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‘Surviving just by the skin of my teeth’: Students face high inflation for first time

39-year high inflation is something most in university have never had to deal with
Hannah Sullivan Facknitz poses for a photograph in Vancouver, on Thursday, July 7, 2022. Students are finding their dollar doesn’t go as far when covering rising tuition, housing and food costs, while buying books and basics is more expensive than before. Many of the current prices are the most expensive they’ve ever encountered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

When Hannah Sullivan Facknitz surveys their apartment, inflation looms in every corner.

There’s the laundry that didn’t get done for two weeks because detergent was too expensive, the plants waiting for fertilizer to fit into the budget and the smaller oven that can’t hold baking sheets — a trade-off that came with the cheaper but smaller apartment an hour from school and work that Facknitz moved to after their last landlord wanted to sell.

“I haven’t bought makeup in awhile. I collect (plushie) Squishmallows but I haven’t gone to London Drugs and bought a Squishmallow for the heck of it. I’m not buying takeout because I can’t afford it,” said Facknitz, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, who works in communications.

“I’m managing and surviving just by the skin of my teeth, despite getting a really really good job that pays really well.”

While Facknitz, a disabled student who uses gender neutral pronouns, usually finds their budget stretched by health expenses, lately it’s been exacerbated by a factor shared with all other students: 39-year high inflation.

In June, students were burdened with an 8.1 per cent inflation level — the highest its been since 1983 — and an economy hampered by COVID-19, labour shortages, supply chain challenges and recession predictions.

That means money doesn’t go as far when covering rising tuition, housing and food costs, and buying books or even basics is more expensive than before. Trips to the movies, bar or destinations abroad are costing more too.

Most students aren’t accustomed to such price rises. The majority were not even born, when inflation was last this high, and those who sought university and college educations later in life often can’t recall life under elevated inflation.

However, they’ve quickly equated inflation with sacrifices and stress.

“What’s becoming more and more prevalent is necessities versus luxuries,” said David Boyd, a senior investment adviser with BMO Private Wealth in Windsor, Ont.

Facknitz, for example, started relying on what’s already in the pantry, namely Kraft Dinner.

Facknitz longs for the days when there is enough room in the budget for small joys like candles, the slightly more expensive Parmesan cheese that doesn’t come in the green tube or even fresh vegetables.

“I miss broccoli and fresh tomatoes,” they said.

As prices for student staples like pasta and coffee have risen, Boyd noticed an increase in customers, including students, visiting their financial advisers or bank branches for advice about how to weather inflation.

They’re wondering how to juggle rent payments with debt they’ve run up on credit cards or lines of credits and asking about what investment tools to use to help money “grow safely.”

Boyd is advising students who are unemployed to consider a job, if they can squeeze it into their schedule and aren’t restricted by limits imposed on foreigners studying in Canada. Saving, if possible, and turning to loyalty programs are also part of his recommendations.

Aparna Mohan, a fourth-year industrial engineering student and president of the Dalhousie Student Union in Halifax, said the average student is already working two part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Food and rent are causing them the most financial stress, she added. data showed the average Canadian rent hit $1,885 per month in June, up 9.5 per cent from last year but down 3.5 per cent from June 2019.

A one-bedroom rental in Halifax sat at $1,712 in May, up by almost 12 per cent since last year.

“We’re finding that students are increasingly being priced out of the peninsula, which then means…they are having to commute in from further and further away from the downtown core and the area that Dalhousie is situated,” Mohan said.

At the same time, she has seen an increase in students relying on bursaries to cover expenses and turning to the student union’s food bank.

The bank saw such a significant spike in people seeking food — between 60 and 100 students per day — that it switched to a system where students order food in advance rather than pick it up on a whim.

Many more are developing behaviours adopted by Mohan, who times supermarket trips to sales and scours flyers.

“I am barely making ends meet with my salary as a student union president, and I do have to be very careful with my grocery spending,” she said.

“I often feel like I’m one unexpected cost away from crisis at the moment, and many of our students feel the same way.”

A June survey of 2,001 Canadians conducted by Leger found that 45 per cent of participants between the ages of 18 and 34 reported their financial stress is so severe that it’s hurting their mental health.

Financial stress can be even higher for students with disabilities who find government support for those with health issues doesn’t often cover their bills, said Facknitz.

International students, who frequently pay higher tuition fees and don’t always have familial support nearby, also tend to be more anxious about finances, said Mohan, who hails from the Philippines.

“We have international students that are expected to support their families back home,” she said.

“A number of lower income international students are simply spending a disproportionate amount of their income on accessing a university education because they feel like they have to because it’s the only ticket to a brighter future.”

—Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press