My quest to spend less

Susan Flanagan
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Some bills can be trimmed, but they still pile up

— Photo illustration by Thinkstock

I know our family is not the only one wishing they had less debt and more savings. And because my husband would rather go for a root canal than talk about finances, I’ve come up with a plan. It’s a challenge really: To go one month without spending any money, except maybe on the essentials, like food.

You can imagine in a family with four teenagers, a five-year-old and a grandparent who stays weeks at a time, a nice bit of food is consumed. And it’s not only food; basically all essentials like shampoo, laundry detergent, toilet paper and tissues disappear at an alarming rate.  

I am sure many of you, like us, feel the financial squeeze as you try to dig yourself out of the Christmas pit. I know after four family birthdays between October 30 and November 29, then Christmas, then another birthday on January 7, our bank balances in January/ February can be a bit unnerving. More than moderation is in order. Because of this, I have designated February to be my No-Spend Month.

I should qualify here that I am not a keen shopper so the urge to run out a buy a pair of shoes doesn’t exist in me. Hiking boots maybe, but not shoes. I do have a weakness for books so for the 30 days I will not set foot in Afterwards, one of my favourite places on the planet. I also don’t mean to minimize the plight of people who can barely afford the basics. Perhaps if any of you try this experiment, you can donate some of the money saved to a worthy cause.

When I told my brother what I was attempting to do, he said: “Are you not spending money or trying to not spend money?” I realize now one week into the experiment that there is a big difference between the two.

I know I have to buy bread, milk, fruit, vegetables, lunch meat and let’s not forget cereal. We go through truckloads of the stuff.

This same brother with the question is the one who taught me the cent a gram rule. John does not buy cereal unless it costs less than one cent per gram. No exception. For years I too have been reading the small print on the price tags displayed below the boxes on the supermarket shelf. Regular-priced cereals like Crispix, Cheerios or Oat Squares rarely sell for less than a cent a gram, so when they’re on sale, I literally fill the cart. One thing I have noticed, though, is I have to watch for companies like Quaker announcing a sale with a “new look” box when in fact, what they’re really doing is disguising the fact they have reduced the number of grams from let’s say 540 to 350 while keeping the regular price the same.

On cereal sale days I couldn’t even jam a carton of milk in my cart if I wanted to. Not that one carton of milk would be any good to me. So if I need milk or meat or fruit or bread, I have to pick that up on a separate grocery run.

Apart from a minimum of 12 two-litre milks per week and a boatload of bread and fruit, we still have to pay home, vehicle and life insurance, electricity, oil, propane, telephone, gas (don’t forget we now have three driving teenage boys; they are good though and do put gas in), vehicle repairs, prescriptions and dental fees.

I know I can’t make these expenses disappear, but what I can do is review bills to see if they can be whittled down. By examining my bills from the past six months I found, for example, that I was pouring way too much hard-earned money into the waiting gullet of Bell Aliant. The first thing I noticed was that the FREE professional installation of fibre-op cost me $149 plus $19.37 HST. I quickly got that reversed. That was fairly easy to catch when my normal monthly bill of just over $100 bucks jumped to $289.87. So much for the promises made by the well-presented young American man who sat with us at our picnic table last summer and sold us on the benefits of switching over to fibre-op Internet. All I can say is, watch your bill.

My most recent call to Bell Aliant netted me another $29 in monthly savings.

Voicemail Plus, a $4 plus 52 cents HST monthly charge to increase the capacity of my voicemail memory: nixed.

My $10 unlimited Provincial Long Distance Plan: nixed. Calls are 5 cents per minute. I would have to chat a long time to bring it up to $10.

A $15 Fibre-op TV fee: nixed. We don’t even have cable. We still use rabbit ears to watch “Republic of Doyle.”

I also got rid of those annoying call waiting beeps, although there was no cost savings; just sanity. The money saved from the telephone bill allowed us to get North Atlantic to hook up our propane fireplace after two years of not using it.

And as for our money-sucking oil tank, we’ve opted out of Harvey’s automatic fill. Instead we call for a fill when necessary. That means that we’re not paying extra to keep our tank constantly full. I have to admit, though, that we have been less than diligent about reading the gauge and run out of fuel. We then paid extra for an emergency fill and service call to come in and bleed the furnace.

So, think about that one before you follow in our footsteps and opt out of the automatic fill option. If you’re not checking your tank often, you may run out of oil at the most inopportune time.

So, once food and services have sucked up about 80 per cent of the monthly income, there are still other bombs that can sink your finances quicker than a torpedo: cell phone plans. We have four children with cell phones and although they pay their bills the first of every month, their plans are in our names and have to be monitored by us. Three months of free online minutes does not automatically get cancelled at the end of the grace period. And, of course, we all know what happens when we make a quick call home while travelling. Roaming fees can make any month’s chequebook balance look like a squashed mosquito.

So, back to my brother’s question. I guess I am trying to not spend money rather than not spending money. Because when I go online, I can see I’m still doling it out for children’s hockey, swimming, guitar lessons, fundraisers, kindergarten book orders, birthday party gifts, socks. Then there are payments for mortgage, RESP contributions, The Telegram, haircuts, property and water tax, our foster child, motor vehicle licence renewal, parking tickets, credit cards.

Finally, I really knew I was not truly in No-Spend mode when I had off-the-rack curtains altered to fit our front windows for my February birthday. For the more than five years, since we moved into our house, passersby have witnessed every bite of supper entering our gobs. Without slowing or straining their necks, they can see everything we do.

I don’t know why it took me so long to snap and wish for a little privacy. You may be thinking I just want to run around in my birthday suit once the children go to bed. Believe me, if I had the energy I would. In the meantime, I will let you know how the remainder of

No-Spend Month goes.


Susan Flanagan can be reached at

23 and a half hours feedback

Susan’s Note: The mystery cure I mentioned last week is to cover yourself in cottage cheese and lie in a bath of cucumber slices for half an hour each day. Just joking. The real cure is to walk for half an hour a day. This practice has been known to save lives. If you can’t walk, try to get out and breathe fresh air for 30 minutes a day.

Christy Boyd, a reporter at The Pilot in Lewisporte, writes: “I am … the mother of a 9-year-old boy and 7-year-old twin girls. I check out the Telegram every day … and this morning I read your column.

I love it! Because it is so true. Tonight as I get my kids into bed, one of whom is sick with a throat infection, I am going to check out the link. Thanks for the smile this morning.”


Mail carrier feedback

J, a once proud letter carrier in Winnipeg who is ashamed at what his workplace has become, writes: “Bravo. As a 20-year-plus employee of Canada Post I have seen firsthand the decline of customer service and working conditions.

Canada Post’s modern post is a failure. … I’ve seen brothers and sisters in tears due to the new system. … Funny that — our sort times are the same as the old system, but the routes have almost doubled. How is that possible? Canada Post also reported carriers in Winnipeg did not deliver when the temperatures were –41. Upwards of 10,000 homes go without delivery, cold or not, weekly since modern post was introduced here. … Sort times haven’t, for the most part, changed; yet (there are) more homes plus parcels to deliver. We used to have UPS deliver parcels, now it’s up to the carriers. Feels like Canada Post with the help of the Harper government is either trying to destroy the post office, or make the job so hard the turnover rate will guarantee they will not have to worry about paying out a pension.

I’ve watched some of the most senior carriers struggle — most have doctors’ notes saying they can only work eight hours. Canada Post takes half the walk off to make sure they stay within the time line. Hmmm.

Watch casuals and temp employees struggle on eight-hour routes. Most take 10-12 hours to complete and then they are too scared to claim overtime as this is a no-no. Not if you want to get a permanent position … sad. Working in the dark in the murder capital of Canada is stressful. You go up to a house in the north end that is full of gang members with a headlamp on (hoping) they don’t mistake you for cops and shoot through the door.”

 Joe Rider, who describes himself as 36 years walking in Toronto, writes: “Three cheers for helping spread the (factual) account of the letter carriers plight. … We think that Canadians deserve better service than what CPC has given them. We have been sold a bad, inefficient, unsafe system by the departed Moya Green. Yup, the once proud carrier has gone replaced by the now overworked ill-treated tired mule.”

Organizations: Bell Aliant, Canada Post, UPS

Geographic location: Doyle, North Atlantic, Winnipeg Lewisporte Canada Toronto

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Recent comments

  • Ryan
    February 12, 2013 - 22:38

    We called Bell Aliant yesterday to try and trim our bill and ended up with $35 a month savings. I wonder how much we really overpay for some things...