Skip to main content
rob carrick

Between daycare costs and a bunch of other household expenses, Winnipeg high school teacher Cliff Dann's family is having the, um, stuffing squeezed out of it.

Mr. Dann used a shorter, earthier s-word in an e-mail to me in which he reflected on the advice given in the financial boot camp we ran online earlier this month. Spend less, and reduce debt, I told boot camp recruits. Sorry, there's no money for that, Mr. Dann replied.

"I've anguished over this for the past few days, wondering if maybe I'm just being a crier," the 42-year-old father of two young boys said in an interview. "But most people at least aspire to meet the same [living] standards that their parents met. It's hard to tell whether we're doing that."

It's easy to diagnose the flaws in the nation's financial health: We have too much debt and a low savings rate. Boot camp offered some practical, small-step actions people can take to cut spending and save more, but let's get real. Regardless of how they got to where they are, families like Mr. Dann's have minimal room to manoeuvre. They are the middle-class financial squeeze in action.

The Dann family's challenges will be familiar to all parents. To start with, Mr. Dann's wife, Sarah, took two maternity leaves. "We had our income cut significantly, but our expenses didn't change at all," he said. Net result: Some line of credit debt that the family is still cleaning up.

The job of righting the family's finances is complicated by two factors, one of them a monthly daycare bill of $1,100. The other is the priority that Mr. Dann and his wife place on saving in registered education savings plans to help their kids afford the cost of university or college. "I have a lot of confidence in our long-term financial stability," Mr. Dann said. "But right now, we can't save money for ourselves and also save money for our kids while we pay for daycare. It's just not possible to do that."

With a teacher's pension, Mr. Dann knows he's fortunate to have some of his retirement income needs looked after. However, his wife, Sarah, is an HR professional who lacks a pension and therefore must save for retirement. Right now, between daycare, RESPs, debt repayments and other costs, there's a shortage of money to do that. "We're running out of compound interest time," Mr. Dann observed.

What he means is that he and his wife are losing a chance to invest money today so that those savings can benefit from compound growth over the next couple of decades. They can certainly pick up the pace of retirement saving in their 50s – many people do. But putting money to work early and letting it compound is effortless wealth building.

Quite a few boot camp recruits talked about how hard it is to control their spending, whether on a day-to-day basis or on indulgences such as online shopping or restaurant meals and travel. Mr. Dann's family has already cut out a lot of that spending, though. "We don't really go out for dinner a lot," he said. "Maybe once a month, we order dinner in." Also, he's skipping the annual ski trip he's taken for years.

Mr. Dann recalls his parents, also teachers, having more balance in their finances. He's optimistic his own situation will improve, but only after he's able to save money on daycare and reallocate it to savings. He doesn't expect much near-term help from pay increases. His earnings as a teacher have plateaued and he expects only annual cost-of-living increases that lately have come in around 1.5 per cent.

Some things are going right for families like the Danns. Falling gasoline prices have helped cut costs, while mortgage rates have remained at low levels and don't seem likely to spike higher any time soon. Also, the federal government's newly enhanced universal child care benefit will help by increasing the monthly amount per child under 6 years of age to $160 from $100. This extra money will go right into RESPs for his boys, Mr. Dann said.

Still, he felt compelled to write that e-mail about being too squeezed to save more and reduce debt. "A lot of people know the right thing to do," he in our phone conversation. "They just can't do it in the circumstances they're in."