The Vrtucar learning curve

This post has been translated into Italian and posted on the Italian transportation blog The links for the translated version of  my article are here: here:

Tired of always hoofing it to the grocery store and paying too much for rentals (not to mention the hassle of lining up at the agency), we recently decided to join Vrtucar. It’s a car-sharing organization here in Ottawa, giving members access to an ever-expanding fleet of vehicles to suit our needs.

Am I glad we’ve joined? Absolutely. Have their been problems? Of course! So here I am to outline the Vrtucar benefits and learning curve as I see them. If you have a car sharing program in your city, chances are many of these points will apply to your program too.

The Nitty Gritty

Basically, you pay four ways. There’s a $500 deposit up front when you open your account, which isn’t exactly a fee, but you need to have it in your cash flow. (I justified this by figuring whenever/if we DO buy a vehicle, here’s $500 we can put towards it without having to save it up separately).

Then you pay a monthly fee, which is lower or higher depending on your usage. We pay $10 per month, which seems pretty decent to me.

Then you pay two fees for your use: hourly and per kilometer. The hourly rate is $3.20 per, and the per kilometer rate depends on your monthly rate (lower monthly = higher kilometer fee; higher monthly = lower kilometer fee).

You don’t pay gas, you don’t pay insurance, and you don’t pay for upkeep. It’s not free, but it is much cheaper and more flexible than either owning or cabbing everywhere.

You also don’t line up at an agency counter every time you need to get a car. You simply book online, even as late as a minute beforehand, and go get your car. It’s easy peasy.

The Benefits

Living downtown as we do, we can manage pretty well without a car for our day-to-day existence. But sometimes we want to do something special, and not all of our special destinations are bus or pedestrian friendly. That is where Vrtucar comes in. It is expanding our world, allowing us to do more interesting and varied things, especially when we have a chance to go as a family.

It’s also handy for certain kinds of shopping. Visiting a suburban specialty shop, for example, or doing a Costco run. Some stores aren’t bus friendly, and sometimes I don’t want to lug big items around by stroller.

And the fact that you do have to pay to use the car means that it doesn’t really encourage this kind of shopping the way that owning a car might. It isn’t like, “Hey, we’ve got wheels, let’s go to Ikea,” the way that I think every time I have a rental car and a few extra hours.

Seeing as the kilometers aren’t unlimited, it also doesn’t encourage the kind of errand-loading that I tend to do when I have a rental. Yes, that can be efficient, but it can also lead to an entire day filled with driving around from one place to another, an activity that leaves me feeling drained and grumpy.

The Learning Curve

It’s taken me a couple of months to figure out the system. Here are my major learnings:

– book way more time than you think you need. That way you won’t end up needing to make awkward exits or phoning the office in a panic while racing down the 417. Trust me on this one. I’ve taken to booking about 2 hours more than I think will be enough, and I haven’t ever felt like I have way too much time. The hourly fee is small compared to the anxiety of running late, or having to pay a late fee (could be $25).

– keep the outing focused. I’ve found I can do one, or at most two things with a car. The less I plan for the more relaxed the outing, the more enjoyable, and the less likely to incur the late fees mentioned above.

– Google maps is your friend. As I don’t often drive around the city, I don’t always know where things are. Sometimes I think I know, but when I try to get there, I find myself circling mysterious highways wasting kilometers and time. I’ve found mapping to be pretty essential when I’m going somewhere new.

– Shop by phone first. Make sure your destination has what you’re looking for before you set out the door.

– if bringing a guest, be it adult or child, add more time, and stay even more focused. An extra person can add extra fun, conversation, and a feeling of helping someone out, especially if that someone also doesn’t own a car. But it is even more essential to reduce the tasks and make sure you have enough time to do it in.

There you have it. A Vrtucar user guide. If you belong to a car sharing organization, do you have any other tips to add? I’d love to hear your wisdom!


Confessing my sins

Garage Sale find: a crock for Sauerkraut
Garage Sale find: a crock for Sauerkraut

Well, today was the Great Glebe Garage Sale, and I definitely took a holiday from my no spending month. Here is my list of sins:

We got our bike for our girl, $30 for a Dora 2-wheeler with training wheels. It was more than I wanted to spend, and it weighs a TON, but hey, now we have it. Some better deals were some red Tommy Hilfiger running shoes for her for $1, a few dolls for $1, an old school red bandanna for $1, a Joan Didion book for 50 cents, and a crock for making sauerkraut for $2. Besides that was a plate of cookies for $10 (proceeds going to charity) and a sandwich mid-day for $5. Oh, plus one extremely packed bus ride home.

Overall, the yard sale itself was exhausting, but I’m fairly happy with what I brought home. Afterwards, my friend hosted an amazing brunch.

And now I’m home–both kids melting down and feet aching–it was a huge effort to not just go with the flow of my spendy day and get pizza. No, I chopped and whisked and grated together a little omelette for supper. Can I count that as a savings of $20 that would have been spent on pizza? Does that help atone for my spending sins???

Ottawa Freecycle Weekend


I’ve written before about how much I love curb shopping–a lot! I love finding useful and beautiful things in the trash and giving them a new useful life at my house.

Well, this weekend is a curb shopper’s dream come true: an “official” Ottawa Freecycle Weekend. Or as the City of Ottawa is calling it, the “Give Away Weekend“, coming at the end of Waste Reduction Week. The idea is simple: the city is encouraging people to put their unwanted items out on the curb with a “Free” sign on them, so neighbours can “shop” the streets, bringing home anything that looks appealing.

I think this is a fabulous idea: the city encouraging people to re-purpose and reduce waste. Do you curb shop? Do you have any great curb shopping triumphs to share? Does your city have an official Freecycle weekend? Let me know in the comments!

Happy curb shopping everyone 🙂

Reflecting on my “Buy-Nothing” Month

Last month I participated in Crunchy Chicken’s Buy Nothing Challenge. The challenge was simple, to not buy anything other than groceries for a whole month. That meant no meals out, no new clothes, etc. but also no haircuts or other salon services, no makeup, and no entertainment expenses either.

There were a few exceptions: necessary things like school supplies or other purchases, and also “items used for canning and food storage”. This was explicitely spelled out as jars and pectin for canning, which I did purchase during the month.

I did, however, extend this definition somewhat with my first and most major breach of the month, to buy a small chest freezer. Yikes! But let me explain: as many of my readers know, I’m expecting a baby very soon–2 weeks and 5 days to be exact (well, as exact as “due dates” are anyway!)–and I figure one of the most important things I can do right now is to stock up on prepared food that I can rely on for our dinners once the baby arrives and things are turned upside-down. I also bought some zip-lock baggies to store food in the freezer.

I remember two and a half years ago when our daughter was born, we were not prepared food-wise and we ended up getting a lot of convenience items. Take-out pizza, grocery store barbecued chickens, frozen lasagne, etc. Since I got my freezer in early August, I’ve been slowly filling it with yummy food like spaghetti sauce, chili, pesto made with local organic basil, and a variety of creamy soups. It’s so great to know I won’t have to spend the extra money for lower-quality additive-rich food later on.

I made other purchases as well during the month, such as my weekly cookie purchase at a cafe where I meet friends to knit. This is a sanity-saver, as it’s just about the only time I get away from the house and my toddler. Don’t get me wrong–I love spending time with her–but it’s great to be able to escape once a week and not be a mom for about 90 minutes!

Some other things I bought were perhaps less excusable: one lunch out for myself, plus at least two lunches at the farmer’s market when I was not organized enough to pack one up before leaving. Replacement batteries for my kitchen scale (an absolute necessity!!), a stupid $10 sippy cup (in a desperate, failed attempt to night wean my 2 1/2-year old off the boob and onto the bottle . . . didn’t work!), a gift for some friends, and a bunch of second-hand baby stuff, which we got an AMAZING deal on. I’m probably forgetting something, but I do feel I did pretty good . . . until the last couple of days.

For some reason, buying nothing felt pretty easy for most of the month. I had lots of energy to prepare lunches and snacks, and I was okay delaying or redirecting my desires for new fun stuff. We went to the park, brought our lunches, met friends at the park, avoided the mall, ate well at home instead of going out to restaurants, made gifts by hand and gave away jam. For entertainment we went to the library and hung out in our building’s back yard. We watched downloaded TV shows and used our membership to go to the museum. We had fun, and life really didn’t change in any way!

But for some reason toward the end of the month I started to suffer from buy-nothing burn-out. I started to want. I started to NEED! So on August 31st when my mother-in-law came visiting in her Mazda Protegée, I took advantage and went . . . to Ikea.

Utility Cart
Utility Cart

Oh my, but it was satisfying. After a full month (almost!) of not indulging in “retail therapy” I broke down and bought: some new bibs, a “park” potty and a baking kit for my little girl, a children’s rug with roads drawn on it to put in the living room for the coming baby, some light bulbs for our hall light that’s been burnt out for over 2 months, and a tray to serve as the top of my “utility cart” so I can pretend to be a hotel chambermaid as I move through the apartment tidying up. Overall, $100 damage. Way to go out with a bang!

So, what did I learn from my “Buy-Nothing” Month? The first thing I noticed was that our bank account was much healthier than usual (before the Ikea trip in any case!) . The second thing I noticed was that I do have a bit of a retail addiction that works against my otherwise frugal lifestyle. In times of stress I react by buying things. Not for myself (as in makeup or clothes) but for my daughter, or more likely, for the house.

If I can keep a watch out for my triggers, and work through these desires in a less spendy way, that will help me to maintain my frugal lifestyle. For the moment, I’m thinking about doing a buy-nothing week once a month, just to keep myself trained and practice being better organized.

Ottawa Grocery Price Book

I created and have been using my Ottawa Grocery Price Book on Google Docs for a couple months now. It lets me keep track of the prices at different grocery stores around Ottawa. I also opened it up to anyone in the world who wanted to write in prices from their receipts, so we could create a full crowdsourced spreadsheet of prices across Ottawa.

There hasn’t been much participation, but I haven’t pushed it much either, so I’m not too sad about that. I use it and enter my own info into it, and it’s been a great tool for me. However, I did get sad about something that appeared there when I looked last night. Someone had changed all the store headings at the top, replacing the Ottawa stores with names I’d never heard of!

Luckily I could tell that not much if any of the prices had been changed, and I could remember the four main stores that I’ve been shopping at, so I changed it back. And then promptly locked the document.

I realized that there could be malicious people out there who could mess the whole thing up for everyone; and the thing that bugged me most was that I actually USE my pricebook, and losing it would really suck for me!

I don’t think it was a malicious person who made the edits this time–probably someone living elsewhere who wanted to set up their own price book, and ended up saving their changes to the master copy instead of making a new copy for their own use–but even that kind of error could really mess things up for me.

So in the interests of preserving my handy tool, I’m changing how the price book works. I’ve made it viewable, but not editable. What this means is that you are free to check out the price book, and even cut & paste it as a basis to create your own, but only I can enter in items and prices.

However, if you still want to contribute to the Price Book, you are welcome to scan your receipt and email it to me at frugalurban at gmail dot com. Then I will add the prices in myself when I have a chance. Just make sure your credit card number or any other identifying information is blacked out or removed!

If anyone has any ideas of how to make the Price Book a little more constrained, but still openly editable (maybe locking some fields? Using a Wiki model??) please comment below! I still think it could be a great tool, but I don’t want to jeopardize my own Price Book! I need it too much 🙂

Grocery Store Review: Westboro Superstore

After neglecting it for 2 weeks, I finally got up the energy to take the #2 bus down Somerset to the Westboro Superstore on Saturday. It was much needed, as we have been doing meals day-by-day instead of planning for the week, and spending much more than we should due to poor planning and shopping at Hartmann’s.

So my partner and I did the meal plan (which usually involves me saying “How bout this on Tuesday?” and him replying, “Uh, sure.” or, occasionally, him suggesting, “Why not this on Wednesday?” and me saying “Hmm . . . I don’t really want that.” And yet I claim to want his help with this process! To quote D.W., “Sometimes I crack myself up!”). Though our process might be flawed, I still think this is the cornerstone of not spending ridiculous amounts of money on food.

On Saturday afternoon, the store was pretty packed. In fact, this is my one complaint about the Westboro Superstore: it is frequently a total zoo. And the times when it is less of a zoo, like Sunday night, seem to be the times when the stock is really low.

But there are many positive things about this store too, especially its prices. As you can see on the Ottawa Grocery Price Book, the Westborough Superstore beats Hartmann’s by substantial amounts on almost everything (by the way, Ottawa readers please contribute to the price book! Just scroll all the way down to the bottom and click on “Edit this page”. The more people all over the city who add their purchases, the more info we all have. I’ve been using it as a personal reasource for weeks now and it really helps!)

It also has a really wide variety of high quality produce, including lots of organics, and even on the lowest-stocked days there have never been more than a couple things I couldn’t find from my list.

Another neat feature it has as a Real Canadian Superstore is that it “matches Costco” on some items. I’ve found multi-packs of ziplock baggies, for example, at a Costco price-point. They feature these deals in their flyer each week.

The damage at the end of the shopping trip was just under $80, which was for a week of meals for our little family of 3. This also included $7 worth of cat food, $8 for cat litter, and a giant $10 “family pack” of chicken drumsticks.

We’re no $30 a week family, but if we can keep our grocery budget at $100 a week, I feel we’re doing fine. And shopping at the Westboro Superstore makes it easier.

Taking Refuge in the Moment

buddhistI just finished reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Art of Power“, a wonderful book with a deliberately and cleverly misleading title, since the “power” he talks about is not the power that people are generally seeking, but rather the power to be calm and spread peace wherever you go and with whomever you meet.

Two of the practices he describes in this book (besides sitting meditation which most are familiar with) are a) general mindfulness, and b) walking meditation. I think he focuses on these practices in this book because they are very easy to incorporate into even the busiest of lives, but they help to centre you very effectively and quickly.

Mindfulness is the skill of bringing your mind into the present moment and not being taken away by thoughts, memories, worries, etc. Most buddhists do this through the breath. When you follow the breath you are drawn into your body, into the present moment, and you allow your thoughts and worries and regrets, etc. (as well as your plans, and desires, and nostalgic remembrances), to drop away, leaving you considerably less stressed and more focused.

Much is made of the power of sitting meditation where you watch the breath for extended periods, but Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that you can get some benefit by bringing mindfulness into your daily life in short snatches. For example, when the telephone rings, you can use that as a recall to the moment, and take one or two deep breaths to centre you before you answer. Or stopping at a red light, this can also be an opportunity to watch the breath.

He has a lovely poem that helps with this simple meditation. The word pairs are said silently with the in and out breath:

in, out
deep, slow
calm, ease
smile, release
present moment, wonderful moment

I’ve been watching my breath and reciting this poem regularly over the last few weeks and it has given me access to many moments of calm and peace, helping me cope with some of the stresses of being heavily pregnant and parenting a toddler in the heat of late summer!

Walking meditation is an expansion of this mindfulness practice, but instead of focusing on the breath, you focus on your feet as you walk. Whenever you walk, the author explains, you should make your steps gentle on the earth. You are free, you do not need to hurry: walk calmly and slowly as if the purpose of walking is simply to walk.

As you walk, you can say the poem in pace with your breath, which will be in pace with your footsteps, maybe one in-breath for every two steps, or more.

Walking to work every day is so often a blur for me. It’s a short walk, but I usually spend the time thinking about work–sometimes bringing back some conflict from the day before, or worrying about what will be in my email inbox today. But since I’ve been practicing walking meditation, this time is so calm, such an island in my day, that I really feel that I can start taking refuge in the moment.

Now what does this have to do with a frugal or green mindset? I think plenty.

In terms of frugality, many of us turn to shopping and spending money when we are stressed. I am so guilty of this. And most of my stress-fuelled purchases have been big ones, undoing months of savings from baking my own bread and using baking soda for deodorant. The more tools I have to reduce stress and encourage a peaceful frame of mind, the less likely I am to go out shopping.

What’s more, the more value I place on being mindful and present, the less likely I am to seek distractions like magazines or shiny electronics. Think about it: if everyone started practicing mindful breathing on the bus, Blackberries would cease to exist!

The more unmindful consumerism in our world, the more energy and resource waste, the more landfill produced, the more waterways polluted. When we make our footsteps gentle on the earth, we also tend to reduce our ecological footprint by reducing consumption, waste and pollution.

Try these mindfulness techniques and see where you can fit them into your day. And please refer to any book by Thich Nhat Hanh to get a deeper, richer explanation of these practices. Check out his 1996 book The Long Road Turns to Joy on Google Books–a Limited Preview release specifically about walking meditation.

What’s your Walkscore?

walk_signWhile cruising through my Blogroll one day, I ended up on One Green Generation, which had a link to a fascinating site called

Basically, it uses Google Maps to calculate your distance from important amenities like grocery stores, libraries, parks, restaurants, cinemas, etc. to give your neighbourhood a certain score based on proximity.  The higher the score, the less need you have for a car.

Our score in Centretown Ottawa? 93/100 (woo hoo!)

Our two old places in Toronto: 83 and 77 respectively

My parents’ place in Sudbury: 53

The house I grew up in: 10 out of 100

Interestingly, every move I’ve ever made has brought me to a more walkable location! (Well, except for my year in Montreal but we won’t count that.) Though I often dream about farm life, walkability is something I really value and would find it a major adjustment to live without. In fact, I think it’s a key component of my being frugal and urban!

So, what’s the deal with walkability?  The website gives a few points:

Walkable neighborhoods offer surprising benefits to our health, the environment, and our communities.

Better health: A study in Washington State found that the average resident of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood weighs 7 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.1 Residents of walkable neighborhoods drive less and suffer fewer car accidents, a leading cause of death between the ages of 15–45.

Reduction in greenhouse gas: Cars are a leading cause of global warming. Your feet are zero-pollution transportation machines.

More transportation options: Compact neighborhoods tend to have higher population density, which leads to more public transportation options and bicycle infrastructure. Not only is taking the bus cheaper than driving, but riding a bus is ten times safer than driving a car!2

Increased social capital: Walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors. Studies have shown that for every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10%.3

Stronger local businesses: Dense, walkable neighborhoods provide local businesses with the foot traffic they need to thrive. It’s easier for pedestrians to shop at many stores on one trip, since they don’t need to drive between destinations.

I would agree with all these points, and would also add that being able to walk to work (something possible in Centretown Ottawa) means having more time to spend at home with the kids. My “commute” is less than 5 minutes door-to-door, which means I maximize the time I can spend with my daughter instead of sitting in traffic. Same goes for my husband, whose “commute” is about double mine.

Another thing I’ve noticed in my years living in walkable neighbourhoods is that where people can walk, they do, and the fact that there are people out walking around, usually at all hours of the day & night, greatly increases the safety of neighbourhoods. Jane Jacobs calls this “eyes on the street”. The more mixed use and pedestrian traffic a neighbourhood has, the less crime tends to exist in a place. In fact, many parks in dense urban neighbourhoods are actually safer than suburban parks at night, simply because there are more people strolling around.

Finally, having a car would mean greatly increasing our cost of living since we would not only have to worry about the car (and most likely a car loan), but also the insurance, gas, maintenence and repairs that go along with car ownership. Not to mention an automatic $100/month just to park the thing!

I found this website really fun, and as you can see, used it to check out all the places I’ve ever lived. I would definitely use this when choosing our next apartment or house.

Quick Tip #2: Save 30% at The Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic! 5% goes to charity

give+getNow I’m not a clothes buyer, or a shopper by nature, but this came into my inbox from Care Canada, a wonderful group doing great work with women overseas, so I thought I’d pass it along.  Plus, 30% off at Old Navy is practically free.

Here’s the Blurb from Care Canada’s website:

Give and Get in time for Back to School!

Give and Get from July 30 – Aug 2. Receive a 30% discount at Gap, Banana Republic or Old Navy and Gap Inc. will donate 5% of your purchase price to CARE!

Give and Get in time for Back to School!

CARE’s longtime corporate partner Gap Inc. once again has invited CARE to participate in its seasonal charitable giving program, Give and Get.

From July 30 – August 2, you can receive a 30% discount on purchases made at Gap, Banana Republic or Old Navy stores and outlets. When you do, Gap Inc. will donate 5% of all purchases to CARE! Past Give and Get promotions have generated more than $500,000 for CARE’s work around the world!

How does it work? Simply click here to download and print out your coupon. Then, take it with you shopping to Gap, Banana Republic or Old Navy from Thursday, July 30 – Sunday, August 2 to receive your discount—and generate donations for CARE. Gap Inc. has asked that each shopper go online and print their own coupon.

Please tell your family and friends about this promotion!

CLICK HERE to download your Give and Get coupon.

We’ll see you in the store!

Buy-Nothing Challenge

You may have noticed on my sidebar, a button that reads “Buy Nothing Challenge, August 2009“.  If you click on the button it will lead you to the Crunchy Chicken’s August challenge, which is (you’ll get this if you’ve been paying attention) not to buy anything for the entire month of August 2009.

The rules are (from the Crunchy Chicken herself):

* No new clothes
* No new gadgets
* No new furniture or housewares
* No salon services
* No makeup
* No tools
* No whatever the hell else people buy

Food is an exception, as are canning and preserving supplies, and I’m assuming bills are okay to pay.  And there’s a weekly “confessional” if you either break down or if you have something planned ahead of time, like a trip (as we have planned for the first weekend in August).  Other stuff, you might want to plan ahead, though obviously going crazy in the weeks beforehand would kinda counteract the point of the challenge.

So yeah, I’ve pledged my name in there as a non-consumer for the month of August. I’m a bit nervous, though I’ve been putting in a whole lot of Zero-Dollar Days lately (where I spend absolutely nothing for a whole 24 hour period–no exceptions).  I don’t know how I’ll do with the challenge: will I panic and rebel against it? will it make me super paranoid about spending money afterwards?

I predict that in many ways it won’t be hard.  I predict that I will be faced with challenges of the “want vs. need” variety, possibly regarding craft or kitchen supplies.  But that just brings me back to working through my stash.  As someone wrote in the New York Times reader-submitted Survival Strategies for the Recession, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”

So if you’ve got a birthday in August, I hope I either remember it this week, or that you enjoy home-made stuff because that’s what you’ll likely be getting. I’ll update you on how it’s going.  Let me know if you join the challenge too!