Spent is a new column in which the Financial Post’s Victor Ferreira takes an entertaining and insightful look at the financial lives of everyday Canadian millennials. Some toil in lower-paying jobs while others are earning six-figures — what unites them is their desire for more and their everlasting struggle to get it.
It wasn’t long after the COVID-19 outbreak reached Canada that a 27-year-old musician we’ll call Facundo started seeing his income streams dry up.
The wedding gigs that substantially boost his income in the summer were the first to go. With bars shut down for the foreseeable future, he couldn’t make up for it by playing less profitable shows in those venues. His main source of income comes from a mix of teaching vocals, piano and guitar at a school and in private lessons. He usually keeps a base of 60 students but has seen that number fall to about 40. And the average number of hours he works at the school per day have been sliced in half. The third stream, audio editing, has remained stable but it only makes up about 10 to 15 per cent of his total income.
“With every week that goes on, I lose more,” Facundo said, explaining that his income dropped by $700 in comparison to April 2019.
Facundo has seen his friends apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the thought of doing the same was a tempting one, until he realized it could never be an option. He refuses to take the money, even if in all likelihood he’ll earn less than the $2,000 he’d receive from the government in a few of the next months. Doing so would require him to ditch his students and if he leaves them now, after spending years building up his base, his business may never recover.
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Working with less is really the only option. Before a last-minute project boosted his income for April to $2,200 after tax, he was on track to earn only $1,586 — enough to only barely cover his $1,400 rent. With less money coming in, Facundo slashed his expenses. They’re some of the most basic that we’ve seen. But even then, he spent $550 more than he made, with the difference coming out of his chequing account.
After paying his rent, he spent another $186 on hydro, internet and his phone bill. He’s still taking public transit to work — another $50 — and spent $664.97 on food and drink. “I was looking at the statements and thinking, ‘Man, you’ve been boozin’ too much,’” Facundo said.
Facundo has extra time on his hands — and like most of us, he’s inevitably getting bored. There’s only so many hours in the day that he can work from home. Netflix has become a reliable friend and so have the bottles of beer he sips on while enjoying a late-night movie. It was only when he was compiling his statements for Spent that he realized he’d spent $188.17 at the LCBO in April.
The rest went to his music. He is charged $25.89 bi-monthly to keep his website operating and $12.24 each month for audio editing software. He spent another $27.84 on jazz piano exercises to practice during quarantine and his largest expense, $281.37, was put towards recording gear.
It’s all part of a move he’s made over the past two years to invest in himself and his work. Between the creation of his website, classes on audio editing, tech purchases and gear, he estimates he’s spent $8,000 on himself in the past two years.
“The scary thing about investing in yourself is you have no idea if you’re going to see a return,” he said.
Having earned more than $51,000 last year, it seems that those investments are starting to pay off, but Facundo will be the first to admit there have been several missed opportunities. He hasn’t registered a business and so none of his expenses have been written off. The reason he’s fast-tracking some of those purchases is because he’s set a goal of trying to add the structure he’s sorely been missing so that he can benefit when lockdown ends. Spent asked Sun Life financial planner Chris Poole to help Facundo take his next steps.
Unlike most millennials, Facundo’s problems can’t be fixed with cutting down on his expenses, because there is not much left to cut. Figuring out how to live in a pandemic could make us a bit myopic, Poole said, but the focus should be placed on the business and not the man running it. And that business is in dire need of revenue.
Facundo needs to look for alternative sources to replace his lost income. It’s likely going to involve getting creative — Poole likens it to manufacturers he knows who have shifted their factories to temporarily making personal protective equipment — but if successful, it could either result in a quick cash infusion or, in the better scenario, a new and permanent revenue stream.
Poole wonders if Facundo could find a way to take advantage of social distancing measures in place. The financial advisor has already attended online video workshops on meditation, golf coaching and yoga. Facundo might be able to organize similar events with his music, he said, or shift into an emcee role.
“There’s still revenue out there, but as business owners it’s up to us to find it,” Poole said. “There’s a business here that’s very nimble and totally able to evolve into what’s coming next.”
From there, Facundo should get organized by tracking his revenue and expenses so that he can judge how successful his new income streams and investments are. Poole has no issue with the money Facundo is pouring into his operation and is actually encouraging him to do more during lockdown.
“Millennials want things to show up quickly and want gratification to exist as fast as possible and that’s just not the case when we’re starting or going through a development case in business,” Poole said. “The best portfolio grows based on those who continue to reinvest and the best business grows by reinvesting profits or income back into the business.”
Spending that money might be more gratifying if Facundo saw some of it slip back into his wallet. If he registers his business as a sole proprietorship, he could unlock the full gamut of accounting-related benefits that comes from it. Every business expense he made this month could be written off, Poole said, and so could meals, his phone and transit costs to gigs. Depending on how much work he does at home, Facundo may be even be able to write off parts of his internet and rent bills. No business can afford to simply swallow these costs, he said.
There’s some give-and-take to this option, Poole warned, because Facundo would also have to start charging his clients an additional 13 per cent for HST and some of them might not like that prospect.
Facundo is going to take the advice but add his own spin. He’s planning on only charging new clients HST and taking tax out of his end for existing ones. Admittedly, he briefly flirted with the idea of taking some of his business online but never thought it would work. He doesn’t agree with all of Poole’s suggestions — emceeing is not something he’s keen on pursuing — but revisiting an online expansion is worth the effort, especially if it offsets his lost income.
“I wrote it off before trying it,” Facundo says. “It’s worth a shot.”