How a Communications Coordinator on Her Way Off the Financial Struggle Bus Does Money

Amy is a 30-year-old Communications Coordinator in Vancouver, Canada.

So, Amy, how much are you making?

I make $37.97 per hour, at 35 hours per week. After taxes, pension, union dues, etc., my take-home is $3,600 per month from Jan–Sept and $4,000 from Oct–Dec. The difference is because my employer takes higher Canadian Pension Plan and Employment Insurance deductions each paycheque so I hit my contribution cap early. It always feels like a little bonus come October, and then a paycut when January hits again.

Is there a reason why they don’t evenly distribute the deductions?

I’m not sure. This is the first place I’ve worked where this happens. I work for a municipal government, so I’m guessing they have some policy for it.

Where does your income go? Do you have a budget?

Yes, I do have a budget, but I would use that term loosely. I have an Excel spreadsheet that I created and use to track my fixed and flex expenses.

My fixed expenses total $2,506 per month for rent, student loans, car loan, CrossFit membership, cell phone, internet, and subscriptions. My biggest fixed expense is rent at $1,150, which is a steal for a one-bedroom apartment. My friends are my landlords and in exchange for a trustworthy and stable tenant I get a huge deal on rent. I also pay $600 per month for student loans. I voluntarily increased my minimum payment last month.

Flexible expenses are groceries, dining out, and basically everything else. I’ve attempted to keep a budget for these categories, but found I would just go over in some categories and under in others. Instead, I just track every dollar I spend each day to keep my finances top of mind, and haven’t gone over in months.

I like that method! Why do you think you haven’t gone over? Because you’ve been tracking, or because the amount of food you eat just happens to fit the amount of money you have left, or… both?

My basic rule for each bi-weekly paycheque is that I take out 50 percent of the amount I need for fixed expenses, and $450 for everything else. Whatever is left over goes into my savings/travel funds.

I definitely spend too much on food! I know everyone seems to say that, but as a single person I spent about $500 per month on groceries and restaurants. I’d like that to be $400 but no matter how much I try it doesn’t happen.

But I don’t spend very much in other categories like clothes or hair. I also do a LOT of outdoor sports, which, now that I have equipment for each, are basically free. So my hobbies are quite inexpensive (after the initial gear cost).

So I guess the short answer is that I don’t go over because I give myself enough in the “flex expenses” category, and tracking every day makes me realize when I’m being excessive and need to take it easy until the next paycheque.

How often do unexpected discretionary expenses come up, e.g. “out-of-town friend wants to have dinner” or “whoops I need a new outfit for this thing”?

Quite frequently, haha. I usually have enough in the flex category to cover them, and if not, I overspend and save less that paycheque. I like the idea of paying yourself first, but definitely don’t operate that way right now.

What are your current financial goals, then? It looks like paying down student loans is one of them.

YES! Student loans feel suffocating and steal my freedom. (I know, that sounds like a drama queen reaction.) I have $33,160 remaining, with a 5.5 year payoff date if I continue to pay $600 per month at 6.45 percent interest.

I would also like to pay my car off early. I pay $206 per month and the loan will be complete August 2019.

For savings, I currently have $5,000 in a TFSA-GIC [tax-free savings account with guaranteed investment certificates], but would like to increase that to $10,000.

Are your savings/travel funds separate, or do they both come out of the same pot?

I have $5,000 of savings that I consider “untouchable” aside from an absolute disaster/emergency. Then I have a short-term savings, which just a chequing account that I’ve renamed “Savings” in my online banking portal. Once I hit $1,000 in that account, I take $500 and add it to the “untouchable.”

I travel using my short-term savings. If I’m taking a trip that costs more than $1,000, which is quite often, I actually take out physical cash from each paycheque and keep it at home until I have the amount I need. For some reason, seeing the cash increase is an incentive to not spend.

I also forgot to mention, sorry, that I babysit every few weeks. I am paid $20/hour for one child and save that money for travel as well.


I really like all of your savings and budgeting systems. They get the job done without being too complicated. How did you develop them?

Through trial and error. I tried Mint, but it didn’t link all of my Canadian accounts at the time. I also tried YNAB but didn’t watch the tutorials (mistake!) and found it confusing and too robust. I like to keep things minimal, simple, and clean, so the spreadsheet and a few chequing accounts work well.

So when you volunteered to be a Doing Money interviewee, you described yourself as “on the financial struggle bus but on her way out.” What did you mean by that?

I would say I’m not financially comfortable, have debt, and no real assets, so that’s the struggle.

But I have maintained a $0 credit card balance for over a year, my car is almost paid off, and I have a handle on my student loans and can see the light at the end of that tunnel. With a defined pension from work and a wee bit of savings, I feel like I’ve taken strides in the last two years and am on my way to being in a good financial place.

Congratulations! Did the way you approach finances change in the past two years, or did you simply start earning enough money to pay down the credit card, etc.?

Yes, it changed. I did not follow a budget before, and had different priorities. I overspent on clothes, and would take vacations before I had the money saved. I also overspent when dating. Oh man, that’s a tough category. It’s so easy to overspend on clothes, entertainment, etc. when you’re dating.

I think in the last two years I’ve grown up a lot. Moving from my 20s into my 30s, I can say I care less about the superficial and am really more comfortable in who I am. This shift naturally resulted in less spending in certain areas and being more responsible with my money. I have a few friends in their late 30s who are in bad financial situations, and I don’t want to replicate that.

I love the idea that becoming more comfortable with yourself means spending less money. (In my case becoming more comfortable with myself also meant giving up some of my frugal rules and indulging in stuff I love, and it kind of balances out.) Peer pressure is hard, especially in your 20s. Or internal pressure. From yourself, telling yourself who you think you should be.

Yes, agreed. I still tell myself who I think I should be, haha, but with more grace and wisdom.

Are there aspects of your spending that you still wish you could improve?

I think the only category I could improve on is groceries/restaurants. Overall, I’m happy with where I’ve gotten my spending, and now would like to work in increasing my income without inflating my lifestyle.

How do you think you’ll end up increasing your income? Promotions, switching jobs, side hustles, all of the above?

I actually just had an initial phone screening for a new job. I don’t believe in “dream jobs,” but this is an ideal position for me to move into and would come with a $5,000–$10,000 raise, and NO UNION DUES woohoo (can you sense the resentment?).

I’ve been with my employer for three years and feel capped out, so have just started an active job search. I won’t accept a salary under $80,000 as I currently bring in, pre-deduction, about $76,000 with overtime.

So switching employers and moving into increasingly senior positions will net me salary increases over the next several years. With no children or partner, I have a lot of time to dedicate to my career, and hope to see that payoff.

I hope you get to see that payoff as well!

Last question, then: what advice do you have for Billfold readers?

Be careful who you compare yourself to. I find it difficult to read financial advice or articles and feel like I’m coming up short. But most of the advice I see, and examples online, are based on dual income households or singles who had big financial advantages from their parents. Finding real-life and online friends in similar situations has given me hope and a sense of camaraderie. So go find your people!

Photo credit: Roland Tanglao, CC BY 2.0.

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