Our Family Barely Scrapes By. It's Not Uncommon, But It Isn't Talked About.

This is life for many Canadian Families

It’s the end of the month and financially everything is looking good for our family. Our bank account is healthy, our fridge is full, and we finally had enough money to buy the new coat our six-year-old desperately needed. Then we enter into a new month - our rent is due, along with some big bills - and everything looks a lot less sunny. We are teetering close to overdraft, our fridge is empty, and the hole in our middle child’s snow pants are taunting us.

Our story is like so many others in Canada. We’re a hardworking family just barely scraping by, on an income that our own parents would have laughed at thirty years ago. I work as a self-employed business owner, getting my work done in the evenings and weekends to avoid high daycare costs. My husband is employed as an underpaid non-profit worker, unable to get a raise, but passionate about, and invested in his job. We both love our work, even if we make far below the median household income in Canada, which was $70,338 as of 2016.

We aren’t horrible with money, but we don’t live like pilgrims either. I have tried to live constantly connected to every single cent spent, and it was exhausting and depressing. Now, I work hard to increase my income, keep an eye on our bank account, and try not to stress about our line of credit that hovers around $5,000. But it’s hard to keep a hopeful attitude when an expensive car repair leaves you in the red again.

Whenever we have spoken to financial advisors, we are told that we’re incredibly frugal, and much better off than the average Canadian young family. We are reassured that with our meager wages we have done very well, and that a little bit of credit card debt is nothing to lose sleep over.

I still feel suffocated by debt, some nights making calculations into the dark night, trying to figure out how we will eventually reach that elusive freedom from debt. We will do it, I am confident. Each year when we receive our tax return we pay off our line of credit and all of the checks are balanced, for a short while - until the next emergency at least.

As of 2018, Canadians owed on average $1.78 for every $1 they earned annually, which includes consumer credit, mortgages, and non-mortgage loans. For us, that would mean we would owe  around $100,000. Luckily our combined debt (which includes our car loan and our line of credit) is around $12,000. But we don’t own a house, and all of our savings are tied to an RRSP account and remains untouchable - unless we eventually do buy a home. If we do buy, there’s little doubt our debt will escalate to an alarming amount, and I cannot fathom the suffocating feeling I’ll experience then.

It feels like a rat race, surviving in this financial climate that doesn’t feel agreeable for a young family. There are months when we start to feel like things are going well, we get a bit of savings and think that maybe we’ve finally figured this thing out. And then we get knocked over by another emergency expense - draining our savings and our hope. I see it happening to others around us, too. Housing repairs for homeowners, massive car repairs, a dental bill that nearly buckles your knees - whatever it is it can feel impossible to crawl out from the mountain of debt, of feeling like you’ll never get ahead.

The choices are impossible too. There are ways to make life easier financially, but what is the cost to your health and joy? I think about going back to work full-time, but then I calculate the cost of a second car, full-time day care, a professional wardrobe, and more meals out, and I realize that we’ll be worse off than if I continue with my small business. My husband loves his job, but soon something will have to change, and he’ll need to earn more.

Our city is expensive, and housing is escalating at alarming rates. We know that moving to a less expensive city would help us with feeling more financially secure. A choice needs to be made, something needs to be change, but what are we willing to sacrifice?

Focusing on our family’s finances paints a small picture of who we are though - and perhaps this snapshot is a little dreary. But zoom out a bit and the full picture is bursting with joy, hope, and purpose. Our family is deeply connected, and we enjoy spending quality and quantity time together. We spent time together on many local adventures that don’t cost much, but offer plenty of beautiful memories. We spend our days reading, playing, baking, dancing, and generally living and loving this life.

I try not to dwell on the finances, because the beauty of this family we have created - even if it’s expensive, messy, and sometimes stressful, is worth every dollar spent, or not earned.