This is the first instalment of a Global News series called ‘On the Brink,’ which profiles people who are struggling with the rising cost of living. In this story, a Nova Scotia woman talks about the challenges of making ends meet while supporting her family.
Maria Burgess knows what it’s like to be on the brink.
After years of hardship, the 32-year-old has finally managed to carve out a happy life for herself and her family – but it wasn’t easy.
“Now we have a working stove, a working fridge, the clothes on our back and food in our cupboards, which is the big thing for me,” she said in an interview from her home in Moncton, N.B., where she recently moved after exhausting her options in Nova Scotia.
She recalls, not too long ago, having to choose between buying groceries, paying rent and letting a bill go. In their case, food always came first, so her children could eat.
“The struggle is real,” Burgess said.
Like a lot of families who are on the brink, Burgess’s troubles began with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the family lost their rented home of five years in Windsor, N.S.
“That’s when the landlord sold and the prices got jacked up,” she said.
After their landlord decided to sell, Burgess, her husband and two of their children moved to another house in Halifax. Burgess and her partner each have a child from previous relationships who went to live in different households.
The four of them were only able to stay in the house for eight months before the utility costs became untenable. Then, it was back to the drawing board.
Burgess said the search for affordable housing in a province with a sub-one-per-cent vacancy rate was hugely challenging.
“It’s hard to find housing nowadays. It’s usually like $2,800, plus utilities. It’s expensive,” she said. “And trying to survive, buying groceries which have also gone up – it’s just a never-ending struggle.”
They ended up moving to a small camper in Chester, N.S., where they stayed for a year.
It was far from an ideal situation, and it was especially “rough” during the winter. They had to use a bucket of water to shower after their plumbing froze.
Her husband built a porch on the front of the camper, where they could keep a wood stove in an attempt to keep warm during chilly days and nights.
“I would stay up all night and keep the fire going, and my husband would keep it going all day,” she said. “Unless he was working. Then I would do that.”
When the conditions at the camper became unlivable – it was a damp winter and the structure began to rot and sink into the mud – Burgess and her family were forced to move once again.
They found a motel room in Falmouth, N.S., for $900 per month. It was “very crammed,” she said, as the four of them were all staying in one room.
After a year in a cramped hotel room, there was finally some good news. Burgess’s husband landed a new job in New Brunswick, and they made the move shortly after.
They spent some time living with a friend, before finally settling into a place of their own in Moncton – a huge upgrade from their tiny camper and hotel room.
“We actually have a private room now,” she said with a laugh. “Here, we can have our time, (the kids) can have their time, and they have space to roam.”
‘Still in that struggle area’
The couple have normal, working-class Canadian jobs. Burgess works at Tim Hortons, and her husband works in construction.
Though they are in a much better position than they were a year ago, Burgess said they still face challenges.
“We’re making more money, but with the amount of groceries, we’re still in that struggle area,” she said. “We’re making it, but we go without sometimes.… It’s tight.”
Having to move so many times has also taken a toll on her two youngest children, aged 10 and 12.
“They’ve been so good about it,” Burgess said. “They’ve gone to a new school once a year for the past four years, and it bugs me because I moved all over the place when I was a kid, and I know how stressful it is.”
Despite that, her children have taken the situation in stride.
“I try to tell them, ‘You meet more people this way,’” Burgess said.
“They’re very appreciative.… As soon as we moved here, they were like, ‘We’re moving up, mom!’”
She hopes her and her husband’s other children, who are both 15, can someday move in too.
No easy answers
According to a March 2023 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, there were 31,370 children living in low-income families in Nova Scotia in 2020. That represents 18.4 per cent, or more than one in six children.
Child poverty rates actually dropped by 24 per cent that year, which the report credits to temporary COVID-19 relief programs that have since ended. It warned that the issue of child poverty will get worse without more permanent measures.
“By all accounts, poverty is worse today,” the report said.
“The pandemic benefits that made the difference were temporary. In addition, since 2021, people have had to deal with the steep increase in prices for essentials, including housing, food, and heating.”
Kimberley Burke, a licensed insolvency trustee with BDO Debt Solutions, said the company has been seeing an increase in the number of people and families using their services.
“There are many people that are actually now relying on lines of credit and credit cards to supplement their everyday living expenses because they can’t afford them with the rise of the cost of living,” she said.
“Many are now trying to decide whether to put food on the table or pay their electric bill.”
From housing cost increases and rising food prices to expenses like gas, car payments and interest, many people are having trouble keeping their heads above water.
She said many cities are facing similar housing crises, forcing families to make difficult decisions like downsizing to a smaller home or apartment, or moving to another city, like Burgess did.
Burke said it’s important for people to take a hard look at their spending and see what can be cut or reduced.
“I think people have a fear or a stigma of talking about finances. They’d rather talk about almost any other topic,” she said. “But really, it’s important to have those conversations, whether it’s with your partner or with your kids, because the sooner you deal with it, the easier it is to deal with it.”
Financial advisor Angela Mercier, owner of Mercier Mediation & Financial Services, said she’s even seeing people who make “good money” who are having a hard time making ends meet. Many people are carrying credit card balances with high interest rates that they have difficulty paying off.
While people should do their best to save money where they can, she acknowledged there’s no easy answer to the cost-of-living crisis.
“The reality is that everything is costing more, and yet the incomes for Canadians are not going up as fast as the cost,” she said.
‘Don’t give up’
Though Burgess is in a much better place now, she still worries for the future. Prices continue to rise, and she knows other families are going through similar problems.
She has a message for them.
“Don’t give up. There’s a lot of days that I struggle with my depression and want to give up, but my children keep me going,” she said. “Just knowing that I’m here for their future gives me a future.
“Yeah, I might be struggling, but I’m so relieved compared to where I’ve been.”
— with files from Ella Macdonald