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Household Finances Meet the mortgage-free 30-year-old whose frugality riled the Internet

Sean Cooper paid off his entire mortgage in just over three years by working multiple jobs, living in his basement to earn rental income from an upstairs tenant, and riding a bicycle to work.

Kerry K. Taylor/photo by kerry k. taylor The Globe and Mail

When Sean Cooper paid off his mortgage, he pissed off a lot of people.

You'd think paying down a $255,000 debt in just over three years would bring major kudos from a crowd. But in Mr. Cooper's case, the single 30-year-old pension analyst, who moonlit as both a financial writer and a grocery clerk to own his $425,000 bungalow, incited a flurry of fury.

The reason is obvious – people don't want to own their homes, and paying a mortgage for decades is fun?

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It's true, buying real estate in Canada is a touchy subject. A recent survey by Manulife Bank of Canada found that 38 per cent of Canadian homeowners feel that housing is unaffordable and that rising real estate prices have made paying bills a struggle.

No one would have known of Mr. Cooper's financial feat, but when the media-savvy freelance writer invited the CBC to his mortgage burning party, his story ignited a firestorm of comments and social media activity.

The issue wasn't so much that he revealed his thrifty and frugal ways to the public. The problem was people hated how he lived.

I guess working multiple jobs, eating a vegetarian diet with a strong focus on Kraft Dinner, living in the basement to earn rental income from an upstairs tenant, riding a bicycle to work, and being a single dude are all terrible lifestyle choices. I can see why he doesn't want me to share his home's location – he might get marketing mail from Kraft Canada, thanking him for his support.

As a fellow thrifty financial writer I couldn't help but devour the words from Mr. Cooper's harshest critics – mostly because I, too, live below my means and no one seems to care. Maybe I should eat more Mac & Cheese.

Anyways, on the CBC's Facebook page, Parker Johnston writes: "Upstanding citizen works his life away, lives in miserable squalor and forgoes human relationships for years. How is this an inspirational story?"

Musketeersplus2, who may have been more congratulatory to a single frugal female, writes: "Yet another privileged white man bragging about how he 'did it on his own.' But did anyone notice how big his down payment was? Or the fact that he has a $75k+ full-time job?"

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"The guy should be the Finance Minister for Ontario," writes RandyVale.

And commenter AprilC, who sums up lingering questions nicely, writes: "Where was he able to get a down payment while still in his twenties? Did he inherit the money? Was he still living with his mother rent-free?"

Because the readers are sometimes right, I needed to meet the guy who managed to piss off thousands with nothing but a penchant for cheap pasta and a frugal sense of fiscal responsibility. I wanted to know if he lived in "miserable squalor," was interested in working a fourth job as the Finance Minister of Ontario, and most importantly, if he was still single. I have friends who can cook.

So off I went to the house at the centre of the controversy – a house a Millennial man bought. Two subways and one bus later I arrived at his mortgage-free abode, close to transit and near a beach in Toronto.

A quiet, slender fellow dressed in a tightly buttoned shirt and sporting white runners, Mr. Cooper didn't seem the type to spark an angry financial debate. Since I don't know what that type is, we did what cheap money writers do for fun – snapped an awkward "mortgage-free and lovin' it" selfie, and went below ground to his basement apartment.

While glancing around his impeccably clean suite, I asked Mr. Cooper the question his critics wanted answered most: How did a kid fresh out of school come up with a $170,000 house down payment?

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"I didn't get inheritance and I paid for university all myself, so I certainly wasn't given a free ride by my parents," he said. "My mother was a single mother, and I paid her $600 a month in rent when I was living in her basement."

I was hoping for a salacious answer, something to really rile the readers – like he ran an underground ring selling photocopied textbooks, or something. But all I got from Mr. Cooper was his long list of student jobs, and his beliefs in time management and studying hard. Saving more than he spent and working over socializing were also the keys to growing his downpayment nest egg and paying off his mortgage quickly.

So far the readers were mostly wrong about Mr. Cooper. So I got nosey and I asked if sacrificing his social life in school was worth it.

"I definitely regret that," he said. "Paying off my house this quickly, I realized I made a mistake working 80 to 100 hours some weeks. I'd rather I paid it off in five to six years and had spent more time socializing with people."

These days, a mortgage-free Mr. Cooper is living his life a little bit fuller. He still eats pasta, but he's quit working at the supermarket – a job he held for 10-and-a-half-years – and joined a gym, Toastmaster's, and an improv group for fun.

He's also looking for love, and hopes to meet someone via the personals ad he posted on his freelance writing blog.

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As a mortgage-free guy looking for a single frugal girl, he's hoping to meet someone a little like himself – hardworking and cost conscious.

I've got no clue what happens if the "single frugal girl" he meets owns her own home. I just hope she likes Kraft Dinner.


Kerry K. Taylor is a personal finance and consumer expert, the author of 397 Ways To Save Money and the lone blogger at Squawkfox.com.

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