I first met Kristina at a local Toronto community center; our kids were in a swim class together, which means we could have a few bursts of uninterrupted conversation. Kristina was excited about having secured a childcare subsidy. This meant she could increase the focus on her small business. Curious as I am about financial finagling, I twisted Kristina’s arm into an interview.
Mother of 2 kids, 3 years apart
Freelance graphic designer
Husband Richard works for a charity
Household income ranging from $80,000 - $100,000
Personal income ranging from $15,000 - $20,000
It turns out that securing a childcare subsidy was no small feat; the process and accessibility lines can be murky at best. As Kristina describes it, she had to make sure that she was within this invisible unknown boundary of earning enough to demonstrate she had a viable business and not so much that she did not need a subsidy.
Through the process she realized that the subsidy was calculated for a household and not on a per child basis. The municipality calculates how much a family can afford for childcare for a household, and the subsidy covers everything over and above that. This means that she was also able to get after school care for her oldest child.
In terms of the subsidy, she felt the entire process was unclear, confusing and stressful. She was unaware of the different levels of support, what was required and what she could earn. More clarity on the level of support and access would have significantly reduced her stress, perhaps encouraged her to apply earlier and to increase the amount of hours she can work.
Kristina is a hardworking designer who is a jack-of-all-trades. She has been an independent freelancer for 7 years. She decided to try and work for herself after years of working for a breadth of different employers and never having a boss she respected.
When pressed on what was so bad in her previous employment, she describes the gradual but consistent decline in the work environment, the toxic small and large offices with jaded employees and individuals focused on currying favor with management, as well as the often misogynistic business leaders who did not listen, engage or value their people. She says she needed to get out before she became an “ugly, angry person”.
Kristina recognizes that she is not alone; others experience the same situation and frustrations. She thinks that what made her leave and others stay is that she and her partner are more quality of life driven (a short while ago, Richard turned down a job offer that paid significantly more because he loves his work), and they have the security of owning a small semi-detached fixer upper with fixed mortgage payments. “Individuals who are financially driven will put up with more in order to grow their incomes”.
Once resigning from her job, Kristina began to try to drum up business with part time clients. Through a friend she was hired by a large company and that became her biggest client for the past 6 years, with 70% of her revenue coming from that client. Not having maternity leave covered, Kristina hired a nanny 2 mornings a week and then worked in the evenings to keep client work moving and earn an income. Kristina liked having the combined stability (having a large client) and flexibility (having the ability to control her time, schedule and work), so she did not focus on growing or building her business.
In the last year, her large client made a decision to bring their design work in-house and so Kristina was left to figure out how to make up a large portion of her income. This feast or famine world caused quite a bit of stress. The challenge is she likes to do the actual work and not the networking and promotion that enables her to drum up business. That is a barrier that certainly keeps her income lower than it could be and creates more risk for her.
Kristina knows she should spend more time on diversifying her clients. Her major client has since come back and so she no longer has a sense of urgency pushing her out of her comfort zone. That being said, she recognizes she could benefit from increasing her focus on business development and that there are a breadth of meaningful strategies that could help her (joining design related industry groups, attending meet-ups or learning sessions on issues she is interested in, sharing her successes and work).
Kristina’s decision to work independently and reduce her hours has decreased her income by an estimate of 50%. This means that her lifestyle has to be managed to fit her income. This works for her because it fits with her personal priorities of valuing relationships, time and the process of creation over money.
Kristina is a do-it-yourselfer all the way. She grew up in what she says felt like an underprivileged family with 4 kids and learned everything from her father (at 72, he recently finished taking a college course on septic systems so he can install his own in order to save money).
She is always thinking about how she can fix or make things cheaper. She drywalls, frames, fixes and builds. She also has a little hobby business on the side where she converts vintage jewelry into beautiful bridal items. Kristina is a value village shopper, frugal bargain hunter and grateful to be part of her community’s hand me down circles.
Her kids have predominantly second hand everything, wear value village shoes and receive quirky inexpensive birthday gifts that can be enjoyed on family adventures. Her little boy just got a headlamp for his second birthday. It isn’t the easiest to answer questions like “why is this shoe darker than the other” but she figures out a way to make it a values lesson – “you won’t believe how much we saved”. At the dollar store, the kids get to pick out one item and play with it while in the store and she picks out the necessities. They then put it back and go about the rest of the day.
In exchange for working independently and working half time, there is a 50% in salary cut, an increase in the share of household work, and a commitment to a low-cost lifestyle. Kristina feels that it is definitely worth it as she gets to spend more time with her children, have control over her day and be a greater part of her community.
Kristina is now starting a new chapter in her life. With full time child care and more space to dedicate to her business she is thinking about what to do next. Although she likes design, she may not want to do it forever. She feels fortunate to have had this time to work independently while the kids are young and is open to either growing her business or going back to the workforce full time if she could find the right employer.
No matter what happens next, Kristina knows she will be ok. She has built a lifestyle she can afford that is based on her values. Above all, she feels that no matter what happens she will be able to figure it out.
What has been the secret to Kristina’s success?
1. A strong values based approach to decision-making. Kristina knows what is important to her and makes her money decisions based on her values. She enjoys living a lower cost lifestyle so that she can have more control, flexibility and time with her family.
2. An incredible ability and joy in problem solving. Kristina loves the process of making and creating. When she or the family needs something that is an extra or unexpected cost, Kristina will automatically think about options for lower cost solutions. In need of a new lamp, Kristina will look at the second hand stores and see how she can remake one to fit her aesthetic. This inevitably is a small portion of the cost.
3. A commitment and joy in hard work. There is no doubt that Kristina works hard in all areas. She makes sure to deliver on client commitments. She takes care of the children and maintains the house. And critically important, she invests time to find or create economic solutions. Spending less money on something, inevitably means that you have to spend more time to find or create the solution.
As a positive outlier, Kristina is doing well. She is financially stable and enjoys her life. How might we help other Canadians succeed in what is important to them?
Recognizing the value of childcare subsidies for lower income families, can we more effectively spend our taxpayer resources by making the access and process clearer?
Would we benefit from challenging and questioning the value that consumption provides to our lives?
And most importantly, would we benefit from better building problem solving skills into our education so that a greater number of individuals are able to craft and benefit from their own solutions?