June 9, 2014

By Margaret H. Johsnon

Stephanie Williams and Cel Rince, a young couple living in Vancouver, have enjoyed recent internet fame due to the interest in their early retirement plan and their tips for living a frugal (but high quality) lifestyle.  What’s unique about this couple is that they live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada in an affluent area, and yet they still manage to make ends meet and more.

Recently Stephanie and Cel updated their blog, www.incomingassets.com, with a detailed three-month budget, which you can find below. Let’s see a rundown of their lifestyle to see how they make this happen!

Approximate combined income, after taxes, according to The Province article: $54,000

Housing: $2243, rent for a one bedroom apartment, 600 square feet with balcony and pet friendly, in a housing co-op in Gastown (including insurance)

Cable/Internet/Cell Phones: $243 (two cell phones + internet; no cable)

Food: $449 (had $200 worth of grocery gift cards from signing up for a credit card; usually eats a low-meat diet)  

Hobbies: $0

Electronics: $50

Clothing: $31

Personal Care: $327 (buying clippers to do haircuts at home)

Entertainment: $341 (shows, eating out)

Transportation: $110 (bike parts, transit; usually walks or bikes to all destinations)

Anthony: $55 (their cat)

Other: $110

Total expenses over three months:  $3959

One point to consider: both Stephanie and Cel live close to their places of work, so they can walk or cycle to their jobs. Therefore, they avoid auto insurance and gas expenses, as well as car repair costs.

Their housings costs have been challenged by many online commenters who are familiar with Vancouver’s expensive housing market (as The Province’s article lists their rent as $732/month); the couple maintain that their rent price and location as a viable option for many in the lower mainland. They defend their placement in the co-op housing which many people believe is reserved as affordable housing for people with low incomes. From all appearances, it seems that co-ops work on a sliding scale (http://www.chf.bc.ca/what-co-op-housing/living-co-op-housing), and the couple argue that for their building there is a minimum income required for their unit.

I found that some of the figures and quotes in The Province didn’t quite match what the couple listed on their blog (for example, in The Province the article and comments maintained that the couple rarely eats out and gets discounted symphony tickets for $15; however, this doesn’t appear to be reflected in their current budget for entertainment).  It is important to remember that budgets are fluid and dependent on many factors; however, I would have assumed that there would have been more continuity for such frugal individuals. 

There are some categories that I cannot locate in their budget breakdown – medical expenses such as Medical Services Plan (British Columbia’s public medical insurance) or extended medical insurance, dental expenses (cleanings, major dental work), gifts for major holidays or celebrations, and charitable donations are just some of the categories that I can’t seem to place. I have so many questions for them – is their medical insurance (MSP and extended) as well as dental costs covered by their employer? Do they make gifts by hand? What expenses are included in their ‘Other’ category? 

One of my questions was answered by reading through The Province comments section: the couple have dental insurance through work (at least one partner does). Because this couple is proud of their accomplishments and frequently posts their updated budgets and expenses online, one would assume that they would be transparent about their basic costs of living.

However, it seems that, at least from a somewhat in depth look, they aren’t being upfront about specific costs (for example, Cel commented in regards to medical expenses that “[m]edical is not a problem, we live in Canada” – as if this somehow explains how he pays for his medical costs. The province that the couple resides in, B.C., charges a medical premium based on a sliding scale; sometimes, the premium is covered by the citizen’s employer).  To me, the lack of information is a red flag – if this couple are open to discussing their lifestyle, then they should be able to address basic questions about their budget without being prompted.

While I do admire their tenacity at reviewing and analyzing their budget, sticking to a plan, and committing to their futures in such a dedicated manner, I, like so many others, have doubts as to whether their plan works for the ‘average’ family in the lower mainland and across Canada. The young couple, who do not intend to have a family or buy a home, are somewhat unique in that regard. They maintain that their proximity to their job from their home was not ‘luck,’ it was the result of fastidious planning - of course, I wouldn’t negate this. However, the fact that they live within walking/biking distances from their jobs certainly allows them to save on time and money, and it is not an option for every couple. Many people cannot afford to live in the downtown core, and therefore, they must commute to their jobs if they work in downtown Vancouver. I would say that this couple is indeed lucky in this respect. 

However, it isn’t just their low income housing, paid medical expenses, and a non-existent commute that make this couple unique. The loftiest of their goals is to retire in their 30s – basically a decade away.  The Province article mentions that the couple plans on retiring on passive income (investments). So, what do they plan to do with their 50+ years of retirement?

The answer: travelling (which they current spend $7500 on per year), enjoying the natural beauty of the lower mainland, and taking in cheap but high quality entertainment. However, what happens if/when their funds run out, and they’re in their 60s or 70s? You probably guessed it – you and I will be footing the bill for that one, in the form of social assistance. Interestingly, The Province article never brought up such a scenario, or the fact that our lives can change in an instant in ways that we could never have predicted (we can get sick, lose our jobs, be evicted, etc).  What is their safety net?

Because there are so many un-relatable variables in this story, perhaps the greatest lesson to take away from Stephanie and Cel’s lifestyle choices is that we can all design our lives to our advantage.  It takes time, patience, willpower, and forethought. What do you think of Stephanie and Cel’s plans? Do you think that their lifestyle choices would work for you and your family?

Let us know we would love to hear from you!

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