Given my penchant for reading, I suspect I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I buy very few books.
Two shelves on Abby’s bedroom built-ins are filled with books, and we have a small bookshelf in the family room with under 100 books (a combination of adult + picture). Of the books we own, almost all have been handed down, gifted, purchased for a university course, or thrifted.
Some of it is economics – I’m a naturally frugal person and books aren’t an area where I generally want to spend money. (I’ve told this story before, but I think of it often: one of my best friends in college did a major budgeting session with her husband right after their wedding which resulted in strict spending guidelines but, she told me, “We both agreed there would be no limit on buying books!”)
I also don’t like clutter, and books can quickly become a major source of clutter.
So where do I get my books?
My number one source is the library (~95% of all the books I read). I visit our library – nestled inside a repurposed railway station – on a weekly basis. I also spend time every few weeks ordering books through their online portal (while I love wandering and browsing the shelves, since COVID, I order 80%+ of my books) and always have a stack on my bedside table.
I also regularly visit one of the many take-a-book/leave-a-book libraries that have cropped up around our little town, but this is pretty hit-and-miss and tends to house mostly thrillers and other fiction.
I occasionally source books second-hand at used book stores or thrift shops – or borrow them from friends – but the library is my happy place.
I have started to buy a few more books in recent years, but only after I’ve already read them (I am a big re-reader); I have most of Gretchen Rubin’s books, I asked for (and received) a boxset of the Harry Potter series a few Christmases ago, and started working on a James Herriot collection this year. In a shock decision, I ordered Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet within a day of finishing because I wanted it on my shelf (second-hand via Amazon).
How do you get your kids to read?
Growing up my Dad was always reading (my Mom enjoyed reading, but said she didn’t have the time for it, which I 100% understand now, but her statement flummoxed me at the time).
I tend to be a fast reader/like to skim and tend toward nonfiction which I think lends itself better to being picked up/put down frequently. So I read a lot of books (100+/year)
The kids see me reading regularly and, since the time they were infants, I’ve also been reading to them.
Picture books are still in steady rotation at our house, though I can feel this phase slowly slipping past me. I adore picture books and find there are often profound messages waiting for both parent and child.
During their early years, I would read to them multiple times a day. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve had to be more deliberate about carving out time for this. For a while I was splitting up bedtime by reading chapter books with Abby (in her room) and picture books with Levi (in his room). Now that both kids can comprehend the same reading level and go to bed at the same time, I tend to read almost exclusively at the table. I often finish eating first and will grab a book and start reading, especially at breakfast; on Saturday and Sunday nights they eat before John and I, so I read to them for the duration of their supper meal.
Once a week or so, we’ll cuddle on the couch at bedtime and read a chapter of whatever book we’re working on (currently: The Mysterious Benedict Society) or a handful of picture books.
I do miss reading to them each night. It was a nice wind-down ritual but I haven’t found a great way of reinstituting this routine now that the kids are more independent and bedtime is more streamlined; they dress themselves, brush their own teeth and, in a bittersweet development, sometimes want to just read on their own. Yet another example this This too shall pass.
P.S. Parenting Hack: Read Books With Accompanying Movies – I blogged about how we’ve been reading chapter books with accompanying movies; there were also some great suggestions in the comment section we haven’t gotten to yet! The kids watched a Pippi Longstocking movie this weekend, and we finally got around to watching Anne of Green Gables + another version of Heidi over March Break.
This is either a post you’re going to linger over with a tall cup of hot coffee until it turns cold…or you’re going to fall asleep by the end of the second paragraph, amazed anyone is actually interested in reading this sort of thing.
So, if this isn’t your type of post, no hard feelings.
I’ve had a few questions about how our family keeps track of expenditures and if I recommend a particular accounting software, so I thought I’d tackle the subject today with a big ol’ roundup.
How do you budget?
Technically, I don’t think I’d call what we do budgeting. At this point, we don’t set aside specific amounts for different categories. We do, sometimes, make decisions with a cap in mind (this is a completely hypothetical example, but I could imagine us saying something like: “We’ll only buy a bathroom vanity that is under $350“). For the most part, I think our strategy would be better described as mindful tracking.
And, more generally, we just aim to be as frugal as possible. Boring perhaps, but true. The pandemic has impacted travel and adventuring but we typically aim to spend money on experiences and memories over “stuff”.
do you use accounting software to manage your finances?
Years and years ago I had to use Quickbooks as part of a job; it was fine, but certainly not my idea of fun. (Remember: my idea of fun is reorganizing sock drawers, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that an evening spent on Quickbooks wouldn’t strike a similar chord. Alas, it doesn’t.)
Then, about a decade ago, when working in a local business incubator, we were introduced to a free program called Wave which is what we/our accountant still use to manage corporate finances. (Note: there are some paid features that could apply to certain users but, for personal finances, the functionality of the free version should more than suffice and I find it easier to use than Quickbooks.)
Despite being very familiar with Wave, it felt like more detail than I needed for tracking personal finances.
*Note: I know lots of people swear by You Need a Budget (YNAB). I’ve never tried it – and don’t plan to – but it might be something to check out if you’re on the hunt for a budgeting software?
…so what do you do?
Great question, hypothetical reader – I’m so glad you asked.
I use a spreadsheet.
Shortly after month-end, I export all the transactions from our credit cards and chequing account as a .csv file. I then manually copy and paste the different expenditures into the relevant categories in a spreadsheet.
It’s very simple…
There are totals for each category at the bottom. There is a different tab for each month, along with a summary tab that collates data from all the months. This final tab is where I do basic calculations, including monthly averages for each category.
how do you break down “lumped” receipts?
I don’t, sigh. By this, I’m referring to a trip to the grocery store where I might buy croutons AND green onion AND bananas AND Gorilla Glue AND toilet paper (because that is life as an adult.)
There are two categories where this is most applicable: “Groceries” and “Misc”.
For example, I do a lot of shopping at a local pharmacy. They have most kitchen staples, usually at the lowest prices (and they have a fantastic rewards program to boot). So I go there to get butter, frozen fruit, milk, tea, eggs – anything aside from fresh produce, I can likely source from this store. BUT…I also end up buying sunscreen and sanitary/cleaning products and stuffed animals for birthday parties.
I do not separate this out. Ever.
So our spreadsheet definitely an art (albeit messy), not a science. And if we did have specific numeric values associated for a budget within each category, I’d really need to up my game in being more careful with allocation.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU don’t you track?
We don’t track cash. If someone gave me $100 for looking cheerful as I walked down the street (wouldn’t that be nice), it would go straight in my wallet, never to show up in the spreadsheet.
If we bought a pair of used skis off Kijiji (like Craigslist) for $100, that would not show up in the spreadsheet.
Investments also don’t show up on the main pages, either. On that final summary spreadsheet, I have a running tally of what’s in various investment accounts – including retirement savings, the remaining balance on our mortgage, and the college/university savings program for the kids. So while we have a snapshot of this information, it doesn’t factor into the tracked expenditures. So, for example, if we had $200 getting deposited into a savings account each month, this wouldn’t show up in the monthly spreadsheets…but would be accounted for in the overall equity tracking on the final spreadsheet.
what categories do you track?
The screenshot above, from 2022, is slightly different from previous years. I’ve teased out a few new categories (for example, I added in “Gifts” since this was falling under the “Misc” heading which was feeling too broad). And I’m going to add in a Renovation tab as well – the reasoning behind that will be better explained below.
But from 2018-2021 here are the categories we used:
Household – includes: house insurance, mortgage payments, property taxes, renovations, hot water tank/propane tank rental, heating oil, electric/sewer bills. If we buy a plunger or a house plant, it goes here. Mattress, new sheets, lightbulbs, someone to mow the lawn or paint the living room? All under household.
Charitable – includes: any donations that are tax deductible/we have a receipt for (see note on cash above; if I give $5 to someone bagging groceries to fund a band trip, this won’t show up in the spreadsheet).
Auto – includes: fuel, insurance, repairs.
Kids – includes: camp/school fees, kids clothing if it was very specifically just for them (if I spend $50 on second hand clothing but 1/2 of it’s mine, this will go under “Clothes;” if I spend $100 to buy the kids new sneakers for school, this will go under “Kids.” Again – these sheets are an art, not a science and I’m fine with that. Until 2020 we had preschool fees, so there was a big drop in 2020 when COVID + starting primary meant Levi was no longer in preschool. While I’m now hiring a babysitter every week or so, I pay her in cash so…you guessed it…that doesn’t show up in the spreadsheet.
Groceries – includes: food from a grocery store (NO restaurants) + can also include miscellaneous household products that can be purchased at a grocery store (toilet paper, cleaning products will almost all show up here).
Recurring – I’ve changed this for 2022, but it used to include: life insurance, telephone/internet (the latter is now covered by work, so not included in 2020 or 2021) and some monthly household expenses – like our hot-water tank rental (how boring is that? I love my hot showers but somehow I never envisioned adult life to be so practically uninspiring that a monthly line item is renting a hot-water tank) – which I’ve now moved over to “Household”.
Travel – includes: any airfare, meals/entertainment etc. while travelling.
Clothes – includes: clothes. This is a small category for us, and about 90% of all items are sourced second-hand.
Meals/Entertainment – includes: trips to the movies/zoo etc., any restaurant or take-out meal, Spotify/Netflix/Disney+ subscriptions
Health – includes: any medications, chiropractor/massage/dental work. Chances are, though, if I buy something like Advil at the pharmacy along with a grocery order, that will get lumped under “Groceries”.
Misc – includes: gifts, trips to the DollarStore (could be craft supplies, prizes, decorations etc). Orders from online (Amazon, Aliexpress). Sometimes I’ll put a bigger order into the appropriate category (e.g. a pair of shoes off Amazon might go under clothes; hypothetical as I’m quite certain we’ve never ordered a pair of shoes off Amazon!). For 2022 I’ve teased out Gifts and VV (Value Village, one of our favourite places to thrift, but for very miscellaneous things, so I gave it a category of its own).
This is a lot of words. Do you have pictures?
Thank you, once again, hypothetical questioner extraordinaire. I do, in fact, have some pictures.
But first, a huge caveat. These numbers are quite distorted because I really should have had subcategories under the House designation. Things like mortgage payments and renovations (investments) versus utilities and property taxes (sunk costs) should ideally be kept separate. So the house category is a HUGE chunk of the expenditure pie, but this includes a lot of different inputs surrounding homeownership that don’t necessarily all belong together.
Wow. Household was big (55.8%) – this was the year we had to excavate all around the perimeter of our property to improve drainage. Ugh. Yet another very un-fun reality of being an adult. Health was very, very low (0.5%).
Kids would be almost exclusively preschool fees (7.7%); Meals and Entertainment is consistently between (2-3%). Household dropped to 41.3% (no major renovations or repairs in 2019, thank goodness).
It took me a while to sort out the Charitable tab for 2020. Why so high? Then I realized, charitable giving is always related to income, where other expenses aren’t (for example, if we make extra money, we don’t pay more for our telephone bill). So this reflects a bump in income, while expenses stayed the same. “Kids” expenses halved (down to 3.3%) because we only had preschool for a few months and, beyond that, there was NOTHING OUR CHILDREN COULD DO because we had just started living in a pandemic world.
2021 was all about the house and a lot of this was renovations. When we bought out 1970’s house we knew there was work to be done. A rotting exterior structure had to be removed (2021), windows needed to be replaced (2021), we wanted to add insulation since our walls are very thin and it gets very cold in the winter (2021), adding insulation meant we really should re-do the exterior (2021). You get the idea. So it was a very big year for the house. Again, though, it would be helpful if I had broken this down into fixed costs (utilities, home insurance etc.) vs investments (mortgage + renovations).
“Household” represents the majority of our expenditures. This makes sense; paying down our mortgage + a lot of home repairs. From extensive excavating work to fix drainage issues, to replacing windows and doors – there have been major expenses associated with owning a home.
We spend very little on: “Health,” “Meals and Entertainment,” and “Clothes” (for the latter our max spend rate was in 2020 when this was 1.0% of our expenditures for the year; the minimum was 0.6%).
Now that we have no regular childcare, the “Kids” category is also very low. This will likely pick up as both kids will do some sports this summer and, as pandemic restrictions ease, there will be more opportunities for camps and the like.
let’s talk groceries
Yes, please. Let’s talk groceries.
We love to eat. Like really, really love to eat. I’ve written about this before but we tend to eat simple meals. We don’t buy organic but do eat a lot of whole foods…which aren’t cheap. We have found a lot of great ways to save money at the grocery store (shopping sales and reduced produce being the biggest money-savers for us).
But groceries are more variable than expected.
Our monthly cost of groceries only went up by $3 from 2018 to 2019. Then it took a HUGE leap in 2020, going up by $229 extra PER MONTH! I puzzled and puzzled over this (until my puzzler was sore; thanks, Dr. Seuss) and then realized: John stopped traveling! He was away 50% of the time before COVID, and Levi’s preschool also shut down so we were suddenly doing a lot more eating at home. And while we didn’t eat out much before COVID, this completely dried up for months (and that food would have been shunted over to Meals and Entertainment).
This all makes complete sense now, but at first glance I was incredulous! Why the sudden spike? COVID, of course…
Last year, in 2021, we actually spent almost $50 less per month on groceries from 2020. That one I’ve not quite figured out? Maybe we spent less on household miscellany, as I don’t think we’re eating less!?
I am confident, though, that our grocery expenditures will go up significantly as food prices are starting to jump at alarming rates. I rang up a jug of milk last week and actually went back to the fridge compartment to check that the price was correct. It went up by $1.20 IN ONE WEEK. Milk. A subsidized, staple food (that I don’t drink, but my kids sure do)!
And there you have it. An overview of how we/I track expenditures. Nothing too exciting but, as Gretchen Rubin says, you monitor what you measure. And as we want to be wise stewards with our money, it feels prudent to monitor spending habits.
What about you? Do you love budgeting? Do you track things monthly and use software? Anyone else go old-school with Excel spreadsheets?
I really dislike throwing out food; something deep inside me feels immense guilt and frustration. Not only is it wasteful environmentally and financially, but I also feel like I’m slowly understanding the true value/cost of food – the time and money and human effort and fossil fuels that go into putting that product into my fridge is mind-blowing (for more on this, check out A.J. Jacobs book Thanks A Thousand, where he thanks 1,000 people responsible for his morning cup of coffee).
In our household, we do everything we can to reduce food waste.
At the same time, we try to provide healthy, palate-broadening meals for our kids. Do they love white carbs? Absolutely. But they also like olives and aged cheeses and spinach salad and sushi and scrambled eggs and fresh fruit and veggies.
For the most part, they eat exactly what we eat. Kids eating habits can be a touchy subject and modern parents think about this a lot more than my parent’s generation. We try to balance realistic expectations and healthy eating patterns (nothing too restrictive, not calling things “good” or “bad” – they eat chocolate cake and cereal and boxed Mac N’ Cheese), with wanting to expose our children to lots and lots of whole foods.
Now back to those waste solutions…
1. HAVE GO-TO “KITCHEN SINK” MEALS
These are meals that will be flexible enough to include just about anything. I know produce choices vary widely, so I’ll make a few specific suggestions from things we eat:
Leftover spinach and zucchini can go in…everything. Also, if your spinach needs to be consumed and you won’t use it in time, I just pop mine in the freezer for soups or smoothies. (Side note: this week my blog friend Suzanne categorized zucchini as the khaki trouser of the produce section and it’s so true – it goes with everything; tangent alert: if you’re really ready to howl, read her take on waiting for the doctor and wrangling into hospital gowns – we’ve all been there, and she just articulates the experience perfectly and hilariously).
I have a Chicken Pot Pie soup recipe that can play host to just about any vegetable. It calls for potato, carrot, celery, corn, peas, and grean beans but I have added spinach, zucchini, sweet potato, and turnip. Aside from the veggies, it’s just chicken stock (or I often cheat and just use water and some extra salt), shredded chicken, cream or coconut milk, thyme, salt and pepper; this is one of the easiest recipes I make – the corn and green beans are canned, the peas are frozen – and is one of the kids favourite meals; one time I counted and we had 13 veggies in the soup!
Chili is another great meal for using up extra veggies. To reduce time and mess (and to make vegetable textures less of an issue – neither of the kids enjoys mushrooms and one is quite resistent to bell peppers), I will blitz things up in the food processor. In a chili I made recently I chopped up: spinach, mushrooms (that I had bought reduced by 50%, see below), zucchinni, carrots, bell peppers and onion. We all devoured it.
Interestingly, I do find the kid’s preferences vary by meal. As mentioned, one child loathes raw bell peppers and will even pick them out of a stir-fry (or eat them with gritted teeth and lots of glaring); yet this same child has no problem with finely diced, cooked red peppers in one of my favourite meals ever – Chicken Mango Curry (I got my recipe from a book and can’t find it online, but this one is close). So if you have an anti-veggie child, it might be worth trying various meals with the disliked veggie?
I don’t eat much bread, but the kids typically have toast a few times a week for breakfast. We occassionally have an extra bagel, waffle, or a few slices of bread left over. Instead of throwing them out, I cube them up and pop them into the deep freeze. Once the bag is full, I pull it out and the cubes get turned into Baked French Toast (since I cube it before it’s frozen, I can actually prep it while frozen and then just leave it to soak/defrost in the fridge for a few hours or overnight before baking). I use a modified version of the Pioneer Woman’s recipe and the kids LOVE it. I also buy a lot of our bread reduced by 50%; it’s usually still days away from it’s best-before date, but I’ll freeze the bread and just defrost it straight from the freezer in the toaster.
2. Shop more often + buy less
I think some of this is the minimalist in me talking, but I enjoy seeing an almost-empty fridge because I start to feel panicky when I catch glimpses of a lot of food that needs to be used up. For context – our 1970’s kitchen cabinets were designed to hold an apartment-sized fridge. If you think that’s crazy, friends of ours designed their renovated kitchen to only contain a bar fridge and toaster oven + portable induction burners. No full-sized (or apartment-sized) fridge; no oven/stovetop. Now that’s crazy. Unless you only have a bar fridge and toaster oven in which case it’s not crazy but very, very normal.
I do set up vague meal plans for the week, jotting down 4-5 ideas based on what’s on sale or what we have in the fridge, but don’t plan a concrete menu. I typically go to the grocery store at least twice a week. When we run out of fresh fruit or need more baby spinach, I know it’s time to go back.
This isn’t necessarily feasible for many people; I live 5 minutes from a small grocery store and it’s easy to pop in and out whenever necessary. But, if it is an option for where you live/your lifestyle, I think it is probably the primary way we avoid food waste.
3. Make Hodge-Podge Meals
We do this a lot and literally call them Hodge Podge meals.
The kids will often ask: “Can we have hodgepodge for lunch?” For this we use a random assortment of leftovers – that little dish of soup that’s not enough for a meal but, when augmented with cheese cubes, raw veggies, and some apple slices, is more than enough to go around.
Some things like cheese and olives are stable for a longer time in the fridge, so I use more or less of these depending on what I’m trying to use up. If I have hardboiled eggs, shaved turkey, and fresh raspberries that all need to be consumed, I might not even offer crackers or other non-perishables on the side.
4. identify your key offenders (and justify your purchases)
The worst for us is definitely avocados.
We love avocados but they never seem to be ready when I need them and then I end up forgetting about them until they’ve gone soft and brown. I get so frustrated anytime I have to throw out an avocado.
Grapes can also fall under this category, cucumbers have an annoying tendency of sneaking up from behind and going slimy, and I find it hard to get through an entire bunch of cilantro in time (but, see below, I have a plan for that too and it involves the freezer).
I now make sure I have a specific plan for avocados before I buy them. Being on sale isn’t good enough. Better to buy them full price and USE them, rather than buying a bag on sale and throwing most of them away. Avocados also can’t be frozen and don’t go into soups, so they’re harder to use up – for me – because they have a more narrow range of use than something like spinach (and I never seem to think of making guacamole).
This reminds me a bit of my habit of looking over my cart before I check out. For food products that I know won’t keep long (i.e. perishable fruits/veggies + meat), I try to make sure I have a clear plan for the item. It can be tempting to get things on a good sale or because it looks interesting or temptingly delicious, but I have left produce with the cashier when I realize there is a good chance some of it will be destined for the compost bin if I follow through with the purchase.
A prime example of this temptation – a basket of (seemingly) ripe peaches at the store in the summer. But, unless I can say: I have no other fruit at home and we will eat these in the next two days, I try to leave them on the shelf. Peaches do put out an alluring siren song for me, yet are so darn unpredictable; there is little more frustrating than salivating over the idea of a delicious peach and then biting into a sour/firm/unappetizing one!
5. find meals that freeze well
Chili, baked oatmeal, waffles; most soups I make can be frozen if there are leftovers.
If I have some veggies that need to be used but I don’t have a dish that requires them, I will dice them up and freeze them. While they’re not great in things like stirfrys where you want veggies with a bit of “bite”, they work fine for soups. I will do this with bell peppers (sometimes even dicing up things like cilantro and fresh ginger and freezing that along with the peppers so I have the main base of ingredients for that beloved Chicken Mango Curry dish). I’ve done this with raw carrots, onion and celery (before eventually turning it in to homemade Chicken Noodle Soup).
Sometimes I freeze veggies in their raw state, and other times I will pan fry until soft. Both strategies work. I have a Baked Rice dish we all love and I make up the cream sauce + fry the veggies so all I have to do is defrost the mix, mix in rice + water and bake.
bonus suggestion – reduce waste at the STORE LEVEL
I’ve alluded to this already, but our grocery store has several dedicated “clearance” sections. Sometimes this includes produce that is past prime – overripe bananas (which I prefer for my beloved muffins) or tomatoes with bruises that will work fine for homemade salsa. I seek out these ingredients, not only for the cost savings but also because I know there is tremendous food waste at the grocery-chain level.
It can take a bit of extra creativity – and I look carefully at expiration dates/for signs of mold – but, generally, the reduced items are still highly edible. Sometimes things will go on clearance after a special event. Candy cane ice cream, for example, is now at rock-bottom prices at our grocery store. This is a bad example because I try to avoid dairy and no one else in my house really likes candy-cane ice cream (what is wrong with them?) but…if they did…now would be a great time to buy it if you’re willing to eat peppermint-flavoured treats after the calendar turns over into a new year.
Now it’s your turn – any suggestions for reducing food waste? Any candy-cane ice cream fans out there?
I enjoy saving money. Any time of year is great, but it feels especially satisfying at Christmas.
These are a few of those “satisfying” hacks that I’ve used at various times through the years; nothing here is likely to shave 100s of dollars off your credit card bill, but little things do add up (and I also love to reduce overall waste/consumption, and several of these suggestions pull double duty).
This may seem very Scroogey – and I know gift-giving can be a very important part of certain relationships – but I think the best way to save money over Christmas is to buy less. (I’ve mentioned this piece of advice before with regard to clutter – the best way to avoid clutter, is to buy less stuff!).
We’ve really narrowed down our gift exchanges over the year. I feel quite festive and giving, but we’ve mutually agreed to stop exchanging with almost all sets of friends, and only exchange with family who is visiting at Christmas (along with my in-laws who live out of province). We give teacher gifts and gift cards to our mail-carrier and the school crossing guard, but that’s about it (though this year included a very fun SecretSanta exchange)
Not buying (or shipping) gifts to distant friends/family saves a lot of money! I do send out oodles and oodles of photocards, though…
buy early/On sale
This one can be tricky – if you buy things all year long and don’t have a cut-off point, it could be easy to keep buying items right up to Christmas and spend even more money!
Since I know each Christmas Eve we’re going to exchange ornaments, I usually stock up in early January when things are reduced in the post-Christmas sales. This is also when I buy Christmas cards, wrapping paper and Scotch tape (which is always on clearance, but I use tape throughout the year for other purposes, too).
Also, some seasonal items are hard to get at Christmas (for example, if you want to gift a new bike or fishing rod, December 24th in Canada is not the time to find these items in store!)
BUY SECOND HAND + REGIFT
My husband and I both come from very frugal households and, when possible, we prefer sourcing items second-hand. It feels like a game, and it’s a great way to get high-quality items for significantly less money. Our kids also love frugal finds, so our son will think nothing of finding an action figure from a thrift shop under the tree. Abby is getting a second-hand smartwatch for Christmas (off Kijiji, a Craiglist equivalent), there are a number of second-hand books making an appearance, and a nice sweater for another family member.
Regifting is a touchy subject and I understand people have very strong feelings about the practice. Mostly, I don’t regift but have no problem doing it when the situation is right. I tend to donate items that don’t fit a need, but occasionally I receive something that just feels spot-on for someone else [sorry Joy – that tea towel I gave you this year was a re-gift; somehow I know you, of all people will be okay with that, hence why we’re kindred spirits]. And I’ve given items to friends specifically for them to regift to their children (games, toys, clothes, even a few small kitchen appliances).
recycle christmas cards as luxury tags
Maybe everyone does this? Maybe nobody does? It’s all I’ve ever known! Every year after Christmas my Mom would go through her giant stack of Christmas cards and cut off the fronts of most of them to be stored away until the following year when she would use them for large gift tags. It was so much fun to flip through her selection to find the perfect coordinating match between card and wrapping paper.
Large gift tags can be expensive and this is a great way to upcycle cards that would otherwise head straight to the garbage. I would say at least 1/2 our gifts have recycled card tags. (I tape them down, so if there was a message inside the card, it’s not visible). Most of the time I can’t be bothered…but if there is an especially nice card I will sometimes store the used tag for ANOTHER Christmas (I will, inevitably, always give a gift to Abby signed with love from Mommy and Daddy).
While I’m a big fan of giving (and receiving) gift cards, free experiences can be a great gift option to save money and promote memories. I’m making a coupon book for the kids this year which is set to include:
A free pass from emptying the dishwasher (Abby)
A weeknight sibling sleepover (Levi)
Choosing the snack for the movie (Levi)
Adding one item to the grocery list (Abby) – she’ll probably opt for some expensive smoked gouda #cheesefiend
A day without any chores, even cleaning up your room (Levi)
Invite a friend over for supper (Levi)
Request chocolate cake with chocolate icing for a special Friday night dessert (Abby)
Even the ones that will cost money will be relatively inexpensive:
A trip to the local pottery painting store together (Abby)
Take a friend to a coffee shop and I’ll pay (Abby)
A breakfast date at Tim Hortons with Daddy (Levi)
Give the SAME gift (BUT DIFFERENT)
I’ve already talked about this – at length – but in addition to making gift buying easier, I find deciding once really helps keep costs lower as well. I can look for the particular item on sale and, also, if it’s tried-and-true, I don’t feel like I have to compensate or hedge my bets by buying multiple items.
consider pooling resources as a group
For several years I managed the staff Christmas gift at my children’s preschool. They were fortunate enough to attend a truly phenomenal preschool and parents always wanted to express their deep gratitude for a staff that went above and beyond. Over time it had been decided that what everyone really wanted was money (with 30 families or so with children in the preschool times 6-7 staff members, it would be…a lot for each staff member to receive individual gifts). I arranged the cash donations, divided them appropriately (based on hours worked which I accessed in consultation with the owner) and then distributed it within handwritten cards at the annual Christmas party. There was no influx of gifts to the teachers. No scrambling to figure out how much to spend for each staff member. Parents were happy. Teachers were happy. Win, win.
My siblings are rarely home at Christmas and so they don’t typically give gifts to my parents…but when we were all still gifting within the family, we would often pool resources to get one larger gift (e.g. one year we bought our parents a new TV – which was a HUGE step up from their 13″ model. Yes, I grew up on a 13″ TV!!).
Nothing revolutionary here, and I’m sure there are lots of great ideas I’ve never considered or have neglected to mention. So…
What about you? I’m all ears for any and all suggestions of little (or big) ways you reduce/reuse/recycle at Christmas – or the whole year through, for that matter.
It might seem a bit strange to talk about saving money in the middle of the biggest shopping extravaganza of the year. But, to me at least, it’s a fun topic. I think finding ways to be fiscally conservative – while appreciating certain luxuries money can buy – is about as fun as cleaning out a linen closet. And friends…there is not much that ranks higher on my fun list than a good linen closet decluttering. Sad, but true.
I’ve talked before about our background – how we came out of university and bootstrapped two startups which, technically, left us spending years below the Canadian poverty line. You may have heard the entrepreneurial advice to pay yourself first – I’m here to tell you it rarely works that way (unless “paying yourself” equals $400 a month, minus deductions). We hacked our way through buying almost everything secondhand, living with limited square footage, and eating a lot of beef.
We had unarguable advantages. We were educated. We came from stable homes. We were white. See, unfortunately, being “frugal” is not a choice for many people. Low wages, restrictive work schedules, and lack of access to affordable housing, food, childcare, and education are the reality for far too many people. So when I talk about being frugal and our experiences, it comes from a place of enormous privilege. We live in a country with safety nets (e.g. extensive maternity leave and monthly federal payments to all families with children) and had personal social supports that so many are sadly lacking.
While our current financial situation allows us to be a bit more generous with how and when we spend money, our default is still to look for ways to maximize each dollar – believing we’re called to be wise stewards of it (including the fact that the more we save, the more we can give!). With those caveats in place, let’s discuss a few ways we’ve managed to stretch money over the years.
I’ve re-used teabags (not anymore, I’ll admit), I wash out Ziploc baggies, and we pack lunchboxes at home. But sometimes the payout just isn’t quite worth the effort.
For example, here in Canada, we pay a bottle deposit on most beverages. Juice boxes, soda, bottled water – they all come with an additional $0.05-0.15 charge per item. We don’t tend to buy many of these foods but had an upswing over the summer – largely fueled by my sudden affection for sparkling water. This bottle “deposit” is partially refundable, so I decided I would wash, dry and separate all the refundable items from the other recyclables and get back some of our money. For over a month I dutifully put in the time and energy (not a lot, but it wasn’t insignificant), drove with my husband to the depot ten minutes away, and prepared for our cash windfall. I estimated a $12 return for the bag.
We got $4.10. Whomp, whomp.
We likely spent that much in gas to get to the depot, not to mention the time spent washing, drying and separating all the items (and the space it took to store them in our furnace room).
So while I embrace a minimal lifestyle and enjoy the challenge of finding small ways to save bits of money here and there – sometimes my energy would be better spent finding larger sources of kickback.
In other words, going from a 2-car to 1-car arrangement will make a much bigger difference to a fiscal bottom line than skipping a weekly latte.
BIG SAVINGS = BIG REWARDS
We have never owned a new car since getting married and, recently, when COVID meant we no longer needed a second vehicle for frequent airport trips, we became a single-car family. A few times a month this feels inconvenient but, for the most part, it has been a small blip on our radar.
Working from home has advantages.
When we were in a position to buy our first home, the mortgage limit far exceeded what we would have ever considered maximizing. We bought the only house we felt we could afford (not what the bank said we “could” afford, mind you) in the town we loved. It has needed some repairs – some cosmetic and others proactively functional like replacing drainage tile and original 1970’s windows – but it cost about 1/2 of what other homes in the area were selling for at the time.
While this “hack” isn’t in the same category as downsizing cars or homes, I would say 8-10 times a year I make use of some warranty claim which has literally saved us 1000s of dollars over the years, for relatively minimal effort.
Some things I have claimed under warranty:
Our bed. I had NO idea beds had warranties until I went to replace our sagging mattress (at the same store where we bought our original boxspring + mattress). When they started asking questions I said, “I’ll look at anything but beds made by X brand.” When they asked why, I explained our issue and they said it might still be under warranty. It was and, after a bit of runaround, we got a brand new bed! (~$600)
John’s favourite laptop bag; the zipper started to fail and a new one arrived this week! We may take the broken one to a local seamstress to see if she can repair it. (~$75)
Blundstones. A pair wore very quickly in the toe box for some inexplicable reason. Replaced quickly and efficiently. (~$150)
BOGS. These always seem to wear out prematurely in the heels and I’ve had 2-3 pairs replaced. (~$100/pair)
Kombi gloves. Ditto above; multiple issues with seams coming apart prematurely, which the company remedied with credit and/or replacement pairs. (~$25/pair)
My NorthFace jacket. I got this jacket on a great post-Christmas sale, but within a year or so I had an issue with the zipper. After sending it away for repair twice, the local store where I bought it told me to pick out a replacement jacket, no strings or brands attached. I paid ~$100 for my NorthFace jacket and walked out with a $350 Helly Hansen jacket which I’ve worn 150+ days a year for years now.
Darn Tough socks. This brand has a lifetime guarantee and we have maximized! (~$30/pair)
T-Fal. Our beloved Jamie Oliver T-Fal pan bit the dust much faster than expected even though we had cared for it like a newborn. A few e-mails back and forth and we had a replacement which we’ve now used for several years without incident. I would buy another pan in a heartbeat because of the quality + customer service when there was an issue. (~$100)
Save where it’s easy to spend where it’s valuable
I think the biggest question of 2021, for me, has been: What really matters? Now that I’ve more clearly identified my values, where should I direct my energy and what goals should I make that align with these priorities?
The same applies to money. I often think back to the general gist of what Ramit Sethi asks: “What does rich look like to you?” Is it ordering appetizers before a restaurant meal (Sethi’s answer)? Is it buying a new book every month? Is it having a certain figure in your savings account? Is it being able to contribute a certain amount to charity each year?
I remember running into a co-worker in a grocery store many years ago, in the midst of our counting-every-penny days. We were shopping sales and buying the lowest-priced version we could find of most products. This co-worker looked flabbergasted when we explained our behaviour. He made some comment about buying what he wanted when he needed it. I couldn’t even fathom that idea! If we wanted to make chicken fajita’s and chicken wasn’t on sale, we simply wouldn’t be having chicken fajitas!
But this was easy for us.
I had a friend who, after she was newly married, told me she and her new husband were working hard to establish a firm budget in just about every category of life. But, she added: “We’re not capping books; we can buy as many books as we want each month.” I can count on one hand the number of books I buy over the course of several years, let alone each month! But for this friend, not going over her monthly grocery allowance was easy while putting limits on buying books was non-negotiable.
Our wedding cost a small fraction of what I expect most weddings do; in lieu of a present one friend did flowers, another played the piano (she also made our wedding cake), while another took our photos. It was truly a wedding on a budget!
But when we went to pick our wedding bands, I hit a roadblock. I wanted to get a band that matched the diamond chip pattern on my engagement ring. There were two bands that would potentially fit the bill. One band had smaller chips, set in a narrower pattern. It was about $200. The other band had chips that matched my engagement ring exactly, but it was $300. $100 seemed like a lot of money to spend on something as frivolous as diamond chips and I deliberated for an inordinate amount of time.
I tried to rationalize how the smaller chips didn’t look that bad. After several visits to the jewelry store I (thankfully) decided that since this was something I hoped to wear every day for many many decades, the extra $100 was warranted.
I’ve thought back to this specific example many times when I’m trying to debate long-term quality/pleasure vs. my frugal nature when making a decision. Save where it’s easy to spend where it’s valuable, realizing that “value” is incredibly specific to each individual. I have a number of friends who don’t wear engagement rings at all and have thin, gold wedding bands – I suspect their trips to the jewelry store involved very little deliberation.
The best way to not spend money…is to NOT spend MONEY
And sometimes expenditures don’t need a frugal hack – they just need to be hacked.
We have mutually agreed, to the relief of all parties involved, to stop exchanging Christmas gifts with a number of friend groups over the last few years. Less stress and a lot less money. Instead of trying to find a great gift at a reasonable price, now we spend holiday get-togethers enjoying food and each other’s company, not worrying if our gifts align on price point.
Instead of getting a less expensive coffee at a mediocre cafe, just don’t get the coffee.
Or, if you’ve successfully replaced a mattress under warranty, go whole hog and buy the most expensive latte money can buy. I’m kidding. Maybe… Save up. Spend out.
With each passing year I find myself more and more attracted to the principles of minimalism. As I’ve mentioned before, minimalism doesn’t look to get rid of everything. It looks to prioritize those possessions or activities that are most valued and then removes the rest. Keep the flowers but pull the weeds is a mental picture I often use.
Yet…this tendency toward minimalism doesn’t mean I’m immune to the siren song of a new throw pillow or fancy storage container. While I appreciate the potential impact of small aesthetic decisions – I also know the subtle regret of coming home with stuff I did not really need (or want).
You know. Those little impulse purchases from Walmart or the DollarStore. Things that I thought I might like/want/need, but that very definitely hadn’t shown up on my shopping list.
Lately, I’ve been trying to curb some of that behaviour with a simple hack: I evaluate every item in my cart before checking out. As in I physically stop and assess each item in the cart (unless I’m at Costco and have one of those giant carts full of things in which case I might as well just drain my bank account and hand it all over to Costco because there is no turning back. When I see people leaving with one item in their giant cart, it blows my mind. How do they manage this sorcery? Costco, if you’re listening, I’m sorry, but I just can’t walk out without spending large amounts of money on giant quantities of things and I kinda, sorta always feel guilty walking through your enormous sliding doors. But I do love your jumbo bags of pumpkin seeds).
I’ve been doing this for a long time via online retailers – I’ll add items to my cart and let decisions simmer for a few days. I often end up moving items to “Save for later” or delete them entirely. But it can be hard to duplicate that delayed check-out experience when you’re standing in line at the pharmacy and happen to see an adorable pair of slipper socks or a festively wrapped box of Lindor’s.
When I take a quick inventory of the items I’m going to be spending cold, hard-earned cash on, I try to think through a hierarchy of questions, including some or all of the following:
Was this on my list?
Do I want or need this?
Is it aesthetically pleasing or of practical use?
Does it feed a passion or interest?
Is this item built to last/of good quality?
Do I want to handle rehoming this item (donating or selling or consigning or – perish the though – trashing).
And finally, though we may all be a bit Marie Kondo’d out, I think it helps to ask if the item sparks joy – which can be a sort of umbrella over all the rest of the questions.
Here are a few examples of this reasoning in action:
Abby bought a ukulele this summer, after months of saving up her allowance. It was a wonderful purchase but I knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term passion. Sure enough, aside from a week of near-steady practice when it first arrived, this item has largely stayed on her closet shelf. And that’s okay. At the time of purchase, it fueled an interest and we let it runs its course. It’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s good quality and will be VERY easy to rehome if she decides to completely abandon this hobby (sell or donate).
2. Usually, a plastic action figure selling for $3 that is bound to break in a week would not meet my testing criteria but years ago, when we were taking a long family roadtrip, I wanted to get the kids a few small toys for the drive. I try to avoid plastic toys like the plague and we’ve managed relatively well thus far. But Levi loves Transformers and we couldn’t find one at a local thrift store in time. So I bought one of the $3 variety at the DollarStore. I knew it was cheap. I knew it would break. But I also knew I needed this toy for a very specific purpose. I didn’t need it to last a long time. It was liable to get lost in all the chaos of traveling. I just wanted something, short-term, to fill a specific need. And so I bought it. It broke after about 8 hours, but he spent those 8 hours happily playing with it. I haven’t bought another DollarStore action figure before or since, but don’t regret the decision.
At IKEA last week I opted against buying the sock hanger dohickey for the laundry room (after it had found its way into my shopping cart) and set aside the desk organizer that wasn’t quite right. I made the decision to say “no” quickly and easily by running through the questions listed above in a matter of seconds (neither were on my list, I didn’t need them, they weren’t high quality, and I didn’t want to rehome them) – but it is definitely a muscle that builds over time.
When I’m wheeling toward the checkout I’ll ask myself if I really want to buy those price-reduced bananas (which means I’ll have to make muffins ASAP) or that new painting for over the couch (it’s nice, but do I really want to spend my Friday evening trying to find a stud behind drywall and fighting with drill bits). I still refer back to the concept from Fumio Sasaki of a Silent To-Do List: every single item in our house sends subliminal messages which can lead to physical and emotional clutter.
Sometimes I vote “yes” to the bananas and “yes” to the plastic action figure. But hopefully only after I’ve paused. Because bananas and action figures can morph into big new houses or shiny new cars and I’d rather test these value-driven financial decisions on $1.50 worth of bananas first.
What about you – any frugal hints to help with overbuying/impulse purchasing?
This is where saving money gets fun! Airfare and accommodations are pretty…boring (to me at least), though they certainly pack the biggest fiscal punch.
While saving money on getting there frees up funds for activities on the ground, adventures can feel even more memorable when I know we’ve done it economically.
Of course, the internet is full of people that devote themselves to this sort of thing with far more experience than I can offer so, again, take my advice for what it’s worth. Use what’s valuable and leave the rest.
ways to save money on food
I love food but am not particularly fussy. I’m not motivated by fine dining but do like to eat like “locals” when exploring a new location. When you see a steady stream of morning commuters popping in to the same coffee shop, chances are it’s good!
Find a grocery store. This is one of the best ways to save money on food. Fruit, breakfast items (see below), drinks and even some basic meals (salads, subs) can often be found for a fraction of the price.
Bring a light daypack along. If you’re interested in carrying some meals/lunches, it makes life so much easier to have something compact to transport the grub.
Look for accommodations with a breakfast option included – or create your own (regardless of whether you have a kitchenette). In Australia we bought two tubs of blueberry yogurt and a few boxes of granola. We stashed the yogurt in our little fridge and ate heaping bowls sprinkled with granola and fresh fruit for breakfast…every day (I happen to enjoy eating the same thing over and over again).
If your hotel doesn’t include breakfast, and you’re not keen to prepare your own, look to eat a large, late breakfast and late afternoon supper (when you might still be able to get lunch deals). Two larger meals also cuts down on the amount spent on surcharges and gratuities.
Pack a lunch. Usually sourcing things from a local grocery store, we buy sandwich materials (wraps or soft buns are more palatable and easier to transport than sliced bread) like cheese and sliced meat and make picnic lunches that will fit in our daypack. Bring along a few Ziploc baggies to hold apples, crackers, carrot sticks and other fingerfoods that travel well with minimal refrigeration.
Go for water; drinks (even non-alcoholic) can really add up on a grocery or restaurant bill. We always bring our own water bottles and many hotels lobbies (pre-Covid at least) have water jugs that you can use to refill bottles.
Look for things off the main thoroughfare. In NYC we discovered a hole-in-a-wall sushi joint (apparently a favourite of Michael Buble’s) by looking at reviews online. Because it wasn’t on the main strip, prices were considerably lower but it was absolutely delicious. As a bonus, before the meal they distributed hot faceclothes which felt amazing after exploring the city on foot for 10 hours.
Make food part of the entertainment. Wait in line outside Magnolia’s to get one of their world-famous cupcakes. Eat poutine and maple candy in Canada. Eat authentic sushi in Japan. Buy an eclair while strolling the Champs-Élysées. Go to the beer garden during Oktoberfest. Also, sitting and people watching can be as much fun as taking a roller coaster ride or strolling through a museum (perhaps especially at Oktoberfest).
Make one meal special. We usually choose supper. We tend to go, go, go all day. We economize on daytime meals, and supper feels like a nice time to relax both our bodies and the grip on our wallet.
Look for free museums/experiences or combo deals
A lot of museums have special rates, free entrance, or other incentives that allow you to save money. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for instance, operates under a pay-what-you-wish mandate.
Consider packages (but take the time to do your math). You can get sightseeing bus tickets that offer free entrance at an assortment local landmarks. These typically have a limitied shelf-life of 24-48 hours. Depending on your itinerary these can be a great deal. We’ve never opted for this option because they tend to involve 1 or 2 high-quality attractions and then a dozen or so “throw-aways”. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds of going places that aren’t a priority just so I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
A related option is combo entrance tickets; these tend to be two locations that are relatively well-aligned. For instance, in Paris we wanted to visit Musee d’Orsay and for a marginal increase we could get a combo ticket to the Musée de l’Orangerie. This was a great decision – it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.
Explore discounts for special demographics. Students, seniors, military personnel and a range of other groups often qualify for reduced rates at many cultural locations.
In terms of entertainment, consider day-of tickets. Broadway is a great spot to test this out. We ended up with front row seats to Newsies (though any seat would have been amazing), and booked the tickets at a huge discount hours before the show. Even here, you can save. By going downtown to the South Street Seaport TKTS booth we spent less than going through the main TKTS stand in Times Square. (Now if you’re organizing an entire trip around seeing Wicked, for example, as one of my friends once did, it would be a priority to prebook the tickets). We’re back to priorities again…
Sometimes even layovers can be long enough to fit in some special entertainment. On our way home from Denmark we flew through Iceland. We purchased tickets that gave us a long layover (we could have stayed for up to 7 days); enough time to get a deal on transport and entrance to the Blue Lagoon.
Research different ways to accomplish the same thing. In New York City it’s a rite of passage to get a birds-eye view of the skyline. The Empire State is iconic, but the views tend to be better (and the lines shorter and price lower) to go to the top of Rockefeller Centre. Plus, then you get a view of the Empire State Building! I also wanted to go high in Paris (not easy to do). It felt a bit counterprodutive to go up the Eiffel Tower – because what one really wants to see from a high perspective is the Eiffel Tower itself. So we did the Arc de Triomphe instead, along with the roof-top terrance on Galeries Lafayette (which happens to be free).
Souvenirs can be a great reminder of happy travel memories. They can also be a major source of clutter and typically aren’t going to translate well in terms of the financial investment. Tourist trap souvenirs tend to be of poor quality, with inflated prices, that are likely destined for the garbage bin.
My advice. Invest a bit more to buy something meaningful. Some of our favourite souvenirs:
Pictures, pictures, pictures. They are almost always free and a provide a treasure trove of memories for years to come. Invest in printing off your favourite shots and frame them. What about setting up a rotating gallery wall of photos from your most recent vacations? The two photos below are part of a Paris trio we printed off and hung in our basement hallway.
I buy engineering prints from Staples (about $4 per print), plus inexpensive frames from IKEA.
Local art. This can be tricky, especially if you’re only bringing a carry-on. Small prints, posters that come in cardboard tubes, and textiles can all be transported in pristine condition while requiring minimal space. Souvenirs don’t have to be things to hang on walls or in closets. We bought van Gogh coasters from Musee d’Orsay and I still get a thrill everytime I use them (we happened to need coasters, too, so it wasn’t just excess clutter). Hand-crafted jewlery or a knitted scarf made from locally sourced wool could make a fun piece of wearble memorabilia.
Reusable canvas bags. This is one of my favourite things to give and receive. They’re easy to pack up to bring home, make great gifts, and even high-quality ones tend to be relatively inexpensive. A friend brings me back new Trader Joe’s bags every time she visits California. In a sea of local grocery chain bags, I love how my unique bags stand out.
Don’t assume people want random stuff from your trip. If you’re bringing something home, ask in advance if people have preferences.
Consumables. Buy strombowaffles in the Netherlands, macarons in France, maple syrup in Canada. Buy a face mask from the Red Sea or chocolate from Belgium. Buy things you can appreciate and then use up!
Send postcards. This is a great way to tell someone you were thinking of them. They’re inexpensive, it’s always fun to get mail, and they can be easily disposed of once the sentiment has been adequately conveyed (aren’t we trying to tell people: “We were here, we thought of you;” a postcard is a much cheaper alternative to the “Someone Who Loves Me Very Much Bought This in Mexico” T-shirt).
Start a collection. One of my aunt collects demitasse cups whereever she goes. She has a specific item she’s looking for in any destination which takes the guess work out of what to buy.
Consider keeping location-specific paraphenlia. A friend of mine sent me speciality tea from New Zealand that came in a very unique metal tin; this is now what I use to store bobby pins. When we visited Tivoli Gardens, the third oldest amusement park in the world, my brother bought us all hot chocolate. It came in these adorable Tivoli-branded plastic cups. You could return them and get back a few cents deposit…or keep them and drink out of them for years to come at home. We opted for the latter.
If buying clothes (which can be a great memento), get things you’ll actually wear. We bought our son a shirt from Paris and another from the Dominican Republic. They were his style and he’s gotten a lot of use from them.
Bring home something familiar but from a new location. We like to visit LEGO stores abroad and bring some home – LEGO is always a hit in our house, regardless of where it was sourced.
There are lots of ways to save when traveling – at macro and micro levels. Remember your priorities. Maybe it’s going to drain a lot of fun out of your trip if you’re rationalizing how much to spend on food for a day, but you’re more than happy to swap out for a cheaper hotel room. You do you and look for ways to save along the way. It can actually make the whole experience more enriching and satisfying.
…and your credit card statement called to say thanks in advance.
Half of the adventure is getting to the destination, right? Unless, of course, you’re driving across the country in a car with small children when it can feel more like a nightmare (or not).
Regardless of your feelings on the matter, the journey is a major part of the final bill. Typically the biggest expenditures for a trip, transport and accommodations are great ways to save and tend to offer the biggest bang for your buck when attempting to travel frugally. I, for one, like to save as much money as I can for memory-making experiences once I’m on terra firma.
An important first step is to identify your priorities – yes even for the more mundane logistics of transport and accommodations. Maybe you want to spend extra points to get that upgrade to first class or maybe you can’t swing a 3 am departure; maybe access to a heated pool and sauna at your hotel is part of what will make a trip most enjoyable. Maybe you want (or need) to be right next to the amusement park or beach, regardless of price.
In no particular order, here are some of the things we’ve done through the years to reduce the overall cost of transport and accommodations.
Maximize loyalty/points programs
For over a decade now we’ve been collecting Aeroplan points (we each have Aeroplan loyalty cards + credit cards linked to Aeroplan). These have helped fund the majority of our trips. My father-in-law is set to visit soon: 9,400 points + $95. Our couples trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago: 200,000 points + $1,000 for a whole week (this was for flights and accommodation). Our (COVID-cancelled) trip to South Carolina for our family of 4: 60,000 points + $320 – we may never manage to recreate that deal.
We don’t muddy the waters with a lot of different credit cards, but there is lots of material out there to help people navigate the options if this sort of thing is up your alley. We have a friend who is constantly joining new programs/signing up for new credit cards and has figured out a way to maximize the system to fund first-class airfare and more luxurious hotels.
For us, going with a single points program and doubling up when possible (some stores are Aeroplan partners + we pay with our Aeropoint-linked Visa so we get double points) really works. Beyond that feels like too much effort. You do you.
Airlines also offer rewards to regular customers; if you travel frequently for work, try booking through a single airline to accrue status miles (sometimes different airlines will belong to a central alliance, so booking through a “sister” airline will also go toward points/status). Thanks to pre-COVID travel for work John qualifies for Air Canada Super-Elite status which gives him – and the rest of the family – a host of upgrades, extra checked baggage, and cheaper options for many flights (i.e. he needs to redeem fewer points to purchase tickets).
find ways to combine work + leisure
This is likely our biggest hack and not something everyone can leverage. But, when it works, it’s a great cost-savings.
When possible, combine work travel with leisure. Stay an extra day or two on your own dimeafter a conference is over. Or, tag along with your spouse and explore the town while he/she attends to relevant work responsibilities, reconvening when convenient.
Our very first trip of this sort happened back in 2011. We were poor. Both pursuing Master’s degrees and newly married, I was invited to speak at an entomology conference in Orlando. My flights, meals, and hotel were only covered for the duration of the conference and we had a tight budget beyond that. John flew down on points (of course).
One of my labmates happened to mention her grandfather owned a condo in Sarasota and he was willing to let us use it for free. Yes please! We flew down a week early, rented a very inexpensive car, and spent several days in Sarasota. We bought $70 of groceries at Publix and ate one supper at an Olive Garden and another at a very, very sketchy buffet. The rest we fit into my per diem budget.
We walked on beaches (a priority and free) and went to the Ringling Museum on Monday – the day my research supervisor informed me it was free.
I had a per diem for food and accommodations in Orlando, so we found a hotel for $40/night slightly off the beaten track. It was only 5 minutes from the resort where the conference was taking place. Since we already had a rental car, we could easily look for a cheaper hotel (the conference was directly across the street from Disney, so room prices were much higher onsite, but that’s where most attendees stayed).
When the dust settled, a week in Florida for 2 people – including flights, meals, excursions, and accommodations – cost us less than $500.
Look at different flight options
This may sound intuitive, but sometimes small changes (later/earlier arrival times, flying on a different day) can make a huge difference to the bottom line.
If you’re at all flexible on the dates/times, it’s worth hunting around for a few minutes to see if Tuesday at 5 am is $300 cheaper than Monday at 11 am.
My husband went to Australia for a month with only a single carry-on and laptop bag. This was for work, admittedly, and he was staying in a rental with laundry facilities, but this minimalist packing is doable for more leisurely vacations too.
Perks: no checked baggage fees and no concerns about lost luggage (and the potential cost of replacing items if luggage doesn’t get found quickly enough). Also, having less stuff just feels great on vacation.
We often research accommodations (and if they’re being covered as part of a work trip, even better) more than anything else. With some extra digging, we usually find very affordable options.
I don’t need a fancy bathroom or spacious room. Clean and safe are my only two requirements. This is a HUGE place to save. To me, a hotel room exists for sleep and as a safe place to store belongings.
Not surprisingly, proximity to the downtown core can be a huge determinant of nightly rates. Both times we visited New York City we actually stayed in New Jersey. It was $88/night at the Super8 in North Bergen, a price hard to beat. We took a shuttle that dropped us off near Times Square. There was nothing special about the hotel, but it was clean and felt (relatively) safe. It was walking distance to a grocery store (a great way to save money on food) and had an edible Continental Breakfast (another great way to save money on food). Would I have preferred to roll out of bed and be in the heart of Manhatten? Absolutely. Was it worth $100’s extra over the course of our stay? To us, the answer was a definite no.
Our biggest coup came with our hotel in Paris. It was in the 9th arrondissement – a solid location – for $110 CAD/night (including all the hospitality fees and levies)!! It cost us almost double to get a night in a sketchy motel room along the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia that including a morning flood (story coming soon).
Hotel Touraine Opéra was one of my favourite hotel stays ever – and housed what seemed to be the world’s most comfortable bed. Large by Parisian standards, our room was simple but checked every box. There was a grocery store across the street, a shuttle to and from the airport, and it was very, very clean! Check, check, check.
A bad hotel can be truly terrible and could ruin a vacation. In terms of accommodation reviews – look for themes. Noise issues, cleanliness and safety violations – when things of that ilk come up repeatedly it’s a giant a red flag. But if someone says the heated pool was too cold for their liking, I’m not much bothered by that sort of information (unless, of course, my priority is having a nice, warm hotel pool).
The best arrangement, though, is free. I have a brother that has lived in Europe for over a decade now; he’s had a steady stream of North American company in that time. Having free accommodations is a great way to shrink expenditures on vacation.
Take public transit + WAlk
Okay, okay, can you tell we love walking? We might be a bit biased on this one, but it’s hard to argue that public transit and walking are the cheapest way to navigate an urban destination. When the kids were younger and in tow we’d find ways to borrow strollers, and the Ergo helped with many nap on-the-go moments.
You can get creative – we took a public bus to Bondi Beach and water taxis to Watson’s Bay; John has done hop-on/hop-off busses in France and NYC; we did trains, buses and bikes almost daily in Copenhagen. Lots of places now rent electric scooters which look very fun (and very economical).
why we’re a big fan of walking tours
Yet another plug for walking, but we’ve had great success with walking tours. Look for ones that have local hosts; these are often a pay-what-you-can donation style. It’s a great way to explore the city at minimal cost and the tour guides are usually happy to share lots of nuggets of wisdom, including ones that can translate into real cost-savings (you should try this diner, it has the best $3 burger in town; this museum is free on Friday’s after 8 pm).
Logistics aren’t always much fun when planning a trip, but they’re undeniably necessary and can consume a huge portion of a vacation budget. Once you’ve identified your priorities, see where that puts you in terms of budgeting. Maybe some priorities need to get shifted (can you make do without a hotel pool, or can you get a 1-week subway pass instead of relying on cabs) to free up monies for something fun when you’re on the ground?
Getting there can be half the fun; even if it isn’t, it doesn’t have to break the bank.