Tuesday, August 21, 2007

66 Goals in 1001 Days - 3 Month Update

Here is an update to my list of goals that I originally posted here. Numbers that are missing are goals that were complete before the last update

1. Read the complete archive of The Simple Dollar Website DONE August 14, 2007

I work in a low/medium volume call centre, so downtime between calls gave a perfect opportunity to go through the archives. As I went, I jotted down articles that I found interesting and would read again at a future date. Some may form the basis for my own posts.

2. Obtain my Bachelor of Education Degree

3. Sort through my comic books and see which ones can get the boot Started June 17, 2007

Currently I have 8 short boxes and 2 long boxes of single comics. On this date I went through all of them and immediately cut 4 short boxes worth of issues to get rid of.

4. Read the complete works of William Shakespeare

6. Make my own windex

7. Have $18,000 in savings IN PROGRESS

Viewing this goal may be unrealistic with school costs...I will think about it and re-evaluate.

8. Measure my body fat percentage in some scientific fashion

I plan to purchase one of the scales that measures body fat as well as weight after researching whether or not they actually work.

9. Become lighter by on average 0.5 pounds a week

10. Get Married

11. Open an RRSP

Deciding whether to get one now for compound reasons or hold off until I need the tax break and contribute several "back-years" worth all at once. Apparently if I start one now and expect my income to increase significantly in the future (I do), then I will be taxed a higher rate than I was paying when I put it in, negating the benefit. However, this will have to be evaluated against both the growth of the RRSP and inflation.

12. Invest in a mutual fund IN PROGRESS

The first step here is to become educated on the subject and I've chosen The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing and you can read a review here.

13. Buy stock in a single company

14. Liquidate unwatched DVDs IN PROGRESS

This process has been made much easier due to the move to our new apartment in June. A move is a very nice excuse to go through old junk and get rid of it.

15. Purchase a Paderno pot set IN PROGRESS

We had set up a "Big Item Account" in May for this very purpose. Essentially we put $25 per week into the account until we have enough for the set free and clear (ie. no consumer debt). However, some car maintenance and an impromptu trip to Halifax has made it so we can not achieve this until next summer when the next Blowout sale is.

16. Beat Halo 2

17. Beat Jet Set Radio Future

18. Get rid of my old computer

19. Liquidate old books SEE #14

20. Make 5 homemade gifts for people for various events (birthdays, Christmas, etc...) (1/5)

1. Book of Coupons for Mother's Day

21. Go on 10 relaxing drives around the island with Pam (0/10)

22. Get in touch with Jon Ben DONE August 2, 2007

- he was online in MSN and we got caught up. This may or may not have been provoked by my entry into the Facebook world. He also promted me to think about veganism which is a very interesting topic.

23. Walk the equivalent of Summerside to Toronto not including every day walking (104.3/1700 km)

I've decided to include biking in here as well because I enjoy that MUCH more. I purchased an odometer for my bike and it seems to be pretty accurate, so I will be using that to chart my progress. FYI my average bike ride is about 12-15 km.

24. Watch Season 1 of The Shield

25. Read the Complete Cerebus series (4/16 TPBs)

26. Talk to Sam about his history with money

27. Plant and grow my own tomatoes

28. Visit Neil in Halifax DONE August 4, 2007

We went over on a somewhat impromptu trip. My fiance was wrapping up her vacation and we hadn't really done much together as I was working most of it. She mentioned going and we made a weekend of it, visiting Neil on the Saturday and driving around, seeing the sights on Sunday. It was good we got to do this as Neil is heading to Manitoba soon and there may not have been many other opportunities. Plus we did several things that saved us money on the trip which may be the subject of a future post.

29. Vacation in Vancouver

30. Play 5 games of Ultimate Frisbee (0/5)

31. Cook 12 romantic dinners for my fiance and I (0/12)

32. Become an Ebay seller

33. Open an online trader account

34. Get flowers for my fiance "just because" 5 times (2/5)

35. Paint another 2 paintings in the Bob Ross style (0/2)

36. Do 100 push-ups without taking a break (personal best: 21/100)

37. Spend 10 complete days with my fiance (2/10)

38. Help my fiance's parents clean out a room in their house

39. Write an e-mail to the Guardian about why I won't be voting in the upcoming provincial election DONE May 24, 2007

Here is a transcript of the Letter to the Editor that I sent in:

Yesterday I decided that I would spoil my ballot in the upcoming election. Not because I didn’t want to vote for a candidate, but because I found out that district 23 only offered two options. Guess which ones? I was very frustrated that I could not support the Green Party with my vote. I feel that this is the fault of our current electoral system.

But wait, the Green Party could have run a candidate in district 23 so it must be their fault right? To that, one has to remember that the Green Party has somewhat non-traditional views on major topics. Thus I imagine that they have met with much resistance when trying to change the minds of stubborn islanders when finding possible candidates. In fact, I applaud the party for managing to have candidates in 2/3 of the districts.

So why am I so upset? I think that every islander should have the opportunity to choose between each and every party that will have a say in the governing of our province. I realize that Islanders had the opportunity to change the electoral system to mixed-member proportional representation and that it was strongly voted down. From what I can tell (I was in BC at the time), this was from the lack of quality information about what Islanders were actually voting on. A change so drastic should have warranted a media bombardment of information so that Islanders could go to the polls knowing full well that such a system was in the best interest of the Island. But we do not have such a system. We have to work with the district method. I do not particularly care if a Green Party candidate lives in my district, so long as I could help get someone elected from the one party that most reflects my opinions and values.

And that’s what voting should be: an extension of ones own values and goals. Often I’ve heard people say that they would not vote NDP or Green because those parties would not win anyways, so why bother. These people want to be on the “winning team” and fail to realize how valuable their votes actually are.

With that in mind, if you belong to districts 3, 14, 23, 25, or 27, where you will only have the choice between Liberal or PC, really consider whether those parties have platforms that are reflections of your own beliefs. If they are, then by all means mark a neat little “X” on your ballot. But if you find these parties to be lacking in an area that you feel is important, please do not let them steal your vote. That is exactly what they are doing if you do not agree with their politics but vote for them anyways.

40. Offer to babysit 3 times for my friends so they can go out (0/3)

41. Call Mastercard to see if I can get lower or no annual fees without changing cards DONE August 8, 2007 (sort of)

I didn't bother with this and instead told them to downgrade my service to the 1 air mile per $40 option that has no annual fees. I also removed the preferred interest rate option of 12.5% as it cost $25. There is no point when paying off the card each month. Unfortunately this means that I've lost the ability to fly anywhere Westjet flies for 1600 air miles. Since we wouldn't be going on the trip we have in mind for 2 years, that's fine as I can upgrade the card again later, skipping out on 2 years of fees.

42. Write a letter/e-mail to the guardian explaining my thoughts on the Nitrate groundwater issue and why debating about it in the upcoming election instead of just fixing it is stupid DONE May 25, 2007

Here is a transcript of the Letter to the Editor that I sent in:

The Nitrate problem in our province's water supply is nothing new. Not only have we known about the dangers of chemical contamination for years on the island, but this problem extends to anywhere in North America where there is a highly developed agricultural sector.

So why are the Liberals and Conservatives acting like this is a new problem? Why are do these parties insist on studies and committees? Just. Fix. It. You do not even need to come up with a new idea to do so. A simple Google search of "nitrate removal groundwater and side effects" yields a result about a company in the US (Basin Water Inc) that specializes in the removal of water contaminants. Nitrates have been removed from several communities in the states so why can't this ion-exchange system work here? It's relatively cheap, efficient, and low maintenance. I believe that this filtration system would bring down nitrate levels. Coupling this with legislation to curb the addition of new nitrates into our water supply would revert our island back to the pristine condition it was always meant to be. So I have a message to all parties that fail to follow through with concrete solutions: stop trying to re-invent the wheel.

As a bonus, the above letter, slightly edited, appeared in the May 29, 2007 edition of The Guardian.

43. Write an e-mail explaining to Diamond Publishing why Comic Foundry should be included in their catalog

Rendered MOOT because of online community's much faster response which actually convinced Diamond to offer it in the catalog.

44. Plant a tree

45. Attend a farmer's market and if I like what I see 30 more times (2/30) IN PROGRESS

First visit on June 9, 2007. Was not impressed but it was early in the growing season.

I returned several weeks later and it was a much more positive experience. I purchased the best green onions that I have ever had, tomatoes, snow peas, and fresh homemade pasta. I'll definitely be there again.

46. Determine my personal CO2 emissions (estimate)

47. Reduce those emissions by 20%

48. Convince 5 people to switch to PC Financial for their banking (1/5)

1. Matt Angus, a student that works at Resolve

49. Go through unwanted clothing and donate it to the salvation army DONE August 17, 2007

On my birthday, I did a whirlwind clean of the apartment and realized that the box of clothes I had set aside when we first moved in exactly for this purpose, was still, well, set aside and unchanged. Thus I took to box of clothing and donated it to Value Village as the Salvation Army in Charlottetown does not take clothing to my knowledge.

50. Reinforce my computer desk with a 2x4 to get the bow out of it DONE May 22, 2007

I went to my friend Mark's place because I knew he had some wood leftover from when we built a gaming table. He let me have about a 3 foot length and we attached it to the desk and it did the trick. As a bonus we put together a bench and did a rough layout for his basement renovation.

51. Reinforce my makeshift TV stand so it doesn't get a bow in it DONE May 30, 2007

Same as #50: used spare lumber from Mark and attached it with carpenter's glue and screws.

52. Read 52 in one sitting to see if it makes much sense

53. Make 10 jars of homemade pasta sauce and give it as gifts (0/10)

I may modify this and include homemade salsa in the 10 jars.

54. Finish the few pieces of the puzzle for the paper based on my masters project

55. Do 150 sit-ups without taking a break (personal best 20/150)

56. Wash and wax our car 4 times (1/4)

57. Clean and vacuum the car interior 4 times (0/4)

58. Check the car's air filter and replace/clean if needed 4 times (every 6 months) (1/4)

59. Calculate our net worth

60. Attempt to make my own laundry detergent as per the Simple Dollar DONE June 13, 2007

Made 1/4 batch to see how it worked and it was very successful albeit very gross as the detergent is a very slimy goop. I did this twice and realized that it wasn't very time efficient to make 1/4 batches, so I purchased a 10.5 L bucket and made a 3/4 batch which should last a good while.

61. Have the only animal I eat be fish/seafood for 4 consecutive months

62. Have my only beverage as water for 8 consecutive months

63. Try being a vegetarian for 5 consecutive months (no animal flesh - eggs/milk/cheese OK)

64. Organize our filing container IN PROGRESS

65. Pay off completely the debt I expect to incur over the next 2 years from my Bachelor of Education degree

66. Sit down and work the numbers to see if my Mosaik Mastercard is worth paying $100/year for it

This goes hand in hand with #41 except by downgrading the card and not paying this year's fees, it gives me some time to actually do this.

New Goals

67. Help Mark finish his basement

68. Obtain my class 4 license so that when I get a teaching job, I am qualified to drive a bunch of kids on field trips etc...

69. Catalog our possessions for insurance purposes

70. Search for the best rate on tenants insurance and purchase a policy DONE August 14, 2007

I didn't do much research into different companies but rather signed up for tenants insurance with our auto insurance provider. Doing so saw a 3% reduction in our auto insurance costs which means the net monthly cost for the new insurance is about $2.50. Not too shabby.

71. Learn how to swim

Total goals complete (12/71)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Value of Tracking Your Spending

In the past, I mentioned that I am using Microsoft Money to track my spending and finances. Essentially what I do is the following:

1. Visit the PC Financial, Scotiabank, and Mosaik Mastercard websites and login to the online features.

2. In each case there is an option to download transactions to the program of your choice (Quicken, Excel, Microsoft Money, etc...). If you live in the states or have a US bank, you can set it up so that Money automatically downloads your information for you so you don't have to do it manually. I don't like this option because when it comes to finances you should definitely be in control of when information like that is sent over the net.

3. Once you download them, in each of your accounts in Money, the new transactions will be in bold waiting for reconciliation as shown below

The transactions in bold here are transfers to by credit card but any new ones would be similar.

4. At this point you can assign categories to each transaction. For example automobile -> gasoline, entertainment -> comic books, etc... Whatever you spend money on, you can categorize things to no end. This also works for income as well in terms of things like net pay, interest, and monetary gifts.

I perform these steps very diligently, downloading new transactions every week or so. However, I was assigning transactions to categories but not really seeing the big picture. I wasn't thinking about where the money was going other than "ok, $X spent on this, on that, goes in this or that category. I was pondering this when figuring that we should have about $800 per month to "play" with after living expenses were taken care of and we definitely weren't seeing our savings go up by that amount each month. Thus I did some digging.

Money has a nice feature that for different blocks of time you can see your expenses represented in either bar or pie chart format. This is our July 2007 Pie

When I sat down to truly look at where our money was going I was happy to see that approximately $300 was spent either unnecessarily or on one time fees (like electricity hookup). Why was I happy to see that much money basically go down the drain? It meant that things weren't as tight as I previously thought and that we had lots of ways to make improvements. I never would have realized where this money was going if I hadn't kept track of our spending. You should try it and see if you find some surprises on the way (ours was ~$100 on dining out).

As a closing note, after this exercise I am pleased to report that August is shaping up much better.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Reader Comments Inspire Update

Several comments on some of my cost comparison posts have prompted me to look at the issues in a bit more detail. Firstly, that of comparing the cost of driving to work versus taking public transit. The comment that made me re-evaluate things was this, posted by Mark:

"I think you would/should also factor into the interest/extra you might be paying for a lease, and if you own said car you need to factor in a cost associated with yearly maintenance as your asset is depreciating

As well you also should factor in such fees as insurance, license, registration, inspections etc"

Originally, my comparison was the cost of a student bus pass which is $50 to that of the gasoline cost which was $27.24. I ignored maintenance fees and other such concerns as the car wasn't a dedicated commuting vehicle. We use it for shopping and traveling back home etc... However if we make an estimate here that we put 1500 km per month on the car we can work with the percentage of use that is for work related commuting. Traveling to work every day for 20 days eats 240 km so that works out to a nice 16%.

All that remains is to work out the fees. For oil changes we get about 4 per year at $45 each so that's $180. Our insurance at the time of the original post was a ridiculous $168 per month for 12 months gives a total of $2016. I will make a high estimate that counting all extra maintenance, license fees, inspection fees, etc.. to be $600 per year. Add this up and you get $2796 annually or $37.28 per month. We have since re-negotiated the cost of our insurance to around $95 per month so that brings down the annual cost to $1920 or $25.60 per month.

Thus to commute to work every day would have cost $64.55 and now costs $52.84. So that means that right now, in a pure number comparison, it is cheaper to get the student pass at $50 per month using public transit. And if you are not a student then it is still cheaper to drive, though the difference isn't as much. However, the 90 minute commute time is still a big factor to consider when making the decision.

The best way to get to work would actually be to bike. It's a triple threat in the fact it is much cheaper than the above options, good for my body, and good for the environment. Plus it takes less time to get there than the bus!

Drive-in Regular Theater Comparison

There were two comments I'd like to address regarding this post. The first by Daniel:

"You should add "Renting a Movie" to the break down, just to beef things up. I guess it would include buying popcorn from the rental place and drinks too. Then just add the average driving distance, and voila!"

To refresh, the cost of our drive-in experience was $18.89 which included admission, the cost of homemade snacks, and commuting. The regular theater was a total of $43.89 and this included admission, snacks bought at the concession stand, and commuting.

If we were to rent a movie, we would likely get it from Jumbo Video. The price for new releases is $5.99 for one or $15.16 for three. Older movies are $4.07 each or $8.17 for three and you get them for 7 nights. These prices are with tax. If we did get the movie, we would likely not get food at the video store and would make our own goodies at home which would cost $2 (as per previous post). The Jumbo video store is roughly 2 km away so that means 8 km total (4 to get it and another 4 to return it) for a cost of $0.92 in gas.

I called Jumbo to get information on their food items and if we did happen to be silly and get stuff their we would spend $1.74* on popcorn, $3.84 on nachos, $4.07 on salsa, and $4.86 on water making the snack total $14.51.

One should note that there is a significant time factor here as well. To watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on video, we would have to wait several months for it to come out on video as a new release ($5.99) and even longer to get it at the older movie price. Thus by saving money by renting you are sacrificing waiting time which should be considered.

That being said, rentals are your best choice for movie viewing at a cost of $8.91 for a new release or $6.99 for an older one, including home made food. So basically, you are paying the extra $10-$12 to see a movie as soon as it comes out. It is a personal decision whether saving that money is worth several months of waiting time. If we got the snacks there then it would be $19.50 - $21.42.

The final comment I would like to address is the following, left by Mark:

"And to have apples to apples you should have compared the cost of bringing your own food to both, or buying at both, or both options at each..."

I didn't pick the option to bring my own food to the theater as it is usually frowned upon and for the amount of stuff we took, it would have been incredibly obvious that we had "contraband". This would have likely resulted in us having to leave the stuff in the car or being kicked out of the theater. Be that as it may, if we were able to get everything into the show successfully the cost for the traditional theater would have been $20.30.

However we could certainly done the reverse and purchased snacks at the Drive-in concession. Let's see if the cost is as ridiculous as Empire Theaters.

An extra large popcorn would be $5.30*. Nachos would be $9.38 at $4.69 each. The Drive-in does not sell water, but if we were to get the equivalent amount in soft drinks it would cost a total of $5.40. So if we tally things up, buying concessions at the drive-in would bump the total experience to $32.28, which is still significantly cheaper that the regular theater.

Final Wrap up

Cost of Drive-in, own snacks: $18.89 purchased snacks: $32.28
Cost of Theater, own snacks: $20.30 purchased snacks: $43.89
Cost of Renting, own snacks: $7-9 purchased snacks: $19.50 - $21.42

I hope this post has cleared up the previous ones and provided people with the depth of detail they wanted.

*all prices listed include tax

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Spice Up Your Wallet

A while ago I may have mentioned that when shopping for culinary spices, one is best to buy in bulk at a store like the Bulk Barn, as the prices are much better than the standard supermarket. Well, that got me thinking and I wanted to see how much better Bulk Barn actually was. Tonight we find out.

I had a list of spices/baking products that I wanted to have for various recipes so we will use that as our metric:

Dillweed (used in a surprisingly large amount of recipes)
Cayenne pepper
Onion flakes
Chili powder
Baking powder
Baking soda
White sugar

What is compared? I went to the Atlantic Superstore and got the prices for 3 brands of spices they had in stock, McCormick, Club House (which is apparently the same company as McCormick), and No Name. The packaging for each is glass bottle, plastic bottle, bag respectively. At Bulk Barn, you just dump however much you want into a bag and label it with the bin #. As well, not all spices were available in all brands, so I will, of course, mention only the ones that were there. For the baking supplies, I chose the cheapest available at Superstore for the Bulk Barn comparison.


When I originally bought my spices for the kitchen several weeks ago, I did get them at Bulk Barn, but I checked Superstore before making a final purchase. I perused the unit price of this brand of spices as they looked to be of high quality. Much to my surprise, the unit cost, which is 100 g, seemed to be lower than Bulk Barn. I was reading 25.4/100g, 41.4/100g, etc... I thought that this was great; you get the spice, plus the little jar. Then I realized that those unit costs weren't 25.4 cents per 100 grams, but rather 25.4 dollars per 100 grams. Scary. The breakdown is as follows:

Oregano: 11g bottles for $2.79 = $25.36 / 100 grams
Cumin: 43g bottles for $3.99 = $9.28 / 100 grams
Dillweed: 20g bottles for $4.89 = $24.45 / 100 grams
Cayene pepper n/a
Onion flakes: 55g bottles for $3.59 = $6.53 / 100 grams
Thyme: 15g bottles for $3.19 = $21.27 / 100 grams
Marjoram: 7.7g bottles for $3.19 = $41.43 / 100 grams
Sage: 18g bottles for $2.99 = $16.61 / 100 grams
Basil: 15g bottles for $3.69 = $24.60 / 100 grams
Chili powder: 53g bottles for $2.99 = $5.64 / 100 grams

Thus if you purchased 100g of each item (ignoring fractional bottles) it would cost you an astounding $175.17. You can compare below, but out of the brands available at Superstore, this was the one with the most variety. Coincidence that it is the most expensive and has the most selection? I think not.

Club House

There wasn't as many options for Club House but what was there breaks down as follows:

Oregano: 33g bottles for $3.79 = $11.48 / 100 grams
Cumin: 90g bottles for $5.69 = $6.32 / 100 grams
Dillweed: 50g bottles for $4.69 = $9.38 / 100 grams
Cayene pepper: 81g bottles for $4.39 = $5.42 / 100 grams
Onion flakes: 116g bottles for $4.39 = $3.78 / 100 grams
Thyme: 28g bottles for $2.59 = $9.25 / 100 grams

Thus if you were to purchase 100 grams of the same items from McCormick it would cost $86.89 whereas here it is a mere (but still insane) $40.22.

No Name

One would think that the No Name products would trump the rest. And you'd be right. Selection isn't great here, but you get the basics.

Oregano: 30g bags for $1.19 = $3.97 / 100 grams
Cumin: 97g bags for $1.99 = $2.05 / 100 grams
Onion flakes: 150g bags for $1.89 = $1.26 / 100 grams
Thyme: 45g bags for $1.99 = $4.42 / 100 grams
Sage: 80g bags for $1.99 = $2.49 / 100 grams
Basil: 40g bags for $1.29 = $3.23 / 100 grams
Chili powder: 150g bags for $2.39 = $1.59 / 100 grams

So again if you were to get 100 grams of the same items from McCormick would cost you a whopping $109.29 while going with No Name is a reasonable $19.01.

Baking Supplies

For the baking supplies I chose the one at the supermarket that had the lowest unit price for the comparison.

Baking Powder: $0.664 per 100 grams
Baking Soda : $0.159 per 100 grams
Cornmeal : $0.298 per 100 grams
Sugar: $0.118 per 100 grams

Not bad. So if you purchased 500 grams of the above, which is reasonable for small baking purposes, you would spend $6.20.

Bulk Barn

Ah the wonder that is Bulk Barn. By far your best option for spices and some baking supplies

Oregano : $0.93 / 100 grams
Cumin : $1.30 / 100 grams
Dillweed: $2.37 / 100 grams
Cayene pepper: 0.81/ 100 grams
Onion flakes : $1.08 / 100 grams
Thyme : $0.88 / 100 grams
Marjoram : $1.41 / 100 grams
Sage : $1.50 / 100 grams
Basil : $0.86 / 100 grams
Chili powder: $1.03 / 100 grams
Baking Powder: $0.42 per 100 grams
Baking Soda : $0.16 per 100 grams
Cornmeal : $0.19 per 100 grams
Sugar : $0.13 per 100 grams

So if you were to get 100 grams of each of the spices available from McCormick, (which would last an incredibly long time by the way), it would cost you a measly $11.36. A savings of $163.81. In fact, you would have to get 1.55 kilograms of each of those spices to match the McCormick price.

Notice that sugar and baking soda are more expensive at Bulk Barn, but not by much. I'm unsure as to why that is.

As a final tally, it would cost $16.67 for 100 grams of each of the desired spices and 500 grams of each baking supply at Bulk Barn. Not bad for stocking a kitchen to the gills.

On a side note, I assume the high prices have to do with packaging and brand name. Glass is more expensive than plastic and plastic bottles are more expensive than bags. This leads to a functionality issue as well. If you do any cooking at all, you realize that having spice jars, like the ones McCormick spices come in, simply doesn't work in the cooking process. They are great to store in a rack, but when it comes time to actually use the spice, you never just shake spice out (at least I don't). You measure it with a measuring spoon, which would require you to remove the cap and dump some out, wasting time. It is much easier to use the bulk barn bags and just scoop out what you need. For storage, I just stuff them in some old tupperware containers and put them in the cupboard.

Thus as a final point, if you are thinking about stocking a kitchen, you are much better off getting materials at bulk barn and forgoing convention by not using spice jars.