The doom-and-gloom of the economy still has many people keeping a closer eye on the news and an even closer watch on their budget. However, it's possible to take budget-trimming measures a little too far -- and end up paying for it in the long run. For the sake of your pocket book, not to mention your health, here are a few things you shouldn't cut out of your spending:
Hot water. Many energy saving resources recommend turning the temperature on your hot water tank down to as low as 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) -- but this could be harmful to your health. Hydro Quebec and Safe Kids Canada warn that lower temperatures can lead to the growth and spread of harmful bacteria that causes legionnaires' disease (a type of severe pneumonia). The bacteria grow in the lower, cooler part of the hot water tank and can be inhaled through water droplets in the air (often from whirlpools or showers). Hydro Quebec notes that it's not a good idea to turn down the dial, even if you're away on holidays. Safe Kids warns that electric water heaters should never be set below 60 degrees Celsius due to their design, but gas and oil-fired ones can be safely turned down to the "warm" or "medium" setting (as long as the temperature stays at 49 C or above).
The most important thing is the health of your family: If anyone in your home has a chronic illness or weakened immune system, you'll want to keep the temperature up.
What can you do instead? Both organizations recommend installing water-mixing or tempering valves that mix hot water with cold. You can also save heat by insulating the tanks, or using less hot water to begin with (such as using a cold water wash).
Maintenance: Your car, appliances, heater and other household items will run better (and cost less) if they're kept in peak condition. For example, a well-maintained car will use less fuel because it runs more efficiently. A well-maintained home will lose less heat and have fewer drafts -- making it less costly to heat. A leaky faucet will drain away your money.
Supportive shoes. Cheap shoes aren't long on arch support or cushioning, they generally aren't as sturdy in their construction and they don't fit as well. The result? Muscle and joint complaints, back aches and a host of other problems like bunions. Good shoes are especially important for those with "high risk feet" like children, women (who have four times as many foot problems as men), people with diabetes, athletes and people over the age of 65 (due to the loss of cushioning fat pads in the feet).
The danger is you might not notice the harm right away. The BC Association of Podiatrists notes that most of the 300 ailments that can affect our feet come from years of neglect and abuse. (See their website for more information).
So how can you save money if you stick to more expensive shoes? Look for classic styles and neutral colours -- they can be paired with more outfits. Keep an eye on the sales as last year's styles often go on clearance. Sometimes a quick fix can save a lot of money as well. It's usually the soles that wear out first, but if the "uppers" are in good shape you can have your favourite shoes re-soled for about $40 at a shoe repair store.
Travel insurance. A medical emergency or accident when you're out of the country can be run up bills as high as $10 000 - $100 000 -- and your private coverage (from work or your credit card company) might not cover all contingencies. Even if a pre-existing medical condition isn't included in the policy, you should still be covered for unrelated medical issues and accidents (like a fall or a car crash).
Trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance may keep you from losing the money you've invested in your trip if you can't go or if something disrupts it -- an emergency back home or a severe storm.
Shopping around for the best policy is your best chance at saving some money. Otherwise, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office says it best: "If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel".
Safety measures. If something in your home or car isn't quite "safe", it should be looked after regardless of the economy. An accident or injury simply isn't worth the risk. Preventable falls are one of the top causes of disability in Canada, and something we should be taking more measures to avoid.
Being proactive also makes a huge difference. There are more and more products on the market that support people staying in their homes longer (as well as helping those who support them). Whether it's something as simple as a non-slip mat or as involved as a monitoring system, many of these measures make day-to-day tasks easier and more convenient. In short, if it will improve the quality of life, then it's worth a second look.
Gas. There many ways to save on fuel costs, but some can be a waste of money. According to the Better Business Bureau, most gas-saving devices or fuel additives don't work or offer very little savings at all. Some of the devices tested by the EPA did show a small improvement in fuel efficiency -- but installing them is considered illegal tampering. Others actually increased emissions, making cars even less environmentally-friendly. There's a reason that no government organization endorses or approves the use of these items.
Instead, consider how your driving habits contribute to gas mileage. See Suffering from gas pains? for some reliable ways to save money on fuel.
Professional Development. Going to a conference, attending a workshop or taking a college or university course may require an input of cash, but learning some new skills can help keep you in demand (and help you find new opportunties too). In many cases, potential employers aren't just looking at what you can do , they're looking for a willingness to learn new technology and skills (and proof you can do it).
You don't have to spend a lot of money to stay current. Check with your alma mater to see what deals they offer alumni on their continuing education courses. There are also many resources online where you can take courses or brush up on certain topics. Sometimes a good book can do the trick. For instance, a book on HTML and CSS can take the place of a class, but the outcome is the same (i.e. being able to create a website).
Volunteering is also a good way to gain some work experience and pick up some transferable skills. If you're got skills and expertise to share, offer to teach others (and gain some instructional experience while you're at it).
Your health. Thinking of putting off dental care or getting your eyes checked? It's tempting to cut back on the things that our health care system doesn't pay for, especially if you don't have a benefits plan to fall back on. However, your body is one thing you should spend money on because small health problems -- like a low-grade infection in the gums or blurry vision -- can be the first signs of a serious problem developing. Even seemingly small complaints can affect your overall comfort and well-being, and can impact your daily activities and productivity at work.
And if you've been ill or suffered an injury or traumatic event, support like physiotherapy, occupational therapy and visiting a psychologist can greatly help the recovery process.
A little prevention is also in order. For instance, a proper desk and computer set up can prevent muscle, tendon and joint problems like carpel tunnel syndrome. It's easier to prevent these problems than to treat them (and a lot less painful).
Exercise. It may also be tempting to cancel the gym membership, drop out of sports leagues or skip the exercise classes. However, regular exercise had been proven to have many health benefits both in the short and longer term. Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to find ways to complete a balanced workout without the proper equipment and guidance at hand. Weight-lifting or strength training exercises are getting more attention these days as a way to maintain muscle tone, strength, balance and agility as we age -- benefits we'll continue to reap in the future. But if you're just starting out, it's a good idea to have some supervision until the proper form and motions can be achieved.
Where can you cut back? If you can't get outside for a good walk, balance free activities with paid ones. Walking at a local recreation centre or mall is a good way to get in some cardio, and activities like aqua fit or circuit training that include strength and cardio are a good bet for taking classes. And after you've taken a couple of classes in yoga and Pilates, you can turn to the exercise DVDs at the library. Resistance bands and exercise balls are inexpensive alternatives to home gym equipment, and they often come with instructional materials like posters or DVDs.
The bottom line
There are many things you should spend money on even when the budgets are tight. Good quality products that will last are a better investment than cheap products that will break and need replacing -- but that doesn't mean you have to pay full price. The usual money-saving tips still apply: watch for sales, clip coupons and comparison shop. Second-hand and consignment stores also offer some good deals on used items in good condition. It's also worth asking about discounts if none are offered. After all, businesses want to keep people buying -- even if they need to offer some incentive.
What do you refuse to cut from your budget? Tell us in the comments.
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