Sorry, you’re Canadian

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Growing up in Canada is kind of like being the second child: your big brother the USA gets all the cool shit first while you are stuck shuffling along in his shadow hoping you get a turn someday. Personal finance is no different.

One of the topics that came up en parlent with some friends recently was the yearly amount you need to live on in Canada. In the context of many English personal finance blogs, obviously many of them come from the US. Being the next door neighbour to a country with a population 319 million when you are a country of 32 million people means that most of what we consume in the media and on the internet has a US-slant. We’ve learned as Canadians to change the advice accordingly (IRA vs. RRSP, for example) and make adjustments where possible.

The problem with this though is we get used to seeing various costs come out of US media that we can sometimes feel like underachievers when things cost twice as much here. Blogs in particular are always enlightening when I see grocery bills under $200 a month for a family, or gas receipts for cars at staggeringly low prices. Let’s just face it: things in the US are just generally cheaper, or subsidized (meat, gas). It’s enough to throw any frugal Canadian into an apoplectic fit!

The thing is, there are tradeoffs for both countries. I think day-to-day living costs are fairly low (meat, gas) in the US and high-ticket items (university, health care) appear to be lower in Canada. I also always joke that in the US anything bad for you is cheap, and in Canada costs a fortune but that’s not always true either. Still, there is no Two-Buck-Chuck in Canada, alas.

So imagine my surprise when I checked out this cost of living calculator from Numbeo. Holy CARP! Is Canada actually this much cheaper than the US?

Well yes, and no. Firstly, that data is self-reported, not government data. I figured some of it was suspect when I remember paying practically nothing for eggs in Maine and they have them listed as more expensive than here. Of course, geography is at play here as there will be variances across both countries*. So here is a completely non-scientific look at a few things:

Groceries:

But here are some fun comparisons for a few grocery items, in the respective currency of the country:

I could go on and on, but it is boring so you are free to play with the American and the Canadian sites if you are particularly curious.

Gas:

Transportation is a huge chunk out of the budget for a lot of families, especially those who have no access to decent public transportation. Fuel is subsidized in the US, which is why when we cross the border into the US we feel like …

So in terms of averages, I was unsurprised to see that in the USA gas is on average $2.22 a gallon or .59/litre , and in Canada it is $105.6/l or $4.22 a gallon. It’s a significant difference that also affects the price of goods as they travel.

Housing**:

The average price for a home in Canada has far surpassed the average home in the US, 41% more, in fact. Last spring, the average home in the US was US$271 803 and the average price in Canada US$383 402. That’s a pretty substantial difference.

The US also has many mid-rage cities where there are tons of amenities but low prices, which seems to be less of an occurrence here (see: small population). Even those small cities such as Hamilton have seen explosive growth and a lack of affordability as Toronto expands out. Even if you take the hot markets of Toronto and Vancouver out of the equation, average house prices are still CAD$332 711 which is still fairly high.

There are tradeoffs

Of course, Canada does have a few tricks up its sleeves in terms of government benefits for people who live on a low income – even moreso if you have kids. When I plug our numbers into the CRA benefits calculator, we can expect $939 – $12430 in yearly benefits, depending on whether or not the kids are still at home.

Universal healthcare is another way in which we benefit, as well as low costs for post-secondary education. I mean heck, if our income is low enough our children will probably qualify for a plethora of assistance with post-secondary (we have money to help them though).

But every day living in the US can be much cheaper. They are spoiled for choice in the retail market so grocery stores slash prices in ways I have never seen here and clothes can be had at rock-bottom prices. Property taxes can be much lower in smaller cities and still have access to the amazing amenities we’d only find in large cities in Canada. I would say that there are generally just more ways you can save money in the US, although not everyone takes advantage of it.

What does this mean for me

Really? Nothing. The reality is that it can be a super bummer to be saving to the best of one’s ability only to discover that due to geographic factors you’ll need twice as much. But lamenting this isn’t going to change the reality that we all have unique circumstances and need to adjust our plans accordingly. The math still works, the possibility to become debt-free or achieve early retirement is still there, it’s just that every path is different.

Of course, someone who lives in San Francisco or Vancouver will spend way more than someone in Duluth or Saskatoon. I remember picking up a $6 pound of bacon in Vancouver 10 years ago when you could still get a pound in Ontario for $2.99. I doubt it’s better today now that rents are sky high. Location, location, location as the old adage goes. For those people willing to move, or who can survive off a jar of PB and a bag of lentils, they will obviously be able to save quicker than someone in a house who eats fresh vegetables.

The key is not to let any of this get you down, the key is to continually play with the numbers and to reduce your lifestyle to a level where it is comfortable, all your needs are met (with a few extras) but where you can save a significant amount of your paycheck. Comparing yourself to others – especially others in other countries*** – will just serve to bring you down when you realize that it’s impossible to have the same numbers. Look more for the hows in the information than the how much and you will be able to adjust the information to suit your own life. In reality the only comparison you should be making are between the you of yesterday and the you of today.


*Disclaimer: this is just for entertainment purposes and is not scientific in the slightest. It shouldn’t be taken as gospel as I’ve just pulled a bunch of info together to get a ballpark idea of comparisons.
**I haven’t compared rents but in my area renting is not that much cheaper in my area, in other areas it’s much cheaper. I am a big fan of renting and think everyone should run the numbers & do what is best for them.
***European readers be like, “You think you have problems?!”