Coronavirus Finances: Wants vs Needs + Budgeting + Responsible Debt


There's nothing like a global pandemic to make you look at your finances.

Many people's sources of income have been altered in some way. For some the pandemic has created windfalls (all essential services) but for most people and businesses, income had gone down or stopped entirely.

Everyone's expenses have changed: no one is going anywhere so transportation costs have been all but eradicated. Entertainment expenses have also gone down: everything is closed including country borders so there's nowhere to go - no movies, concerts, fancy dinners, or trips. There's also no need to buy the accoutrement that accompanies going out; no need for new outfits or suitcases.

Everyone is spending more on food. The grocery store is the only place to go. Meals are the markers of time in a day that no longer has many (any?) way to mark the passage of time. There's nowhere to be anymore; what time is it, what day is it?


WANTS vs NEEDS

For me personally, the pandemic has made me look at my finances differently. It's made me really think about the difference between wants and needs.
Needs sustain you; wants entertain you.
- Karen McCall
 
What do we actually NEED versus what do we only WANT? Do you know know that difference for yourself? Before the pandemic, it was all a bit hazy for me.

But now I'm asking myself more and more "Is the thing I'm spending money on going to enhance my life in some way? Or is it something that, in a few months from now, I'm going to be shoving into a storage bin or the back of my closet?"

What's made me think about all this?

Well the pandemic obviously. But specifically, a few big ticket expenses that I've had during the pandemic that have made me really take a look at the things I spend my money on.

The first was my car. I hit 100,000 kilometres and thought I should take it in for a check-up. The milestone as well as the fact that I hadn't had anyone look at it for a year and half drove me (haha) to the Auto Shop...where they found something to fix. Car repairs are not cheap.

When I pulled out my credit card for this expense, I did it with a sinking heart because I'm not working during this pandemic so it's not a great time for big expenses.

But after the fact, when I thought about it, I reframed the expense: my car is my FREEDOM. I purchased my first vehicle at age 35. Four years later, that's the car I still have. I bought it second-hand and as of this February, Goldie is paid off in full. (My car is named Goldie after Goldie Hawn because she has aged remarkably well and I hope my car does the same.)


Spending money on anything that facilitates my life and which enables my freedom is a worthy expense. It's a NEED, not a want.

Some people would argue with me that a car is a want and that you can get by without one. And for 35 years, I did get by. I spent most of my 20's and thirties traveling all over the world, moving from city to city, or living in places where I didn't need a car. (Montreal was my favourite walkable city and there's FANTASTIC public transportation with cross city buses and subways.)

But when I moved back to Ottawa five years ago, I realized that I needed to finally purchase a vehicle. Ottawa is not walkable, the city is very spread out, and our public transportation system stinks.

My car is my freedom and it facilitates living my life in this city. Any money spent on my car for non-aesthetic purposes is money well spent. (The bumper of my car is being held on with cable ties and clear Gorilla Tape and frankly it's an eyesore. But it's not a safety issue, therefore, I will not spend money on getting it fixed unless it actually falls off.)

The next big-ticket expense was a new computer.

During the second week of lockdown, I started having issues with my computer. It got so bad that I was pretty sure it was possessed (or maybe my computer got the 'Rona??!!?): it would randomly shut down and re-start. Sometimes upon restarting, it would bring me to the language set-up menu. And the power cord wasn't charging properly.

I started praying every time I plugged it in that it would start. That's when I realized that for technical matters, prayer was only going to get me so far because God doesn't work in IT.

I'd had this computer for six years and made excellent use of it. But it was time for an upgrade.

So I bought a new computer. And for the first time in my Mac buying life, I upgraded to the highest specs available for RAM and processors. The rationale: it will be functional for a longer period of time. My previous computer had been a MacBook Pro. I cheaped out on the specs. And then I ended up ordering the parts I should have gotten (sticks of RAM and a bigger hard rive) at a later point and installing them into the computer. This was an option because the Pro has screws on the bottom that allows the opening of the shell.

My new computer is an Air, and the shell is all one piece. No later upgrades possible.


Based on my past experiences and knowing what my needs were, buying the best piece of equipment I could buy was completely justified.

When my old computer wouldn't start at one point, I actually had a panic attack. My computer (I think everyone's computer?) is their lifeline, especially during a pandemic. As a tool, the only thing my computer doesn't do for me is cook my meals, but it pretty much does everything else. We live in a world where a person cannot get by if they don't have access to a computer and the internet.

My computer is my lifeline to the world, and it's the tool I use in some way for everything that I do:

My workout plans, workout music, workout videos are all on the computer.

My recipe book is electronic, and while I cook, my laptop is set-up in the kitchen and I watch Masterclass or TED talks.

All my writing is done on the computer.

My calendar.

Everything. Everything.

The tools we use everyday, which create efficiency is our lives are worth spending money on.

My father was (and still is) penny wise but pound foolish. He gets the cheap version of something he needs and then when it inevitably proves to be ineffective, he goes out and buys something better. If he had just bought a high-quality item in the first place, he would have saved himself both the money and the hassle of needing to replace it.

All that to say: the computer was a great purchase. No regrets.

The last big-ticket expense was a Spin Bike.

I had no plans of doing this.

When lock-down first happened, I, like most people, thought it would last a few weeks. And then it didn't. It just kept going. Another two weeks, another three weeks.

When lock-down first happened I managed to get my hands on a few sets of kettlebells. I was able to do some make-shift workouts with that.

But then I needed a cardio aspect. Running was not an option because of an old ankle injury - although I did try. And the pain which ensued in the three days that followed reminded me of why I stopped doing any impact exercises.

So I bought a step stool at Walmart and did workouts with that. Literally a step-stool. I couldn't find an actual gym stepper anywhere, so I got a plain old step stool with rubber feet and a rubber top. And I stepped up and down, and side to side, and stepped and kicked, and stepped up with kettlebells...etc. etc.


I'm incredibly proud of myself for adapting the way I did. I know that a lot of people, upon lockdown, immediately went out and spent a lot of money on exercise equipment.

I did not do this. I adapted, I made do. I was biding my time everyday, getting more and more stressed out because the gym is my happy place. It's my release, it's what keeps me calm and centred and able to handle the stress of daily life and the noise of my busy mind.

But then (about three months in) when it became abundantly clear that "normal life" (let alone the gym) wasn't going to go back to the way things were before all of this for at least a year, I started thinking...

I spoke to one of my spin instructors whom I'm friends with on Facebook and she told me that once the gyms opened, everyone would need to book appointments to workout, and it would be a first-come, first-serve basis. Aside from the hassle of trying to get into the gym, who actually wants to be in a closed room, with people who are breathing as hard as they can with the fans going full blast?? Everyone's 'droplets' would be spread by the end of the class.

The gym is one of those place where EVERYONE is going to be speaking moistly on one another.


When all of those things occurred to me, I thought - It's time to buy a Spin Bike.

So I went and I bought one.
My first ride on the bike I did 40km. I was on that bike for nearly two hours. And the exhilarating joy I felt to be able to do something I loved again was priceless. Literally PRICELESS. You cannot put a price on that kind of joy.

Working out is my sanity. When I'm having a bad day, I get on the bike, blast my music, and I literally spin my troubles away. Maintaining my sanity is important during normal times, but even more so now in the midst of a global pandemic.

What I realized from all these purchases is that I get more joy out of money well-spent on carefully considered big-ticket items, than I ever have on all the crap and impulse buys I've been prone to in the past which end up draining a shocking amount of money from my budget.

BUDGETING

Since I don't have a paycheque coming in, I needed to take a look at my budget and curb my spending where possible.

We can't make a realistic budget unless we know how much we spend, so before budgeting even comes into the picture, we need to know what a month's worth of expenses looks like.

After much trial and error, I found an app that would let me do that. (The biggest struggle had been that most of the finance apps are actually for budgeting and not straight-forward expense tracking, so they weren't user friendly in that sense.)

The app I downloaded is called Spending Tracker. Now you do need to manually input all of your expenses, which personally is my preference. Some of the other apps will automatically track for you, however you need to grant them access to your bank account and credit card information, which I'm not comfortable with.

Also, those automatic trackers aren't an entirely accurate way to track expenses. When I buy things at the grocery store, some items are grocery, but some are household, and others are toiletries & grooming products.

I wanted an app that would allow me to be that specific with my categories, without needing to share my financial information, and which ideally was free, and this Spending Tracker app does all of that.

I spent a month tracking every single expense and well...it turns out that what I think I spend my money on versus what I actually spend my money on are very different.

So I made a more realistic budget based on that information.

When I realized what my main problem category was - food in general but impulse buys at the grocery store specifically - I then decided that this was the category I needed to create a stricter budget around.

But how to stick to it? I've never managed. Using a credit card leads to blind spending. And my bank account covers other things and constantly worrying if I've dipped into the cash for my automatic payments isn't practical. And now because of Coronavirus, many stores are no longer accepting cash (and besides, unless you're a drug dealer, who wants to carry around a wad of bills?) I needed a money bucket which was dedicated solely to that one problem area.


Enter the pre-paid Visa credit card from KOHO. It's free. It works exactly like a credit card; you can use it anywhere you would use a Visa card. The way you get funds onto the card is by sending an e-transfer to yourself from your bank to the card anytime you want to load up again.

The app keeps track of all transactions and your home dashboard tells you how much money you have left to spend.

It's been a game changer in that it's completely changed the way I grocery shop, and has made me think about my purchases much more carefully.

EMERGENCY FUNDS

Were it not for my emergency fund, I would be a financial basket case right now. But when I moved back from Montreal in 2015, I spent a few years living with my parents for this exact reason: I had debt to pay, and money to save. It was a huge sacrifice on my part (and I know it can't have been easy for them either at times - although the fact that they only live in their house half of the year made this experience somewhat less painful.)

But during that time I was able to put away a nest egg that I hadn't touched since I put it there. And that nest egg is what's helping me to sleep at night and pay some of my bills now.

Coronavirus has stressed to me the importance of having an emergency fund. Because unexpected things do come up, and if the money is there it just isn't as big a deal.

Although I have an emergency fund, since moving out in 2018, I haven't added to it at all. I always intended to, but never did because at the end of the month, I never had any money left.

And now I finally understand what every single financial planner will ever tell you: pay yourself first. When the money comes in, you set yourself up first, then you pay everyone else. Then, after that, whatever's left is your discretionary spending money.

When I go back to work and start getting a paycheque again, never will I resort to paying myself last, only to not end up paying myself at all. Having money in the bank is too important - more important than whatever stupid impulse buy which will have me staring at it at some point down the line wishing I could get my money back. (Have you ever done that? Looked at a pile of items and really wished you could get a refund?)

DEBT

So obviously I racked up some debt because of my big ticket items, but it's what I call responsible debt because it's either low-interest or no-interest.

When I first bought my car, I opened an MBNA credit card account and transferred my entire car loan onto it. MBNA had a one-year 0% interest introductory offer on balance transfers, as long as you made your minimum payments on time. There is a one time balance transfer fee of $75 or 3% of the total, whichever is greater. This is still cheaper than the typical high interest rate of most loans or credit cards.

Which is how I paid very little interest on my car loan - I kept transferring the balance to whichever credit card was giving me a 0% promotional offer on balance transfers.

I paid off my car in February, and MBNA had sent me a new 0% interest balance transfer offer around that time which I didn't think I would need to use...but then you know, a global pandemic happened, a bunch of expenses came up, and I was able to transfer a good portion of the debt I had amassed into this account with no need to worry about interest for the next year. Every penny I put towards my payments is paying off the loan itself and not being used to pay off the interest. (Which can often be the case with high-interest credit cards.)

The rest of my debt is on my Scotiabank Value Visa.

It's an entirely no frills card (much like the MBNA credit card). I get no air miles or cash back or anything. I pay no annual fee, and my interest rate is always only in the single digits. (I think right now with the lowered interest rates, I pay 6.6% annually - again very low compared to most credit cards or loans. NOTE: I did get this card about 10 years ago, and some of the specifics seems to have changed since then, however, it's still a great option since most credit cards charge 19.99% interest and this card charges 12.99%. And if you're willing to pay a small annual fee, the MBNA credit card has an 8.99% interest rate card.)

ONLINE SHOPPING

The other thing I've done to save money is to unsubscribe from EVERY. SINGLE. MAILING LIST. No more promotional offers in my inbox. I'm a sucker for a deal, so I needed to stop getting deals in my inbox.

Online shopping is a bad habit and it's addictive because of that dopamine high we get when we put things into our shopping cart - but I discovered that you can get that high without actually spending any money.

Every now and then when I get the urge to shop, I go onto a website, fill my basket and then hit "Save for Later" or I take screenshots of the items and save them in a folder on my desktop called the "Shopping Folder."

Saving a picture of the item seems to take care of my FOMO (fear of missing out) - I can come back to the item later - in a few days, or when the sales start at that particular store (and they will). That's if looking at the item later still elicits desire, and usually it doesn't. Usually when I look at something days or week after I first coveted it, I no longer want it. This has been a valuable realization.

MONETIZE YOUR SKILLS

Lastly, I decided to follow the advice of my favourite YouTube money channel - The Financial Diet - and monetize what I'm good at. I'm a passionate baker and am specifically passionate about baking cookies. Baking is my hobby, I love it, and I'm always excited to test recipes. But...I spend a lot of money on baking supplies only to turn around and give everything away.

So I started a cookie company.

At this point, I've only covered about half my costs, but I have a great stock of products ready for when orders start coming in or when inspiration strikes. Some people paint, others colour, or knit or scrapbook. I bake. It's my thing.

Chunky Monkey Cookie

WAKE-UP CALL

I'm incredibly grateful for the financial wake-up call that coronavirus has provided. I haven't always been responsible with my money, but I'm getting better, and this pandemic has really hit home some of the reasons around why it's so important to have one's financial house in order.

I've also realized that I have more than I need already. I don't need more stuff. And I need to remind myself of that when I get caught in the grip of some exciting new item which promises to make me a newer, better, happier person. It won't: that fantasy is just marketing at it's finest.

It's ok to purchase something if it will bring pleasure into our lives, but making sure that it's not just the high of the purchase but the actual using of the item which will make us happy is an important distinction to make.

Money makes the world go around. And by getting our finances in order, our world can spin more smoothly.

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