Monday, 27 July 2015

Are You Keeping Track?

We all know that the best way to keep track of anything is to write it down.

When I was a competitive swimmer I wrote down my workouts to keep track of kilometres and training days. When I was a coach I had my athletes write down how much they ate and trained during tapers. When I was a trainer I had my clients track their diet and exercise for a few weeks to understand calories in versus calories out. We write our family schedule on the calendar, keep track of the kids' school assignments in their agenda books, and make grocery lists when we need to pick up a few things at the store. But what of our money?

Most of us probably have a budget of some sort written down somewhere - a general list of roughly how much we have coming in and going out each month, whether we're well-to-do or barely scraping by. But a lot fewer of us bother to actually keep track of exactly what we're spending our money on, how much, and how often.

Whether your finances feel completely under control or kind of getting away from you a bit it's a useful exercise to track your spending every now and again, just to see exactly where that money's going. Sometimes a week or two of writing down every dollar that goes out will show that your budget needs to be revisited - maybe you're spending more on groceries than you used to, but the kids aren't wearing through clothes as quickly as when they were younger; maybe cutting out that morning coffee on the way to work every morning would free up that few extra dollars you were hoping to put into RRSP's; maybe the credit card balance you thought you were slowly paying down is actually creeping back up each month on extra spending you don't think about.

Particularly if you use credit rather than cash - even if you pay it off completely every month - it's important to pay attention to exactly where that money's going. It's easy to spend more than you'd planned when you're just plopping down a card rather than handing over your actual hard-earned cash.

Try tracking your spending for a few weeks: every dollar you spend, big or small, from the mortgage payment to gas for the car, your grocery bill to your morning coffee. Then compare it to your budget. Is your spending in line with what you thought? Is it in line with your budget? Does your budget need to be altered, or your spending?

If you don't pay attention to your money it's easy for it to just slip away. Are you keeping track?

(Originally published as "Are You Keeping Track?" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com)

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Friday, 24 July 2015

Growing Green, Saving Green

I've written before about the benefits of growing a vegetable garden - eating crisp, juicy produce picked fresh from the earth mere moments before mealtime, the guarantee that you're eating organically grown, hormone and pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, the satisfaction of digging in the dirt with your bare hands and growing your own food right from the earth, and (of course!) the savings on the grocery budget when you're growing most of your own produce yourself.

Living in a part of the world where we can't grow food outdoors year-round makes us appreciate the summer gardening season even more.

This year's garden has been pared down from past efforts. We don't have a lot of backyard space to devote to a veggie garden, and over the years have learned which plants grow well, which plants produce well, which plants take up way too much room for the three or four pathetic eggplants or squash they produce and which plants grow all bloody summer long and end up with nothing more than a single, pathetic, shrunken little pepper.

This year we planted the basics: cucumbers, tomatoes, romaine, swiss chard and kale. We eat a lot of salads in this house and we serve a lot of platters of veggies and dip. Cucumber plants and tomato plants grow really quickly and produce a lot of fruit without taking up a lot of space. Greens grow like weeds - despite serving salads with every meal and kale in every single thing I've cooked in the last month I can barely keep up with how fast these greens are growing.



Our garden isn't saving us a fortune, but it is making a difference. We're eating fresh, organic produce every day and haven't had to buy a single cucumber, tomato or head of lettuce all summer long.

Do you have a vegetable garden? What are your favourite foods to grow?

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Garden Harvest Season

Monday, 20 July 2015

Our Gorgeous Green Garden


vegetable garden, backyard garden, organic vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, romaine, swiss chardThanks to a very wet spring and a gorgeously hot sunny summer, our backyard garden is having its greatest year yet. 
organic vegetable salad, kale, romaine, swiss chard, tomatoes, cucumbersOur tomatoes and cucumbers have ripened and are ready for picking nearly a month earlier than usual and we have been eating salads fresh-picked from the earth in our own yard for weeks: crisp, crunchy romaine and Swiss chard, tangy kale,deliciously meaty cucumbers and juicy tomatoes both yellow and red. 
We're so proud of our gorgeous green garden!


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Autumn Harvest

Friday, 17 July 2015

Art Wall Farewell

As a part of our massive housecleaning and purge earlier this summer our basement playroom got an enormous facelift - we removed unnecessary furniture, we re-thought where and how we used things, we re-purposed some of our storage solutions, we purged and pared down and consolidated and generally made the room much more organized and user-friendly. 

gallery art wall, kids art, art display, playroomIn keeping with our clean, clutter-free, visually calm new space, we also decided to take down the gallery art wall in the basement. Even with only two special pieces displayed per kid per year, with three kids the display was starting to get out of hand.
We carefully and lovingly took the pieces down (our basement looks huge now!) and sorted through them together. The kids picked out their absolute favourites - a much more pared-down collection - which are waiting to be sized and framed. The new, sleek, properly framed gallery of artwork will be displayed in the upstairs hallway on the enormous, empty two-storey wall above the stair landing that has stared blankly at us for four years. 

Updates to follow!


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Monday, 13 July 2015

The Great Purge of 2015

The end of the school year also marked the end of one of the most miserable jobs I've ever had to do; the last day of school was also the last day of my home daycare, and the first day of summer vacation was my first day of freedom from that life-sucking family. It meant we could finally have our lives back and our home back. Our family was free.

It also meant I could finally tackle that massive organizing and purging project I'd been itching to do ever since those little maniacs started spending nine hours a day systematically destroying everything in our home they could get their little hands on.

It was an enormous project. Half our home had been uprooted by this accidental daycare scenario and the sudden subsequent realization that the kids, completely unparented their entire lives, were more like toddlers than children their age; there was a hurried packing away of things that would ordinarily stay out, a quick installation of out-of-reach shelves for breakables, a tucking away of untouchable treasures and favourite toys in bedrooms (the only off-limits area of the house to the daycare kids.) Everything had to be returned to its home - a perfect opportunity to pick over and purge those things we might not need anymore. And while we were sorting and purging and reorganizing anyway, why not go through everything, not just the toys? All the clothes? All the drawers, all the shelves, all the cupboards and closets and bins?

We've been in this home almost four years now - longer than I've ever stayed put in any place since my childhood home. Four years is long enough to accumulate a lot of unnecessary stuff, even for someone as obsessive about organization and compulsive about decluttering as I. Paperwork piles up, files get filled, odds and ends get tucked away into boxes and cupboards and forgotten, the kids' stuff slowly creeps in the corners of every room almost unseen until it almost takes over. It happens - it happened here - and this summer it was time to purge.

It was a project almost paralysing in its sheer enormity. Where do you start? How do you start? How can you get to everything without literally tearing the house apart?

Be methodical. Start in one area with one goal and move forward from there. Don't start anything without finishing, don't close anything you've opened or put down anything you've picked up without making a decision about it and following through.

Since the end of the school year brought with it the usual piles and piles of paper - tests and quizzes, worksheeets, projects, artwork - I started there. I do an annual cull of the kids' art anyway - I keep everything they make at home or at school in a big Rubbermaid drawer tower in my bedroom closet, one drawer per kid, all year. Then, each summer (the natural year end for anyone with school-age kids) we go through the drawers and purge ruthlessly (well, as ruthlessly as we can). The year's favourites are put on display and the rest of the keepable collection gets boxed and stored.

Then I moved on to the rest of our closet, which also acts as home office and houses our computer and filing cabinets (for a teeny tiny townhouse we have an awful lot of closet space). Three full bins of recycling, a big bag of garbage and a bag full of clothes to donate went out. Next, our dresser and bookshelves, then out into the hall to the linen closet. By the time those spaces were done I had a little pile of items I wanted moved downstairs to the "everything cupboard" (everyone's got one of these, even someone as organizationally OCD as me - an everything cupboard, a junk drawer, a little catch-all bin under the sink - somewhere to keep the miscellaneous everything that makes its way into your house, doesn't have a proper home, and needs to be somewhere you can put hands on it on a fairly regular basis. the school calendar, a phone charger, extra batteries, candles and a lighter, a mini flashlight. That sort of thing.)

The everything cupboard is in the kitchen, so the kitchen cleanout followed. Then the pantry, then the living and dining rooms. Every item in every nook and cranny. Back upstairs to the kids' bedrooms for an enormous clearout - all toys which originally belonged in the basement moved back down there and a massive soul-searching examination of every book, poster and toy to determine whether we'd possibly outgrown them.

And finally, the basement. The playroom purge and the crawlspace storage cleanout.

It was a disaster of epic proportions, since clearing out the rest of the house meant stacks of items had piled up in every corner of the basement waiting to be sorted into their proper places.

The kids were fantastic - though they're normally little hoarders, they actually agreed to donate or toss toys they'd outgrown or that were wearing out. We went through every bin, every drawer and every shelf. We picked through every toy, puzzle, board game and book. We purged an absolute ton of stuff, we pared down and consolidated some of our storage solutions, we re-thought where and how we used things; we moved the craft drawers to the newly cleaned out everything cupboard in the kitchen (since all our crafting seems to take place at the kitchen table lately) and tossed the craft table to the curb; we hung the costumes and props in an underused child-height cupboard under the stairs and threw out the enormous dress-up chest.

Our basement has pretty much doubled in size. Our house feels hundreds of pounds lighter.

If it's been a while since you've done a major decluttering, I challenge you to start one. Be methodical, take it a box, a closet, a room at a time. Be thoughtful, be practical, be decisive. You'd be amazed how easy it is once you get started, and you'd be amazed at the difference an organized home makes to your peace of mind.

There is literally not a single item in this house that I haven't laid hands on and made a decision about. I have never felt such a sense of organizational zen. It's a fantastic feeling!


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Friday, 10 July 2015

At-Home Parent: Luxury or Necessity?

The stay-at-home versus working parent debate is a favourite in the online parenting community, both sides believing theirs is the best scenario for rearing happy, healthy, well-rounded children.

Before this devolves into the same debate, let me make my own position clear: I don't believe either are better. I believe the best child care situation is the one in which they are nurtured, cared for, stimulated and safe. If that means staying at home and raising them yourself: great. If that means sending them to a grandparent or neighbour to be cared for while you work: great. If that means putting them in a daycare centre with a classroom full of other boys and girls their age: great.

I have been a stay-at-home mom, a work-at-home mom, and a work-outside-the-home mom at different points in my kids' lives, and for me, there's nothing more important than being at home to raise my kids myself. For me. To my mind, there's nothing in this world I will ever do as important as raising my children, and since the time my children will actually be children is short, relatively speaking, there is no sacrifice that I wouldn't make in order to spend as much time as possible with them during that time while they are young - teaching them and learning from them, growing with them and watching them grow, making memories with them and helping to shape the people they will become.

We can't afford to be a single-income family, so in order for me to be at home to raise my kids, I am a work-at-home mom. This is the best scenario for me, for us. For others, the best scenario might be to put their kids in a daycare or preschool while they work outside the home. That's fine, too.

But even as the at-home parents preach "quality time" and working parents pretend "I do everything an at-home mom does and work full-time" we are all overlooking the reality that for many, the choice doesn't even exist.

Some talk about the luxury of being an at-home parent - the luxury of being able to stay at home with your kids instead of going out to work. Though I'd argue that, in fact, most families could find a way to have one parent stay at home with the kids if in fact they wanted to do that (barring obvious exceptions, like single-parent families and households living close to the poverty line even with employment) - would you really need that second car if you weren't working outside the home? How much could you save on gas, meals, wardrobe if you were an at-home parent? Could you earn some income online, or in the neighbourhood, or working short shifts in the evenings when your spouse is home? - there are many families for whom staying at home is not a luxury but a necessity.

The prohibitive cost of daycare, particularly in big city centres like Toronto and the GTA - where average daycare costs topped $1300 per month according to the most recent study - often makes the option of working outside the home simply not an option until children are school-aged.

For those of us who are not doctors, lawyers, or engineers; who are educated, experienced and well-trained but are not making six figures any time soon; who make a reasonable and perfectly satisfactory living doing whatever it is that we do but aren't getting rich doing it in the next few years; for us, it often comes down to a matter of basic math. Crunch the numbers, and it actually doesn't make sense to work full-time outside the home.

Suppose my spouse and I earn $50K a year each - just a little higher than the average Ontarian's income of just over $49K. After taxes, I bring home roughly $39K, allowing for all credits and adjustments for our imagined dual income household of $100K with three children. Of that $39K, almost $22K will go to childcare - and this is based on a discounted rate provided by a friend of $40 per day per kid, $15 per day per kid for before and after school - simply for the privilege of going to work. ($10,400 for my preschool-aged son and $10,800 for my two school-aged sons combined.) That would leave me with roughly $325 per week in income. To earn that income, I would need a couple of hundred dollars a month for a car (say $50 a week) - either car payments or savings for future replacement or repairs - that would be unnecessary if I decided to work at home and go without a car. I would spend at least $50 a week in gas; I live in the GTA. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to get away with yoga pants, jean shorts, cotton tanks and hoodies in most work environments - let's say a hundred dollars a month ($25 a week) for wardrobe. Lunches out a couple of times a week, the odd night I can't make it home in time and have to pick something up for dinner instead of cooking? Another $50 a week, conservatively. At the end of the day, my fifty thousand dollars would contribute a whopping $150 a week to the household income even with our discounted daycare - and there are an awful lot of people who don't make anywhere near fifty thousand dollars. Imagine that scenario on a thirty thousand dollar income. Or a twenty thousand dollar income.

In my mind, there's nothing more important that being an at-home parent, and there is no sacrifice I wouldn't make in order to make that work. But the reality is that in a lot of cases - ours included - it simply wouldn't make any sense not to be an at-home parent. Why work outside the home when it's costing you every penny you make for the privilege of being able to work outside the home? For some - for many - being an at-home parent is not only a luxury, but also a necessity.


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Monday, 6 July 2015

It Sucks To Be Poor

Let's face it: being poor sucks. Being poor is better than being in debt - but it still sucks.

It sucks being stressed out about money all the time. It sucks constantly having to crunch numbers. It sucks lying awake doing mental math every night. It sucks trying to make an unbalanceable budget balance. It sucks having to say "no" to your kids because you simply can't afford it - whatever "it" happens to be.

Though I'm not there anymore, I have been. I've been the single mom without support trying to figure out how to pay rent and feed and clothe the kids when my income barely covered the cost of the daycare, gas and car I needed just to be able to work. I've been don't-eat-so-the-kids-can poor. I've been pick-and-choose-which-bills-to-pay-to-keep-the-show-on-the-road-another-month poor. I've been poor. And it sucks.

It is arguably even harder being poor in a community surrounded by wealth - a wealthy neighbourhood with wealthy neighbours, wealthy friends and wealthy peers. A have-not in a community of haves. That's where I was.

But this article isn't about me. This particular post was prompted by my son's soccer team, of all things.

Readers may remember that I hold the position of team manager for my two older sons' rep teams. This year, my oldest son's U11 team is eligible for the first time to travel outside the Greater Toronto Area for tournaments - a big deal for players who have for years listened to the older athletes talk about their weekends out of town up north or across the border, playing new teams, sleeping in hotels, playing with teammates in hotel pools and racing up and down hotel hallways all night long. The boys have been looking forward to this sort of team experience for years - the sort of experience that will really make them feel like a team, like a family, that will drive home the fact that they are elite athletes and representatives of their town, that will help to bring the families together as a team, too.

Heartbreakingly, there are a couple of boys on our team who may not be able to join us on the out-of-town tournament that we have registered for this year.

Because their parents can't afford it.
And that just, quite simply, sucks.

I know, I know. Rep sports are not a necessity for kids. Participating in a sport at all is, perhaps, more of a want than a need. If you can't afford all the costs, don't register. But...it still sucks.

And I can understand how it feels. Sometimes it really is that close to the line - a couple hundred dollars to cover the cost of a hotel for the weekend is literally beyond the realm of possibility. Sometimes you're living on a budget that really is that tight - every dollar is already accounted for, every expense long planned and managed and budgeted - there's no such thing as surplus, extra spending, wiggle room. There is nothing left to cover an extra, unexpected, surprise expense - and a parent is left having to tell their child that they can't participate in a team event. Because they can't afford to pay for it.

It actually hurts me that there are families in this situation on our team - because I know what that feels like. It's even worse because I know how hard it is to be surrounded by people who can afford it so very easily. If I were in a position to just pay for these boys, I would. But I'm not.

And my heart aches for these kids. And for their moms.
It really sucks to be poor.

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Friday, 3 July 2015

Canada Day in Pleasantville

Summer has officially started with our Town's amazing Canada Day celebration on the first.

The day started off with a parade along Main Street followed by a cake cutting ceremony and free pancake breakfast. The Town park was filled with dozens of food vendors, ice cream trucks and free activities. One baseball diamond was filled with bouncy castles for the kids; another was lined with classic cars for the antique auto show. An entire soccer field was set up as a petting zoo. Stages were scattered throughout the park for performances all day long - a reptile show, an exotic birds show, a traditional Native dance show, an Idol competition, and band after band playing all day long.

There were games and sports and activities: mini golf, beach volleyball, street hockey, lawn "curling," obstacle courses; Canada-themed crafts and take-homes and swag. There was the annual passport activity for kids - a different activity for each province and territory, a stamp for the "passport" at each activity station and a prize for the kids to take home in exchange for their completed "passport."

fireworks, Canada Day, family activitiesAs evening fell the beer tents opened and the big name bands took the stage. Pounding music filled the air, kids raced around with sparklers, the smell of hundreds of backyard barbecues filled the air. We walked the block home for a Canada Day cookout: burgers and hot dogs and corn on the cob and marshmallows over the campfire and sparklers in the backyard. When the sky turned black we walked to the end of the street and set up a blanket by the water's edge to watch the fireworks show - one of the biggest and best around.

Happy Canada Day!


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