How three GTA families are rebalancing their budgets to survive the pandemic

The pandemic is giving everyone’s financial management skills a run for their money. Grocery bills have soared, spending habits have gone wonky and incomes have dropped — sometimes drastically.

We asked three households about the challenges and what their financial reset looks like 10 weeks into the COVID crisis.

Vanessa and Marcais Bowen

She didn’t know it then, but more than a decade ago Vanessa Bowen was preparing for the pandemic. Living beyond her means with no budget and no savings, the newly minted chartered professional accountant overhauled her personal finances.

So in March, when the now-married Mississauga resident and her husband Marcais returned from a Florida vacation to a two-week quarantine and big drop in income, they were ready.

The couple resolved “to cut everything” they could, says Bowen, listing the biggies on their monthly chopping list: eating out, “a huge one” at $ 260; gas, down about $ 400; her $ 160-a-month gym membership; personal purchases, hair and nail services, another $ 200. The cuts totalled more than $ 1,000.

“We’ve adjusted our budget and money master plan,” explains Bowen, a money coach for women who founded her company Mint Worthy in 2017. “We’re trying hard not to touch our savings or emergency fund, just in case.”

She banks her earnings from online coaching and Zoom meetings with clients and they live off Marcais’s earnings. He’s an insurance broker and construction worker whose reduced hours have cut his monthly income by an average of 30 per cent.

Apart from their condo mortgage and a small credit card debt, the biggest bite out of their budget is food.

“We’ve gotten used to cooking and eating at home more,” says Bowen, calculating they spend $ 800 a month on groceries.

She credits the pandemic for “shifting our mindset about needs versus wants” and reinforcing the importance of Sunday night “money dates” to review finances.

A weekly check-in allows you to be proactive and shift spending as necessary, advises Bowen, who also encourages building an emergency fund for times like this.

Hodgkinson family

Outdoor excursions have replaced paid programs such as swimming classes for three-year-old Zach Hodgkinson, taken on a recent hike in High Park by his parents Phill and Jen.

Jen Hodgkinson says her family of three is spending less on food, thanks to “controlled” shopping every week or 10 days instead of her usual almost daily grocery shopping habit. But the savings are offset by “ice cream bribes” for three-year-old Zach, she laughs, tallying Haagen-Dazs treats at $ 20 to $ 30 a week.

More seriously, the Toronto fitness consultant, Pilates instructor and personal trainer is trying to quell the “slight panic” about rebuilding her income now that she’s working only seven hours a week with clients online.

Her husband, Phill, works full-time in IT and web development, and she’s receiving the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which is being stashed away, but their household income has dropped by a third, Hodgkinson says.

Their dryer just broke — $ 1,000 for a new one — and they emptied their savings to buy a car last September. Still, the self-described “pretty good” money managers are lucky, she says. “We don’t have a ton of debt.”

They no longer have to pay for “expensive child care” and, without daily drives to see clients, she’s saving up to $ 150 a month on gas and $ 300 on lunches and coffee.

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While the pandemic has driven home “how quickly I can become a zero earner,” it’s also shown that paid programs for Zach such as swimming classes aren’t necessary.

“Maybe we can just go hiking instead because he loves poking at frogs and walking through the bush to see what he can find.”

Another takeaway: “We’re seeing how we could have been better at saving before this happened.”

Jayapal family

Grocery bills have soared to about $ 850 a month for Scarborough's Gokul Jayapal and his family, wife Keerthi and children Nikil, Neha and Nishaseen, seen on a family vacation in Newfoundland last year.

Gokul Jayapal prides himself on smart money management. The average $ 100 per month that he’s been putting away for more than 10 years has helped prevent a financial calamity. .

“We’re managing. I’m fortunate … no financial crisis so far,” says the Scarborough resident, who supports his family of five by trading and investing in stocks.

While his income has plummeted 50 to 60 per cent, they’ve been able to live off savings, supplemented by his reduced earnings and the CERB.

His portfolio has dropped $ 100,000 in value, “but it’s a paper loss, just a market blip.” Still, Jayapal says he needs the dividends “to start filling back up” soon.

Meanwhile, the family has cut expenses by subscribing to Amazon Prime for $ 8 a month in place of $ 70 cable TV, and taking “zero trips” in the car now that the kids no longer have dance, swimming and basketball classes. Jayapal also cut $ 20 a month from his long-distance phone plan.

The family got a $ 1,000 budget boost from sign-up bonuses months ago when Jayapal applied for travel credit cards for their now cancelled summer plans.

Their food bill, however, has almost doubled to $ 850 a month, he says, adding that “we spend a lot of time cooking.”

He firmly believes in creating a budget and making a habit of saving whatever amount you can afford “for a rainy day.”

After surviving the financial crisis of 2008, he’s philosophical about this one. “I keep my hopes always high, even in times like this.”

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