A Year of (Learning) Cooking

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Last September, I set myself a series of goals. Though I had a few setbacks, the actual math of those goals didn’t really matter. What mattered was the progress I made along the way.

I changed my plan to leanness instead of bulking up and I’m now 15 pounds lighter, mostly thanks to making weight loss a project back in January. That was a victory for me! I also cut alcohol consumption by a LOT, and a future post will lay out my numbers. Stay tuned. I maintained four Unconbentional posts per month too, but fell short on my investing goals. Finally, I succeeded in keeping track of an entire year’s finances, down to the penny. It’s been a great year!

But wait! The most success I had with a goal was learning how to cook! Though I didn’t cook every week, I averaged one new meal a week over the past 52. Not every meal turned out the way I wanted, but check it out! We made all these, and learned lots along the way!

WEEK 1 – Miso chicken udon with Brussels sprouts
WEEK 2 – “Company” meatloaf and spinach salad
WEEK 3 – Cider-brined pork chops with perogies, peas and corn
WEEK 4 – Pan-seared cod puttanesca, buttered orzo and spinach
WEEK 5 – Dongpo-style braised pork belly, bok choy and rice
WEEK 6 – Roast rack of lamb persillade, garlic asparagus and buttered orzo
WEEK 7 – Ratatouille, lemon basil orzo and bok choy
WEEK 8 – Rotisserie-style roast chicken and quinoa tabbouleh
WEEK 9 – Cantonese lobster, Dongpo pork, bok choy and rice
WEEK 10 – Lobster linguine and arugula salad
WEEK 11 – Tuna tataki, spicy eggplant and “takeout” noodles
WEEK 12 – Scallop ceviche, tuna tataki, Atlantic razor clams
WEEK 13 – Sticky chicken, asparagus, and rice
WEEK 14 – Century egg congee
WEEK 15 – Rosemary steak and bacon lentil salad
WEEK 16 – Butter clams and crusty bread
WEEK 17 – Spinach omelette
WEEK 18 – Coriander-rubbed duck breast, bacon lentil salad, and smoked salmon crostini
WEEK 19 – Spinach and leek soup, mushroom risotto
WEEK 20 – Mixed mushrooms with chives, zucchini noodles with mint pesto, and roasted onions
WEEK 21 – Bacon wrapped blue cheese stuffed chicken, and lemon garlic green beans
WEEK 22 – Lamb shank, quinoa, and garlic asparagus
WEEK 23 – Pork roast with celery and carrots
WEEK 24 – Charcuterie board, roasted bone marrow with parsley salad, and rare steak with chimichurri
WEEK 25 – Slow-cooked pork loin with a brandy au jus, and steamed broccoli
WEEK 26 – Slow-cooked pork tenderloin with a brandy au jus, simple Moroccan couscous, and mixed vegetables
WEEK 27 – Ostrich steak, apricot couscous, and garlic asparagus
WEEK 28 – Pulled pork on buns, mac and cheese
WEEK 29 – Sweet potato and mushroom cannelloni with endive and butter beans
WEEK 30 – Beef shakshouka, garlic yogurt and toasted bread
WEEK 31 – Dongpo pork, ginger shallot mussels, Chinese vegetables, and rice
WEEK 32 – Beef and broccoli, rice
WEEK 33 – Simple chicken drumsticks with peppers, rice
WEEK 34 – Pulled pork tacos
WEEK 35 – Baked caramelized chicken drumsticks, broccoli, rice
WEEK 36 – Spaghetti carbonara
WEEK 37 – Lobster thermidor
WEEK 38 – Chinese-style steamed whole fish
WEEK 39 – Baked Atlantic salmon with citrus and fennel bulb
WEEK 40 – Baked sockeye salmon with dill, parsley and shallot herb paste
WEEK 41 – Roasted chicken drumsticks in cranberry juice
WEEK 42 – Lemon chicken drumsticks with asparagus and roasted potatoes
WEEK 43 – Pakistani kima
WEEK 44 – Kangkung belacan and white rice
WEEK 45 – Fiesta scrambled eggs
WEEK 46 – Baked salmon with brown sugar glaze
WEEK 47 – Roast beef
WEEK 48 – “15-Minute” roasted chicken and veggies
WEEK 49 – Sausage and shrimp gumbo
WEEK 50 – Vegan mapo tofu
WEEK 51 – Garlic sesame gai lan
WEEK 52 – Garlic snow pea leaves and rice

A year ago, I was still screwing up rice. Now, I sometimes go to restaurants and end up thinking, “Wow, I could’ve done better.” I NEVER CONSIDERED THAT WOULD BE A POSSIBILITY SOMEDAY. I JUST ALWAYS ASSUMED RESTAURANT-LEVEL COOKING WAS SOMETHING I’D NEVER ACHIEVE.

I gained a deeper appreciation for food, and picked up a life skill that’ll benefit me for the rest of my life! I think I’ll try this again, but starting in January. I’m gonna take a few months off and pump the brakes. It’s my reward for a job well done.

How are your goals going?

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This Blog Cut My Monthly Spending by 42%

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Since I started writing Unconbentional in January 2016, I’ve had very open money conversations with friends. Every step of it has been a learning experience. As I did research for articles, I was often forced to run my own numbers and a lot of the time, they weren’t pretty. In some cases, the results called for immediate action. This post was a huge red flag. Even though I knew these weren’t healthy spending habits, spending $3,363.26/month was normal to me! Luckily, this blog saved my life. This is what I spent in April 2017.

Entertainment was a big deal to me back in 01/16, but I still thought I had control over it. $138.03 was reasonable, right? Unless it’s travel, NOPE. In 04/17, I spent only $33.54 on Entertainment that wasn’t Spotify or Netflix. (I don’t know why, but I tend to lump Spotify and Netflix into my Bills category. I consider them essentials.) In that $33.54 were two main purchases, and this is where it got interesting: I bought a $19.99 video game that I didn’t end up liking, and I bought a bunch of supplies to try CREATING a card game for $13.55. I spent half an hour on the video game, tops. Trying to create the card game took HOURS, and was a great night spent with geeky friends. In this case, the unconventional form of Entertainment clearly won out. Instead of consuming, try creating! It’s often the cheaper option, and far more rewarding!

Personal and credit card Debt cost me $161.55, and that’s the big red flag I’m dealing with now. I also included a Home category this time, which I didn’t have in 01/16. I spent $99.23 on stuff like cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc. Travel came to $158. That’s gas, and one super costly cab ride from a bar. Missing a bus really shouldn’t cost $46, but I guess cabbies need to eat too. Meanwhile, Bills are as expensive as ever, and I no longer have a girlfriend covering the cost. On top of that, I pay for Mom’s cell phone and use a stupid amount of data. My total for Bills came to $447.29. That’s phone, Internet, electricity, Spotify, Netflix, and a weird banking thing or two. That can’t be normal for two people living here, can it? What do you pay?

Finally, we’re at Food and Alcohol, and you know what? I’m fucking PROUD at how far I’ve come. I’ve started drinking less and eating healthier, AND I’ve made cooking at home the default option. Food costs came to $518.02 last month, and I think most of that was groceries. It’s not “A’s” $80/month, but we can’t all be as awesome as her. As for Alcohol, I’m way down too! For 01/16, it was $1,120.27! 04/17? Only $530.55, over 50% less!

I’ve still got a LOT of work to do – it’s stupid, for instance, that I still spend more on Alcohol than Food – but the total damage for April 2017 was a mere $1,948.18, DOWN FROM $3,363.26! That’s 42% less I’m spending EVERY MONTH.

I have no doubt starting this blog saved my life. Current goals involve trying to get down to $1,500/month. I’ll provide updates as I get closer, but hopefully, this will inspire you to see what cuts you can make in YOUR monthly spending.

For those of you who are new here, this is why I didn’t include Rent. (Yeah, I know I’m super fortunate.)

What do YOU spend in a month? What can I learn from YOU?

Ben Beats Me to Mexico, or How to Travel for No Extra Money At All

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I was so fucking jealous.

With all that’s been going on, my trip to Mexico got sidelined. I suppose I still had the funds to go solo, but going without my friends wouldn’t have been the same. One got a new place and understandably couldn’t blow a few hundred on travel, and my roommate had to work. C’est la vie. These things happen.

Ben got to Mexico though. I’m scrolling through all the food pictures he’s been sending me. Tortas; empanadas; tacos; at least three things so cheesy, I can’t even identify them; enough salsa to drown a man; and various other antojitos… and I think at that point, he was only halfway through his trip. For a food nerd like me, it was painful. I asked him how he did it, and what it cost.

“Where are you staying?”

“With a friend who’s from here, at his parents’ place, with what will be like 11 other people, but right now it’s just 2 others.”

He sent a picture of himself standing next to a giant “CDMX”: Ciudad de Mexico.

I asked him how cheap things were.

“What would be a half hour walk, we’re taking an uber, for $0.50 each.”

He then sent a picture of a bottle of rum and its price tag for 120 pesos. Holy shit, it was $6 USD. The same bottle in Canada would be $30 or more.

“Estimated cost in USD of the entire trip?” I asked.

“Probably $800 max.”

For 12 days in Mexico, this was starting to make sense. Ben was taking advantage of geographic arbitrage. Using his hard-earned US money in Mexico meant his dollars could go further.

“We’ve been generally having two meals a day though, and so it’s around $14.”

That’s less than I spend in a day just at home. Could it be possible to actually SAVE money while travelling the world? Well, lots of people do it already.

*****

The math works out. If you take what I spent in January – $2,250.95 – and average it out for only 12 days of spending, you’re looking at $871.34. Ben’s spending roughly the same amount for 12 days in Mexico. I decided to do more digging. I found this article on living overseas. I found this infographic on places where the cost of living is significantly lower than in the US. Living in Taghazout, Morocco is only $881/month? WHAT?!? (The surfing and fishing are great, I hear.) Suddenly, I felt a wave of abundance again. Travel seemed ALWAYS financially possible, as long as I paid attention to a few numbers and avoided overpriced tourist destinations.

This was very exciting to me for a variety of reasons. Suddenly, the $725,479 I thought I needed to retire COULD be way less! Did you know a “couple can live comfortably on less than US$1,500 per month” in Belize? If you’re willing to move and have a sense of adventure, you really can save money and travel the world AT THE SAME TIME. If you own property too, you can REALLY make bank, renting a suite out for Vancouver prices while living in Turkey and meeting ALL your needs for $676/month.

This is DOABLE. This isn’t a fantasy for the super rich anymore. If you can find a job that allows you to work remotely, you can make North American cash and live somewhere where meals are $1. Have you always wanted to travel? Consider this post the kick in the ass you needed to do it.

Oh, look. I have over 35,000 Avion points again. Check out this post to help make your travel points go farther.

What I Spend In a Month (Apparently)

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In our previous spending breakdown, “Why I Am A Fraud: A Story of Booze and Strippers”, I listed off all the dumb crap I spent money on in January 2016. It was a mess. $138.03 on entertainment was okay, but $229 on cabs? $651.08 on food? $1,120.27 ON ALCOHOL?!? Clearly, my spending needed a serious intervention. It took all the way until now to strip away my more harmful spending habits, but I’m still no saint. Reluctantly, here’s October 2016.

It turns out I eat a lot. My food spending was nearly identical to January, coming in at $651.96. I ate out less, but I splurge on ingredients when I cook, even when I’m feeding other people. One home-cooked meal cost me $72.63! Pan-seared cod puttanesca for five was EXPENSIVE. I was able to put a cap on entertainment though. I paid $10 cover to get into a shitty bar, and I bought two books and a single lotto ticket. Total for entertainment: $31.29. Travel costs were far less too. $174, and that covered driving, transit, and cabs. My bills are high though. I pay $89.49 to get online, and between my mother and I, our phone bill – which I pay – came to $299.74 because she was roaming in China. As usual, no rent costs for me after my roommate pays his share, and aside from debt payments and Netflix, all that’s left is… ALCOHOL. Any guesses? I’ll wait.

Ready?

Alcohol for October 2016 came to…

$662.58, ROUGHLY 59% WHAT I SPENT ON BOOZE IN JANUARY! I CUT MY ALCOHOL INTAKE BY OVER A THIRD!

Obviously, $662.58 is still bonkers. $21.37 a day for booze is crazy to a normal person. My aim is to have alcohol down to $500/month. Maybe then, I can finally start whittling down my debt.

In total, I went through $2,803 in October. $633.62 of that went toward housing, but was reimbursed by my roommate paying his rent. $100 came back to me from my mom because she felt bad about her roaming charges. Factoring all that in, I spent just over $2,000 on my own. I’m not happy with that number yet. I want to get down to $1,500/month.

I made $3,105 in October from all my sources of income. I sold some stuff, worked my liquor store job, and actually didn’t take any money for myself out of my photo business. I came out ahead this month! That’s how it should be EVERY month!

Anyway, here’s hoping I don’t backslide. I’m pumped my alcohol spending is so far down though.

Comments? Questions? Ask me on Facebook.

Tiny Goals = Big Changes

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September 22 marks the first day of Autumn 2016, so I’m starting a personal development project I’m dubbing Project Ben. I was originally going to start on September 1, but my breakup derailed any progress I was hoping to make. Now that the emotional fallout has settled, here are my goals going forward. Feel free to make additional suggestions in the comments.

*   Cook more, making at least one meal every Tuesday with my roommate
*   Do basic upper body exercises every two days and track my progress
*   Aim for 10 alcohol-free days per month
*   Track my personal finances down to the penny
*   Write four posts for Unconbentional every month
*   Put $200 plus my raise into investments each month

I know these don’t seem like particularly extravagant goals, but the end results should be mind-boggling just by establishing a few small habits.

In a year’s time, I will have cooked 52 more meals, increased my upper body strength, reduced my alcohol consumption by at least a third, kept mindful and responsible about my finances, posted 48 more Unconbentional articles, and put roughly $3,600+ towards my retirement – which should make for $40,000+ if I allow it to grow until I’m 65. Not bad for one year, right?

What goals do you have this year? Can a few minor adjustments change your life for the better, forever?

I wonder what The Other Ben’s goals are. Come bug us on Facebook and maybe he’ll tell us.

What I Learned About Money from My Parents

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My dad once paid $10,000 to advertise in a Chinese newspaper. I still admire him for that. He risked everything to run his own business as a driving instructor, but in the end, I don’t think he ever made that money back. Most of my family considers him a failure, but I don’t. He actually believed in something. To me, he was an inspiration.

My dad wasn’t a very good businessperson. Assuming he spent exactly $10,000 on advertising, and using his old rate of $30/hour, he should’ve done the math and realized it’d take him over 333 hours just to break even on his ads. Generating that many leads turned out to be impossible. He also somehow forgot to factor in gas and overhead. The business was destined to implode. In a family where his siblings earn far more, tensions arose. My grandparents eventually covered his ad costs, but resented him for it. He kept trying, but his health gave out. He eventually stopped working.

One night in 2014, he was admitted to Royal Columbian Hospital with chest pains. I rushed to the hospital and found him. He was very much alive, and was sitting up in bed telling dad jokes to our pastor. Apparently, he’d called him too. I don’t think any of us understood the seriousness of the situation that night. I figured he’d be home soon, and everything would be back to normal. We stayed up, told bad jokes, and just laughed. He was eventually admitted to the high acuity unit. I visited him there the next few days, and found him happy. He’d sing to the nurses and read the Garfield comics I brought for him. He didn’t seem like he had many regrets. Eventually, his aorta ruptured. I wasn’t there. From the last time I saw him alive, I remember two things: He was grinning like an idiot, and I told him I loved him.

*****

Ironically, my mom puts together advertising materials. She works for a marketing company, and as far as I know, spends most of her time feeding paper into a machine. She believes in a steady job, and not taking risks. I don’t think she’s ever made more than $15/hour. To her, what I’m doing is ludicrous. I’m going down the same destructive path as my dad by owning a business. After all, she’s seen what happened to him. If only he’d had a steady job, right? A steady job brings security, and security is all that matters.

I can’t even fault her for thinking this way. She’s right: I’d probably make more with a full-time job as a retail manager. Would I be happy though? Fuck, no! That’s not me. Like my dad, I need to pursue something that I build on my own. The last thing I want is a job like hers, feeding paper into a machine for peanuts while I make someone else rich. She doesn’t take any risks with money or investments either, so index funds are scary and $15/hour sounds just fine. She can’t understand I’d rather make $400/hour doing what I love on a not-so-frequent basis, and she’d rather see me in a Target or Burger King grinding out full-time hours like her. She’s seen my dad’s business fail, and she doesn’t believe in me. It’s depressing as fuck.

I was able to learn something though. I’d now seen both extremes. My dad risked everything. My mom risks nothing. Well, obviously, the answer that made sense lay in the middle. I could do both.

*****

With my photography business, I’m crazy. I’m all in, all the time. I risk my money, time and sanity to capture the perfect shot, and try to wow my clients always. I give everything. I also work at a liquor store. I really don’t need it to pay my bills, but the added security is nice. Want numbers? In June, photography brought in $3,262. I didn’t even shoot a wedding that month. The side job brought in $1,518. Not bad for added security, right?

My dad taught me to chase my dreams and take risks. It’s paid off. My mom taught me a little bit of grinding at a day job might not be so bad after all, even if I fundamentally believe Smart Work always trumps Hard Work. I figure one hand washes the other, since the more security I have, the more risks I can take. I think I’ve found a good middle ground!

Ultimately, I’ll have to forge my own path. I may not be stoked about it, but I’m still equal parts my dad and my mom. What do you think? Have I struck a perfect balance, or is a normal life and a normal job the way to go? Tell us in the comments, and don’t forget to share.

The Other Ben, or How to Retire at 33

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Ben is the most successful person I know. I’m actually embarrassed to be writing today’s post, mainly because I know I’ll never be as awesome as he is. Through sheer determination and innate frugality, he’s now on track to Retire For Good at 33. He’s 27 now, so he’ll be done in six years. SIX FUCKING YEARS. Here’s how he did it.

Those who have been with us since the beginning know there are two Bens: the dumb one – that’s me – and the smart one, Other Ben. Where I rack up Debt buying shiny things and drinking, Other Ben quietly drops thousands into his RRSP every month and doesn’t even blog about it like a tool.

He’s the kind of Ben I want to be when I grow up.

*****

Ben grew up in the woods, and never went to school. The year was 1999. He was living in a solar-powered house two hours out of Ottawa, and had no TV. City life was a foreign concept to him. At 11, he learned how to read, and how to code. With basic internet and online tutorials, he started learning HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Flash. Within a few years, he mastered them, and started working on his own projects. He coded a chat system by 16. He became the webmaster for a local food co-op and started making $20/hour. He made Mac builds for The Battle for Wesnoth. He ported Frogatto & Friends to iOS. At 23, he moved to Vancouver. That’s when I met him.

Ben had many interests, but two stood out. The obvious one was software development. The second, quieter one was financial independence. He wanted absolute freedom from the rat race, and looked forward to a day when his investments generated enough passive income for him to Retire For Good and pursue whatever other project he wanted. He soon found work, and started making double what I do. He stayed there for four years.

*****

I messaged Ben last night. He’s in Brooklyn now, resting up before the first day at his new job. He’d just finished three months at Recurse, and I was asking him details for this post.

“What online resources did you use to learn code?” I asked.

“I started learning from people on IRC,” Ben said. “IRC was an interesting place, because often people were pretty rude and almost intentionally unhelpful when answering questions… But I hung out in the #web channel for a long time, and just sort of gradually absorbed knowledge…”

His new job makes him $100,000+ per year. His education was free.

*****

Ben’s not alone. I mentioned before he’s never had formal schooling. He hasn’t even been homeschooled. This isn’t really a surprise to me since I’ve always believed that modern academia is outdated in the internet age. Why bother memorizing history or doing equations longhand when you can bring anything up at the touch of a button? Mr. Money Mustache even posted an article recently where he mocked “fancy education” and simply suggested “Knowing how to Use a Goddamned Computer”. Ben figured this shit out early. I have diplomas worth tens of thousands and I’m just… me. Ben’s kicking my ass.

Formal education is the pits. In the internet age, you can learn anything for free. According to this article released by the Canadian Federation of Students, those “requiring a Canada Student Loan now graduate with an average debt of over $28,000”. Holy fuck, that’s more than I owe and I basically just partied for five years. Can you imagine what the damage would be if I were going to school too? “42% of Canadians under 30 years old still live in their parent’s home”. I got out and own my 99-year leasehold, and I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. “In 2014, youth un- and under-employment among Canadian youth was 27.7%”. Well, that’s depressing. I have 2.5 jobs. What are these kids doing with their fancy degrees?

Being a self-starter will ALWAYS trump formal education. Ben is proof of that. Even I’m proof of that. The simple desire to get out there, make money, and be happy is NOT tied to academia. Ben will retire at 33. I take time off whenever I want. We both have a six-figure net worth, and neither of us have a degree.

Want success? Get out there and learn without paying someone to force you.

You’ll be a millionaire in no time.

–––––

EDIT: The original version of this post was edited to hide personal details. Ben has also spoken up, and would like to clarify his goal is financial independence at 33, not necessarily retirement.