How a Cook With an Engineering Degree Does Money

Ben (not his real name) is a 27-year-old cook in Sydney.

So, Ben, tell us a bit about your finances.

So since arriving in Sydney in February I’ve been working as a chef de partie in a fine dining restaurant. Theoretically that means I’m responsible for a particular section of the kitchen, but it’s a small kitchen and I only oversee one other cook (or sometimes no one else at all).

My salary is $55,000 and the take-home is about $850 a week. This is actually the first cooking job I’ve had where I’ve been salaried and the pay itself is much higher than in the past. At the last restaurant I worked at in Toronto I was paid on a daily rate (with somewhat dubious accounting) and my take-home averaged a little under $700 a week. In both cases however, 12–16 hour days are de rigeur and overtime is nonexistent so there’s that to keep in mind.

On the whole, my financial house is in order. I’m debt-free and have some emergency and retirement savings. Things could be better, but they could always be better so I try not to stress.

Let’s start with the big question right away: what prompted you to move from Toronto to Sydney?

The decision to move was really more of a decision to leave Canada with the Australia bit coming after. I’ve lived in and around Toronto my entire life and it’s great, but the desire to go somewhere new and strange and see what happens lodged itself firmly in my mind and wouldn’t be swayed.

In terms of personal and financial obligations I was pretty well-positioned to drop everything. And for working cooks, the easiest route to legal immigration is usually through some sort of youth visa and those are generally only good for 30-and-unders. So with those two fires under my ass and criteria that included things like not needing to learn a new language, I settled on Australia (then flipped a coin between Melbourne and Sydney).

I’m living here on a one-year working holiday visa and haven’t decided if I want to try to extend that or not.

Are you earning more money in Sydney than you would have been in Toronto? How do the costs of living compare?

Although I’m earning more in Sydney than I would in Toronto it doesn’t feel like much of a change. The cost of living in Sydney is higher, but it’s not even across the board so you can minimize the impact by changing your spending habits. For instance, cabs are more expensive so I rarely indulge now, but transit’s cheaper if you plan it right.

One important thing to note is that my rent has gone WAY UP. In Toronto I lucked out with a two-bedroom apartment in a great downtown neighbourhood shared with two good friends (who are a couple) for about $600/month on my end. Now I’m paying $1400/month for similar accommodations. Basically my higher pay got cancelled out by equally higher rent.

What’s your living situation like?

So that $1400/month goes to half of a 2-bedroom house not too far from the city centre. Technically it’s in one of the dodgier inner-city suburbs, but my little corner is quite nice and I’m within walking distance to work. I never thought I’d be willing to pay so much in rent, but considering some of the other listings I saw and the prices they were asking (flats with bathrooms separated from the main building, 4-person room shares etc.) I feel like I actually got a pretty good deal.

You told us that you spent $8,000 on your Australian move, and you hope to break even by the time you move back to Toronto in February 2016. That means you plan to save $8,000 between February 2015 and February 2016, right? How is that plan working out in practice?

I should clarify about my moving expenses. The visa application and airfare was around $1,500, which I wrote off. I brought $8000 with me to Sydney (emptied out my discretionary account, took as much as I could from my regular savings without going below the no-fees minimum, and dipped into my emergency fund a little). My Australian bank doesn’t trust me with a credit card, so I was also using my Canadian card for a while after I arrived to the tune of another $1000. I’m a saver at heart, and the thought of spending an entire year at a net loss was sort of unacceptable to me, so my compromise was to break even.

That means I need to go back home to Canada with $9,000. Of course, I didn’t spend all of that $8,000 so I’m not starting from scratch here. I could actually hop on a plane home right now and be good. The catch is that I also plan to go travelling around Australia and Japan before heading back. Neither country is particularly cheap and there will definitely be a few big ticket dinners along the way. So far I’ve been able to save about $1,000/month and hopefully that’ll translate into an eventual six-week break.

How much money do you spend on personal food/cooking? Do you like to cook when you get home, or do you only like to cook at work?

Food is probably the least predictable part of my budget, generally somewhere between $150-$400 a month. I constantly sleep in and miss breakfast/lunch more than I should and we have a staff dinner at the restaurant so most of my food shopping is for the second dinner I inevitably have after work. Those tend to be cheap and simple home cooked meals (or late night take-out if I’m feeling lazy).

On days off I’m more inclined to play around in the kitchen with expensive ingredients or invite people over for dinner. However, the big spending culprit is dining out. I typically go out for dinner once a month where my bill will be about $100 (or more). I’ve learned to not feel guilty about it since it’s both professionally relevant and a good way to spend time with people I otherwise see too rarely. In fact, my sister and I have basically stopped giving each other Christmas/birthday gifts and now we just take turns paying for dinner. It works beautifully because I’m terrible at buying gifts and that’s four reasons a year for going out!

What are your long-term financial plans? Do you have a savings account? A retirement fund? Does your Australian employer contribute to your retirement?

I try not to think too much about retirement beyond knowing I need to save for it. The past few years I was focused on paying off my debts and building up an emergency fund (done and done!). I actually only opened up a retirement savings plan (RRSP) last year and it currently has $10,000 to its name. Right now my work pays about $100 a week into my superannuation fund, but I expect to cash that out and consider it a farewell gift when I leave Australia. Back home, Canada’s own pension scheme (CPP) is less robust and I honestly have no idea how much money is there.

What about your mid-range financial goals? Are you thinking about buying a house? Starting a restaurant?

Thankfully I have no desire to buy a house right now because between the state of real estate in both Toronto and Sydney I would be crying myself to sleep otherwise.

I’ve read (and have seen from friends) that most people my age can only afford to buy houses with significant help from their parents. I feel like my parents have already helped me more than enough so I want to remain financially independent. Rental living encourages me not to hoard anyway.

On the other hand, I’d love to open up my own restaurant within the next 5–10 years. It’s a pretty risky business to be in and the hours will likely be even worse if that’s even possible, but that’s the dream. I’ve read about a lot of restaurants opening up in recent years on relatively shoestring budgets and little to no financial backing that have been able to succeed based on good food and word of mouth, so hopefully that’s a route I can take.

Your degree is in engineering. What prompted you to give up an oh-so-valuable STEM career to become a cook?

Ah yes, the STEM life that could’ve been. I do have a bachelor’s in engineering from a well-regarded university, but somewhere along the way to graduation I lost focus and began to question my plans for the future.

By the time I had my diploma it also became apparent that I would either need to a) go to grad school or b) take a job far removed from the work I wanted to do. Neither option was appealing. I was also living with my parents and dealing with some personal issues. Turning my cooking hobby into a career seemed like the drastic decision I needed at the time to sort out my life.

To my eternal surprise and gratitude, my parents took it remarkably well given that they had paid for my tuition. Most days I’m pretty happy with the decision although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any regrets, especially when it comes to money and working hours.

What have you learned about Doing Money since you became an adult? What surprised you?

My biggest takeaway so far has been that I need to be pretty meticulous in terms of tracking spending to make things work. I log every single thing on Excel. While I don’t have hard limits on spending I do often look over the numbers to see if things are aligned with expectations and whether I should be cutting back (or maybe cutting loose?) for the month/year.

As for surprises, I guess it’s that some people are the complete opposite? I have friends who are often surprised that their chequing account is running low and that would drive me CRAZY.

What advice do you have for other Billfold readers?

Haha, I am pretty reluctant to be giving money advice to anyone. Whatever your situation, try to be thankful more than once a year. Not just that kind of knowing in the back of your mind, but actual thoughtful reflection.

Photo credit: Corey Leopold

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