Over a six-week period, as part of the ‘Out of Pocket’ series, Global News is examining how inflation is impacting Canadians from coast to coast.
Janet Torge has always found a way to keep afloat as a freelancer and while she has no plans to retire, she admits she couldn’t even if she wanted to.
With the rising costs of living amid red-hot inflation, the 75-year-old based in Montreal is feeling the pinch like many Canadians as affordability slips away.
“I absolutely cannot stop working,” she said. “But I wouldn’t stop working either.”
The rent of her Plateau-Mont-Royal apartment, along with gas for her car and the ever-increasing cost of groceries, gives Torge little wiggle room at the moment — even as she continues working.
“I’m not putting anything away for savings,” she said. “I’m living right down, right down to the wire.”
Torge is far from alone. A staggering 22 per cent of Canadians say they are “completely out of money” as they face soaring inflation and rising interest rates, according to an Ipsos Public Affairs poll from late January. That number jumps to 28 per cent among women, while the same poll found one in four Quebecers are financially tapped out.
From documentary filmmaking to bookkeeping for rock bands, Torge has always been multi-talented and resourceful. Thirty years of a freelancing career means she is constantly working on a project and she knows how to put things together to make a living.
Torge works anywhere from 40 to 50 hours each week, which exceeds full-time standards. Her home office is set up at the front of her apartment, with post-its strewn along the bottom of one of her silver computer monitors. Her desk is right next to a large window, decorated by a few plants.
Through her different jobs and Old Age Security pension, her revenue for the year comes to around $60,000 to $65,000. While Torge has always been able to find another stream of income when necessary, she points out that seniors in general have fewer employment opportunities compared with younger workers.
“I have to say it has worked until now. But I’m not sure it will work forever because now that I’m senior — and this is where seniors and inflation comes in — when you’re a senior, you can’t go out and get a job if you need it,” she said.
Even if there are jobs, she asks, who is going to hire a senior? With reduced mobility, Torge says she can’t take on something like waitressing and as she grows older, she’s finding it harder to work numbers in her accounting gigs.
Add to that the spiralling costs of living and money is leaving her bank account faster than usual.
“So what I’m seeing is the walls are closing in, so inflation doesn’t help, right?” she said. “So I have to find work, but I’m pretty good at it for the moment. I don’t think when I’m 85 I’m going to be quite so good.
“Like in the next 10 years, I think it’s going to be tough. Really tough.”
Sticker shock at the grocery store
As Canadians are feeling more stretched with their budgets, the shock of tough economic times really sinks in when it comes down to necessities like food.
“I’m surprised every time I go to the grocery store,” Torge said.
She lives on her own, so Torge says she doesn’t do a big shop. She grabs only a few food items at a time, but she can’t remember the last time she had a grocery bill under $50.
Grocery prices rose 11 per cent in December 2022 compared with the same month the previous year, according to Statistics Canada. Overall, grocery prices were up 9.8 per cent in 2022 compared with a year earlier — the fastest pace since 1981.
Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University, said that what people are “seeing at the grocery store is particular to the grocery market” during this period of high inflation.
“Getting food on the shelves in grocery stores is proving to be difficult because of those supply chain issues,” he said. “Because of transportation issues, because of freak weather events, because of disruption to grain supplies in Ukraine and having global impacts as people race to try and find their breads elsewhere. That puts pressure up on those who maybe have nothing to do with Ukraine.
“That’s why we’re seeing all this disruption at the grocery stores more than other places.”
Soaring food costs doesn’t mean Torge is going to sacrifice the fresh vegetables she loves and the meals she prepares at home. She shakes her head while holding up a $7 pack of asparagus, and laughs a little while calling the price “ridiculous.”
“I do get that sticker shock but I just go ahead and do it, sort of as an act of defiance, you know?” Torge said. “You’re not taking away my avocado toast from me. You’re not.”
Claire O’Brien, food security co-ordinator with the Eva Marsden Centre for Social Justice and Aging in Montreal’s west end, said there is alarm over climbing grocery bills.
“I talk to seniors every day and you know we will talk about stretching food, recipes, making a list, looking at the flyers and making a plan,” she said.
The idea is to find a solution they can manage amid “unbelievable” food prices, according to O’Brien.
“These people are shaken.”
But even as inflation remains high, Torge says she feels grocery stores are taking advantage of the situation to bump up prices and make more profit, without being appropriately scrutinized.
She isn’t spending more, but her dollar is certainly resulting in less.
“I’m angry,” she said.
Aside from food, Torge feels the pinch at the gas pump. As a senior with mobility issues, she needs her car to get around.
She estimates she spends about $50 a week on gas as a result. While the cost rapidly declined at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when demand for gas and travelling dropped, it quickly climbed in 2022. Experts say to expect more of the same in 2023 and to brace for an expensive year.
When inflation started to set in and her budget was stretched, Torge did make one major change. She decided to spend her savings to buy her Honda Fit, instead of continuing to lease it.
“That was one thing I did, because I was aware that every month I was always going down to the wire,” she said. “So this gave me a little bit of leeway.”
‘They think seniors are the same as people who have money’
In December 2022, the Quebec government gave an economic update and promised more help for low-income seniors to deal with stubborn inflation.
Finance Minister Eric Girard announced a key measure to help those 70 and older by increasing a refundable tax credit to $2,000 from $411, depending on their income. It will cost the province about $8 billion over five years. More than 1.1 million seniors will benefit from the plan, nearly 400,000 more than in the past.
“This idea behind the assistance to the low-income seniors over the age of 70 is recognizing that few have the capacity to do more against rising cost of living,” Girard said at the time.
But while Torge says she appreciates the gesture, she also believes the government could do more by helping out seniors every month instead of giving them an annual break. She thinks doing so would go a long way — as would some form of universal basic income.
“They think seniors are the same as people with money,” she said. “I don’t think they have any concept of what it means when you’re living really close to the line.”
For seniors who are really tight on money, Torge asks what are they supposed to do? As she points out, even if you’re desperate and willing to work, there aren’t many options for the elderly in the job market.
Torge admits she has never been much of a saver, but inflation has left her with “nothing to save.” And she knows she’s not alone.
“I think most of us seniors don’t have a lot of money socked away.”
What Torge is really scared of, she says, is not being able to work. There are certain things she can cut down on as she gets older, but if she gets sick and can’t work then she won’t be able to afford basics, like rent.
Death isn’t her fear. It’s the possibility of her health taking a turn and being “really screwed.”
“The thing is, if I got sick, then that would be it,” she said.
Torge knows one day she will have to give up living alone as costs mount and she grows older.
That is one of the reasons behind her project Radical Resthomes, an alternative to traditional seniors residences that keep the elderly in the community by providing shared, accessible and affordable housing. The idea is to give another living option for seniors through the lens of “graceful and respectful aging”.
It’s a concept that Torge hopes will one day become a reality across Canada.
“If you can go into a situation where seniors are sharing the costs,” she said. “They’re sharing rent, they’re sharing the cost of food, they’re sharing the costs of services.
“Then seniors might have a little bit more room to, you know, get through these tough times.”
— with files from Global News’ Tim Sargeant, Craig Lord and Irelyne Lavery and The Canadian Press