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What It’s Like Trying to Live on Minimum Wage in Vancouver

Living on minimum wage in the country's most expensive city has its challenges.

Lonnie Nadler

Beautiful, expensive Vancouver. Photo via Flickr user Brian Fagan

I'm 26 years old and I work at a bookstore in Vancouver making $11.00 an hour. That's 55 cents above minimum wage, which increased across BC on September 15 from $10.25 to $10.45 an hour. While it would be trying to live on these wages anywhere, Vancouver is notoriously costly, and has rightfully earned the moniker of "Canada's Most Expensive City," which it seems strangely satisfied to bear.

Minimum wage was great in high school for lunch money, when I still lived with my parents. Of course, that's the stereotype of a minimum-wage earner: a pimply teen flipping burgers so he can buy video games, see a fill-in-the-blank-blockbuster for the third time, and persuade someone with an ID to get cheap beer for him on weekends.

This is no longer the reality.

Many minimum wage workers are over 25, educated, and supporting themselves, if not families. And like myself, they aren't even afforded the opportunity to work full-time. I get anywhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, so it's unstable to say the least. Yet when an employee asked management at my company about low wages, they said, "It's a job for students and housewives."

According to a 2011 Statistics Canada report, achieving a basic standard of living, the "Market Basket Measure" as they call it, costs $20,290 per year for a single person in Vancouver (accounting for inflation). This measure includes things like shelter, food, transportation, and basic goods. The average cost to rent a bachelor apartment in Vancouver was $930 per month, according to a July report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. There's no sign of this changing anytime soon. My income last year was $16,000. Even if I worked full time, my total pre-tax income would be $21,120, and that's assuming I never took a day off.

I have lived on these wages for two years. I am self-sufficient for the most part, and it's not easy. I often feel like a bum, especially considering both of my siblings are doctors. It's embarrassing, even though it shouldn't be. I have a BA and two creative writing diplomas, which also came with a tipping tower of student loans. However, this is a choice I made. I am stubborn and steadfast in my belief that money, while it may make life easier, doesn't buy happiness.

After graduating from university I worked several unpaid internships at various film production companies. Eventually I was offered a position, but serving coffee, filing papers, and reading shitty scripts was not worth the money, the long hours, or seeing my name in the credits of a Lifetime made for TV movie. It was exhausting, allowing no time to explore my own artistic endeavours. Instead, I chose to heed the advice of Werner Herzog: "Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, head out to where the real world is."

In order to live as any sort of artist in contemporary culture, you have to have some other source of income. This is why I work a mindless minimum wage job.

Let's break it down. Below you can see my income and expenses from the past 6 months.

I quote $450 as my total freelance income because that was the case for the past couple months. However in June my only writing skrilla was $10, and the $300 I made from film editing last month went directly toward paying a sound designer for another project.

So we're back to minimum wage.

What does life in Vancity look like living paycheck to paycheck? My last apartment was down the street from a methadone clinic. Now I live near a crack park, but everyone does in Vancouver so it doesn't mean much. I don't buy new clothes. I don't own a TV. I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies—the library is a kind lover.

I live for sales, whether it's Cineplex Tuesdays, or the occasional Whopper Wednesdays if I'm feeling particularly greasy. I eat plenty of ramen noodles, and buy a lot of my groceries from the dollar store. There's a stigma about dollar store food, as if it were tainted just because it's cheap. Even if I had all the money in the world I would still buy snacks there. Their sour cream and onion Ring Puffs are godlike. But I would not advise eating mostly boxed and canned foods. The lack of nutrients has made me fully aware of the "balanced diet" TV ads told me about as a kid. Some weeks, this carb-only diet takes its toll on my body, leaving me exhausted even after a proper night's sleep. It's a common thing for my friends to say, "Dude, you look tired." I've been actively trying to rectify this recently, taking any chance I get to cook real food. I make a lot of vegetable stews and sauces—stuff I know will last a few meals. I waste nothing. I save the vegetable cores and leftovers, and freeze them so I can make soup at a later date.

Whatever "savings" I do have, I use for dates with my girlfriend and going out with friends. Thankfully my girlfriend understands my situation so we usually split date bills. Not being able to treat her to a steak dinner once in awhile makes me feel like a dud boyfriend. It's a tawdry social construct, this idea of buying pretty things for your significant other, but it still gets to me sometimes. Especially so when special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries are approaching because it's what most people do in relationships. There are so many people in my demographic able to go out for a night on the town with their partners, and knowing we have friends like this makes me feel inadequate. It's an easy way to show you care. That said, we are often forced to get creative, which means photographing the city, or spending an afternoon playing in Toys "R" Us, and this creative dating has been far more rewarding.

As for partying, I've learned to be a cheap drunk... FUBAR taught me years ago that a cheap six pack will get you right ripped if you shotgun a few. When I used to drink more often—about two years ago I was drinking three nights a week—I would often find myself choosing beers based on their alcohol percentage rather than taste. Drunk food was not an option, no matter how badly I wanted that slice of pizza during my stumble home.

Some months I go over budget. To make extra cash I'll sell some beloved books to a used bookstore, or snag a quick gig as an editor on a short film. Otherwise, I'm forced to swallow my pride, call my dad, and ask for cash. At 26, I don't believe anybody should depend on their parents financially. It's expected that after you finish university you start fending for yourself. This should not be seen as some external, societal pressure, or one brought on by my family. It stems from my own desire to be independent. I will not feel like an adult until my father no longer pays my bills. It kills me to ask him for money, but he never grumbles and I am grateful for that every day.

Even these boats probably cost more to live in than you make in a year. Photo via Flickr user Dripps

Vancouver is expensive for many reasons. Most often discussed is the housing issue, on which I am not an expert. Foreign investors are often blamed for driving up apartment costs, but there's also the lack of land, and the low interest rates. The real problem comes from the fact that locals keep buying homes, regardless of the insane costs. Baby boomers can afford the costs in upper-class areas because they are "downsizing," while the affluent, often dual-income, members of Generation X and Y are willing to pay more for housing within the city limits in order to live in "hipper" communities. This is why, in an area like Mount Pleasant, you'll see a homeless man smoking crack in a laneway that leads right into the backyard of a yuppie family-of-four.

There are other factors that contribute to the Vancouver being so costly: The gas prices, transit costs, groceries, internet providers, and the list goes on. It's a thriving, beautiful city with a lot to offer, and so people continue to buy homes and pay more for goods and services. Obviously, I am part of the problem.

I could move to a less expensive city, but being a creative in the independent film world severely limits my options. Toronto is too big and bustling for me, and not all that much cheaper, and I don't speak French well enough to work as a filmmaker in Montreal (that's why I moved in the first place). Other major Canadian cities simply don't have the resources or community I need to grow as an artist in my chosen medium. I have built relationships in Vancouver that don't allow me to pack up and go. I have made connections with producers, publishers, and artists over the past two years, and I'm not willing to burn those bridges just because I struggle to pay rent. Those are invaluable connections at this point in my career. More importantly, I have creative partners here, and we are working on projects that I could not continue to work on if I relocated. These projects are my life, and so my life remains here with them, no matter how much or how little money I have.

I believe the way I live is humanizing. It's difficult in Vancouver, but it brings me closer to understanding the squalor I see every day in this metropolis. There's also something oddly romantic, albeit pretentious, about the archetype of the Starving Artist. There's a hope that I will escape this and someday reflect on these years as some of my most formative. It pushes me to work harder on at my art, what I love, because I can't live like this forever.

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