This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people across the U.S. and details how they earn, save and spend their money.
Steph Gordon, 24, and Den Mathu, 24, had their first conversation about money before they even started dating. The couple, who met in 2017 while interning at the same company the summer before their last year at the University of Ottawa, remember discussing salary transparency with their peers and sharing what they each earned.
After they started dating, about three years ago, one of their first money talks as a couple was about their different backgrounds and early relationships with money: Den, who was born in Kenya and came to the U.S. with his family when he was six, "didn't really have much" growing up, he tells CNBC Make It. "We struggled a lot." From an early age, "I associated money with a better future and a better life for your family."
While Den didn't learn much about money management as a kid, he knew that he wanted to earn a lot one day. That's part of the reason he chose to get a business degree and pursue consulting after graduating university. He's not making nearly as much as he eventually wants to — he earns $42,765 USD* (CNBC Make It converted all the figures from CAD to USD) as a consultant at a "Big Four" accounting firm — but that's standard for someone just starting out in his industry, he explains: "I knew what I was signing up for. You don't necessarily make a lot in the beginning, but hopefully, as you gain experience over time, that translates into more income."
Steph, whose dad is an accountant, had more guidance as a kid when it came to money management. Her father is very savings-focused and impressed on her specific financial principles that she still lives by today, she says: "You save more than you spend. You live within your means. You pay off any debt you have right away."
She's been saving since she was 14, when she got her first job working at the front desk at a gym. Even then, "I didn't see half of my paycheck," she recalls. "It went right into my savings that I used when I went to school."
Today, she earns a lot more working as a strategy and operations coordinator also at a Big Four firm — $44,235 — but she still saves about half of her income and has built up about $17,000 in savings. Part of the reason she's able to save so much is because her parents helped fund her education and she graduated debt-free from the University of Ottawa in 2018 with a business degree.
Den, on the other hand, who also earned a business degree at the same university, graduated with about $30,000 in student debt. While he makes roughly the same amount as his girlfriend and has the same fixed costs, he doesn't have nearly as much in savings: closer to $5,000. Before the pandemic, he was putting all of his extra money at the end of the month toward his loans and barely anything in a savings account.
Up until recently, Den was putting about $958 toward his student loans each month, way more than the minimum required payment, and he had already made a significant dent, paying down half of what he owed in his first 11 months out of school.
In March 2020, in response to the coronavirus crisis, Canada paused student loan payments and waived interest charges through September 30, 2020. Students can still pay down their debt right now, but Den chose to take the money he usually puts toward his loans and redirect it into an emergency fund.
He's still working full-time, but he wants to have cash set aside in case his hours get reduced or he loses his job during the pandemic. In terms of work, "things got kind of uneasy as soon as Covid hit because usually during these times a lot of companies are trying to hoard cash and are not really trying to spend money on consultants," says Den. "So, for us, job security was definitely a big thing that we were worried about, and we're still worried about right now."
When the pause on student loans and interest-free period ends in September, Den plans to resume paying down his debt. His major money goal for the year is to be debt free so that he can start investing and actually building wealth, he says.
Steph is also still working full-time during the pandemic, but, like Den, worries about job security. She's preparing for the worst by maintaining a high savings rate and keeping her emergency money accessible in a standard savings account. Eventually, she wants to transfer her savings into a high-yield account, which offers higher interest rates and allows your money to grow faster over time thanks to compound interest.
Unlike in the U.S., where everyone earning under a certain amount of money received a stimulus check, Canada provided stimulus checks only to people who lost their job because of the coronavirus crisis, the couple explain: "We received no money, given that we're still luckily employed."
Like most people, they're adjusting to working from home, which, for them, means working out of a 400-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. "We both are on a lot of calls," says Steph. "We have a lot of meetings. So it's just a lot of loud voices in one spot. But three months in, and we're getting used to it."
The couple, who have been living together in downtown Toronto the past two years, are not only open with each other about money, but they share their financial goals and journey on their YouTube channel, which they launched in August 2019.
"The main reason we started, at least for me, was because I saw a gap in the knowledge when it came to money and finances here in Canada," says Den. "A lot of the information that we see online is very United States-focused, and there wasn't really much when it came to Canada."
Their channel explores a variety of money topics, including debt repayment strategies and budgeting as a couple, but they also discuss their careers and how they landed their current jobs. "There's not a lot of people who look like me — who are Black that work for a Big Four firm — that are showcasing the life and how to get in and how to navigate this whole corporate space as a Black person," says Den. "For me, that was a huge gap. I struggled with it, so it only makes sense that I try to help out the people who were struggling just like me."
Right now, their goal with their platform is to help young people understand their finances and navigate their early careers: "Even if we're not in a position to teach on every topic, sharing our experiences and being really transparent can help people along the way," says Steph. They also offer free resume reviews as a way to "actually give back and give value for free to other people," she says.
They spend most of their free time filming and uploading videos, and have almost 3,000 subscribers, but as of now, their channel doesn't generate any revenue. "It's just our passion project," says Steph, but "you never know what side hustles can turn into."
Steph and Den keep separate accounts and split all of their fixed expenses down the middle. They track their spending using the Mint app and keep their budget pretty lean. "Every month we look at our transactions and we see where we were spending in each category," says Den. "We try to make sure that we know where every single dollar is going."
The pandemic hasn't affected their spending too much: Since they're working from home, they don't have to pay for transportation, which typically costs $148 per month for both of their transit passes. Steph, who used to spend close to $37 on coffee per month, is making all of her coffee at home now.
They are spending a little bit more on groceries, says Steph: "Because of the pandemic, we're actually going to one of the more expensive grocery stores near us. It's definitely something that we're choosing to do — it's not a necessity — but it's cleaner and there are more [safety] measures in place."
Overall, their expenses are lower than they were pre-pandemic. The one major change is that Den's monthly student loan payment is now going into his emergency fund.
Here's what they were spending pre-pandemic, in February 2020:
Here's what their current budget looks like, as of July 2020:
- Savings: $2,300. Den puts $958 into a savings account and about $33 into his employer-sponsored retirement plan. (His company automatically takes 2% out of his paycheck, which is the max he's allowed to contribute at his level, and matches the full amount.) Steph puts $885 into a savings account and invests $424 in index funds.
- Rent: $1,364. The couple have been living in the same one-bedroom apartment for the past two years and plan to stay for at least another year. They split the rent down the middle.
- Food: $516. They mostly spend on groceries, but this also includes the occasional takeout meal.
- Utilities and Wi-Fi: $109
- Phone: $105. Den pays $33 for his phone plan. Steph's costs $72.
- Health insurance: $52. $22 gets deducted from Steph's paycheck per month for health insurance and $30 gets deducted from Den's.
- Subscriptions: $60. Includes Netflix, Spotify, Adobe and Epidemic Sounds.
- Renters insurance: $17. They paid $203 upfront when they signed their lease, which comes out to about $17 per month.
While their budgets are similar, they have different money goals right now. Steph's main focus is saving half of her income and building up a cash cushion: "I get paid bi-weekly so I'm trying to save one full payment each month." But she also recently started investing in index funds. Investing for the long-term is important to her, since she doesn't have the option of contributing to a retirement plan at work.
"At my level, there actually isn't a retirement option to opt into right now," she explains. Once she gets to a manager level, her company will allow her to automatically send a percentage of her paycheck to a retirement account.
Den's top priority is to pay off his loans and save more cash. At the same time, he's researching smart ways to invest his money so that he can put his money to work as soon as he's paid down his debt and has a fully funded emergency savings account.
"Being financially compatible doesn't necessarily mean that you have the same financial goals or background," says Steph. "It just means that you have the same comfortability with being open and actually talking about it and future goals as well."
*CNBC Make It converted CAD to USD using the OANDA conversion rate of 1 CAD to 0.73728 on June 23, 2020. All amounts are rounded up to the nearest dollar.
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