Managing a tight budget amid rampant inflation

The price of everything from gas to groceries is sharply on the rise, and interest rates are climbing. As a result, more and more households are struggling to make ends meet. How do you keep your head above water when you have a low income? We spoke to two families who had their personal finances analyzed by their local association coopérative d’économie familiale (ACEF). Reading about their situations may give you some ideas on how to get by on a tight budget.


Sacrifice and discipline: A family’s commitment to saving

For Francine and Jean-François, who live in Montmagny with their three children, aged 3, 4, and 7, life’s little luxuries are a thing of the past. Feeling the pinch of the high price of consumer goods, the parents rely on a good dose of discipline and resourcefulness to keep their spending under control.

By Maude Goyer

For Francine and Jean-François, who live in Montmagny with their three children, aged 3, 4, and 7, life’s little luxuries are a thing of the past. Feeling the pinch of the high price of consumer goods, the parents rely on a good dose of discipline and resourcefulness to keep their spending under control.

“We have to do acrobatics to make it work. It’s a daily headache.” That’s how Jean-François, who earns $36,000 net per year as an industrial painter, describes managing the family budget. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room,” adds his wife, Francine, who works part-time as a communications officer for a non-profit and has an annual net income of $13,000. “If we have an unexpected expense, we’re in trouble.”

Living on a low income

In the office of the Association coopérative d’économie familiale Rive-Sud de Québec, in Lévis, the parents listen attentively to budget consultant and trained social worker Sylvie Fortin, who has gone through their expenses and income with a fine-toothed comb.

Her first observation: with a net annual family income of $49,000, before assistance from the federal and provincial governments, their earnings fall well below the average annual viable income of $65,000 established by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS) in the spring of 2022. Keep in mind that this average was calculated for a family of two adults and two children, whereas Francine and Jean-François have three children. According to IRIS, a viable income is an income that allows people to live with dignity, make choices, and cover unexpected expenses.

The Montmagny family’s situation is all too common. In Quebec, approximately one in five people live below the viable income threshold. Fortin admits that she is overwhelmed by requests for consultations: “Now families’ basic needs are being affected.” This financial stress also leads to psychological distress, she observes. Jean-François will often talk with other parents to find solutions. “One of my colleagues has a daughter the same age as mine,” he says. “We talk about our kids’ schools. We swap tips.”

Putting money away for a rainy day

Fortunately, Francine and Jean-François are keeping their spirits up. But they have little room for impulse purchases or surprise expenses in their budget. An analysis of their situation reveals a total family income (with government assistance) of $75,390 and total expenses of $70,830. That leaves the family with an annual surplus of approximately $4,560, or $380 per month.

“Our car can’t break down,” says Jean-François, adding that it has clocked nearly 220,000 kilometres. The couple, who bought their home in 2020, have also had to pay for major repairs. As a result, their savings have dried up.

“Ideally, you should try to have enough money set aside to cover three to six months of expenses,” says Fortin. She suggests that Francine and Jean-François try to renegotiate their home and auto insurance to free up some money for their savings.

The pair still manage to save $250 a year, which they distribute between a TFSA and registered education savings plans (RESPs) for their children. How do they do it? They keep expenses for things like food, clothes, and outings to a minimum.

The family shops at thrift stores, and the kids wear hand-me-downs. Francine also makes some of the family’s clothes.

Making the most of a frugal grocery budget

Francine’s goal is to keep the family grocery bill as low as possible, at around $140 per week. “For a family of five, that’s remarkable!” says Fortin. Of course, Francine puts a lot of effort into managing the grocery budget. One trick she has up her sleeve is using Flashfood, a free app that allows users to buy products and foods that are nearing their expiration date at discounted prices in supermarkets. “I pick them up, cook them, and then freeze them,” explains Francine. The family has saved $5,300 on groceries since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to RECYC-QUÉBEC, a single household throws away an average of $1,300 worth of food per year. Not at Jean-François and Francine’s house. “I don’t let anything go to waste,” says Francine. “I bought a food dehydrator, so now if I can’t cook it, pickle it, or freeze it, I can dry it.” For his part, Jean-François firmly believes in the values that being ultra frugal teaches their children. “We don’t necessarily get what we want, we get what’s available,” he says. “It makes us think about people who are really picky or fussy.”

Keeping leisure activities to a minimum

The family has also cut all extravagances out of their lifestyle. “We don’t go on trips,” says Jean-François. “For our vacations, we do free activities, have picnics, and spend time together outside.”

“Their entertainment spending is very low,” Fortin confirms. She suggests that the parents check to see whether they’re eligible for the federal government’s Connecting Families program. If so, they would be able to pay just $20 for their internet package instead of $80. That would free up a little more money for activities.

As for the rest, Francine and Jean-François just need to keep doing what they’re doing, and increase their student loan payments if possible. “But all in all, they’re looking good,” says Fortin. “And that’s because the whole family is doing their part!”

Francine and Jean-François’s finances


Francine’s net income


Jean-François’s net income


Total family income
(including allowances and
government benefits)





Home repairs and maintenance




Childcare and daycare fees




Health care


Municipal and school taxes


Student loan payments


Total fixed and variable expenses     



Podcast episode: “Familles à la une : spécial argent”
How can you manage your budget and reduce your spending when inflation is rising? Listen to a special edition of our Familles à la une podcast (in French), hosted by Maude Goyer. You’ll hear expert advice, tips, and tools to help you save money.

The financial challenges of a single mom

Nathalie is a single parent raising her 4-year-old daughter in Montreal. She works part-time at an unstable, low-paying job, which makes it difficult to stay out of debt, but she’s determined to improve her financial situation.

Nathalie is a single parent raising her 4-year-old daughter in Montreal. She works part-time at an unstable, low-paying job, which makes it difficult to stay out of debt, but she’s determined to improve her financial situation.

“All the money I earn gets spent right away,” she says. “I have to make choices and take things one day at a time.” A former hairdresser, Nathalie ran her own salon for over a decade and once made $70,000 a year. When she became pregnant, however, she had to give up her profession.

“It was too much,” says Nathalie. “I didn’t have access to a daycare. I was no longer able to work and take on so many clients, and I had no family to help me. I was in a kind of fog. I think I had postpartum depression, but I didn’t know it at the time.”

Learning to do without

Nathalie applied for social assistance to help her, as she puts it, “get back on track.” Not long afterward, she found a spot for her daughter at a private daycare charging $52 a day, and she landed a job as an assistant cook. Unfortunately, the pay isn’t great, and the hours aren’t sufficient.

With a net income of $22,000, Nathalie is in a precarious situation. She’s juggling several monthly expenses on her own, including the $600 rent for her one-bedroom apartment (a steal in Montreal) and daycare costs of $1,050. “I always calculate everything,” she says. “I’m used to scrimping!”

Nathalie doesn’t have a car and gets around using public transportation. “I’ve stopped buying coffee on my way to work because I have a daughter to feed, and I try to provide her with a varied and balanced diet. We definitely eat a lot of rice and pasta.”

Debt stress

Nathalie goes to bed at night thinking about what she’s going to pay back first: the $40 she borrowed from a co-worker, the $1,500 credit card balance she’s had for the past three years, or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payment she mistakenly received from the federal government at the beginning of the pandemic.

She admits to feeling “stressed and anxious.” She’s not alone: according to a recent Leger survey, 85 percent of Quebecers are dealing with financial anxiety. But there are ways to reduce that anxiety, says Olga Cherezova, a budget consultant at the Association coopérative d’économie familiale (ACEF) de l’Est de Montréal who took the time to assess Nathalie’s personal finances.

The Canada Learning Bond (CLB) provides low-income families with up to $2,000 from the federal government to put toward their child’s post-secondary education.

Analyzing expenses

Cherezova’s analysis shows that Nathalie has a total income (including government assistance) of $40,400 and annual expenses of $29,500. That leaves a surplus of approximately $10,900, or $910 per month.

So why is Nathalie still only scraping by? “She may have more variable expenses in her budget than she realizes,” says Cherezova. For this reason, the budget expert has given Nathalie a chart to fill out each week with all of her expenditures. This will give her a better idea of where her money is going and what expenses she might be able to cut.

Cherezova also encourages Nathalie to prioritize paying off her high-interest credit card, which has a rate of 25.99%. She says it’s possible to call the credit card company and, by “making the right argument,” negotiate a lower rate. Nathalie could explain her difficult circumstances and ask for a payment plan. She might also be able to get a reduced rate by showing she’d be willing to settle her debt with fixed monthly payments.

In addition, Nathalie should establish a rainy-day fund for emergencies. The ACEF de l’Est de Montréal recommends setting aside the equivalent of at least one month’s expenses—roughly $2,400 in Nathalie’s case. “Ideally, your emergency fund should be kept in a sub-account to avoid additional bank charges,” says Cherezova. That means placing it in an account nested under your primary account. Sub-accounts can be used to separate funds for different purposes, allowing you to better organize your money without having to open a new account.

Good news

Lastly, it’s important to think about saving regularly, such as by setting up a TFSA. “You have to take things one step at a time,” says Cherezova. “I’m a believer in the idea of living 10 percent below your income so that you have the means to save.”

Nathalie knows she has some work to do to improve her financial situation but is feeling motivated after meeting with Cherezova. What’s more, she recently found a new job! “I’m a reservations assistant at a fine dining restaurant,” she says. “The hourly rate is better, and I’m guaranteed more hours. I’m really happy!”

Nathalie’s finances


Net income


Total income
(including allowances and
government benefits)



Private daycare






Debt repayment
(CERB and credit card)


Cellphone plan and internet


Total fixed and variable expenses    


Protecting children from financial stress

Are you in a difficult financial situation and wondering if you should talk to your child about it? Psychologist Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier answers this question.

Are you in a difficult financial situation and wondering if you should talk to your child about it? Psychologist Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier believes that parents can talk to their kids about their financial troubles if the situation is impacting the family’s daily life or they want to explain why they seem more stressed lately. But they don’t have to tell their children everything.

“You can just say that you’re going through a challenging time,” says Beaulieu-Pelletier, “and that you’re being more careful with your money. Try to be reassuring and let your child know that while you’re going through a rough patch, you’ve found solutions or are looking for them.”

She adds that this can be an opportunity to reflect on consumerism as well as your values and priorities as a family. Getting back to basics is also a good idea. For example, you could spend more time with your child.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, January–February 2023
Research and copywriting: Maude Goyer



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Photos (in order): GettyImages/Diane555, GettyImages/Ribkhan, GettyImages/Unitonevector, GettyImages/Elenabs