One of the common excuses for not being able to save money is living in an expensive city. Well, I’m here to tell you that I live in the most expensive city in my country – Vancouver, Canada – and I’m STILL making it work.

If you want to pay down your debt, become financially independent, and maybe even quit your job earlier than 65, you need to have a plan and be consistently working to make it happen. Increase income, decrease spending, or both. Nobody’s coming to bail you out, you’re not going to win the lottery, and no get rich quick scheme in the world will magically turn things around. No matter what kind of situation you’re in right now, you can do something to improve it. I know because I’ve done it, and I see other people do it every single day.

If a cult survivor can come to a new country, work two minimum wage jobs while finishing high school, graduate university with $160,000 in debt, and STILL be on the path to financial independence by 45, you can achieve your goals too. If a homeschooling mom and her husband can pay off $86,000 of debt in 5 years – with 7 kids! – you can achieve your goals too. If two 30-something schoolteachers can save a million dollars and quit their jobs to travel the world, you can achieve your goals too.

I wasn’t born with this attitude. I was absolutely guilty of letting my circumstances dictate my life, for much too long. I made so many excuses during my first year of paying off debt:

  • I come from a small town and a single income family.
  • I live in an expensive city.
  • Housing costs are high.
  • I have six figures in student debt and no six figure salary to go with it.
  • I have a long commute and no time to meal plan or cook.
  • I was in university for 9 years and I deserve to enjoy myself now.
  • I should be able to have fun in my 20s – I’m only young once!
  • I’ll never be able to afford a house here anyway, so why bother?

I’m exhausted just reading about that defeated, pessimistic past version of myself. It’s a wonder that I got anything done with that mindset.

I’ll be upfront with you – I do also have some advantages (mostly preferences!) that make living in Vancouver somewhat more affordable.

  • I live with my spouse and we don’t need a lot of space, so we can comfortably share a small one bedroom apartment.
  • I take public transit so I don’t have parking, insurance, gas, maintenance, or any other vehicle costs.
  • I don’t spend on the usual vices like coffee, cigarettes, or alcohol.
  • My spouse’s employer pays for our MSP (health coverage) at $75/month each.
  • We don’t have children or pets.
  • I make about 15% more than the average in my city – but I also spent 9 years in university and $130,000 to get there.

You want to know something interesting? Even with all of these advantages I still wasn’t gaining any traction. My mentality set me back to where these benefits weren’t even enough to give me momentum.

By the way, if my situation is so far from yours that you’re already tuning out, that’s cool! I really don’t mind. You’re not going to get anything out of reading this if you think what I have to say wouldn’t apply to you. Check out the Rockstar Finance Directory to find someone a little more like you who is crushing their goals. Otherwise, keep reading to find out how I hit my 50% savings rate!

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Even with the advantages I’ve had based on my life choices, it can still be tough to save money in Vancouver. I know this, because my first year living here I think I saved negative dollars. I pass about 4,385 restaurants on my commute, and sometimes it’s a struggle not to pick up something fast and delicious for dinner. It also seems like there’s always an event happening – every day I’m potentially missing out on at least one festival or concert or craft beer harbour cruise.

So how do I do it?

Let’s start with my basic spending. I try to keep my regular total on bills and groceries to $1,500 monthly or $18,000 annually. A few notes:

  • Rent: my half of a one bedroom, 550 square foot apartment downtown that I share with my spouse. We save space by minimizing our stuff, and having a folding kitchen table and folding chairs for hosting.
  • Transit: my bus pass. We are a public transit only couple. No vehicle expenses here.
  • Cell phone: my plan, with 6GB of data so I never have to worry about running out on my commute! I could probably lower my plan but I’m too attached to it right now.
  • Internet, electricity, and insurance: me paying for the household. I check a few times a year for lower rates on some of our bills, and try to negotiate with the customer loyalty department whenever possible.
  • Groceries: my half-ish. My partner doesn’t like to budget, but we keep separate finances so that I don’t have to care that he doesn’t like to budget. We shop at Costco quite a bit – bulk steel cut oats, rice, and pasta are great for the food budget. We also make most of our meals at home.

Here’s how that $1,500 breaks down:

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My net income is about $48,000, so if I spend $18,000 on the basics that leaves me $30,000 to work with! Obviously I’m not saving ALL of that because I’m not a robot and if you’ve seen my F*CK YES Budget, you’ll know that I do enjoy spending money on some things: restaurants, entertainment, travel, and the other extras. Even if I spend an additional $6,000 per year, or $500 per month, I can still save $24,000 per year or 50% of my net income. At this point I’m putting all of that on my student loans, but later I’ll be able to invest it instead!

If you don’t net $48,000 a year, is it game over?

No! You may not be able to save 50%, but you can try to save something! Let’s look at the potential savings rate of someone who makes an average income, approximately $39,700 in British Columbia. Even if they spent the same amount as me, they could still save $15,700 per year or 40% of their net income! That’s massive! Who do you know that’s making an average income, and saving 40% of it?! Probably almost nobody, because our national savings rates are garbage. The average savings rate in Canada is a miniscule 4.3%. We can do better! Even 20-30% would be an amazing achievement compared to most Canadians.

Why the f*ck would we want to do better? Isn’t it all about enjoying life now?

You must be one of those rare souls that doesn’t complain about their job every workday, or live for the weekend, or fantasize about winning the lottery.

Enjoying life is fantastic, and I highly recommend continuing to do that, but you know what’s even more amazing? Freedom. Having enough savings to be financially independent means spending your scarce time and energy working on projects because you want to, not because you have to.

If we want to experience financial independence, like ever, let alone early in life, articles such as This is how much it costs to live as a young person in Vancouver in 2017 and Breakdown: This is the minimum amount of money a young professional needs to live in Vancouver should not be our benchmark. Look to people who are making it on less, and do what you can to emulate them.

Instead of accepting our averageness and welp-ing away our problems, we need to think creatively. Live outside of downtown, try to find a bachelor suite, share a place with roommates, check out housing co-ops or leaseholds. Call your telecom service providers and threaten to switch to a competitor if they don’t lower your bill. If you’re a foodie, learn to cook your favorite dishes at home, meal plan, and shop at less expensive grocery stores. If you need more social interaction, invite friends over instead of going out or opt for free or inexpensive activities. If you want to work out, try doing it at home or outside.

I know I have advantages and I’m very grateful for them, but I couldn’t save a dime until I stopped letting the disadvantages take over. I quit blaming external factors like my location for all of my problems, and suddenly I started making real progress. Most of us have advantages and disadvantages, but our situations can almost always be improved by dropping the excuses and stepping out of our comfort zones.

What are your tips for saving in an expensive city?

5 Replies to “How I Save 50% Of My Income In The Most Expensive City In Canada”

  1. Not sure if it’s an option for ya, but maybe look at a no-contract carrier for cell service? I use Google Fi and just pay for the data I use, so I don’t have to limit myself (or try to use up the data I’ve already paid for).

    These are great tips, though! I make nearly double our city’s average annual income, so I’m very fortunate in that regard. There are deeeefinite advantages to living in a cheap, yet large city like mine if you can swing it. Especially if you have a desirable degree/skillset. But hey, you can make it work in expensive places, too; it just requires a little more thought.

    1. Sadly no Google Fi in Canada yet! We have a very monopolized telecom market, so I’m not holding my breath for it.

      Having a higher income definitely helps! I’m slightly limited in location based on a specialized career, but fortunately we both love it here and we have the drive to make it work no matter what!

  2. Nice! I think the trifecta of a smaller living space (less room for crap you don’t need), public or efficient transportation, and good food habits (buying in bulk and cooking at home vs. eating out) is where it’s at.

    They’re the 3 biggest expenses for most people for a reason, and I have a feeling it’s because there’s so much “room” in them – it’s easier to accumulate things when you have more space, there’s all sorts of different expenses in owning a car. And food seems to be the budget category that fluctuates the most for people, especially with poor planning and bad habits.

    1. Very true, those are huge factors and big budget categories!

      I think another reason why food is a tough category is because it requires so many micro-decisions, and the cost of each individual choice is so low. It’s easier for many people to justify $10 of eating out at lunch every workday than it is to justify one $200 purchase every month. It’s tougher to conceptualize the cost of small items over a longer period of time.

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