Category Archives: Systems

An Inside Peek at my Personal Finance Systems

Ever wondered how financial experts run their own personal finances? As many of you know, I work in finance in my day job. I never talk about financial products or specific recommendations in social media. But over the years in my career, I have picked up some excellent general tips and whipped my own finances into great shape. A lot of people ask me for tips all the time so I thought I’d share with you how I run my own personal finances so that I’m always making progress toward my goals.

I keep an emergency fund at all times. It’s not JUST for emergencies, I’ll also use it for opportunities or larger purchases that are planned, such as a vacation or a down payment on a car. I keep this savings fund separate from my chequing account.

I pay myself first. I have a budget that I stick to each month*. When I initially created my budget, I included my savings contributions as fixed expenses. My savings amounts are non-negotiable – NOT what’s left over after I’ve created the rest of my budget. The rest of my budget has to fit around my savings commitment to myself.

I use my no-annual-fee credit card for nearly all purchases throughout the month. I pay it off in full every payday (which, for me, is every 2 weeks) so I never pay any interest on purchases. And I rack up points on my card for all the purchases that I have to make! I’ve  redeemed points for a free plane ticket to see my guy in Ontario, and I still have more points left for another trip!

I set up all fixed expenses (where possible) on pre-authorized payment plans. That way they’ll never go unpaid due to forgetfulness.

I keep a finance calendar. Listen up, because this is my BEST SECRET. I use Outlook, but any calendaring system like Google Calendar would work just as well. I put in everything that happens in a recurring manner as a colour-coded recurring appointment in my calendar. Payday is a green recurring task. And every single item that will be drawn directly out of my bank account on a particular day gets a red recurring task with the amount indicated. This means I can always see at a glance what a month of income and expenses looks like.

I always keep a buffer amount in my bank account. Never let your planned expenses and withdrawals take your main bank account balance below this buffer amount. This leaves room in your account for unplanned or forgotten withdrawals without running the risk of a payment bouncing.

Payday is my favourite day of the month — and not for the reason you’d think. It’s not for all the fresh new cash to spend! Nope – it’s because payday is the day I get to figure out just how far forward I can nudge my net worth on that day. As long as it’s always improving, it gives me such a thrill! My plan is to figure out all the transactions that will occur on my chequing account between this day and next payday. Here’s how I do it:

  • I log into my online banking and pull up my current bank and credit card balances.
  • I pull up my finance calendar.
  • On a scrap of paper, I write down my current exact bank balance (once the paycheque has been deposited).
  • From there, I subtract all expenses and savings contributions that will be withdrawn from my bank account before my next payday. I also subtract my bank account buffer amount, and I’m left with the minimum amount that MUST be left in my bank account.
  • From that amount, I subtract the total amount I need to pay off my current Visa balance (and I damn well better have enough to pay it. If I don’t, then I’ve been spending irresponsibly and it’s time to tighten the budget immediately).
  • I transfer the balance to pay off the Visa by doing an online payment.
  • What’s left, after accounting for my buffer and expenses, is the amount I have to play with. Depending on my priorities at the time, I may use this amount to pay down my line of credit (if needed), or as a lump sum boost to my retirement savings or emergency fund, or sometimes I might spend it on something special!

Using this method, I have not missed a deadline or had a single bill payment bounce in over 9 years, I have really great credit, and my net worth is edging upwards with every pay period. And I do it all over again each pay day. It takes a little bit of work initially to set up your budget, finance calendar and pre-authorized savings and bill payments (but isn’t your future self worth it?!), but once they’re done, they go on autopilot. The calculations for bill payments takes me about 5-10 minutes each payday. I now love the little fist-pump feeling I get each time I find out how much I can use to pay down debt faster or boost my savings, so I love doing this exercise!

If you need help creating a budget, read this post on how to create a budget for the first time, and then join Words of Williams’ newsletter for a free budget template download. Mint or Mint Canada are also a great help for the lazy budgeter 🙂

Any questions that I might have missed that you’re curious about?

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Singleton Menu Planning: Creating a Weekly Plan

Part 1 about my basic approach to menu planning.
Part 2 about maintaining a well-stocked pantry & kitchen.

Source: Kyla Roma

Menu planning in process. Source: Kyla Roma

Now that you have stocked your kitchen and are down with the idea of leftovers, it’s time to get into what actual meals you’ll eat in a given week. Cooking for just one, I have a few tactics to eat well, keep my grocery bill down, minimize food waste and keep some variety in my diet. My tried, tested and true tips:

  • Pick one or two weekday breakfasts and have one of those two meals all week. Change up your breakfast plan each week so it doesn’t get boring.
  • Do the same thing for snacks.
  • Plan to eat out for lunch one day a week.
  • Plan two dinners cooked from scratch each week that will each feed me at least 3-4 meals, and portion them out for individual leftover meals after cooking.
  • Plan at least two dinners each week that are either a quick thrown-together meal from pantry staples, or dinner plans out.
  • Select meals that have some cross-over ingredients in the same week.

Now onto how I arrive at which meals get planned for each week.

Step 1: Do a quick fridge/pantry check to see what perishable goods I have on hand that need using up. This week, I had some cauliflower and kale that needed eating quickly, so I am making kale/spinach/banana/peanut butter/almond milk smoothies with toast for breakfast, and one of my weeknight meals is cauliflower curry.

Step 2: Consider what I’m craving along with any current dietary needs. Right now? I’m doing my best to eat fairly clean, so I need lots of fruits and veggies, but I’ve been craving comfort. That’s a tall order to combine comfort with clean eating, but roasting veggies does it for me every time… they just seem so much heartier and tastier to me when cooked that way! So I’ve also made polenta with sausage and roasted peppers & asparagus.

Step 3: Consult my recipe folder and my Pinterest recipe boards for inspiration. I use Pinterest with abandon to save any recipes from food blogs that I want to try. When I happen upon a winner, I print it out and keep it in my recipe folder, and also sometimes make notes on the Pinterest pin if there’s anything I want to remember for next time I make it. I delete any recipe pins that turn out to be duds, so my Pinterest boards are exclusively a source of stuff I like or stuff I really want to try. No bad recipes stay there.

Step 4: Can you use the same ingredients in two meals, so you won’t be left with fresh produce going to waste? A few ideas: I make kale chips or use kale in a soup or stew the same week that I make kale smoothies for breakfast. If I had sausage with polenta for dinner for a couple of nights, I might have a sausage with breakfast for a couple of days that week also. (Not on the same days!) Using half a pepper in your spaghetti sauce? Chop up the other half and fry it up with eggs for breakfast. Or as an alternative to using up leftover produce in another meal, I just buy/make hummus or some other dip and use the leftover fresh veggies with dip as a snack.

Step 5: Now that you’ve got your main meals sorted out, plan your snacks. I have a steady rotation of snacks I use, but I choose them based on what my meals are those days. I’m not going to have a granola bar for a mid-morning snack the same day I had toast for breakfast; I’m more likely to pick fruit or yogurt for nutritional variety.

Bonus, a couple of sample weekly menus for you!

Sample Week 1

Dinner 1: Minestrone soup (using The Foodess’ recipe as a great base)
Dinner 2: Sauteed swiss chard & spinach (cooked with garlic & lemon juice) with grilled chicken (This would probably feed me only 1 night, no leftovers)
Dinner 3: Creamy Chicken Stew (via Framed Cooks).
Breakfast all week: Homemade breakfast sandwiches – Fried egg, cheddar cheese, bacon, sliced tomato & spinach on a toasted English muffin.
Snacks: Apple & cheese, or a banana.

I love this sample menu because there’s great variety in the type of meal I’m eating, but also a lot of cross-ingredient usage across meals. Swiss chard is used in the minestrone as well as sauteed chard. Chicken is used for grilling in Dinner 2 as well as in the chicken stew, so I’d only have to buy one package of chicken for the week. A lot of the veggies in the minestrone can also be used in the chicken stew. The spinach from dinner 2 is also on the breakfast sandwiches, as is the bacon from the chicken stew. This would be pretty cheap to buy ingredients for a full week of cooking!

Sample Week 2

Dinner 1: Spaghetti meat sauce served over spaghetti squash. Secret family recipe, no link! But this is a veggie-loaded sauce with a ground beef base.
Dinner 2: Seared salmon with veggies over coconut noodles (via Bev Cooks).
Breakfast all week: Veggie scramble with eggs, asparagus, mushrooms & peppers, served with salsa
Snacks: Yogurt with berries
Treat: Soft & Chewy Oatmeal Scotchie Cookies (via Averie Cooks)

Same concept here – some overlap between ingredients, and variety in the menu at the same time. Asparagus & mushrooms are used in Dinner 2 as well as breakfast; peppers from the spaghetti are used in breakfast. Spaghetti sauce is great because it freezes well and can be served over spaghetti squash or real noodles. And I threw in a treat this week because the rest of the meals are pretty darn healthy!

Singleton Menu Planning: A Well Stocked Pantry

Here’s part 1 about my basic approach to menu planning for one.

One of the most important things to cooking and eating healthy, thoughtful meals is keeping  my kitchen well-stocked at all times with all the basics that I need. That way, when I decide on a menu plan for the week, it’s only the out-of-the-ordinary fresh stuff or maybe a random pantry item that I need to buy. This makes shopping quicker and cheaper! As I go throughout the week, I keep a grocery list clipped to the fridge where I write down any pantry items that I’m running low on or need replacing, and then when I’m menu planning I add any fresh stuff to the list that I’ll need to pick up as well. Here’s how I stock my kitchen; adapt as you see fit for the stuff you actually use and cook most often.

Sauces/Oils/Seasonings:
I keep the ones I use the most right next to the stove for easy access: cooking oil/spray, salt & pepper.

Oils: Olive, canola, sesame and coconut
Vinegars: Balsamic, red wine, champagne, rice, apple cider
Kosher salt grinder
Pepper grinder
Sriracha
Mayonnaise
Dijon mustard
Ketchup
Salsa
Soy sauce
Curry paste

Baking:
By keeping this small collection of items on hand at all times, I nearly always find I’m able to whip up a quick batch of cookies or a simple bread or cake without even going shopping.

All purpose flour
Cornmeal
Cornstarch
Rolled oats
Yeast
Sugar/sweeteners: White, brown, icing sugars; agave syrup
Extracts: Vanilla, almond
Baking soda
Baking powder
Coconut flakes
Various chocolate chips or squares: white, milk, semi-sweet, bittersweet, dark

Other Dry Goods:
I try to stock up and buy all this stuff when it’s on sale. I’ve also found with tea in particular, it’s nice to have created a “guest collection.” I keep a basket of various types of herbal, black, rooibos & green tea that I pull out and offer when I have company so people can choose  whatever they like. People always seem to think this is such a nice touch, and it is so easy!

Cereal – a couple of different varieties
Dry pasta – I always have a long and small kind on hand. Right now it’s fusilli & spaghetti.
Rices: Arborio, jasmine white, long grain brown
Barley
Green lentils
Quinoa
Popcorn kernels
A couple of types of crackers
Breadcrumbs – panko or other, for crusted fish or meat dishes
Granola (either homemade or Terra Breads variety)
Dry herbs & spices: cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, basil, oregano, rosemary, cayenne, red chili flakes, curry powder, bay leaves, ginger, paprika, mustard powder, cumin.
Coffee beans – OBVIOUSLY!
Tea

Toast Condiments:
Honeys: liquid, unpasteurized “solid”
Peanut butter – I keep the shitty Kraft sweetened stuff in the cupboard for my toast, SORRY NOT SORRY. I also keep natural PB in the fridge for smoothies and making sauces
Jam
Marmite – this is how you can tell I have British blood!

Canned/Liquid Goods:
I keep very few canned/boxed goods on hand most of the time. I used to always keep canned fruits during their off-season, like mandarins, peaches and apricots, but I’ve started using frozen instead – they taste fresher. Here’s the short list of what I try to buy on sale and keep in the cupboard all the time:

Tuna
Salmon
Water chestnuts – love them in stir fries and spinach dip for crunch!
Good quality olives
Diced tomatoes
Beans: chickpeas, black beans
Chicken stock
Almond milk

Fresh:
I love having a couple of lemons or limes on hand for adding to impromptu salad dressings or sauces. I eat a lot of veggies but the list below are just the ones I keep on hand all the time, regardless of what I’m cooking that week. I make a veggie egg scramble for breakfast very often with zucchini, peppers and mushrooms so I keep those around all the time for that reason, and there’s enough veggies/fruit/cheese in the house all the time that if I have greens, I can always whip up a salad without going shopping. Greens and bananas are also great for smoothies, so I try to have them around all the time.

Basil plant
Lemon & lime – and if I don’t need the rind for whatever I’m making, sometimes I’ll zest the peel and put it in a ziploc in the freezer.
Veggies: zucchini, coloured peppers, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, mushrooms, salad greens
Assorted seasonal fruit
Head of garlic
Milk
Vanilla yogurt
Eggs
Cheese: cheddar, goat & parmesan
Butter

Frozen:
Multigrain bread
Popsicles
Fruit for smoothies – always mixed berries, occasionally peaches or mango.
A couple of quick meals – frozen pizza or lasagne, leftovers
Oven fries (uncooked)

That’s it! With these items constantly available in my kitchen, I can always whip up a quick salad, smoothie, “stuff on bread” meal, or pasta dish without needing to go shopping, and it minimizes the extra ingredients I need to buy for a recipe. You should use this as a basic guide, but adapt as necessary to the things you tend to eat most. How can you use this to simplify your shopping? How would your pantry staples differ from mine?

Singleton Menu Planning: The Basics

Source: LexnGer

Most of you do not know this, but I have secret power. And that secret power is… menu planning. Weird, right? But seriously, I like to cook, I like to keep my monthly food budget reasonable, and I like to plan, so that combination makes me a pretty kick-ass menu planner. I know a lot of people struggle with cooking if they live alone or don’t have a partner, but cooking for one can be just as rewarding as cooking for a family of five… and the same effort can go a lot further. There is no reason that you shouldn’t put effort and care into your meals just because nobody is sharing them with you… you still gotta eat, single or not! So I wanted to give you guys a peek at how I approach menu planning when I am the only one that will be eating.

There are a couple of things you should know about my approach:

  • I am a huge fan of one-pot meals. I almost never cook red meat at home, with the exception of ground beef for sauces or tacos.
  • I cook in bulk, and I think leftovers are probably the key to world peace. If you’re not into leftovers, my strategy probably won’t work for you. EMBRACE THE LEFTOVERS.
  • I don’t like eating the same meal for lunch and dinner three days in a row, so I often cook a second planned meal before I’ve finished all the leftovers of the first one, just for variety.
  • I freeze leftovers if I get sick of eating them or if I’m not going through them fast enough.
  • Let’s be real: sometimes there’s just more pumpkin soup/spaghetti sauce/chicken chili than I realistically feel like eating. This is when I deploy a win-win friendship tactic: invite someone over for dinner to help with that overabundance of whatever you’re cooking. They win because they’ll be thrilled at the invite and get free delicious dinner. You win because you get through that pot of food faster and make sure that you spend some time interacting with other humans. Also they will probably bring wine 🙂

My goal each week is two-fold: First, to always have a fully stocked pantry and fridge with staples so that I can always whip together something simple if I need to deviate from my menu plan for any reason. And two, to have ingredients and recipes on hand for two or three planned meals that I will cook throughout the week as needed and use the leftovers for lunches and/or dinners on busier evenings when I don’t have time to cook.

Even if I say nothing more, this approach should save you from a lifetime of Kraft Dinner or cereal at 10pm! But never fear, I won’t abandon you now. Stay tuned for the next lesson, Pantry Stocking 101.