Mika hopes you had a Merry Christmas!
The holidays are over and I’m excited to get back to semi-regular blogging! While I took a break from publishing new blog content, December still managed to fill up with all kinds of busyness. Here’s what happened at the ESBFI household last month:
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I mentioned in my final December post that I was feeling a little burnt out—2020 just about did me in, and I decided to take a break from publishing new posts. In hindsight, the break turned out to be very well-timed…
Coincidentally, the timing of my blogging break was very helpful—it freed me up to deal with some major website issues:
In the early hours of December 11, my blog suddenly went offline. When I called my web host (Web Hosting Canada) they told me my site wasn’t loading because all my site files were gone!
What?! I still have no idea how it happened and hope that it won’t ever happen again. Thankfully, WHC’s tech support is amazing. In less than an hour, they restored my site and got it back online and fully functional—phew!
A couple of days later, my site started displaying a critical error that I’d never seen before. I again reached out to Web Hosting Canada for help. After some trial and error (disabling a plugin, updating the PHP, editing something else in the backend—which I didn’t understand) we sorted it out. Thank goodness WHC has such capable and patient tech support people!
In the end, I believe the issues were all related to the latest WordPress update. I normally don’t update WordPress right away in case there are bugs they still need to work out. This time, I broke my own rule and paid the price! I won’t be doing that again in the future.
Unbelievably, there were more problems to come! After I resolved the last issue, I noticed that Google Analytics hadn’t registered any pageviews for a week. I think that when my site was restored, the Google Analytics code was somehow removed.
Since I try not to check my pageviews more than once a week, I had no idea that anything was amiss until a week later! (I’ve since signed up for free email notifications from DownNotifier.com so I’ll know immediately if my site goes down.)
It took nearly a day of research, trial and error, but I finally got my analytics reconnected. With this issue resolved, all is well with my site again. I sure hope that’s the last of the issues for a long time.
Special thanks to my blogging buddy Family Money Saver—you’re always ready to offer help and/or an open ear when I have weird tech issues! Your help and suggestions have saved me on more than one occasion.
What I got up to
The boys walking Mika as the sun breaks through the rain
When I wasn’t dealing with website issues, I spent my blogging break enjoying a low-key holiday with my family. We went for walks, took Mika to dog parks, watched movies, cooked, and pigged out on lots of yummy food.
The break was rejuvenating and helped me get caught up and ready to return to weekly-ish blogging. In the coming weeks, I’ll publish the posts I worked on over the break: my two-year blogging update, some new review posts, and a post to finally reveal my family’s annual spending!
A COVID-style Christmas
Our Christmases are normally a flurry of activity: Christmas Eve with my dad and siblings; Christmas dinner with M’s family (30-40 people total); then a multitude of other gatherings between Christmas and New Year’s.
This year, due to COVID, none of those gatherings happened. Instead, they were replaced with (you guessed it) Zoom meetings. Given that the participants ranged in age from 1 to 94, there were the expected technical glitches, interruptions, and everyone talking over each other. (Oh, the joys of Zoom!)
Even so, a good time was had by all. It was nice to see each other—even if it was only virtually. (To be honest, it was a nice change for me to not have endless in-person gatherings to host and attend this year!)
Still, our Christmases are all about time with our loved ones, so I’m sure we’ll be back to the craziness in 2021. (Hopefully it’ll be safe to do so by then.)
December wasn’t all about website issues and Christmas Zoom meetings. I also spent a considerable amount of time wrapping up our finances and preparing for 2021:
Maxing out our contributions early
Uber-optimizers like me know how valuable it can be to fully contribute to our tax-sheltered accounts early in the year. It puts our money to work right away and gives it the maximum amount of time to grow tax-free.
As a FIRE blogger, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that we’re usually not able to save up enough to max out our RRSP, TFSA and RESP contributions in January. Typically, it takes us half the year (or more) to fully contribute to our registered accounts.
The year of COVID was different for us. Due to our decreased spending and M doing well with his company stock options, we were able to save enough to nearly fill all our registered accounts in January.
I know this combo of low spending and increased income is unlikely to repeat itself in future years, so I’ll take this year’s win as a consolation prize. It’s the least 2020 can give us, given the dumpster fire that it was!
Our investment performance
December was another great month for stock investors. We were up 4%, which meant our portfolio reached another all-time high. I couldn’t have predicted in March that we’d be where we are now with our investments.
It just goes to show (yet again) how difficult it is to predict which way the markets will go. That’s why I’ll always be a long-term, buy-and-hold investor. That’s the best way to take advantage of all the gains the markets have to offer.
Some notes on our investment numbers
- I’m lazy, so I don’t subtract contributions when calculating our investment returns.
- I know this makes our numbers less accurate, but our contributions make such a tiny difference and don’t change the numbers all that much anyway.
- The majority of our money is invested with our investment manager, but we also hold some investments in M’s group RRSP and a tiny amount at Questrade. I include all of these accounts in our calculations.
- I don’t include our kids’ investments or their RESPs in our numbers.
DAFs for Canadians who aren’t billionaires
American FI bloggers and podcasters often mention DAFs (donor-advised funds) as a tax-efficient way to donate to their favourite charities. I won’t get into the details of DAFs here, but here’s an excellent post to give you a balanced overview of them: A Pro/Con on Donor Advised Funds.
In Canada, DAFs are expensive and complicated to set up. You can’t just open them at a brokerage like you can in the US. As far as I can tell, Canadian DAFs are complex and reserved for the ultra-wealthy. Basically: if you don’t have enough to start a foundation or endowment, fugeddaboutit!
A new option
Recently, I learned about a new option for Canadians who want an easy, free way to start a DAF of their own. It’s called Charitable Impact. They’re based in Vancouver and they offer an account that works like a DAF. It’s free to open and use and the fees are similar to a robo-advisor (0.25–0.5%).
I learned about Charitable Impact from another Canadian in the Socially Conscious FIRE Facebook group. I haven’t used Charitable Impact myself, but this FB group member had—and he was happy with his experience so far.
For those who are considering a DAF, this could be a great option. (Note: I’m not an affiliate for Charitable Impact nor do I receive any compensation for mentioning them.)
My two cents
Okay, I’m really selling this service, but am I going to put my money where my mouth is? To be completely honest… it’s unlikely.
I kind of agree with The White Coat Investor, who thinks it’s a “jerk move” to use DAFs. That’s because you get the tax write-off immediately, but charities get nothing until you decide to actually release the money to them.
In addition, I can invest and grow my money more efficiently and effectively outside of an account like this… which would result in more money to give anyway.
Still, I think Charitable Impact is a novel idea that may be of interest to some of my Canadian readers. Plus, I have a certain friend (ahem, Money Mechanic) who’s always game to learn about unique investment options!
Let me know what you think, MM!
Normally, December is one of our lower-spend months. Since most of our Christmas shopping is done in November, our only major expenses in December are food and other core expenses.
In addition (as I shared in my Green Christmas post) we’ve negotiated gift truces1 with most of our family and friends. That meant an even smaller Christmas spend this year. However, we had a couple of line items that made December 2020 a higher-spend month…
We still had money left in our donation budget, so we gave to a few more causes in December.
One was for a man who volunteers tirelessly for the homeless in our area. He collects bottles and cans to return for refunds, which he then uses to buy gift cards for local homeless people throughout the year.
He’s a one-man operation and not a registered charity (so we don’t get a tax receipt) but we know how hard he works and how much he cares. It feels good to give our dollars to someone who will put 100% of it to good use.
We also took advantage of a donation match from Canada Helps. (Which ended up being double-matched since M’s company also matches all his donations.) We look forward to continuing to support more worthy causes in 2021.
The unexpected $700 boiler repair
We had a couple of chilly days in December when our boiler suddenly stopped working. (Our home is heated with in-floor radiant heating that’s connected to a natural gas boiler.) The first night we realized it, M and I spent 90 minutes diagnosing and attempting to fix the issue.
Thanks to YouTube, we figured the likely issue was that the thermocouple needed replacing. Unfortunately, given that it was 10 pm, there was no hope of getting a replacement until the morning.
We decided to try cleaning the buildup on the thermocouple, hoping that that would be good enough. Of course, that would’ve been way too easy of a solution—and it was. It didn’t work, so we put on some extra layers and settled in for a chilly night.
The next day, M was (as usual) fully booked with Zoom meetings. That meant it was up to me to rectify the boiler situation. I’m pretty comfortable with DIY repairs, so that didn’t bother me, but I sure wish M had gone to pick up the thermocouple instead of me.
The neanderthal at the plumbing store
In the morning, I ran down to our local plumbing wholesaler to get the new thermocouple. Unfortunately for me, I was greeted by a neanderthal who insisted on mansplaining to me that they didn’t sell the thermocouple I needed. (But I knew they did because I’d called earlier to confirm!!!)
Just as I was about to give him a piece of my mind, his colleague came to the rescue. With a friendly smile, he asked what I was looking for, measured my old thermocouple, and grabbed a new one for me. The neanderthal sheepishly turned red and was slightly nicer to me after that.
(This is why I hate going into businesses like these—more often than not, I’m treated like I’m stupid and don’t understand English. OMG.)
I raced home with the new thermocouple and quickly installed it. (I was basically a pro at it at that point, after removing, reinstalling, then again removing the old one.) I got the pilot to light, but it would not stay lit. Ugh!
I did some Googling and came across a few suggestions to try cleaning the gas nozzle. I undid the entire assembly yet again, scrubbed everything clean with a wire brush, then reinstalled everything one more time.
I tried lighting the pilot again… and I almost cried when it stayed lit! I joyfully put everything back together and headed upstairs to turn all the thermostats back on. I couldn’t believe it—with a $7 part, I’d fixed our boiler all by myself!
See that little blue flame in the middle? That’s the pilot light!
Not so fast
Clearly, I pushed my luck by celebrating too soon. By the time I returned to the basement to put away the tools, the pilot had once again died!!! I tried to light it several more times, but every time, it went out as soon as I released the gas valve button.
I did more Googling, and it sounded like the issue was not, in fact, the thermocouple. Instead, it was probably the gas valve that was failing. Unfortunately, that wasn’t something we could DIY.
Calling in the big guns
I immediately called the plumbing store to ask for their recommendations for a local plumber/gas fitter. They gave me three names, and I called all three to ask for their rates and availability. (Something I always do when outsourcing home repairs.)
One place wasn’t available until next week, one was unnecessarily rude, and the third was friendly, helpful and had the best rate. I think you can guess who I picked. A few hours later, Mike the plumber showed up at our house.
He spent a couple of hours trying to make the old gas valve work… and he almost did, but it just wasn’t working reliably enough. We didn’t want another freezing night or to have to call him out again, so Mike ran out to get a new gas valve.
He swapped it with the old one… and that finally did the trick. Unfortunately, it took another 24 hours or so to get our house fully warm again (a downside of radiant heating) but we were very glad to have a functional boiler again.
Time and money well spent
Even though our DIY repair didn’t work, I’m still happy that we initially attempted the repair ourselves. I learned a lot: how our boiler parts go together (and come apart) how to replace the thermocouple and how to clean the parts.
Thanks to YouTube, it’s so easy to take on projects like these with confidence and ease. (And if it had been the thermocouple, DIYing the repair would’ve saved us hundreds of dollars.)
We also don’t regret the huge $700 bill for the plumber. As much as we try to DIY things around the house, we’re more than happy to pay a professional when needed… and in this case, it most certainly was.
The final tally: our 2020 spending
In my March 2020 update, I wondered how our annual spending would shake out. Based on our COVID spending patterns, I predicted that it’d be a lot lower—and it was. Compared to 2019, we decreased our spending by 21%!
Most of our savings came from not being able to travel. We also saved a significant amount by taking one car (M’s 2008 Mustang) off the road. Gas and insurance are very pricey in Vancouver, so that made quite the impact.
However, we ended up spending more in some categories: groceries, utilities, and donations. Below is a breakdown of the spending categories that changed the most for us in 2020 (from biggest percentage decrease to biggest percentage increase):
Our favourite forms of entertainment usually involve getting out of the house and interacting with other humans. Very little of that happened this year, so our entertainment spending was almost non-existent.
We took a short local trip to Whistler in August and prebooked flights to Japan in March 2021 (which I’m 99% sure we’ll have to cancel). Still, this spending was only a fraction of our normal travel spend.
Car insurance: -47%
We didn’t renew the insurance for M’s 2008 Mustang (his commuter vehicle) when it came due in May. However, we did put storage insurance on it, but that’s extremely cheap. Insuring only one family vehicle (my Mazda 5) halved our insurance costs.
Note: I don’t count M’s classic Mustang insurance as part of our car insurance costs.
As mentioned earlier, the gift truces we’d negotiated in previous years already helped to lower our Christmas spending quite a bit. For 2020, it went even lower since we couldn’t attend or host any in-person gatherings.
Our gas spending would’ve been lower, but M drove his Classic Mustang a lot more in 2020. (He had more time to drive it in the evenings since he was working from home.)
Note: While I try to separate M’s Classic Mustang spending from the rest of our car spending, it’s too much of a headache to retroactively figure out which gas-ups were for which car. It’s easier to just add up all the gas spending together.
Eating out: -33%
This was actually a shocker for me. I was certain that we’d been spending a fortune on eating out in 2020. To help support our local restaurants, we made a concerted effort to order a lot more take out than we normally would. Somehow, it still ended up costing us less than usual.
Clothing and general shopping: -32%
Since we hardly went out, we didn’t need new clothes or much else in 2020!
In 2020, our grocery spending went up for a couple of reasons: 1) we spoiled ourselves with higher-quality or specialty ingredients; and 2) we chose to spend more to support local grocery stores and delivery services.
In normal years, I’m the only one at home on weekdays. I’m happy to keep the house cool while I throw on an extra sweater and fuzzy socks to keep warm. Unfortunately, my family would have none of this! Up went our heating bill—ugh!
With three (sometimes four) computers running all day, more meals to prepare, and more entertainment streaming from screens in 2020, it was a given that our electricity bill would increase.
This is one area that I’m more than happy to have increased in 2020 (and hope to continue increasing in the future). It’s so important to give back when and if we’re able, especially during challenging times.
Will these changes stick?
2020 was certainly an unusual year. Our spending patterns were completely upended—both in expected and unexpected ways. My prediction is that many of the changes will stick.
For example, M’s company said they’ll make remote working a permanent option. That means we could very easily share my Mazda 5 for commuting and keep his 2008 Mustang off the road. We’ll also continue to shop small and local, which means our grocery budget will remain higher than in previous years.
I think overall, once our spending goes back to normal, it’ll continue to be lower than in the past. It’ll be interesting to revisit this in a year and again in two years. (Let’s hope we’re fully past the pandemic by then.)
And that’s a wrap!
How did you spend your holidays? Were your celebrations also low-key? Did you enjoy the slower pace, or are you dying to get back to the flurry of parties? Tell me about your 2020 spending as well—I’m curious to see how everyone else’s spending patterns changed!
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