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How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life in Toronto?
Hello, and welcome to interview #26 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.
*FIRE stands for financial independence, retire early. It’s also known as FI—financial independence. For more info, see my FI School series—it’ll teach you everything you need to know about FI (and FIRE).
About the interview series
I created an intro page for this interview series to help explain what it’s about, what’s included (or not) and why. I’ll also link to all the interviews from the intro page—so check back there to see the entire collection.
Jump to the series intro: How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life? (The Interview Series)
Interview #26: Veronica in Toronto, Ontario
In today’s interview, we’ll meet Veronica from Toronto, Ontario—Canada’s largest city (and one of its most expensive). As with many of my other guests, Veronica shows it’s very much possible to live frugally, comfortably, and happily in pricey areas.
Veronica is also another of my non-blogger interviewees. (My others were Ana, Carrie, Nadia, Ryan, and Syun.) I love featuring ‘regular’ people in this series because it proves to FIRE naysayers that it’s not just FIRE bloggers who reach FIRE. 😏
About Veronica’s interview
Veronica’s situation is unique, which meant my usual interview format didn’t fit her story. We emailed back and forth a few times, then realized: why not break the mold for her interview? So that’s what we did!
However, I should clarify: when I say “we,” I actually mean Veronica. She gets all the credit for reworking the interview. She spent a lot of time on it, and I love what she did. I hope you enjoy learning about her FIRE life over the last five years. (I know I did!)
One year of FIRE interviews! 🥳
It’s fitting that Veronica’s interview is unlike any of my others. That’s because it marks one year of my How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life series. That’s right—I’ve published these amazing interviews every other week for an entire year.
As I publish Veronica’s interview, I’m at the end of my long queue… and I’m ready for a break! It’s been so much fun, but that was a lot of interviews—it’s time for a slower pace.
Don’t worry, this series isn’t going anywhere! I have lots of partially-completed interviews waiting in the wings—I’m excited to publish them as they come in (maybe once a month or so).
Celebrating one year of interviews 🎉
To celebrate the one-year milestone for this series, I wrote a post to compile all the data from my first 26 interviews! Numbers nerds will love the sortable tables, travel fans will love revisiting the 24 cities my guests were from, and FIRE fans will love the observations and insights I’ve collected into one post.
I hope you enjoy this numbers-filled recap! I’d love to hear from you if there were any observations or insights I missed—let me know in the comments section of the post: One Year of FIRE Life Interviews: Numbers, Observations, and Insights
Thank you, interviewees, for sharing your stories and numbers. And thank you, readers, for following along and engaging with the series.
Part 1: Getting to know you
Tell us about yourself
My name is Veronica. I’m in my 50’s, no partner, no children, born and raised in Toronto and back here again, thanks to the pandemic.
Where are you in your journey to FIRE?
I became a Woman of Independent Means® (now doesn’t that sound SO much classier than FIRE’d?) in March of 2018. I started DIY investing in 2016. No, I didn’t win the lottery. Here’s what happened.
When I graduated from university and got my first full-time job, I did the Responsible Adult® thing and signed up with a financial planner. Upon his advice, I made monthly contributions to various mutual funds. After a number of years I became seriously discouraged. Despite making regular contributions, the pile didn’t seem to be growing. The whole thing felt like a pyramid scheme, with everyone making money except me. So I ghosted my financial planner, stopped the monthly contributions (but left the portfolio untouched) and started to let my paycheques pile up in my bank account.
In 2015 I stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache’s blog. After spending months reading every post, I finally put on my big girl pants, opened an online brokerage account, took a deep breath, moved all my money into index funds, and projected that I could retire in 2023. Not bad, eh?
In 2017, while reading a blog post on calculating net worth, I had an “Aha” moment. I’m of the opinion that your residence and your portfolio are two separate things and don’t mix. Houses/residences are for living in. Portfolios are for living off of. However, the blog post got me thinking that if I “re-balanced” and had a less expensive house and a bigger portfolio I could quit my job Right. This. Minute.
And so my 8 year runway to reach FIRE shrank to 8 months.
What type of FIRE are you aiming for? (FIRE, Lean FIRE, or Fat FIRE*)
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.
However, I prefer looser definitions that are not based on hard numbers. That’s because $100k could be Fat FIRE in a small Canadian town but Lean FIRE in San Francisco. That said, here are my definitions:
- 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.
Given that my decision to leave full-time employment was rather impulsive, I would say I’m FIRE without a plan?
My drawdown strategy is $40,000 or 4% of my portfolio, whichever is less, taken out once per year in December to cover expenses for the following calendar year (It’s a tax thing). In reality, I have only withdrawn $25,000 per year so far, and that’s been enough.
Tell us about your living situation
My living situation since becoming a Woman of Independent MeansTM has been a bit chaotic. In the fall of 2018 I moved to central Spain for the remainder of that year. In 2019, I lived in Spain except for the summer months for which I had returned to Canada. The start of 2020 found me back in Spain, but I had purchased my ticket to return to Toronto for the summer and had made plans to move to the south of France starting in September 2020.
However, Covid had other plans for me. I abruptly (72 hours lead time) left Spain in May 2020 and made my way back to Toronto. The plans for France (and future plans for the Northwest Territories) were completely nuked.
Why did you choose to live in Toronto?
It had always been my plan to return to Canada full time when I grew tired of being a nomad. Covid accelerated that plan by two years.
In the summertime, there is no part of Canada that I would not consider living in. But in the winter…… I’m not into long, cold winters, so that eliminates large swaths of the country. The other criteria was public transit.
I looked at several smaller cities, because the real estate prices were much more reasonable, but some of these places had public transit systems that packed it in at 7pm. Like seriously??!!! So that left the three major centres: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal. Toronto was closest to more of my Canadian and American family members, so Toronto won.
Part 2: The expenses
To say that my living circumstances have been a bit chaotic in the last few years would be an understatement. Rather than trying to present typical costs per category, I thought I’d present my overall living costs from 2017 to 2021.
Interestingly, despite the chaos, my annual spend remained in the same ballpark each year, but the categories where it got spent differed depending on the circumstances. Note that the annual spending amounts that I have listed are for everything (travel, donations, gifts, athletic fees, etc.), not just for the categories that Chrissy tracks.
2017—Working towards FIRE in Toronto ($24,350)
What the year looked like
In 2017 I was living solo in a semi-detached house, which I owned mortgage-free, in the inner suburbs of Toronto. I worked full time. I got around town on my bicycle (7 months) or public transit (5 months). In short, I was blissfully working my way towards retiring in 2023, right up until my “aha” moment.
Top five spending categories
1. Property taxes—$3,800
3. Travel—$2,620 (included a trip to the south of France to attend a friend’s wedding.)
4. Eating out—$1,575 (mostly going out for beer and wings after playing hockey.)
5. Transit—$805 (I bought a monthly transit pass for the 5 months I find it impractical to cycle.)
2018—FIRE in Spain ($28,275)
What the year looked like
I was laser focused on quitting my job. This required me to sell my house (it sounds so simple when I type out the sentence, but believe me it was a gut wrenching process that could be a stand alone blog post!). Although I was not due to move to Spain until September, for tax purposes I resigned from my job in March, and used the months before my departure to sell the house myself.
Top five spending categories
1. Property Guys—$4520 (I chose to use a service to help me sell my house because I wanted it to be listed on MLS. I chose a high end package because it came with features that I wanted help with including an appraisal, assistance with contract negotiation and legal services.
The price seems steep but when you factor in that it includes the lawyer’s fees, it’s actually reasonable. My experience selling with the help of Property Guys is a blog post in itself but in summary, your experience—and the value you get from using them—will depend on the person assigned as your contact/support person. At least, that was my experience).
2. Property taxes—$3,600 (The property closed in October so I only had to pay ¾ of the annual property taxes.)
4. Dental work—$1,800 (Step 1 of a multi-step implant process.)
5. Rent—$1,465 (Obviously this was paid in €, but I’ve converted it to $Cdn to keep everything equal. This included a temporary stay in an AirBnb before I found a room in a shared apartment to rent in Spain.)
2019—Nomad life ($18,705)
What the year looked like
I spent 9 months living in central Spain, returning to Canada for the summer months. In Spain, I lived in a shared apartment with two others. For June, July, August I did a combination of pet sitting, visiting family and some couch surfing at friends’ houses to fill in the gap between pet sitting gigs.
While this kept my costs down, I found the process of constantly moving to be gruelling. I was quite looking forward to returning to Spain and staying in one place for more than a fortnight. Sharing an apartment while in Spain also made my housing costs inexpensive (about 200 € per month, not including utilities), but moving in with strangers is not for everyone.
When travelling around Spain, I tried to land a pet sitting gig in the city I wanted to visit so that I wouldn’t have to pay for accommodation. It worked some of the time. For the rest, I rented AirBnBs. While I managed to live very cheaply in 2019, it was not a sustainable lifestyle for me and I wouldn’t do it again like this.
Top five spending categories
1. Storage locker—$3,860 (I divested a lot of my possessions but as I knew that I would return to Canada some day, and that I would need to re-furnish a place at that time, I rented an 8×10 storage locker for the things that I wanted to keep. While I questioned the wisdom of paying to hang on to these items, boy was I glad I did, given the circumstances of my return!)
2. Travel—$3,045 (This included airfare to and from Canada for the summer months as well as travel around Spain during the year.)
3. Rent—$2,930 (Note that in Spain rent does not include utilities, which can get hefty, if you insist on heating the apartment in the winter.)
4. Groceries—$2,540 (Shopping for groceries when I was constantly moving in the summer months was a challenge, especially if you’re moving places by bicycle, like I was. I was paying a premium for purchasing small quantities or meal kits. But it was healthier than constantly getting takeout/eating out.)
5. Meals out—$1,040 (Split almost evenly between Spain and Canada. I went out a lot more often in Spain, but the prices were much cheaper there.)
2020—COVID and returning to Toronto ($24,325)
What the year looked like
Oh boy, did my plans ever go sideways! The plan had been to stay in Spain until the end of May, spend June, July and August in Canada applying for a visa for France, and moving to the south of France in September. But, you know, COVID.
Initially, I was going to stick to my plan of returning to Canada in June, given that I had cheap accommodation and health care in Spain (and neither in Canada). But the situation became so dire I was worried that there would be no return flights. So I abruptly left Spain (and that is another entire blog post on its own!)
This is where I realized just how rich I am, when various friends stepped forward and worked out a plan for me to safely quarantine and to stay in afterwards. Like the TV advertisement says—Priceless. I did contribute to my friends’ households both financially and with sweat equity, but I was still paying well below market rates.
I rented an AirBnB for the last quarter of the year and I was extremely lucky to purchase a place that closed December 1st, just as the AirBnB rental was winding up.
Top five spending categories
1. Rent—$8,720 (This included the rent I paid in Spain, the money I paid to friends that were sheltering me, as well as the AirBnB I rented for 3.5 months. Like I said above, my friends were sheltering me for well below market rates.)
2. Storage locker—$3,745
4. Travel—$1,790 (Buying a one-way plane ticket last minute is expensive.)
5. Donations—$1,515 (This is about average for my annual charitable giving but my other expenses were so low that it made the top five list in 2020.)
2021—Home ownership (again) in Toronto ($26,275)
What the year looked like
So here I am, back in Toronto. I purchased a 2 bedroom flat in a walkup, co-op building in midtown Toronto. It was a cash deal so there’s no mortgage. The neighbourhood is very walkable with great transit options and a brand spanking new bike lane on Yonge Street, so that I can continue with my cycling/transit way of life.
Top five spending categories
1. Maintenance fee—$8,827 (At first glance this seems high, but it includes property taxes, heat, water, garbage/recycling, lawn service/snow shovelling, cleaning and maintenance of common areas, yearly window washing, parking, use of laundry facilities plus a contribution to the reserve fund for major maintenance work. Basically the only items I pay for beyond the maintenance fee are electricity and internet.)
2. Groceries—$3,410 (The higher amount here is partially due to having to restock a pantry and partially because food prices have gone up. I’m hoping I can reduce this amount going forward.)
3. Repairs/renovations—$2,269 (The flat was move-in ready. The only changes I made this year were painting interior walls, the addition of a bedroom ceiling fan including the electrical for the ceiling fixture, and having retractable screens installed on the two balcony doors.)
4. Donations—$2,232 (There are a lot of people hurting during this pandemic so I tried to be more generous this year. This is an area that I really struggle with—giving money away—when I worked so hard and sacrificed some to accumulate it. But my oxygen mask is now firmly in place so it’s time for me to learn how to be generous and help others.)
5. Sports/Activities—$1,854 (Lock down restrictions were finally lifted so I splurged on a tennis membership, hockey league fees and a curling membership.)
Part 3: Veronica’s final thoughts
Toronto doesn’t have to be expensive
Most people think of Toronto as a high cost of living area. That’s true if you have to borrow money to buy real estate. But if you’re not carrying a mortgage, the cost of living in Toronto can be quite reasonable. It also helps if you’re willing to think outside the box. In my case, I was able to purchase an apartment at a 20–25% discount by targeting co-op buildings. There are drawbacks to living in a co-op so it’s not for everyone, but it works really well for me.
Find free or low-cost activities
Toronto is also cited as an expensive city to entertain yourself in. Again true, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The city offers many opportunities for activities/experiences that are free or low cost (at least, they were before COVID shut everything down). For example, my annual pass to the Art Gallery of Ontario sets me back $35. If you’re under 25, you can get an annual pass to the AGO for free. I’m hopeful that the street festivals/concerts, outdoor movie screenings, live theatre in the park, outdoor pools, outdoor ice rinks, etc. all return to normal again some day soon.
If you’re willing to avoid car ownership, it makes living in Toronto even more economical. Avoiding car ownership does not mean never driving a car—there’s car sharing companies for use in the city and car rental companies for when you do need one to get away. But generally speaking, a car is more of a hindrance than a help in an urban setting. And public transit just keeps getting better. They’ve made transit family friendly by letting children under the age of 12 years old ride for free. I’m also stoked that there is now a public bus service from Toronto to Algonquin Park so that I can entertain the idea of going wilderness camping again, sans car.
It takes a bit of creativity, but it is absolutely possible to live frugally in a high cost of living city like Toronto.
Final words of advice
My final words of advice for future FIRE-ees:
When I was planning my FIRE number, I deliberately set it higher than what my actual annual spending was at the time. My reasoning was that working full time prevented me from doing things simply because I didn’t have the time to fit them in. Some of those things were low cost (e.g. volunteering) while others were not (more/longer trips). On this point I was spot on—once the pandemic fizzles out, I anticipate spending more than I did pre-FIRE.
However, when I was planning my FIRE number, I did not do a good job of accounting for taxes. In theory, because my income is low, I thought I wouldn’t be paying taxes. But I am. And this cuts into the amount I have available to spend. So, now that my life, and expenses, will be a bit more predictable (I can only hope!), I’ll turn my attention to what is happening with my taxes. But don’t make my mistake—get a good grip on your taxes so it doesn’t bite you after you’ve FIRE’d!
Part 4: Chrissy’s takeaways
Thanks again to Veronica for taking the time to detail and share her story and numbers. I’m really missing travel right now, so I very much enjoyed living vicariously through Veronica’s story!
As I mentioned in the intro, I love how her interview turned out. It was eye-opening to see Veronica’s expenses from multiple years, in a variety of living arrangements and locations. She shared some great takeaways in her final thoughts, but I’ll also share some of my own:
Optimizations can yield life-changing results
By ‘rebalancing’ into a smaller home and more stock market investments, Veronica’s “8 year runway to reach FIRE shrank to 8 months”! She didn’t need to earn more money or cut her spending—all she had to do was optimize what she already had. How amazing is that?
Take a look at your own financial picture: recurring expenses, investments, investment fees, taxes, etc. Are there any optimizations you can implement? Think outside the box (like Veronica did)—that’s often where you’ll get the most bang for your buck!
Get creative to save on housing
While Toronto is one of Canada’s priciest cities, Veronica’s kept her housing costs low by getting creative. She started by downsizing her home in Toronto (which helped her reach FIRE early). Next, she economized in Spain by living with roommates.
After that, Veronica went one step further by doing pet sitting to access free accommodations! Finally, when she returned to Toronto and became a homeowner again, she purchased an apartment in a co-op. This was an unconventional decision, but it sure paid off.
If unaffordable housing’s got you down, fight back by getting creative like Veronica. Consider solutions like hosting international homestay students, living outside the city, or moving in with family or friends. You don’t have to use these tactics forever, but every month you choose to, you’ll significantly shrink your housing costs.
Personal versus general rate of inflation
Except for 2021, Veronica’s annual grocery spending was astoundingly consistent (and shockingly low). With inflation on the rise, it’s a good time to share an important point here: your personal rate of inflation is different from the general rate of inflation.
My family’s grocery spending is another example of this. Since 2015, our grocery costs have not only not inflated, but they’ve actually gone down or stayed the same. This is due to various reasons: us getting better at economizing, hosting fewer homestay students, and intermittent fasting.
While Veronica and my family’s grocery costs won’t remain stable forever, our experiences show it’s possible to keep an expense steady for a long time. Keep this in mind when inflation news sends you into a panic: rising prices don’t have to lead to higher spending.
Chrissy’s closing thoughts
I’m so glad that Veronica found a way to share her story and numbers with us. She’s demonstrated beautifully how thinking outside the box can translate into incredible things (like shrinking your FIRE journey from 8 years down to 8 months)!
As my husband and I begin our post-FIRE lives, I’m more motivated than ever to continue making unconventional choices as Veronica has. It’ll not only help sustain our nest egg but also keep our minds engaged and active. Thank you for the inspiration, Veronica, and congrats on all your financial success.
Share your thoughts
Were you surprised by how consistent (and low) Veronica’s spending has been—no matter her living situation? Share your thoughts in the comments, along with your own money-saving tips!
Join the series!
I’d love for everyone to participate—whether you’re a blogger or not! The more FIRE seekers I can interview, the more useful the series will be. If you’re interested, I have three simple requirements:
- You’re at or pursuing FIRE (or FI).
- You track your expenses relatively accurately.
- You’re willing to share your expenses and money-saving tips.
Numbers nerds will love this post! In it, I review and analyze one year of How Much Does it Cost to Live the FIRE Life interviews with sortable tables, observations and insights, and Top 5 lists!
Kathrin lives in high-cost London, England, yet she keeps her expenses exceptionally low… and she’ll still reach FI in her 30s. Find out how in her interview!
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