The cost of having a life

Looking the part, getting around, and being entertained are expensive
December 13, 2017, 4:42pm

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Being alive in Canada isn’t cheap. From our astronomical rent prices, to the rising costs of basic 20-something fun stuff, practically everyone I know has fantasized about just ditching it all and heading to Berlin. Even if you cook all your own meals, skip the bar scene, and share a bathroom with four strangers from Craigslist, there’s often barely enough to cover your expenses and make any kind of dent in your student loan if you live in one of Canada’s major cities (well, maybe except Montreal).

Ok, so we’ve all read the personal finance listicles, and we know that the price of flat whites, whiskey sours, and Dominos delivery can really add up. But what about some of the more fundamental expenses of living? Things like paying for transportation, workwear, or the ability to binge-watch Mindhunter?

We reached out to young Canadians who’ve attempted to save money on some of life’s standard expenses, and because we’re just really competitive, tried to see if we could better.

When even getting a decent job is pricey

Fauzia Alvi, 26, had just graduated business school when she was snapped up by a financial services company. On her first day, she learned the hard way that entering the workforce requires a pretty sizeable down payment. “This was an office where I knew you had to look sharp, but I thought an H&M blazer was going to cut it,” says Alvi. “No one ever pulled me aside or anything, but it felt really obvious that I was standing out based on what I was wearing. I felt so insecure, and I think I ended spending about $1,000 on work clothes in my first month.”

Having to spend a ton of money on our appearance is an unfortunate requirement of many industries—and it also disproportionately affects women. Plus, even after you drop your first paycheque on that Safe-For-Work capsule wardrobe, there’s always the maintenance fees to consider. “I was client-facing in my job, so then it was haircuts, manicures, good makeup, new tights,” explains Alvi. “This was money that I certainly wouldn’t be spending if I wasn’t in this environment.” Ultimately, this extra time and expense was one of the many reasons Alvi ended up switching careers to the tech sector. “I took a salary cut, but it’s pretty crazy how much money I save on being in a more casual work environment. It’s almost the same at the end of the day.”

How to do it better: Alvi’s story is a bit of an extreme one, and you don’t necessarily have to quit your job. Budgeting for your regular personal maintenance costs (like haircuts or manicures) will help soften the financial blow. And investing in wardrobe staples like navy blazers and black dress pants—items that you know you will suit a variety of work situations—will save you way more money than chasing trends.

Failing that, you could always buy one nice suit and wear it every day like that Australian newscaster. Or, if you’re female, pull a Marge Simpson and re-jig your pink suit every night.

The real cost of option paralysis

Subscription services seem like a no-brainer. Going to the movies can cost as much as your weekly grocery budget, and in an era when nearly everyone lives close to an unsecured WiFi network, moving your entertainment budget into streaming subscriptions won’t even ding you on your data bill.

“I’m really into movies, so at one time I had Netflix, Fandor, and MUBI,” says 24-year-old student Evan Monk. “And if we’re counting all kinds of subscriptions, I also had Google Play Music, Amazon Prime, and Kindle Unlimited. Altogether, it was about $70 a month, which is a lot less than I’d be spending if this stuff was somehow separated.”

Of course, it’s way cheaper to drop $10 a month on history’s entire music output instead of purchasing individual albums, but it can also be easy to forget how much you’re cumulatively paying for these subscriptions. “I’m actually really conscious of what I spend money on,” says Monk. “But it wasn’t until I looking into my bank statements really closely that I saw how all this was adding up. That was a hard lesson to learn about budgeting. Even though these things all made sense on their own, I still had to make cuts when I was really trying to save money for a couple of months.”

How to do it better: If times are really tough, you’ve got options: you could cancel a couple of subscriptions, swap passwords with friends, hit the library for your books and movies, trawl YouTube for free content, or pick up thrilling yet affordable new hobbies like “mindfulness.”

Getting around

“I probably take Uber two or three times a day,” says Marcus G., a 31-year-old marketing manager at a Toronto tech startup with a gig that requires him to take a lot of last-minute meetings across the city. “I don’t have time to look for parking. I’ve done Car2go, but it was too much mental energy figuring out where the pickup and drop-offs were.”

Whether you live in a major city or a remote community, transit will usually represent a big chunk of your budget. And the cost-effective choices aren’t always straightforward. Cabs and Ubers are expensive, but you’ll have to take a ton of them before they reach the cost of purchasing, insuring, and maintaining a car. For Marcus, his regular Uber rides add up to around $20-35 a day, although the complimentary water bottles drivers give out softens the blow a little.

How to do it better: Ultimately, this will always be a choice between fast, good, and cheap. If you can only pick two, the fast and good of Uber and cabs might still be cheaper than the cost of owning a car. Until Futurama-style tube-based transportation becomes a thing, this one’s on you to do the cost-benefit analysis.


While it’s crazy that even the basic costs of living are unattainable for a lot of young people, financial planning is about priorities, and sometimes the frills are still worth it. If the $40 you spend on a monthly manicure brings a lot of joy to your life, then by all means, go wild with the gel nails. Just make note of the cost, and either put money aside to pay for the fills, or see where you can shave that $40 off somewhere else. Just hopefully not your water or grocery bill.