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15 ways to save money on just about everything

Today's Parent | posted Tuesday, Aug 11th, 2015

Cassie Howard, the mastermind behind one of Canada’s top frugal-living websites, MrsJanuary.com, wasn’t alwaysmoney savvy. In 2006 she was actually drowning in credit card bills.

“I was 18 years old and in terrible debt and decided to start couponing—and blogging to share my money-saving experiences,” says Howard, a Vaughan, Ont., mom of two. “It wasn’t until after eliminating my debt that I realized I actually enjoyed saving money.”

Today she has a full-time gig blogging about deals and smart spending tricks, making her money through advertisements on her site and by writing sponsored posts. Over the past eight years, Howard and her husband have purchased a house, a new vehicle and enjoy annual family vacations.

“A lot of people think being frugal means you don’t spend money, but it’s about being wise with your money and using your resources to get the most bang for your buck,” says Howard.

Couponing and price matching at the grocery store are nothing new, but there are many lesser-known strategies to help trim the fat from your family’s budget.

1. Pay attention to sale cycles
Knowing when things go on sale over the course of the year will help you stock up when items are at their lowest prices. You just need to be aware of sale cycles. Bedding and linens typically go on sale in January. Find the best deals on frozen food in March and on cleaning supplies, paint and cookware in April. Pick up discounted party supplies and bottled water in May and craft supplies in July. August is known to see sales on large appliances, while October features deals on denim, toys and games. (For a detailed list, visit MrsJanuary.com.) And if you’re a frequent Amazon.cashopper, free price-watching sites like Camelcamelcamel will alert you to Amazon’s price drops via email or Twitter.

2. Create a stockpile, but don’t get crazy
You probably don’t need 50 bottles of laundry detergent, but always having a backup on hand will save you from dashing to the store for a full-price replacement when you run out. As you notice sales, replenish your stock.

3. DIY cleaners
Homemade detergents and cleaning products don’t contain harsh chemicals and are much more cost effective. Dartmouth, NS, resident Kelly Warren makes her own cleansers and detergents. “Vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, Borax and Castile soap are a lot cheaper than store-bought items and clean just as well,” she says.

4. Use cash-back services
Cash-back incentives are a great way to earn money on things you would buy anyway. “Checkout 51” is a Canadian app that issues rebates. Each week, the app sends out new offers and, if you buy those items, credits your account when you submit photos of your receipts. For example, an offer might be to save 50 cents on tomatoes, or $2 on two boxes of cereal. Once you’ve earned $20 in rebates, a cheque will be issued to the address you registered.

If online shopping is more your bag, Ebates.ca is your golden ticket. After creating a free account, visit Ebates and type in the online store where you’d like to shop. You’ll then be redirected and shop as usual, but you’ll earn a percentage of your purchase back. It’s an easy way to line your pocket and cheques are mailed out every three months.

Sign up for newsletters from your favourite sites to receive promo codes and deals. But beware; it’s a slippery slope when discount offers bombard your inbox. Stay strong, and only buy what you really need.

5. Get free stuff
It’s not always a gimmick—free stuff is totally within your grasp! And you don’t have to spend your days filling out surveys hoping to get samples; use store reward programs to earn points, then cash them in for things you need.

“Learn how to earn the maximum amount of points for the least amount of money,” says Howard. “I love the Optimum points program at Shoppers; it’s changed my life as a parent. When my kids were little I’d always get diapers for about 10 cents or less per diaper with manufacturer coupons and points. A lot of the time, you will find sale items are cheaper than at other stores, especially if you take into account the amount of points you receive on extra points days,” she says.

New on the Optimum scene? Here’s how it works: Whenever you buy something at Shoppers Drug Mart, you earn points by scanning your Optimum card. Some items have bonus points and some days you can earn up to 20 times the points. Shoppers’s newsletters have tailored deals and alert you to their Spend Your Points events, which happen several times per year. Points are redeemable in increments of $10, $30, $60, $85 and $170. If you’re saving for a big-ticket item, it’s best to redeem your points during the Spend Your Points events when points are worth more than face value.

PC Plus is another card that can be used at all of the President’s Choice banner stores, like No Frills, Loblaws and Real Canadian Superstore, to earn points that you can spend to buy groceries or anything in the store, including clothing and gift cards. Every time you scan your card, the system logs your items, then caters deals to those types of products. Load your offers each Friday and watch your points add up. PC points are redeemable in 20,000 increments or $20.

6. Buy nothing new
A fun money-saving challenge is to shop exclusively second-hand for pretty much everything, from your clothing to your kitchenware. Thrift stores like Value Village, Talize and Once Upon a Child are brimming with practical finds, like cooldecor and household items, toys and barely used brand-name clothing, including big-ticket items like snowsuits. If you have time to search, shelves are lined with heavily discounted books for kids and adults. Not your thing to sift through thrift shops? Go online to check out local mom-swap groups, Kijiji and Craigslist for gently used kids’ items.

Of course, there are deals to be had at big-box stores, too. If you do buy new, wait for end-of-season clearance sales and buy for next year. Also snoop around for guarantees. Walmart and Sears promise replacements if your child wears out their gear—boots, shoes, clothes, coats—before growing out of them.

7. Make things
If you have the time and patience, homemade anything will stretch your dollar. Why spend six dollars on a store-bought greeting card when your kids can make one (and it will be much more appreciated by the recipient). Have your childrencraft trinkets (look to Pinterest for swoon-worthy DIY inspiration) for relatives to combine a fun activity with a birthday gift. Michaels craft store is a great place to stock up on supplies, with their standard 40 percent off one item deal, and sometimes up to 30 percent off your whole purchase (check Michaels.com for offers). You might also be surprised at the array of crafting goodies at your local dollar store.

8. Family fun on the cheap
Schlepping the fam for a day of fun can get pricey. But in many regions, the local library is more than just a great resource for renting movies and borrowing books—some even offer passes for local attractions. In Toronto, a member with a valid library card can obtain a free family pass (two adults and up to five children) for attractions like the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Zoo. Doled out on Saturday mornings, some branches offer passes on a first-come, first-served basis, while others have draws. Similarly, the Hamilton Public Library in Ontario offers a museum pass that can be checked out. Other libraries offer kids’ book clubs, play groups and lessons. Call your branch to see what it has to offer beyond storytime. Howard also suggests following attractions on Facebook. “They often have promotions to save you money.”

9. Adjust thermostat settings 
We all know that an unexpected household expense can creep up like a stealthy ninja and, if you’re just making ends meet on a good month, even something small can throw you into debt. To make more wiggle room in your budget, shave some money off your monthly bills by using a thermostat with a timer that will lower the heat or AC while you’re out of the house or asleep, and try setting your regular temperature a degree or two warmer or cooler than usual, depending on the season. Be sure to change your heating and AC filters regularly. A dusty filter makes for a less effective system and can ultimately shorten its lifespan.

10. Avoid phantom energy use
Unplug items like the toaster, coffee maker and device chargers when not in use—do a nightly sweep of your house to make sure you’ve unplugged or turned off any unnecessary lights, electronics and ceiling fans. If you’re going away for a few days, you could even unplug your stove and hot water tank (but not in the winter, or your pipes will freeze!). Little one afraid of the dark? Rather than leave an energy-sucking lamp on, try an energy-efficient nightlight that turns itself off.

11. Double-check your meter readings
Make sure you’re not being overcharged on your bills. Utility workers are human, so mistakes happen. If your meter reading is less than your bill reflects, call and have it rectified.

12. Repair seals and cracks
Drafty windows and doors can lead you to crank up the heat, but you can easily fill cracks or repair seals yourself with supplies and a little instruction from the staff at the hardware store. Or try making your own draft blocker by sewing a thin piece of fabric the length of your door into a tube shape and filling with kitty litter or sand. You’ll be amazed at how well it blocks under-door drafts.

13. Embrace bundling and ask for savings
When it comes to things like your phone, Internet and cable, bundling options or using family plans to share minutes are good money-saving strategies. Even calling to ask if better deals are available can lead to surprising savings (this is also true with your banking options and fees). Check your services and cancel any that you don’t use, such as voicemail, caller ID, call waiting or add-ons through text. You can even call your credit card company and ask if they can lower your interest rate. Often times they’ll oblige.

14. Couponing: The struggle is real
Coupons are often for sugar-filled processed foods; saving money on produce can be tougher. After becoming a vegan, Howard struggled with couponing. “A lot of vegan- and vegetarian-friendly companies don’t advertise. But I found that if you call and ask, the companies will send you coupons,” she says. And what about those coupons you won’t use? Leave them on store shelves. Chances are someone will benefit from them.

15. Save money with your phone
Read all about money-saving apps here.

A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline, “Living on the cheap”, p.49.

5 ways to get your family outside this summer

Today's Parent | posted Thursday, Jul 9th, 2015

After 13 years, I found the silver bullet: the trails. Lacing up for a run, walk or bike ride slays my kid’s grouchiness within minutes (or at least half an hour). We’ve always been an active family, but it was only after tween angst hit (hard) that I noticed the correlation between trail time and better moods. Since then, it’s become my go-to parenting tool.

Studies show being outdoors doing physical activity lowers depression risk, reduces anxiety and improves behaviour—but that’s moot if you can’t get your brood outside. So my advice is: Don’t ask, tell. Bribe. Threaten. Cajole. Whatever works. Because the payoff is pretty sweet.

Within minutes, Esmé typically takes off, power walking with the dog. Or cycles ahead as I follow on foot. Or pushes herself to breakneck speed, to drop her dad and I on family trail runs, eager to be alone with her thoughts.

Sometimes she doesn’t notice me catching up, and I hear her humming to herself, an unguarded moment for my taciturn introvert. Other times, she slows down so we can walk and talk. Or she gets silly: On a recent outing, I wondered why she was lagging as I jogged ahead. I found out when she rode past me, hitting me with the brushy end of a five-foot-long reed that she’d fixed, jousting-rod style, to her bike.

If you’re not already an especially active family, it can be hard to know what to do beyond hanging out at the local playground or splash pad. Here are a few ways to enjoy summer outside with your kids.

• Open-water swimming. Check local lake and river water-quality updates. Then put down the Kindle and wade in!

• Orienteering and geocaching. Go on a high-tech treasure hunt using your GPS. Be prepared for trails and mud.

• Explore a provincial park. Even better—explore at night. Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park hosts guided wolf howls.

• Pick up a rod. Google “learn to fish” and your province to find free programs.

• Search for creatures. Look for snails after it rains. Go out after dark and watch bats swoop for insects. Bring a flashlight and see what bugs are underfoot.

Hot weather warnings: What to remember

Claire Gagne | posted Tuesday, Jun 16th, 2015

Strong Sun

The UV Index is a measure of the intensity of the sun’s rays. Environment Canada (weather.gc.ca) forecasts the highest level of UV for the day, which you can expect around midday. If the UV Index is between three and five, simply slather on the sunscreen and head outdoors. But if the forecasted UV Index for the day is six or higher, plan your outdoor activities for before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m., as the sun will be less intense. Check The Weather Network (theweathernetwork.com or download the app) for current readings, and be especially careful when the UV Index is eight or higher, as skin can burn very quickly. (Though rare in Canada, a UV Index of 11 or higher can cause skin to burn within minutes!) “Young kids can get bad sunburns before you even realize there’s a problem,” says Michael Dickinson, a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB.

Bad Air

The Air Quality Health Index tells us how much pollution is outside on a scale of one to 10, and is more likely to affect people in large cities, near industry or close to areas prone to forest fires. When pollution is high—at seven or above—young kids and people with asthma or heart conditions should limit strenuous outdoor activity, according to Health Canada. That doesn’t mean you can’t go outside at all—just use Environment Canada’s hourly air quality readings and next-day forecasts to plan. Keep activities low-key and monitor children closely. “If your child is getting tired more easily than normal, or if she’s coughing, wheezing or seems to be working harder to breathe, those are signs of respiratory trouble because of the pollution, and you should bring her indoors,” says Dickinson. 

Heat Waves

The definition of extreme heat varies by where you live, but generally, a heat warning is issued when it’s deemed the temperature increases the potential for health problems such as heatstroke and dehydration, which can be fatal. All children can be affected by heat, but it’s most dangerous for infants, young children and people with asthma or heart disease, says Dickinson. It’s best to plan a movie day or hit an indoor playground when a heat alert is issued.

Pollen

In warmer months, trees, grasses and weeds procreate by releasing tiny grains of pollen, which are carried by the wind. The Weather Network tells us how much and what kind of pollen is floating around. Pollen is high on dry, windy days, is released in the morning and typically peaks in urban areas midday. “Pollen counts are particularly important if you’re prone to allergies and asthma,” says Dickinson, so monitor the pollen forecast and plan your outdoor time for when counts are low. If your allergic child will be outdoors when pollen is high, speak to your doctor about giving him an antihistamine before he goes out.

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A version of this article appeared in our June 2015 issue with the headline “Weather warnings,” p. 24.

5 tips for affordable family travel

Today's Parent | posted Thursday, Jun 4th, 2015

When my kids came along, my husband and I found ourselves with a mortgage, daycare fees and a dearth of cash for family travel. And yet, there were so many places I wanted my kids to see! So, I’ve made it my goal to get us where we want to travel on the cheap without sacrificing comfort. Read on for a few of my time-tested methods:

Set up a vacation fund

I have a high-interest savings account called “The England Fund” (for the first big trip we ever took with our kids). Whenever I get an unexpected cheque or save on a purchase, I squirrel away the extra cash. The bonus: I don’t feel guilty spending money that’s already been allocated for trips, but I don’t go crazy, either, because the fund becomes mybudget.

Be faithful to your frequent flyer plan

Pick one and stick to it—otherwise you could have miles or points accumulating in small batches everywhere, but never enough to book a flight. Not sure which plan best suits your spending habits and goals? Check out the credit card selector in the bottom-right corner of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada’s website. Just plug in the required information about which province you live in, whether you tend to carry a balance on your card, if you’re willing to pay an annual fee and what rewards and benefits appeal to you most. It spits out a range of options, along with data about points and how they accumulate.

The right points plan

Keep in mind that when it comes to points plans, flexibility counts. Often, you can use points or miles to pay for hotel rooms, car rentals and admittance to special events, as well as airline tickets. Compare the benefits of driving to your destination and cashing in your points for a free hotel room. Alternatively, if you get the best return for your buck with a cashback credit card, choose that option and then plow the savings into your vacation fund.

Live la vida local

Over the years, my family has rented an Ontario cottage, a Tuscan villa and an apartment in Croatia. Letting a house, condo or cottage for a week is considerably cheaper than paying for a hotel, and you get space, privacy and a kitchen where you can throw together a meal. For Canada, try homeaway.ca or cottagesincanada.com, and for rentals around the world, check out vacationrentals.comairbnb.com or vrbo.com.

Don’t double up on travel insurance

Before you fork out the big bucks for insurance, find out if you’re already covered. Many premium credit cards provide trip cancellation and interruption insurance, rental-car insurance and out-of-country medical insurance as long as you use the card to book your flight, accommodation or rental car. Even if you have to pay a yearly fee in the range of $30 to $170 for the card, it could save you hundreds in insurance alone.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2014 issue with the headline “Sweet deals”, p. 32.

How to clean the house in 10 minutes or less

Today's Parent | posted Thursday, May 28th, 2015

The phone rings and guests are dropping by in 10 minutes. Now what? Lynn Fraser, an Edmonton life and executive coach and owner of Balance Your World, reassures us that the goal is not a perfectly clean house — just a warm welcome for your friends.

After all, “your guests are coming to see you and the kids, and it doesn’t matter if your home isn’t perfect. A place that’s homey and comfortable is much more welcoming than a show home.”

Still, with a plan and some expert know-how, you can make a house presentable in almost no time (and keep your heart rate within normal range). Here’s how>

Tidy timeline

Linda Chu, the owner of Out of Chaos Professional Organizing Solutions in Vancouver, recommends focusing on the living or family room, kitchen and washroom. Don’t worry about bedrooms — your guests aren’t coming for a sleepover.

Pop the little kids’ favourite DVD into the player, suggests Chu, and give them a small no-mess snack so they’re occupied — this way, they won’t undo your work as you go (much). Meanwhile, you, your partner and big kids can zip around the house.

Give yourself three minutes for a sweep through the rooms. Grab a bin or basket or two and pick up everything that doesn’t belong: dirty laundry, excess shoes, toys, models of the Eiffel Tower. In the family room, stash books and mags into an ottoman or a drawer in your coffee table, if you have one. In the kitchen, the big kids can clear the counter and load the dishwasher. Don’t worry about sorting things nicely — that’s for another time.

Finish picking up in the bathroom and, while you’re there, take three minutes: Flush the toilet, close lid, close the shower curtain, wipe counters and replace towels. The key to a quick bathroom turnaround is a little prep, stresses Chu: Pack a set of clean coordinated towels and washcloths in a zippered bag (the kind comforters come in). Include kitchen and dining room linens, if you like. When company drops by, you won’t have to scrounge in the linen closet. After they leave, do the laundry and pack the set back up, ready for the next visitors.

On to the kitchen! You and your helpers have three minutes to wipe the table and counters, put out the garbage, clean under the table with something like a Swiffer WetJet (especially if your children are small and floors are sticky).

A minute left! Enough time, suggests Chu, to comb your hair. And take a big breath.

Read on for the more great last-minute cleaning tips>

Desperate measures

What if you don’t have 10 minutes? What if friends just pop in? Try these quick tips:

• Grab a garbage bag and do a fast runaround, picking up what you can. Stash and sort later.

• Consider an alternative use of appliances, suggests Margaret Weeks, a home economist at the University of Prince Edward Island. Pop clothes and towels from the floor into the washer or dryer; your dishwasher will hide (er, hold) lots of dishes and pots.

• Put a fresh bar of soap in the bathroom — the room will smell nice even if you don’t have time to scrub.

• Focus on a welcoming atmosphere, says Fraser: Put on some music, turn on the kettle for coffee, clean off the table, put out a snack, clear a path to wherever you’re going to entertain your guests, and remove the clutter from the front entryway.

• Remind yourself that if people are dropping by on the spur of the moment, they must be very good friends who’ve seen you through thick and thin, says Weeks. Smile, open the door and welcome them in for a cup of coffee.

Panic prevention

Streamline your tidying technique:

• Contain it To control clutter, you need storage — baskets, pretty boxes, plastic bins. Weeks also likes big tote bags and hampers for quick storage of toys, shoes and laundry. When not in use, stack and tuck them away.

• Give it a home If everything has a place, you can tidy in a hurry because you know where it goes.

• Hang it Install hooks or pegs at your entryway, suggests Chu. Guests can hang their coats on the hooks (rather than in closets you don’t want them to see).

• Multi-task with cleaning supplies Fraser mixes one-third vinegar to two-thirds water in a spray bottle for mirrors, counters, glass and fixtures.

• Teach your kids Keep clutter under control by picking up 10 things every day, says Weeks. Encourage your kids to learn the same habit (if you start right now, this will take approximately 24 years).

Looking for ways to get your kids to help you with chores? Check out this video:

10 ways the Apple Watch makes life easier for parents

Mike Yawney | posted Tuesday, Apr 28th, 2015

It’s easy to write off the Apple Watch as a gadget strictly for tech-lovers or Apple uber-fans, but the timepiece is also pretty useful for parents. In fact, you may be surprised to discover just how much the slick device can do for you. Here are 10 ways the Apple Watch can make your family life a little easier.

1. Take better family photos (that actually include you)
Finally, an easy way to get everyone—including yourself!—in your smartphone snapshots. Apple Watch lets you remotely control the camera on your iPhone. Just prop up your phone or place it on a tripod, then gather the family. Once everyone is in place, you can look at your watch to see a live preview of the shot, adjust the focal point and set a timer to ensure everyone has a chance to get in place. When you’re ready to snap the photo, just tap the watch. After the shutter clicks, your family photo will be saved on your iPhone.

2. Simplify family meals
Load the Apple Watch with the Kitchen Stories app and you’ll receive inspiration and daily suggestions on what to make for dinner. Use your watch to track your grocery list, or set timers so you never burn or overcook a meal again. And if your meal is a flop, you can always manage a restaurant reservation through the OpenTable app for Apple Watch.

3. Keep track of family finances
It’s easy to lose track of your family’s budget—unless, of course, your watch holds you accountable for every dollar you spend. If you bank with Tangerine, you can check your account balances and review transactions right on your wrist. Worried about overspending? Set up an account threshold and receive a notice when you reach your limit.

4. Lighten up
Reduce the weight of your purse or wallet by storing gift and loyalty cards directly on your Apple Watch. When you arrive at the checkout, simply raise your wrist and scan your watch. It’s just like having the cards with you—minus the bulk.

5. Stay organized
Doctor appointments
, soccer practice, dance recitals—there’s a lot running through a parent’s mind at any given time. The Apple Watch can help keep even the busiest family on schedule. The built-in Calendar app helps you plan your day by displaying your schedule right on your wrist. Reminders pop up throughout the day, ensuring nothing will fall through the cracks.

6. Be connected without pulling your phone out
You want to focus solely on the kids, but you’re waiting for an important call or email. Every parent’s been there. The Apple Watch notifies you of incoming messages right on your wrist, preventing you from having to constantly pull your phone out of your purse or pocket to check it. You can respond to texts with your voice or return a call even if your phone is tucked away.

7. Get more control of your kids’ tablet time
More and more, kids are watching videos on tablets and smartphones, and that’s fine—in moderation. The Apple Watch gives you added control of your kids’ screen time via the PlayKids app. When you’d like your kids to take a break, you can stop the video using your Apple Watch. You can also send custom messages to your kids, featuring a cute cartoon character, letting them know it’s time to brush their teeth or go to bed.

8. Plan a better family vacation
The Apple Watch can help you discover amazing family activities when you’re travelling. Launch Trip Advisor on the Apple Watch and find nearby attractions, restaurants and hotels. Navigate city streets with ease using the Maps app, which gives turn-by-turn directions to your destinations as you travel. And if you’re staying at a Starwood Hotels and Resorts property, you can even use the watch to unlock your room door.

9. Get more active
The Apple Watch monitors your movements throughout the day, tracking not just the quantity of your activities, but the intensity as well. Using a heart-rate sensor and accelerometer, it provides an accurate summary of your daily activities and workouts. The watch also notifies you when you’ve been sitting for a bit too long and (gently) encourages you to get up. Time for that post-dinner family walk!

10. Improve your cool quotient (maybe)
Sure, you know all the words to “Let it Go,” but what about the lyrics to your kids’ other favourite songs? The Shazam app for Apple Watch prompts your iPhone to start listening to a song being played. Once your iPhone identifies the song, it will begin displaying lyrics in real time on your Apple Watch. Your kids will be super-impressed that you know all the words to their favourite songs. (Well, that or totally mortified.)

Apple Watch is available for sale now, and will retail for $449 and up.

5 ways to save money with your phone

Amy Valm | posted Tuesday, Apr 14th, 2015

Flipp
Free | iOS, Android
Ditch paper flyers for this one-stop digital source that meets all your price-matching needs with a flip of the finger.

RedFlagDeals
Free | iOS, Android
Browse deals and source coupons easily on this Canadian-based deal-finder or recommend fab deals and chat with other savvy shoppers.

Checkout 51
Free | iOS, Android
Sign up for money-saving rebates—simply photograph your receipt from any store and upload through the app to start raking in the savings.

GasBuddy
Free | iOS, Android
Find the cheapest fuel near you, as reported by like-minded money savers who report local gas prices to save everyone some coin.

YNAB
Free | iOS, Android
“You Need A Budget” takes the guesswork—and dread—out of building and maintaining a budget by allowing users to easily enter and organize transactions.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2015 issue with the headline, “Living on the cheap”, p.49.

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