Extracurricular activities were off the table for Matthew Riley and his three young boys this summer, save for a free swim pass to the local pool.
The sharply rising costs of daily life amid inflation have been harsh on the divorced single father, especially after a year of mounting financial strain through the pandemic. He was forced to downsize his home in Abbotsford, B.C.; all three boys ages 6, 4 and 2 now share one room. Mr. Riley has also had trouble keeping up with car payments, gas and hydro bills. The father and his sons now occasionally rely on a non-profit grocery store that prepares $5 meal kits for low-income families in the neighbourhood.
While talking openly about financial hardship remains taboo for many, Mr. Riley, 37, finds comfort in sharing his experiences. Honesty, comradery and help have come from strangers in his two parenting groups. The men in his twice-weekly dads’ group are also suffering financially: Some are getting second jobs, others are running out of possessions to sell online. In his co-ed parenting group, the mothers tend to be more vocal, sharing advice.
“Going to these groups this last little while has opened my eyes. I’m not the only one who’s struggling,” Mr. Riley said. “Once people understand that it’s a safe environment to speak, we all support each other.”
As inflation surpasses 8 per cent this summer, a new candour is emerging as more people speak openly about financial strain and sacrifice. Frank conversations about money are opening up a realm previously navigated alone.
Families are talking bluntly with friends about downsizing their vacation plans, postponing home improvement projects and selling the second car. Mothers are sharing couponing and other money-saving tips through parenting groups on Facebook. Through a popular Canadian personal finance forum on Reddit, hundreds shared their hacks for combatting the daily creep of inflation. Many talked about forgoing takeout and food delivery apps. Some spoke about eating less meat and having drinks in the park, not the pub. Some recommended doing laundry and running the A/C during off-peak hours. Several had cancelled streaming subscriptions, while others gave up manicures, pedicures and hair colouring. As one user summed up the new frugality: “Use it up, wear it out and go without.”
For many Canadians, this round of inflation has brought with it a personal reckoning on money, security and stability. The moment is serving as an epiphany about living beyond their means, competing for a reality no one could afford in the first place. Financial experts hope this time will lead to a reset – not only more honest, empathetic and literate conversations about finances, but a fundamental shift in our relationship with money.
“This offers a reality check,” said Sam Maglio, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management.
“When people who were otherwise spending themselves into debt hear others now having frank conversations about couponing or carpooling, it changes their calculus.”
Prof. Maglio said he believes this moment will begin to alleviate shame around financial stress, just as the pandemic lifted some of the stigma around mental health: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with a version of, ‘It’s okay to not be okay,’ for financial health.”
More than half of Canadians said they feel outpaced by the daily cost of living and would be unable to cover an unexpected expense of $1,000, according to a February survey from Angus Reid. Late last year, families owed $1.86 for every $1 of their disposable income, a record high according to Statistics Canada. In February, households held some $80-billion in credit card debt, up nearly 9 per cent from 2021, according to the agency.
Hit worst of all have been lower-income families: Already struggling, they’re grappling with steeply rising rents and a widening income gap, with pandemic benefits expiring late last year. Across the country, food banks have seen demand skyrocket as Canadians try to cope with the heightened cost of food.
“Lower-income people don’t have the luxury of not talking about finances because it’s top-of-mind constantly in a burdensome way,” Prof. Maglio said. “Now, issues of finances and budgeting are becoming more all-consuming for a larger percentage of the population.”
In her office and in her personal life, Winnipeg financial psychologist and family wealth consultant Moira Somers hears conversations about money changing.
“People are becoming more conscious of the flow of money in and out of their lives,” said Dr. Somers, who hopes this moment will compel more Canadians to live with fewer presumptions and secrecy around money.
“We often assume that if people are living in middle or upper-middle class neighbourhoods, they don’t have money problems. We need to realize we have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors. We can see trappings but we don’t know the financial reality of people’s lives,” she said.
“If this puts an end to some of our crazy ambivalent, conflicted relationships around money, yay us. I’m just not sure I’d colour myself quite so optimistic. We tend to drift over time but life has a way of giving us short, sharp tugs on our chain every once in a while.”
Kelly-Ann Robertson was stunned by a recent bill for a modest pile of groceries, including bananas, spinach, broccoli, a bag of flour, steel-cut oats, olive oil and peanut butter.
The 34-year-old administration manager in Toronto snapped a photo and shared it with her moms’ group on Facebook: “$100 of food at Loblaws everyone,” she wrote, closing with a weeping emoji. The post yielded much discussion online, with friends acknowledging they were feeling the squeeze.
The instability of this moment has given her pause.
“Inflation is an easy buzzword everybody’s throwing around but so much of this has more to do with corporate greed, supply chain issues and global conflict,” Ms. Robertson said. “I have a deep sense of worry that this is just a piece of a bigger Jenga tower that’s about to come down. This is just the beginning and I don’t think people realize that.”
Amid all the new commiseration about money, Dr. Somers urges people to try to move beyond anxiety to helping each other out.
“It’s about saying: ‘Is there anything I can do to help? … Do you want to go in on a Costco order? Or split up some bulk items? Do you want to cook meals for the week together some Sunday afternoons?’ These are strategies that help to build relationships and community.”
The women who meet for free, virtual financial empowerment sessions offered through the Women’s Centre of York Region share tips on minimizing their daily costs, from couponing and taking public transit instead of the family car, to forgoing coffee out. The six-week sessions help women grow more economically independent; topics include budgeting, debt management, saving and investing.
“When they hear others’ stories, they understand they’re not the only one having this struggle,” said facilitator Rabiya Sheikh. “They feel less ashamed.”
Part of the collective shame around debt stems from not learning about money while growing up, according to Ellyce Fulmore, a financial educator in Calgary.
“With a lot of my clients they have this idea that they should just know what to do with their money,” she said. “Everyone carries this shame of not knowing. They think everyone else knows so they don’t want to admit that they don’t.”
Ms. Fulmore would like to see more sincerity about financial realities always: “We need to normalize talking more about money in every sense and not just when we’re in crisis.”
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