Choosing to stop living paycheque to paycheque

A friend messaged me recently after seeing some of my articles to tell me that, while interesting, the advice is not something he can practically use. In his particular case this is absolutely true. I spend most of my time on this blog discussing how to make better financial choices with whatever existing income stream you might already have. This post is a bit different in that I want to make clear there are cases where it really is impossible to save without fixing the income part first. Let’s start with a little background on myself.

I grew up in a government subsidized building with at least one of my parents unemployed a large percentage of the time. The building was a new one and it was one of the first to be built in a residential home area as part of a government initiative to integrate us “poor people” into middle class society. The thing is I can’t with good faith complain about the living conditions. Sure we did not have a dishwasher, or even a washing machine, and you can forget about a dryer. OK, so once I did wake up to a bomb squad SWAT team knocking down the door to a unit on the floor above me. However, whatever was provided worked well, and it wasn’t a big problem to take your dirty clothes to the laundromat downstairs in the building. There were 3 bedrooms so me and my sister did not need to share a room and the square footage was adequate enough to fit a dining table, sitting area and a TV in the living room. Everything one could possibly need, what would be considered luxury living in the vast majority of the world, and yet most people in Canada would thumb their nose at this as inadequate. Most importantly the building was kept clean and well maintained and the rent was very affordable.

While my friends were getting driven around to hockey games and got their parents to buy them the newest snowboard and ski equipment I was working a paper route to pay for mine. I bought my own baseball glove and paid the league fee myself to join a baseball league. The skis I learned to ski on were from play-it-again sports and were over 2 meters long with old style straps instead of brakes. Those of you that ski will recognize how ridiculously difficult it was to learn on these things!

Once when I told a friend the story of how I bought my own equipment and paid my own fees she remarked as to how sad that is. It caught me by surprise, I’ve never though of it as sad, and I don’t regret any of it today. The lessons I learned during those formative years are the reason why I am the person I am today and I wouldn’t change any of it. I may have had horrible ski equipment but I still made the ski team, and once I got better skis, I was actually able to ski far better than if I had gotten high end equipment to start with.

Once it was time to choose a university to go to I made sure that the school I chose had a co-op program. I knew I could not take any money from my parents as they were already tight as it was. I applied and got some student loans to get me through the first 2 semesters but after that the school was paid for from my own pocket and some bursaries I was able to dig up. Sure I couldn’t go party as much as some other kids and I had to actually hold down a part-time job. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t believe it is and once again the lessons I learned were invaluable. In addition feeling the cost of that education in my own pocket, I never took it for granted, which made me work harder to make sure it wasn’t a waste. I even got into credit card trouble one semester and had to live on bread and instant noodle soup for the last few weeks of the term to make the money last. This taught me the danger of overusing high rate credit and I paid off the entire card through my co-op term earnings over the summer.

I know many of you want to give “more than I had” to your kids, but the fact is I believe my parents helped me a great deal despite not giving me much monetary support. They gave me a free place to live when I was working co-op terms in Toronto and they set the example of how to live on very little income. They helped me understand what was essential and what was just fluff and I thank them for this every day.

I want to emphasize that this entire time I NEVER felt like I was poor. I guess at some level I knew that my friends driving expensive cars and buying expensive toys without actually working were “wealthier” than me but it never bothered me in the least. I didn’t feel inferior to them or bitter like so many other people in my situation would and that inadvertently helped me keep these people as friends. No one likes an envious person and jealousy is a quick way to kill any friendship. I again credit my parents for this and the fact that they instilled values in me that raise personal character, humility and intelligence above material wealth.

I am able to afford some more spoils these days and I do indulge but I make these choices knowing they are choices and not necessities. I know I can live on far less than I do currently I just choose not to and I make sure my finances are balanced without short changing my future. It is this understanding of it being a choice that I believe is the key to achieving financial Independence rather than just pure frugality.

What does all this have to do with the title of this post?

The friend I referenced at the beginning of my post truly does not have a choice. He makes far less than the 70K median family income in Toronto and has children to raise while his wife can’t work. Yet he gets through every month and is working hard on improving his situation. If you are in this situation it’s incredibly tough and your first step is to find a better source of income with saving money a far distant priority. I don’t want anyone out there thinking I’m making light of a truly difficult situation such as his. However, for most families at or above the median family income, living paycheque to paycheque likely is a choice.

I’m not advocating extreme frugality here such as that advocated by some other bloggers who live on 25K in total family costs a year (it IS possible, just google it!). I am advocating taking a serious look at the discretionary choices being made and not ending up like this now famous house-poor couple. If you are in this type of situation you need to get angry. You need to say average or adequate is not enough. Just because everyone else seems to be living paycheque to paycheque too does not mean you can’t do better. Average choices, by definition, can (at best) only lead to average outcomes.

If you own a house that you mostly don’t use because there are only 2 of you remember that’s a choice you made. If you decide to buy in the “hottest” area of the city that is also a choice. Private pre-school? a choice, brand new car, a choice. Buying a second car, a choice. Living in a place with no public transit access, a choice. Driving everywhere instead of walking or biking, a choice. Doing that second degree or pursuing a masters, a choice. Going shopping at that artisan organic grocery store, a choice. Buying a new wardrobe every season because the old stuff is out of style, a choice. Redoing your kitchen to the latest style and installing exotic marble counter-tops? Most definitely a choice.

None of these choices are bad in and of themselves. There are real reasons why people make these decisions and I do respect those reasons. There are benefits to making many of these choices, but are those benefits worth the cost to their future? Not in all cases will the answer be “no” as peoples’ preferences and values are a personal thing. The key is to do the calculation and then decide which of these choices are most important to you and which and how many can you afford without jeopardizing your future.

I think I needed to outline my background before being taken seriously when I say the following: once both costs and benefits are analysed there are probably some relatively painless CHOICES that most people can make to save money. They might not seem like choices, but this is where I hope this blog can help.


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