In our last jobs in New York, we worked two 12-hour days. (Allan also worked the major holidays.) Now we work three 12-hour days and take home about the same income.
My friend Dean, a long-time wmtc reader, asked:
How does the lower salary affect your standard of living? Did you know before you moved to Canada that you would have to work longer hours to make as much money? Do you feel that this is a drawback to living in Canada?
We did know this before we moved to Canada.
Before our first visit to Toronto, I emailed people at the big legal staffing agencies there (here!), and set up appointments to meet them when we were in town. (Amazingly, this was after we filed our applications to immigrate!)
The most important things to find out were (a) were there jobs in our field, that is, do the large law firms in Toronto use word-processing or document-production specialists as they do in New York, (b) were there jobs with non-traditional hours, like evenings or weekends, and (c) what we could expect to earn. All our questions were answered, and we were thrilled.
However... the last jobs we held in New York City - which we never would have left, as long as we lived there - were very unusual. We had both (and my insistence, I will add) jockeyed our way into better and better jobs, until we were at the very top level of responsibility and pay scale for our positions. We knew we'd never see the likes of those jobs again.
And we had a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan. If you've never lived in New York City, it's difficult to understand what that means. A rent-stabilized apartment means you're renting at a rate far (huge emphasis there) below market value, and your rent can only increase a certain percentage each year. It's an incredibly coveted position to be in. It means you never move. I always said, we'll live in this apartment as long as we live in New York. If we leave this apartment, it means we're leaving the city forever.
What does this mean for our current standard of living, relative to our last years in New York?
We had a lot more disposable income then. We spent very freely, which in New York is way fun. For much of that time, we were also burdened by debt (because we didn't always have good jobs!), so a lot of our money went to the Black Hole of Visa.
But, when we decided to move to Canada, we were able to get out of debt and save money with very little hardship or inconvenience. We couldn't travel, which was tough for me, but how many working people can travel and save money at the same time? Other than that, and foregoing some theatre tickets and a few other luxuries, we paid off our debt and banked lots of money every month without too much sacrifice.
Now our budget is tighter, and we live closer to our income level. This is not a big deal, as we've really lost interest in a lot of the things we used to spend our money on in New York. We rent a three-bedroom house for only slightly more than we used to rent a large two-bedroom apartment, and we're much more interested in hanging out in our backyard than in going out for expensive dinners or buying tickets to shows. Money is not extremely tight. We're comfortable, we have fun, but we're on a budget.
Do I feel this is a drawback to living in Canada? I don't think it's a function of Canada versus the US. It depends on your field and where you live, on both ends. Nick, of Life Without Borders, is a social worker. I believe in Toronto he earns nearly double what he did in Denver. Many fields pay about the same. I don't know about anyone else, although I'd be interested to find out. Coming from New York skews the picture further, as salaries tend to be higher there, but for most people, the cost of living is also unusually high.
How did this affect our decision to move to Canada? It didn't.
Our day-jobs are on the support level. They're not career jobs for which one would move or not move. They're jobs that enable our lives, not jobs we live for. We knew we'd have to work more after moving, and we were dreading it, but that was a minor feeling compared to how much we wanted to leave the US.
The thing we were dreading most was possibly having to work a conventional Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. So far, except for some very temporary situations, we've been able to avoid that.
I comfort myself with the idea - part probability, part rationalization - that my job in New York would not have lasted forever anyway. I worked for a notoriously cheap (although filthy rich) law firm. It's highly possible that at some point they would have saved money by letting me go and hiring someone else at two-thirds my pay rate.
I will say that working three long days instead of two long days was easier in theory than in reality. I'm almost 46 years old and I have a health condition that requires me to pace all my activities and get a certain amount of rest. I don't have the energy I once did to work, write and have a life outside of those two requirements. Most of the time, I feel pressed for time, and feel I'm not doing many of the things I'd like to. (I know many people share those feelings for various reasons.)
But the way I see it, if you really want to make a Big Life Change, there is always some down-side. No BLC is 100% positive. The negative might not bother you that much, but it exists to some degree. I wouldn't not make a BLC - one that I much desired, one that both my partner and I felt was right in so many ways - because I had a good word-processing job. One, that job may not last forever. But two, and more importantly, that job is just a way to earn a living. It's a portable skill (one reason I chose it in the first place), it's replaceable, and it can be done elsewhere.
One last thing, to answer an inevitable question: we will never find jobs in Toronto that pay what those New York jobs did. We're at the top of our pay scale right now, and that's not going to change.
* * * *
On this subject, I have a related pet peeve.
People often note that I am "lucky" because my job gives me the time and freedom to pursue my writing career. That irritates me, because it's not a function of luck.
Ever since, a few years after graduating university, I decided to give up a more conventional career* and dedicate myself more seriously to writing, I've held an array of different jobs. I've been a nanny, a proofreader, a house cleaner, a personal assistant to a crazy artist, a paid political organizer, a secretary, a data-entry operator, a teacher at a youth centre and at an alternative school, and probably a few other things I've forgotten.
I heard there was well-paid work for legal word-processors, I taught myself WordPerfect on a friend's home computer (the only person I knew who had one in those days!), I lied about my experience, and got temp work. From there, I became very good at what I did, and very ambitious, and jockeyed my way into better and better positions, always seeking more income for fewer hours.
Allan was waiting tables in a cafe and working in a deli. I taught him what I knew, we bought him some clothes, and he found a job as a legal secretary. As the years went on, I strongly encouraged him to also look for jobs with fewer hours. He was able to cut back from a five-day work-week to four, then to three 12-hour days, and finally to our last great two-day-week spots.
Of course, we, all of us, are fortunate to achieve what we strive for, and you know I am grateful for good fortune. You can work hard at something and still not achieve it, through no fault of your own. (I ought to know that: I have two unpublished novels.) But I seriously bristle at the implication that I accidentally fell into my life. I didn't. I built it.
* The "career" I left was already an awkward step towards creating my own life. I was working in the Off-Broadway theatre rather than attending law school as I was "supposed to". (That is, I was rejecting certain family expectations.) I made no money, met great people, had a lot of fun, put up with a lot of bullshit, and ultimately realized that if I wanted to write, I had to make a BLC. I had to find a way to support myself that left me time and mental energy to do what I most wanted to do: write.