It was September 2011 and I was greeted by an elderly cowgirl.
“Welcome to Calgary!” she said with a big smile. I smiled back nervously.
I had just gotten off a plane from Toronto, leaving behind my admission to law school, my family, and my friends. Instead, I was heading off to work at an arts and culture centre in a small mountain town in one of the most beautiful regions in all of Canada.
My parents communicated to me before I left what I was leaving behind: the promise of a stable job, predictable income, and social prestige (I know – parents, right?). They told me my life was my life, but if I ever regretted my decision, I was not to call them. I guess that’s one way of making sure your kid leaves the nest.
The contract I signed was a 1-year commitment to work as an Assistant Production Manager for the arts centre in a “developmental role”, meaning I would be treated as an intern. This is what it looked like:
- I would get a flat $400 per week stipend, exempt from tax deductions and overtime pay. On average, it was expected I work 40 hours per week, Monday through Friday, 9:00AM-5:00PM at the office, which meant I’d be making roughly $10.00 an hour. Some weeks I’d take home less because I’d be working additional hours “as needed”. For reference, minimum wage in Alberta by this time was $11.00 an hour.
- I would be ineligible for vacation or sick days.
- I was given partially subsidized housing at a rate of $15.50 per night in a three bedroom + 1 bathroom apartment with three other roommates (two people had to share a room). Housing would be deducted monthly from my pay.
It was a pretty raw deal, but I convinced myself I was going to make it work. I’m never one to call home for help and at the time this was my passion. I was prepared to throw my blood, sweat, and tears into my first job out of theatre school and the lifestyle that came with it.
Life Lesson #1:
Track your spending.
I arrived into town in the late afternoon and was greeted by several future colleagues in the apartment complex. They were friendly and after a brief round of introductions, someone yelled “PUUUUB!!!” Apparently this was the welcome tradition. I gladly took part.
We hit the closest pub in town and immediately I was shown the menu. $20 for a burger. $9 for a beer. In the moment, I thought to myself: “Well – it’s my first night on the town, might as well live a little!” I ordered an Elk burger and a couple of beers. I spent $60 that night and slept like a baby with a huge drunk smile on my face.
The next morning, I ambled into one of the two grocery stores in town like an adult and saw what I was really in for: a freaking expensive town.
Baby bak choy: $4.99 a pound. Cereal: $7.00 a box. Frozen pizza: $10.00 a pie. My first grocery bill rang me a number I chose to forget. Living in a small town, I was going to get hit with small town prices, something I didn’t realize when I signed my contract to move across the country. (To help define small town for you: in the winter, a storm shut down the one road into town, which led to the McDonald’s running out of everything except nuggets, fries, and grilled cheese. The food shortage lasted for a week).
But what happened after that revelatory grocery shopping experience is a moment that forever changed my life: I went home, opened Microsoft Excel, and I made myself a budget. I had no particular savings goals in mind. All I knew is that I didn’t want to eat away at any of my savings living there. That was 2011 and I’ve been tracking my spending ever since.
Life Lesson #2:
Keep Entertained on the Cheap
“Dog sledding? You want to go dog sledding?” I asked my friend.
“Yeah, it’s not that bad. It’s only $200 for an hour!” they replied.
I obviously did not go dog sledding that day.
Living on $400 a week meant realizing that living the life in the mountains was not going to be all that stuff Travel Alberta shows you. In fact, it was here that I began to restrict my entertainment budget to $200 per month, a number which I have largely decreased since.
Limiting my entertainment spend also meant being very contrarian and ditching what everyone else was doing: drinking, skiing and snowboarding, and that dog sled stuff. I once told a friend my rationale for not deciding to ski and was met with his scorn: “Live in the now, man! You have your whole life to figure out your money. Otherwise how will you ever enjoy it?” I smiled and nodded, but remain unchanged in my position.
Instead, I started to take advantage of everything free, which meant reading books from the library, playing board games with my neighbours, enjoying the numerous hiking trails, cheap kayaking (locals rate of $5 an hour!), and getting tickets to shows I could see for free as an employee. I also got accustomed to the $5.00 Tuesday movies that the one crappy cinema in town had and a cheaper form of winter activity: snowshoeing. While a day on the hills might cost someone hundreds of dollars for lift tickets, equipment rentals, etc., I could rent a pair of snowshoes for $17 for the day. I relished in being contrarian because I continuously surprised myself how much fun I could have without needing to spend money.
Finally, I had packed my good old Playstation 3 for the ride, which was a stupid purchase, but one that I made with a massive discount as a Blockbuster employee a few years back. Hooking it up to a discarded TV from a colleague, I probably spent full nights in the cold Alberta winter playing the only game I owned, NHL 12, to death. At least in that universe, I helped the Leafs win the Cup!
Life Lesson #3:
Learn to Side Hustle
One afternoon at the office, a co-worker came by with an urgent request: “We’re short an usher tonight – interested in working a shift?”
“How long?” I asked.
“4 hours, but you get $11 an hour to start. And you still get to watch the show.”
My head exploded. I had been watching the shows to begin with, why didn’t it occur to me to get paid while doing it? I promptly said yes and using my killer customer service skills acquired from my retail experience, I became a trusted usher. I was so trustworthy that I wound up becoming the swag booth guy for almost every concert that came in, meaning I managed large volumes of cash and get a crap ton of free signed merch each time from the artists as thank you.
One performance night, I was chatting with a fellow usher who was worried about her daughter’s grades in math. I quietly mentioned I had been a math tutor in the past. She paid me $20 an hour to reinforce basic math concepts for her daughter.
On another occasion, I was helping a colleague move some portable fencing when a manager from a different part of the centre came by and asked: “Hey – you seem pretty fit. Want to help me move?” He paid us each $40 for 2 hours of work.
The side hustles snowballed from there.
By the end of year in Alberta, I went from intern desk worker to intern desk worker, usher, math tutor, and mover. While my side hustles have evolved since then, it was that year where I learned the art of it: find something you’re decent at and try to monetize it!
Life Lesson #4:
Understand your strengths and transferable skills.
Despite being severely underpaid, I began to reflect on what I was particularly good at: keeping people organized. I was consistently being assigned major logistics roles for the larger performances, which meant every job from ensuring the loading dock wouldn’t have a bottleneck to coordinating security badges for cast and crew.
I became the “go-to” guy, but I was still only getting paid my flat $400 per week, regardless of the hours I put in. I knew I had to reposition how my skills fit in the universe of professional work to improve my income potential. I started to do some research on what I was doing. I punched into Google words like “coordination”, “working with people”, and “being organized” and two big words kept coming up: Project Management.
I reviewed the scope of what a project manager typically did and quickly deduced that I was using all the skills a project manager uses, just in a different medium. I started applying for project management related functions and networked and called around to my old classmates. By the end of my contract, I secured a job as a Project Coordinator for my old alma mater making $30 an hour on a part time contract. While it was nothing to go home laughing about, I was absolutely jazzed because I earned myself a 300% increase per hour!
Life Lesson #5:
Never forget what got you here.
Sometimes when we “move up” in the world, we forget about all of the smaller efforts that got us to where we are now because we feel like we’ve “made it”. I’ve seen it first hand with some people I know – they work their asses off, score a great job, and then decide they’re comfortable enough to not bother pushing themselves any further.
My belief is that we need to challenge ourselves in what our understanding of “making it” is. What if I told you there is no such thing as “making it”, and that maybe making it is really never losing the drive to progress on an upward trajectory in life?
If you’re at a good point in life, what helped you get there? What other successes could come if you keep pushing yourself? If you’re still striving for your best self, keep striving and don’t let your foot off the gas. Your hard work will pay off eventually.
My Life Since
A self-funded MBA, a few contract jobs, and a well-paying government full-time job later, I know that I am now sitting in a very comfortable place – but I am never forgetting what got me here. I still keep up with all the things that my one year below minimum wage taught me, such as budgeting, staying entertained on the cheap, side hustling, and harnessing my transferable skills.
Do I ever regret giving up law school? Not for an instant. I met some of my best friends and became the person I am today because I didn’t go. And now I can usher, tutor, and move furniture like it’s nobody’s business.
Continue to the journey: How I got my MBA for Free.