With inflation at an all-time high, Montreal’s Elisa Martinez – like many people across Canada – finds herself in a situation she never thought she would be in.
“I’m usually good at handling my money,” said Martinez, who didn’t reveal what she does for a living but noted that she gets a six-figure salary.
But she recently found out that she is struggling to make ends meet.
“I find it embarrassing, in fact, because I am a professional. I get paid well,” she said in a recent interview. “Unfortunately, COVID has hit us hard.”
During the pandemic, Martinez’s husband was forced to close the family business he ran with his elderly father, making her the sole breadwinner.
“I’m responsible for the mortgage, the insurance, the car payment, all the utilities—everything,” she said. “I’m really trying to save money and it’s hard. It’s all on my back.”
After that, Martinez found out that she was pregnant.
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After the birth of her son, nearly a year and a half ago, Martinez went on maternity leave. It only returned to work in September 2021.
“So, I don’t have savings now,” she said.
But only in February did Martinez begin to notice that things weren’t doubling down.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m having a hard time paying my credit card bill,'” she said, adding that in the past she’s always been able to make her payments in full and on time.
“The reason I noticed this, is because I suddenly got worried about this.”
And while Martinez continues to manage, it’s no easy feat.
A change in family finances, along with rising food costs, means cutting back and adopting new habits.
“We have to reconsider everything now,” she said.
Martinez explained that they cut red meat out of their diet, even though her husband is a “meat and potatoes” guy.
“He has to eat a lot of dried beans now, and I’m soaking them,” Martinez said, adding that they eat more tofu and vegetarian meals.
When they buy poultry or meat, it’s about finding better deals.
“I’ve been buying like chicken breasts and this and that,” she said. “But now we buy the whole chicken and cut it ourselves and that actually saves us a lot of money.”
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It also means giving up the “little luxuries” like a latte in the morning and trips to the bookstore. Instead, the self-proclaimed worm is looking for free activities, such as borrowing books from the library and lots of outings to the park for its young child.
“The only thing I pay for my son is swimming lessons and daycare, basically.”
In an effort to save more money, Martinez has changed not only what you buy but how you shop as well.
On Wednesdays, she goes through the grocery store’s weekly flyers to do her meal planning.
“My meals are basically planned with what’s on offer,” she said.
However, this process is time consuming and requires shopping at multiple stores.
For other non-food items, like her son’s clothes, Martinez tries to buy second-hand stuff.
The family has considered moving and switching to tenants, but in the end, the decision didn’t make financial sense amid the city’s housing crisis.
““There is no way we can move to another place,” Martinez said. “I think the rents are going to be as exorbitant as my mortgage,”
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Inflation rises to a 30-year high
Since February, when Martinez first began to feel the pain of exorbitant costs, the situation has worsened across the country.
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The latest data, released by Statistics Canada on May 18, shows inflation hit a 30-year high in April.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) – which looks at the average change in prices for goods and services that consumers buy in Canada – increased 6.8 percent from a year ago. The last time it was higher was in January 1991, when the annual rate was 6.9 percent.
In its monthly report, Statistics Canada explained that food and shelter prices, were the driving forces behind the increase.
Basically, Canadians spent more money on almost everything they bought from the grocery store, compared to April 2021.
Prices of fresh fruit jumped 10 percent, meat 10.1 percent, while starchy foods such as bread (up 12.2 percent), pasta (up 19.6 percent) and grain products (up 13.9 percent) saw the highest increases.
Even coffee drinkers were spared, with a cup of coffee costing 13.7 percent more than last year,
In terms of housing, shelter costs were up 7.4 percent year over year.
Statistics Canada said higher prices for fuel oil and other energy sources used to heat homes are behind the increase. Meanwhile, rental prices in April increased by 4.5 percent compared to the same month in 2021.
Gas prices, which rose significantly in March, rose at a slower pace in April. However, consumers were still paying 36.3 percent more for gasoline this year, compared to last year.
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While April saw record lows regarding unemployment, Statistics Canada says strong unemployment numbers tend to push prices higher.
“In April, average hourly wages for employees rose 3.3 percent year over year, which means that, on average, prices have risen faster than wages, and Canadians have seen a decline in purchasing power,” the CPI report said. .
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Faced with the rising cost of living and diminishing purchasing power, many in the city are turning to organizations like Sun Youth for help.
The registered charitable and nonprofit organization operates community sports and leisure programs and also provides several emergency assistance programs for low-income and other vulnerable people across the island.
One of the most important programs run by the Food Bank.
At any time of the year, except for Christmas when needs are greatest, the food bank helps about 2,000 families a month. Of those, roughly 300 to 400 are first-time users, according to Eric Kingsley, director of emergency services at Sun Youth.
Kingsley said there has been a slight increase in demand for the food bank in recent months – but that wasn’t necessarily a surprise.
What was even more shocking was “Who”.
In the past year, the number of households using the service, whose main source of income comes from work, jumped from eight to 16 percent.
“It was a huge leap for us, said Kingsley. “And it’s kind of scary for us to see – that people who work can’t buy groceries.”
As recalled by a recent client, someone who had not opened a file with the organization in the past, and who needed money to buy gas.
“They were only getting paid the following Monday,” he said.
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Kingsley said there are many situations where people don’t have enough protection to absorb the increases they encounter.
“So it translates to not buying what they need to buy groceries.”
In general, to access the services of the Sun Youth Food Bank, a single person needs to have an annual income of less than $17,000 per year, while the minimum for a family of four is around $45,000.
“For one person, $17,000 is actually what you need to live in Montreal,” Kingsley said. “Someone on luxury, to give you an idea, will earn $8000.”
However, Kingsley added that exceptions can be made.
“Anyone who feels they need help with food,” he said, “I mean, it’s a conversation.”
Martinez has admitted she’s not in that position — at least not yet.
She said she’s considering joining a community kitchen, where people pool resources to cook meals together so they can bring them home, after a local CLSC health clinic suggested her.
“I think it’s nice to meet other people, to cook together, and to save together, and it’s kind of stressful knowing you’re not alone.”
Kingsley added that another good reference for anyone looking for community services in their area is the phone line and the 211 website.
“They are doing an amazing job,” he said.
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But Martinez remains concerned about what the future may hold.
She is not sure if she will get a raise at work and will have to wait until August to find out. However, she doubts that any increase will be enough to keep pace with inflation.
She is most likely not mistaken.
According to Bank of Montreal Chief Economist Douglas Porter, “The main idea from the April CPI release is that inflation is spreading much more widely, and in clear danger of becoming firmly entrenched.”
In a brief report, Porter said he expected inflation to remain above six percent through the end of the year.
“Except for the deep drop in oil prices in the coming weeks and months, we expect the worst is yet to come.”
— Files from Canadian Press Chris Wong
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