Establishing our baseline: What spending was like in the city

When T was leaving her big city job in December last year, she had two quick answers as to why she was doing it:

  1. She promised her spouse a giant garden/farm and it’s time to make good on that; or
  2. The city is just too expensive, and we want to be able to retire one day.

Both reasons boil down to the fact that we could never afford to own a freehold home in that city, much less one with any outdoor space. We don’t want to get into a debate about city vs suburban vs rural living in this post. We are pro well-thought-out urban density, however we couldn’t afford that either.

Folks who heard the “too expensive” reasoning wouldn’t be blamed for thinking we are a little naïve. How can rural living, so decentralized and with so many responsibilities falling on the shoulders of the land owner be cheaper than living in the city? We are going into this knowing that our shelter costs are going to sky rocket, but with the hopes that we reduce can spending in other areas. T found Frugalwood’s Want to Move to the Country? Here are 15 things to Know a helpful read.

While we need to live within our means, it is also very important to us that we can live a life more in line with our values (environmental consciousness, anti-consumerism, peace-fostering). Finances aren’t a matter of clear pathways to optimization when personal values are thrown into the mix, which is why we wanted to take some time and break down the ways we spend and see how that changes over time.

Our spending in 2020

T has been using budgeting software for a long time, but we only started really using it as a household in late 2019. This means that 2020 is the first year for which we have an entire year’s worth of data. We don’t believe that anyone’s spending in that year was normal, but we will make do with what we have.

We have broken our spending into 8 categories:

  1. Shelter
  2. Communications
  3. Transportation
  4. Food
  5. Household purchases
  6. Personal care
  7. Pets
  8. Discretionary

The amounts shown here are per monthly averages based on total annual spending. Some categories were strongly impacted by the pandemic, which will be noted under the individual headings.

Exclusions and Caveats

This is not intended to be a look at every dollar we spent in 2020, but rather a snapshot of what our lifestyle cost. We have excluded quite a few items:

  • Savings, including retirement and emergency funds.
  • Anything related to owning a vehicle. We bought a car in December for the move. I will make a post about car ownership in the future, but it wasn’t relevant to our city lifestyle.
  • Professional memberships and professional development. Some of this was reimbursed by work.
  • Gym memberships and race fees. The year was just too weird.
  • Moving expenses.
  • Interest and fees. There was a total of $11.25 for the year – too small to include.

Overall Spending Breakdown

Our overall monthly spending in 2020 was $4,660.

Shelter$1,826
Communications$223
Transportation$241
Food$629
Household Purchuses$142
Personal Care$212
Pets$71
Discretionary$1,316
Total$4,660

Shelter

We shared a one bedroom apartment within walking distance of the subway for $1,685/month. This was an excellent price for the city and was due to rent control. We lived there for 7 years. While rents skyrocketed around us, ours was bound by the maximum annual increase of about 2%. It was a small apartment (640 sq. ft) with a small balcony. We also paid $46/month for a storage locker. This housed our camping gear, second bikes, Christmas decorations, luggage, etc.

Utilities were about $68/month. The amount varied each month and was based on meter readings for our units. We paid for water and electricity, as heating and cooling were covered in our rent. Our building was LEED Gold Certified, which means it was extremely energy efficient.

We also paid $27/month for mandatory tenant insurance. This included coverage for our belongings, which came in handy when our storage locker was broken into.

Rent (incl. Storage)$1,731
Utilities$68
Apartment Insurance$27
Total$1,826

Communications

We paid a total of $233/month for two cell phones and unlimited internet. Our cell phones are $68/month each, which isn’t terrible in Canada if you want data and reliable coverage.

Internet was the remaining $87. We were unable to get usable service from the less expensive providers in our building, so we went with an unlimited package from one of the big telecom companies. This price represents a discounted cost which has since expired. We are currently paying closer to $110/month.

T’s Cell Phone$68
H’s Cell Phone$68
Internet$87
Total$223

Transportation

This was not a normal year for transportation. In the before times, we both used public transit to get to work, typically spending $300/ month total. Due to the pandemic, H began working at home in March. T continued to go to work, but her base location changed just prior to the pandemic to a site where she could easily bike if the weather wasn’t too bad. Because of this, the annual average for public transportation was $101/month.

In a normal year, we also used car share to do large shopping trips or to get out of the city, and T used it for work on occasion. While we didn’t really use the service from April-December, we continued to pay our monthly membership fees until we moved because we didn’t want to go through the process of reapplying when the pandemic ended. Using the car share instead of renting a car for a weekend (far) away in March was a considerable expense, also contributing to the annual average cost being $140/month.

Public Transit$101
Car Share$140
Total$241

Food

Our behavior around food wasn’t normal in 2020 either. We would typically do a larger shopping trip less frequently to No Frills (discount grocery store) and Costco, supplementing with produce from the local green grocer. When the pandemic hit we switched to a weekly shop at the closest and least crowded store available, which happened to be a Sobeys. We would normally only go there when we really needed the convenience, as it had poor selection of the less expensive foods that were typical to our diet, and everything just cost more in general.

T also survived on Soylent for two meals a day due to her burn-out inducing nightmare job at the time. It worked, but we never want to be in that position again. Our spending on groceries/powdered meals was $471/month.

Our eating out habits changed as well. When working downtown, which we both did in 2019, we would spend way too much money on lunches out with our colleagues, or on fancy coffee as a treat. Most of our spending in 2020 was on date nights (pre-pandemic) and then buying takeout from local restaurants during the pandemic. Average spending here was $158/month.

Groceries$471
Restaurants/Takeout/Delivery$158
Total$629

Household Purchuses

This is a pretty broad category. Spending was probably down in 2020 over other years, but going forward we do want to focus on reducing recreational spending and focus on buying only what we need (ideally second-hand).

Consumables included items like toilet paper and cleaning products at $22/month. Household goods would be items like food storage containers or other multiple use items, which averaged out to $29/month. We had a pretty decent balcony garden which we started from scratch, and included grow lights for our indoor seed starts for $27/month. There were a few electronics purchased in 2020 which averaged out to $67/month. Total household purchases were $142/month.

Household Consumables$22
Household Goods$29
Gardening$27
Electronics$67
Total$142

Personal Care

Our personal care category is for personal care products, healthcare and clothes. Total spending was $212/month.

Spending on personal care products was $35/month which was quite low, as we had way too many soaps and shampoos stashed away from the previous year. T has a Lush problem she is working on getting a handle on, and only purchased dry shampoo from there in 2020.

Neither of us shop for clothes recreationally, so we do consider the clothes we buy as needs that fit into this category. Clothes purchased included a winter jacket, rain gear for bike commuting (to avoid public transit during COVID), replacing worn out undergarments, and clothes for sun protection. If it were a normal year, we probably wouldn’t have bough most of those items, but we did end up spending a lot more time outside and it was well worth it. Clothes spending was $63/month.

Our healthcare costs are low because we have OHIP (single payer provincial insurance) and decent insurance through work. The total of $114/month is after the work insurance is applied.

Personal Care Products$35
Healthcare$114
Clothes$63
Total$212

Pets

Pet spending was very low in 2020 because we did not take our two cats to the vet. Besides shut downs and vets only seeing emergency cases, we relied on car share to get them there. Now that we have our own vehicle we will be less restrained in that way. The item we did purchase included were food, cat litter, and bags for their litter. We hope to switch their litter in the coming months to something degradable (versus clay based) that we can either compost or put in the city’s compost collection (green bins) directly without using the Litter Locker we use now. Total spending was $71/month.

Pets$71
Total$71

Discretionary

This one is…embarrassing. We spend $1,316/month on discretionary items.

Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back because we don’t have cable, however we did spend $142/month on streaming services and software subscriptions. Our entertainment spending of $36/month was very low, as we would normally see a few concerts and go to a few exhibitions at local museums. Vice ($126/month) and gifts ($123/month) are pretty self explanatory. In a typical year we would expect to see vacation spending closer to $200/month, however in 2020 it was $65/month. This was largely due to a longer trip we took at the beginning of March to visit friends out of town.

We each get a set amount every month to spend/save with no explanation required. This is what makes up the discretionary spending category. One of the larger line items here were tattoos, with both of us getting some new ones earlier in the year. This added up to an average spend of $705/month.

It’s a little jarring to see the giving number so low at $118/month especially compared to how high some of the other categories are. This is something we are going to have to sit down and discuss. It is important to us to use our money wisely and justly, and we clearly have missed the mark.

Streaming/Software Subscriptions$142
Entertainment$36
Vice$126
Giving$118
Gifts$123
Discretionary Spending$705
Vacation$65
Total$1,316

What’s next?

When this post was first conceptualized, we were living in a rental apartment in our new city. T is now wrapping up the final draft in our new home. Over the next year we will continue to track our spending and will share how it has changed as we moved from an urban to a rural lifestyle. It’s going to be an adventure!

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