You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.
ROB: You would your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. It’s okay. It’s going to be hard but you got this. That’s what we’re here for. Welcome to Stress Test, a Globe and Mail podcast where we look at how the pandemic has changed the rules of personal finance for Gen Z and Millennials. I’m Rob Carrick, personal finance columnist at the Globe and Mail.
ROMA: And I’m Roma Luciw, personal finance editor at the Globe. We’ve seen recessions, stock market crashes, red-hot housing markets, and sky-high household debt, but we’ve never seen anything like the coronavirus.
ROB: Yep, a pandemic was not on my list of things to watch out for. With COVID it was clear this would be the worst financial setback since the Great Depression. COVID is changing the way we do almost everything.
ROMA: Including how we recorded this podcast. Initially, I had envisioned us recording in a studio, beautiful quiet space with a nice, big, fluffy mic in front of my face. Instead, I have rigged up a set-up in my son’s bedroom, so there is a 10-year-old’s map hanging behind me and a clothing rack with a towel so that the sound quality stays nice and pristine.
ROB: I’m also talking under a blanket and speaking not into a fancy microphone but into my everyday cell phone.
ROMA: Seems super-fancy, Rob! Did you ever think you’d be recording a podcast on your phone?
ROB: No and I never thought I’d be sitting in my home office stuck under a blanket, either.
ROMA: When we started talking about the podcast, the original idea came up before COVID. And so the idea was sort of a return to basics for how to help young people set up their finances in a way that would help them. There is a gap in the kind of information that exists out there that’s specifically geared towards people of this age and in this demographic, and we’ve tried to fill that with some of our coverage at the Globe. When coronavirus came, it seemed like a really good opportunity to bring things fundamentally back to the basics because what COVID did was provide, in some cases, their first major test of how you have set up your finances and why you need to take these steps in order to prevent, you know, further debt, to prevent hardship. These are the kinds of steps you need to take to make sure that you’re set up for these kinds of things that will happen in the future, maybe not COVID again, but in some way, shape or form. And that’s where the discussion led to. And I think that we both saw this as really an opportunity to bring this conversation back to fundamentals. What do you think, Rob?
ROB: I think we’ve talked about certain things over and over and over again, like emergency funds and planning for the ups and downs of life. I don’t know if we were listened to. It takes an emergency like this to get people to snap to attention. Bad times are a great time to help people make a better future with smarter money decisions.
ROMA: It seemed like for our first episode, which we both agreed, I think all of us, our whole team agreed, should be on the gig economy. The gig economy is not a new story. It’s been around for some time, but in a lot of ways we haven’t really been talking about it, as you know, at the forefront of the kind of things that we’re covering. And so here’s a good opportunity to speak out directly to people that are employed in the gig economy because they would be one of the first ones that were impacted by the huge job losses we’ve seen because of COVID.
ROB: The people in the gig economy are also probably the most ignored group in the world of personal finance. But it’s a whole other ecosystem of personal finance. It’s ignored. And, as you were saying, they’re sort of at the front end of the economy when it falls into an emergency like the pandemic and they were hit hardest, and I think they need attention the fastest. Now, if it wasn’t going to be a pandemic, it was inevitable that something would stress test your finances at some point, because life isn’t predictable. The job of this podcast is to make sure you’re ready for the next time. So welcome to Stress Test. Episode One is all about the gig economy.
ROMA: Let’s define gig economy. That’s up next.
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ROMA: So Rob, we hear a lot of talk about the gig economy. What exactly is a gig worker?
ROB: A gig worker is someone who works a temporary job that will likely end at some point. It is a six-month contract or one-year contract where the contract is over. The company’s obligation to you is over and you must find work elsewhere. You know, I sometimes think the term gig economy was invented by an ad agency trying to cover up for the fact that gig work is also known as temporary and precarious work. Temporary means the job comes to and end and you may not have another job lined up. That means you’ve got a bridge time when you’re not getting paid till the next job appears.
ROMA: We had a jobs report that came out a few weeks ago. It’s showed that in a two-month span the Canadian economy has lost around 3 million jobs, a disproportionate number of those jobs that have been lost have been by young people, lower-income, non-unionized workers. So these are the people that are vulnerable. And that really is the issue with being employed in the gig economy is that you’re lacking that safety net. Are there specific steps that people can take to set themselves up?
ROB: Yeah. And I think we should be clear about what people aren’t getting when they’re reading the gig economy. No health benefits, that can be worth a few thousand dollars a year if you’ve got kids or you’ve got medical issues, and you’re not getting a pension. So you’ve got to save for retirement. On top of that, you likely aren’t collecting unemployment insurance if you’ve lost your job. So it’s on you to save, the cover off all those bases, the health benefits, the pension, the bridging in case you need funds while you’re between jobs, you’ve got to save for that yourself. And basically it all comes down to one of the most basic aspects of personal finance - the emergency fund.
ROMA: So I feel like over the years, the emergency fund has turned into something that is sort of this quaint, outdated idea. Everyone thinks that you should have an emergency fund when you’re talking about best practice. But in reality, most people don’t have one. They either rely on a line of credit or they start putting things on their credit card. So the emergency fund is a back-to-basics move in order for people to be able to cover things like rent, like groceries, like their bills at a time when they could be laid off.
ROB: The emergency fund is now the most important aspect of personal finance going forward probably for the next 12 to 24 months, you must be able to cover your expenses for a period of time. They say three to six months is optimum. Let’s start with one to two, and work out from there. But you must have this cushion because things are very uncertain. As we recover from the pandemic, we may see a very slow ramping up with some tenuous uncertain times ahead and having money in the bank, ready to cover yourself in case of emergencies, that is going to be one of the true marks of financial success. But it can be tough to save an emergency fund when your work is so tenuous.
ROMA: Not to mention that there’s not a lot of advice out there in terms of how to structure your finances when you’re going into a gig economy. A 2016 StatsCan report pegged the number of gig economy workers at between 8% to 10%. I don’t see that figure getting smaller. In fact, it could increase. What do you think, Rob?
ROB: I think that understates it quite significantly, especially for Millennials. You talk to a large group of millennials or Gen Z graduates, and you ask them how many of you are landing full-time jobs and how many of you are landing gig type jobs and a big percentage are in the gig situation. They aspire to get the full-time jobs, but it’s harder to crack that nut now. Most companies say yes, we’d like to have you in but just for six months, just for 12 months.
ROMA: And I think the big change that we’re seeing is that when I graduated, you know, there was this idea that you could maybe have a gig job for a little while but that eventually it would turn into a permanent full time job. Now I think one of the things we’re seeing is that gig economy is extended. And so you’re seeing people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, working in this gig economy.
ROB: You know, one thing we have to remember about the gig economy is that it suits the corporate agenda very well. It allows them to travel light, they’re not burdened by a lot of overhead. And if they need to trim the workforce, because of lean times, they could do it quite easily. I don’t see any turnaround in this at all, we are going to see more gig workers.
ROMA: And so it makes it more important than ever to set up your finances properly. From the beginning. The idea is not to cause panic. If you’re working in the gig economy, there are concrete things you can do to set yourself up for success. In every episode of Stress Test, we’ll be hearing from people who are generous enough to share what’s been happening in their lives. We wanted to talk to real people who would tell their stories because frankly, we were all just kind of blindsided when life changed, seemingly overnight. We don’t know what things would be like on the other side of COVID, but it can be nice to dream about the things we’ll get to do again.
PATRICIA: I am so excited to go for a swim.
ROMA: This is Patricia. She’s 24 and lives in Winnipeg.
PATRICIA: The bathtub, come on, it’s not the same.
ROMA: One day Patricia would love to be a diplomat, maybe work for Global Affairs Canada. She started preparing for that in university.
PATRICIA: So I did a four year in human rights and a three year in political science.
ROMA: She also traveled Europe and landed several high profile internships.
PATRICIA: I went to Botswana, I did an internship with a non-governmental organization out there. In addition to that, I moved to New York for a few months to pursue another internship at the United Nations, which was such an incredible experience. It was a phenomenal opportunity.
ROMA: Interning at the UN is quite an opportunity. But New York…
PATRICIA: It’s expensive. It is very expensive, especially when I was there, the Canadian dollar was at an all-time low.
ROMA: Debt began to rack up. Patricia needed to go home and find a job. She arrived back in Winnipeg just over a year ago and looked for a serving gig at a restaurant.
PATRICIA: So I came home in mid-March, and I couldn’t find any sort of job. I was applying, you know, I applied to Tim Hortons. And let me preface that with saying that I had already worked at Tim Hortons for two years, a few years ago, and I couldn’t get a job anywhere. And then I finally got a job at end of April.
ROMA: She began serving at a high end steakhouse.
PATRICIA: And then I worked throughout the summer, and then I started school again in the fall. So I made like $9,000.
ROMA: $9,000 isn’t bad for a summer of waiting tables before heading back to school, which is what Patricia did in the fall, and she was in school until December. Then it was back to the restaurant to make money and pay down that debt. But we all know what happened to the restaurant industry in March.
NEWS CLIP [CTV WINNIPEG]: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more and more businesses and Winnipeg have been closing their doors, that physical distancing measures have made it challenging for people who work in the restaurant industry. Manitobans continue their efforts to flatten the curve of COVID-19. That means they’re not eating out. They’re staying in.
PATRICIA: I am laid off from my job due to COVID-19. It was just kind of, I went to work on a Monday and Monday night, I got a phone call. Hi, by the way, we’re closing today, don’t come to work tomorrow. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. You know, what’s going to happen? Like, do I have enough savings? Do I have any savings? I don’t know what’s gonna happen. When will I go back to work? Will I be able to make my payments that I have? Can I even afford my cell phone anymore? You know, just like so many things. If you didn’t have a security blanket… We’re coming out of school and we’re trying to do our best but in a way I feel like we’re also kind of getting set up for failure. Because they’re like, Okay, great. Thank you so much for going to school, here’s a little bit of work experience. However, you can’t get paid for your work experience. It’s sometimes just so disheartening to know that you put in so much time and so much effort. And then at the end of the day, it’s like, okay, thank you so much. And that’s it. I mean, but also you’re signing up for these things, knowing that there is nothing guaranteed at the end of the day. So do I know this? Is it my fault? Or should there be some sort of change to the system, the fact that we are allowing this for young people?
ROMA: It’s a good question. And it’s exactly what we’re talking about today. That question of the gig economy. How did we end up with the “system,” as Patricia called it? We’ll be explaining that in just a minute. But what about Patricia? What is she looking for in a perfect job?
PATRICIA: The first thing that came to my mind is mentorship. Some sort of mentorship or partnership is absolutely essential.
ROMA: And what about job stability? Or pension? benefits?
PATRICIA: Is it bad to say that I feel like I’m so accustomed to not having them that that wouldn’t be like, I mean, I would love to have that. And that would be ideal in a perfect world. But I’m not holding my breath for those things. I don’t know necessarily how those things work, because I’ve never actually had them, so. At times also it can feel like you’re walking on eggshells, because you know that you’re easily replaceable. Because at the end of the day, that’s kind of what you are.
ROB: We recorded with Patricia in April. That month, 2 million Canadians reported losing their income. In just two months, the total official number of jobs lost to COVID was 3 million. It’s devastating. We know what life has been like since COVID came along, but let’s get a bigger picture. How do we find ourselves with this gig economy? That’s up next.
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ROB: We first got onto the story of the gig economy about 10 years ago after the last recession. Imagine graduating from college and university and only landing temporary jobs that lasted a few months or a year. You know that opportunities for full-time work with benefits and pensions are still out there. But that kind of stability seems out of reach. Whether or not you call it the gig economy, what we’re talking about is precarious or temporary work. Previous generations moved into full-time career-building jobs, and today’s young adults are getting their jobs doled out six months at a time.
ROMA: We saw this precariousness in action when the economy tanked in the pandemic. Gig workers were in a more vulnerable spot, because they may not have qualified for government benefits. Who knew when the next gig would come along? How would they pay their rent, would their savings last, would debt overwhelm them? What we’ve learned about the gig economy is that it takes a special type of personal finance to survive. You have to prepare for tough times ahead.
ROB: Earlier we heard from Patricia in Winnipeg. Now we’re turning to Kathryn Mandelcorn in Vancouver. She’s a financial planner with Spring Financial Planning and she works with people so they can manage their money better. So I would like you to please start by explaining to me what is meant by the term “gig economy.”
KATHRYN: How I see the gig economy is really as self-employed contractors. And gig economy is, you know, working in different for different employers, on contract. It may not be full time, it might be part time, there may be several gigs that one is doing. Photographers, they’re in the event industry. Some are working in restaurants along with some other jobs. Some of them are designers, graphic designers who are working contracts, it’s a very varied group.
ROB: Do you find that they are working 52 weeks a year or do they have gaps where they’re between engagements?
KATHRYN: I find there’s definitely gaps and I think that’s the nature of wanting to work in that type of field is that they can have the flexibility to do what they love to do and take the time off.
ROB: So that’s the positive side of pausing between gigs but do you find some of them are like, I don’t have work this month. I’m on the search for more. Like, are there sort of like, drop-outs in work that are involuntary?
KATHYRN: Definitely. And I think every person I’ve talked to over the years, says, Well, my business is different because it’s very unpredictable, which I find is the same across the board. When you are a self-employed contractor, you’re working for yourself. You never really know where that next job is coming from unless you have a long-term contract.
ROB: What kinds of things do the gig economy clients not have that the clients who have full time jobs have? What benefits and perks make them more financially comfortable?
KATHRYN: Well, they don’t have often they don’t have benefits, there’s no pension, there’s no RRSP matching program. And not to say that, you know, regular employers have all those benefits, but they’re definitely not present as a gig economy worker.
ROB: Talk to me a bit about the impact of not having the health benefits.
KATHRYN: People aren’t putting savings away for those types of expenses. I may not get sick or I may not get injured or I’m not thinking about the dentist. And then when those expenses come up, they can cause a lot of worry and stress because they’re often a lump sum expense. It’s often the income from their gigs or coming into their personal account and their expenses are going out of there. And so the first step is really treating that income as a separate business. It doesn’t have to have a business account. It doesn’t have to be incorporated, but looking at your work as a separate entity.
ROB: So let’s talk about what you do to help them through those periods that we’ve talked about where they don’t have work. You’re talking to a gig worker, or you’re doing a financial plan for them, and you want to help them bridge those gaps that full time employees don’t have, what do you do? How do you build it into the plan?
KATHRYN: Before we even determine what income you need to earn, we need to see okay, well what does it cost for you to live so at least then there’s a starting point to know how much you need to earn. What are all those expenses, all the fixed bills, the variable, month to month and then also the variable year to year. What are some of those expenses that often get left out, when people think of their budgets or their expenses? And then from there we look at their business income, which is their gig income, to say, Okay, well, how much revenue do you anticipate earning really conservatively? And we’re also looking at other expenses. There may not be a lot of overhead, but there may be some costs and they may feel minimal, but yet they’re still costs. And taxes. Taxes are a big one. So I ensure that they’re putting money aside for taxes first before they pay themselves a regular monthly income.
ROB: Okay, interesting. You pick the taxman is the number one obligation that you have to be ready for. Because of the pandemic, I’m thinking about emergencies where work is not available where, it could be an economic disaster could be a recession, it could be just something going on in a person’s own particular niche and the gig world, where there’s just no work available. I call it the emergency fund. What do you call it in your business?
KATHRYN: I do call it an emergency fund, but it’s less of filling the emergency fund first because there’s often not extra money to fill the emergency fund. And it feels like yeah, that should be the priority. But the way I structured cash flow plans is that I’m considering a lot of the expenses that they may not have that would be considered an emergency. Like if you own a car, car repairs should not be an emergency. There are definitely emergencies where you may not have income, but I build that into their cash flow plan. So when we’re looking at the forecast of what they’re going to earn over the year, we’re looking at it very conservatively. So I want them to pay themselves a fixed monthly income to themselves personally, taking into consideration any potential gaps or drops in income. Now, we couldn’t always plan for, you know, a global pandemic or you know, anything of that magnitude. And so having an emergency savings is definitely important, but it’s often secondary.
ROB: Help me understand how it all fits together. You want the person to be able to pay for their everyday lives and obviously not incur debt, while putting away a little bit for emergencies. How do you carve off a little bit of money here and there, pay your fees in the everyday, but also build up that emergency fund for for who knows what?
KATHRYN: It’s really comes down to choice. Money is a tool and we can choose how we use it. It’s really about learning how to choose how you want to allocate, which is a different perspective than reacting right day to day to how you’re going to then oh, okay, I’ve got this. I’m going to create my budget for the month and then figure it out next month. What I like to do is look at it from year over year, so that it really becomes about choice. Six months is a really great safety net. I often find people have not even got close to that the prospect of saving six months can often be daunting as well. But when you start to see how you can build that up and what measures you can put in place with a plan then it becomes a lot less scary.
ROB: And you’ve got to be able to like meet all your daily expenses, live your life, do fun things and save enough to have three to six months. So what would you consider a minimum amount that’s still useful to people.
KATHRYN: So it’s still useful. So when I think of it in this scenario with somebody who’s self employed, and they’re paying themselves a set monthly income, I like them to work towards having I call it you know, capital and operating capital. They don’t have to be incorporated to have this operating capital. But it’s essentially like a float in their business account. You know, they can start by having one month, great if they can build two to get to three, three is ideal. So that you have three months to you know, pivot, come up with new ideas. It takes time to build that, it can take off in a year or two to even get close to it.
ROB: I want to ask you a logistical question. This float, this emergency fund, whatever you want to call it, where do you keep it so that if you can’t actually use it for the day to day, so it’s always intact? And safe for those emergencies in the future?
KATHRYN: Yeah, that’s a great question because when I build cash flow plans, it is a system of accounts. Free Online savings accounts. Almost every bank and credit union in Canada offers free online e-savings types accounts that you can transfer between accounts with no charge. You can also nickname them at almost all institutions. So putting it into a separate account and nicknaming it allows you to see that visual and have that money set aside. And so you’re really creating a purpose for every dollar. But it does take time and giving yourself a bit of releasing the pressure and saying, Okay, what is important to me, what are my values and really coming back to designing your life and it may feel like it’s really stressful at the moment, but if we’re chasing money and being able to make more money to pay for the expenses, then we’re really falling into this trap of scarcity. What we want to look at, and I’m probably repeating myself, but using money as a tool and allowing that to support the things that we want to do and the expenses we need to pay. And it’s really a shift in mindset. And we can do that at any time under the most stressful circumstances. But you may need some support around that too.
ROB: Thanks, Kathryn. We’ve learned a lot from speaking with you about the gig economy and temporary precarious work. Here are my takeaways, the three things you need to remember when it comes to working the gig economy. One: Expect not to be working from time to time. It’s unlikely all your contracts will be back to back. There will be periods of unemployment most likely. Two: Emergencies do happen and the pandemic is a great example of this. This is why you need an emergency fund. Three: Keep your emergency fund in a high rate savings account and have enough money to last at least three months and preferably six months.
ROMA: What we’ve learned about the gig economy is that it takes a special type of personal finance to survive. You have to prepare for tough times ahead.
ROB: Okay, that was our first episode, what I hope is that a young Canadian will be a gig worker, and they will be between gigs and they will say, I’m just gonna use my emergency fund, no sweat,
ROMA: Money is such a cause of stress. And there are things that you can do to not have that be the case. So that would be my hope that they would be able to take these steps and help themselves.
ROB: You know, we were thinking about the people putting this podcast together. We realized a few of them are actually gig economy workers themselves. There’s Hannah Sung the producer. Hannah, What’s it like being a gig worker these days?
HANNAH: The first time that I was in the “gig economy,” it was not by choice. I would much rather have had a staff job. Right now, I feel fine. I feel very lucky. But it was a huge stressor when I was younger, for sure. And I didn’t get my first staff, full time job until I was 35 years old, which I think is too bad because it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
ROB: You know, I’ve really found gig workers to be among the most resourceful people out there for personal finances. They need to be nimble and I find that they often are and they get by. We’re coming to the end of our first episode of Stress Test and I’d like to thank everyone on our team. This show was produced by Hannah Sung. Editing and mixing by TK Matunda. Our executive producer is Kiran Rana.
ROMA: Thank you to CTV News in Winnipeg for the news clip. If you like what you heard, let the world know about it. Leave us a rating and a review at Apple Podcasts. If you know someone who needs this advice, send them the show. Tell them to subscribe to Stress Test at Apple Podcasts Google Play, Spotify, or their favorite podcast app.
ROB: You can find us at the globeandmail.com where I write several columns a week and a newsletter.
ROMA: And I’m the person behind the scenes helping shape our coverage of all things financial. Thanks for listening everyone.