For the last year-and-a-half, I’ve worked my day job from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., then headed to the restaurant to start my night shift. I work 75 hours a week and we’re still scrambling to keep up with our payments.
(Photography by Claudine Baltazar)
In 2020, my wife, Evelin, and I began renting a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a house in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood for $1,800 a month. Our apartment had a huge kitchen and lots of storage, but after our daughter, Elisamarie, came along in 2021, we knew we needed a place with a second bedroom.
Evelin and I both have decent jobs: I’m a social case worker with the province and Evelin is an administrator at a private school. Still, getting into the housing market was no easy feat. We had a combined income of $117,000 and about $37,000 in savings, but initially we could only get approved for a mortgage on a $500,000 home—nowhere near enough to secure a decent place in the city. Luckily, Evelin’s father chipped in for our down payment and, in January of 2022, we managed to qualify for a mortgage on a $668,000 two-bedroom condo townhouse in downtown Toronto—our first home. We were so happy to be owners; it felt like a remarkable milestone.
READ: My mortgage is about to go up by at least $1,000 a month
Evelin was still on maternity leave when we moved in that winter, so our cash flow was tight but comfortable. We had a 1.3 per cent variable mortgage rate, which amounted to two payments of $1,275 each month, plus $370 in monthly maintenance fees. We started discussing the possibility of having a second child, but our optimism was short-lived. The first sign of trouble came in late February, when we noticed that our biweekly payment had gone up by $25. The increase didn’t ring any alarm bells at first—it was just a few dollars more, right? But in March, more letters arrived: our interest rate had gone up once again. My sister, Milynda, bought a house in Toronto in 2013, and she reassured me that it wasn’t unusual for a variable mortgage to go up every now and then. “Don’t worry,” she said. So we didn’t.
On June 1, the Bank of Canada raised its key interest rate to 1.5 per cent, a half per cent hike. That month, our biweekly payments rose to $1,500. I was getting really worried about how Evelin and I would pay for basic necessities like groceries and gas. We asked our bank about locking in our mortgage at a fixed rate, but we were told that the new rate would be even higher—a jump from two to three per cent—and we’d likely pay more over the course of our mortgage term if we switched. Over and over again, we heard from bankers, mortgage brokers and politicians on the news, people we trusted to know more about this stuff than us. They all echoed the same sentiment: The rate hikes won’t continue. Eventually, they’ll hold and maybe even come down. We decided to stick with our variable rate.
July rolled around and our payment increased yet again. A couple days later, I went to buy gas for our car, thinking Evelin and I had $600 in our joint account. To my surprise, there was only $100 in there. That’s when panic set in. Evelin had since returned to full-time work, but we were stretched so thin that every dollar counted. We drastically cut down on our food costs, favouring non-perishables like pasta over fresh produce. It didn’t help that Elisamarie was about to start daycare, another huge cost. Unless we changed something dramatically, I was convinced we’d lose our home within two months.
READ: Our mortgage payments went up to more than $3,300 a month
I decided to take on a second job to keep up with our family’s rising expenses, though it wasn’t really a choice. I had some prior hospitality experience from working as a busser and host at the Keg, so later in the summer, I got a job as a bartender and server at Nodo, an Italian restaurant. For the last year and a half, I’ve worked my day job (in social work) from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., then headed to Nodo to start my night shift. Most weeknights, I’m usually not home until well past 1 a.m., so I only have a half-hour to myself before I head to bed. I work 75 hours a week and we’re still scrambling to keep up with our payments.
I feel disconnected from my own house, not to mention my family. That’s the worst part: I know I’m missing out on my daughter’s childhood. I see her in the morning when I drop her off at daycare and, well, that’s it. One weekend, I searched the house for Elisamarie’s baby tub so I could give her a bath; Evelin told me she’d outgrown the tub weeks earlier and was now using our bathtub. If Elisamarie gets sick or housework piles up on Evelin, I can’t help because I’m at the restaurant. We spend hours driving from store to store in search of the cheapest groceries, seeking out an apple or banana that’s a dollar less than elsewhere. Aside from that, we’re living separate lives.
Now, nearly two years into our mortgage, our biweekly payments have reached $2,268. Our maintenance fees have also shot up to $480—an additional $110 per month. We’re paying more than $5,000 a month to live in a 900-square-foot townhouse, and $3,500 of that total goes to interest alone. It appears that interest rates will hold for a little while, but I’ve been burned by that sort of talk before. I understand that higher interest rates are supposed to help the economy recover, but for my family, there is no relief in sight. Evelin and I are in an in-between class of Canadians—not poor enough for benefits, but not rich enough to absorb extra costs. We didn’t qualify for last summer’s one-time federal grocery rebate because our income is too high, and our child benefits decreased after I took on my second job.
Evelin and I often joke that we’d be better off if we weren’t legally married; we’d get more benefits and tax breaks that way. Before we bought our home—or opened Pandora’s box—our plan was to have two children back-to-back, so they’d be close together in age. In October, we found out that Evelin was expecting our second child. She’s due in May, two years after we initially planned for our next kid to arrive. When we went to our doctor for a routine checkup, she asked for the reason behind our delay and we said, “Our variable mortgage.” Sad, but true.
I know Evelin and I bear the brunt of the blame for our situation. We’d never been homeowners before our big purchase and we didn’t do enough homework—we were stupid, in all honesty. The financial experts we consulted were relying on past trends when they gave us advice, but these are unprecedented economic circumstances. Evelin and I considered selling our place in October, but our realtor advised us against it. Breaking even was the best he’d be able to do. If interest rates do go down, we could chip away at the principal or sell the house and make a profit. At the moment, we’re too far in to leave, even if we wanted to.
I was born and raised in Toronto, down the street from where I’m living today, and buying a modest home in which to raise my own family has pushed me to the brink, emotionally and financially. Before this, I never would have considered moving to another country. Now, Evelin and I are seriously weighing our options. Recently, we took a family vacation to Mexico, our last before the baby comes. I was hesitant to go, but Nodo didn’t schedule me for an entire week, so we found a Black Friday deal and pounced. I still feel guilty about the expense—and took three extra shifts after we got back to make up for it—but we desperately needed the time off, and I can’t just slave away forever. There’s more to life than surviving.
—As told to Ali Amad