Friday, 27 February 2015

Priorities and Perspectives

The internet is full of advice and information about every subject under the sun. Authors and experts all have their own takes on any given topic and their advice is given from that perspective. This blog's focus is on frugal family living and making family memories. As a parenting author and mother of three I offer the perspective of a middle-income suburban parent.

While I am aware that my advice, opinions and experiences may not resonate with or even be relevant to some lower or higher income families or those without children at all, there is an enormous segment of the population who fall into the same category as my family. I hope that they can take something useful from what I have to say.

When it comes to financial advice, the message remains the same regardless of your own financial situation: Live and spend within your means. Don't spend more than you make. Don't borrow to spend.

That is the simple message: Live within your means.

It doesn't matter whether those means are a single-parent minimum-wage income with subsidized child care or a household with two six-figure incomes. Live a life you can afford. Live within your means.

That message seems to have gotten muddled somewhere along the way in this online world of financial advice into one of unrelenting penny-pinching frugality. That is not the point.

Frugality is fantastic insofar as it keeps us on budget and living within our means. But there is nothing wrong with splurging, there is nothing wrong with occasionally indulging, there is nothing wrong with unnecessary spending - as long as it's within your means. If you can afford it - if it fits into your monthly budget and you don't have to borrow to pay for it - then spend your money however you damn well please.

I do understand the difference between lower- and middle-income families and lifestyles.

When my first marriage ended I found myself a single mom of a one- and two-year-old with a huge amount of debt, freshly re-entering the workforce and trying to juggle rent, car payments, grocery bills and child care on my own. There were times I didn't eat in order to stretch the grocery budget. There were times we walked in order to save gas. I once took change from my son's piggy bank to pay for his kindergarten field trip. And because daycare is so inordinately, impossibly expensive, I worked only part-time during the day to cut costs - and took on another job that meant I worked from home late into the night and the wee hours of the morning every night. Treats were picnic lunches at the park, indulgences were a very-once-in-a-while hot chocolate from Tim Hortons.

I didn't have much, but I did the best I could with what I had.

Years of hard work and saving paid off the debt and purchased a house; two incomes now give my husband and I a little more wiggle room to give our now three children the life we want them to have.

And we're doing our best with what we have now.

And that is the point.

Not to scrimp and save and deny yourself everything that might be deemed unnecessary simply for the sake of frugality, but to set a budget that works with your income and live a lifestyle within those means.

Maybe it means a smaller home, moving further from the city, sacrificing a second car or owning a car at all, taking on extra work, working in shifts to cover off child care. Whatever you have to do to make your budget balance is what you have to do.

And if there is any wiggle room - pick your priorities.

In our family, having one parent at home to raise our kids full-time is our absolute top priority. I can't imagine only seeing my children for an hour or two before bed every night. As so many of you have pointed out, we are very lucky that we are able to do that. In order to do that, we have had to make some choices: we live in a small suburban townhome and we are a one-car family. Because these choices allow us to meet our priorities, they don't feel like sacrifices at all.

Incidentally, since so many people have referenced the fact that I'm an at-home mom, I'd like to point out that I am a work-at-home mom. I do at-home daycare for my neighbour's children nine hours a day, I have a writing job which means a couple of hours on the laptop after the kids go to bed every night, and I teach fitness classes a couple of hours a week. In order to be able to stay at home with my kids and give them the extras we want them to have, I work a lot more hours every week than most people do - in addition to volunteering and full-time mommying.

Are extras like rep sports and family vacations absolutely necessary to my children's well-being? Of course not. But they are luxuries we want for them - and since we have adjusted our lifestyle and income in order to fit those into our budget we are more than entitled to them.

That is the point, and that is the only important point: understand your finances, create a balanced budget based on your actual income, avoid debt and live within your means - whatever those means may be.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Budget-Friendly March Break Ideas

March Break is coming - a whole week off school!

For some of us, this time of year means a family vacation down south. But even when that's not practical - maybe the kids have sports commitments they can't miss, maybe a vacation just isn't in the budget this year - there are so many ways to make the week fun. Whether you're taking the week off work or are a stay-at-home parent you'll be looking for fun, wallet-friendly things to do with your little ones. No matter what your situation, there are endless amazing family activities to make this March Break memorable for your family.
Toronto's classic attractions including the Ontario Science Centre, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Ripley's Aquarium are all open, many with extended hours and special exhibitions. Although none of these are inexpensive attractions, splurging on an afternoon or two out is still significantly less costly than a week on the beach.

The Toronto Zoo is always a super fun family outing and is one of our family's all-time favourite field trip destinations. It may seem more like a summertime destination, but there's lots going on all year round at the Zoo!

And there are so many fun things to do in and around the city to make this March Break fun for the whole family that are free - or very nearly free.

City Hall, Harbourfront Centre and most outdoor municipal rinks are open for ice skating (all free!) thanks to the recent sub-zero temperatures - strap on the skates, bundle up and head out for some free fun on the ice with the kids. Don't forget to warm up with a hot chocolate afterwards!

The library is a great, free way to spend an afternoon with the kids, curling up with a good book the whole family can enjoy and exploring the racks for a few choices they can each bring home.

Bundle up in mittens, hats and scarves, pour a Thermos of hot chocolate, and take the kids outdoors for the day - go skating at the local ice rink, sledding at the tobogganing hill, build a fort or a snowman in the backyard, "paint" a masterpiece in the snow with spray bottles full of water and food colouring.

Go for a nature walk. Make a list of trees and animals you might see and bring along the camera to snap shots when you find them. Print out the pictures, have the kids label them and turn them into a book. A scavenger hunt is another fun way to make a walk feel more like fun. Make a list of things you know you'll see on your walk (fire hydrant, Christmas wreath, pinecone, pond, yellow house, red car) and start exploring the neighbourhood.

Just because it's winter doesn't mean you can't picnic like you would on a warm summer afternoon. If there's snow on the ground, why not pack the pop-up tent and pitch it near the playground? It'll keep you sheltered from the wind and keep the ground dry enough for you to sit and eat - and it feels like a real adventure for the kids! Spend some time at the playground - it's usually fairly deserted during the winter months and you can often have the place to yourselves. As long as everyone is bundled up well you can easily spend most of a winter's day at the park just like during the summer months.

Crafts are always a fun way to spend time with the kids and encourage their creativity. They can also easily be turned into major projects that will keep the kids busy and entertained for a full day or even a few days. Stock up on crafting supplies at the dollar store - crayons & construction paper, scissors & glue, feathers, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, pom-poms, glitter, sequins, stickers and play clay. You probably have a ton of stuff at home already to get their imaginations going!

Just like a simple craft activity can be turned into a project, so can dress-up and pretend play. Most people have a dress-up chest in the playroom or basement - if you don't, put one together with what you already have around the house. Old Halloween costumes, hats & scarves hiding in the back of your closet or your husband's drawer, maybe grab a few dollar store items to fill it up - goofy glasses, silly hats, a crazy wig. Kids love playing pretend, dressing up and acting out stories, trying on different personalities and future careers. Have them write a story and encourage them to be as creative as possible.  Pull out the crayons and have them draw pictures to go with the story. Then they can dress up in the costumes from their toy chest and act it out! We've had pirates and ninjas and Transformers and Jedis and dinosaurs and sharks interacting seamlessly in our house. Kids love playing pretend and imagining stories on the fly and are so much quicker and more intuitive with improvisation than adults - it's such a joy to watch. Snap photos of their performance and put them in a little binder with their handwritten script and the pictures they drew - instant memory!                                   
Movie nights are always fun. Grab one of the mattresses and put it on the floor in the middle of the living room. Have the kids grab pillows, blankets and a favourite stuffy off their beds and set up on the mattress. Close the blinds and shutters, pop a big bowl of popcorn, brew some hot chocolate and everyone snuggle up for an at-home movie night.

A sunny week down south is an amazing March Break treat for parents and kids alike. But for those years when the budget simply won't stretch to cover a vacation there are just as many fun, wallet-friendly family activities close to home to keep everyone entertained.

Originally published as "Budget-Friendly March Break" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com

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Friday, 20 February 2015

Family Day Tradition

Family Day means different things to different families.

For some, it means a day of active outdoor winter fun - strapping on the skates and taking a few spins around the pond or getting up a game of pick-up hockey with the other neighbourhood families; heading up north and spending the day out on the slopes; building snowforts and snowmen and trekking up and tobogganing on the hills at the park.

For some, it means hanging out at home and just enjoying the extra long weekend, an extra day off work and school without plans or obligations, a day to snuggle up with snacks and movies and a board game.

For our family, this holiday has for the last several years meant a long day at the Soccer Centre for our oldest kids' soccer tournament. The first competition in the long warm-up to the outdoor season, the Family Day tournament marks the first real chance for our club's rep teams to show what they can do after training together since October. It's the first real competition since last summer's outdoor season and by now the boys are always itching for some real games.

It's an all-day affair - this year we were on the field at 7:30am and pitch-side until 6:30pm. The Soccer Centre is a zoo, dozens of teams' worth of players and parents and siblings packed into one facility, the bleachers full, families set up with blankets laid out and cooler bags full of snacks and picnics everywhere, little brother and sisters tearing around after one another in the viewing area and players warming up between games under the stairs and off to the sidelines.

After so many years playing with the same club the other families on the boys' teams have become like family - our soccer family. And since soccer is such a focus in our family life, I can't think of a better way to celebrate the Family Day long weekend than at our little athletes' soccer tournament.

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Monday, 16 February 2015

Family Valentines - Love Don't Cost a Thing

Happy Valentine's Day!

In our home Valentine's Day is a family affair - no fancy restaurant dinners, gifts of expensive jewellery or date nights out for my husband and I. We are just as happy spending our adult alone time curled up on the couch together in front of the fire with a platter of nibblies, candles and wine after the kids are tucked away in bed. For us, celebrating love means spending time, not money.

My husband and I have been on two dates since our youngest son was born more than three years ago.
Two dates. In three years.

But even before we were a family of five we didn't do much in the way of "dating." When we started dating I was a single mom to a two- and three-year-old who I'd been raising alone for over a year. When we started dating I hadn't had more than a couple of hours to myself since the boys' birth, nevermind a whole evening to spend with another adult. And when we got married we were already an automatic family - there were no years alone together as a couple. Any kind of real alone time - afternoons to just hang out together or go shopping or get projects done around the house, evenings to curl up on the couch together and watch movies, cozy weekends away at a cottage, vacations together on a beach - well, we've never had that. Ever. For us, "date nights" have always meant evenings at home after the kids go to bed. 

Spending as much time as possible with my kids while they are kids has always been a big priority for me - I've arranged my work and life around ensuring the boys haven't had to go to daycare - and quality family time is the focus of our family's life.

So Valentine's Day is a family-friendly rather than a romantic holiday in this house. Heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and dollar-store Valentine treats piled at each boy's place at the table. Handmade Valentine cards and crafts. A big family dinner with a special strawberry Valentine dessert. A day full of love and family.

And after the kids are in bed my husband and I will indulge in our favourite snacky foods, a bottle or two of good wine, and a few hours of alone time celebrating Valentine's Day in the home we love filled with our favourite people in the world.

Originally published as "Love Don't Cost a Thing" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com

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Friday, 13 February 2015

Not Vaccinating is Not a "Parenting Choice" - It's Stupid.

With the recent outbreaks in California, British Columbia and now far too close to home in Toronto, measles is back in North America after having officially been declared eliminated before the turn of the century thanks to required routine immunizations.

It's back because, for no reason other than stupidity, a few ignorant, ill-informed idiots have "chosen" not to vaccinate their children against this (and other) debilitating, life-threatening diseases - putting our entire society at risk.

The most dangerous part of the vaccination debate is calling it a debate at all, giving the anti-vax movement creditability as a potential parenting choice - when, in fact, it's not.

The anti-vax arguments are based on fiction, false studies, half-truths and flat-out lies, conspiracy theories and rumours and absolutely ridiculous statements.

There is no science behind the anti-vaccination movement.

It's not a debate or an argument or an opinion or a choice. It's simple fact versus fiction.

Fact: children require vaccinations against preventable disease.
Fiction: vaccination should be a parenting choice.

Fact: vaccines are safe, tested and proven.
Fiction: vaccines will poison your child, or give him autism, or whatever other idiotic fairy tale is trending among conspiracy theorists.

Fact: administering these proven, safe vaccines is what provided our society with the herd immunity that eliminated diseases which only generations ago killed millions of people every year.
Fiction: as a parent, you must decide what's best for your own child - and your child is so fucking special he's exempt from society's rules.

There is no good reason not to vaccinate your healthy child. There are children who cannot be vaccinated - because they are too young, because they are immunocompromised - and it is these children who our herd immunity is protecting. It is not going to work if it has to protect every poor child who happens to be born to stupid parents.

Vaccinating your children is not a parenting choice any more than it's a choice to drive drunk or beat your child. You can make that choice, obviously, in that you are a human being with the ability to exercise free will, but it's the wrong choice and there are potential consequences to that choice.

If you choose to drive drunk, you could hurt or kill yourself or someone else and, hopefully, you will be caught and arrested. If you choose not to vaccinate there are the same risks - there should be the same consequences.

If you choose to hit your children you will hurt or kill them and, hopefully, you will be caught and arrested. If you choose not to vaccinate there are the same risks - there should be the same consequences.

Choosing not to vaccinate your children is wilfully negligent and should have criminal consequences attached.
Calling vaccination a parenting choice lets the stupidity of the few risk the lives of the many. Do we discuss drunk driving or child abuse with words like "choice" and "opinion"? Of course not.

So let's take steps to protect ourselves.

Children who haven't been vaccinated by their parents' choice should not be allowed to attend public schools.

Children who haven't been vaccinated by their parents' choice should not be allowed to visit public recreation facilities - pools, playplaces, skating rinks, theme parks, libraries and museums and zoos.

Children who haven't been vaccinated by their parents' choice should not be allowed in public shopping malls or restaurants.

Children who haven't been vaccinated by their parents' choice should not be allowed in public doctors' offices, walk-in clinics, or hospitals with communal waiting rooms.

It's a hardship for a child whose only crime was to be born to stupid parents, but it's those same parents whose arrogant, ignorant, negligent choice risked that child's life; it hardly seems fair to risk anyone else's life because of that choice.

Breast vs. bottle, sleep training vs. co-sleeping, public vs. private school, allowance and chores and consequences of behaviour - these are parenting choices. Parenting choices like these should be made based on what each parent believes will be best for their child, and though we all have different ideas of what's best, we should respect one another's choices as parents doing what we believe is best for our own child.

Vaccinating your children is not a parenting choice.

Vaccinating is the best thing for your child, if he is able to be vaccinated. Period.

Let's stop the debate. This isn't a matter of opinion or a choice. It's fact.

If you choose to live here, in this society with this level of civilization and education and science and medical care, your children will get their required vaccinations. If you choose not to vaccinate your children against these completely preventable diseases, you cannot continue to be a part of this society as you're putting the rest of us as risk with your choice. Simple.

And that is your choice.

Monday, 9 February 2015

A Slice of Suburban Paradise

Where to settle down and make a home for your family is a complicated decision. It may be one of the toughest you’ll ever make – and have a huge impact on your child’s future.
A high-rise condo in the heart of the city with all the amenities and within walking distance of everything? A sprawling farmhouse in the country with acres of land and trees and a creek trickling by? A midtown century townhouse oozing character and charm just a short drive away from the office? A cozy suburban bungalow with a sprawling backyard and playgrounds and parks and kid-friendly streets?
Do you need to stay near your families, to the town where you were raised? How long of a commute to work can you handle, and how much traffic are you willing to deal with? How much living space do you need? How important is a yard? Do you need to be close to shops and restaurants? How close? What about schools, and parks, and community facilities? What kind of lifestyle are you comfortable living?
And what can you afford?
The further away you move from the city – particularly this city – the more home you can afford for your money. A bigger house on a bigger property with a smaller mortgage and more money left over at the end of the month is a big incentive to relocate. But how long of a commute is reasonable for you? How much will you have to spend in gas, time, and an extra vehicle to make that move away from the city workable?
Living right in the heart of the city with easy access to transit means being able to get rid of one of the cars – both, if your life is very centralized and you’re willing to rent one for the odd necessary trip out of the city. But homes in the city cost an absolute fortune – are you willing to be house-poor for a few years in exchange for the convenience of having everything at your fingertips?
There are a million questions, a million factors, a million priorities to sift through in making a decision about where to put down roots, raise a family and build a life.
For our family, the decision was a no-brainer. For us, the suburbs is the only place to live and raise our family.
We both grew up in the suburbs – the same suburb, actually – a cozy little small town only a couple of kilometres from the biggest city in the country. It was perfect – safe, friendly, family-oriented. Community-minded. Lots of kids bike riding up and down the streets, neighbourhood barbeques, everyone meeting up on Main Street for ice cream, that sort of thing. I can’t imagine a more idyllic childhood, and I want the same for my kids.
A rural lifestyle is completely out of the question for us. While I understand the appeal of living a life of quiet isolation in the country – for some, though definitely not for me – I couldn’t imagine raising children there. No neighbourhood barbeques, no park full of kids, no sounds of splashing in the pool or children’s laughter from nearby backyards, no get-togethers with the neighbours because there aren’t any neighbours. A bus ride to school instead of a short, familiar walk. Strapping everyone into the car for a trip “into town” every time you need to buy so much as a bag of milk. No neighbourhood kids knocking on the front door to ask if your son can come out to play, no security in the knowledge that if your boy falls off his bike down the street a half-dozen adults who know him will make sure he’s ok and get him back to you. I’m sure a childhood out in the country has its benefits, but it’s just so far removed from my mental image of what childhood means, from what my own childhood was, from what I want for my kids’ childhoods.
And, frankly, I like knowing the city’s just a stone’s throw away from where I live. Like most native Torontonians, I firmly believe the city is the centre of the universe.
The city lifestyle is definitely something that appeals to me – restaurants, shopping, theatre and nightlife all at your doorstep, endless options for activities and entertainment, everything you could want and need within walking distance of your front door. It’s exactly the kind of lifestyle I’d want – if I didn’t have kids. The problem with raising children in the city, in my mind, is safety. No matter how good a neighbourhood you live in there’s always a bad one within a few blocks.
A city is a big, crazy, congested place – too many people, too much traffic, too many distractions. Too easy to lose sight of a little pair of legs walking alongside you. Too much risk of a tiny hand slipping out of yours. Too many people crowded in on top of one another, leading to too much crime, too much exposure, too much risk of something very bad happening. Too much anonymity, not enough sense of community. Though the idea of a shortened commute and access to everything is uber appealing for a young single or a couple without children it would never be my choice for where to raise my kids.
Suburbia is the ideal for us. This little slice of heaven we found in the particular suburb we live in (after years of moving from suburb to city to country and back to suburb again…) couldn’t be better if we’d made it to order. Our home is tiny but perfect and sits in a beautiful yard, fronting a quiet tree-lined street and backing onto a park with a playground. Our neighbourhood is safe and friendly – neighbours visit from yard to yard, kids can bike ride up and down the streets or meet at the park to kick the ball around – everyone knows everyone else and keeps an eye on each other’s children. The school is one of the best in the region and is a five minute walk from our front door.
Our small town isn’t really all that small but does an amazing job of keeping that small-town sense of community – organized activities and events for kids and families every holiday, special occasion and long weekend, concerts in the park and movie nights, fairs and festivals and barbeques. Though we have restaurants, shopping, theatres and community centres within walking distance of our home we are also surrounded by biking paths and hiking trails and rivers and trees – and we’re still only a twenty minute drive into the heart of the city.
We did the city living thing and realized we’d never be able to afford both the home and the lifestyle we wanted for ourselves and our children if we bought our forever home there. We gave in to the temptation of owning a mansion for the same price as a condo in the city and moved up north – and absolutely hated it. We tried a few communities outside the city before we found the perfect fit for both our budget and our priorities – a cozy townhome with a beautiful yard in an idyllic little slice of suburbia just close enough to the city we spend so much time in. It’s a lot less house for a lot more money than we’d get living in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a lot more space than we’d ever have in the centre of the city action – and an ideal family lifestyle home and neighbourhood.
It’s the perfect balance of small-town community and city amenities and exactly the suburban paradise we want to raise our children in.

Originally published as "City vs. Suburbs" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com 

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Friday, 6 February 2015

Home Reno Planning

The new year is a natural time to make changes, to set goals, to plan for the future. Though many of us don't necessarily make any new year's resolutions in the traditional sense, this time of year is often a time for planning and organizing and looking forward. Planning out the annual family vacation, planning out the kids' summer sports and camps, planning out any work that needs to get done around the house - these things all need to be booked now though they may not take place for another six months.

A new year means another look at the household budget, an opportunity to tweak a little bit here and there, shift those dollars around to where they make the most sense for where your life is and where you want it to go.

Every year is different from the last. Sometimes there's a major budget-altering life event - a house purchase, a wedding, a baby; sometimes it's just a matter of a little more debt paid off and a little less owing on the mortgage. Maybe you got a raise. No matter how big or small the change it's always a good idea to revisit and re-evaluate the budget on a regular basis - and what better time than at the start of a fresh new year when you're already busy making plans?

For our family, the year's planning usually includes a couple of home renovations. We bought what we hope is our forever home three and a half years ago and have been improving it one project at a time ever since.
In our first few months in the new home we repainted top to bottom and replaced all the light fixtures. (The previous owner had...questionable taste.) We removed a bulky, awkwardly-placed counter and wall of cabinetry in the kitchen, opening it up and doubling the space. We re-did the entire main floor bathroom - wallpaper, flooring, fixtures and faucets, counter and cabinets - everything. The next year we tackled the floors, replacing the entire main floor, stairway, and upstairs carpets with hardwood and updating the ugly brown pickets and rails with clean, crisp white ones - not a small task in a three-storey townhome with seemingly endless flights of stairs.

The last year and a half were spent focussed on outdoor improvements: new stonework and steps out front, new gardens and retaining walls out back, landscaping and trees and the real biggie - a brand-new two storey deck in our backyard complete with wrought-iron railings, an overhead pergola on the top deck, barbecue and eating areas down below, and a turned staircase connecting the two.

We do these projects ourselves to save costs and stretch our home improvement budget as far as possible - which means that these projects, though half the cost they'd be if we hired contractors, also take two or three or four times as long as they otherwise would. When we plan and budget for home improvements we have to budget time as well as money.

Because we're not professionals, our projected project costs are often out of alignment with reality so we've learned to factor a pretty big contingency plan into our budget. Even so, last year's deck project went way longer and way more costly than we'd hoped, so this year we're keeping our home improvement plans conservative.

We're finishing off our deck project by adding French doors from our living room out to the upper deck. Since we're using a contractor for the project (cutting an enormous hole through the second-storey brick wall of our house in a little beyond our abilities as DIY homeowners) our budget should come in close to predicted. We've priced out the door, have the list of materials and costs, and our contractor (my brother!) is doing the work for free (lucky us!)

Our next big project will be a little more unpredictable as we plan to do it ourselves. Our front entrance isn't exactly looking its best - the concrete steps were coated by a previous homeowner in some sort of non-slip surfacing which is peeling up here, there and everywhere and the painted wood pickets and rails are peeling and weathered and worn. We need to remove the concrete coating (How long will that take? Will we need to use a specialized product? Will we need to try several?) and apply some sort of resurfacing. Depending on the state of the concrete underneath, we may bring in a professional to apply the new surface. The wooden railing will be replaced with much sexier wrought-iron railings, which is where most of the cost for this project will come in. We've budgeted almost double what we actually hope and expect this project will cost just in case - if we come in under budget that's money we can spend elsewhere or save, but if any unexpected costs come up we won't be surprised or have to put the project on hold.

And that's it for our home reno plans this year. Though we could squeeze one more small project out of our budget the several years of costly time-and-energy-consuming projects have really taken it out of us and we're going to sit back this year and just enjoy our home. There are plans for the future - there are always plans for the future - but in the interests of keeping a little extra breathing room in the budget and a little more contingency money waiting in case of emergency (boy, did we learn our lesson with that electrical disaster over Christmas!) we're reigning in our home reno plans for this year.

Originally published as "Home Reno Planning" on my weekly article at gailvazoxlade.com

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Monday, 2 February 2015

Mortgages, Moving and Money - Oh My!

Last week's announcement that the Bank of Canada's key interest rate dropped was a big one for anyone with any debt or investments tied to that interest rate. Variable-rate mortgage-holders will enjoy lowered rates for repayment on their biggest investment, and anyone with a line of credit with a variable interest rate will see a lowered cost on paying that loan back. Those with money in a traditional savings account, however - already a low income saving strategy - will earn even smaller returns on their investments while the interest rate remains so low.

The temptation is there to take advantage of the lowered rates in some way, to take on more debt while the cost of servicing that debt is so low. Maybe now is the time to finance that kitchen reno, or even to take the leap and buy that bigger house. Why not take on a bigger mortgage when it will hardly cost any more to repay? But watch out - in that direction debt problems lie.

Consider all the costs of moving rather than just the lower carrying costs on your mortgage or the bigger house you might be able to buy for the same monthly payment. Moving is expensive.

There's the penalty you'll likely take for altering, extending or renewing your mortgage before your scheduled renewal date. There's the real estate fee you'll pay to your agent - a seemingly small percentage that adds up to an enormous sum of money when you're talking about a several hundred thousand dollar home. There are the lawyers' fees, the bank fees, the closing costs and movers and time taken off work.

Moving is expensive - even if you've still made money at the end of the day (and let's face it - most of the time real estate is a fairly safe investment) moving is undeniably expensive.

But beyond the expense of a move up to a bigger home with a more expensive price tag is the underlying possibility of those low, low interest rates eventually creeping back up, pushing those payments incrementally higher - and the unmanageable carrying costs eventually forcing homeowners into the terrifying position of taking on more debt just to carry on or even losing that bigger, better, more expensive home.

It's just not worth it.

I'd rather stay in the home we love, finishing it and furnishing it to our hearts' desires while whittling down our mortgage than risk more debt on a bigger home with higher carrying costs.

Lowered interest rates are not an invitation to take on more debt. They are not an offer for a bigger mortgage on shiny new house. If you happen to already have a variable interest rate and can take advantage of the temporary savings these reduced rates will afford, good for you. If you're in a position to renegotiate or it's time to renew, try to take advantage of the new lower interest rate if you can.

But don't try to use this new lowered interest rate to take on more debt, new debt, unnecessary debt or increase your existing debt. If you couldn't afford it before, you can't afford it now.

Originally published as "Mortgages, Moving and Money - Oh My!" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com

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