Grey Cup Loonie, Canada, September 2012

I’m addicted to finance-related blogs and websites, like Learnvest, SmartMoney and Wise Bread. Even though they are geared toward an American audience, there is always something to learn. Life hacks and money advice are always useful, right?

Especially if, like me, you don’t know that much about personal finance.

I’m sure these websites are much more popular now since the economy—or rather, the national debt and the economic downturn—is in the media spotlight. But I’m also positive that despite sometimes poor financial and economic decisions at the state or at the personal level, North Americans are more informed than Europeans when it comes to personal finance.

Unlike in France, money is not taboo in North America. I realized it when I first started travelling with Feng.

It took me a long time to overcome my French way of dealing with personal finance, which was basically “don’t even mention it.” The problem is, when you don’t talk about money, you don’t learn any useful tricks. You have a checking account, pay the bills and try to save if possible, that’s all. In France, the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor. This is the way it’s always been in the old world.

On the other side, North Americans aren’t afraid to talk about money. I find the way people publicly explain how they got rich or tell the story of their bankruptcy fascinating. And rich, poor or middle-class, North Americans are first and above all consumers who take their role very seriously. They shop for big items with the same passion as they hunt for bargains, they can make or break a business and they certainly know how to complain effectively. In times of economic boom, they spend like crazy and flaunt their wealth—real or on credit. In times of crisis, they start couponing, buying deals and looking for a more frugal lifestyle.

North Americans do seem to learn about money very young. I guess you have to when you start accumulating debt as soon as you graduate from high school and head to college or university. Meanwhile, most French are still in financial limbo in their twenties: post-secondary education is usually free (unless you go to a private school) and it’s hard to get a job. Young French rely on a mix of parental help, state aid and small jobs, usually until they complete their studies and find their first real position in their field—most of my friends back home only started working around 25 years old or later, and they don’t come from rich families.

As a result, when I came to Canada at the age of 21, I had very little experience with personal finance. I had only opened my very first bank account in France a couple of years earlier—can you believe it?

I had to learn fast because I had to survive.

Within days of getting my first Canadian work permit, I opened my first bank account at CIBC (I later switched to Scotiabank, much better customer service in my opinion). I applied for a credit card to build my credit history because I was told to do so. I learned to resist sale pitches and the irresistible appeal of easy credit because I didn’t want to get into debt, even though at the time I wasn’t yet grasping how lucky I was not to have student loans or other debts.

At first, I managed my finances the French way. I withdrew money when I needed to, paid the default bank fees without thinking twice, and paid off my credit card every month.

Soon, I was working two jobs full time and while I wasn’t getting rich by any stretch of the imagination, I no longer maxed out my checking account every month.

I started looking for a saving account. For that, I researched—gasp!—the best interest rates. Yes, me, the French socialist, was looking for a good interest rate. I had been brainwashed the North American way!

One thing led to another: the next thing you knew, I was making an appointment with an advisor to pick a banking package that was better suited to my needs (yay on saving money on banking fees!), negotiating a better credit card with perks and opening a Tax-Free Savings Account.

And little by little, I learn about personal finance.

My favourite budget trick? I got used to withdrawing a fixed amount every two weeks (usually about $250-300) and I pay cash for everything: groceries, bus tickets, entertainment, and little extras such as clothing and beauty products.

I still pay bills online and I use my credit card for larger purchases (i.e. furniture, hotel, etc.) and gas, but paying cash for everything else has two advantages:

  1. I control how much I really spend. When you don’t carry cash and rely on Interac or credit cards, it’s easy to lose track of your daily spending, and it adds up!
  2. My banking fees are lower since I make fewer transactions, and I’m also unlikely to get hit with ATM fees.

How about you? How did you learn about personal finance? Any favourite money tricks?


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  1. shionge November 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    How interesting…when I was in America, I do notice that people took out their money to split their bills equally after a meal in a restaurant. I don’t see that over here in but of late, I began to see this ‘trend’.

    Usually someone will pay first and we will pay him/her the equal share after leaving the restaurant 😉

    Anyway…coming back to my personal finances, I am a spendthrift until I met D and we tend to save for rainy days more 🙂 I tend to spend more on the children now and of course travelling 🙂

    Few credit cards and always pay on time but I agree with you Zhu that paying with cash, we can control our expenses better 😀

    1. Zhu November 16, 2012 at 10:15 am

      Funny cultural different re. paying the bill in restaurants! In North America, people usually chip in while at the restaurant, but I guess sometimes one guest put the tab on a card, debit or credit, and other people give him cash later. But few people seem to carry cash here!

  2. Isa November 16, 2012 at 6:51 am

    Hmmm, there’s some parts I agree, some I don’t really. I think most of my friends are pretty informed of how to deal with their personnal finance. I’ve compared all the banks to find the cheapest one for me. I use to compare all the prices when I go shopping in stores or online. It’s true the craziness for coupons isn’t the same over here (and thank god, I couldn’t handle spending hours to compare everything in order to earn 2 euros; I don’t spend enough money in general anyways).
    I mostly agree but this, I’m not sure: “North Amer­i­cans are more informed than Euro­peans when it comes to per­sonal finance.” I think money takes more room in an consumerist society (and I still think north america is more consumerist than anywhere in Europe, for now, it’s going to change, maybe)
    I think the french are an exception because they tend to save lots of money, a lot more than in many european countries (I read that they’ve got one of the lower rate of credit in the western world). The fact that we don’t really have access to credit cards (real ones) can explain it too.
    In fact, I don’t have the feeling we don’t talk about how to save the more money or the good tricks to spend less or the good bargains and tips, the only taboo for me is to say to people how much your earn; your salary. This is something taboo . The rest, I’m not sure.

    1. Zhu November 16, 2012 at 10:17 am

      Funny we don’t have the same perception! Maybe it’s a regional thing…? I had no idea French were good at saving money, although I am not surprised. I think I read somewhere that a lot of older people in France still keep their savings at home, “sous le matelas”, rather than at the bank.

      1. Isa November 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

        That’s the old “paysan” heritage!

        1. Zhu November 16, 2012 at 10:47 pm

          Very true!

  3. Punrun August 3, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Once I’ve chosen to live in Canada, I felt the need to learn personal financing as much as I can in as little time as possible.

    Some people focus on working and hardly have time to learn how to save and invest. I’ve seen so much and learn from that I choose a different path.

    One thing I learned is to use only my credit card if I can pay for it at the end of the month–without any balance. It’s a matter of discipline.

    That way I was able to build my credit and earn cash back using Amazon Visa.

    Do you have any favorite blogs about stocks? I’m thinking about it and I already started following some blogs. I knew it would be like taking a college degree without any exams–just a real-life outcome on which the future depends.

    1. Zhu August 3, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      I don’t know much about stocks myself, but I often find resources from CBC pretty useful for consumers. If I find a relevant blog, I’ll let you know!

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