I Can't Afford To Live In Toronto According To The Raw Data But Here's How I Make It Work

Compromise is king.

The CN Tower between two condo buildings.

The CN Tower between two condo buildings.

This Opinion article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

My Toronto apartment overlooks one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city. That might sound like a flex, but I assure you, it's not. It's a dumpy old place that's been renovated just enough to function — a lower-middle-class blip in a sea of money.

When I walk through my neighbourhood, I can't help but fantasize about what it would be like to live in any of its gorgeous homes. I wonder how the hell their owners afford them, but mostly, I think about all the things preventing me from owning a property of my own.

In truth, I can't afford to live in Toronto, let alone buy a home here one day. Every bit of raw data I read, whether it's about the average rent in the city or the cost of a night out, reminds me of that depressing fact. Yet, I reside here full-time and have done so for nearly a decade. So, how the heck am I actually doing it?

That's the question I've tried to answer in this piece. Below is a list of strategies I have relied heavily on while trying to survive in Toronto over the years. My hope is that it will serve as a practical guide for someone who wants to move to the city but "knows" they can't afford it.

I live with a roommate

I recently had a conversation with Crystal Chen from Zumper, a real estate company that analyzes rental data in several major cities. My aim was to find out the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto. As someone who's never rented in the city without a roommate before, I wanted to see if I could manage it if I had to. The answer was a resounding "hell no."

(Median rent represents the middle value in a set of rents, while average rent is the sum of all rents divided by the total number of data points. The median is not influenced by outliers, making it a good indicator of typical rent.)

The historical data Chen shared with me showed the median price of a Toronto one-bedroom at a whopping $2,400 a month, up $400 from what people were paying last summer. I quickly realized trying to afford that while subscribing to the rule that your rent should only be 30% of your gross income would be impossible.

If I committed to paying $2,400 a month by myself, I would be handing over approximately 74.9% of my income every year just to pay my rent. Yikes. Compare that to the 25.84% I'm currently handing over as a result of splitting a one-bedroom with a partner and living alone in Toronto really starts to seem like something only wealthy people can afford.

Those who make $96K a year or more, to be exact.

I asked Chen what advice she would have for someone who wants to live in downtown Toronto and makes $61,873 per year, which is the estimated average salary in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada.

"You're going to have to suck it up and live with roommates," she joked.

I keep a detailed budget 

An excel spreadsheet.

An excel spreadsheet.

Patrick John Gilson | Narcity

I hate budgeting. I've developed a habit of opening an Excel spreadsheet at the end of every week to review my finances, and it never fails to dampen my mood. However, if there's one thing I've learned about building a life in Toronto in my late 20s, it's that the more effort you put into organizing your money, the better your chances of thriving in the city — or at the very least, surviving with less stress.

This is a new practice for me, so I'm not preaching from a mountaintop. It's still a work in progress. However, in the past months, I've scrutinized my bank statements and discovered two major obstacles preventing my financial growth — food deliveries and unused subscriptions.

I wish I could say that I immediately changed my ways upon realizing how much money I was spending on Uber Eats and streaming services. But that hasn't happened yet. It's a process.

What I have noticed is that by forcing myself to review my finances every week, I've managed to save more — not as much as I would like or as much as I should, but I've made progress. The mere existence of my budget has reshaped my perspective on money and put me on a better path financially.

There's still a lot of work to be done, but I highly recommend setting aside a few hours to create a comprehensive budget. Not a rough one or a half-finished attempt, but a well-researched budget that you can actually refer to — even if it's just for the sake of looking at it. I think you'll be surprised by how much it can shift your mindset.

Anyone seeking additional advice on how to start a budget should check out Narcity's interview with Natasha Macmillan, the Director of Everyday Banking at Ratehub.ca, which offers beginners a step-by-step guideline on how to start budgeting.

I never move, but if I have to, I'm timing it right

Since moving to Toronto in 2014, I've witnessed everything from rental rates to the cost of transit steadily rise year after year. It has reached a point where every time I pay my current rent, I lament the $525 I used to pay in the city's west end back in 2017.

According to Toronto Rentals, the average price of a one-bedroom in the city was $1,071 in 2014, and monthly metro passes, which were a now-defunct means of accessing the TTC, cost $133.75.

Examining that data is painful. After all, I could still be living in my previous affordable place. I chose to move because I could afford it, not because I had to, and that decision significantly reduced the amount I could save each month.

But what exactly has caused these prices to skyrocket in recent years? During our conversation, Chen explained that the root of the issue boils down to an overwhelming demand for real estate and a lack of supply.

"There are a few factors as to why rent in Canada is so high and growing so much. One is that the national vacancy rate for rentals is less than 2% because demand in Canada has continued to outpace the available supply," Chen explained.

"With mortgage rates being so high and the economy being so uncertain right now, many people are priced out of the ownership market. So, many are opting to stay in the rental market for longer instead of buying, which continues to create more renters and more competition. Looking ahead, until there is more supply built, rent will continue to climb," she added.

Since I don't plan to reside in my current apartment for another three years, I figured it would be wise to seek some tips from Chen on how to save money during the moving process — and, as it turns out, it's all about timing.

"Summer and fall are the hot moving seasons, that's typically when demand and competition is at its highest of the year," Chen said before adding that renters could be in for some relief this winter which is where they're most likely to score "the best deals."

"Usually, during the winter months, buildings offer concessions so they can fill vacancies faster. Sometimes you can get a month or two of rent free if you move in the winter," she added.

I calculate my fun

"Dinner and a movie" is one of the many classic date night ideas that will inevitably give you the money sweats in Toronto.

That's why my partner and I have become more deliberate about the kind of fun we choose to have these days. I decided to use the price point in Toronto as an example to illustrate our mindset.

Considering the current prices at Cineplex ($14.50 per adult ticket) and the cost of two meals, drinks, and an 18% tip at Hemingways, a bar near our go-to theatre, I would be shelling out $85.64 to treat her. And that's assuming she's satisfied with dinner and doesn't crave snacks (which rarely happens), so realistically, I'm looking at a $90 bill.

That's quite a sum for what should be a budget-friendly night out. If I wanted to take my partner to a nice restaurant and treat her to a VIP experience at Cineplex every other week, as I should, I would be spending over $100 per outing.

Even worse, if we wanted to indulge in something uniquely Toronto, like attending a Raptors or Maple Leafs game, we could end up forking over close to $1,000 just for tickets and food.

For these reasons and more, my partner and I create mental lists of every affordable bar and event we come across, turning them into our own traditions. It's our way of staying connected to city life without mindlessly succumbing to the exorbitant prices of an average night out, which, as I established earlier, are simply unaffordable right now.

Hopefully, this list has inspired you to tap into your creativity when it comes to spending in the city. Navigating through challenging economic times and thriving in an expensive urban environment like Toronto is no small feat.

But, with a touch of thoughtfulness, you can afford to live here even if the numbers tell you otherwise.

Patrick John Gilson
Patrick John Gilson was a Creator with Narcity Media focused on Ontario gas prices and is based in Toronto, Ontario.