three children play in a sparsely decorated living room


A Family Can Barely Survive on Pasta and $20,000 a year — I Know, Because We Were That Family

Jan 31, 2020

In 2012, I was living in a one-bedroom basement apartment with my husband Daniel and our infant daughter Penny.

Daniel was working as an intern at a nearby church, earning a measly $20,000 annually, while I stayed home because we couldn’t afford daycare.

We were a young family living below the poverty line, and making ends meet felt impossible most days.

Our apartment didn’t have a bedroom for our daughter, but we made a tiny space for her in an oversized closet. I decorated her “room” with dollar store wall decals and placed a tiny rug on the floor.

I often made pasta for dinner with inexpensive tomato sauce. We used cloth diapers and bought Penny's clothes at garage sales, and we visited the library for free activities and entertainment. It was a simpler time in our lives, and what we lacked in finances we made up for in love — but it wasn’t a lifestyle that I could have lived, and loved, with any longevity.

There were nights when my stomach grumbled in hunger because we didn’t have enough money to feed ourselves nutritiously.

"We were a young family living below the poverty line, and making ends meet felt impossible most days."

At the time I didn’t realize that we were experiencing food insecurity, because we always had food in the cupboard, and would eventually have enough money to pick up fresh groceries. But we were often unable to access affordable and nutritious food, and we were always waiting for payday to go to the grocery store — the very definition of food insecurity.

When our financial situation became dire, my husband started hunting for a new job. Luckily he found a great opportunity in a new city, and we packed up our family and moved to Guelph, Ontario. Over the next few years we added two more children to the mix, and our family battled the stress of financial challenges and mounting debt.

While my husband was earning more than his internship role, we still lived below the poverty line and struggled to feed, clothe and house a family of five. No matter what we cut, or how savvy I was with our finances, we rarely had enough to cover our expenses.

I finally decided that there was nothing left to eliminate. It was time to increase our income. In 2015, I started my own business as a freelance writer and worked while my kids napped. Within a few months we noticed a difference in our finances, but it took years of building up my business and paying off old debts to finally feel relief and a sense of security.

According to StatsCan, in the City of Guelph the median household income was around $81,000 annually in 2015. This is the first year that our family will earn within that median range, and the change in our income has brought a new sense of hope and dignity to our lives. With my husband working a new job, and my business earning a decent income, we can now afford new clothes and shoes, healthy and nutritious meals, and even a few extras like a weekend vacation, or fancy date night out.

Even with a median household income, we have to forego many things we’d like to have. We’re still a one-car family, we aren’t in a position to afford travel right now, our kids can’t participate in expensive extracurriculars or sports — but we no longer feel like we’re crushed by the weight of debt and the impossibility of a low income.

Trying to get your finances in order? Read about all the ways this mother spends less here

As a middle income family, we don’t feel chained to a budget, and an emergency expense isn’t enough to undo our finances. We feel privileged and lucky, because we managed to increase our income. Because it was truly the only answer for us, if we wanted to live with more dignity and accessing some of our basic needs.

Many Canadians continue to struggle, and it’s not because they aren’t trying, or don’t know how to manage their finances.

Trading our stringent budget for a lifestyle that allows for a bit of freedom has allowed us to experience a better quality of life, and I’ll be forever grateful. Our family worked hard to increase our income, and it paid off — but for many Canadians, hard work isn’t enough.

Article Author Brianna Bell
Brianna Bell

Read more from Brianna here.

Brianna Bell is a writer and journalist based in Guelph, Ontario. She has written for many online and print publications, including Scary Mommy, The Penny Hoarder, and The Globe and Mail.

Brianna's budget-savvy ways have attracted media attention and led to newspaper coverage in The Globe and Mail and The Guelph Mercury.

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