wouldn't say I've found my calling, but I do enjoy what I do, and I do feel happy and fulfilled in my life. I still hope that one day I will find work that is a calling, but for now I'm content with interesting work that helps me further other goals, teaches me new skills, establishes connections with decent people who I enjoy working with, and has good potential for future growth and new opportunities.

    Wednesday, May 9, 2007

    Recipe: Super Beef, Bean & Veggie Chili

    I make this a little differently each time, just depending on what I have in the fridge and pantry. This is a super easy meal to make, and it freezes well so I usually make a huge pot. I like it over rice, which also helps 'stretch' the meal.

    I dislike kidney beans, so I don't use them. Instead, I choose mixed beans for variety and/or black beans, which I love. I am not concerned with 'authentic' ingredients - this is a quick & dirty healthy fridge-cleaner recipe. Vary the veggies as you like!

    • 1 package of lean ground beef (varies in size, usually a pound or so - whatever is on hand)
    • 1-2 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
    • 3 cloves of diced garlic
    • ~3-4 cups chopped mixed veggies, i.e.: zucchini, mushrooms, cauliflower, carrots - whatever needs to be used up soon. If my cherry tomatoes are starting to get wrinkly, I add them in too.
    • Diced tomatoes - 1 can (796 mL)
    • Crushed tomatoes - 1 can (796 mL)
    • 1 1/2 cups or so of cheap salsa, if available
    • Mixed beans - 1 can, i.e. 'six bean blend' (540 ML)
    • Black beans - 1 can (540 mL)
    • Corn niblets - 1 can (341 mL)
    • Cayenne pepper, chili powder, tex-mex spice and/or black pepper & salt to taste
    1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or stew pot, brown beef over medium-high heat until no longer pink; drain fat (I usually use a metal colander so that I can rinse the cooked beef with a little water, and put the beef aside for step 2. I've also cooked the veggies with the cooked beef in the same pot, and that turned out just fine too.)
    2. Saute onions, fresh veggies and garlic in the same pot as you browned the beef until veggies begin to soften
    3. Add the cooked beef if you set it aside, and all remaining ingredients
    4. Season to taste; simmer about 20 minutes until veggies are soft or cooked to taste. Serve alone or over rice

    Recipe: Date Oatmeal Cake with Mocha Frosting

    One of my 'old reliable' cookbooks is Great Food Fast, published by Dietitians of Canada. It's full of easy, basic recipes that taste great. The book also includes advice on substitutions and, of course, nutrition.

    Here's one of the more decadent recipes. I made this a couple of weeks ago for a dinner party and got rave reviews all around. The mocha frosting is also a very good topper on a basic chocolate cake. I might post my version of the double chocolate mocha cake later.

    Cake ingredients:
    • Rolled oats - 1 cup
    • Boiling water - 1 1/2 cups
    • AP Flour - 1 cup
    • Baking Soda - 1 tsp
    • Salt - 1/4 tsp
    • Margarine - 1/2 cup
    • Brown Sugar - 1 cup
    • Vanilla - 1 tsp
    • Chopped Dates - 1 cup
    • Walnuts - 1/2 cup
    Mocha frosting:
    • Margarine - 2 tbsp
    • Icing Sugar (sifted) - 1 1/4 cups
    • Cocoa Powder - 2 tsp
    • Strong coffee, cooled - 1 tbsp
    • Vanilla - 1 tsp
    1. Preheat the oven to 350F & prepare your baking dish (I like using a bundt pan for the shape, but a 9" square baking pan is what's recommended)
    2. In a small bowl, combine oats and boiling water; let stand until cool (note: this takes a while. You might want to combine the oats and water and brew the coffee, take a break and come back to do the rest to allow time for the liquids to cool)
    3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
    4. In a large bowl, cream together margarine and brown sugar until fluffy. Beat in vanilla, oat mixture and flour mixture. Stir in dates & walnuts.
    5. Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, or until cake tester inserted in middle comes out clean. Set aside to cool.
    6. Prepare the frosting: in a bowl, blend together all frosting ingredients until fluffy. If icing is too thick, add a little more coffee to thin it. If too thin, add icing sugar. Spread icing over cooled cake.

    Recipe: Chocolate Chip Banana Walnut Muffins

    This recipe is a modified version of one that I've loved since I was a kid and my mom first taught me how to make muffins! The core of the technique is from the Magnificent Muffins Cookbook, which offers endless variations on basic muffin recipes. I've tried a bunch of the recipes in the book, but I just keep going back to this one as my favourite.

    Yield: 12 muffins
    Oven temperature: 350F (180C)
    Baking time: 25 minutes for muffins, 50 for loaf

    Dry mixture:
    • AP flour - 1 cup
    • Whole Wheat flour - 1 cup
    • Baking Soda - 1 tsp
    • Salt - 1 tsp
    • Dark Chocolate Chips - 1 cup
    • Walnuts - 1 cup

    Moist mixture:
    • Margarine - 1/4 cup
    • Applesauce - 1/4 cup
    • Sugar - 3/4 cup
    • Eggs - 2 large
    • Vanilla - 1 tsp
    • Mashed ripe or frozen bananas - 3 or 4 bananas (=1 cup)

    1. Preheat oven to 350F and lightly grease pan (I use a little canola oil, spread around with a paper towel)
    2. In a large bowl, mix together the first three dry ingredients
    3. Stir in chocolate chips & walnuts; set dry mix aside
    4. In a medium bowl, cream together butter, applesauce and sugar with an electric mixer
    5. Beat in eggs, one at a time
    6. Add mashed bananas and vanilla to moist mixture
    7. Add moist mix to dry mix all at once; stir until batter is moist but still lumpy
    8. Pour batter into greased loaf pan or 12-cup muffin tin (cups should be 3/4 full)
    9. Bake 25 minutes for muffins, 50 minutes for loaf (or until tester inserted in the middle comes out clean)

    On cooking at home

    When we first started to pay attention to our finances and track our spending, we realized that one of our biggest money sinkholes was simply eating out. We would 'forget' to pack our lunches, so we ate out most days at work. We would also very frequently go out for dinner or order in. Now we eat almost all our meals at home, only occasionally splurging on a night out. While Will has a good grounding in basic cooking techniques and really enjoys experimenting with new recipes, my skills are shakier. I've found a few good things that I can make pretty well, but in the next year I am hoping to expand my recipe repertoire.

    Starting today I'm going to record info on my favourite recipes, reviews of cookbooks and tidbits of technique.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2007

    To stay at home, or to return to work?

    One decision that has been on my mind since I first learned I was pregnant is whether to return to work after my maternity leave, or to stay at home with the kid(s).

    Many of the moms I talk to run the numbers and decide that the costs of working and daycare leave them with so little take-home pay that it's not worth it to return to the workforce. I realized today though that they're probably underestimating the impact on their lifetime earnings of being a stay-at-home mom.

    While it's useful to consider the extra costs of going to work and crunch the numbers to see how much 'extra' money you'll be left with at the end, I think that this method might skew the numbers in favour of staying home in most cases, but it doesn't consider one very important factor: the anticipated increase in earnings that most of us can expect over time if we continue in the workforce.

    It is true that a working parent's take-home pay takes a hit from daycare costs, and that there are many other 'hidden' costs of working such as transportation, eating out more frequently, the need to maintain a professional wardrobe, and so on. But even if those costs eat up a large chunk of your take-home salary today, by choosing not to return to work, parents risk losing out on significant increases in salary over time. Just how much depends on your age and current earning power.

    Take a look at VisualCalculator's Income Growth calculator (you'll need to scroll down and look for it under 'Income & Insurance Suite') to see what I mean.

    Even assuming a yearly salary increase of only 3%, opting out of working for 10 years (say until two kids, three years apart, are both in school) makes a big difference. Depending on your age, type of job and potential for career advancement, the loss could be much heavier.

    For me, just a year of maternity leave drops my estimated annual income at retirement by $6,000 (I'm assuming only a 3% annual increase). Were I to take 10 years off, assuming I was able to re-enter the workforce at the same salary I have today (far from certain), I'd see a drop of over $50,000, and a drop in total income earned of $2.5 million over my working life.

    According to the 'cost of raising kids' calculator, it's only going to cost me about a half million to raise two kids and my stepson to age 18. While clothes, lunches, transportation and daycare do add up over that time frame, I don't think it'll total $2.5 million.

    And, of course, none of this includes annual bonuses, employer benefits, employer matching of retirement savings and company stock purchases, stock options, or, most importantly, future raises. I'm only 25, and I've doubled my earning power in the last three years through switching jobs and lobbying for a raise. While I can't expect that pace to continue, I think there are pretty good odds that I'll be able to boost my annual earnings over the next 40 years by a lot more than 3%. It also doesn't factor in any potential investments/savings allocations that would be put on hold during the time when one parent stays home, or the impact of forgoing extra mortgage payments etc. during those lean years.

    Obviously there's a lot to consider, and the decision shouldn't just be an economic one. But since so many people are using income calculations to justify a choice to stay home, I think it's worth it to consider this angle as well.

    Thanks to J.D. at Get Rich Slowly for pointing to the visual calculator resource page.

    Wednesday, March 28, 2007

    Container gardening: start-up costs

    My recent focus on personal finance has affected more than just the ways I spend money. As I mentioned in my first post, it has also kindled an interest in new hobbies. One of these is container gardening.

    I became interested in starting a garden partly because of the infamous 'nesting' instinct that hits many pregnant women in their third trimesters. Unlike some of the other nesting-related urges I've had (remodeling our kitchen, replacing our old carpets ...) this one is relatively low-cost, yet will hopefully improve our living space. Our balcony is sadly underused - it holds our BBQ and is sometimes used to store junk. Big windows from our dining room and living room look onto the balcony, but the view isn't much. We're street-facing, and although there is some greenery, it's nothing to get excited about. I think it'll be much nicer when we've got our veggies and herbs growing out there, and if we plan it well, I think it'll also be cooler. In the summertime the sun streams in all those windows, and it can get very hot. I hope to position hanging baskets and a trellis for our climbers to partially screen the hottest windows. My tomatoes will love it.

    In keeping with our resolve to track spending, I've made another spreadsheet to track hobby expenses so that we can re-evaluate the costs of our hobbies vs. their benefits. The start-up cost so far for my garden is $35.70:
    • Soil: $11.97
    • Seeds: $18.11
    • Pots: $7.36
    • Other: $2.24
    I have some big pots left over from previous years that I plan to use, but I'll probably need to buy or beg a few more to accommodate all my seeds.

    If there's one area that's easy to get carried away it's seeds. Each packet is usually only a dollar or two (though I discovered after buying the first batch for $1.99 a packet at Superstore that the dollar store sells seeds three for $1), but I splurged on some fancy seeds too - $4.99 for a medley of five types of sweet red peppers and hot peppers all on a pre-spaced seed disc intended to fit a 4" pot. Even though I bought more seeds than I really need, I don't regret it - I wanted to experiment with different types of plants so that I can see which kinds I like growing. If my tomatoes don't thrive, well, I'm pretty sure the chives will.

    The seeds we bought are:
    • Peppers (Early California Wonder, Super Chili Hybrid, Jalapeno Jalapa Hybrid, Red Bell and Mini Bell)
    • Tomatoes (Tiny Tim)
    • Lettuce (Cos/Romaine)
    • Peas (Sugar Snap)
    • Beans (Tendergreen)
    • Onions (Yellow Sweet Spanish)
    • Carrots (Touchon)
    • Squash (Zucchini)
    • Dill
    • Basil (Cinnamon)
    • Chives
    I long to plant Cape Gooseberries, but I haven't seen them for sale in stores, and I'm not quite ready to order more seeds online! I'm tempted to get some strawberries too, but I think I'll hold off until I get the rest of these in their pots. So far my seedlings are growing strong and hearty. The lettuce was the quickest to sprout. I've been told that I didn't really need to start it inside, but oh well - this whole thing's a learning experience!

    It only took a few days in my gro-dome before the lettuce sprouts started to push through the soil. The chives and basil were next, though they didn't grow quite as enthusiastically as the lettuce. The sturdy zucchini started more slowly, but is now taller than my fiesty lettuce, with great thick leaves and hearty stems. The tomatoes were the slowest to sprout, but are now the same height as the basil. The leaves are a little broader, though, and the stems are slightly thicker.

    When I first started this project, I began with a Google search. In case others are looking for useful advice for container gardening newbies, here are some of the sources I used:
    The next step will be to transplant my little seedlings into full-sized pots. I don't really know much about that stage of things, so I'll have to do some Googling first. It's warm enough in Vancouver for all but the tomatoes, I think, and definitely a good temperature for lettuce and zucchini, as they both like it cool.

    I've gotten some advice on companion planting via Google, so I have made a list of which plants to plant together based on that:
    • Chives and/or basil with tomatoes
    • Dill with lettuce
    • Peppers go with any of: onions, basil, tomatoes, carrots
    • Keep onions away from peas, but they can be potted with tomatoes, dill , carrots or lettuce
    • Peas go with beans
    I remember reading something about 'hardening off' plants before moving them outside for good, by exposing them to cooler air in small doses. I have also seen special plant food meant to help the transplanting process ... but I don't know if it's really necessary. I also know that I need to 'thin out' my seedlings, but I'm not sure when that should happen or how I do it. Clearly Google will be coming in handy!

    Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    New beginnings

    My husband and I started this year with a resolution to get control of our finances, motivated by the happy news that we are expecting a baby in May. Inspired by personal finance blogs like Get Rich Slowly and The Simple Dollar, we made up our minds to track all our expenses starting January 1, with the goal of finally creating a budget we can stick to.

    Surprisingly, we actually kept our resolution. We've been religiously tracking our spending since the beginning of 2007, and each month we've revised our original Google Spreadsheets template to make it easier to keep our eyes on our money. We focused on gathering data, not on making a budget, but we found that knowing our purchases would be recorded motivated us to begin packing our lunches most days at work, clipping coupons and watching prices at the grocery store, and curbing impulse purchases. We also finally tabulated all our consumer debt (a scary process) and savings (turns out we had more than we realized!), so for the first time ever we have a very clear picture of what we earn, what we spend, what we owe and what we save.

    But even that's not enough.

    Having taken these baby steps towards financial responsibility, we are now branching out into other areas. While I've focused on monitoring our finances, my husband is turning into quite the grocery store guru, tracking prices of our most commonly purchased items (especially meat, coffee and certain fruits), scouring flyers, clipping coupons and shopping at multiple stores to ensure the best deals. We've learned that Superstore, for instance, seems to have the best prices for meat and staples. Their produce, however, is often sub-par. Kin's Farm Market has generally good prices and a great selection of fresh fruits and veggies, but they don't sell much else. Safeway and Save-On Foods seem to be hit-and-miss: we've gotten some very good deals, but you really have to keep a sharp eye out.

    We're buying a lot more groceries now that I'm eating for two, and we're eating dinners at home and brown-bagging our lunches. We probably could cut back on our grocery spending, but we really value good, nutritious food. We've decided it's worth it to spend a little more on luxuries like asparagus, strawberries, salmon and the occasional steak. With such great food available at home, we don't feel deprived for not going out. We used to eat out several times a week, and bought our lunches almost every day.

    From bills to groceries, we move to hobbies and other habits.

    Both obsessive book collectors, we realized we had to purge our library (again) to make room for a crib in the nursery. Whereas in the past we've simply given away discarded books on Freecycle and brought the remainder to thrift stores, this time we're going to try to sell some of them first, to recoup at least some of the cost. Today we sold our first book for $21 on Amazon.ca - far more than we would have gotten at a garage sale and with less effort than eBay (and no listing fee!). We've got something like 60 more listed for sale, and if even a fraction of them sell it'll be worth taking the extra time (and keeping those piles of books in the corner of our condo). I do also plan to try listing some of the books on eBay to compare the experience. Whatever doesn't sell online will go to a used bookstore, and whatever doesn't sell there will be Freecycled or Sally Anned.

    And finally the explanation for the photo that begins this inaugural post: as I look forward to a year at home with my baby, my 'nesting' urge is kicking in. The urge to start new projects, buy new things, and just generally feather our New Westminster nest is amazingly strong. I've been trying to channel those energies into more productive (and frugal) pursuits than shopping: I'm giving container gardening a try.

    It's cheap to begin (about $20 in starting supplies), rewarding and will hopefully provide some of those fresh veggies we just can't live without. I've got several packs of seeds to plant, starting with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, basil and chives, which are all sprouting in my seed-starter box right now. I've also got a pepper medley (sweet and spicy peppers), beans, carrots, onions, peas and dill to plant soon (maybe this weekend, if it looks like the weather will remain warm).

    All in all, it's an interesting experiment. It'll be challenging in the coming months as our income drops due to the maternity leave, but we've made a really good start at reshaping our attitude towards money. We've both been far too laissez-faire about frivolous spending, and unfortunately that's left us with an ugly pile of debts to pay off. Still, by taking a realistic look at our finances, we've developed a plan to repay it, hopefully within five years despite the financial impact of a new baby.

    We've already killed about a third of our debt this year by cutting back on spending and prioritizing debt repayment, while building up our emergency fund and continuing to save for retirement. It's been helpful that we've had some substantial windfalls (bonuses at work, a raise, sold some company shares) but without the internal work to change our attitude towards money, that extra cash would probably have been spent on new computers or a down payment for a new car. There's still a lot to do to fix our finances, but I feel optimistic that we're on track.
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