Consulting the real budgeting experts

The next time you're looking for financial advice, head to the local food bank. It might not be the first bank that comes to mind, but that's where you'll find people who really know how to stretch a dollar.

The next time you’re looking for financial advice, head to the local food bank.

It might not be the first bank that comes to mind, but that’s where you’ll find people who really know how to stretch a dollar.

“You can’t survive on social-assistance incomes, or even minimum-wage incomes, and not be resourceful with your finances – you just can’t make it,” said low-income rights advocate John Fraser.

“That’s not to say that everyone is, but in my experience a substantial proportion are.”

Fraser works with low-income people on housing issues as the program director with the Toronto-based Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation.

He was in Whitehorse yesterday to meet with members of the low-income community and hear about the creative strategies that they use to get by.

It’s part of a new project called Making Ends Meet, which Fraser’s organization is doing in collaboration with Canada Without Poverty.

The project wants to dispel the stereotype that low-income people don’t know how to manage their money.

It treats these people as budgeting experts, and aims to gather and share that knowledge with a broader public.

About 15 low-income Whitehorse residents participated in yesterday’s meeting.

They talked about their strategies for covering expenses.

If you go to the Superstore in the mornings, for example, you’re more likely to find produce from the day before at 50 per cent off.

Many local businesses offer deals for those struggling to live on meagre incomes.

Some even skip the stores, making their own clothing or doing their own repairs.

Much of it has to do with sacrifice, said Fraser.

Many parents have to refrain from buying what they want for themselves – things as small as a cup of coffee – to save enough money to buy their child a birthday present.

Public transit was singled out as a problem, especially when trying to get around on holidays or evenings.

Housing was identified as less of an issue than one would expect in the Whitehorse focus group.

This may have been because the participants were self-selected as people who have been successful in managing their own finances, said Fraser.

“A number of these folks had their housing subsidized and others weren’t paying rent.”

Just one of the participants was paying the standard price for housing, paying $900 in rent for a small unit.

Another pleasant surprise was the Whitehorse focus group didn’t seem to be as reliant on cheque-cashing services, which often gouge their customers with high fees.

The Whitehorse participants were much more likely to have bank accounts.

“There also seemed to be a lot more local, private resources available,” said Fraser.

“And banks, as a whole, seemed to be more accessible to low-income people here than Montreal or Ottawa.”

In a way, the idea for the project came from a bank.

TD Bank Financial Group called for proposals to develop financial literacy programs for low-income people.

Fraser had a better idea.

“We don’t want to be giving them financial literacy training. We thought, let’s turn it on its head and have them give the financial literacy training,” he said.

“To their credit, TD Financial thought that was a great idea.”

The information gathered will be pulled together into a booklet this spring.

The booklet will then be shared with people in positions of financial power in Canada – the bankers, money management experts and politicians.

The hope is this information will help these people make better decisions and policies.

The project will visit seven cities throughout Canada.

Fraser has completed similar fact-finding missions in Montreal and Ottawa.

He will also be visiting Vancouver, Saskatoon, Calgary and St. John’s.

Why Whitehorse?

“We always knew that a northern city had to be a part of it just because people’s living expenses are very different from those in Vancouver or Ottawa,” said Fraser.

“But Whitehorse was particularly attractive to us because it’s got such an engaged and active low-income community, facilitated through the Yukon Anti-poverty Coalition.

“You really don’t see that in a lot of communities.”

Contact Chris Oke at