Pursuing FIRE in a High Cost of Living Area: One Couple’s Experience

I took the easier path, reaching FI living and retiring in relatively low cost of living areas in the upper midwest.

However, if you go just a little further north, say, a few kilometers into Canada, life can get a lot more expensive. Nevermind the unfavorable exchange rate. Have you seen real estate prices in places like Vancouver and Toronto? It’s insane!

Today’s Friday Feature from Eat Sleep Breathe FI takes a detailed look at the expenses of a couple working towards financial independence in one of these high cost of living areas north of the border. You’ll get a detailed breakdown of what they spend, what percentage they spend, and how soon they expect to meet their financial goals.

This interview originally appeared on eatsleepbreathefi.

 

fire high cost of living

 

How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life?

 

Hello, and welcome to interview #2 in the How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life interview series! Part interview, part spending report, this series will introduce us to FIRE seekers from all over the world.

They’ll reveal their essential spending and money-saving tips—all to help us learn new ways to save on our own expenses. As a bonus, we’ll also get to discover the unique advantages and challenges of living in different places around the globe.

 

Interview #2: Another Loonie near Vancouver

In today’s interview, we’ll meet AL from the blog Another Loonie. He lives the FIRE life in a suburb near Vancouver, BC with his wife. On his blog, AL writes about “some very saucy private information“: saving, investing, net worth updates, and more.

Another Loonie is still a new blog, but it’s quickly filling up with helpful, well-written content. I also appreciate the clean, simple design aesthetic of the blog. (As a picky graphic designer, this is really important to me!)

If you haven’t visited AL’s blog yet, be sure to do so… but not before you read his interview below!

 

 

Part 1: Getting to know you

 

 

Tell us about you and your wife

I’m a married, recent homeowner in beautiful British Columbia. My wife and I are both 29 years old. We currently have no dependents but are looking to build a family in the coming years. My favourite pastimes include entertaining family and friends, gardening, and the various projects I have going around the house!

My main hobby is learning and writing about personal finance. Last year I started my blog, Another Loonie, to share my financial journey and connect with like-minded Canadians.

 

Where are you in your journey to FIRE?

I would say that my wife and I are solidly on the path towards FIRE. We’ve always been somewhat frugal people and currently maintain an average savings rate of 45%. Based on our savings rate, I estimate that we can comfortably retire in 19 years.

As DIY investors, we focus on low-cost, dividend-paying ETFs to help us build our nest egg for early retirement. I share all of our financial journey candidly on our blog. Each month I post a new net worth update and detail how much we’re earning, saving, and investing. Our progress over the past year has been exceptional, and we’ve started 2021 with a combined net worth of $350k.

 

What type of FIRE are you aiming for? (FIRE, Lean FIRE, or Fat FIRE*)

*See the box below for Chrissy’s definitions for these FIRE categories.

My wife and I are aiming to be FI-lexible. Our short to medium-term plan is to take advantage of the progress we’ve made towards FIRE to work less once children enter the picture—at least for those first few years.

Our retirement goals are more in line with standard FIRE than Lean or Fat FIRE. In retirement, we’d like to have enough money to live comfortably and to also have a buffer for whatever life throws at us.

 

How Chrissy defines FIRE, Lean FIRE, and Fat FIRE

Some people define Lean FIRE as under $40k in annual spending; FIRE as $40–$100k in annual spending; and Fat FIRE as $100k+ in annual spending.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this! After all, $100k could be Fat FIRE in a small Canadian town but Lean FIRE in San Francisco. Instead, I define each category more loosely:

  • Lean FIRE: The essentials with little or no discretionary spending.
  • FIRE: The essentials plus a comfortable amount of discretionary spending.
  • Fat FIRE: The essentials plus a luxurious amount of discretionary spending.

 

Tell us about your living situation

After many years of renting, my wife and I bought our home in 2019. We live in a detached house in a suburb of Vancouver. Although we live in a high-cost-of-living area, it’s much cheaper than living in Vancouver proper.

Our home is average for our area, at around 2,000 square feet of living space. Since we’re used to living in an apartment, we find our home to be much larger than we currently need.

Living in the suburbs, we find it necessary to own a car and rarely walk to any of the ‘nearby’ stores in our area. However, public transit is accessible, and we often relied on it before COVID.

 

Why did you choose to live in your city (a suburb near Vancouver)?

The primary reason we chose to live in our city is that our family is here. We enjoy being just a short drive away from them and anticipate relying on them once we have children.

Another reason we chose our city is that it’s less expensive than Vancouver. Here, we can afford a detached house, whereas we would have to stretch just to afford a nice townhouse in Vancouver. We’ve always valued owning land over owning a piece of a condo tower or townhouse complex, so we prioritized owning a detached home.

 

Part 2: The expenses

 

In this section, AL shares his essential expenses and best money-saving tips. But before we get started, let’s review some important notes:

  • Only essential expenses are included.
  • Discretionary expenses  (e.g. travel, gifts, etc.) are not included.
  • Expenses are rounded to the nearest dollar.
  • Expenses are displayed in the interviewee’s home currency.
  • In this interview, the home currency is Canadian dollars.

 

For detailed explanations about which expenses are included (or not) as well as why I decided not to convert my interviewees’ expenses to CAD or USD, see my How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life intro post.

 

1. Housing

 

 

Mortgage ($2,717/month; $32,604/year)

We pay a little over $2,700 per month towards our mortgage. We bought our home with 20% down, and with rates as low as they are, we have no intention of paying it off early. Putting 20% down allowed us to avoid CMHC insurance and take advantage of a 30-year amortization.

 

Property tax ($248/month; $2,979/year)

Property tax in our municipality is quite affordable. When I account for grants, our property tax bill came to $2,979 for the year.

 

Strata/HOA fees ($0)

We are not a member of a strata or HOA.

 

Home insurance ($86/month; $1,026/year)

Our home insurance covers a whole plethora of crises, including water damage, fire, and earthquakes. We pay $86 per month for this coverage and only found such a good deal after shopping around extensively. We were quoted as high as $200 per month for the same coverage, so it pays to shop around!

 

Home maintenance ($274/month; $3,288/year)

Note: this category includes home maintenance, repairs, cleaning, and improvements; household goods and supplies; furniture, appliances, computers and mobile devices.

We spend $142 per month on home maintenance. Some months we spend zero, and other months we spend hundreds. It’s not that things are necessarily breaking. It’s just that our home didn’t come in mint condition, so there are various small projects I’ve undertaken to improve it. Some examples include patching drywall, painting, fixing broken appliances, and other small tasks.

On average, we spend $133 on home items. This includes furniture, appliances, kitchenware, decorations, and other items. Our spending in this category is much less than I anticipated when we first bought our home. We had planned to spend a lot more on furniture last year, but that was made more difficult when COVID struck.

 

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2. Transportation

 

 

Vehicle insurance ($172/month; $2,059/year)

We have collision insurance through ICBC and comprehensive insurance through BCCA. In total, we spend $172 per month on our coverage, which includes roadside assistance—and yes, I’ve used it!

 

Gas ($215/month; $2,580/year)

Before COVID, we typically spent $215 per month on gas. Currently, we spend $54 per month. This huge reduction is because both of our jobs have transitioned to working from home. And since we can no longer easily visit friends or family, we find ourselves driving much, much less than before.

Once COVID blows over, I expect our gas spending to return to our norm of $215 per month.

 

Vehicle maintenance ($20/month; $240/year)

Car maintenance is nonexistent these days. On average, we’re spending $20 per month. This is mainly for oil and filter changes, which I enjoy doing myself. Over time, we’ve been able to save a significant amount of money on car maintenance as I’ve become more experienced and acquired more tools.

 

Bike maintenance ($0)

 

Parking and tolls ($10/month; $120/year)

Before COVID, this cost us around $10 per month. It’s currently $0 because we haven’t visited downtown Vancouver since COVID started.

 

Transit ($177/month; $2,124/year)

Before COVID, my wife spent $177 per month to commute to her office. We’re working from home now, so we currently spend $0 per month on public transit. I’m not looking forward to seeing this expense reappear in our budget in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

3. Food

 

 

Groceries ($251/month; $3,012/year)

Our grocery bill varies, but the average over the past 12 months has been $251. My wife does all of our grocery shopping and saves us money by buying in bulk, shopping sales, and being strategic when meal planning.

Recently we’ve started having our groceries delivered, which is a service that many grocers have started to offer. We started using it this summer and haven’t looked back. It’s so much easier to shop for groceries online, and it saves time otherwise spent traveling to the store and browsing to find what you need.

 

Eating out ($185/month; $2,220/year)

Before COVID, we would regularly spend $185 or more on eating out every month. Most of this would be spent with friends or family, often at happy hour and always with a glass of beer or wine in hand.

These days, this budget item comes in at $143. We try to get a nice take-out meal from a local restaurant at least once a month. Other times we’re simply grabbing a treat from a nearby fast-food restaurant.

I expect our eating-out expenses to return to $185 per month once COVID is over.

 

4. Utilities and bills

 

 

Natural gas ($51/month; $612/year)

Our home has forced air natural gas heating, and although our furnace is old, it’s still an affordable way to heat your home. We spend $51 per month on this budget item, with the most expensive months being January and February, when we spend closer to $100.

Our home also has a natural gas water heater, which we find consumes a decent percentage of our monthly natural gas bill. We’re constantly using hot water for washing dishes and bathing. To save some money on our monthly bill, we recently switched to cold water laundry detergent.

 

Electricity ($51/month; $612/year)

Our average electricity bill is $102 every two months. Our most expensive bill comes in February as we tend to use our bedroom’s baseboard heating at night when it’s cold.

When moving into our home, I predicted we would need air conditioning in the summer, as the previous owner had two window-mount units installed. I found that by keeping our blinds closed and opening the windows on the north side of our house, we could keep the temperature inside relatively cool—even on the hottest days. By avoiding air conditioning, we’re able to keep our electricity bill low all summer.

 

Water, sewer, garbage and recycling ($29/month; $342/year)

Water and garbage services are provided by our municipality. Our home is water metered, so instead of paying a standard rate, we only pay for what we use. On average, this comes out to $29 per month.

We use a few strategies to avoid using too much water, including taking shorter showers and not overwatering our lawn and garden.

 

Internet ($50/month; $605/year)

We pride ourselves on paying as little as possible for internet services. Unfortunately, in our area, we only have a few providers to choose from. We settled on a plan with Telus, which offered $45 per month for 25 Mbps down and 25 Mbps up.

 

Home phone ($0)

We haven’t found it necessary to have a home phone, so we pay $0 for this service.

 

Cell phones ($78/month; $936/year)

My wife uses Virgin Mobile and pays $50 per month for a plan that included credit towards a new phone. I went with a BYOD phone with Public Mobile for $25 per month. Both of our plans come with all the regular features, plus unlimited Canada-wide minutes and 1 GB of data.

 

Streaming entertainment ($7/month; $84/year)

We average $7 per month on streaming services. Most of that is Netflix and Crave. We regularly cancel services as we finish watching the series we’re interested in. At the moment, we have Crave, and we expect to keep it for the next few months.

The majority of our streaming entertainment comes from YouTube, which we pay no monthly fee for.

 

5. Other essentials

 

 

Life and disability insurance ($0)

Both of our workplaces provide us with a small amount of life and disability insurance. For the time being, we haven’t invested the time into picking up additional insurance. Once we have dependents, we will start paying for life insurance policies and possibly also disability insurance.

 

More info on life insurance

 

 

Medical insurance ($0)

Both my wife and I have supplementary medical insurance with our employers. These policies cover prescriptions, dental, vision, physio and various other medical services.

My policy also covers some niche services like acupuncture and massage therapy up to a reasonable annual limit. My goal for 2020 was to use up all of my massage therapy dollars, but I bet you can expect how that goal turned out!

 

Out-of-pocket medical expenses ($0)

We’ve been fortunate to not have to pay for any out-of-pocket medical expenses over the past year. We find that our supplementary medical insurance with our employers tends to cover the vast majority of medical costs not covered by the Canadian health care system.

 

Clothing and footwear ($41/month; $492/year)

We spend $41 in an average month on clothing and footwear. My wife likes higher quality clothes but saves money by “shopping” on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. I’m always amazed by what she can find, as she regularly gets 60% to 70% off lightly used items from Aritzia and other popular stores.

My clothing needs are a little less demanding, and so I barely spend any money on clothes. I receive most of my clothes as gifts on Christmas or my birthday, so the amount I spend monthly on clothes ends up being small if anything at all.

 

 

Part 3: Adding it all up

 

Now that we’ve detailed all of AL’s essential expenses, it’s time to add everything up in some nice, organized tables!

Important notes about the numbers

  • Only essential expenses are included.
  • Discretionary expenses  (e.g. travel, gifts, etc.) are not included.
  • Expenses are rounded to the nearest dollar.
  • Expenses are displayed in the interviewee’s home currency.
  • In this interview, the home currency is Canadian dollars.

For detailed explanations about which expenses are included (or not) as well as why I decided not to convert my interviewees’ expenses to CAD or USD, see my How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life intro post.

 

How much does it cost to live the FIRE life in a suburb near Vancouver?

 

1. Housing

Expense Monthly (CAD) Annual (CAD)
Mortgage $2,717 $32,604
Property tax $248 $2,979
Strata/HOA fees $0 $0
Home insurance $86 $1,026
Maintenance $274 $3,288
TOTAL $3,325 (with mortgage)
$608 (no mortgage)
$39,897 (with mortgage)
$7,293 (no mortgage)

 

2. Transportation

Expense Monthly (CAD) Annual (CAD)
Vehicle insurance $172 $2,059
Gas $215 $2,580
Vehicle maintenance $20 $240
Bike maintenance $0 $0
Parking and tolls $10 $120
Transit $177 $2,124
TOTAL $594 $7,123

 

3. Food

Expense Monthly (CAD) Annual (CAD)
Groceries $251 $3,012
Eating out $185 $2,220
TOTAL $436 $5,232

 

4. Utilities and bills

Expense Monthly (CAD) Annual (CAD)
Natural gas $51 $612
Electricity $51 $612
Water and waste $29 $342
Internet $50 $605
Home phone $0 $0
Cell phones $78 $936
Streaming entertainment $7 $84
TOTAL $266 $3,191

 

5. Other essentials

Expense Monthly (CAD) Annual (CAD)
Life and disability insurance $0 $0
Medical insurance $0 $0
Out-of-pocket medical expenses $0 $0
Clothing and footwear $41 $492
TOTAL $41 $492

 

Grand totals

Expense Monthly (CAD) Annual (CAD)
Housing $3,325 (with mortgage)
$608 (no mortgage)
$39,897 (with mortgage)
$7,293 (no mortgage)
Transportation $594 $7,123
Food $436 $5,232
Utilities and bills $266 $3,191
Other essentials $41 $492
TOTAL $4,661 (with mortgage)
$1,944 (no mortgage)
$55,935 (with mortgage)
$23,331 (no mortgage)

 

Important notes about the numbers (one more time)

  • Only essential expenses are included.
  • Discretionary expenses  (e.g. travel, gifts, etc.) are not included.
  • Expenses are rounded to the nearest dollar.
  • Expenses are displayed in the interviewee’s home currency.
  • In this interview, the home currency is Canadian dollars.

For detailed explanations about which expenses are included (or not) as well as why I decided not to convert my interviewees’ expenses to CAD or USD, see my How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life intro post.

Part 4: Other expenses

 

This is a special section that’s just for fun! It’s the place for my interviewees to mention any expenses that they’ve done a really good job of optimizing and/or just want to share.

These expenses won’t be included in the totals (just to keep things as standardized as possible). I hope you find this section interesting and informative!

Here are a couple that AL wanted to share:

 

Gifts

A significant expense for us not accounted for here is gifts. We both have large families, and so someone is having a birthday almost every month. If we include gifts for each other, we spend on average $394 per month on gifts in one form or another. This includes birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and etc. These special occasions really add up!

 

Car payment

Another significant expense for us is our car payment. I bought a new car 6 years ago and am still paying it off. The monthly payment is $260 a month, which isn’t especially large, but it makes a difference regardless. In my defense, the loan’s interest rate is 1% annually, and the car is still running great!

 

Chrissy’s closing thoughts

 

Many thanks to AL for taking the time to share his essential expenses and money-saving tips! I’m so impressed with his incredibly low spending—WOW. It just goes to show how thoughtful optimization can go a very long way, even in a high-cost-of-living area.

Notable for me is AL’s grocery spending. Even though they’re only two people, $251 per month for groceries is still very low. (AL—I think a post about this on Another Loonie is in order!) Clearly, AL and his wife know how to optimize their essentials.

I’m also surprised by how low his property tax bill is. I think it was a very wise financial decision to live further out for the lower purchase prices and lower taxes. This single decision easily shaved years off of AL’s journey to FIRE!

Congrats on all your financial success, AL! I look forward to continuing to follow your financial journey on your blog.

Note: Special thanks to AL for being one of the first guinea pigs interviewees for this series! He patiently humored me as I worked through some of the initial glitches. Thanks again, AL!

 



 

Do you live in a HCOL area? If so, how has it impacted your journey to FIRE? Is it worth it? 

6 thoughts on “Pursuing FIRE in a High Cost of Living Area: One Couple’s Experience”

  1. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
    • Hi Jason. Thanks for checking out my interview! Here’s a few things that make our grocery bill smaller than average:

      – We love to shop sales and buy in bulk when possible.
      – We tend to eat less meat (max once per day) and more eggs, lentils, and other protein replacements.
      – We’re both on the smaller side (around average heights but skinny – it makes a difference!)
      – We live close to our parents, and they tend to treat us to dinner once per week most weeks.

      However, we’re not really even trying to save money on groceries. Around $250 is just what it ends up being.

      Reply
  2. Thanks Guys for putting this together, it gives a great insight on the expenses and lifestyle. Groceries and restaurants for is (family of four) averages $1200 here in GTA, your seems pretty decent. 😊

    Reply
  3. The food costs is definitely quite impressive! I feel like food is my Achille’s heel and while I can definitely go very lean on the food via pure groceries for a while…I don’t think I could do that forever.

    Depending on where I live (and especially if it’s Vancouver where they have really good Chinese food), I feel like I’d spend quite a bit on the weekends going out.

    Reply

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