So you’re young, you’re ambitious, you’ve got a degree or two—and you’re making less than $35,000. How exactly do you live off that kind of cash in a city like Toronto? Well, it looks something like this.
It could be worse, of course. It could be New York City, where the average apartment goes for $1,789 a month (in Manhattan, it’s $3,454). It could be Tokyo, where a cup of coffee costs $9.54, or Sydney, where a carton of eggs is $6.64. Still, living in Toronto isn’t cheap—we’re Canada’s most expensive city, and the 61st-most-expensive in the world—and, big surprise, it isn’t getting any cheaper. If renting in Toronto cost the same amount now as it did 20 years ago, adjusted for inflation, you’d be out $897.59 a month for the average one-bedroom apartment. If taking the TTC cost the same, too, a Metropass would set you back another $96.38.
Meanwhile, about the only thing that hasn’t gone up for twenty- and thirty-somethings is how much they make. In 2010, those between 25 and 34 years old living in the Toronto area pulled in a median income of $33,300. That happens to be 1,070 inflation-adjusted dollars less than they would have been making here at the same age in the 1990s, and $4,030 less than in the 1980s.
So how far does that much money get you in the city today? To find out, we asked two dozen Torontonians hovering around or below that median income to spend a month tracking every single thing they dropped money on or made money from—from Shoppers Drug Mart prescriptions to Disgraceland drinks to Rogers bills, and from bi-weekly paycheques to under-the-table tip-outs to birthday gifts from grandmas. Then, when the month was over, we persuaded a few of them to offer themselves up for further scrutiny. Some have it easier than others, but none are keen to complain: They’re (mostly) young, (mostly) employed, and (mostly) healthy, and they know that, whatever sacrifices they’ve made to live here, there are plenty of people in this city who have had to make more. Here’s what else we learned about what it takes to get by.
Twenty-four Torontonians, all of whom are between the ages of 25 and 34, and none of whom made more than $35,000 before taxes in 2012. The data from the survey month, February—everyone’s is collected here, on the next page—also factors in any significant yearly expenses (like tuition) or sources of income (like quarterly grants). We’re pretty sure we got our math right, but the conclusions we’ve drawn apply only for our participants, not the public at large.
NAME: Ashley Winnington-Ball
LIVES: Alone, at Dovercourt and Bloor
EDUCATION: Honours Bachelor of Arts (University of Toronto)
JOBS: Customer-service and inventory manager at a spa. Jewellery designer. Freelance accountant and home-renovator.
EXPENSES: $1,869.65 (Incl. rent: $800; interest on her line of credit: $51.46; credit-card debt and line-of-credit payments: $200; therapy: $120; Etsy and jewellery-show fees: $32.56.)
WHAT’S LEFT: –$58.39
Two years ago, Ashley Winnington-Ball was managing a boutique on Queen West near the eastern edge of Parkdale. Half a page of her resumé is taken up by everything she was responsible for (selling, training, bookkeeping, scheduling, marketing, recruiting, researching, writing, planning, tweeting), and what happened next is what often does when you work too hard for too long: She burned out. For a year, Winnington-Ball lived off employment insurance and what little she had saved for retirement, and then, when both ran out, she took a part-time, $11-an-hour job at a women’s-only spa. Now, in a good month, she earns some more money from the jewellery she makes in a corner of her basement apartment. In a bad month, no one buys a thing.
“I really love Toronto,” she says. “I’m really happy to be rooted somewhere.” For six years, that’s been at her “miracle apartment,” the one she can’t afford to leave, not in a city where paying as much for something half the size is a steal. “It does feel like I do want to live above ground, you know?” It’s a sentence she can’t finish without starting to cry. “I’d love to have windows, real windows, a little yard or a little balcony. It’s so impossible for me to imagine having what I have [now], and those things.” Compared to when she had a full-time job, “I’m out a lot less,” she admits, looking at a list of what everyone else spent money on—concerts, movies, sports. “Like, I did not do any of these things.” The time she spends with friends usually occurs at each other’s apartments, though Winnington-Ball heads to the spa a few times a week when she’s not working. (It helps that it’s free.)
“I’m convinced that I can somehow concoct some type of lifestyle out of this mish-mash of work, and be okay with that,” she says. She’s eyeing massage school next, a few years from now, maybe. “I don’t know if it’s ever really there, that certainty that what you’re doing is the right thing,” she concedes. “But I think that if 17-year-old me met me now, she’d be really impressed, you know? And that sort of relieves me. I’m basically the person I want to be. I’d just like to be me a little more comfortably.”
NAME: Colin Medley
LIVES : With roommates, at Queen and Roncesvalles
EDUCATION : Advanced Diploma (at Durham College); currently, Bachelor of Arts (at Ryerson University)
JOBS: Freelance photographer, videographer, music-video director, and graphic designer. Record-store clerk. Student.
DEBT : $20,000
EXPENSES: $2,340.76 (Incl. rent: $588.19; film and processing: $158.71; records: $85.06; clothing: $184.88; tuition: $700.53)
WHAT’S LEFT: $658.32
Generally speaking, Colin Medley’s plan is no plan at all. He didn’t have one for making money when he moved here from Oshawa four years ago—“It was always going to be month-to-month,” he says—and he doesn’t have one for what he’s doing now. But there’s certainly a pattern. He’s directed music videos for PS I Love You, Diamond Rings, Timber Timbre, and Yacht Club. (That’s his loft filled with people in Halloween costumes at the end of Diamond Rings’s “Wait & See.”) He works at a record store. He’s booked bands for concerts like last season’s Fucked Up–led Long Winter series. He’s made event posters and album covers and band websites. He’s getting a radio and television degree at Ryerson. And he’s started keeping a photo-journal of his life, and the recording studios, rehearsal spaces, and stages that make it up.
“I do make things happen, but I also leave the door open for things to simply happen,” Medley says. “I feel like it’s building towards something. A bigger thing.”
That there’s 20-grand worth of debt waiting once he’s done his degree doesn’t scare him much. “Like anything, you’ll just find a way. You make rent every month; you’ll make your OSAP payment,” he says. “It’s always been, like, I’ll be able to afford this kind of comfortable level I’ve set for myself, as long as I don’t do something stupid.”
An industrial heater anchored to the ceiling whirrs on, blasting loud, hot air into the room, a sign of the Roncesvalles building’s past life as a car dealership. “For what I’m doing, I know I’ll never be wealthy,” Medley says. “But I’m doing what I love, so I’m not really worried about that.” It makes it a little easier that so many of the musicians he spends so much of his time around are also his friends, the circles of his work life and social life neatly overlapping. “My outlook is just work really hard at something and good will come.” He doesn’t sound entirely sure about that last part; his voice creeps higher as he says it, as though he’d prefer it ended with a question mark. But uncertainty hasn’t stopped him yet.
NAME: Alex Nursall
LIVES: With roommates, at Church and Wellesley
EDUCATION: Honours Bachelor of Arts (U of T)
JOB: Post-production coordinator
EXPENSES: $1,353.51 (Incl. rent: $600; last instalment of her wedding dress: $178; eating out: $9.02; alcohol: $78.75; TTC: $3.)
WHAT’S LEFT: $1,216.49
“The trick is to have anxiety about spending money,” says Alex Nursall, not so much offering advice as explaining herself. Take her wedding last month: Her “British nerd” husband taught her bookbinding so they could make the guestbook themselves; Nursall folded all the origami bouquets, origami boutonnieres, and, with an aunt’s help, hundreds upon hundreds of origami cranes; another aunt took photos; and her mom baked cupcakes, which took the place of a sit-down dinner.
“Most people I know are on contract,” she says, sitting in her sunny kitchen a few feet away from a “PARTY NAKED” mosaic she also made herself. “They have no benefits, crappy pay, and long hours. Everything just feels so ephemeral when it comes to work.” She’s one of the lucky ones: no debt, thanks to jobs she worked throughout university (and parents who could afford to help), a partner to cover the groceries every once in a while, and, for the past eight months, a full-time gig at an ad agency. Still, Nursall saves—enough to keep half a year’s worth of money in the bank to live off, should she ever need to. “I think the biggest anxiety is that it may be good right now, but it’s not going to stay good.”
If being ready for when that might happen means watching the Leafs at bars, rather than the at Air Canada Centre, fine. If it means walking for hours each weekend to get around, rather than taking the TTC, all good. And if it means having a wedding with no honeymoon waiting on the other side, that’s okay, too.
“I’m basically happy where I am,” Nursall says. “I mean, it’s much easier for me to be 25 with no car, no kids, no pets, no mortgage, no anything, and to earn this amount of money and be perfectly fine with it. But I know there will come a point when things will change.” When they do—when she decides she’s waited long enough for a house, or a dog, or to travel—that’s another story, one that may well play out elsewhere. “My goal in life is not to be a millionaire, or earning $150,000 a year,” she says. “I want to earn enough money that I’m comfortable just where I am.” Even if where she is isn’t Toronto.
NAME: Julian Carrington
LIVES: At his mom’s, at Parliament and Wellesley
EDUCATION: Honours Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor (both from U of T)
JOBS: Assistant manager at video-game store. Film critic. Film-festival volunteer. TIFF intern.
EXPENSES: $1,237.81 (Incl. rent: $0; eating out: $289.33; Criterion Collection Blu-rays: $227.35; credit-card debt: $221.00)
WHAT’S LEFT: $690.10
Julian Carrington knows two things very well. One: “Most people could not afford to go to law school and then not do anything with that.”And two: “If I came from a different background, what I’m making right now wouldn’t really be cutting it.”
“The law thing, I don’t know,” he says. “That took me a little while to fully give up on.” Though Carrington never really wanted to be a lawyer, he’d long wanted the degree. Not sure what else to do after university, he went to law school, graduated, and passed the bar, only to throw a series of interviews for the well-paying articling jobs that typically come next. “I would be in interviews and I’d be worrying that I might get offered a position,” he admits. “It was just terrible and mutually unappealing, I’m sure.”
That was 2008. By 2012, he was working retail and looking for entry-level jobs in what he realized he’d wanted to do all along: film-festival programming. “I didn’t understand how I wasn’t even getting interviews,” he says. “You’d look at the duties and they’d be [things like] sending emails. And I’m like, ‘I have a law degree.’” He had started reviewing movies on the side, but couldn’t take on full-time unpaid gigs, because then he wouldn’t be able to make rent. He was stuck.
That’s where his background came in handy. At five, Carrington moved to Canada from Barbados with his mother, who married a fellow Caribbean immigrant who went on to become the president of a technology company before he died in the late ’90s. “Since then, it’s been basically me and my mother,” he says. She’s paid off his $60,000 student line of credit and is helping pay off his $20,000 OSAP loan. She also bought the Cabbagetown townhouse that Carrington moved back into last October. “My mother—my family—has always been very willing to support me,” he says, sitting on a salmon-pink couch in an unmistakably mom-furnished living room. “I’m not one of those kids who get shoved out the door and it’s like, ‘Okay, now you’re on your own.’”
After only a few months of living at home, Carrington’s been able to do everything he couldn’t before, including, in early March, landing a three-month contract with TIFF. The plan is not to stay forever, but there’s not much to complain about, either. “I was reluctant to move back because it just seemed like I’m at an age where I ought not to be in this situation. There was no reticence in the sense of, ‘Oh man, my mom’s so lame. I can’t stand living under her roof.’ It’s not bad.” Nor has there been much of a social cost: He has a girlfriend, who has a west-end place of her own, where he can stay to be closer to his friends.
It’s only time, really, that he’s not spoiled for now. He works 60 hours a week and eats like it: His breakfasts might come from Treats, his lunches from Tim Hortons, and his dinners from Pizza Pizza. “I had no alcohol spending [in February,]” he adds. “No partying, nothing like that.” His mom would no doubt approve.
NAME: Josh Kolic
LIVES: Alone, at Runnymede and Bloor
EDUCATION: Three Bachelor of Arts degrees, one of them Honours (all from Lakehead University)
JOB: Behavioural therapist
DEBT : $25,000
EXPENSES: $2,440.11 (Incl. first and last month’s rent: $1,350; alcohol: $0; dog: $126.62; coffee: $36; line-of-credit and student-loan payments: $197.43; Metropass: $128.50)
WHAT’S LEFT: –$340.11
Even though it’s a bright weekday afternoon, the lights are off and the blinds are closed in Josh Kolic’s tiny bachelor apartment. Two days before, he explains as he switches on the ceiling fan’s light, one of the autistic teenagers he teaches knocked him out with a head-butt, the second on-the-job concussion Kolic has suffered since he came to Toronto last May. The first time it happened, he couldn’t work for three months; this time, his doctor says, it should just be a week, so long as he rests.
Kolic knows this means he might not be able to do a job he loves much longer. But if anything gives away that he’s not from here, besides an accent that’s had 30 years in Thunder Bay to ripen, it’s his utter lack of cynicism. “I still don’t feel defeated,” he says. “I just figure that, if it keeps happening and I have to get out, this is a city where there’s another job around the corner, another opportunity around the corner. You’re never beaten here.”
That wasn’t how he felt back home. “There’s only so much you can do in a town that small,” he says. Here, Kolic and his nine-month-old dog, a manic Jack Russell mix named Hank, are a sprint away from High Park, and he’s a subway ride away from the Sony Centre where, last October, he saw New Order live in concert (“I never thought that would happen in my life,” he beams).
“Don’t get me wrong, it’d be nice to make more money,” he says. “I’m sure everyone thinks that. I’m sure there are people who make $70,000 a year who want to make $100,000. I just don’t want a lot of things.” And if he did make more? There’d be Jays’ season tickets, he thinks. “Maybe I’d go on a trip. But, you know, I’ve been here 10 months. I still feel like I’m on vacation. Where I grew up, everyone joked that people from Toronto thought they were the centre of the universe, but then you move here and realize you kind of are.”
There’s one more reason Kolic is optimistic: His job just switched from permanent part-time to full-time, which means more hours and more money—but, he hopes, no more concussions. “I mean, you can only get so many head injuries, right?”
Cost-of-living data in the introduction comes from the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, Mercer’s Cost-of-Living Survey, The Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation, the Toronto Transit Commission/transitstop.net, and Statistics Canada. All prices are in Canadian Dollars.
Next page: How’d everyone do for the month? See the gory
details from all two dozen of our participants.