Archive for ‘fame and shame’

February 11, 2013

Does this mustache make me look cheap?

by Decemberbaby

Mr. December just turned me on to a blog that I’m now devouring religiously: Mr. Money Mustache. His basic premise is that you can retire early (possibly even VERY early) by cutting your spending drastically and saving most of your income. Sure, lots of people have written about extreme cheapness as a means to financial independence, but Mr. Money Mustache does it without hampering his quality of life: he still eats meat, fresh produce, etc, still has home internet and a phone, still owns a car… he just does it a bit differently.

So, after a year of near-record spending (for us,) we’ve decided to grow a money mustache of our own. We don’t have particularly expensive tastes, but reading MMM has opened our eyes to the fact that you can almost always do the exact same thing for less money.

Take groceries, for example. When K was born (in the dead of winter) I used grocery gateway for a while. Very convenient, and very expensive. I finally started making the effort to drive to Fortino’s, which cut about $30 off my weekly grocery bill. You can imagine how self-congratulatory I was about that. Then Mr. December went on paternity leave, which left us with a seriously reduced income, and he convinced me to try No Frills (think Costco, but with smaller packages.) The exact same groceries at No Frills still added up to less than they had at Fortino’s. Our new resolution was to only do our grocery shopping at No Frills. Savings (over the original, inflated grocery gateway bill): $40 a week. That’s big.

kosher grocery flyer

But wait, there’s more! A few months ago someone clued me in to the fact that No Frills will match any advertised price from any competitor. Suddenly I found a use for the massive sheaf of grocery flyers that land on my porch every Thursday. I’ve gotten into a routine where I peruse the flyers to find products I usually buy, then enter the product name, competitor’s price, and competitor’s name into a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet and relevant flyers go into a plastic envelope with my grocery list, and I hit No Frills at 9 a.m. on Mondays, when it’s relatively empty. On an average week I save about $20 using price matching. This week I happen to have saved more like $40. Add $20 to the previously mentioned $40 drop just by shopping at No Frills, and you have a grocery bill that is a mere shadow of what it used to be. And that makes me happy.

 

Keep in mind here that I haven’t changed what I buy, just where and how I buy it. We still eat all kosher meat and dairy (for those out of the loop, Kosher generally = expensive) and buy a ton of fresh produce, even in the winter. We use real maple syrup on our French Toast and oatmeal. I even splurge and buy convenience items, like frozen garlic cubes, that are completely unnecessary but really nice to have. So our quality of life hasn’t diminished at all. We’re just doing the same thing more cheaply.

Same with clothes. I’ve been buying most of my children’s clothes (as well as their dress shoes) at a local secondhand children’s shop. The clothes are often brand-name items, very gently used, and cost me roughly a quarter of what they would cost new. I bought N’s entire fall/winter wardrobe for about $50. That and two pairs of pants I made him have him outfitted in style.

It’s taken me ages to be able to do this, but after reading Mr. Money Mustache I was determined to see if I could cut back my own clothing budget (doubtful, since I’m hardly a clothes horse.) I went to the thrift shop and looked for a skirt to wear to shul. $6 later, I now have a really cute skirt that has already earned me a few compliments. It looks completely new. I decided to try my luck again (maybe the skirt was a fluke?) and wound up finding a pair of jeans, the exact same brand and cut as the ones I usually buy at the mall, for under $10. Excitement! It’s starting to look like I can outfit myself nicely for about $200 this year (I’d say $100, but I need a cold-weather wardrobe and a warm-weather one, too, and I need to buy new stuff because most of what’s in my closet is still maternity wear.)

This is BIG NEWS, people. I’m eating the same food and wearing the same clothes, but wayyyy less money is leaving our bank account.

Mr. Money Mustache points out that there’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Frugal is buying the same food in a more strategic way so as to end up spending less. Cheap is buying worse-quality food or less healthy food because it costs less. Armed with MMM’s bloggy wisdom and our own grit and determination, Mr. D and I hope to save more in 2013 than we have in any other year of our marriage.  If we succeed, we’ll be well on our way to growing a money mustache of our very own.

I can only hope it's more tasteful-looking than this one.

I can only hope it’s more tasteful-looking than this one.

So… what money-saving strategies can you share with me?

December 26, 2011

Boxing Day

by Decemberbaby

Today we woke up to the realization that we had no plan for the day. Mr. December and I were exhausted. K and N were ready for some action. Days like this are the reason I’m glad we have a membership at the science centre. Some googling revealed that there was a special planetarium show just for little kids, so off we went.

As we left the science centre three hours later, Mr. December and I disagreed on which route to take. I thought the highway would be nice and fast. He felt that the highway would be backed up with Boxing Day shoppers and that we should just take city streets all the way home. I was at the wheel, so I decided. Even if tons of people were going to the mall, how bad could traffic really be? And if it was as bad as Mr. December predicted, I was going to have to see it to believe it.

It was bad, y’all. Even worse than Mr. December thought.

The highway was backed up for about five kilometres. Five kilometres of stop-and-go traffic, barely moving at all. I joked that we were all waiting for one guy in the Yorkdale parking lot to finish loading his purchases and move his car so that one person could park and we could all move ahead ten feet. At the time it was a joke; thirty minutes later, still waiting, it seemed a lot less funny and a lot more plausible.

We were soon able to get to our exit, and as we peeled away from the masses of cars we got a good look at the rest of the situation. Had we wanted to go to the mall we would have probably waited another thirty minutes to actually get to the parking lot. As we passed the mall itself, the LED sign out front declared the state of the various parking lots: FULL. FULL. 6 spots. FULL.

I don’t understand what makes people want to go to the mall on Boxing Day. It’s a total zoo. Besides, didn’t everyone just get piles of gifts for Christmas? What more do people need?

Probably not much. I remember when K was about 2 years old I began to correct her when she said she “needed” something like a cookie, a trip to the park, a new shirt, etc. I was explicit about the difference between “need” and “want”. She now uses those two verbs appropriately, which is impressive given how many adults seem to have trouble telling the difference. At the risk of being flamed, I’m going to suggest that nobody actually needs a flat-panel LCD television. Probably most of the people at the mall don’t need new clothes either, but they sure want them – must keep up with the latest styles! And the retail industry knows this.

It’s amazing how a day that used to be about wealthy landowners taking boxes of gifts and necessities to their tenants and poorer neighbours has been turned into a push to buy more stuff. Heaven knows that if left to their own devices most people wouldn’t feel the need to go shopping again after the gift-buying frenzy leading up to Christmas, but wave a 50% discount in their faces and suddenly all kinds of “needs” crop up, needs dire enough to make folks want to spend two hours sitting in traffic and trying to find a parking spot, heedless of the value of their time and not thinking that those are two hours of their lives they won’t get back.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all went back to the original meaning of Boxing Day? Everyone could load up a box with things for a needy individual or family – toiletries; warm hats, gloves, and coats for the winter; some food; a toy or two for the children – and deliver it in person. Then we could all come back to our warm and cozy homes filled with all the things we need (and most of the things we want), and get on with enjoying the day off work. I’d even be willing to sit in traffic for that kind of Boxing Day.

In the meantime, today’s traffic jam taught me something important: when the zombie apocalypse comes and we all need to flee the city, don’t drive – take the bakfiets!

 

September 19, 2011

Cynical about full-day kindergarten

by Decemberbaby

I just couldn’t shut up about this one. Jennifer in Mamaland recently asked a government representative about the new full-day Junior kindergarten program in Ontario. She was directed to a government page about the issue, entitled “the research is in” that explains why full-day kindergarten is such a good idea.

I’m married to a cynical engineer, and I have a touch of cynic in me too, so I take all research citations with a grain of salt. But for some reason, this list (and the way it was worded) just really irked me. Here is the text of the page in italics, and my cynical responses.

Many studies have shown that full-day learning programs for four- and five-year-olds can have a positive impact on their academic, social and emotional development. These programs also give the children’s parents more opportunities to work towards a better future for their families. For example:

Notice the weasel phrasing “can have a positive impact”. Sure it can. But “can” is not the same as “consistently does”. Watch out for weasel words, people. As for the programs giving more opportunities for parents to earn more money, doesn’t that mean that we’re providing free daycare for 4-year-olds? Anyhow, let’s look at the research:

  • A Rutgers University study found that prolonged and regular full-day preschool attendance significantly increased children’s verbal and mathematics test scores in Grade 1 and beyond.

Which children? Where? What was the socioeconomic status of the children being followed? And once again, notice the weasel words “in Grade 1 and beyond”. Grade 2 is beyond Grade 1, but if the test scores are only elevated for those two years, that means that eventually everyone evens out regardless of kindergarten attendance. So let’s clarify: how far “beyond” were these test scores elevated? And on another note, could their test scores be higher because they’re being trained in test-taking behaviour at an earlier age?

  • A University of Ottawa study found that full-day preschool programs for four-year-old children had a positive effect on the children’s language and academic learning.

That’s great. How large was this effect? Was it sustained past the kindergarten year? And “positive” is pretty vague. Did the kids enjoy it more? Retain more information? Learn to actually use the information?

  • That same study noted that parents of the children enrolled in the full-day program observed higher levels of progress in their children, and that the teachers observed that children in the full-day program more easily adjusted to academic life than children who attended a half-day program.
Oh, I see. Thanks for clarifying that. Let’s point out that this couldn’t possibly have been a double-blind study, so parents’ observations of progress might be because they expected to see progress, or that they wanted to justify committing their kids to a full day in school for whatever reason. Also, “higher levels of progress” than whom? Than a different set of kids and parents? Than what they expected? Once again, there’s a serious lack of specificity here.
As for the teachers’ observation of easier adjustment, it’s fairly obvious that it takes kids a fair amount of time to get used to school at the beginning. So if your kid begins full-day schooling at age four, he or she will be pretty much adjusted to it by halfway through the following year. Kids who start at age five will, by comparison with the previous group, seem to adjust more slowly. They actually are adjusting at the same rate, it’s just a difference in when they started the process.
My nasty inner cynic also wants to ask: does “adjusted to academic life” mean “got used to sitting quietly, quelling their urge to play, learning to please the teacher, and following instructions”? Because if that’s the case, is that really what we think is appropriate for a four-year-old?
  • Early childhood programs that help compensate children for difficult home and community environments and that support parents to work or upgrade their job skills are highly effective at reducing the rate and depth of family poverty.

OK, I buy this. So we’re talking about a segment of the population who can benefit from this. It doesn’t mean that my child or yours will benefit. So why is it mandatory? Also, while full-day kindergarten does allow parents to work longer hours, how exactly does it support them to upgrade their job skills? That one seems like a red herring.

  • A recent study from Harvard University found that students who learned more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college and earn more over time.
Really? No kidding! You know, learning also happens at home, from the richness of the parents’ vocabulary to the availability of books, and those things (and others) probably impact how much the child is able to learn in kindergarten. Not to mention that the kids more likely to go to college and earn more are probably the children of parents who have college degrees and encourage their children to enter professions with the potential for higher earnings.
I’m sorry to have to disappoint the government of Ontario, but they’ve failed to convince me that there’s a long-term benefit to full-day kindergarten that can be absolutely attributed to the kindergarten program itself. Nice try, Ministry of Education, but don’t give up your day job.
Oh, wait, this is their day job. Crap.
August 2, 2011

They should pay me to do this… stroller review time!

by Decemberbaby

Last Thursday afternoon the kids and I headed over to the baby store to try out some double strollers. We had four major contenders: Britax B-ready, Bugaboo Donkey, Baby Jogger City Select, and Uppababy Vista.

I won’t keep you in suspense. The winner, hands down, was the Britax B-ready. The other hands-down winner was the store itself – Moms to Be… and More on Bayview. They’re just that good, and no, they’re not paying me to say so (although I did tell them that if they ever want a stroller review feature on their website, I’d be happy to be a tester/reviewer). Their customer service is fabulous, they actually know their products extremely well, and they allow you to take the strollers out of the store to test them on the streets or to try fitting them into your car.

My method for testing the strollers was simple: strap both kids (K is 3.5 years old, 33 pounds, and of average height for her age although I don’t know right this second how high that is; N is 13 months, 20 pounds and change, and almost 31 inches high) into a stroller and push it outside on the sidewalk, taking care to go over lots of potholes and uneven ground, down and up curbs without curb-cuts. If there was a front seat and a back seat, I made sure to switch the kids halfway to see how the stroller pushed with the heavier child in front vs. in back. We then took the stroller over to our car, folded it, and stowed it in the trunk of our ’07 Yaris hatchback.

So… here are my observations:

Baby Jogger City Select

I wanted to love this stroller. Everyone I know who has one absolutely loves it… but I just couldn’t. No matter which child sat in front, the stroller was heavy to push and heavy to turn. I tried getting up a curb, but the stroller was just too heavy for me to pop a wheelie in. While it’s true that there are numerous configurations for the seats, very few of them allow both children to recline and even fewer allow one child to recline while the other sits upright. Seat-wise, K was pretty much too tall for it. We raised the canopy (you can do that on both seats) and that helped, but her head was seriously an inch away from the top of the canopy. Oh, the canopy. It’s just huge. You get fabulous sun coverage.

The handlebar adjusts nicely and does go low enough for me to push comfortably (I’m short and I like to have my wrists in a neutral position – not angled upward – when I push). The fold is incredibly easy and incredibly small, which is one of the reasons I wanted to love the stroller. The storage basket seems pretty huge, and is accessible from front and back with zippers. The brake is hand-operated and seems very solid.

The City Select has some neat features, but it fell short of the mark for me because of how difficult it was for me to turn.

Britax B-Ready

This was my conditional winner from last time, so I was eager to see how it fared with actual kids in it. First things first – K only wanted to sit in the rumble seat. You know, the seat that adults look at and say, “but do the kids actually like sitting so low down?” Yes, they do. When asked about it later, K informed us that the bottom seat was “more fun”. Nevertheless, I put her in the main seat as well for the sake of my review. No matter who was in which seat, the stroller pushed easily and turned on a dime – even one-handed. I was also able to pop a wheelie to get up on the curb, which bodes well for taking this thing on city buses. I liked how the handle adjusts – with an articulated joint as opposed to telescoping – and it got low enough for me to have my hands almost at hip level with my wrists nice and straight. It also goes low enough for K to push.

The main seat has a nice, big sunshade, and the rumble seat’s sunshade is big enough to touch the back of the main seat when they both face forward, so it’s fair to say that both kids get decent sun coverage. Both seats also have a mesh peek-a-boo window that closes with a magnet, and when open allows a nice breeze through. In terms of size, K sat comfortably in both seats although she’s pretty close to the rumble seat’s 35 pound limit. While the kid in the rumble seat does end up resting his or her feet in the basket it hardly matters since the basket is so huge. It’s accessible from the front and sides through zippered openings, so there’s no need to disturb the rear passenger.

Seat configurations are theoretically fewer than on the City Select, but the ones that are available actually work in practice. One or both children can recline in all the configurations without intruding too much on each other’s space. One potential issue for us – while there is a car seat adaptor available, it doesn’t list our Graco snugride (the old kind with a 22-lb limit) as compatible. I need to find out whether there’s a suitable hack for that.

The wheels on the Britax aren’t air tires, or even foam-filled. They’re just… plastic? rubber? I don’t know… but it didn’t seem to detract from the smoothness of the ride, and we’re not particularly looking for off-road capabilities. Better tires would be a nice touch, but c’est la vie, n’est-ce pas? The rear wheels are also quite far apart, making this stroller wider than it initially looks. Again, it’s something that I’d like to see change, but it is what it is. The brake is fabulous – push once to engage, push again to disengage – and doesn’t punish those of us who wear flip-flops and sandals in the summer.

Finally, the fold. The Britax folds with both seats on, although it’s too bulky to fit in our Yaris that way. I tried it with just the rear seat attached (detaching the main seat is a breeze) and was just able to close the hatch. Without either seat the frame folds up extremely flat and both seats can be stored alongside it in our trunk. Win!

Uppababy Vista

I loaded both kids into the Uppa, with K claiming the rumble seat immediately. Incidentally, the rumble seat doesn’t recline at all. Anyhow, I immediately noticed that this stroller was harder to turn than the Britax and seemed much heavier to push – probably because the second child is out over the front axle instead of in the rear. Naturally, with all that weight right over the front axle it’s impossible to pop a wheelie to get up over a curb or onto a bus. The handlebar telescopes, but even at the lowest setting it was too high for my comfort. Clearly, UppaBaby is a stroller for taller parents, of which I’ll never be one. It was so uncomfortable for me to push – the handle height as well as the difficult maneuvering – that I decided to give up just moments after getting it outside. The Uppababy Vista may be a wonderful stroller (and many reviews say that it is), but it’s not for me.

Bugaboo Donkey

The staff at the store assured me that they had fixed the sticky telescoping handlebar problem we encountered last time, so I decided we should take the Donkey for a test run. I put the kids into their seats and got ready to leave the store. Not one minute later, both kids started to squirm, whine, and scream, all the while attempting to escape. I don’t know what the real problem was, but if the kids won’t even sit in the stroller then there’s no way I can buy it. For those tempted to blame the kids’ behaviour on exhaustion, know that K was perfectly happy and eager to climb back into the other strollers we’d tried. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t get to try the Donkey out under actual road conditions, but apparently my kids have decided that it’s a really lame-ass stroller (pun intended).

So… that’s it. We still have to work out the carseat issue with the Britax, but otherwise our decision is made.. Kudos to Britax on this one! And sorry, Bugaboo, you lose.

July 21, 2011

Who’d’a thought persistence would pay off?

by Decemberbaby

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Internets, I present you with photographic evidence that it CAN be done! We’ve installed three carseats across the backseat of our Yaris hatchback. What’s more, it looks like we’ll be able to keep 3 across even when the littlest one switches to forward facing.

Behold:

This is the view from the driver's side. Britax Roundabout forward facing, Sunshine Radian forward facing, and rear facing Graco snugride.

That’s right, we didn’t even need a second Radian – in fact, the difference in seat height and base design between the Roundabout and the Radian really helped us out. The Roundabout seat is higher and farther forward, so the sides can overlap the Radian a bit without encroaching on the Radian’s seating space. Here, have a look from the other side:

See what I mean about the overlap? You can see how the side impact cushion of the Roundabout is just slightly forward of the sides of the Radian.

The keen observers among you might have noticed that all three carseats have been installed with seatbelts rather than with the LATCH belt. The locations of the LATCH anchors wouldn’t allow us to place the carseats this way. Don’t worry, seatbelt installation is perfectly safe. And the two forward-facing seats are properly tethered at the rear. See?

For some unfathomable reason, the Yaris has 3 rear tether anchors but only 2 sets of LATCH anchors. I'm not complaining, though - this is a very good thing for our purposes.

So that’s it. Not only have we managed to fit three carseats across, we’ve done it with the three carseats we already owned – so not only do we not need to buy a new car, we don’t even need to buy new carseats! WOOT!

We’re going to drive around with this configuration for a month or so and make sure that it’s workable for us. Of course, this brings me back to an old dilemma: which double stroller that I like can fit into my tiny hatchback trunk?

June 20, 2011

Why it’s the city’s fault that I’m getting fat and lazy

by Decemberbaby

Our bakfiets has a flat tire. Again. This is the third flat in as many weeks.

I was biking the kids up to K’s school to meet her friend for a playdate when I realized that my turns were feeling sluggish. Sticky, almost. I got off and took a look… totally flat. Not a slow leak, not any warning, just flat.

Did I mention that I was supposed to be picking up said friend and riding her to the park where her mom would meet us later? Yeah.

We made other arrangements, and everyone got to the park. The bike is safely stashed in my parents’ garage, and the offending wheel is waiting in the trunk of my car. I’ll take it in for repair tomorrow. But boy, what a nuisance. And once again, the city has put me out of a bike for a few days.

The city? you ask. How? I’ll tell you:

Bike infrastructure in Toronto is no great shakes. Some streets have bike lanes, which frequently get blocked by delivery trucks and even police cars. Most streets have nothing. Bikes over a certain size (so functionally, all adult bikes) are considered vehicles and thus it is illegal to ride them on the sidewalk. That leaves cyclists to bike on the shoulder of the road where all the debris collects: shards of glass, stray nails from construction sites, bits of metal from auto collisions past. Oh, and don’t get me started on the potholes, which don’t seem to deserve repair if they’re less than a metre and a half from the curb. All of these things are a recipe for flat tires.

I try to ride on side streets as much as possible, not because I feel unsafe on major arterial roads (I don’t) but because I can more easily swerve to avoid potholes and debris. That just doesn’t fly on Bathurst Street, especially not in the narrow, dark, poorly repaired section that passes under the 401. And there is no way to cross the 401 (i.e. to get from south to north) except by traversing the tunnel.

So I must conclude that it’s the city’s fault that I keep getting flats. Of course the situation could be improved if our city recognized the need to keep the shoulder of the road in better repair, or if street sweepers were sent out more often and did a more thorough job at the edges of the road. Or, you know, the city could actually construct and maintain proper bike lanes so that cyclists could have a little freedom to move over when confronting a pile of broken glass. But only the folks whom Don Cherry called “bike-riding pinkos” could get behind a plan like that, right?

Bottom line: it looks like no biking for me for the next day or two at least. I’ll be in my car getting fat and lazy, courtesy of the city’s lack of infrastructure.

June 3, 2011

It just dawned on me…

by Decemberbaby

Yes, these are our diapers. No, that's not my backyard clothesline. This photo was taken while we were on vacation in February.

Pardon the pun, but I’m really excited about this. So excited, in fact, that I’m sharing it just an hour before Shabbat begins, despite the fact that I’m REALLY not ready for shabbat.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but we cloth diaper. Most of the time. And since Mr. December was determined that it shouldn’t cause him any more work that disposables, we use Bumgenius. They’re shaped like ‘sposies, they have velcro like ‘sposies, they go on and come off like ‘sposies. But they’re made of synthetic fabrics (which help them to be absorbent and to feel drier), and after a while they start to stink. As in, the kind of stink that doesn’t come out in the regular wash.

Last week I finally kicked the stink problem in the rear. The secret ingredient is… Dawn. Yes, the dish detergent. The blue one.

Diaper manufacturers will tell you that if your diapers stink, you need to “strip” them by scrubbing each one with Dawn and then rinsing many times in the machine. I tried that, and the stink stayed away… for a week. Then it came back.

Exasperated, I decided to put a little Dawn straight into the washer. Just Dawn, without any other detergent or peroxide bleach or anything. And you know what? The diapers smell clean. No matter how I throw them into the diaper pail (and boy, are some of them toxic when I toss them in) they come out white and smelling sweet. I think I’m in love. Not to mention that the dish soap cost me $1.29 for a bottle that will probably do about 100 loads of diapers, while the special detergent I was using before is about ten times that cost for about 50 loads. Hooray for cheap!

So yeah, that’s my excitement for the day. I never said my life was newsworthy…

Shabbat Shalom!

(No, I haven’t received any free stuff or promotional items from either Dawn or Bumgenius. But if one or both of them wants to furnish me with free stuff… who am I to argue?)

May 12, 2011

Black and Decker WIN!

by Decemberbaby

I have to say, I love it when I get an intelligent and genuinely helpful customer service representative.

Backstory: last year we bought a cordless lawnmower on Craigslist. It worked for a few months, then started covering progressively less ground until one day it just wouldn’t start. We suspected a new battery was in order.

I called B&D today. After getting redirected a few times, I finally spoke to someone at their office who told me that a new battery would cost $227.72. After my exclamation of “wow”, she pointed out that for $220 I can bring the lawnmower to them and they’ll service it, get the whole thing running like new including any inoperative parts. Wow!

Looks like one of us is making the trek to Mississauga tomorrow so that we can finally start cutting our lawn.

Thanks, helpful Black & Decker employee!